Determining What is Virtuous

Article / Produced by TOW Project

If developing character and virtue are so important, then there are several key questions we have to grapple with. They are:

  • How do we define a virtue?
  • Who actually determines what is virtuous?
  • How do virtues actually develop?

The first of these questions is probably the easiest to answer. The Oxford Dictionary defines “virtue” as “a quality considered morally good or desirable.” Every culture values certain qualities highly. In their context they are considered virtuous.[26]

But the second question regarding who exactly determines what particular qualities are good is a little more complex. Over the years, many philosophers, theologians and thinkers have attempted to list and define virtues. For example, Aristotle emphasized the classical Greek virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance. Ambrose (339-397), an early Christian leader, said that these were implicit in the Bible, but also added another three specifically biblical (or “theological”) virtues — faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13). As far back as the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great contrasted these seven virtues with corresponding vices — the ones we now know as the “seven deadly sins.”[27] It is only recently that Protestant theologians have begun to seriously explore virtues. Glen Stassen and David Gushee suggest that “virtues are character traits that enable us to contribute (positively) to community.”

So what does this mean for those of us who follow Jesus? Who or what should determine for us what is virtuous?  Clearly the Bible is the answer to this, and within the Scriptures, we suggest that the focal point for determining Christian virtues should be the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus is our most visible expression of God’s character. So if we want to know what virtues to develop, observing the qualities Jesus modeled and talked about is our best starting point. We agree with Stassen and Gushee who note that:

The Bible is not flat; Christ is its peak and its center. No moral issue should be addressed apart from consideration of the meaning of Jesus Christ for reflection on that issue.

The largest body of Jesus’ ethical teaching is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a good place to start if we are seeking to consider what specific virtues followers of Jesus should aspire to. To be even more focused, it’s in the Beatitudes that Jesus shines the spotlight on key virtues — the qualities and behaviors he especially values. Poverty of spirit, mercy, a thirst and hunger for justice, meekness/humility, peacemaking, compassion (Matthew 5:1-12) — these, it seems, should be our prime goals.

Repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus links our actions directly to our character — to our core attitudes and motives. Other comments by Jesus throughout the Gospels reinforce this connection. For example, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice…” (Mark 7:21-22).

The early church was quick to pick up on the importance of imitating Jesus. Take the writings of Paul, where we find a significant emphasis on character development. For example, he exhorts the Galatians not to gratify the desires of “the flesh” but rather to allow the Spirit to grow “fruit” such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:16-25). To the Philippians, Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves … Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5). 

Christ then is our example and model. It is his character that we are called to develop. These references reflect the overwhelming emphasis the New Testament places on growing the character of Jesus.

The history of the word “virtue” demonstrates this cultural leaning. Our English word comes from the Latin virtus, which itself comes from the word vir meaning “man, male”. The Romans during the early, formative years of their nation needed to survive in a world of invading conquerors. The result is that their word virtus can be translated either “virtue” or “courage”. So virtue to those early Romans was manliness and the willingness to defend their families and homes.

Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.