Just as the command and consequence approaches have to determine which commands and consequences are truly good, the character approach has to determine which virtues are good. Aristotle emphasized the classical Greek virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance. St. Ambrose (339-397) agreed that these were implicit in the Bible, but also added another three specifically “theological” virtues from the Bible — faith, hope and love. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas went on to contrast these virtues with corresponding vices — the ones we know as the seven deadly sins.
Virtue ethics has remained prominent in Catholic thought, but only recently have Protestant theologians started to enthusiastically explore the character approach. Mostly they have looked to the Bible as the source of virtues. We have seen that Alexander Hill identified the biblical virtues of holiness, justice and love as God’s chief virtues. Nonetheless, even he subordinates the virtue approach to the rule approach. He doesn’t say that humans should develop virtues in themselves. Instead, he says people should develop rules in accordance with God’s virtues.
Those Protestant theologians who have tried to identify Christian virtues that humans should cultivate have tended to focus specifically on the life and teaching of Jesus. Stassen and Gushee note:
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.
For Stassen and Gushee, the obvious starting place to consider what specific virtues followers of Jesus should aspire to is the Sermon on the Mount and in particular the Beatitudes. Poverty of spirit, mercy, a thirst/hunger for justice, meekness/humility, peacemaking, compassion — these are some of the key qualities to be nurtured. For Jesus, our actions and behavior are a manifestation of much more fundamental core attitudes, motives and character qualities (Mark 7:21-22). The apostle Paul also emphasizes the importance of character development. For example, in Galatians, Paul exhorts those who belong to Jesus 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).
Jesus is our model. It is his example we are called to imitate. It is his character we are called to develop through the working of his Spirit. These references reflect the overwhelming emphasis the New Testament places on growing the character of Jesus.
Click here for an in-depth discussion of practical applications of the character approach to ethics. After reading it, you will find a link to return here. (Links to the section “How does character develop and grow in our lives?” of the case study.)
Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 97.