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Christian Character & Virtue Ethics – Part 1 Emphasizing God’s Commands AND Godly Character

Biblical teaching affirms that faithful Christian living, as articulated within the doctrine of  sanctification, encompasses both God’s commands and godly character. Yet I think we haven’t been giving enough attention to Christian character as a key component of Christian living. Did you know that Christian scholars have been sounding this alarm over the past five decades?  In future blogs I’ll present a number of representative quotes on the matter to help us be aware of this historical trend.

Why the lack of emphasis on virtue and character within Christian circles? One hindrance could be a prevailing view that a rules-focused deontological ethic is regarded as the singular biblical ethic. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright confirms that “rule-keeping . . . is the broad framework within which many people in today’s Western world have come to think of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[1] A 2009 Barna research study found that “an overwhelming majority of self-identified Christians (81%) contend that spiritual maturity is achieved by following the rules in the Bible.”[2] In this blog series, I explore this important topic of Christian character as informed by virtue ethics so we can avoid living by a limited and constricted conception of what matters about Christian living and formation within sanctification. At the end of this series, I'll provide some readings on virtue ethics.

God’s commands appear in Scripture both in the Old Testament (e.g., the Ten Commandments, Ex 20:1-17) and in the New Testament (e.g., Jesus’ summary of Torah as two commands, Matt 22:37-40). A rule-oriented ethic gives prominence to identifying and then doing one’s moral duty, according to reasonable moral norms (a “deontological” ethic, the Greek term deon conveys duty, or what is fitting or necessary). It asks the questions: What should I/we do? What is my/our duty? What universal rule applies in this case?

Related to the matter of Godly character, virtue ethics provides other, equally essential biblical themes that a rule-based ethic does not. For example, Jesus had pointed things to say about people who obeyed outwardly while not possessing the right character (e.g., whitewashed tombs, cups clean on the outside but filthy on the inside, Matt 23:25-28). Rather than concentrating on rule-keeping, virtue ethics focuses on the kind of persons we’re becoming, with attention to factors helping or hindering character formation, which can then lead to good living. My Talbot colleagues, Christian philosophers J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig note:

Virtue ethics aims at defining and developing the good person and the good life, and virtues are those character traits that enable people to achieve eudaimonia or happiness, not understood as a state of pleasurable satisfaction, but rather as a state of well-being, or excellence and skill at life. . . . Given a vision of ideal human functioning and skill, virtue ethics places great importance on character and habit. [3]

Virtue ethics asks the questions: What sort of person/community should I/we become? What is the best life for human beings/communities?

 

Next Blog: Part 2: Virtue Ethics and Scriptural Teaching

 

Adapted from an essay originally published in Faith & Flourishing: A Journal of Karam Fellowship

My essay is downloadable on my website under “Articles & Chapters”

 

Notes:

[1] N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 44.

[2] “Barna Studies the Research, Offers a Year-in-Review Perspective,” accessed January 23, 2023, https://www.barna.com/research/barna-studies-the-research-offers-a-year-in-review-perspective/.

[3] J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017), 468-69.

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