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Christian Character & Virtue Ethics – Part 2: Virtue Ethics and Scriptural Teaching

Let’s consider five key aspects about virtues ethics and related Scriptural teaching. The most important theme of virtue ethics is eudaimonia – happiness or, better, human flourishing. “A good or happy life for human beings (eudaimonia) is a virtuous life, where the virtues are conceived as reliable dispositions to act and react well, that is, for the right reasons and with the right feelings.”[1] Certain biblical terms point toward human flourishing, overlapping with the import of eudaimonia. The Hebrew ashrey (ʾašrēy) along with its Greek equivalent, according to the LXX, makarios, mostly translated as “blessed,” convey being “fortunate” and “happy“ in this classical sense (e.g., Ps 1:1, 119:1-2; Matt  5:3; John 13:17; Rom 4:7-8 [citing Ps 32:1-3]). Shalōm, as “well-being,” ”fulfillment,” “prosperity” (e.g., Ps 35:27; Jer 29:27), also shares conceptual connections with the core concept of eudaimonia.[2] What comes to mind is Jesus’ claim: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full [Greek perissos, over and above, excessive, in full abundance]” (John 10:10 NIV).

Secondly, Scripture also values virtues with lists of God-like and Christ-like virtues (and corresponding human vices) appearing throughout, particularly in Paul’s letters (e.g., the love chapter, I Cor 13:1-4; the fruit of the Spirit, Gal 5:19-24). God highlights his own divine qualities or virtues – communicable divine attributes – when revealing himself to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). Additionally, virtue ethics includes insights about the process of forming good personal character.

Furthermore, virtue ethics emphasizes the critical role of practical wisdom (phronēsis) as a character trait required for discernment and decision-making in daily living, an important theme in Scripture both in the NT (e.g., James 3:13-18) and in the OT, particularly in the wisdom literature. In his study of Proverbs, Arthur Keefer comments: “The visions of Aristotle and Proverbs do not equate, but they do correspond in their treatment of character and practical wisdom.”[3]

Fourthly, along with right thinking, virtue ethics values right emotions (e.g., delighting in, longing for, and love for God’s word and commands, Ps 119:97, 111, 174). And finally, virtue ethics highlights the importance of a certain kind of friendship, as Aristotle explains, “But complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue.”[4]. Such friendships of character (e.g., Phil 2:1-2) are both fulfilling ends in themselves and yet also significant relational means of character formation (e.g., 2 Tim 2:22). Within a Christian context, this extends most fundamentally to our friendship with God (James 4:8, John 15:15).

 

Next Blog: Part 3:  A Dual-Biblical Ethic: God’s Commands and Godly Character

 

Adapted from an essay originally published in Faith & Flourishing: A Journal of Karam FellowshipMy essay is downloadable on my website under “Articles & Chapters”

 

Notes:

1] Linda van Zyl, Virtue Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2019), 14.

2] For further reading on ashrey, makarios, and shalōm, see Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 41-67, 71-72.

3] Arthur Keefer, The Book of Proverbs and Virtue Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 11.

4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed., trans. by Terrence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 122 [1156b6].

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