The following is the third of a four-part series on the significance of Godly character in Christian living. Read part one of this series, “Christian Living Embraces God’s Commands and Godly Character," and part two, "Christian Scholars Commend Character Formation from the 1970s to 1990s."

As I stated in the previous blog, over the past five decades from the 1970s to 2010s a consensus has been emerging among Christian scholars on the need to view Christian character as a key component of Christian living and sanctification. In this blog I provide eight representative excerpts from the 2000s and 2010s from Christian scholars to present the historical precedent for their affirmation of the importance of character, and for some, that virtue ethics offers significant insights. While the significance of this theme may now be more widely noticed, I believe there is not yet a sufficient appreciation of either the extent of the consensus or its urgency. Although I affirm what’s stated about character in these quotes, I don’t necessarily endorse other matters in each book.

As I noted before, some authors cited below make stronger claims, based on their perception that many believers have focused on rule-keeping as a key emphasis of Christian living and ethics. This highlights the practical urgency of the issue. My view is that faithful Christian living encompasses a consideration of both godly character and God’s commands, yet more emphasis on character is needed to overcome a previous overemphasis on a rule-keeping mentality.

Consider the development represented in the quotations below, all from important sources:

During the 2000s

2002 Daniel Harrington (biblical specialist) and James Keenan (ethicist):

“We believe that this [virtue ethics] approach is true to both the New Testament emphasis on the human response to God’s gracious activity in Jesus Christ and to the ethical needs and desires of Christians in the twenty-first century. ... And we are convinced that the ‘virtue ethics’ approach is a promising start toward opening conversations at even deeper levels between specialists in biblical studies and moral theology. ... We stand with virtue ethicists ... who claim that virtue ethics provides a suitable framework for expressing a New Testament ethics.”

2003 Glen Stassen and David Gushee (ethicists):

“To counter the corrosive force of modern atomistic individualism, several ethicists are arguing that we need to focus not only on right and wrong decisions but on what shapes the character of those who make the decisions and do the actions. ... We prefer to call this move in ethics not simply virtue ethics, but — using a more comprehensive term — character ethics. ... Most modern individualistic and rationalistic ethical theories lack attention to the formative influences of friendship, discipleship to mentors and bodily emotions. ... Character ethics emphasizes discipleship to a teacher or master, or to persons who are models of righteousness. ... Ethics as incarnational discipleship points to the incarnate Jesus. ... This might seem obvious, but in fact many Christian ethicists reduce Jesus’ lordship to a rule or principle like the law of love.”

2008 William Mattison (theologian, ethicist):

“First, simply put, the answer to the question of what constitutes a good life is happiness. A good life is a fulfilling, satisfying, rewarding, flourishing — in short, a happy-life. ... One central idea of this book is that determining how to live morally is a matter of determining how to be genuinely happy. ... One benefit of approaching moral theology through the virtues is that living virtuously (which is the same as living morally) accounts for the importance of rules without reducing the entire moral life to rules. Furthermore, focusing on virtue enables us to attend to the sorts of person we become, and not simply the sorts of acts we perform.”

During the 2010s

2014 Joel Biermann (theologian):

“This emphasis is meant to further the understanding of Christian ethics less as the adoption of a set of basic rules of behavior or the provision of answers to perplexing moral dilemmas and more as the shaping of individual character. ... Ethical training is about equipping and shaping individuals to be people of character so that, in whatever circumstance they may find themselves, they act virtuously — that is, in conformity with God’s will for God’s people. A call for training in virtue and shaping character is a defining characteristic of a rediscovered school of thought known as virtue ethics. ... The effort of this book has been to demonstrate that Lutheran theology is able to provide a way to encourage habituation of character without undermining the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone. Formation in character is not antithetical to the doctrine of justification. Shaping character through intentional inculcation of virtues is simply giving a God-directed form to the believer’s life.”

2015 Daniel Westberg (ethicist, d. 2017).

“The contribution of Aristotelian [virtue] ethics to a biblically based Christian morality is not obvious at first. ... Here we can assert that there has been a strong interest in moving away from the act-centered moral systems of Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics and from utilitarianism to the broader view of character and virtue. ... When Christian ethics was conceived principally as obedience to the will of God expressed through law, it followed that the reading of the Bible would concentrate on the Decalogue, the relevance of other Jewish law and the passages in the Gospels and Epistles in the form of commands and norms. ... Interest in virtue ethics has led to more fruitful explorations of biblical perspectives on character formation and moral development.”

2017 Oliver O’Donovan (ethicist):

“The moral experience on which Ethics reflects is necessarily two-directional, involving consciousness of responsibility, on the one hand, and goals to be pursued, on the other. But the habit of modern programs for a tidier Ethics has been to ground everything on one or the other aspect of this double experience, ‘deontology’ or ‘teleology’ [including virtue ethics], which is why modern programs are one-legged, casting around for a crutch to support them.”

2017 Jonathan Pennington (biblical specialist):

“Specifically, I will argue that the virtue-ethics approach is not merely one of three beneficial approaches [along with deontological and utilitarian ethics] but is the core biblical and human ideal that organizes the others. The virtue-ethics approach ... focuses on being a certain kind of person, on learning practical wisdom and a way of being in the world that will result in one’s flourishing. This approach makes sense of why this inner-person focus is such a consistent theme throughout Scripture and why it is found in refracted form in so much of philosophy and culture. Ethics/morality is fundamentally and ultimately about us becoming a certain kind of person. ... I will seek to show that this virtue-ethics approach — framed and modified by these other biblical categories — is the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon.”

2018 Jeff Dryden (biblical specialist):

“This book assumes that the redemption of human moral agency is an essential goal of the gospel proclamation as found in the New Testament. At the same time, I also assume that human moral agency cannot be circumscribed by what we have normally described as ‘ethics,’ especially when ethics is understood as moral casuistry within an idealist deontological (Kantian) framework, which is on the whole assumed in the discipline of New Testament studies when it ventures into ethics. In a way that is similar to virtue ethics (and its Aristotelian foundation), I understand ethics as describing not simply duties but the totality of moral agency entailed in the pursuit of true joy.”

These excerpts represent an important historical trend over a twenty-year span, that Christian character is a key component of Christian living and sanctification.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23, NIV).

Next blog: Key resources regarding virtue ethics.

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


[1] Daniel Harrington and James Keenan, Jesus and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges Between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology (Chicago: Sheed and Ward, 2002), xiv, xv, 23.

[2] Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 56-59.

[3] William Mattison, Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008), 12-13.

[4] Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Toward a Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress), 8-9, 168.

[5] Daniel Westberg, Renewing Moral Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015), 20-21.

[6] Oliver O’Donovan, Entering into Rest: Ethics as Theology (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 3:vii-viii.

[7] Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 40.

[8] J. de Waal Dryden, A Hermeneutic of Wisdom: Recovering the Formative Agency of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, Academic, 2018), 18-19.