The following is the first of a four-part series on the significance of godly character in Christian living.
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 part 2 and 3 of this series, I present 17 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 deontological ethic (i.e., a duty or rules-focused 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.” 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.” In this four-part 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. Blog number 4 provides readings on virtue ethics.
Ethical Theories Connecting with the Themes of God’s Commands and Godly Character
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 some 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.”
Virtue ethics asks the questions: What sort of person/community should I/we become? What is the best life for human beings/communities?
Virtue Ethics and Scriptural Teaching
Let’s consider five key aspects about virtue 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.” 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. Jesus’ claim seems to fit as well: “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 New Testament (e.g., James 3:13-18) and in the Old Testament, 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.”
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.”. 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).
Acknowledging and Affirming a Dual-Biblical Ethic: God’s Commands and Godly Character
Jesus and Paul explicitly identify a link between inner disposition (virtue) and obedient action (rules) as the ideal: “Forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt. 18:35); “doing the will of God from your heart” (Eph. 6:6). These two main normative ethical theories provide important contributions toward a robust Christian ethic. Some Christian scholars recognize that scripture reveals a two-fold ethical emphasis. Moreland and Craig note: “Each position [deontological ethics and virtue ethics] has had its share of advocates, and there is no clear winner in this debate. However, it may be that the complementarity view best expresses the ethics of the Bible since scripture seems to give weight and intrinsic value both to moral commands and virtues of character.” Similarly, Keefer discerns that two normative ethical theories are evident within this biblical book of wisdom, “Proverbs takes two perspectives on morality, the first of which is character-based rather than rule-based, as each individual act stems from a particular quality of character, either wise or foolish. The second perspective focuses on those actions, the good or bad deeds that the book advises or condemns, and to that extent resembles a rule-based ethic.”
The important task for developing a robust Christian ethic is to blend and balance these two ethical theories. Additionally, we must incorporate distinctively Christian foundational elements that are missing in secular versions of both theories. For example, in secular form, neither ethical theory can provide an adequate ultimate ground for morality. All that is good, true and beautiful is sourced in our tri-personal God. My Talbot colleague, ethicist Scott Rae summarizes the matter well: “Christian morality is a blend of virtues and principles, with the character of God as the ultimate source.” Furthermore, for those within God’s forever family, sanctification is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit empowering our Christian living — of our relationship and friendship with God, our obedience to God’s commands and our formation of godly character. As Scripture teaches,
“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).
Part two, "Christian Scholars Speak Out from the 1970s to 1990s on character for Christian living" will be published later this week.
Adapted from an essay originally published in Faith & Flourishing: A Journal of Karam Fellowship.
 N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 44.
 “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/.
 J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017), 468-69.
 Linda van Zyl, Virtue Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2019), 14.
 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.
 Arthur Keefer, The Book of Proverbs and Virtue Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 11.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed., trans. by Terrence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 122 [1156b6].
 Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations, 471
 Keefer, Proverbs, 205.
 Scott Rae, Introducing Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 30.