The following is the second 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.”
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 and the next I include a total of 17 representative excerpts from Christian scholars. These comments present the historical precedent regarding their affirmation of the value of character, and for some, that virtue ethics offers significant insights. This blog includes nine such quotes. While the importance 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.
Some of the authors cited 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 both godly character and God’s commands, yet more emphasis on character is needed to overcome a previous overemphasis on a rule-keeping mentality.
During the 1970s
“Why begin in the 1970s? It’s commonly acknowledged that the 1958 publication of “Modern Moral Philosophy” by Elizabeth Anscombe, in Philosophy, was a major turning point in the renewal of virtue ethics. A second was Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in 1981. In between these years, in 1975 Stanley Hauerwas was the first Protestant ethicist to pen a critical book-length theological treatment of Christian ethics about character largely based on his 1968 Yale dissertation.”
1975 Stanley Hauerwas (theologian, ethicist):
“The basic concern of this book has been the inability of contemporary Christian ethics to develop an adequate way to articulate the nature of the Christian moral life. ... The ethics of character is an attempt to shift this phenomenological focus to the relation between belief and behavior, thought and action. The ethical issue is not just what we do but what we are and how what we are is formed by our fundamental convictions about the nature and significance of Christ.”
1976 Bruce C. Birch (biblical specialist) and Larry L. Rasmussen (ethicist):
“Our contention is that this traditionally neglected topic [of character formation] in American Christian ethics ... should have higher priority and be considered of greater importance than has been the case. ... The shaping of the moral agent is as crucial for ethics as the making of moral decisions. The Bible’s role becomes centrally important when we begin to speak about the formation of Christian moral character.”
During the 1980s
1984 Gilbert Meilander (ethicist):
“This return [to virtue ethics] suggests a widespread dissatisfaction with an understanding of the moral life which focuses primarily on duties, obligations, troubling moral dilemmas, and borderline cases. ... Being not doing takes center stage; for what we ought to do may depend on the sort of person we are.”
1989 Paul Wadell (ethicist):
“[Morality] concerns us not piecemeal but entire, with a strategy not only to direct our behavior but to change our hearts. ... This is why we feel ethics so often misses the mark. We know morality involves becoming a certain kind of person. We know it entails a transformation of self through habits and practices that work changes necessary for goodness. As Christians, we know the moral life is the spiritual life, the religious-sacramental life we have with God, a studied, ongoing attempt to establish ourselves [as] God’s friends.”
During the 1990s
1996 Joseph J. Kotva (theologian, ethicist):
“There is, however, a certain priority or primacy of character, a special concern for the kind of people we become. Lacking the appropriate tendencies, dispositions and capacities, the chances of perceiving or doing the right are greatly reduced. Thus, before we can concern ourselves with analyzing particular actions, we need to concern ourselves with becoming the right sort [of person]. ... Virtue ethics clearly has a place for rules. The important point is that rules serve the virtues; the virtues do not serve the rules. Rules and principles assist in the acquisition and execution of the virtues.”
1996 Linda Zagzebski (philosopher):
“Interest in virtue ethics has blossomed in the last few decades after a long period of neglect. If a virtue-based ethical theory has advantages over an act-based theory, it ought to be illuminating to look closely at this kind of theory for help in developing the concepts needed in analyzing knowledge and justified belief. ... The ethics of character illuminates the unity between the morality of acting and the morality of believing. The ethics of duty [deontological ethic] may have the potential to do so also, but not as clearly; else, it would have done so already. ... The virtue tradition is brilliant in its understanding of the data of moral experience. Contemporary virtue theories have broadened this approach to include the sensitivity to the details of moral living as depicted in narrative literature.”
1996 William Brown (biblical specialist):
“Like character, the element of virtue cannot be identified with any moral principle. In contrast to the ethics of duty, virtue essentially points to an ethic of being or character. The relationship between duty and virtue is one that is no doubt complex, but however construed, it is clearly one of mutual interdependence. A system of morality that focuses exclusively on rules and principles can account for motivations and intentions to act on them only on an ad hoc basis. Conversely, one cannot conceive of character traits except as including dispositions to act in certain ways according to moral principles. ... Yet the cultivation of virtue is of primary necessity when it comes to situations that demand choosing between conflicting principles of duty or revising working rules of right and wrong. It is precisely this necessity that suggests the primacy of ‘virtue ethics’ in moral discourse: Rules can never be exhaustively specified so as to preclude the need for judgment that extends beyond the rules themselves.”
1998 Dallas Willard (philosopher, ethicist; d. 2013):
“But the question is, ‘How can we keep the law?’ ... [Jesus] knew that we cannot keep the law by trying to keep the law. To succeed in keeping the law one must aim at something other and something more. One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow.”
1999 William C. Spohn (ethicist):
“Why choose virtue ethics to be the optic for examining the story of Jesus? ... I believe that virtue ethics provides the most comprehensive account of moral experience and that it stands closer to the issues of moral life. As such, it is superior to the other common ethical approaches, an ethics that focuses on obligation [deontological ethic] and one that emphasizes consequences. ... Virtue ethics offers the most promising avenue to appreciate the role of Jesus in the New Testament. ... Biblical ethics goes beyond rules and principles, though they are not ignored, to the level of transformation of character. ... The focus of virtue ethics on the inner dynamics of disposition and motivation fits well with this biblical emphasis [on the ‘heart’].”
These excerpts represent an important historical trend over a thirty-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: Quotes from the 2000s and 2010s.
Adapted from an essay originally published in Faith & Flourishing: A Journal of Karam Fellowship.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theology Ethics (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University, 1975), 229-30.
 Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), 84, 197.
 Gilbert Meilander, The Theory and Practice of Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1984), 4-5, 36.
 Paul Wadell, Friendship and the Moral Life (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1989), 19, 12
 Joseph Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, DC: Georgetown, 1996), 30, 36.
 Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2004), xiv, 256-57. Although this work is not written explicitly from a Christian orientation, Zagzebski has written about Christian ethics in other publications.
 William Brown, Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 13, 21.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Recovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 142-43.
 William Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum, 1999), 27, 29, 30.