The following is the fourth 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," part two, "Christian Scholars Commend Character Formation from the 1970s to 1990s," and part three, "Christian Scholars Commend Character Formation in the 2000s to 2010s."
In this final blog, I recommend some readings about virtue ethics. Why is virtue ethics important? As noted in blogs two and three, over the past five decades — from the 1970s to 2010s — a consensus has been emerging among Christian scholars to view Christian character as a key component of Christian living and sanctification, particularly as informed by virtue ethics. In 2008 ethicist Samuel Wells noted:
“The last thirty years have seen a revival of the understanding of virtue in Christian ethics. . . . Virtue ethics has become a shorthand term for all the writers in the field who have grown tired of the conventional emphasis on decision and the neglect of the character of the person or ‘agent’ making the decision. The emphasis on virtue in Christian ethics has shifted attention from the deed to the doer. It is the agent who matters, more than the action: ethics is about forming the life of the agent more than it is about judging the appropriateness of the action.”
Virtue ethics offers many helpful insights that relate well to Scriptural teaching (see blog one).
But recognizing the importance of virtue ethics does not mean jettisoning “deontological” or rule-based ethics. Rather the task of Christian ethics involves integrating and balancing concern for both rules and virtues. As Dennis Hollinger notes, “Rather than pitting decisions and character or doing and being against each other, it would be preferable to see them as complementary. To be sure, character informs our decision, but the decisions we make also inform our character.” Yet I do think giving more emphasis to character is needed to overcome a previous over-emphasis on a rule-keeping mentality.
Resources on Virtue Ethics from a Christian Perspective
The first book I recommend is by Dallas Willard, a general-reader practical guide to virtue ethics, written within a Christian perspective:
Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002).
Although Willard doesn’t explicitly mention the concept of virtue ethics, his writings resonate with core themes of virtue ethics. This book offers many important insights and practical applications for daily Christian living. In a previous blog, I provided an “Orientation to Four Pervading Themes of Christian Life from Dallas Willard” [March 9, 2015].
The following works also consider virtue ethics from a distinctively Christian perspective, and provide additional comments, adaptations, and extensions necessary to fit biblical faithfulness.
- Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, DC: Georgetown, 1996).
- Jonathan Wilson, Gospel Virtues (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 1998).
- Rebecca K. DeYoung, Colleen McCluskey and Christina Van Dyke, Aquinas’s Ethics: Metaphysical Foundations, Moral Theory and Theological Context (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).
- N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
- Paul J. Wadell, Happiness and the Christian Moral Life: An Introduction to Christian Ethics. 3rd ed. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).
Kotva offers an argument for the compatibility of virtue ethics within a Christian worldview, noting areas where secular theories need adjustment. Wilson provides a general reader’s introduction with an exploration of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, along with some relevant practices for each. DeYoung et al. present a readable and helpful synthesis of Thomas Aquinas’ profound Christian ethical theory, in which Aquinas integrates relevant concepts from Aristotle’s virtue ethics within his Summa Theologiae. Wright puts forward a theologically informed work about sanctification and character formation. Wadell writes a fairly comprehensive textbook on Christian ethics set within a virtue ethics framework.
Philosophical Resources on Virtue Ethics
For those desiring further reading about the philosophical theory of virtue ethics, the following books are highly valuable and highly technical. Kristjánsson’s book includes implications for educational practice.
- Nancy Sherman, The Fabric of Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
- Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
- Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- Kristján Kristjánsson, Aristotelian Character Education (London: Routledge, 2015).
- Linda van Zyl, Virtue Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2019).
Virtue Ethics as a Key Framework in Biblical and Theology Studies
Another “tipping point” that deserves to be acknowledged is that Christian scholars beyond the field of ethics are increasingly incorporating a virtue-ethics perspective in their research. A good number of published book-length treatments in biblical studies and theology employ virtue ethics as an important framework in their overall structure. Among such works that I’m aware of, the earliest three were released between 1996 and 2004. However, over 20 have been published since 2008.
Below is a sample of seven such works representing important inroads of virtue ethics in fields beyond ethics itself:
- Daniel Harrington and James Keenan, Paul and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges Between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010).
- Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Toward a Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).
- William C. Mattison, The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology: A Virtue Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
- Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
- Patricia Vesely, Friendship and Virtue Ethics in the Book of Job (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
- Pieter Vos, Longing for the Good Life: Virtue Ethics after Protestantism (London: T & T Clark, 2020).
- Arthur Keefer, The Book of Proverbs and Virtue Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
These authors are convinced that a virtue ethics framework provides a helpful heuristic for biblical studies and theology, compatible with a Christian worldview. Regarding his 2017 study of the Sermon on the Mount, listed in Blog #3, Mattison notes:
“One of the most important developments in moral theology and Christian ethics has been a return to prominence of the role of virtue. . . . Another broader goal of this project is to demonstrate not only that a virtue ethic is compatible with Scripture, but also that there is an illuminating convergence between the Sermon on the Mount and a virtue-centered approach to morality.”
The importance of virtue ethics is being widely recognized outside the field of ethics, in such disciplines as biblical studies and theology, implying a much wider application and urgency for our developing appreciation of the importance of virtue as a concept.
We need to incorporate insights from virtue ethics as we conceptualize Christian living and sanctification in our teaching, preaching, writing and blogging. It is encouraging to witness the growing number of substantive virtue ethics-focused book projects in biblical studies and theology. Relevant themes from virtue ethics can provide substantive contributions toward a more holistic conception of Christian living beyond a singular focus within a rule-keeping mentality. I close with some key insights from N. T. Wright:
“Jesus himself, backed up by the early Christian writers, speaks repeatedly about the development of a particular character. Character—the transforming, shaping, and marking of a life and its habits—will generate the sort of behavior that rules might have pointed toward but which a ‘rule-keeping’ mentality can never achieve. . . . In the last analysis, what matters after you believe is neither rules nor spontaneous self-discovery, but character. . . . The way this works out is that it produces, through the work of the Holy Spirit, a transformation of character. This transformation will mean that we do indeed ‘keep the rules’—though not out of a sense of externally imposed ‘duty,’ but out of the character that has been formed within us. . . . The problem comes, I think, not with the rules themselves (though there are problems there too), but with a rule-keeping mentality: not so much ‘what to do’ but ‘how to do it.’. . . The real problem is that rules always appear to be, and are indeed, designed to be restrictive. But we know, deep down, that some of the key things that make us human are being creative, celebrating life and beauty and love and laughter. Rules matter, but they aren’t the center of it all. . . . Character matters more, and provides a framework within which rules, where appropriate, can have their proper effect.”
“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).
Adapted from an essay originally published in Faith & Flourishing: A Journal of Karam Fellowship.
Additional articles and book chapters can be downloaded at klausissler.com.
 Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004), 80-81.
 Dennis Hollinger, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 58, 60.
 The Journal of Moral Education devoted a special issue to reviewing Kristjánsson’s important book (2016, Vol. 45, No. 4).
 William C. Mattison, The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 1.
 N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 7, 26, 45, 47, 49.