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Virtue Ethics: Is It Christian?

In a previous post, I introduced the idea of virtue ethics and suggested it was compatible with Christian ideals. However, that isn’t going to be enough for most of us. We want to know if it has been taught by Christ, his apostles, and the great Christian teachers down through the centuries.

Jesus & Virtue Ethics

While it may not be a common interpretive approach, many of the most notable teachings of Jesus conform to a virtue ethic framework. As one substantial example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is a helpful paradigm text for understanding Jesus as a teacher of virtue ethics (you can read my take on this in a more devotional format here).

The parable results from a limiting question: “Who is my neighbor?” This question hopes to create a disclaimer to loving the neighbor by fencing in the category of people to be loved. It is an attempt to take the sweeping morality issued by Jesus and reduce it to casuistry. In the parable, Jesus responds with a story about two categories of characters, the Samaritan and the priest/Levite. “All three agents in the story are good and moral according to the principles and actions imitated and learned in their own communities.”1 The priest/Levite, perhaps motivated by concerns for ceremonial holiness or personal safety, use culturally acceptable values to exclude the beaten man from the category of “neighbor” and, therefore, remove him from the class of people they must love. The Samaritan acts without limitation, not even seeming to consider whatever values drive the priest/Levite.

Jesus ends the parable with the question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The suggestion is neither that the priest or Levite miscalculated their assessment of the individual situation, nor that they are not acting in accordance with their desired end. Jesus asserts that the higher aim is to be a neighbor, rather than to be a person who helps a sufficient number of qualified neighbors under the proper circumstances. The Samaritan is better because what he is becoming is better.

Notably, Bonhoeffer also perceived virtue ethics at work in this parable and the teachings of Jesus. In reference to the Good Samaritan, he argues that Jesus was not concerned with duty-based ethics: “What worried Him was not, like Kant, whether ‘the maxim of an action can become a principle of general legislation,’ but whether my action is at this moment helping my neighbour to become a man before God. For indeed it is not written that God became an idea, a principle, a programme, a universally valid proposition or law, but that God became man.”2

Christianity & Virtue Ethics

The claim that Jesus worked under a virtue ethic umbrella is, unfortunately, insufficient as a proof that the religion built upon him is also compatible with virtue theory. In fact, many have claimed the opposite for Christianity. Some conclude that Christian ethics is more about duty and obligation than the more broad concepts of the virtues.3

Possibly this observation is true at the outset of individual Christian faith, where like a toddler the babe in Christ looks for direction for each step. However, Christianity’s deepest thinkers have consistently pointed beyond duties, rules, guilt, and even Aristotle’s limited conception of virtues, to “a country where they do not talk of those things, except as a joke.”4 The virtues and their Christological end have been discussed by a wide range of Christian philosophers, from Thomas Aquinas to C.S. Lewis to Stanley Hauerwas, who find themselves very much at home in the world of virtue. The apocryphal Book of Wisdom even gives it a specific endorsement: “And if anyone loves righteousness, her labours are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these” (8:7).

In like fashion, Bonhoeffer takes up the case for a Christian ethic beyond duty with his typical theological mastery:

What can and must be said is not what is good once and for all, but the way in which Christ takes form among us here and now. The attempt to define that which is good once and for all has, in the nature of the case, always ended in failure. … The concretely Christian ethic is beyond formalism and casuistry. Formalism and casuistry set out from the conflict between the good and the real, but the Christian ethic can take for its point of departure the reconciliation, already accomplished, of the world with God and the man Jesus Christ and the acceptance of the real man by God.5

Ethics as formation is possible only upon the foundation of the form of Jesus Christ which is present in His Church. The Church is the place where Jesus Christ’s taking form is proclaimed and accomplished. It is this proclamation and this event that Christian ethics is designed to serve.6

Christian ethics is about become like Christ. Though variously described, Calvin’s “servant of God,” Luther’s “child of God,” and Wesley’s “perfect man in the full stature of Christ” all point toward a model of Christian ethics formed in Christ.7 “Christ is not simply the giver of rules and principles, but humanity’s goal. In Jesus, we see not only the acts we are to perform or the rules we are to follow. In Jesus, we see the kind of people we are to become, the kind of humanity we are to embody.”8 Furthermore, the duty-based method of dealing with Jesus’ role in ethics is simply inadequate and ill-suited to the Gospel record. “How does one compact an entire life and way into a rule or principle?”9 Only in the virtue ethic model can one combine the emphasis in the Gospels on internal human development (Mt 5:21-48), a perfectionist ideal (5:48), master/disciple relationship (10:24-25), the paradoxical combination of individual and communal ethic (18:15-20), and the narrative genre of the Gospels themselves.10

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