When we talk about “Christian virtues” we are talking about essential characteristics of the Christian. Virtue addresses the inner-self, and how we can relate to others and the world around us. How essential is virtue to our lives? To answer that, we need to understand where virtue comes from. Some say virtue is found in the character of each person, or in society or in reason or in God’s word or in God’s character. So how should we define what Christian virtues are as believers? Read on to find out!
Civic Virtues in Scripture
The Greeks with their strong focus on character as applied to civic life (polis) provide a worthy starting place as we search for virtue. For them it is all about right relationships among people which goes by the name justice. Justice is the result, they wrote, of people who have prudence, temperance and fortitude. We call these by different names now: discernment, balance, and courage.
Moses gave the wandering tribes of Jehovah the 10 Laws needed to form a society of godly virtue. Social relationships require knowing who the authority is (God: including laws about no idols and the sabbath), protecting the integrity of the home (parents and no adultery), property (no stealing), truth telling (no false witness or name of God in vain), and respecting life (no murder). The addition of coveting is an interior action resulting in the social virtue of being, at a bare minimum, considerate.
Surprisingly, the biblical word for justice is the same as the word for righteous. This means that justice as taught by the Greeks has a new godly dimension. In both Testaments if an action is good it is both just (to the extent it is good for society) and also righteous (in regard to its ability to please God).
From the biblical perspective it is essential to have both the Godward and manward dimensions correct. It is impressive that this worked not only in the Hebrew theocracy, but also survives as a norm for people in churches which are scattered among the nations.
Together these Greek and Biblical social virtues lead to decent, polite, thoughtful people who are involved in their public life as honest and positive contributors.
Where are these social virtues found?
Secularists will say that virtues are found in the use of human reason untainted by ignorance, magical thinking/superstition or reliance on aristocratic elites. They cite reason as the cornerstone and therefore find that virtue is found in education.
Christians will say that these virtues are found in the entire human person who is in right relationship to God. We cite a solid homelife and a proper church involvement accompanied by good education as the way to instill these Christian virtues in the young and to carry on these virtues over the generations.
So how essential is virtue to our lives? It is so central to our experience that it drives our decision-making about our actions, our opinions of others, and our loyalty to those in positions of authority. That is why Christian virtues are defined as the unique biblical characteristics given as commands by Jesus to love God and to love each other.
This is the character of the people of virtue who impact all of society.
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John Teevan is the Adjunct Professor in the Seminary and SOMS. He has taught a variety of courses since 2000. He comes from two long pastorates and twelve years working for Grace College in the Indiana State Prison system as an educator/director. He also served in the four cities where Grace worked to open commuter sites. These diverse experiences along with community involvement have sensitized him to social side of ministering to people in a variety of situations. A five-year engagement with the Acton Institute led to the publication of his book on Social Justice.