The Habits of Virtue

The Habits of Virtue January 4, 2013

Roy Baumeister:

Virtue ethics are in; research like this shows why. (Go to the link for the full article.)

I contend Jesus was not a virtue ethicist. What say you?

Two decades’ worth of lab research has established that willpower is limited, and exerting self-control to resist impulses or change your actions depletes it. Like all living things, humans naturally seek to conserve their energy, and so exerting self-control to resist temptation or take the path of virtue encounters a natural reluctance (which some moralists would call laziness, or worse). And if the temptation or impulse arises when your willpower has already been depleted by other demands, then your odds of resisting go down, and you do something you’ll regret. That’s why you shouldn’t plan on achieving virtue by relying on willpower to get you through crises, temptations, and other problem situations. Willpower fluctuates, and you can’t count on always having enough.

Instead, if you use willpower to establish virtuous habits, the danger of succumbing to impulse or temptation is reduced. The human psyche is well designed to acquire habits (both good and bad). Doing something new and different takes effort and attention, and sometimes plenty of thought and emotion. In contrast, doing something by habit requires none of those, or at most a very small amount. To conserve the limited mental and physical energy that people have, nature has designed us to convert novel exertions into easy habits. This occurs over time, with repeated practice. Can you remember your initial struggles with a bicycle, a surfboard, a computer keyboard and mouse, a tennis racquet? Yet after enough repetitions, one uses those same items efficiently and effectively, with hardly a thought or error. The human mind’s ability to convert difficult action into easy deft habit is remarkable.

Habits of virtue can be a godsend. Seated at dinner as the waiter begins to serve wine, I have watched and admired how the recovered alcoholic deftly covers his glass with his hand to signal “none for me.” Not so long ago, perhaps, saying no required of him much struggle and anguish. If every offer of wine took as much effort as on his first day of sobriety, it is a fair bet that he would have fallen off the wagon countless times. But it gets easier, thanks to the miracle of habit. Of course, the habit did not appear by magic or wish or resolve. It took willpower to make the refusals habitual.

"I used to use The Navigators Bible schedule to track where I was at, but ..."

Reading the Bible Fast and Slow
"Hello Matthew,thank you for your response, and I do understand. I'm sorry for my confusion ..."

Reading the Bible Fast and Slow
"Thanks so much for the comment. Sorry for the confusion.Your experience in the Roman Catholic ..."

Reading the Bible Fast and Slow
"I read straight through the Bible, usually in a year or less, in a different ..."

Reading the Bible Fast and Slow

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jim

    Hmmm…how about ‘Jesus was not merely a virtue ethicist?’ It seems to me that virtue ethics after Aristotle is about undertaking a course of life. So, to follow Jesus is to undertake a particular course in life: to go where he goes, be with whom he is with, do what he does, speak as he speaks.

    On the other hand, its not merely a matter of practicing the goods of Jesus because of this underlying sin problem. Seems to me that grace not only saves but empowers.

    So, I guess I pitch for Jesus was a virtue ethicist but not merely a virtue ethicist since we can’t simply become like him by gritting our teeth and practicing virtue on a consistent basis.

    But I am more interested in your thinking…

  • BryanJensen

    I seem to remember William James in his Varieties… lectures (III?) addressing the observable certainty of the failure of moral rectitude. He clearly contrasted rectitude against healthy-mindedness, for those who happen to be genetically disposed to such a rosy outlook, or the forgiveness of grace, for those who aren’t, as the more pragmatic approaches to take if we want to do what observationally appears to work.

  • I think the New Testament authors assumed forms of life for believers that amounted to something similar to virtue ethics as the foundation for sanctification and growth in holiness. I haven’t found many more satisfying ways of reconciling the NT’s confidence in a believer’s ability to actually do things differently – to “offer your members as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:19) or to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1) – with its realistic assessment of the possibility and existence of ongoing struggles with sin and imperfection.

  • Also, similar convictions about what Jesus meant when he said, for instance, love your enemies, lie at the foundation of all Dallas Willard’s writing on living a kingdom life. For Willard, what Jesus meant was that you’re to become the sort of person who is able to do these things, which results from a gradually changed heart – the center of our affection and will and personhood. As that changes (through something very like ‘virtue ethics’) we become the sorts of people who are able to be obedient while avoiding the twin errors of despair over ongoing sin (because grace created the opportunity for obedience in the first place, and that grace is always with us) and sinful pride over accomplishments (because…same reason).

  • Scott Gay

    I don’t like the articles concentration on self-control. Temperantia is that focused area, and it is but a fraction of the virtues. Likewise, attaching ethic to the topic, because that is the aspect of Industria. They are a part. Likewise, Jonathan Haidt’s insights in moral psychology, while demonstratably accurate, are as yet still but a part.

    It’s interesting that the author Baumeister takes the tact of making virtue a habit. He doesn’t say “put them on” or practice them until they have habitual roots, but that is his implication. This is exactly the tact taken by N.T.Wright in “After You Believe”.

    Just a brief mention of the so-called Christian virtues. It is remarkable how one can match the Beatitudes in Mathew 5 to the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5. It was not until the New Testament began to be more extensively studied that the four virtues of Aristotle and Plato began to be called the four cardinal virtues, while the next three were referred to as theological.

    It seems interesting to me that many Christians think developing habits of virtue are a work. At heart it really isn’t about you. I really believe that purity, knowledge, honesty, wisdom, self-control, justice, honor, abstentia, charity, benevolence, generosity, sacrifice, persistence, effort, ethics, rectitude, peace, mercy, ahisma, sufferance, satisfaction, loyalty, compassion, integrity, bravery, modesty, reverence, altruism are the heart of why character matters. It seems to me that in having them as a habit is the best practice for loving your neighbor.

  • Isn’t the love command virtue ethics?

  • scotmcknight

    Virtue ethics, by definition, is the formation of character through the practice of habits. It is a conscious moral theory — and I don’t see “habits” as the way character is formed, nor all that much about the explicit category of “character” in the NT. Instead, and I have spoken privately with Dallas Willard about this and I’m not sure he’d see his stuff as virtue ethics per se, but something beyond it — back now to “Instead”: the NT sees transformation through grace and the Spirit etc. Not habit, but God’s gracious work in us. That’s not the same as virtue ethics.

    Sitting at my publisher is a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, the Intro to which is a critique of ethical theories in the light of how Jesus “does” ethics. So, Chris, is the love command virtue ethics? I’d say No. It is following Jesus not practicing habits. It’s an eschatological ethic.

  • Jedidiah Slaboda

    I think you are right to offer critical questions about virtue ethics.

    And I also wonder how some basic assumptions the texts make regarding audience and response don’t necessitate, kick start and even require the formation and re-formation of habits. In other words, walking in the path of righteousness, delighting in the torah, or as you say, following Jesus , all assume the formation of habit with something like virtue as a telos (and virtue as telos is actually where I would want to focus a critical question or two).

    We are creatures of habit, no? Our faith goes deeper than habit, addresses the misshapen desires that often lead to ‘bad’ habits. But a habit is, in my mind, nothing more or less than a way of life, a “walk” and so walk formation, pace and telos are all implied by discipleship. I will take all the help and grace I can receive.

  • josh carney


    did you read After You Believe? If so, what did you think?

  • To think it is EITHER grace OR habit formation is the quintessential Protestant error. #falsedichotomy

  • Jim

    @7: Scott: I have been thinking a lot about the practices associated with the phrase “alleleon” (one another) in terms of virtues that are practiced in community in reciprocal and mutual ways. (e.g. forbear one another; prefer one another, etc.)

    I would never want to unhinge those practices from grace (the Spirit, etc.) as the empowering factor in all of this but they still seem to me to be virtues that are practiced in community and toward the end of maturity in Christ. I am NOT saying that we achieve that end simply by the practice of those virtues but they do seem to be “of a piece’ with the character of Jesus.

    Am I wrong about that?

    I’d also be interested to know your take on N.T. Wright’s “After You Believe”.

  • scotmcknight

    Josh, I reviewed it in Books and Culture.

    Jamie, I reduced the discussion in the comment above but my “not” does not exclude the other en toto. I see the ethics of the Sermon from a different angle than the classic three approaches provide. None of them is sufficiently rooted in Israel’s Story, covenant, christology, etc..

  • scotmcknight

    Jim, Tom’s approach is a virtue ethics resubmerged into a grace-shaped and Christian narratival ethic, and that reframing is very important. It is one thing to say — in ethical theories — that habits/practices form character, and that is probably true. It is another thing to say that is how the biblical authors/characters frame ethics.

  • joel g

    Virtue ethics has a lot to do with “formation” and much of that is unconscious. That’s why someone like Aristotle emphasized the importance of children being brought up in the right way, the care one should take in forming friendships, and the connection between individual virtue and that of the larger polis.

    And I can’t see why anyone would see the formation of virtue should as in any tension with the work of the Spirit, grace, following Jesus, or eschatology. Can’t the Spirit’s eschatological work of grace in forming Jesus-followers take up practices of communal one-anothering, liturgy and prayer, and story-hearing as the way habits are formed?

  • scotmcknight

    joel g, of course. The question I am asking is, How does Jesus frame his ethics?

  • joel g

    So, how did Jesus “do” ethics that distinguishes it from other pre-modern approaches (and not just in terms of telos or the like)?

  • Scott Gay

    They seem to me to be the characteristics that in human terms express the character of the Holy Spirit. And many people don’t recognize their import until they are contrasted with the vices, which are characteristics likewise associated with an evil spirit. So I don’t want to go back to the arguments over imputation or works. If they aren’t some type of merit badge, but actually the formation of character for kingdom use( and that presently, but more importantly, in a future reign), then I don’t see how they can be formed other than practice. To me, Scot McKnight may be thoroughly orthodox in respect to what has been, but I think it has produced a Holy Spirit practiced by people as magical. I’m willing to delve into formation. Let’s be more clear than we have been. If we are onto something beyond virtue ethics here, then let’s note that this topic hasn’t been fully developed in our tradition. As N.T..Wright puts forth- this is beyond rules or go with the flow. It isn’t neo-reformed or existential. I appreciate that character is a topic that is surfacing.

  • SSG

    Virtue ethics, in contemporary ethics, is more than just a theory of “how-to’s” of moral practice. I have found that there tend to be a number of ideas that go under the rubric of “virtue ethics.” For one (without getting too far in depth and working off the top of my head), I see two to three different ways of understanding virtue ethics.

    What seems to be at issue in this post and discussion is virtue-ethics-qua-practical-guidance. That is, how do we develop moral goodness or virtuous characters. And so you seem to be taking issue with virtue ethics conceived this way: virtue ethicists are those who think the way to develop morally is through shaping our habits through willpower (while you say that virtue is not developed that way but through the spirit).

    For many philosophers, while discussing the practical ways by which we develop virtue is important, what they mean when they talk about virtue ethics is a more abstract normative theory. It has to do with the relationship between various broad moral concepts. A virtue theorist, according to Mark Timmons, is one whose criteria of rightness is based on a conception of what a virtuous person is. That is, what makes an action right or wrong depends on what a virtuous person does; virtue is conceptually more basic than rules (that is, rules fundamentally are descriptions of what a virtuous person would do in such and such circumstances). So, in effect, we don’t define virtue in terms of the rules (i.e., we don’t say that a virtuous person is one who follows the rules); rather, we define the rules by what a virtuous person would do.

    A few years ago, I would have definitely said that Jesus was a virtue theorist (in the second sense), even if you (@Scot) are right that he wasn’t in the first sense. Now I am backing slightly off that strong claim; however, it still seems that in Jesus’ thought character is more basic in some way than rules (I have serious doubts that he would be classified as a deontic ethicist).

  • Scott Gay

    David Brooks at the Aspen ideas festival framed this topic at least similarly to N.T.Wright. Brooks’ “The Character Code” is given as the western civilization recipe for being a better person. And he sees much of our disintegration as losing the code. Essentially he sees it as a fusing of the paradox between the Greek philosophers of will with the Christian position of humility. So to bottom line Brooks, you change your behavior first, cultivate little habits, organize, and be around people you can mimic. I don’t bring this up as the Christian position on virtue, but rather because it is important for Christians to see that the secular culture is intuitively realizing the problems aren’t environmental, or political, or even social AND for us to talk about this, because our traditions have not been clear or inclusive on the topic. By inclusive I mean, there are predominatelty secular cultures that exhibit the character of the Holy Spirit. It challenges a position that has been widely held in Christianity about who can be good and how.

  • Scott Gay

    And……….does anyone notice that there are people who demonstrably exhibit the Seven Christian virtues, they are blessings as to the beatitudes, they have much evidence of the fruits of the Spirit in their life- and yet- up bubbles a vice that who knows where that came from? And yet we all have this tendency to bracket a shooter of children in Newtown, who commits suicide after the atrocity, as different, a monster, a psycopath. I’m trying to say even we Christians hold an opinion about virtue and vice ( character) that is not realistic. We have not framed virtue( or vice) properly. It needs re-examination.

  • Marshall

    @Scot #7:, my go-to source for analytic philosophy, starts its article on Virtue Ethics thus:

    “Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism).”

    Don’t wish to argue dueling definitions, words are so slippery, esp. words denoting complex ideas. But translating this into Christian terms, Jesus did emphasize “moral character” ie acting from a correct relationship to the Father, rather than obedience to Law or looking for worldly results/works. (Note that all three of these broad approaches are content-free, that is, what are the rules or what character habits or consequences are considered “good” (what are the ‘norms’) are up for discussion.)

  • Percival

    Thanks everyone for an interesting discussion. Actually, I had never heard of Virtue ethics, but then after reading about it it occurred to me that it was very familiar because it’s the assumption behind Islamic ethics. I need to research this further!

  • scotmcknight

    Marshall, here’s what I’d say back: You are doing your best to fit Jesus into a pre-determined theory, but if you look straight at Jesus’ teachings, eg. Sermon on the Mount, you won’t find what you are suggesting. We can all make Jesus fit our theory — JS Mill saw the Golden Rule as his consequentialist ethic — but what we are in need of is something that really does sound 1st Century Jewish and not Aristotelian, or Thomist, or Reformation, or Enlightenment.

    When I said grace and Spirit shaped stuff earlier, I omitted how I envision Jesus’ ethics, but that’s for when the Sermon on the Mount commentary appears. I offer what I think is a more credible Jewish and historical set of categories for framing Jesus’ ethics. Virtue ethics, and the other options, are later framings that each sets its own categories for ethics.

  • mick

    I think James Bryan Smith follows Willard’s thinking on this which does seem to include much of virtue ethics. Smith focuses on “change through indirection”. I see both Willard and Smith (and Lewis) differing from virtue ethics in that that there is something beyond or higher up because the pursuit and attachment is not to the virtue itself but by being in relationship with the Person who embodies them.

  • phil_style

    “Two decades’ worth of lab research has established that willpower is limited, and exerting self-control to resist impulses or change your actions depletes it. ”

    Yet imitation of others happens without will power. We are called to imitate another as our model, not to strive under our own will power.

  • Tom F.

    Scot, even as someone who is pretty influenced by virtue ethics, I would never call Jesus a virtue ethicist. At first, I thought you merely meant to suggest that to say “Jesus was a virtue ethicist” was to read back in a modern philosophical theory into the NT.

    But then, to my surprise, as I read further, you seemed to be suggesting that Jesus would actively oppose virtue ethics. “the NT sees transformation through grace and the Spirit etc. Not habit, but God’s gracious work in us. That’s not the same as virtue ethics.” Granted, transformation through grace and Spirit do not map entirely onto “habit” as virtue ethicists understand it. I think I would like you define “habit”, “grace”, and “Spirit” in the context of ethics; as I understand those terms, they are not necessarily opposed.

    Admittedly, I am very much indebted in my thinking to Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics , but as I read the Sermon on the Mount, I DO (roughly) find things like character and habits to be important (but not central) concerns. For example, on murder, in Matthew 5:21, Jesus starts with a command, and then intensifies the command. So rather than simply not murdering, we are to refrain from even cultivating feelings of murderous rage (how I interpret “anger” here). Specific practices (“habits”) that are proscribed are insulting your brother (“You fool” will put one in danger of Gehenna). A further practice/habit is positively recommended: instead go and be reconciled even if it interrupts the worship of God. Lots of things that seem like habits to me. But perhaps I’m reading all this in, what do you see?

    Now, I think these practices also witness to the present/incoming reality of the kingdom. I think that it is likely that the primary purpose of these practices is that witness. Perhaps this is what you mean by “eschatological ethicist”. I just don’t understand the either/or that says that this means virtue ethics is actually opposed to this larger eschatological framework. If anything, the sermon on the mount says to me: “Ethics are about getting in line with God’s gracious rule (Kingdom); so what is important is to be graciously formed by God’s Spirit through the practices he wisely has given you (“habits”) so that you can witness to this Kingdom which God will bring about.”

    I look forward to being challenged by your further thoughts as you explain more of your ideas once the commentary is published.

  • scotmcknight

    Tom F, it’s about how Jesus framed ethics. One can “see” the “habits” if one wants to but Jesus doesn’t raise “habits” to a conscious level that I see in either Aristotle or most esp in later conscious virtue ethics. To see “habit’ in the murder is to read into that text a habit. The murder statement operates differently: don’t be angry because I, the Kingdom Lord, say not to. Take love of enemies … the point is not that habit-formed character rises to the surface but that there’s something radically new and different at work in those connected to Jesus. They will love, not hate, their enemies.

    I’m not sure I’d say Jesus would oppose VE. He doesn’t operate as they do. That’s my point: how to frame ethics in a 1st Century Jewish context … when VE takes over we lose other elements that need to be up front and central for Jesus.

  • RJS


    I’ve been following this conversation from afar, and I have to say it disturbs me somewhat. I don’t really know the nuances of virtue ethics … so that may be part of it.

    In what way is ethics (following Jesus) different from learning Greek or becoming a good high jumper?

    I don’t think the grace of God teaches us Greek, enables the muscle development and memory to be a good high jumper, or enables an ethical focus on Kingdom values in any “miraculous” fashion. All come through intentional practice, focus, and care for the little steps along the way.

    The grace of God saves … but it seldom if ever transforms without intentional practice day by day.

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, it has to do with how one expresses one’s theory of ethics, and it is not unfair (I think) to say Jesus is pre-theoretical or non-theoretical or even pre-philosophical. There’s a consciousness of theory in Virtue Ethics at work — and one sees this in Aristotle before Jesus — that is not present in Jesus. Or, which is perhaps more important, Jewish ethics operate with a different theory. And that theory is what I sought to express in my commentary.

    One can colonize the Sermon on the Mount into a variety of ethical theories, and each can make sense of what is there but the issue is if it is the way a 1st Century Jew would express ethics/ethical theory. I would argue that while VE tells us all kinds of good and important things I am unconvinced it is in the mind of Jesus.

    When I said that about Grace and Spirit … well, that comment emerges from understanding Pauline ethics more than Jesus and has become a dominant mode of expressing NT ethical theory. VE consistently avoids the Spirit and Grace; more recently in folks from Hauerwas to Wright we see those elements brought into the discussion, along with narrative ethical theories. The more VE is added to with Christian-shaped theology the less it sounds like classic VE (in my opinion) … so I wanted to explore the Sermon by discussing how Jesus did ethics so I could see what a 1st Century ethical theory would look like.

    3d paragraph above sounds like Virtue Ethics to me. However, something happens to ethics when, to use but two examples and none from the Sermon, (1) it involves revelation from God on Mt Sinai (Moses) and (2) the work of the Spirit in our life from within (what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit — where the emphasis is a supernatural work of the Spirit).

  • RJS


    My 3rd paragraph probably does sound like virtue ethics – but I don’t think we, as embodied creatures, can accomplish anything, including following God, without an intentionality that will not sound a bit like virtue ethics. It isn’t either the work of the Spirit and the grace of God but the work of the Spirit and the grace of God through a kind of intentionality that must resemble a virtue ethic.

    This is a bit of a hot topic for me, so I hope this doesn’t come off as something of a rant. And we are saved, not by anything we can or do do, but by the grace of God. I am not saying that we make ourselves acceptable to God.

    The revelation from God on Mt. Sinai is something that defines the desired goal – God’s goal. We don’t define the goal – God does and did. I think the Sermon on the Mount gives us a lot of the goal – and it is hard, but we are called to be intentional doers of what Jesus says. This frames the “virtue ethic.” What we are called to become isn’t defined by Aristotle’s values, or by those of our present culture, but by the word of God.

    Do the fruit of the Spirit usually appear suddenly in anyone’s life? Or do they usually come from an intentional attempt to follow God as the foundation of all life? This intentional attempt includes knowing and attempting to shape one’s life around his ideals. Isn’t this how we try to raise up our children?

    I think a great deal of damage has been done in the church by the expectation that we pray and are miraculously healed of a hot temper (to give one example). Does this means that losing ones temper is really a failing of the Spirit to answer prayer? He didn’t give us the fruit of peace and patience? Do we just passively wait for the Spirit to do the job?

    Does the sin of Lust suddenly disappear – or do we have to choose to cultivate a pure mind and avoid temptations? (A process that includes prayer and other spiritual disciplines and the work of the Spirit.)

    What we do for good or evil shapes who we will be tomorrow. This includes the way we shape our minds and the way we train our bodies. One of the studies I highlighted in a post a while back really influences me here. There is strong evidence that impulses such as that for lust, natural though they are, can be trained. The brain signals and responses change based on prior intentional choices.

    Jesus calls us to follow him – and that means intentionally, through little habits that shape who we are. Or so it seems to me. Yes this is through the power of the Spirit, and a prayer life is essential. But it won’t “just happen” (or not very often, I don’t deny the possibility that God occasionally works in extraordinary fashion in many kinds of healing).

    In general we don’t just pray and become exceptional athletes, we don’t just pray and be healed of appendicitis, we don’t just pray and know Greek, we don’t just pray and become the kind of people God calls us to be, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit.

  • RJS

    Modify my first paragraph a bit:

    My 3rd paragraph probably does sound like virtue ethics – but I don’t think we, as embodied creatures, can accomplish anything (or have anything accomplished in us if you prefer), including following God, without an intentionality that will not sound a bit like virtue ethics. It isn’t either the work of the Spirit and the grace of God but the work of the Spirit and the grace of God through a kind of intentionality that must resemble a virtue ethic.

  • RJS

    Ok – I went and looked up virtue ethics, and may be going off on a bit of a tangent here, although not completely.

  • RJS

    In answer to your first question (in the OP).

    I think Jesus was a virtue ethicist, sort of, although one can certainly say that he is pre-theoretical or non-theoretical or even pre-philosophical or better yet transcends the theoretical and philosophical.

    But didn’t he emphasize becoming people of God, isn’t it a matter of shaping who we are not following rules as rules or for the worldly consequences?

  • Tom F.

    Hmm, okay. Is it it possible that there are different ways to “see” something in a text? I would be fine in saying that Jesus doesn’t raise “habits” to a conscious level, but it seems like you are also saying that “habits” isn’t really there at all. When you read section after section in the sermon on the mount and the majority involve practices like “don’t insult your brother” and “be reconciled”, it doesn’t seem to me that I’m just reading it in. For example, 6:3-4 talks about giving in secret. Is it that giving in public is simply wrong? Why would God want giving to happen in secret? It would seem that God cares about motives (and motives flow from…character?) and God wants to reward humble people. Would God reward someone who gave in secret but felt just as much superiority over others as the a giver who gave in public? I think not; having a humble character matters (both “good fruit” and “good tree”, 7:15-20), and that is the real point of the practice of giving in secret.

    “Don’t be angry because I, the Lord, said not to” does appear to cut against a virtue ethic, if by this is meant “Don’t be angry because I, the Lord, said not to, and that is the only reason you shouldn’t be angry.” But it could just easily be “Don’t be angry because I, the Lord, said not to, so that you would better represent my character and embody the kind of gathered people you were made to be.” The point is, grounding the ethical command “Don’t be angry” in an appeal to authority (“I, the Lord”) does not mean that authority is the only ethical grounding for what Jesus is saying. And in fact, in other places, we get other groundings (e.g., so that our character will imitate God’s character, Matt. 5:49).

    “Take love of enemies … the point is not that habit-formed character rises to the surface but that there’s something radically new and different at work in those connected to Jesus.” As I would see it, the love of enemies is not the final goal that would result from some other habit; it is the habit, the habit that enables people to be able to become of a kind with God (“sons and daughters of your Father in Heaven”- 6:45) and thereby witness to God’s gracious and loving rule. The habit (love your enemies) is for the purpose of having a character (related like a child to parent) like God. I would actually say the love of enemies section is a strong argument for a kind of virtue ethic.

    None of this is to say that I think virtue ethics is perfect or has no assumptions in tension with biblical ones. I think some virtue ethics implies that practices can be lifted from narratives and have the same effects. (This would be my take on much of moral psychology.) But other virtue ethicists, and especially Christian ones (like Hauerwas or MacIntyre) don’t make that mistake. I would think this kind of virtue ethics would be eminently compatible with your emphasis on a first century view of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, one that emphasizes the narrative of Israel that Jesus clearly places himself within and as the center of.

    Thanks for the interaction!

  • Tom F.

    Okay, so my comment’s timing is poor considering your response in preceding sections. Kind of a bummer when your comment is instantly out of date. 🙂

  • scotmcknight

    Tom F, a virtue ethicist, as I comprehend him/her, doesn’t teach ethics by saying “don’t be angry” but says “If you form the proper character, you won’t be given to anger that leads to murder. And you form that character by developing habits and friendships that foster love and not anger. Over time responding in love and not anger and murder is natural. This is the way to flourish.” One can explain Jesus’ teaching that way; but it is grabbing what Jesus says and the form he uses and repackaging. That’s my point. Jesus’ form was imperatival, though at the end of the Sermon there is a virtue ethics like statement about trees and fruit.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, forming the community around Jesus was important to him, but he never says that will form habits and character that will lead to a good life. I don’t want to sound like I deny important elements of virtue ethics but I want to see how Jesus “does” ethics. Jesus sounds more like Moses than Aristotle.

    Another way of saying it is through this question: What christology emerges from the Sermon on the Mount?

  • RJS

    Ok Scot,

    Your response to Tom F helps too.

    But isn’t this a bit like saying Jesus wasn’t a medical healer?

  • Let me make a brief case for Jesus the virtue ethicist, which doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Scot brought up the Sermon on the Mount so, let’s start there since it is Jesus most robust ethical teaching:

    “Blessed are the merciful, pure in heart, hungry and thirsty for righteousness,” all focus on the inner life.

    Salt, Light, City are each about the kind of person you are.

    “You’ve heard it said, do not murder/commit adultery, but I say to you get rid of anger/lust.” Here the law is set aside (deontology) for the sake of a renewed character.

    Jesus pitches a clear telos at the end of chapter 5: “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.”

    All three acts encouraged in Matthew 6—fasting, prayer, and giving—target the transformation of the heart.

    Jesus’ hard words against greed and worry are both critiques of a unfaithful character–faith being a virtue.

    Jesus uses the image of the hypocrite 4 times in the Sermon—the actor—one who outwardly is one way and inwardly another. Again the interior focus (which is built on in the seven woes of Matthew 23).

    Jesus sums up the deontological requirements of the Old Testament in the golden rule (which may be mistaken for a law-based ethic), but the rule seems to flow from the pre-established focus on the insides which is said most clearly in the passage following: “Good trees bear good fruit, and bad trees bear bad fruit.” This is one of the more clear statement of Jesus’ virtue focused ethic. The insides affect everything else.

    Jesus conclusion goes inward as well. The rock and the sand are pictures of what is underneath and hidden. As such, Jesus ethic does not go toward rules nor consequences but is concerned primarily with what kind of person one ought to be.

    I’d love to see more on a “narrative ethic”. I’m looking forward to the book!

  • scotmcknight

    Jeff, interiority can be seen as character, but character could give us Theophrastus or any number of ancients. For me the critical factors for framing Jesus as a virtue ethicist is that he has to talk about habits forming character and so exhorts us to habits in the context of friendship/etc/whatever.

    I suppose one could say all of the Torah is “habits,” but when that happens I wonder if we haven’t jumped the shark from Aristotle’s virtue ethics theory.

    I could comment on each of your points, some of which I’d agree with … but I will contend virtue ethics is Greek and Jesus is Jewish. I doubt very much that 1st Century Jews would have seen Jesus in Aristotelian terms. Eh?

  • Marshall

    Scot, I rather hope I’m chopping up pre-determined theory and trying my best to make it fit Jesus. I’m sure I don’t think Jesus advocated conscious habit-formation in order to mold character, which has a very legalistic flavor for me, since the habits are acquired by rote.

    The ethical environment of ancient Palestine? I suppose it was very conventional, just tread water in whatever your ethnic group demanded. ??

  • Mike M

    Interesting practice trying to describe how a 1st century Jew thought through the lens of a post-Aristotlean modern Christian. Nonetheless, what I’ve discovered is that both Jesus and Paul knew more about human nature than the philosophers of today or ages gone by. Jesus used parables, mysteries, and stories to plant his listeners into certain frames-of-mind and Paul called on the powers of the creative mind to alert us to God’s transforming powers: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
    Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
    Modern psychology, which has supplanted (for better or worse) philosophy, tends to agree with both Jesus & Paul: “Imagination is 10 times more powerful than willpower.”

  • T

    A fascinating and important discussion. I do think there’s some room for some both and thinking here, but I also think Scot is right point out that habits are critical to jesus is teaching. They are not the great “how” as they are for some virtue ethicists.

    I also don’t know what Scot has planned for his commentary, but i would suggest that jesus doesn’t reveal much of the “how” in the SoM. I remember reading a quote from Wright somewhere that said essentially the following: “it’s one thing to think that Jesus has fulfilled all the requirements of the law on my behalf. But it is another (and far more pastorally helpful) to think that because Jesus has died and risen that God now regards me as having died and risen to new life, and that I need to do likewise.”

    In a nutshell, the “how” is in seeing, daily perhaps or even moment to moment, Christ’s story as superseding and outstripping ours. It’s by putting our hope and trust in him and his story, and that we are bound up in it. We increasingly see ourselves, through the Holy Spirit (and deliberate exposure and cooperation with him) as having died, dying, will die to this world and to our former selves and have been raised to walk as he walks. The old ways and the old me are already declared dead and buried and condemned. New life in Christ awaits.

  • T

    sorry, should have been “habits aren’t critical to Jesus teaching.” 😀

  • T

    And let me add this: I don’t think that us believing that we have died (to sin, world, ourselves, the old kingdoms, etc.) and raised to life in/for/through God is merely a good existential reset for our brains to actually achieve change, though I think it is that. I also think there is reality to it, spiritual reality whereby the actual person/Spirit of God merges with ours to make us different.

  • JD

    This is a very interesting discussion, thank you. Recently I preached on Galatians 5 and argued that practicing the fruits of the Spirit is similar to virtue ethics; that although they are fruits, we do need, paradoxically, to work at them and to make them form part of our character, and make them become habitual. I was indebted to N.T Wright and his book Virtue Reborn for many of the ideas I shared. I do think, however, that I made it clear that Paul’s ‘Spirit’ language is eschatological language, that Christ, by His extraordinary grace, has set us free to be ‘Spirit people’ and that we are commanded to live the life of the Spirit. So I think it’s true that Christian ethics is not virtue ethics (seeing as VE was developed and is best understood as stemming from Greek philosophers, not a Jewish background) but nonetheless encapsulates VE.

  • Scot (40). You wrote, “Interiority can be seen as character, but character could give us Theophrastus or any number of ancients. For me the critical factors for framing Jesus as a virtue ethicist is that he has to talk about habits forming character and so exhorts us to habits in the context of friendship/etc/whatever.”

    Character focus is essential for a virtue ethic, but not all theories of character will be the same. And I’m not sure a strong focus on “habit” is necessary for a virtue ethic. I think the elevation of character over law (deontology) and outcome (consequentialism) is all that’s necessary to place Jesus firmly in the virtue ethical camp when talking about normativity. That may just be semantic at this point, but its important to me to at least show that Jesus cares primarily about the good heart over and above good outcomes or good behavior.

    You wrote, “I suppose one could say all of the Torah is “habits,” but when that happens I wonder if we haven’t jumped the shark from Aristotle’s virtue ethics theory.”

    I’d agree. The Torah feels deontological to me. Jesus has gone beyond mere behavior toward the root of behavior (“You’ve hear it said, but I say…”). This is a massive ethical shift in my mind and the primary place Jesus gets cranked up in his dialogue with the scribes and pharisees.

    You wrote, “I could comment on each of your points, some of which I’d agree with … but I will contend virtue ethics is Greek and Jesus is Jewish. I doubt very much that 1st Century Jews would have seen Jesus in Aristotelian terms. Eh?”

    I’d agree. Two points. First, It seems to me Jesus can discover (or pull from his own tradition) a focus on the heart and character without knowing anything about Aristotle. He might also create a great deal. He need not be only a re-shuffler of earlier theories. He may have something unique to contribute.

    Second, I find Jesus virtue ethic far more robust, concise, and insightful than Aristotle’s. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethic is all over the place. It has no real clear structure half the time, and does not go far enough in explaining some his normative position nor the character traits themselves. Jesus however is simple and direct (“A good tree bears good fruit.” “Be perfect as your father is perfect.”) and he elevates a primary character trait (love) over others and defines in in a consistent way (both through parables and deed). Aristotle has not discovered love’s primacy and its connection with happiness.

    I’d be curious if a narrative ethic is a normative theory that doesn’t get assumed into consequentialism, deontology or virtue.

    Much love.

  • Percival

    I always come late to these discussions, but I’ve been synthesizing.

    It seems to me that Jesus’ ethics (and Paul’s) flows out of who we are and whose we are. That is, “a good tree” and “your Father in heaven is perfect.” We do not make ourselves into a new creation, but we work out our salvation that was a gift of God.

    In contrast to this is a model that says we look at the moral man and learn to be like him by consistently imitating his habits, both interior and exterior. This is fine as far as it goes and it can be a useful paradigm for child rearing, but it seems it does not go far enough. In contrast, being in Christ and walking by the Spirit are key truths for us that are completely revolutionary and radical in their implications.

    Enjoyed this post and the conversation. Thanks everyone.

  • Tom F.

    Thanks for that last response to my post, Scot. I guess I wonder about the implications of this imperatival ethics you speak of. I don’t fully know what you mean here, other than that imperatival means to command.

    Will you be fleshing out what imperatival means in a later post? Is it related to divine command ethical theory? It might help me see more of what you are saying if you more clearly laid out what the alternative to virtue ethics is.

    It seems to me that I have yet to run across any philosophical ethics account of Jesus’s teaching that could account for everything Jesus said; it just seemed to me that virtue ethics was the best fit I’d seen (by a long shot). Related to your earlier comment about Jesus as “pre-theoretical”, this lack of ethical fit likely has to do with Jesus as “pre-theoretical”; thus, I expect any philosophical/ethical and thus “theoretical” account to map imperfectly onto Jesus. Since I’m not about to become “pre-theoretical” myself, it didn’t seem there was any alternative to saying that Jesus is at least pointing towards virtue ethics, even as he is not himself a virtue ethicist.