The concept of virtue plays a major role in the life of early Christianity. As variously espoused by philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and others, virtue relates to living the ‘good life’ or a proper mode of right living in the polis. Certainly philosophical notions of virtue influenced early Christian writers, however, the infusion of biblical material into commonly accepted notions of virtue set early Christians apart from their pagan philosophical interlocutors. For our purposes that follow, I will only mention few features and implications.

First, according to the early Apologists, Greco-Roman worship was in error due to its licentiousness and lack of virtue—distinct from particular ideology or doctrine. Early Christian critiques of Hellenistic religious identity addressed the lack of moral virtue in their religious devotion. Whether it be the licentiousness of the gods or the licentiousness produced in humanity, the role of virtue was a key component to determine their validity. Greco-Roman gods are immoral and corrupt, so the apologists would question one’s devotion to them.[1] Justin Martyr notes how the Pagan gods are “vessels destined for vile purposes.”[2] Moreover, the artisans, who make the Pagan gods, are vile, experienced in every known vice, defile girls, and are lustful men.[3] Thus, lacking virtue de facto ruled out particular ways of life as legitimate. On the contrary, early Apologists noted particular Christian ethics and virtue to validate the Christian faith.[4]

Second, virtue creates a social marker, demarcating Christians for the good of society. Christianity, converse to the general public, produces virtue in other persons and, thereby, betters society as a whole. This social identity marker—virtue and personal character—helped legitimatize early Christians and their traditions. Their mere presence adds value to society.[5] For example, Tertullian notes how personal Christian virtue is beneficial for the Emperor and for the good of other persons.

“The loyalty, the reverence, the fidelity due the emperors consists not in such services as even hostile minds can render to cloak their thoughts, but on the contrary, it consists in that moral behavior which God demands be shown the emperor just as truly as necessarily is to shown to all men…We are the same toward the emperors as we are toward our neighbors. For, to desire evil, to do evil, to speak evil, to think evil of anyone—all are equally forbidden to us. Whatever we may not do to the emperor, we may not do to anyone else.”[6]

The final role, for our present purposes, of virtue in ancient Christianity is related to epistemology. That is, to be virtuous assists the acquisition of knowledge and understanding Scripture. The converse, then, may be a true implication. That is, to lack virtue may limit the acquisition of knowledge. Distinct from modern epistemology categories, ethics and the pursuit of ethics limit or expand the abilities of a person’s attainment of knowledge. Epistemology is not built upon objective observation of facts and ideas but intimately tied to moral dispositions. Consider the following quote from Athanasius:

“But in addition to the study and true knowledge of the scriptures, there is needed a good life and a pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the mind, guided by it, may be able to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is possible for human nature to learn about the God Word. Without a pure mind and a life modeled on the saints, no one can comprehend the words of the saints.”[7]

Also, one feature of Augustine’s hermeneutical principle is related to virtue. Right readings of the Scripture were based upon the virtue they produced—not necessarily an objective reading of the text. Thus, as Athanasius argues that virtue must precede knowledge, so Augustine argues that the product of virtue is an indication of a right reading of Scripture.[8] Valid readings of Scripture, then, are based upon the aretegenic result in the hearer.[9]

“So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”[10]

Therefore, virtue, in ancient Christianity, extends well beyond these three features and beckons for more attention. But, it at least embodies itself as a social ethic and is notably connected to epistemology. For example, Ambrose equates the honorable with four central virtues, with prudence taking chief position because it shows "devotion and reverence for our creator...[it is] also the source from which all the other virtures derive" (De officiis I.126). Prudence, for Ambrose, is the source of moral virtue. A recent volume, worth consulting in more depth, is a recent OUP volume by Hans Boersma, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa.

About the Author:
Shawn Wilhite

Shawn Wilhite is currently a Ph.D. student in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research focuses mainly on the Epistle to Hebrews, History of New Testament Interpretation, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Early Christian and Patristic Hermeneutics, New Testament Theology, and Greek and Latin Studies.

Doctrinae Coram Deo

  1. See Athenagoras, Leg. 21.  ↩

  2. Justin, 1 Apol. 9.  ↩

  3. Justin, 1 Apol. 9.  ↩

  4. Athenagoras, Leg. 11. “But among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.”  ↩

  5. Note Diog. 5. Here, the author makes a few notable comments about Christians who live in the public square. “For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.” Diog. 5.1–2, 4.  ↩

  6. Tertullian, Apol. 36.  ↩

  7. Athanasius, Inc. 57.  ↩

  8. According to Peter Sanlon's reading of Augustine, "Holding forth love as the goal of Scripture gave Augustine a doctrinal standard by which to measure the faithfulness of his preaching. If a sermon did not in some way help listeners love God and each other, the preaching must in some way be sub-biblical." Moroever, this may extend to a right reading of a text. Virtue is not at odds with the truth claims of Scripture, but virtue does help provide the guidelines of right readings of Scripture. Peter T. Sanlon, Augustine's Theology of Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), xxvii.  ↩

  9. Aretegenic comes from the Greek word ἀρετή. The LSJ entry for this word offers the following readings: goodness, excellence, of any kind, and moral virtue. Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 238.  ↩

  10. Augustine, Doctr. chr. 1.35.  ↩