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Reforming Virtue Ethics

December 4th, 2018 | 21 min read

By Brewer Eberly

By Brewer Eberly and Brian Mesimer

“What is the chief end of man?” Many Reformed evangelicals will recognize this as the opening question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Christians may be surprised to learn that it is the same question which concerns Aristotle at the opening of Nicomachean Ethics.

For the church, the answer to the Westminster’s opening is, famously, “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” For Aristotle, the answer to the chief end of man is also a sort of enjoying—Aristotle’s famous eudaimonia, crudely translated as “happiness.”

But “happiness” here is stale. Post-Freud, we use “happiness” in reference to the fulfillment of personal desire, but eudaimonia goes beyond that, meaning something more like “full human well-living.” In fact, the concept of eudaimonia closely resembles “enjoying God forever,” as it literally means “living under the protection of a beneficent guardian spirit.”

For Aristotle, eudaimonia was achieved through bringing one’s character and life into full accord with a shared concept of the good through the development and exercise of habits of virtue. Aristotle’s words for habit and character are essentially identical (ethos and ēthos). “Virtue ethics” are all about habits, character, and the ethos-forming community.

Aristotle’s vision for the ethical life is one in which the individual pursues the good through moral habits, but always from a place of prior formation and habituation within robust moral communities who have cast their lives upon a mutually determined common good.

In this way, virtue ethics critiques ethics-in-a-vacuum. Following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Anscombe, a virtue ethicist would argue that goodness can’t be properly pursued through the decontextualized, abstract application of sterile rules, duties, or principles (deontology, principlism), but rather through the exercise of good judgment or phronesis—“practical wisdom.” Virtue ethicists are concerned with the ethical formation of the individual within community more than sterile syllogisms regarding individual actions (consequentialism) or balancing acts between theoretical pleasures and pains (utilitarianism).Virtue ethics has much more to do with the trajectory of a life: who we are now and who we are becoming. It reminds us we “can’t not be headed somewhere” and demands that we attend to the “somewhere” from which we act.

And yet it seems as if virtue ethics is headed nowhere in the evangelical world. While there has been a resurgence of interest in virtue in some corners of academic Christendom (think James K.A. Smith, the Reformed catholicity movement, and the witness of Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre), it seems that talk of “virtue” has yet to trickle down to the pews. The average evangelical churchgoer knows more of Hillsong than of habitus. Similarly, the scholastic record reflects the complexity and tension between virtue and Christianity. Certainly Calvin was bearish on the issue:

Come, then, and let them show me a more excellent system among philosophers, who think that they only have a moral philosophy duly and orderly arranged. They, when they would give excellent exhortations to virtue, can only tell us to live agreeably to nature. Scripture derives its exhortations from the true source, when it not only enjoins us to regulate our lives with a view to God its author to whom it belongs; but after showing us that we have degenerated from our true origin—viz. the law of our Creator, adds, that Christ, through whom we have returned to favour with God, is set before us as a model, the image of which our lives should express. What do you require more effectual than this? Nay, what do you require beyond this? (Institutes 3.6.3)

Many who followed Calvin would be more optimistic. Reformed stalwarts like A. A. Hodge and John Owen looked favorably on certain aspects of virtue ethics, and thinkers in the Reformed Orthodoxy movement have clearly utilized the virtue framework. Suggest to a Reformed person that there might be a conflict between John Calvin and John Owen on virtue, and you have created a fantastic conundrum.

Much of the future of virtue ethics in evangelical theology will depend on how well its proponents can engage these conflicts with clear voices and charitable ears.

Problematic Provenance

First, we evangelicals struggle with the sources of our theology. We have discomfort with ideas that are thematically similar to orthodox belief but are voiced by individuals who do not identify as Christian, hence the temptation of many evangelicals to write off anything not of explicitly orthodox or “purely” Christian origin (hence the existence of Christian films and the Jordan Peterson phenomenon). This discomfort is often more than a psychological malcontent towards the new or unfamiliar. It relates to a more primal evangelical fear—namely, that the incorporation of pagan sources of thought threatens to unseat Scripture’s authority in the Christian life.

Virtue ethics arose in a pagan Greek milieu and was propagated most clearly by Aristotle, a non-Christian philosopher. Even so, virtue ethics enjoys a robust history of Christian appropriation and integration with orthodox theology and philosophy. Boethius was one of the first to attempt a synthesis, while Thomas Aquinas offered a systematic Christian interpretation of virtue ethics through the integration of Aristotelian ethics with Augustinian theology. (Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine are clearly a formidable team.)

It goes without saying that since the Reformation (and somewhat by definition), Protestants have been leery of both pagan and catholic legacies. Consider Martin Luther’s disappointment: “this damnable arrogant pagan rascal [Aristotle] has seduced and fooled so many of the best Christians with his misleading writings. … I cannot avoid believing that it was Satan himself who introduced the study of Aristotle.” That’s not exactly the sort of charitable engagement we’ve come to expect from the poise of Reformed folks like Tim Keller.

Evangelicals fear a theological and moral cascading effect, in which one cannot accept an ethic without inevitably inviting in an underlying metaphysic. For example, were an evangelical to begin practicing a Catholic Eucharist, she could not faithfully do so without submitting to Catholicism’s mediatorial scheme of the dispensation of grace, Mariology, or papal authority. So too evangelicals might fear that if they buy into a virtue ethic, they may get more than they bargained for.

Problematic Emphases

Of course, thoughtful Christians shouldn’t reject something pagan outright. Rather, Christians “test everything [and] hold fast to what is good.” A Christian appreciation for pagan art offers such an example, in which evangelicals might celebrate something beautiful despite the lack of explicitly Christian chromosomes.

And yet, when we test virtue ethics for what might “hold fast,” we find several points of friction:

The Problem of the Polis

Aristotle’s polis (the virtue-forming community) doesn’t include immigrants, outcasts, or anyone that might threaten the integrity of the city-state. While Plato creates room for the learning of virtue (or at least, geometry) through his example of Meno’s slave, Aristotle’s formulation of virtue remains an exclusive ethic of the moral elite. A virtue ethic suggests that the good life of eudaimonia is practically available only to a select few with the moral self-awareness, social freedom, and education robust enough to develop the virtues.

The wisdom spoken of tends toward the wisdom of kings and aristocrats, not the wisdom of shepherds and sinners. Indeed, early pagans struggled not with the virtues necessary to become Christian, but with the fact that Christians worshipped a very strange “virtue philosopher” whose community was made up of virtue outcasts (prostitutes, usurers, drunks), and whose death was that of the criminal—the opposite of what one would expect from someone formed toward eudaimonia.

The Problem of Habits

Aristotle’s virtue ethics concerns “immersion into a way of life.” This is language Christians should find compelling, for Christianity is not concerned with moral posturing, but with becoming like Christ by immersion into the Way.

But for the Reformed, virtue ethics presents a real problem when it comes to the means of this immersion. When virtue ethicists proclaim that by habitual practice one can achieve certain virtuous dispositions, evangelicals respond that sanctification is not something we can simply conjure up on our own initiative in the way one establishes a workout routine. Thus the promises of habituated virtues, without grace, begin to sound like a particularly elegant version of Pelagianism. The paradox of virtuous habitus for the Christian is thus the paradox of the Pharisee—can one habituate their life to the habits of the faithful community but remain faithless? Joy Lewis (C. S. Lewis’ wife), asked the same thing. What can an ethical person cut off from faith do but “turn Pharisee”?

Proponents of virtue ethics might rightly answer this question through 2 Peter 1:5-8:

For this very reason [i.e. the sundry gifts of God’s divine power], make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Certainly this seems like a proof-text verification of virtue formation. One sees the emphasis on effort, the typical list of godly virtues, a specific call to develop virtue itself, and the implication that such virtues will gradually increase. Peter is clearly calling for the Christian to develop virtue, and Peter is no Pharisee (1 Pt. 1.3-9, 13). In some way, Scripture is providing space for virtue development.

Even so, Calvin’s comments on this passage are particularly interesting:

It may, however, be here asked, whether Peter, by assigning to us the work of supplying or adding virtue, thus far extolled the strength and power of free-will? … But the perpetual doctrine of Scripture is opposed to this delirious notion: for it plainly testifies, that right feelings are formed in us by God, and are rendered by him effectual. It testifies also that all our progress and perseverance are from God. Besides, it expressly declares that wisdom, love, patience, are the gifts of God and the Spirit. When, therefore, the Apostle requires these things, he by no means asserts that they are in our power, but only shews what we ought to have, and what ought to be done. And as to the godly, when conscious of their own infirmity, they find themselves deficient in their duty, nothing remains for them but to flee to God for aid and help.

Calvin is affirming that as the Christian grows in the aforementioned virtues she will surely see “progress and perseverance.” Calvin even notes the requirement of effort in sanctification. But, critically, virtues will come only as the direct result of God’s Spirit and agency. Calvin is not necessarily rejecting virtue or virtue habituation outright, but is delineating the all-important emphasis of God as the only source of virtue.

Here the gauntlet is thrown down for evangelical proponents of virtue ethics—is it possible to articulate this vision in a way that keeps God’s role in sanctification as supreme?

The Problem of Eudaimonia

It seems that on the account of virtue ethics, man can do good all by him-or-herself—bringing about a future eudaimonia without the pesky “guardian spirit” or “glorify God” bits. “Full human flourishing” begets anxiety within evangelical circles because it sounds like an idolatry of man. Indeed, becoming a fully flourishing, perfected human in contemporary times doesn’t seem to mean bringing your life into submission around a common good within community, but freeing your life from the constraints of the community in order to orient yourself around whatever you want.

Further, there are some who will wonder whether “flourishing” is even a biblical goal. Scripture nowhere affirms outright that the goal of life is flourishing qua flourishing. Add to this the idols of modern flourishing (financial security, social connectedness, national security, comfort, self-actualization, etc.) and we run into the clear biblical teaching that God is the center of all things and calls us to a way of life that is often not secure, wealthy, or comfortable.

At the same time, Scripture extols the idea of flourishing (particularly eschatological flourishing) but only as a secondary result of the chief end of glorifying and enjoying God (Deuteronomy 11:9). Essentially, obedience to God constitutes and creates human flourishing while radically altering our idolatry of its pursuit.

Toward an Evangelical Virtue Ethic

Perhaps none have captured the challenge of Christian ethics better than theologians and ethicists Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells,

For we hope to show that an admonition such as ‘Do not resist an evil person’ (Matthew 5:39) is unintelligible when divorced from the early Christians’ presumption that they worshiped Jesus as God’s Messiah through practices such as admonition, penance, reconciliation, and absolution. The problem with attempts in modernity to write a ‘history of Christian ethics’ is that they assume the Enlightenment’s turn to the subject, with the result that the ‘ethics’ that becomes the main character in such accounts reflects more the self-understanding of the contemporary Western individual than the practices of the Christian tradition.

The Gospel tears open all reductive ethical visions for the flourishing good life, precisely because it makes ethical claims like “turn the other cheek”—claims that are impossible to understand apart from the life and death of Jesus. Aristotle’s paradigmatic example of virtue is embodied in the soldier, who he would rather have arrogant and violent than cowardly and weak. But as Hauerwas and Wells write, “the early Christians paradigm of virtue was not the soldier embodying the love of power but the martyr embodying the power of love.”

This is the difference between Aristotle’s “magnanimous man” and C. S. Lewis’s humble man. Whereas Aristotle calls for self-dependence and noble works (heralding Nietzsche’s Übermensch), Christ “opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble,” and therefore radically alters our concept of virtue itself. Neither Nietzsche nor Aristotle have real language or respect for humility, dependency, and weakness in the way that the Gospel articulates and redeems. The cardinal virtues of Aristotle are courage, justice, prudence, and temperance—the traits of a philosopher king. The cardinal virtues of Christianity are faith, hope, and love—the characteristics of a suffering servant.

Reforming the Polis

Virtue can only last in the context of a virtuous community. This is central to Aristotelian thought and should be something Christians can listen to with interest because we have the church bound together by the sacraments. As Rowan Williams recently put it, quite beautifully, “We go to heaven in each other’s pockets and enter the wedding feast dressed in our neighbor’s clothes.” The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the habits which form both the individual and common clothing of the Christian body. Sacraments are inherently communal and mysteriously bind us to our fellow neighbor. Again, as Kelly Kapic writes, the Christian life is “not a solo, but a chorus.”

Virtue ethics presupposes a virtuous polis, and Christianity offers something similar through the vision of the church. At the same time, however, there are differences that are not so easily grafted. Again, as Wells writes, “the ekklesia is a tent, not a castle.” Conflating the polis and the ekklesia risks the dissolution of distinct forms of Christological kingship unique to the ekklesia, while erasing the polis through assimilation into the Church risks dissolving the discourse so important to evangelism. Re-imagining the polis to the way of the ekklesia will mean adopting the morally orphaned rather than favoring the moral firstborn. It may mean pitching tents of charity before erecting castles of purity.

Reforming Habits

Reformed philosopher Cornelius Van Til claims that virtue ethics, in its focus on moral habituation, actually represents a “position half way between Christianity and paganism.” Van Til might have us remember Aquinas on virtue:

Yet because human nature is not altogether corrupted by sin, so as to be shorn of every natural good, even in the state of corrupted nature it can, by virtue of its natural endowments, work some particular good, as to build dwellings, plant vineyards, and the like…(again, Summa I–II, q 109, ii, co., emphasis added).

Some Reformed people initially shrink back from this kind of language. Reading a formulation of “not-altogether-corrupted” into humanity’s moral framework is difficult for evangelicals to accept, particularly in light of the Augustinian “dead-and-enslaved-in-sin” vision to which Reformed Christians subscribe (Cf. Romans 3.10-12, etc). They might hear it like this: man is bad, but not totally bad, and although he cannot follow God’s law without grace, he can still do good of his own accord.

At stake is the essential question of whether man or God is the chief agent in sanctification, but there is another more subtle question below this one that further drives the conflict. This is the question of how Reformed thinkers conceptualize the good—and specifically the apparent existence of forms of the good in the lives of non-believers.

For example, how do we think about a virtuous pagan architect who lives a decent life, builds good buildings, and is a reasonable family man? Or perhaps a Jungian psychologist who is friendly to biblical motifs but a non-believer himself? Technically, such persons are dead in their sins, condemned before a Holy God outside of saving union with Christ. And while it is becoming increasingly in vogue to temper such truths or ignore them altogether, pagan efforts of virtue are tainted with sin and unacceptable salvifically to God. But it seems absurd to say that everything they’ve ever done is bad or completely devoid of the good. Not even Van Til would go this far.

The problem, then, becomes one of equivocation regarding categories of the good; namely, can something be good without being sanctified? It is on this point that Aquinas is quite helpful. Aquinas divides the good (or virtues) into multiple categories, but most simply into the natural and supernatural virtues. The difference between the two is their aim and their source. Consider the following two passages:

The other specific differences among habits is taken from the things to which they are directed: for a man’s health and a horse’s are not of the same species, on account of the difference between the natures to which their respective healths are directed. In the same sense, the Philosopher says (Polit. iii, 3) that citizens have diverse virtues according as they are well directed to diverse forms of government. In the same way, too, those infused moral virtues, whereby men behave well in respect of their being “fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household [Douay: ‘domestics’] of God” (Ephesians 2:19), differ from the acquired virtues, whereby man behaves well in respect of human affairs. (I-II, q 63, iv, co.).


It follows that human virtue directed to the good which is defined according to the rule of human reason can be caused by human acts: inasmuch as such acts proceed from reason, by whose power and rule the aforesaid good is established. On the other hand, virtue which directs man to good as defined by the Divine Law, and not by human reason, cannot be caused by human acts, the principle of which is reason, but is produced in us by the Divine operation alone. Hence Augustine in giving the definition of the latter virtue inserts the words, “which God works in us without us” (Super Ps. 118, Serm. xxvi). (I-II, q 63, ii, co.).

First, natural virtues are differentiated from the supernatural in their ultimate telos. Natural virtues aim towards the consummation of goals accessible to every person. “Good eating,” on this account, includes “food [that] should not harm the health of the body, nor hinder the use of reason” (I-II, q 63, iv, co). Supernatural virtues, however, are those that aim at revealed ends, presumably ones that supersede the ends of natural goods. Supernaturally virtuous eating aims not only at health but at holiness (I-II, q 63, iv, co.).

Second, these virtues differ in their source, and it is this distinction that perhaps raises the more serious concern for the Reformed. Aquinas, following Augustine, is fairly straightforward in noting that the supernatural virtues come only from God. On this point, all can be agreed. But this sets up a problematic corollary—that these “good” natural virtues would supposedly come not from God, the source of all good. In his section on the cause of the virtues, Aquinas does not directly settle the question, but simply notes, as any good Aristotelian would, that the natural virtues originate in our nature and require perfection through human action (I-II, q 63, i, co.).

Yet it should be realized that, since God is the creator of all, He is the technical or first cause of such virtues (Cf. I, q 2, iii, ad. 2). While Aquinas does not here make this explicit, he comes close in Summa Contra Gentiles: “Whatever is done by nature must be traced back to God as its first cause.”

So whence the conflict? Perhaps there is none, or perhaps it a result of differing emphases. For if there is any conflict between the Reformed and the Thomists on virtue, much of it is over how we can call something not sanctified “good.” But even the most Reformed of thinkers will admit that man in his sinful estate can perform certain goods. Van Til writes:

Because of God’s common grace, this ethical antithesis to God on the part of the sinner is restrained, and thereby the creative forces of man receive the opportunity of constructive effort. In this world the sinner does many “good” things. He is honest. He helps to alleviate the sufferings of his fellow men. He “keeps” the moral law. (Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., p. 45).

Van Til puts the “good” and “keeps” in quotations, presumably as a way of indicating that such obedience is devoid of any ultimate salvific quality and therefore a secondary kind of good. And this is really not incredibly different from what Aquinas says regarding natural virtue. If anything, Reformed commentators like Calvin and Van Til simply add the necessary emphasis that all virtue development–even the development of the natural virtues–is still God’s work, an emphasis Aquinas sometimes tended to obfuscate with his Aristotelian attention to first principles.

Further, they remind us that there exists a difference between the goods of righteousness (which is clearly in mind in Rom. 3.10-12) and any good that man outside of Christ can pursue. Likewise, Aquinas challenges Reformed thinkers to remember that total depravity does not mean utter depravity, and that natural man contains enough “good” within to help him cultivate some virtues and techne to a certain extent. The balanced Christian might therefore say with Paul that “no one does good” in terms of righteousness while affirming that the world is not empty of all good qualities.       

Interestingly, it is also possible that Aquinas’ moral theology has been unmoored from its Christological context, thus diluting the true intentions of his transposition of the Aristotelian ethic. According to ethicist Duane Stephen Long, the second half of Aquinas’ moral theology (the habit, the virtue-talk) was circulated in publication apart from the first half (the Christology, the doctrine). The natural consequence of this happenstance is that Aquinas comes across as a legalist to evangelical ears, with his moral exhortations being emphasized apart from his doctrine of Christ. Aquinas rooted his moral habituation and moral theology deeply in orthodoxy, but a cleft “half way between Christianity and paganism” opened in the afterword nonetheless—a cleft which must be mended.

Reforming Eudaimonia

Aristotle’s chief end of man is to be a fully perfected, flourishing human. That’s the sort of language Christians might echo with glorification. For this reason, Christian virtue ethicists might not explode eudaimonia as some sort of moral Mammon outright, but rather qualify it (or perhaps baptize it) by saying that a reformed eudaimonia hints at shalom or Aquinas’ beatific vision. It is communal, integral human flourishing, being what we were meant to be, under the love and rule of God. A reformed eudaimonia is bookended by euangelion and eschaton.

As Greek Orthodox ethicist H. Tristram Englehardt, Jr. writes, in words that might put evangelicals at ease, “The moral life is neither about living in accord with impersonal moral principles nor is it about concerns with a good or virtue that can be understood apart from the personal meaning of the universe. The moral life is about coming into union with the Triune God.”

Indeed, we don’t come into union with a virtue philosopher or a vague, “beneficent guardian spirit,” but with the Lion of Judah, a “God [who] is not an ethical postulation, but the only adventure worth undertaking.

Brian Mesimer, MA, MTS, LPC, is a professional counselor, PCA ruling elder, and doctoral student interested in the role that habituation plays in the counseling process.

John Brewer Eberly, Jr., MD, MA is a researcher interested in theological perspectives in medical ethics and the application of virtue ethics to medical student formation. Brian’s writing has appeared in Mere Orthodoxy, Reformation21, and Mockingbird. Brewer’s writing has appeared in First ThingsMere Orthodoxy, the AMA Journal of Ethics, and STAT.