Using Virtue Ethics to Read the Bible (Without Falling Into Anti-Nomianism)

There are lots off good reasons to read the Bible.  The reasons would vary depending who you polled–some “secular humanists” would say that the Bible should be read for cultural literacy or for its literary value as a great book.  Christians would say that the Bible is the Word of God and tells us how to get to heaven, or that the Bible tells us God’s will for our life.  Lots of people would say that the Bible has many good moral lessons like love of enemy, care for the poor and marginalized, and other norms dictating good behavior.

If Christians believe that the Bible is a good source of morals, they are faced with the challenge of figuring out how to move from the Scriptural witness to their own moral inquiries.  This is no easy task, and Christian history is full of different ways to answer the question of the relationship between the Bible and ethics.  My fiancé is part of the Church of Christ tradition that has a very handy little system called “Command, Example, Necessary Inference.”  What this means is if the New Testament commands something, you obey (like baptism and the Lord‘s Supper).  In the absence of a command, you follow any provided example (like taking the Lord‘s Supper every Sunday).  And if there is neither, you follow necessary inference (like the use of church buildings).  For issues specifically addressed in the New Testament, Churches of Christ have a pretty coherent way of forming their views, but for issues not found in the New Testament (like surrogate motherhood, for example), their approach can be pretty unsystematic and haphazard.

Other Christians have a “cafeteria approach” to Scripture, keeping what they like and rejecting what they don’t.  You see this in a lot of the more liberal-minded groups that like things like love of enemy, but don’t really think Paul’s condemnation of homosexual behavior is all that relevant or that the Bible’s teaching about divorce should really be taken all that seriously.  This approach has the advantage off avoiding a dogmatic and unilateral approach to Scripture, but it is often quite arbitrary in what it takes seriously from Scripture and what it dismisses.

What both of these approaches have in common is that they look to Scripture for norms or rules about how to behave.  This might be called a deontological approach to Scripture which means that Scripture provides certain duties for those that follow it, and only these duties are relevant to Christian ethics.  As a virtue theorist influenced by Thomas Aquinas, I find such an approach deficient.  Ethics is not just about rules and duties, but also about character and leading a good life.  Virtue theory provides a way of using the Bible for ethics, not just for the derivation of rules, but also for a witness as to what sort of people we are called to be.  The Bible tells us what sort of character Christians should have.

Some people like the idea of using virtue theory to bridge ethics and Scripture because it makes their “cafeteria” approach more systematic.  Such people say something like “the rules in the Bible are not all that important, only the virtues like kindness and justice.”  This approach looks a lot like anti-nomianism, or the rejection of the relevance of rules (anti=against; nomos=laws).  These people tend to want to use Scripture without dealing with the parts dealing with tricky issues like homosexuality, divorce, and women.  They want to say that the overall trajectory of Scripture shows us the sort of people that we should be (kind, tolerant, just, etc.) but the details aren’t all that important.

I don’t fall into this camp.   I think the Bible shows us what sort of character we should have and what sort of virtues form that character, but it also tells us how these virtues are developed.  Aristotle tells us (and Aquinas agrees) that virtues are formed by acting well.  The virtue of justice, for example, is developed by acting justly over a period of time, such that you start doing just acts as a second nature.  But how do we know what just acts are, before we develop the virtue of justice?  One way is by following just people, but another way is by obeying just rules.

Think of a parent raising a child.  If that parent wants the child to be fair, he puts in place certain rules to encourage fairness, like sharing toys or taking turns with fun activities.  What the parent hopes is that eventually, the child will act fairly even when there  are no rules forcing them to, or no person to enforce the rules.  But the child will get to that state only if he obeys the rules about fair activity over and over and over again and by imitating the example of fair people.

Scripture can be thought of in a similar way.  God wants us to be certain people, and he has provided us with commands and examples of people to follow in order to become the people he calls us to be.  For example, he want us to be people who are wise.  Scripture tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  What does acting out of fear of the Lord look like?  It looks like following God’s commands.  For example, in Exodus 9, God commands that all the livestock be brought under shelter to protect them from the coming hailstorm He is sending.  The officials of Pharaoh who fear the Lord obey, and their livestock is saved, but those who do not fear the Lord ignore the command and suffer the consequences.  The rule God gives us is to “obey his commands” and he provides many examples like these servants for us to imitate.

Another examples of what God calls us to be is loving people.  We only become loving people, however, by performing acts of love like taking care of the widow, the resident alien, the orphan, and even our enemies.  We become loving people by not resisting evil, but by “overcoming  evil with good” as Paul tells us in Romans.  These rules are supplemented by examples of loving people, the paradigmatic one being Jesus himself, but also figures like Mary and Paul who are paradigms of love that we can imitate.

If the commands in the Bible must still be taken seriously, one might ask what the difference between a deontological approach to Scripture and a virtue-based approach.  The answer is that a deontological approach to Scripture sees obedience to the rules as an end in itself.  God commanded us to obey, and we do so accordingly.  A virtue-based approach sees the rules as a means to becoming the people that God calls us to be.  The rules are not arbitrary commands of God, but tools that God gives us to develop the sort of character we need to follow him.  If we are successful, we no longer follow the rules out of slavish obedience, but out of love of the Good that is behind the rules.  The goal of virtue theory, unlike a deontological theory, is not just be obedient, but to be good like God is good so that we may no longer be called servants, but friends of God.

At the same time, using a virtue-based approach to Scripture means that  when we come across a contemporary moral problem like in vitro fertilization or global warming, we don’t have to look at Scripture to see what is specifically commanded or what rule can be inferred.  We can also look to Scripture to see what kind of people God is calling us to be and how the dilemma at hand compares.  This will not protect us from diversity in our ethical views (some people may say that using in vitro fertilization is consistent with becoming the sort of person God wants us to be while others will disagree) but it will allow us to take seriously the Scriptural witness for the way we think about ethics without falling into unilateral dogmatism or arbitrary picking and choosing in the process.


2 comments so far

  1. scotts on

    One side has become much more concerned with the life that God wants us to live while the other is focusing on justification of the actions and self praise.

    How can we bring people to Christ when they see cursing, gossip, slander, and drunkenness in their co-workers that claim to be Christians? I fear that many people on this side of the equation now believe tolerance is the same thing as love.

    These other Christians have fallen into the cultural trap promoting tolerance is how we should live. Last time I checked, tolerance isn’t a Christian virtue (1 Corinthians 13). Jesus told us to love one another, not tolerate. Love is so much harder and it yields the perfect results.

  2. everydaythomist on

    I think that anybody who wants to take the Bible seriously for ethics reads with an eye toward justifying their own actions and behaviors. If you’re a “tolerant” person who thinks in relativistic terms about truth and goodness (i.e. do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody), you are likely to find Scripture justifying your own worldview.

    More liberal Christians love to quote 1 Corinthians 13, especially the part about love bearing all things, which they interpret as tolerance. I agree that love is much harder than just tolerance. Thomas Aquinas says that one of the only acts of charity is fraternal correction–calling out a brother or a sister’s wrong in order to make them more perfect (the other act of charity is almsgiving).

    Perhaps we should distinguish “bearing with one another,” which I do think is a Christian virtue, from relativistic tolerance. Bearing with one another means accepting that we are all at different stages of virtue, and some of us will need more help to develop virtue than others. Bearing with one another means that we will be patient with the faults of our neighbor, as well as our own faults, without failing to recognize those faults as needing improvement.

    The reason virtue theory has such an appeal for applying to Scriptural ethics is that all of has have different gifts and there are many different ways to live a godly life through the cultivation of Christian virtues. For example, both Mary and Paul are paradigms of the Christian virtues, but they have very different ways of living out a virtuous life. Mary lives a relatively mundane life caring for Jesus and fulfilling her motherly and wifely duties and probably dying a pretty mundane death. Paul on the other hand travels around Eurasia as a missionary, getting into lots of fights along the way and eventually getting arrested. Both are paradigms of Christian virtue, both are obedient to God’s commands, and both live drastically different lives. What virtue theory tries to do is find continuity in the narratives of these two individuals which we call “virtues” that can be cultivated by Christians today–virtues like patience, zeal, humility, and courage.

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