WHY STUDY THE VIRTUES AND VICES?
"Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue" (2 Peter 1:5)
When we are baptized into Christ we are made a new creation. We are given the power and grace to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit and through the gifts of the Spirit. This grace enables us to grow in goodness through the moral virtues. Godly virtue proceeds from faith. God gives us all the strength and grace we need to live and grow as his beloved children. Grace for change and transformation in Christ will not happen without our cooperation. As the Apostle Peter says, we must “make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5). What is virtue? And why should parents, educators, and all Christians make every effort to understand the need for growth in virtue and character formation?
Virtue was long recognized by both Christian and pagan teachers as a keystone to life and civilization.1 Origen, the second century Christian teacher from Alexandria, wrote: "Genuine transformation of life comes from reading the ancient Scriptures, learning who the just men and women were and imitating them." He also stated the reverse of this lesson, namely that we can grow in virtue by "learning who were reproved and guarding against falling under the same censure."
The idea of acquiring virtue by imitating the noble example of others was a simple but profound truth which was recognized in Greek and Roman antiquity. Seneca wrote: "Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages ...derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. The way is long if one follows precepts, but short and accommodating if one imitates examples." Long before Seneca Aristotle taught: "We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts." Aristotle showed that the pursuit of virtue was indissolubly bound to deeds, and that good actions are not simply the end towards which one strives, but the means to reach the goal. A virtuous life is only possible through the repeated performance of good deeds. Plutarch recognized that "a slight thing, like a phrase or a jest" often revealed more of character than "battles where thousands fall." Character has more to do with constancy and steadiness than sheer displays of bravery or courage.
While the Scriptures taught precepts, they were often buttressed by examples. Joseph is a model of patience and long-suffering as he endured mistreatment by his brothers and slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37ff). Job is a model of perseverance (or steadfastness) in the face of calamity and testing (James 5:11). Abraham is a model of faith in following the call of the Lord and in his obedience to sacrifice his son (Hebrews 11:8). Joshua is a model of courage and determination in fighting through obstacles to achieve God's will. Elijah is a model of a righteous man who has power in prayer (James 5:17). The book of Hebrews, chapter II, gives a roster of men and women of faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahad, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.
"Go and do likewise"
Jesus in the gospels often spoke of living persons as examples: Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus with costly perfume, the centurion whose slave was at the point of death, a certain poor widow who had offered a farthing. Jesus also gave examples in his stories and parables and sometimes ended with the exhortation: "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). Paul was bold enough to take himself as a model for his fellow Christians: "I urge you, then, be imitators of me." The supreme model is the Lord Jesus himself. "I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done" (John 13:15). Paul himself said: "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ" (I Corinthians 11:1). Clement of Alexandria wrote at the end of the second century: "Our tutor Jesus exemplifies the true life and trains the one who is in Christ. He gives commands and embodies the commands that we might be able to accomplish them."
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in the early 400s, identified all virtue with the person of Christ himself:
“Now we require many virtues, and from these virtues we advance to virtue itself. What virtue, you inquire? I reply: Christ, the very virtue and wisdom of God. He gives diverse virtues here below, and he will also supply the one virtue, namely himself, for all of the other virtues which are useful and necessary in this vale of tears.”2Palladius, a Christian writer in the fifth century, wrote at the beginning of his Lausiac History: "Words and syllables do not constitute teaching. ..Teaching consists of virtuous acts of conduct. ..This is how Jesus taught. ..He did not use fine language...he required the formation of character." [Go to "Character Formation"]