Virtue in the Bible
Here are some ideas for further study about virtue in the Bible. Each of the following can be done in relative simplicity or, depending on your own theological preparation, as the beginning of an in-depth study.
Idea 1: Old Testament stories of virtue
- Although the texts of the Old Testament are primarily oriented towards God and living in obedience to him, we can also think of the Old Testament in terms of stories around virtue.
- Try to identify virtue and vice in familiar stories. So, for example, faith in Abraham, hope in Moses and love in David. But also look for vices, such as the pride of Haman, the greed of Achan, the lust of Amnon, the envy of Saul, the gluttony of Jacob, the wrath of Cain and the sloth of old Eli.
- This approach is also suitable for teaching children about virtue and vice.
Idea 2: Psalm 15
- The so called ‘wisdom’ literature of the Old Testament is rich in virtue themes.
- Try reading Psalm 15 as a description of virtuous character. How many virtues can you find? How many vices?
Idea 3: Reading Proverbs
- Proverbs is probably the most explicit educational text of the Old Testament and the main concern is to educate in wisdom and goodness, both of which are closely associated with virtue.
- In chapter 2 we find, for example, that “turning your ear to wisdom” has to do with being upright, walking blamelessly and being right, just and fair (Prov 2:7–11). The opposite of wisdom is described as walking in dark ways, doing wrong and being perverted in evil (Prov 8:13, 20).
- In chapter 31, of course, we find the idealised portrait of the wise and virtuous woman.
- Try reading through the Proverbs and underlining the virtues. You will find that those who fear the Lord need to be loving, trustworthy, humble, self-controlled, prudent, just, honest, kind, generous, truthful, gentle, patient, faithful, diligent, lovers of knowledge, zealous and moderate. You will also find that, in order to avoid futility and punishment, we must not be envious, lazy, false, proud, unjust, corrupt, lustful, violent, wrathful, or greedy.
Idea 4: The ten commandments
- The ten commandments in Deuteronomy 5 might appear as a set of rules to obey, but a careful reading shows that they point to the importance of being. If we are who we should be, then we will do what we need to do.
- The person who has no other gods is the person who is faithful. The person who does not use the name of God in vain in making vows is the person who is honest… and so on.
- Can you identify the other virtues that are associated with each of the ten commandments?
Idea 5: Heroes and villains in the New Testament
- The New Testament is a document with religious and spiritual weight, but it is also one of the richest collections of stories of virtue of all times.
- Jesus is magnificent portrait or virtue. We see this, for example, in his humility at baptism, his self-control in temptation and his compassion in healing the sick. Read through the Gospels and make notes of the virtues you see in Jesus.
- Paul is another ‘hero of virtue’ set forth for our imitation. Although he was far from faultless, we see many virtues in him. Try reading through the letters to the Corinthians, and noting his virtues. You will find magnanimity, temperance, constancy and many others.
- Other examples of virtue abound. John the Baptist and courage. Nicodemus and intellectual curiosity. Barnabas and benevolence. Can you find and name others?
- Examples of vice also point us to the villains we do not want to imitate. Herod and envy. Ananias and Sapphira and falsity. Mark and inconstancy. Can you find and name others?
Idea 6: Ethical lists
- A common device in the classical virtue education literature are so-called “ethical lists”. These are catalogues of specific virtues that are listed, recommended or exemplified. These were very popular in ancient literature, and it is notable that the New Testament contains 14 lists of virtues and 8 lists of vices. Here are some that you may want to study in their context.
- Matthew 5-7 (the Beatitudes)
- Gal 5:22–23 (the fruit of the Spirit)
- Col 3:12, 18–25 (the heading is under ‘excellence’ which is the translation of arete, virtue)
- 1 Tim 3; Titus 1 (the qualifications of leaders)
- Mark 7 (the ‘evils that come from inside’)
- Rom 1:29–30 (the wickedness that brings judgment)
- 2 Cor 12 (the vices that tear the church apart)
Idea 7: Virtue in Galatians
- In Galatians 6 we find an eight-fold educational pathway to ‘live by the Spirit’ and bear virtuous fruit. Can you match this list with the verses in this chapter?
- gentle restoration
- carrying each other’s burdens
- having teachers of integrity
- testing actions through self-assessment
- finding legitimate pride in the achievement of good character
- staying away from comparative assessment with others
- receiving instruction by word
- having a specific focus on communities of believers
- How many of these do you recognise in the four stages of this virtue education site?
Idea 7: Virtue in Ephesians
- The key theme of Ephesians in the opening chapter is the “praise of his glorious grace”. As the letter unpacks this, we do not have to look far to recognise the rubric of virtue and vice. Paul, in fact, claims that we were dead in transgressions (vice) and we have been made alive in order to become holy and blameless and to do good works (virtue). For this reason we should live a life worthy of our calling. If we do not live this kind of life, God is grieved. If, instead, we do, he is glorified
- Try reading through this epistle and identify what kind of virtues we need to cultivate to live a life worthy of our calling (for example, a life of humility, gentleness, patience, etc..).
Idea 7: Virtue in Colossians
- Colossians contains a strong message about virtue, as we read of the importance of living a life worthy of the Lord and of pleasing him in every way (1.10). These are inspiring words, but what do they actually mean? How do we do it? Paul’s reply is that we should bear fruit in every good work.
- Read through this epistle and discover what this looks like, starting from the virtue list in 3:18–25.
Idea 8: Virtue in 2 Peter 1:15
- Here we find one of the clearest statements in the entire New Testament about character and virtue.
- Watch the video Add to your faith virtue and then read through the entire epistle to find descriptions of the vices that we are to shun and the associated dangers if we do not.
Idea 9: Romans and living sacrifices
- The exhortation of Romans 12:1 to present our bodies as living sacrifices and to be transformed and renewed in our minds is familiar. What may be less familiar, is that that, from chapter 12-16 Paul describes the virtues that comprise this holy sacrifice.
- Can you find, in these chapters, where Paul talks about the virtues of humility, civility, generosity, diligence, mercy, love, zeal, hope, patience, faith, solidarity, magnanimity, compassion, civility, equity, justice, patience, tolerance, peacefulness, benevolence and constancy?
- Might you rethink of ‘consecration’ along the lines of virtue?
Idea 10: Romans 6 and the recapitulation theory of the atonement
- Romans 6 is a central text that speaks of slavery to sin/vice and righteousness/virtue. It also offers an enriched vision of the atonement.
- Watch the video Virtonment on this chapter.
- Then read this chapter again and make your own notes on what you see and how it relates to the power to make virtue education a reality in your life.
If you have further insights and ideas for Bible studies that relate to virtue, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
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