If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love – You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.
The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.
C.S. Lewis, from The Weight of Glory
Today is the birthday of Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
When a man dies, many things are said about him. The sayings tend to sum-up his life, but the crowning comment of all is always “He was a good man.” Well what does that mean? In one way or another, it means he was virtuous. Virtue has been defined many ways over the ages, but it’s important to understand one main thing –
Virtue is about deeds.
A man’s thoughts and feelings are sometimes noble but his life is defined by his actions. Jesus said the sum of our life will be whether we loved God without reservation and whether we loved our neighbor as ourselves. If our aim is to glorify God, our method is to become more and more Christ-like through the power of the Holy Spirit. In his masterwork Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas wrote
“God Himself is the rule and mode of virtue. Our faith is measured by divine truth, our hope by the greatness of His power and faithful affection, our charity by His goodness. His truth, power and goodness outreach any measure of reason.”
Love is the source of every real virtue. As C.S. Lewis said, it’s more than unselfishness because unselfishness is about how good I am. Love is about emptying the self for the good of another.
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
D I G D E E P E R
Theological Virtues by Raphael 1507
Three plates representing the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Set of three engravings from small grisaille paintings by Raphael. These paintings were made in 1507 and formed the predella (lower section) of an altarpiece by Raphael for the Baglione family in Perugia, the central panel of which showed the Deposition of Christ (Rome, Galleria Borghese). The three predella sections are now in the Vatican Gallery.
This English term, meaning “moral excellence,” is rarely used in modern Bible versions, but it occurs in the KJV as the rendering of Greek aretē (Phil. 4:8; 2 Pet. 1:3, 5; the KJV uses it also to translate dynamis, “power,” referring to Jesus’ miraculous ability in Mk. 5:30; Lk. 6:19; 8:46). In a few OT passages, the KJV uses “virtuous woman” to render the Hebrew phrase ʾēšet-ḥayil, which literally means “woman of power” and indicates competence or noble character (Ruth 3:11; Prov. 12:4; 31:10; cf. 31:29, “virtuously”).
Among Greek moralistic writers, especially the STOICS, the term aretē was used very frequently to indicate the highest good, the social uprightness that evokes recognition, merit, and honor. Both PAUL and PETER employ this term in lists of positive moral traits (Phil. 4:8 and 2 Pet. 1:5; the focus is different in 1 Pet. 2:9 [a pl. translated “praises” by the NIV and “mighty acts” by the NRSV] and 2 Pet. 1:3 [referring to God and usually translated “goodness,” but possibly meaning “power”]). Some scholars argue that the word in these lists must convey the meaning it has in Greco-Roman writings, especially in the numerous catalogs of positive and negative traits of behavior referred to as “virtue-vice lists” (cf. ABD, 6:857–59). Undoubtedly, the language used by the apostles reflects the world in which they lived, but given the Christian context, it is difficult to believe that they were merely asking their readers to conduct themselves like well-behaved Greeks. The word rather signifies the moral excellence distinctive of those who have been cleansed from their sins: it builds on faith and generates godliness and love (2 Pet. 1:5–9; cf. also the detailed discussion in P. T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC , 499–507).
Sources & Resources
Moisés Silva and Merrill Chapin Tenney, The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Q-Z (Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 2009), 1032–1033.