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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Virtue

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1. The term.-Ἀρετή (translation ‘virtue’ in Philippians 4:8, 2 Peter 1:3; 2 Peter 1:5 [Authorized Version and Revised Version ]; pl. [Note: plural.] ‘virtues’ AVm [Note: Vm Authorized Version margin.] of 1 Peter 2:9) was the common heathen term for ‘moral goodness.’ In this sense it is used in the books of Maccabees. But it was also the Septuagint translation of הוֹד (‘magnificence,’ ‘splendour,’ Habakkuk 3:3, Zechariah 6:13) and תְּהִלָּה (‘glory,’ ‘praise,’ Isaiah 42:12; Isaiah 43:20). In Philippians 4:8 (‘Whatsoever things are true … if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things’) and in 2 Peter 1:5 (‘In your faith supply virtue; and in your virtue knowledge’) the reference is to a human attribute, and the sense is the ordinary classical one of moral excellence possibly coloured with its Septuagint meaning of ‘praiseworthiness.’ (The association of ἔπαινος with ἀρετή in the former passage suggests that this fuller significance is in the writer’s mind; cf. the coupling of ἀρετή with δόξα in 2 Peter 1:2.) J. B. Lightfoot gives us the meaning of ἀρετή in Philippians 4:8, ‘Whatever value may reside in your old heathen conception of virtue’ (Philippians, London, 1878, p. 162). In the other two NT passages (2 Peter 1:3, 1 Peter 2:9) the reference is to an attribute of God or Christ, and the Septuagint senses of ‘glory’ and ‘praise’ are more appropriate. G. A. Deissmann (Bible Studies, Edinburgh, 1901, p. 95 f.) contends that ἀρετή sometimes signifies neither the righteousness nor the praise of God, but the manifestation of His power. He compares 2 Peter 1:3 with an inscription of Stratonicea in Caria belonging to the earliest years of the Imperial period, and considers that in both ἀρετή bears the meaning of ‘marvel.’ ‘Marvellous power’ would well suit the context in 2 Peter 1:3 and 1 Peter 2:9.

2. The Christian conception of virtue.-(a) The motives of Christian virtue, according to the writers of the Apostolic Church, are: (1) the rewards and punishments of God’s moral law (Galatians 6:7; Galatians 6:9, Hebrews 10:26 f., 1 Corinthians 10:1 f. etc.) and of the coming Day of the Lord (Romans 2:5-6, 2 Thessalonians 1:5 f., James 5:7 f., 1 Peter 4:17, etc.); (2) the consciousness of a future life (‘If after the manner of men,’ i.e. from merely human motives, ‘I fought with beasts at Ephesus, what doth it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die’ [1 Corinthians 15:32; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10]); (3) the promise of faith, reinforced by the inspiration of ancient heroes and the general exemplarship of Jesus (Hebrews 11, 12); the example of Jesus is specifically a motive for humility (Philippians 2:5 f.) and generosity (2 Corinthians 8:9); (4) the inspiration of Christian idealism-‘the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3:14), the recognition of a Divine mission (‘Necessity is laid upon me; for woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel’ [1 Corinthians 9:16]); (5) highest of all, the imperative of the love of God (1 Jn., etc.), the constraining love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14)-the dynamic of the ‘unio mystica.’ Virtuous life is the natural fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, etc.); hence also the justification of St. Paul’s emphasis on ‘faith’-communion with the Oversoul: right ‘works’ will proceed from right attitude.

(b) The guiding principle of Christian virtue is the ‘royal law’ (James 2:8)-the loving one’s neighbour as oneself. ‘He that loveth his neighbour hath fulfilled the law’ (Romans 13:8 f., Romans 14:15; Romans 15:1 f; 1 Corinthians 8; 1 Corinthians 10:24, Galatians 5:13, 1 Jn, etc.). The law of brotherly love limits the freedom of action which otherwise might belong to the strong Christian. ‘All things are lawful; but all things are not expedient’ (1 Corinthians 10:23). Virtue must be interpreted not merely in the light of abstract right, but also in the light of brotherly service.

(c) Christian virtue stands in contrast to Stoic virtue, inasmuch as the latter (1) is uninfluenced by immortality, and (2) insists on the suppression of the emotions. ‘The sage will console with them that weep, without weeping with them’ (Seneca, de Clem. ii. 6). The general tendency of Christianity has been to exalt the amiable rather than the heroic qualities.

(d) Asceticism is not a virtue of the NT Church, yet there must be self-mastery and self-restraint. Marriage is lawful and honourable (1 Corinthians 7, Hebrews 13:4), though with its dangers to supreme spiritual service (1 Corinthians 7, Revelation 14:4), but sexual immorality is strongly denounced (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 1 Corinthians 5, etc.). The apostolic insistence upon elementary morality among the Christians is noteworthy. ‘That is a reminder that the churches were composed of converts from heathenism, and lived in the midst of a heathen environment’ (R. Mackintosh, Christian Ethics, London, 1909, p. 63).

(e) The communistic spirit of the early Church created its own set of virtues-mutual hospitality, contribution to the Church’s poor, the ignoring of distinction between rich and poor believers (James 2:1-4). One also notes the stress laid upon loyalty to Church rule (1 Thessalonians 5:13, Hebrews 13:17, Judges 1:17) and avoidance of Church divisions (see article Murmuring). The references to ‘false teachers’ and schismatics are impressively severe.

(f) St. Paul appears to acquiesce in the system of slavery, and the apostolic ideals of womanhood are obviously imperfect. We must distinguish between the detailed virtues of the 1st cent. Church and the master-principle which inspired them. The implications of brotherhood will unfold with the progression of civilization. Christian principles abide, yet ‘New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth’ (J. R. Lowell, The Present Crisis, 171 f.).

Consult, further, the various lists of virtues (Ephesians 4:25; Ephesians 5:3, etc.) and the various duties for special classes-husbands, wives, church officials, women, widows, young men, masters, slaves, etc.

Literature.-W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals8, 2 vols., London, 1888; J. Vernon Bartlet, article ‘Didache,’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) v.; Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics, Edinburgh, 1892; T. B. Strong:, Christian Ethics (BL [Note: L Bampton Lecture.] ), London, 1896; T. B. Kilpatrick, Christian Character, Edinburgh, 1899; J. Butler, Fifteen Sermons (1726), ed. R. Carmichael, London, 1856; J. R. Seeley, Ecce Homo5, do., 1866; L. N. Tolstoy, Religion and Morality, 1894; R. W. Dale, Laws of Christ for Common Life5, London, 1891. For fuller list of authorities see Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics , arc. ‘Ethics and Morality (Christian),’ Literature, sect. 3.

H. Bulcock.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Virtue'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/v/virtue.html. 1906-1918.

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