@ScotMcKnight Is Right; Jesus Was NOT A Virtue Ethicist

On Jesus Creed earlier today, Scot McKnight wrote up a relatively non-controversial and short post on why he did not believe Jesus was a virtue ethicist: see The Habits of Virtue at Jesus Creed.

In the article McKnight link, research was showing that our willpower has its limits. In contemporary Christian culture, its popular for folks to have studied narrative theology and virtue ethics , much like written by Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre. I agree with Scot, who contended that New Testament ethics was about the development of the moral agent through grace and the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christian ethics starts with Christology + pneumatology, and NOT ecclessiology, which plays a larger role in the Christian life for RadOx theologians. Scot is NOT arguing for an abstract, disembodied form of ethics; on the contrary, if one starts with Jesus and the Holy Spirit (second and third persons of the Trinity), one cannot help but talk about embodiedness!

Virtue ethics frames its ethics based on communal formation; Christ, however, as the Logos comes in the form of a demand, a burden on us in every situation. The Word as Duty has its theological founding in the words of the prophets; just as YHWH is duty bound to the divine promise, so are human beings in right relationship with God bound (by covenant). Theologically, as I am working back with Clement of Alexandria and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Logos (CoA)/the Word (DB) encounters the faithful and works to create us into responsible subjects before God and between us and our neighbors. Talking about the role of the church and its pedagogical benefits is good, but this type of conversation when it comes to moral action definitely has its limits. The trend towards virtue ethics does not take into consideration (or does not like to) issues relating to power within the community. Christian ethics is quite a complex topic, but I am now leaning more towards a pneumatological + deontological (duty/law) way of thinking about things.

What say you? Is virtue ethics (even with some talk of Spirit/Grace) a helpful way to talk about Christian ethics?

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10 thoughts on “@ScotMcKnight Is Right; Jesus Was NOT A Virtue Ethicist

  1. Jeremy McLellan

    I’m not sure what it means for Jesus to be a virtue ethicist, but I am. The linked pieces make it sound like “virtue” is separate from the preparation and structure aimed at making you a certain type of person, but that’s what MacIntyre and Hauerwas spend most of their time talking about. This is why pacifism is so important to me, and why I generally refuse to answer questions about “what would you do if…” because (like Ta-Nehisi Coates said in “On Being Armed”) it’s not like the gun automatically arrives in your hand when someone breaks in. You have to buy it, train with it, and practice killing people. You have to be able to make a decision in less than 5 seconds about whether someone is a threat or a lost kid walking into the wrong house (me). That’s no longer “Jeremy” but “armed Jeremy.”

    The same applies to other “quandary” ethics. Should you lie if a Nazi asks you where the Jews are hidden? Sure, but should you practice lying and get really good at it? Bonhoeffer would say the blame for the lie falls on the Nazi, which might help explain why such a pacifist was willing to kill Hitler–the blame would fall on Hitler. Still, Bonhoeffer didn’t know which end of the gun to point. If he had, I don’t know if he would have still been Bonhoeffer.

    Hauerwas himself declares “The Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus’ ‘ethic’. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus.” To boot, the Sheriff of Nottingham himself said the following in “The World Made Strange” when critiquing Niebuhr’s “realism”:

    The trouble about questions like ‘Could Christians find [nuclear weapons] acceptable if allied to a no first use agreement?’ is that they are not really questions about the actual world at all, and therefore do not deal with genuine possibilities…It is as if one was suddenly not talking about a United States which had systematically built up a nuclear arsenal as part of its program of imperial expansion, nor about a Soviet Union which had done the same in the interests of defending its existing empire. But it is these political realities that were the real ethical problems.”

    There you have it. RadOx grand-wizard himself saying that the “real ethical problem” is the preparation. If, as Bonhoeffer and even RadOx theologians say, reality is a participation in the life of Christ, then his ethical demands are not separate from Christology, discipleship, or (dare I say it) theosis.

    1. RodtRDH Post author

      But really, does existence arrive at us in a way where we are prepared to face its challenges? That we will be able to call upon of its virtues and practices at any given moment? I don’t think life is that neat. Our decisions don/t make us into peaceable people, nor does our education, as helpful as they are. The multiple identities and communities that call us into responsibility have a diversity of duties and expectations: the church, the state, the local city, schools, the family. I don’t think virtue ethicists take seriously this diversity.

      1. Jeremy McLellan

        It’s precisely because life is really complex and situations arise “in medias res” that virtue is so important. If you’re primarily concerned about sins or good deeds (which are essential, of course) you’ll often find yourself within webs of systemic injustice and evil but unable to clearly say where the error is. By then it’s too late. Is owning a cache of AR-15s a “sin”? Maybe….but is it participating in a deforming system of violence? Definitely. And why do you say that our decisions don’t make us into peaceable people? How does one become nonviolent, if not by practicing nonviolence?

        1. RodtRDH Post author

          Peace first comes through the Prince of Peace first, and the Spirit of Peace who the God of Peace, the Trinity sends to the Elect/Church/the Faithful. It’s only in the Praxis of the Godhead that we come to know nonviolence. Yes we can choose to follow this God as part of our choice, but I say unto thee, it is God’s Choice, Election, that Christian theology & ethics starts, and that is Jesus, 2nd person in the Trinity.

  2. Charles

    Sorry to be late to the party, but start-of-semester life makes things hectic.

    My work in psychology has been strongly influenced by Christian virtue thought (Nancey Murphy, Ellen Charry, NT Wright, etc). I would disagree that virtue ethics begins with the community (ecclesiology). Virtue ethics begins with the telos; what end state are we to develop toward? And the overall structure of teleological thought is an examination of our current state in comparison to the telos, and an examination of ways and means of moving from our current state toward the telos. For Christians, the telos is twofold: the “proximate” telos is Christlikeness, and the “ultimate” telos is the glory of God (see Q1 of the Westminster Catechism). So Christian virtue ethics begins with Christology. The “ways and means” of growth in virtue is the ongoing sanctifying act of the Holy Spirit, with responsible human agency worked in there somewhere (interdenominational variability abounds, but even the Reformed types have human cooperation with the Holy Spirit as an essential component of sanctification). So the second major component of Christian virtue ethics is pneumatology.

    So Christian virtue ethics IS “the development of the moral agent through grace and the Holy Spirit”.

    Ecclesiology is an essential component of teleological growth, because the virtues are defined in the context of a community’s attempts to understand the telos, and virtuous growth occurs through participation in socially-embedded practices. But “becoming the Church” is not itself the central concept.

    And because shameless self-promotion is best self-promotion, I will now cite myself:
    Murphy, N., & Hackney, C. H. (2011). An interview with Nancey Murphy: Constructing an Anabaptist vision of ideal psychological functioning. Edification: The Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology, 4, 73-78.
    Hackney, C. H. (2010). Sanctification as a source of theological guidance in the construction of a Christian positive psychology. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 29, 195-207.
    Hackney, C. H. (2010). Positive psychology and Vanhoozer’s theodramatic model of flourishing. Edification: The Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology, 4, 24-27.
    Hackney, C. H. (2007). Possibilities for a Christian positive psychology. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 35, 211-221.

  3. Optimistic Chad

    So, I totally think Jesus was teaching virtue ethics in the Sermon on the Mount. Going beyond simply relying on the spirit in every situation, to instead, using the spirits promptings to become the sort of community in which these practices become normative. This contrasts with simply trying really hard to do the right thing, and sometimes succeeding, but being forgiven (not perfect, yay!) when we fail… Jesus may not have been ONLY a virtue ethicist, but he certainly didn’t spiritualize everything either, citing himself as the second person of the trinity as the reason he made decisions. And his pneumatology wasn’t really a driving factor in his teachings, either. You sure you aren’t talking about Paul, not Jesus?


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