In the Bible there are several famous virtue lists. A virtue list is exactly what is sounds like, a list of positive traits in sequence as a description of the good life.
Here are some examples:
- 2 Peter 1:5-7
- Galatians 5:22-23
- James 3:17-18
I have some theses that might help us interpret the virtue lists in the New Testament.
- The virtue lists are meant to be over-interpreted
There is a time and a place for lengthy ethical argument, and in several places the New Testament engages in this (with respect to items of ritual usually in Hebrews, Romans, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians). But usually, in the New Testament, general ethical principles are usually assumed rather than explained. This makes sense because the people to whom the New Testament was written would have been taught Christian ethics at length in other settings. The letters were meant to convince the audiences of particular ideas or at least to revive consciousness amongst the churches of the love the apostles had for them. Because the lists are examples of rhetoric and not dialectic (in Aristotle’s parlance), they are almost certainly meant to be “hooked-in” to more direct teaching about Christian character which happened orally. In other words: the virtue lists are meant to be over-interpreted, insofar as a minimal possible meaning is not sufficient for lists appearing in such a context.
- There are limits to this over interpretation or, look for part of the “why” this virtue appeared around the place it appeared.
The virtue lists are limited in meaning by the context in which they appear and the apparent milieu of the author/original audience of the letter. But that doesn’t mean that the individual words are limited to one technical meaning.
- The lists are hooks for hanging Biblical festoons
In early Christianity, there was a great deal of oral tradition at work. Think about it. There were Old Testament quotations, Jesus stories, Jesus sayings, apostolic sayings, second temple rabbinic sayings and so-on. If it is true that this was the case (it is) and that the teaching efforts of early Christian leaders were as in-depth as Acts 20:7-9 indicates, then it would appear that all of the above Biblical background is intentionally being called to mind with virtue lists of this sort. We cannot always know, with certainty, which stories, Proverbs, or extended themes are being called to mind. But the more familiar we are with the Old Testament, the Deuterocanonical books (they’re in the Old Testament if you’re not Protestant), and the four gospels, then the more the lists can do their duty by calling to mind moral exemplars and failures in the Bible.
- Mediterranean moralists matter
Similarly, the background of some words in these lists is best found in the works of Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Quintilian, and so-on. Such ancient moralists and rhetoricians often explained the virtues in exacting detail in terms of individual psychological states and social ramifications. While the apostles or their churches may not have been thinking explicitly in such terms, they were part of the culture that these writers were trying to describe and that these authors influenced.
- Such lists are hooks for contemporary application
Finally, these lists are meant to be explained and recalled not only in terms of the fullness of their meaning, but in terms of their contemporary application. If somebody memorized the fruit of the Spirit, they would almost certainly have thought of that list in terms of the character of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus about love, the importance of being peaceable amongst brothers, and the cruciality of self-denial. But they also would have thought of the list in terms of how to behave today and tomorrow and how to plan ahead to have such character traits.
Example: Self-Control (Galatians 5:23)
- Paul encourages self-control to people who are confused about the nature of the Old Testament Law and its relationship to the gospel message. Ultimately, Paul says that the highest part of the Old Testament Law (love your neighbor) is a central part of gospel teaching and therefore Christians who do not obey the other Old Testament laws regarding food, ceremony, and civil jurisprudence still can be said to fulfill the law. So, Paul points out that one of the results of living in line with the gospel message (fruit of the Spirit) is self-control. Paul does this for two reasons:
- He really thinks that living in line with his teaching and with a group of believers will/does result in self-control.
- He wishes to remind them that self-control is worthy to be sought and obtained.
- In terms of the Old Testament and later traditions, self-control goes all the way back to the story of Cain and Abel, wherein the Lord tells Cain that he must master sin, lest it consume him. King David was both a paragon of self-control in his dealings with Saul and a failure in his dealings with Uriah and Bathsheba. Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and the later wisdom tradition all give encomiums to the self-controlled individual. Here is an example, “…greater is he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. (Proverbs 16:23)”
- It goes without saying that a great deal of Stoic writing was about the importance of self-control, the only source was one’s mind and will and the only goals were personal contentment and city-state harmony. For the Christian, the ground and goal are God, but this does not mean that the Stoic reflections have nothing instructive within them. In fact, Aristotle makes self-control itself the central trait for becoming a functional person.
- Next, when thinking through all of these angles, start thinking through the contemporary ramifications of having no self-control (look up statistics on hours spent watching Television, calories eaten, pornography watched, and so-on). One might also think of which Old Testament persona he or she wishes to emulate in the face of these temptations. Similarly, one might imagine a community in which everybody exhibited a behavior and ask whether or not that community would be pleasing to God’s Spirit. We might even then begin to think about which circumstances to avoid in order to prevent temptation due to weak self-control and what exercises of self-denial, prayer, and confession might help us to increase in this most central of virtues.
The virtue lists serve a variety of rhetorical and dialectical functions, but their main function is to help Christians obtain Christ-likeness through the provision of abstract traits with multiple specific applications.