Is There a Reformed Virtue Ethic?

Editor’s note: This post first appeared in Ad Fontes, a publication of the Davenant Institute.

Is there a reformed virtue ethics? What is being asked here? Since Elizabeth Anscombe’s 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” there has been renewed interest in virtue. Discussing contemporary moral discourse, she says, “Philosophically there is a huge gap, at present unfillable as far as we are concerned, which needs to be filled by an account of human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human ‘flourishing.’”[1] Her essay launches the modern categorization of ethics into deontology (duty-based ethics), consequentialism, and virtue ethics. In doing so, she calls for virtue ethics, and indeed ethics in general, to be based in a philosophy of psychology. She herself is a Catholic Thomist and is pointing to the basis of ethics in the natural law and Aristotelian-Thomistic faculty psychology. This is to say that what we are defines what we should do.

Anscombe’s challenge collected dust while her student Philippa Foot’s work in virtue in the early 70s is largely ignored along with Stanley Hauerwas’s writings in the mid-70s. However, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue then launched the modern virtue ethics movement, which was soon carried further by Foot’s student Rosalind Hursthouse and her students and contemporaries. The movement has expanded to include many varieties of virtue ethics, largely contained within analytic philosophy and increasingly divorced from its heritage in Aristotelian-Thomistic ethics. For this reason, the modern movement has continued to propagate most of the problems Anscombe observed about modern ethical discourse.

What are those problems? Anscombe is initiating a conversation critiquing the lack of natural law ethics in contemporary analytic philosophy. Her language is guarded because, as MacIntyre points out, we have long lost the categories we need to even understand that there is a problem, let alone to diagnose and correct it. Anscombe’s various observations can be summarized in pointing her readers to the falsity of the fact-value distinction, the so called “is-ought” problem, and naturalistic fallacies that stem from denial of human nature as the basis of the natural law, which in turn is the basis of morality. This goes beyond Anscombe’s explicit claims, but for astute Aristotelians, these allusions are clear.

MacIntyre is right to agree with Nietzsche that, in the Enlightenment, ethicists denied the foundations of morality steeped in the Christian Aristotelian tradition while wanting to maintain its precepts. Ethicists such as Hume, Kant, and Mill sought to keep Christian precepts while denying the moral structures that gave them meaning. Without the natural law and Aristotelian “metaphysical biology” to stand on, ethicists attempted to invent new foundations.[2]

What does all this have to do with Reformed virtue ethics? With the natural law foundations long since abandoned, ethical discourse in the anglophone world has largely been focused on solving problems it has invented. Protestant moral theology has had its own rocky history developing in tandem with and greatly influenced by trends in secular philosophy. The result is a twenty-first century modern moral theology that takes its cues as much from secular ethicists as it does from biblical theology. Combined with an overall tendency for modern Protestant theology to distance itself from classical theism and to align itself more with analytic theology, the resulting discourse in Protestant moral theology is as divided as secular ethical discourse. A particular problem in Protestant moral theology is its tendency towards biblicism, which is a modernist chronological snobbery towards our own rich theological heritage.

Protestant moral theology today thus views metaethics with skepticism. Virtue’s rise in popularity among secular ethicists has influenced its rise in popularity among Protestant moral theologians. Since they see virtue through the lens of its modern scholarship, Protestants themselves being reluctant to read anything more than a hundred years old, they gain a skewed view of virtue completely divorced from the natural law tradition.

But in the twenty-first century, there has also been a slowly rising interest among Protestants to return to our roots. Realizing that the chronological snobbery of modern theology leaves us reinventing the wheel and unequipped to handle new trends in culture or academia, many have begun to read further back than Calvin and Luther. Low and behold, many are realizing that they have been sold misconceptions about Thomas Aquinas and the natural law that are worth stripping away in order to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

With the slowly rising interest in classical theism and Thomas Aquinas, Protestants are beginning to discover that our own Christian heritage had once based ethics in the natural law, which itself is based in the eternal law, or providence of God. In short, natural law is the way God designed things to function. It is why men by nature do what the law requires, even if they do not have revelation (Romans 2:12–29). But how does the natural law give rise to ethics?

The natural law gives rise to ethics by first understanding what human nature is and how humans are different from animals. Humans are made in the image of God, and animals are not. What humans have that animals do not is reason, and an effect of having reason is understanding right and wrong, which makes us morally responsible. Our human nature gives rise to a basic understanding of right and wrong revealed by conscience. God made us to function in a certain way, namely according to reason. The life of wisdom is the life of virtue, where virtues are habits or character traits that make a person good. This looks less like a list of rules and more like the fruit of the Spirit. We are told by God not just to do certain things, but to be certain kinds of people, namely Christ-like disciples.

This much is clear in Thomas Aquinas. He takes many of his cues from Aristotle, but he emphasizes the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love of God. These theological virtues can only be acquired by grace freely given by God. The chief end of man is then not simply the life of virtue but union with God, which has virtue as its effect. Aquinas’s emphasis on grace follows in the footsteps of Augustine. While he predates many of the Catholic-Protestant debates surrounding grace and works, his own discussions of virtue, grace, work, and sin may need refining through the lens of reformed theology.

Who among the Protestants has continued this tradition without throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Have there been any Reformers or so who have seriously considered the tradition and how it needs to be adapted in reformed theology? The answer is that Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jonathan Edwards represent the most serious adaptations of Aristotelian virtue ethics within the reformed tradition. How do they see virtue, effort, and habit in light of total depravity? How does disagreeing with the Catholic and Thomistic categories of mortal and venial sin affect our understanding of virtue? When Aquinas says that theological virtues are acquired only by grace, is this similar or different to a Protestant understanding of election and regeneration? Aquinas seems to say that one is judged by the virtue they have and not by penal substitutionary atonement.

Let’s return to our original question: is there a Reformed virtue ethics? In one sense, there must be. A faithful continuation of the Christian virtue tradition will draw much from Aristotle and Aquinas as well as Vermigli and Edwards. But I know of no Reformers or Reformed theologians who have attempted a comprehensive reconstruction of virtue ethics with the scope of Aquinas. Reformed theologians seeking to draw from our own rich tradition will be wise to include Aquinas as part of that tradition. Still, much work needs to be done to reconstruct a reformed virtue ethic that is faithful to the tradition, roots out chronological snobbery, and is thoroughly reformed in its theology. To this end, I hope to discover, along with my students, what Vermigli and Edwards have to offer the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. In the Fall of 2022, I am teaching “Reforming Virtue: Vermigli and Edwards.” Maybe this will be the first step towards a book. There is, of course, good work being done in this area, but we still need a comprehensive reconstruction that is reformed virtue ethics that is faithful to the natural law tradition.

Tim Jacobs is a Lecturer in Philosophy at The Davenant Institute. The course referenced in this post will run from September 26th through December 12th. The syllabus is available here. Register here.

[1] G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33, no. 124 (Jan 1958), 18.

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, 1984, 2007), 58.