virtues browsing by tag


The Principle of Christian Excellencies

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Aristotle’s Principle of Human Excellencies looks for the “excellencies” or “virtues” proper to life.  Human artifacts, he explains, have distinctive purposes.  A pen, for example, is for writing; a lamp, for lighting; a knife, for cutting.  And when you know the purpose of any artifact, you also know how to tell whether it is a good or bad one.  A knife with a strong blade is better than one with a weak blade.  So is a knife with a handle that gives us a sure, comfortable grip better than one with a handle that does not.  You could call a strong blade and a sure grip “excellencies” proper to a knife.

Aristotle asked, “What is the purpose of a human being?”  He believed this was something called eudaimonia, a Greek work usually translated  “happiness” but better understood as total well-being.  To Aristotle, eudaimonia is what all of us are striving for.  Therefore, he defined things such as a well-ordered life not given to extremes, loyalty, generosity, honesty, kindness, and anything else that might lead to total well-being as “excellencies” or “virtues.”

What is the purpose of a human being from a Christian point of view?  Ephesians 2:10 reads, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  According to Paul, we were renewed in Christ to walk in good works.  Christians were put on earth to make it a better place.  We are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Mt. 5:13-16).  Like our Master, we came not to be served but to serve (Mt. 20:26-28).  Every day we should be using our talents and opportunities to improve the quality of others’ lives.  Ultimately this means sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  What good does it do to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and comfort the bereaved if we do not help them find salvation in Christ?  Everything takes a back seat to the soul.

Taking a cue from Aristotle, we ask, “What qualities should Christians be cultivating in their lives?”  In other words, what are some excellencies or virtues proper to Christian life?  Peter gives this sample list:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  (2 Peter 1:5-7)

Where did Peter come up with that list?  These attributes are nothing more than virtues proper to Christian life.  Things like self-control and brotherly affection are virtuous for Christians because they help us fulfill our purpose of walking in good works.  Peter continues, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).  Christians cannot be truly fruitful unless they grow in the virtues Peter lists.  A pen without ink is not a good pen.  A lamp without a bulb is not a good lamp.  A knife with a dull blade is not a good knife.  And a Christian who does not possess things like compassion, love, and forbearance is not a good Christian.  Call it the Principle of Christian Excellencies.

A lot of the things that consume our time in our churches and in our homes are good things, but they do not cultivate virtues proper to our role as Christians.  We need to prioritize.  Of first importance are those things that will help us become better at fulfilling our purpose as the workmanship of God.  The hundreds of other good things we like to do have a place, but they should never come first.  We must never forget why we’re here.