4. Natural Good and Moral Good part 3


We continue looking at virtues through Bavincks lens.  These are some verses he quotes.  The words moral excellence translated by ἀρετή aretē in the followings verses is important for the discussion so be aware of this before looking at what is said after the Bible quotations

8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. Philippians 4:8

5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, 2 Peter 1:5


9 But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light; 1 Peter 2:9  (NASB)

Herman Bavinck the master theologian then gives a definition of virtue and what is preferred in the New Testament.

“But in Christian circles many prefer to speak of “goodworks” rather than

1.     “virtues” because the Latin word virtus (from vir=”man”) and the Greek αρετη (from  Αρης) were pagan in origin and meaning;

2.     Holy Scripture uses the term infrequently; and

3.     doing so preserves a terminological distinction between non-Christian (Philosophical) ethics and Christian ethics” from page 159 Herman Bavinck Reformed Ethics.


Herman has started the end section for ‘virtue’.  He is starting now to drill down into the meaning.  It is interesting what he says here but my question is why is αρετη used infrequently in the New Testament?

Bavinck really understood the issues here.  The root of the word comes from the god of war Ares!  It was part of the local language at the time and Paul and Peter used it without a problem but not too often.  It is only found five times in the New Testament.  Obviously, Bavinck thinks that theologians should use it in terms of pagan philosophy, and ‘good works’ for Christian works.  I don’t actually see why this has to be the case.  Not any one culture can claim language for themselves.  It is public knowledge, and this is how we communicate. However, the term ‘good works’ is used a lot in the New Testament, and this in itself is sufficient for its use by Christian theologians.



In older texts, the feminine noun αρετη (arete) appears to have denoted excellence of any kind but mostly of manly qualities (comparable to the Latin word virtus). Plato used it to convey moral excellence and virtue, and later authors ascribed the plural of αρετη (arete) to gods, in the meaning of glorious deeds, wonders, miracles.


The Septuagint uses αρετη (arete) to translate some instances of הוד (hod, meaning splendor or majesty) and תהלה(tehilla, meaning praise).


In the New Testament it occurs 5 times; 5 see full concordance. In 1 Peter 2:9 it occurs in plural and is commonly translated with excellencies or praises. In 2 Peter 1:3-5 it’s commonly translated with moral excellence or virtue. On this occasion it appears juxtaposed with δοξα (doxa), meaning “glory” or excellent reputation.


Paul uses this word in Philippians 4:8, where he writes, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” From


A) For Calvin according to Bavinck, wherever the virtues are located in the will or somewhere else such as the affections, it does not make any difference.  The Fall happened and the virtues have been corrupted but not completely lost but still corrupted. Paul in Romans for example says,

14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, Romans 2:14-15 NASB

For Philosophers Bavinck says “They know nothing about the fall, about the corruption of our nature, about the need for regeneration. All their ideas about virtue and duty are splendid. “but they lack the foundation; they are a body without a head.” Reformed Ethics page 160.

B) The norms of virtue “but they (the philosophers) tried to derive these from nature, or reason, or the conscience, so that it was always a standard inherent in nature. Christian morality, however, has the perfect revealed law of God as its standard.”  Reformed Ethics page 160.

C) “The goal of philosophical virtues is always situated within this life…”  Reformed Ethics page 160.  Christian ethics goes beyond this life…  So for the philosophers virtues starts and ends with the person.  Christian ethics is beyond us as Bavinck says “By contrast, Christian ethics is not utilitarian, but directs everything to glorify God. It sees glorifying God as the goal of our lives.” Reformed Ethics page 160.

In his summary then concerning the spiritual matters, knowledge, will and ability have been completely lost.  Then his next statement; ‘in moral and civil matters, in temporal earthly matters, knowledge will, and ability have been weakened’ So here there are temporal rewards but not eternal.  The foundation of the philosophers then for Bavinck are built on wrong premises.  For Bavinck Scripture has a high moral ideal.


So, then we have looked at the virtues and we have learned that God has high moral standards and outside of Jesus Christ it is impossible to meet that spiritual high point.  In the natural without God humans can reach very high standards from a temporal perspective with temporal rewards.  The higher virtues can only be reached through the second Adam (Jesus Christ).  The goal of the Christian as Bavinck said is to glorify God not glorify ourselves. 


Let us now move into the 21 century and how the virtues are today.  Utilitarian philosophies are the in thing at the moment.  Everyone has been trying to save money.  One area, in hospitals for example is to screen women and if there is an abnormality (down syndrome) to have an abortion.  Because a person learns at a slower speed does that mean they are not a person?  Even one does not believe in God there is evidence that early man (neanderthal) looked after their own.  We have the latest science and in order to save money, allow death to reign.  What sort of society are we then?

I suppose that the Coronavirus is a reminder that we are not in control and as a society money is not the be and end of everything.  Utilitarianism can help but it needs to be tinged with mercy (Sometimes for the greater good it is ok for society to lose money). 

Anyhow I went away and had a closer look at utilitarianism and one of its goals is to look out for ‘the greatest good for the greatest number ‘of people. It is pure reason, analytical. Its logical conclusion can have some ludicrous conclusions. There are four people in hospital.

One has a heart problem, second one has a kidney problem, the third one has a lung problem and the fourth one needs a new liver.  A healthy person walks into the hospital, he has all the organs needed.  So, he gives his life so that four people can leave hospital.  Obviously in this scenario utilitarianism collapses.  Taken from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FrZl22_79Q&t=106s

For Christians there is the moral aspects.  Just because something is logical doesn’t make it right.  This type of philosophy is used a lot in the business world including hospitals because they make decisions on a daily basis that can affect which patient is going to die.  There are other philosophies that are also taken from the natural realms, it is good that Herman Bavinck has made us aware of virtues. 


Everything we have looked at over the last few lessons have shown the fallen nature of humanity.  Every aspect of our human nature has in some way moved away from the image of God.  Our mind, intellect, will, passions everything has moved away.  If it wasn’t for God’s grace in the world everything would have been lost.  As in Adam all have sinned so in the second Adam (Jesus Christ) all will be made alive.  Let us not forget the three beautiful theological virtues of faith, hope and love.


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