Notions of Virtue

Graeco-Roman philosophy cataloged their perception of what constituted vices and virtues. Unsurprisingly, the New Testament lists of virtues, fruit of the Spirit, and characteristics of love show considerable overlap with those ancient pagan lists.

Pagan Notions

Because across cultures and religions, we share a lot of common ideas of what a nasty folk look like and what a good soul looks like. But you might find it interesting that some of what we might consider top-ten virtues don’t make it on those ancient lists. Indeed, the classical world may have positively sniffed in disdain at some of what we find in the New Testament lists.

A lot of that has to do with what kind of gods you worship. If you worship idols of silver and gold, you’ll finesse your lists of vices and virtues to favor your socio-religious aspirations. That holds true whether your silver and gold is hammer into graven images or coined and banked to become portable—or even electronic—Mammon. If you worship belligerent and bellicose gods of war and conquest, you’ll beat your list into a veritable manifesto for national and even personal conquest. And it will come as no surprise that a people who worship the Son of God, who humbled himself and took on the form of a servant, might have a different set of priorities than folk who worship Nergal or Anat, Odin or Wöden, Nike or Mars, or even at the altars of Rome’s imperial cult or of American Might.

So let’s see what the New Testament teaches about what a proper list of vices and virtues might look like. To do that, we’ll begin with the foundational principle of anything like this, then we’ll look at some New Testament lists.

Vineyards, Vines, and Fruit

Since we’re talking about fruit, it might be a good thing to start with the biblical imagery of vine and fruit and branch out from there. We could begin way back in the Old Testament with a careful explanation for what it meant for Israel to be the Lord’s planting as vine and vineyard, which is the background for Jesus’s parables of the vineyard and tenants. Israel is a vine brought up out of Egypt and nurtured in the wilderness (Ps 80:8-14; Ezek 17:5-10; 19:10-14; Hos 14:7). This vineyard is destroyed by divine judgment and at the hands of bad leaders (Isa 5:1-10). This is background for Jesus’s parables (Matt 13:1-9; 21:19, 33-44). And all of this is background of Jesus’s parables and vine and vineyard and about good and bad fruit.

Life in the Vine

Jesus announced the principle that drives Paul’s talk about the fruit of the Spirit. It’s remaining attached to the vine, staying connected to the vital source of all spiritual life. Jesus said,

I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1–5)

Here’s Jesus’s exhortation echoes the Old Testament teaching about Israel being God’s vine and vineyard, which God himself cultivates. Jesus uses that imagery to tell us where the root and stalk of Christian discipleship is to be found.

And looking forward, Jesus draws on what will become an important New Testament theme, which is union with Christ. It’s be virtue of our union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection that we experience sin’s atonement, justification, adoption. It’s by virtue of our union with Christ that we are counted as heirs and coheirs of the kingdom of God now and into eternity.

Good versus Bad Fruit

Just as Paul contrasts what the sinful life in the “flesh” produces with what life in the Spirit produces, Jesus talked of good and bad fruit.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. (Matt 7:15–20)

Here Jesus speaks of being wary of false prophets who don’t produce the fruit of righteousness. And again, Jesus echoes the Old Testament metaphor of the Lord as the vineyard keeper, and of Israel as the vineyard chastised by God’s judgment.

In the same context, Jesus goes on to speak about distinguishing true and false disciples (vv. 21-23) and of solid and weak foundations (vv. 24-27). Of course, the solid foundation is Christ, just as he is the vine to which we must all remain attached.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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