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The Ladder Of Virtues

Let us then look at the list of virtues which have to be added one to another. it is worth noting that in the ancient world such lists were common. It was a world in which books were not nearly so cheap and so readily available as they are today. Instruction, therefore, had for the most part to be carried in the pupil's head; and easily memorized lists were one of the commonest ways of inculcating instruction. One ingenious way of teaching the child the names of the virtues was by means of a game played with counters which could be won or lost, each of which bore the name of one of the virtues. Lists of virtues were common in the early Christian writings. Paul gives us the fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control ( Galatians 5:22-23 ). In the Pastoral Epistles the man of God is bidden to follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness ( 1 Timothy 6:11 ). In The Shepherd of Hermas (Visions 3.8.1-7), faith, self-control, simplicity, innocence and reverence, understanding and love are daughters one of another. In the Epistle of Barnabas (2) fear and endurance are the helpers of faith; patience and self-control are our allies; and when these are present a man can develop and possess wisdom, prudence, understanding and knowledge. Let us look one by one at the stages in the list which this letter gives us.

(i) It begins with faith (pistis, Greek #4102 ); everything goes back to that. For Peter faith is the conviction that what Jesus Christ says is true and that we can commit ourselves to his promises and launch ourselves on his demands. It is the unquestioning certainty that the way to happiness and peace and strength on earth and in heaven is to accept him at his word.

(ii) To faith must be added what the Revised Standard Version calls virtue and we have called courage. The word is arete ( Greek #703 ); it is very rare in the New Testament but it is the supreme Greek word for virtue in every sense of the term. It means excellence. It has two special directions in which its meaning moves. (a) Arete ( Greek #703 ) is what we might call operative, or efficient excellence. To take two examples of its usage from widely differing spheres--it can be used of land which is fertile; and it can be used of the mighty deeds of the gods. Arete ( Greek #703 ) is that virtue which makes a man a good citizen and friend; it is that virtue which makes him an expert in the technique of living well. (b) Arete ( Greek #703 ) often means courage. Plutarch says that God is a hope of arete ( Greek #703 ), not an excuse for cowardice. In 2 Maccabees we read of how Eleazar died rather than be false to the laws of God and his fathers; and the story ends by saying that he left his death for an example of noble courage (arete, Greek #703 ) and a memorial of virtue, not only to young men, but also to all the nation ( 2 Maccabees 6:31 ).

In this passage it is not necessary to choose between these two meanings; they are both there. Faith must issue, not in the retirement of the cloister and the cell, but in a life effective in the service of God and man; and it must issue in the courage always to show whose it is and whom it serves.

(iii) To courage must be added knowledge. The word is gnosis ( Greek #1108 ). In ethical Greek language there are two words which have a similar meaning with a very significant difference. Sophia ( Greek #4678 ) is wisdom, in the sense of "knowledge of things both human and divine, and of their causes." It is knowledge of first causes and of deep and ultimate things. Gnosis ( Greek #1108 ) is practical knowledge; it is the ability to apply to particular situations the ultimate knowledge which sophia ( Greek #4678 ) gives. Gnosis ( Greek #1108 ) is that knowledge which enables a man to decide rightly and to act honourably and efficiently in the day to day circumstances of life. So, then, to faith must be added courage and effectiveness; to courage and effectiveness must be added the practical wisdom to deal with life.

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