In 2 Peter 1:5-7, Peter urges his readers to make every effort to add to their faith virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love.
All of those seem pretty straightforward, except perhaps one: Virtue.
How Does Peter Understand “Virtue”?
“Virtue” seems like a pretty broad term, and one that different people might define in different ways.
However, keep in mind that Peter is writing to people throughout Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). This is stated explicitly in 1 Peter 1:1: “To those…in…Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” These are the historical regions of Asia Minor, which at this time was a predominately Greek-speaking, Hellenized region. Hellenization wasn’t only about the Greek language, it also included the proliferation of Greek social norms and philosophical ideas.
Greek philosophy included the thoughts and writings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the most influential and prominent stream of Greek philosophy being Stoicism.
The Stoics were very focused on the idea of “virtue” and held that there are four “cardinal virtues”: Wisdom, Morality, Courage, and Moderation.
Keeping this historical and cultural setting in mind, it would seem that when Peter uses the word “virtue,” he does so with the expectation that his readers will associate that with the Greek philosophical teachings on virtue, particularly that of the Stoics.
Without Faith, Virtue Avails Nothing
It is significant that Peter speaks of “adding” or “supplementing” your faith with virtue. In other words, faith in Jesus and his finished work is the baseline upon which we are encouraged to add these virtues.
So, while Peter is affirming that the Stoics were right that these virtues are good, to have these virtues apart from faith in Jesus will avail you nothing before God. These virtues might help you in life and in relationship with other people, but they will not do anything to improve your standing before God.
CS Lewis on Virtue: the Bible vs. the Stoics
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.
You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love.
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
This week Mike and I sat down to discuss this question of what it means to add virtue to your faith for our weekly Sermon Extra video series: