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Can virtue be taught? What I mean is: are virtues objective, real objects of knowledge that we can both know and teach like mathematics or biology? If we say no, then ethics may be seen to belong only to an esoteric knowledge known only by revelation, group consensus, convenience, or other like arrangements.

Some people certainly think this way. But if we admit that virtue and ethics are not concrete, real bodies of knowledge that we can know and teach, then why try? Why care about moral formation, right and wrong?

The question is an old one. For example, Plato (c. 427–348 BC) in both his Meno and Protagoras asks whether we can know virtue. As he explores the question, Plato realizes that no one has really learned or mastered virtue in this life. As Plato thinks about virtue then, he does not immediately think virtue can be taught unless God teaches a person directly (Meno 99e–100a). While Plato cannot fully see it, he illustrates the effects of original sin in the world.

A lot of people live like Plato taught. We think that we cannot really know virtue or ethics. When we confront a new moral quandary, we seek some hidden Bible verse or perhaps throw our hands up in the air and say, who knows! There are too many opinions!

But we can have more confidence than this. The Bible itself assumes that we can learn virtue, goodness, and holiness from the Bible. It teaches that we do not need to find esoteric knowledge or throw our hands up in the air. For example:

  • But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Heb 5:14)
  • Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2)

The Bible expects not only to read it but also to learn from it so that by habit we can discern good from evil. And it expects us to transform our minds to know God’s will which is equivalent to “what is good and acceptable and perfect.” These words—good, evil, acceptable, perfect—they refer to realities, known entities in the world, as real as a number is or a squid or a mountain.

The Bible says, “Good is good; and he does good” (Ps 119:68). Doing good is objective, observable, knowable. And if it were not, then we could not know that God is good and that we are sinners. A judge could not know that theft is wrong or that murder is wrong. But all people do. The biblical reason for this is that “the work of the law is written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15).

Paul can speak of Gentile hypocrites who do evil in Romans 1:32 as both knowing God’s righteous decree and yet disobeying it: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom 1:32).

As humans generally do, Plato changed his mind. At one point, he begins to believe that virtue is teachable as he notes at the end of his Protagoras. And as Gilbert C. Meilaender summarizes, Plato teaches virtue in his writings. For example, Plato’s Laches teaches courage, his Charmides self-control, his Euthyphro piety, and Book I of his Republic justice (The Theory and Practice of Virtue 47).

Wherever we see goodness and virtue and holiness in the world, we can be sure it has its source in God alone.

Plato illustrates what Paul says in Romans 1 and 2. Gentiles can know the righteous decree of God because they have God’s law written upon their hearts. Yet Plato also illustrates Paul’s doctrine of sin which means that people sin against God and his law despite knowing its righteous decrees. Hence, Plato wondered if virtue could be taught since nobody has mastered it.

And we should expect that. Sin pervades the globe. Hence, grace of God came to save sinners. This salvation removes the guilt of sin and its punishment (death). And it also renews our inner-man or our soul, so that we do not just know virtue but also can practice it consistently.

We become good by being holy. As God says in Leviticus and Peter repeats in his First Letter, “You shall be holy as I am holy” (Lev 11:44; 1 Peter 1:15-16). And we can since as Peter says “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers (1 Pet 1:18). And he continues a bit later:

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Pet 1:22-23)

Peter can later conclude that we “live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Pet 4:2).

For Peter, not only can virtue be taught, but we can act on it too. We can become holy by being “born again … through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).

While Peter does not have to use the word virtue to speak of its reality (goodness, holiness, etc.), in his Second Letter, the apostle does conclude that God has “called us to his own glory and virtue” (2 Pet 1:4). The word “virtue” or arete in Greek here is often translated as excellence. But it is the word for virtue. In any case, the point Peter makes is that we are called to God’s own excellence which is a synonym for his goodness or holiness.

Wherever we see goodness and virtue and holiness in the world, we can be sure it has its source in God alone. For we are a holy people only because God has called us to holiness (1 Pet 2:5, 9).

Yes, virtue can be taught. But as Plato recognized and as Paul asserts, the reality of sin means that people cannot perfectly learn virtue. Only by the grace of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit who makes us holy can we attain that virtue or excellence to which God has called us (cf. Heb 12:14).

Plato may have been right when he said virtue is a divine gift (Meno 99e, 100b). But that gift does not come from the “gods” but from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who created heaven and earth, and whose Son Jesus Christ came into the world to save us and bestow upon us the gift of the Holy Spirit.