I’ve been reading through Jonathan Edwards’ treatise on The Nature of True Virtue. This book can only be properly understood in connection with Edwards’ earlier work The End for Which God Created the World. In that earlier work, Edwards shows that God is the first and best of beings and that the purpose of all things in God’s universe is to glorify God’s own magnificence and goodness.
In The Nature of True Virtue, Edwards argues that true virtue consists in having one’s heart attuned to that great reality—the glory of God. Virtue, therefore, can only exist in those who know and love God above all else. Edwards says it this way,
And therefore certainly, unless we will be atheists, we must allow that true virtue does primarily and most essentially consist in a supreme love to God; and that where this is wanting, there can be no true virtue. -Yale Edition, p. 554
In other words, moral uprightness may be a dim shadow of virtue, but it is not true virtue if it has no respect to God. Only an atheist—or someone whose view of God is so low that he no longer conceives of the true God—can deny that true virtue must be defined this way.
This means that all systems of morality—secular or religious—that ignore God are not truly virtuous. Those who follow them—no matter how rigorously they follow—are not truly virtuous. In short, godless virtue is no virtue at all.
If this is true (and I believe that it is), the implications are staggering.