Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Godless virtue is no virtue at all

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.


  • Christiane Smith

    I wonder how Edwards might have viewed this comment:
    “in the heart of every man of good will, Grace works in an unseen way. . . “

  • James Stanton

    “This means that all systems of morality—secular or religious—that ignore God are not truly virtuous.”

    The implications are indeed staggering. Does it apply to the morality of capitalism as we practice it in the US?

    • Christiane Smith

      Hi JAMES,
      that is a very thought-provoking question . . . and in the sense of what some have called ‘vulture capitalism’, your question raises some serious issues that Christian people must begin to ponder and respond to in this country, for the sake of the integrity of the gospel of Our Lord and of our Christian witness to that gospel.

  • Ryan Davidson

    There’s a reason why the theology of Edwards was referred to as experimental Calvinism. That’s because it departs at certain respects from the Reformers who preceded him. This quote illustrates one such departure.

    Edwards here implicitly denies the value of general revelation, and makes Christian ethics depend on the subjective stirrings of the human heart. One sees nothing of the sort in Luther, Calvin, Vermigli, Beza, etc. In this sense, we may well view Edwards as an American Schleiermacher.

    • Kenneth Abbott

      I’d like to read more on this, but I’m inclined to disagree, Ryan. Experimental (or experiential) Calvinism was the meat of English Puritanism–living one’s life consistent with one’s doctrine. I like to tell my Sunday school classes that orthopraxy follows orthodoxy–right living follows right belief. It is also true than wrong living follows wrong belief. As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.

      From what I know of Edwards, I can’t credit ascribing to him a radical subjectivism that ignores revelation in any form.

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