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Faith, Hope and Love: The Supernatural Virtues

Finally beloved, whatever is true, what is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4.8)

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13.13)

The Greek word for ‘excellence’ that Paul uses in Philippians 4.8 is arete, which in the Latin translation of the Vulgate becomes virtus. Arete, sometimes translated as ‘excellence’, sometimes as ‘virtue’, has a long and privileged place within ancient Greek thought, just as virtus, or ‘virtue’, does in ancient Roman thought. Providing a list of the different virtues, examples of them in the stories of gods and heroes and the ways one can achieve them was an important and common practice in ancient philosophers and thinkers (sometimes called ‘aretology’). While these thinkers offered a profusion of different virtues, the four most important ones were prudence or wisdom, justice, temperance or self-control and courage or fortitude. These four are called the ‘cardinal virtues’ (from the Latin cardo, which means ‘hinge’) because all the other virtues depend on these.

Not only do Paul and other New Testament authors appeal to arete (1 Pet. 2-9; 2 Pet. 2.5), but they also offer lists of various excellences and vices, examples that should be followed and guidelines for the household (all of which are known as paraenesis). While the New Testament and the Greek and Roman moral philosophers may agree on some rather simple matters, such as the importance of courage, temperance, patience and modesty, they certainly seem to disagree rather strongly on others. Who is the person, for instance, to whom we should look and appeal to for moral guidance and exhortation? Paul’s crucified Jewish Messiah seems starkly different from Aristotle’s cultured and balanced ‘magnificent man’. Faith, hope and love, the centre of the Christian life for Paul, will not be found on the lists of virtues given by Plato, Aristotle or Cicero. Paul also notes that ‘the greatest of these is love’. We are thus left with two questions: how does Aristotle’s account of arete square with Paul’s version of arete, and what is the relationship between faith, hope and love?

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