Bavinck’s Virtue Ethics

In “Distinctively Common” an essay by Clay Cooke – a PhD candidate at Fuller Seminary and Free University of Amsterdam – he notes that Herman Bavinck has a unique Reformed take on virtue ethics.  Bavinck believes that

“We can profit from Aristotelian thought, and without doubt Aristotle’s ethics is basically the best philosophical ethics.”                    –(Notes from Gereformeerde Ethiek van Profess. Dr. H. Bavinck)

In the notes to the lecture that Jelle Michiels De Jong took from one of Bavinck’s lectures it seems pretty clear than he lends his fervent support towards the general structure of virtue ethics. However, he also takes a critical view of virtue ethics. I believe that Bavinck’s eager but critical appropriation of this ethical system serves as an example for Christians who wish to take the best of culture while at the same time recognizing the incompatibility of certain beliefs with our faith. In other words – Bavinck’s approach to virtue ethics is both critical yet appreciative – we ought to learn to be both critical and appreciative of other man made cultural systems.

According to Cooke – Bavnick expressly rejects the Aristotelian claim that people can achieve the human telos by means of their own agency. This is quite in line with his reformed theology which asserts that the development of virtue is only acquired by grace. A Reformed version of virtue ethics will need to prioritize grace in the process of moral formation. It will need to make explicit the fact that one does not become virtuous by means of mere habituation or practice of the virtues, rather one become virtuous (or a person of christian character) when God’s grace enables us to perform those actions which create virtuous lives.

Another aspect of Reformed virtue ethics which will remain distinctive from Aristotelian virtue ethics is that Reformed virtue ethics will aim at Christ-like cruciformity as its telos. This isn’t strictly a reformed view, rather it is a Christian view, however how one understands what cruciformity will actively look like will certainly be shaped by one’s understanding of the reformed tradition.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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