True Virtues are Those Incarnated

Leonard Sweet makes an interesting observation regarding virtues by saying “Every virtue-whether cardinal (prudence, courage, justice, temperance) or theological (faith, hope, love)-is an abstraction unless it is first an incarnation”. What he is proposing is, unless a virtue is established in the personhood of Jesus and demonstrated in his life on earth, then it is more of a general understanding of God’s character rather than a true reflection. Since Jesus is the only true reflection of God, this writer is inclined to agree with Sweet.

Jesus was not simply a man who walked the earth, but he was the incarnation of God that allowed mankind to accurately understand who Yahweh is. By knowing Jesus, one can know the true and living god, Yahweh. (Jn. 14:9) The infinite personhood of God was made understandable to man in a definitive way. Christ became the archetype for the virtues defining their meaning by the actions of the incarnation. (Cochran, 2008, p. 82) Just as God is the exemplar for all goodness and beauty, (Adams, 1999, p. 14) Jesus became the incarnation of that example for mankind to understand in the confines of his finite existence. (Melina, 2001, p. 131) God’s nature was made known through Christ, enabling mankind to see the meaning of virtue itself. (Cochran, 2008, p. 89) The moral life mankind lives is only achieved by imitating Christ as the perfect example who “arouses emulation by his virtues. (Melina, 2001, p. 131)

Thus, any virtue adopted and lived out by mankind outside of that personified by Jesus himself is, at best, a clumsy attempt to represent God with wholesome intentions; or is, at worst, an attempt to justify human imperfection with a false association with the incarnation of Christ. In the end, only the goodness first resembled in God, and represented by Jesus, can truly be goodness within mankind. (Cochran, 2008, p. 82) All else is an imperfect representation of God’s perfection.


Adams, R. M. (1999). Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics. Oxford University Press, USA.

Cochran, E. A. (2008). Jesus Christ and the cardinal virtues: a response to Monika Hellwig. Theology Today, 65(1), 81–94.

Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: study Bible: English standard version (ESV text ed). Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles.

Melina. (2001). Sharing in Christ’s Virtues: For the Renewal of Moral Theology in Light of <I>Veritatis Splendor</I>Translated by William E. May. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.

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