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Why Might Virtue Ethics Matter for the non-Christian?

While it is routinely ignored and even ardently denied, the reality is that God established a comprehensive and enduring structure and design to norm and guide the right operation of his creation. Commonly referred to as natural law, this will of God for the proper functioning of his creation is built-in or hard-wired into the universe itself extending from the paths of planets in their orbits to the communal instincts of termites, and encompassing also the way of being for humans. This means that every person has deep within herself a sense of what is “right” for how she lives. Of course, sin and the resultant fall of the creation have obscured this natural law, and individuals often have errant and wrongly formed ideas about what God wills for the right ordering of this world and its creatures. Nevertheless, the natural law remains and continues to guide the whole of creation…and continues to work inside each person directing and sometimes accusing through the somewhat mysterious, but acutely felt, mechanism we call conscience.

The natural law which guides humans and resolutely compels them toward the fulfillment of the human telos or goal is at work in every person—even unbelievers. It is not surprising, then, that non-Christians and even agnostics or atheists continue, often in spite of themselves, to adhere to this natural law and even strive to attain the human telos they sense within that law. Although, every human effort is ultimately and always doomed to fail—a consequence of man’s inherited sinful nature—the demands of the natural law remain and continue to tug on people urging them to obey. Thus, it is that questions of ethics, including the claims of virtue ethics remain of interest for all people, even unbelievers. Christians are wise to recognize this, encourage the assertion of natural law and witness boldly and clearly to the divine source of this law.


Joel D. Biermann, Ph.D. is the Waldemar A. and June Schuette Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

For Professor Biermann's full treatment of this question:

Biermann, Joel, Wholly Citizens: God's Two Realms and Christian Engagement with the World

Biermann, Joel, A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics



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