In 1765 two early presidents of American colonial colleges made their last ethical stands in the form of two published writings. In many respects, both writings maintained the counter-cultural elements that comprised the thinking of early Puritans. Neither author even mentioned Aristotle or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in these last works, the author and text that had served as the basis of European university moral philosophy courses for 350 years. In fact, not one commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics was ever produced among Protestants in colonial America.1 Both authors also set forth a typically Calvinist view of ethics that placed God in the center of ethics and gave specific attention to original sin.
Still, the two works could not be more different in other ways. Jonathan Edwards’ posthumously-published The Nature of True Virtue sought to meet new post-Aristotelian European ethicists on their own ground. The deceased College of New Jersey (Princeton) president argued from his grave using natural reason for the continued necessity of a distinctly theistic ethics. Yet, Jonathan Edwards neglected to draw deeply from theology. In contrast, Thomas Clap, the president of Yale College, set forth in his student textbook, The Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue and Obligation, an overtly theological approach to ethics. Unfortunately, later American moral philosophers followed Edwards’ model.
Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue
Despite Edwards’ famous sermons about sin, he still held a rather optimistic view about what human reason could comprehend without revelation, so he built his case for virtue upon reasoning unaided by Biblical revelation (no Bible verses are cited in The Nature of True Virtue and he makes only three general references to the “holy” or “sacred scriptures”).
To his credit, he pointed out the godless nature of the new moral philosophers who “do not wholly exclude a regard to the Deity out of their schemes of morality, but yet mention it so slightly, that they leave no room and reason to suspect they esteem it a less important and a subordinate part of true morality.”2 In contrast to these writers, Edwards sought to make a case for the centrality of God in any scheme of ethics.
Yet, although Edwards wanted to make God central to his views of virtue and today is considered one of America’s greatest theologians,3 he was fine with dispensing with almost every element of Christian theology in this work. He avoided discussing Jesus (mentioned once), the Holy Spirit (not mentioned at all), faith and hope (never mentioned) or the foundational concept of theological anthropology that we are all made in God’s image. He also made his whole argument without drawing directly upon the New Testament theological tradition of virtue (e.g., the fruit of the Spirit). Interestingly, about the only Christian theological concepts that Edwards emphasized were God, sin, and beneficence/love.
Still, Edwards did point out the importance of God for virtue. For Edwards, “True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to Being in general.”4 Since “God has infinitely the greatest share of existence,”5 therefore, virtuous love should be directed toward God. In contrast to this conception of virtue that places God at the center, Edwards noted how the moral philosophers of the day claimed that true virtue consists of love toward particular humans or humanity. Edwards gave the example of the Romans.
Hence, among the Romans, love to their country was the highest virtue; though this affection of theirs so much extolled was employed as it were for the destruction of the rest of mankind. The larger the number is, to which that private affection extends, the more apt men are, through the narrowness of their sight, to mistake it for true virtue; because then the private system appeared to have more of the image of the universal.6
Edwards understood what today we also recognize through our two world wars. Nationalism as expressed through the love of one’s nation can become a powerful weapon for evils such as mass murder and genocide (as currently occurring in China).
In fact, Edwards pointed out that such narrow affections distort our understanding of virtue. Edwards gave an example from the English treatment of Native and African Americans at that time, “So the nation that prosecutes an ambitious design of universal Empire, by subduing other nations with fire and sword, may have fixed terms that signify the highest degree of virtue to the conduct of such as show the most engaged, stable, resolute spirit in this affair, and do most of this bloody work.”7 In other words, the immoral conquerors are considered heroes by their country.
Yet, Edwards notes “…they are capable of being convinced that they use these terms inconsistently, and abuse language in it, and so having their mouth stopped.”8 As Edwards predicted, many Americans have been morally convinced and now no longer think of major parts of England or America’s empire building as morally defensible because we draw upon a moral sentiment that takes a wider vision of benevolence, virtue, humanity, and human dignity. Edwards argued we must expand benevolence beyond all humans. Only by including love to all being, including God, can a love be called truly public and truly virtuous. What though is the nature of this God and this love? Moreover, why should humans acquire God’s virtue? Natural revelation is not enough to answer this question. For the sufficient answer we need to turn to Thomas Clap.
Thomas Clap and the Imago Dei
In contrast to Edwards’ approach that relied on natural reason Clap held no such optimism about human reason. Yet, instead of focusing primarily upon humans as sinners, he built his ethics on the exalted theological affirmation that all humans are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). In other words, humans’ core identity was not simply a social role or set of roles, such as being wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, farmers and citizens. Nor were humans simply ghostly individuals deserving of human respect and dignity simply because they are human.
The most important way to understand oneself is to realize that we are made in God’s image. Therefore, our essential function is to bear God’s image. The virtues that humans should seek, with God’s help, are the virtues of God. Clap claimed, “Moral Virtue is a conformity to the moral perfections of God; or it is an imitation of God the moral perfections of his nature, so far as they are imitable by his creatures. In the moral perfections of God are the sole foundation and standard of all that virtue, goodness and perfection which can exist in the creature.”9 In other words, since humans are made in God’s image, the way they achieve full human flourishing is to bear or acquire the creaturely analogues of the moral perfections of God. Or as Clap says, “As Man was at first made in the moral Image or Likeness to God, so the recovery of that Image is the greatest duty and highest perfection.”10 Thus, if one wants to understand God, one needs revelation from God about God’s character. Furthermore, if one wants to develop morally, one will want to develop God’s virtues.
As a result of his view, Clap had a more restrained view of the role one’s reason or conscience can play in acquiring virtue. He argued that after the Fall, man’s “understanding is darkened, his judgement is perverted, his taste and relish of things corrupted and his mind and conscience is defiled” (Romans 3:9).11 Consequently, we see diverse actions labeled as virtues and vices among different countries and even Christian countries.
In this regard, Clap would have considered modern claims about the tribal nature of our favored virtue lists to be understandable. Without the common Christian understanding of humanity’s identity, telos, and story, we will only arrive at a limited grasp of various bags of virtues. Therefore, Clap concluded that divine revelation is the primary way to know God’s virtue.12
This knowledge must then penetrate and guide our heart, motives, and actions. He noted in what is probably a swipe at Aristotelian ethics that the heathen simply account actions to be virtuous, “but divine Revelation teaches us, that there can be no virtuous Actions without a divine Temper of Mind in Conformity to the Perfection of God.”13 In contrast to Edwards’ singular focus on beneficence, Clap focused on a range of virtues beyond love, such as holiness, mercy, justice, goodness and truth. To Clap, every one of these virtues “is a necessary Consequence of an inward, divine Disposition of Mind.”14
Furthermore, Clap followed in the Augustinian tradition in general in believing that humans needed more than education, right-reasoning, or habituation to become truly virtuous. He wrote, “no fallen creature can become truly virtuous, but in consequence of an atonement, and the renovating influences of the divine spirit.”15 To put it simply, one needed, the triune God’s help to become truly virtuous. Clap affirmed what Augustine proclaimed about Christian ethics in the fourth century: only the perfect Holy Spirit can restore us to divine perfection.16
Sadly, for the next two hundred twenty years Clap’s textbook would be the first and last moral philosophy textbook meant for American college students to build an approach to ethics on the core theological claim that we are made in God’s image. Not surprisingly, virtue ethics would eventually fade away as well until its reemergence in the early 1980s.
For the story of the diminishing of moral education in American higher education after Clap see my new book from which this blog post was adopted, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity.
- Manfred Svensson, “Aristotelian Practical Philosophy from Melanchthon to Eisenhart: Protestant Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics 1529–1682,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 21, no. 3 (2019): 218-38.
- Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 1960), 17.
- George Marsden called him “the most brilliant of all American theologians.” George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 1.
- Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 3 (italics in original).
- Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 14.
- Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 88.
- Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 107.
- Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 107.
- Thomas Clap, An Essay on the Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue and Obligation: Being a Short Introduction to the Study of Ethics: For the Use of the Students of Yale-College (New Haven, CT: B. Mecom, 1765), 3 (italics in original).
- Clap, An Essay on the Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue, 54.
- Clap, An Essay on the Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue, 24.
- Clap, An Essay on the Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue, 41.
- Clap, An Essay on the Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue, 8 (italics in original).
- Clap, An Essay on the Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue, 55 (italics in original).
- Clap, An Essay on the Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue, ii.
- Augustine, “On the Morals of the Catholic Church,” in Christian Ethics: Sources of the Living Tradition, W. Beach and H.R. Niebuhr, eds., 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1972), 110-18.