St. Maximos the Confessor, in his forth century on love, verse 74, in the Philokalia (vol. 2) says that the biblical use of the word “way” is equivalent to the classical word “virtues” as it is used in patristic Christian teaching. The Greek of the Bible is called Koine Greek. It is a simplified form of Greek developed under Alexander the Great and his descendants in the third century BC so that the conquered people could be quickly assimilated into the military and understand the commands. This is the language of the Septuagint and the New Testament. However the language of Greek theology, the language of the Greek fathers, is Hellenistic Greek. Hellenistic Greek is a sort of revival of classical Greek, a more precise and nuanced form of Greek that was useful for philosophic inquiry and was adapted to Christian theology. Several words important in Christian theology do not appear in the Bible (Trinity, theosis, consubstantial, for example). It is not that these ideas cannot be found in the Bible; rather, it is that the need for such precise words did not exist during the first few centuries of the Church. While the Church was being persecuted, there was little opportunity to explain fine distinctions of the Christian experience of God to philosophically trained inquirers. The basic message of the Gospel was (and always is) sufficient to produce martyrs.
However with peace, many people trained in classical philosophy became important bishops in the Church. Part of their job was to differentiate the genuine Christian teaching from novel ideas that were emerging. Because of their classical training, they were able to “baptize” words from classical philosophy and coin new words and make new distinctions between older words in order to clarify what is and is not the experienced life and teaching of the Church. This was the experienced life and teaching of the Church from the beginning, even if some of the vocabulary and conceptual distinctions were newly adapted to the need of the hour.
“Virtue” (Arete, in Greek) is one of the words that appears seldom in the New Testament, three times in the epistles of St. Peter and once in Philippians (I think). Protestants who come from a Bible-only background are sometimes at a loss for how to understand this word. Perhaps this is because they do not understand how the Greek Fathers of the Church reinterpreted and applied this word in the context of the whole Christian teaching. As mentioned above, St. Maximos the Confessor points to the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13 as a sort of proof text for equating the word “virtues” with the biblical use of the word “way” or “path”:
And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I have not love….
The virtue of love, or better yet, all of the virtues of love–patience, kindness, gentleness, meekness, self control, etc.–are the way of the Christian life, they are the path that we walk. The Christian way is the life of virtue.
Growth in the Christian way is a growth in virtues. Many Fathers liken the growth in virtues to climbing a ladder. In most accounts of this ladder, the first rung is humility, poverty of spirit. In a country that is wealthy and as people who are well educated and free, humility is a virtue that is hard to find. St. Benedict advises those who want to attain humility to embrace obedience, to let someone else tell you what to do. In a sense, this is the beginning of the Christian way, the first step in the acquisition of virtues.
Thank you for this post Father. This is not entirely related but this quote … "And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I have not love…." sparked a question i've had about the orthodox interpretation of tongues. I've heard a few different ideas on it. Did the early church speak in tongues as the modern charismatics do? Is something being lost in translation when interpreting writings in the bible on tongues? Was it simply different languages?