The Seven Heavenly Virtues
An Ancient Framework for Spiritual Formation
We, body and spirit, have desires that are at odds with one another until Christ our Lord comes to help. He places the jewels of the virtues in their proper places — and in the place of sin, he builds the courts of his temple. He makes for the soul ornaments from its dark past to delight Wisdom as she reigns forever on her glorious throne. (Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, Psychomachia)
To those of us accustomed to a wide array of rich resources for discipleship, lists of vices and virtues might seem rudimentary. In fact, we tend to view lists that say “do this” or “don’t do that” as legalistic obstacles to spiritual formation. But dismissing the seven virtues and their related vices would be to abandon centuries of profound theological and pastoral reflection. To understand their history is to take a large step toward recovering their value.
From Martyrdom to Monasticism
The church underwent massive transformation as Christianity transitioned from a persecuted sect to the predominant religion of the Roman Empire.
For much of the first two centuries of the church’s existence, the Roman government regarded Christianity as an illegitimate religion. Professing faith in Christ, therefore, was a sober and serious commitment. Christians faced episodic persecution by the empire and were occasionally publicly executed as martyrs. Because of these dangers, candidates for membership in the early church were rigorously examined to ensure a clear understanding of the gospel and prepare them for the possibility of martyrdom.
The situation changed markedly under emperor Constantine the Great (reign 306–337), who declared tolerance of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in AD 313. As Christianity became more acceptable and the ranks of the church swelled with new converts, the task of discipleship became more difficult. The threat of death by martyrdom no longer protected the church from insincere professions. This resulted in assemblies that neglected basic Christian discipleship and biblical spirituality. In some cases, churches looked as decadent as the surrounding culture.
Men and women arrested by the call of Scripture to live in holiness and service to others found it increasingly difficult to do so in a church in cultural captivity. Many of them established new communities outside of urban centers where they committed themselves to generosity, Scripture memory, worship, and prayer. The monastic movement became the new martyrdom — committed believers gave up wealth and prestige to bear witness for Christ in lives of radical self-sacrifice and personal holiness.
It was in this setting of intense disciple-making that virtue and vice lists were freshly developed.
Diagnosing the Disease
In their decades of caring for members of monastic communities, leaders like Evagrius of Pontus (346–399) and his disciple, John Cassian (360–430), sought to understand the patterns in sin and temptation.1 The most enduring and comprehensive account of these patterns emerged with the teaching of Gregory the Great (540–604), the bishop of Rome. As a monk, Gregory traced the many permutations of sin to seven “heads” that branched from the root of pride:
For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness: Pride is the beginning of all sin. But seven principal vices, as its first progeny, spring doubtless from this poisonous root; namely, vainglory, envy, anger, melancholy, avarice, gluttony, lust. For, because He grieved that we were held captive by these seven sins of pride, therefore our Redeemer came to the spiritual battle of our liberation, full of the spirit of sevenfold grace.2
“Understanding the seven ‘capital’ sins was critical to diagnosing disordered affections in the Christian life.”
Understanding the pathology of the seven “capital” (from Latin caput, “head”) sins — how all other sin branched from these heads — was critical to diagnosing disordered affections in the Christian life.3 But diagnosis of the disease only goes so far. Following the pattern of Scripture, the church also sought to find ways to capture the virtues that characterize new life in Christ.
Applying a Remedy
The term “virtue” comes from the Latin translation (virtus) of the Greek word meaning “moral excellence” (aretē). For centuries, Greek philosophy consistently identified four virtues as central to a life of moral excellence: prudence (wisdom), justice, temperance (self-control), and fortitude (courage).
These four virtues not only appeared in Aristotle’s (384–322 BC) Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s (c. 427–347 BC) Republic, but also in intertestamental literature like The Wisdom of Solomon — a book that was included by Alexandrian Jews in first century BC editions of the Greek translation of the Old Testament.4 According to Wisdom 8:7, “If anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues (aretai); for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.”
Christian leaders like Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397) thought the four classical virtues reflected what the Scriptures taught as the “cardinal” excellencies upon which all other moral virtues in the Christian life hinged (Latin cardo means “hinge”).5 They added to these the three transcendent “theological” virtues identified by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13: “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Augustine (354–430) argued that the four cardinal virtues ultimately grew out of the greatest theological virtue, love:
. . . temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it. The object of this love is not anything, but only God, the chief good, the highest wisdom, the perfect harmony. So we may express the definition thus: that temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it.6
Foils for the Deadly Sins
Thus, a tension emerged between the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues. The virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love) did not clearly oppose an opposite deadly sin (vainglory, envy, anger, melancholy, avarice, gluttony, and lust).
Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348–c. 410) recognized this tension and saw the pastoral benefit of assigning opposing virtues as foils for each of the deadly sins. In Psychomachia, a graphic poem in the style of Virgil’s (70–19 BC) Aeneid, Prudentius squares off each of Cassian’s vices with the personified biblical virtue that could defeat it in the Christian’s battle for holiness. In the poem, as in the life of the believer, vainglory is defeated by humility, lust by chastity, anger by patience, and so on. The idea sprang from biblical teaching: the command to put off sin is grounded in the call to put on Christ — to walk by his Spirit and so bear spiritual fruit (Galatians 3:27; 5:16–24). Christians fight the schemes of their adversary clothed in gospel armor and equipped with spiritual weaponry (Ephesians 6:10–20). Additionally, the New Testament almost always places the characteristics of true spirituality alongside the descriptions of the sins the believer is to flee.7
Nevertheless, despite the widespread influence of Prudentius’s poem in the medieval period, the seven heavenly virtues — not a list of opposing virtues to contrast the deadly sins — endured as a lasting framework for spiritual formation.
Framework for Spiritual Formation
Writing for the instruction of fellow Dominican monks, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) gave extensive attention to the nature of virtue and how it functioned in the life of the Christian. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas argued that virtues are habitual dispositions — patterns of mind and heart that bring about good actions, especially by preventing our impulsive desires from taking us to sin’s opposite extremes.8 The virtue of temperance, for example, guards the appetite against gluttony on the one hand and abstinence on the other. Similarly, fortitude fears neither danger nor labor.9
“Christians act in virtuous ways because of the regenerating power and sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit.”
Aquinas also argued that Christian virtue was more than the Greek philosophers’ quest for self-improvement. Christians are disposed to act in virtuous ways because of the regenerating power and sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit. But new dispositions also require habituation — intentional cultivation through a life of obedient dependence on Christ.10 Like Augustine, Aquinas argued that the theological virtues — connected to and comprehended in love — were the specific means of grace God used to deepen and mature all other virtue.11
The seven heavenly virtues, however, remain more foreign to contemporary readers than the more familiar seven deadly sins. The centuries-old tension Prudentius felt between the two lists, persists. Therefore, we shouldn’t abandon either approach to spiritual formation. Contrasting the deadly sins with their opposite virtue can be a valuable way to gain insight and mature in holiness (see Colossians 3:5–17). Humility poisons pride, chastity defangs lust, temperance bridles gluttony, charity overpowers greed, diligence overcomes sloth, patience outlasts envy, and kindness conquers anger.
Ultimately, cultivation of virtue is not the remedy for sin — justification and final salvation come through the atoning work of Christ, alone. But in the same way the seven capital sins provide a diagnostic for disordered affections, the seven heavenly virtues provide a framework for spiritual formation. Generations of faithful Christians have used the language of heavenly virtues and deadly vices as means for growing in grace. And by recovering these tools for the modern church, we are better equipped to present ourselves holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1).
See Evagrius, The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Eudes Bamberger (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1972), 16; John Cassian, Conference of Abbot Serapion on the Eight Principal Faults, NPNF, 2nd series (1885; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 11:339); John Cassian, The Twelve Books on the Institutes of the Cœnobia and The Remedies for the Eight Principal Faults, NPNF, 2nd series, 11:233–290). ↩
Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, 33.45.87. Gregory’s use of warfare imagery likely reflects the influence of Prudentius’s Psychomachia. ↩
For more detailed account of the “seven deadly sins,” see https://www.desiringgod.org/books/killjoys. ↩
See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, books III–V; Plato, Republic, IV.427–445. ↩
Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397) was the first to identify these four virtues as “cardinal” and was also the first to add the “theological” virtues of “faith, hope, and love.” ↩
Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, 15.25. ↩
Thirteen virtue lists appear in the New Testament: 2 Corinthians 6:6–8; Galatians 5:22–23; Ephesians 4:32; 5:9; Philippians 4:8; Colossians 3:12; 1 Timothy 4:12; 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22; 3:10; James 3:17; 1 Peter 3:8; and 2 Peter 1:5–7 (cf. also 1 Corinthians 13, which contains the three theological virtues and demonstrates the remarkable concatenation of virtue). Twenty-three vice lists are found in the New Testament: Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:21–22; Romans 1:29–31; 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:10–11; 6:9–10; 2 Corinthians 6:9–10; 12:20–21; Galatians 5:19–21; Ephesians 4:31; 5:3–5; Colossians 3:5, 8; 1 Timothy 1:9–10; 2 Timothy 3:2–5; Titus 3:3; James 3:15; 1 Peter 2:1; 4:3, 15; Revelation 9:21; 21:8; 22:15. ↩
More precisely, Aquinas argued that the virtues perfect the appetitive powers of the soul. See Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, Q50, A3, 5; Q55; Q56, A4, 6. ↩
Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II–II, Q127. ↩
Aquinas’s examination of the seven virtues was so influential that it circulated separately from the rest of Summa Theologica and was widely read in the years immediately after his death. Because of its influence, the Roman church would later include the seven heavenly virtues into its catechism for instructing all new believers. The Catechism of Pius V (or The Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566), originally used for the training of clergy, only included teaching on the Apostle’s Creed, the seven sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. At the height of the English Reformation, Henry Tuberville adapted the catechism of Trent to include the “heavenly virtues” and used it for both clergy and laity (Douay Catechism, 1649). The Roman church officially included Tuberville’s addition under Pius X (1908) and revised it into its current form in 1997. For the section describing virtues, see the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, III.7.1803–1829, accessed August 14, 2021, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P64.HTM. ↩
Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II, Q62, A3; II-II, Q17, A1–2; Q23, A1. See Augustine, On Free Will, 2.19. ↩