The Excellent Life


DSC_0086The Apostle Peter’s last letter is especially concerned with spiritual growth. He encourages us to “5 make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love,” (2 Peter 1:5-7). Last week we looked at “faith,” and this week we look at a word that almost defies definition, arete (ἀρετή).

A quick survey of the different English translations shows the breadth of meanings. The earliest English Bibles used “virtue” to translate arete (Wycliffe, Geneva) and more recent translations (RSV, NKJV) have revived that meaning. God’s Word uses “integrity” while the International Standard Version has “moral character.” Arete has been the focus of many recent business books on “Excellence” and the New English Translation uses that word. The Lexham English Bible narrows the focus a bit with “excellence of character” as does the New American Standard Bible and New Living Translation, “moral excellence.” Most of the recent translations (CJB, CEV, GNB, HCSB, NCV, NIV, NRSV, TNIV) simply read “goodness,” but I don’t think that adequately describes the virtue Peter is describing here.

The ancient Greek, Homer, uses arete to describe “consummate ‘excellence’ or ‘merit’” primarily in a military context, but later the term is used of “distinction for other personal qualities and associated performance that enhance the common interest[1].” Stoic philosophers observed, “all excellence lies in uprightness, and a good person is one who is upright.”

Lexicons define this virtue as “uncommon character worthy of praise.” It is such an uncommon virtue that it must be a “manifestation of divine power, miracle.[2]” In other words, we begin climbing the eight rung ladder by taking the first step of faith. As we grow in faith, God develops within us the uncommon virtue of moral excellence. This in turn provides the foundation for continuing spiritual growth. I like the description, arete is “performance that elicits praise.”

While the first step on the eight rung ladder, faith, is what we believe, the second step, arete, is defined by what we do. Christians influence the world by the excellence of our lives.



[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 130). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Above.

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