The Pantheon of Virtues
DECEMBER 17, 2022
by Richard Foster
The idea that “humility” should be placed among the pantheon of virtues is deeply Hebraic and Christian in origin. In the Greek and Hellenistic world “humility” (tapeinos in Greek) was far from something to be valued, or even desired. Humility was almost universally used in a pejorative sense meaning “insignificant,” “servile,” “lowly.”
Gerhard Kittel, in his exhaustive Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, writes, “The Greek view of humility exalts freedom and despises subjection. Hence it qualifies tapeinos negatively.”
However, the life and teachings of Jesus place humility in an entirely different light. Jesus declares, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Mt 23:11‑12). And Paul in his magnificent hymn in Philippians 2 writes about the signal action of Jesus who humbled himself unto death, even death on a cross. The New Testament writers use tapeinos some thirty-four times, always with a positive ring.
Early Christian scholars took this radical rethinking of humility and classified it under the notion of arete, virtue. John Cassian, for example, calls humility “the mother and mistress of all the virtues.” He adds that, in contradistinction to the pagan understandings of virtue in his day, humility “is the precise and magnificent gift of the Savior.”
Our contemporary culture views humility in much the same negative manner as the ancient Greek and Hellenistic world. So, the Christian witness to the enormous value of humility as a central virtue is just as countercultural today as it was in the first century.