Telos as the Key to Virtue

Telos is a Greek word which means end, goal, termination, conclusion, final destiny. The Bible uses this word often. For instance:

  • 1 Peter 1:8-9: …though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.
  • 2 Cor 11:14-15: …even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.

Telos also became a technical term in Greek philosophy to speak of the end, goal, or purpose of life. According to Aristotle and his counterparts, “Human beings… have a specific nature; and that nature is such that they have certain aims and goals, such that they move by nature toward a specific telos… There is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature (telos). Ethics is the science which enables men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter” (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue). In moral philosophy this is known as teleological ethics: an ethic that argues for what we should do based on what we are destined for.

The Bible and Aristotle both held that human beings had some ultimate destiny. According to the Bible, the end, goal, and purpose of all things is the glory of God. According to Aristotle, the end of human life is blessedness, fullness, well-being – the good life. As MacIntyre points out, the whole point of ethics (in both the biblical and classical understanding) is to help us become the people we were intended to be. The virtuous life is a life oriented toward our proper end, our purpose, our telos.

However, in After Virtue, MacIntyre argues that it is precisely this concept of telos which has been lost in the past 300 years of philosophical discourse. This gap lies at the root of modern pluralism and emotivism: “Unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods [of particular situations] and constitutes the good of a whole human life… a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life… The replacement of Aristotelian or Christian teleology… [is not] the replacement of one set of criteria by another, but rather a movement towards and into a situation where there are no longer any clear criteria.”

So, if we are to seriously cultivate the virtues extolled in Colossians 3, we must first rebuild our understanding of the purpose of human life and existence. We must be rooted in the biblical meta-narrative of creation-fall-redemption-consummation. We must have a clear vision not just of what God saved us from, but what he saved us for.

In other words, we must live with the end in mind. More this Sunday.


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  1. Two questions as I have thought about this post the past day or so. First, since we as Christians are so deeply rooted in “the end” do we offer any resources for those who do not believe in an end? In other words, is there any Christian way to motivate an atheist to “do good” now other than appealing to the end? Second, how do we deeply hold this reality of “the end” without simply becoming passive and apathetic right now? Like the Campbell followers heading in their white sheets for the hills.

  2. here are my thoughts, Jon.
    on first question: get them to realize the hollowness of their virtue and crave something real. that is, make disciples.

    second question: not a problem unless you think the end is “heaven.” of course incorporate that, and it’s not wrong if you are motivated by paradise, but there is much more to Christian “teleology.” Bob’s article actually identifies our end as “the glory of God” not sprouting wings and strumming harps.

    For more on the present aspects of our telos see The Gospel of the Kingdom by George Ladd, the Gospel of Matthew, and anything by John Piper.

  3. My thoughts:

    First Question:
    Atheist people are completely self absorbed and self reliant. So I agree with what micah said about getting them to realize the hollowness of their virtue.
    Right away try not to come at them with long talks about God and heaven and hell. (even-though these are the truth and will need to be realized and talked about) so often people who believe in nothing when confronted with these truths will revert to them selfs and shut off there minds and hearts and you will end up spinning your wheels. Im reminded of John :6 when Jesus feeds the thousands of people. He sits with them and asked them “How will you feed these people?” and then he performs a miracle. I believe when ministering to atheists God wants us to show the miracles that God does in our lives everyday and let your faithfulness to God’s will through Jesus be what speaks to them. When unbelievers are around the power and grace of God they will desire to have that in there life, and then be there to help them understand the glory of God and what Jesus did for everyone.

  4. Micah, I do not believe our “end” is heaven and it is still a problem for me. The difficulty lies in whether our end is entirely future, or like God’s kingdom has both present and future aspects.

  5. Jon, it seems like you’re thinking of “end” in terms of “destination;” I’m using it in terms of “purpose” or “goal”, as in “what is the end for which God created the world?”

    Maybe you can clarify, I might not be understanding what you’re saying.

    If I understand your most recent question correctly, I would say our end (to glorify God and enjoy him forever) definitely has both present and future aspects.

  6. Yeah, Bob, I took the post that way but realized later the word “goal” or even “consummation” worked better for me to not think chronologically. In my church contexts, it has been a constant process to not get bogged down in the idea that Christianity is nothing more than a future destination other than hell.

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