From “Virtues” to “Values”: A Lamentable Change in Terms


Darrow Miller is co-founder ofthe Disciple Nations Alliance and a conference speaker on topics that includeChristianity and culture, apologetics, worldview, poverty, and the dignity ofwomen. From 1981 to 2007 Darrow served with Food for the Hungry Internationaland spent three years on staff at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland where he wasdiscipled by Francis Schaeffer.


It is popular today to speak of Christian “values.” There areeven organizations that use the word in their name to grab the attention ofChristians and other traditionalists who are concerned with the state of thefamily and the moral and spiritual condition of the state.

·        Traditional ValuesCoalition

·        Family Values

·        Christian Values Network

·        Voices for Family Values

·        Values Action Team

·        American Values Network

Many other organizations, like Focus on the Family and American FamilyAssociation, don’t incorporate the word in their name but have a similarpassion for traditional values. These groups, found in a number ofcountries, are usually socially, religiously and politically conservative.

While the word “values” is currently very popular, its use is areflection that we have ceded an important word, and the loss to our culture isreflected in our  word choice.

Before the word “values” became popular, the word “virtue”—aBiblical term– was used to define the character of an individual and a nation.The Hebrew Old Testament uses חַיִל (ḥǎ•yil): “noble character, strongcharacter, worthy person;” the Greek New Testament uses ἀρετή (arête): “virtue,goodness, excellence.” Note that both words are rooted in moral character andgoodness.

Lexicographer Noah Webster, the founding father of Americaneducation, developed an American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.Webster was consciously functioning from a Biblical worldview as he defined thelanguage for a new nation. In his dictionary, he defines virtue as

“moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the abstainingfrom vice, or a conformity of life and conversation to the moral law.”

Note a couple of observations about virtue. First, it has astandard – it’s about moral goodness. Also, it requires an action, i.e. thepractice of being and doing good, and the avoidance of vice, i.e. conduct thatis morally unfit. It’s a lifelong process of conforming to the moral law.

The word “virtue” requires moral discipline. Today it has mostlydisappeared from the modern vocabulary. It’s replacement—a poor substitute—isthe term “values.” Here is a word free of moral gravitas and responsibility.“Values” entails nothing more than personal preference: you have your values, Ihave mine. The shift from virtues to values has been titanic.

The word “virtue” was born out of the Judeo-Christian worldview,which acknowledges the existence of God and a moral universe. Human beings aremade in the image of God as moral and rational creatures. Virtuous living leadsto human flourishing.

The modern word “values” was born out of an atheist-materialistworldview. In this framework, God does not exist and thus the universe isamoral. There is no right or wrong, good or evil. Human beings are highly evolvedanimals whose survival is determined by their fitness and cunning. The only lawis kill or be killed, the ultimate goal is pleasure without boundaries. Valuesare subjective and relative. Our personal preferences can actually pit usagainst each other. A culture of death engulfs our lives.

The change in vocabulary is the result of a shift in worldview.Judeo-Christian theism built the freest, most just and civil society the worldhas yet known. Alas, this has given way to today’s atheistic-materialisticworldview. It is this shift in worldview that brought the shift in language.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German existential philosopher, coinedthe phrase “the death of God.” In 1820 Nietzsche sparked the revolution thatreduced virtues—a term invested with biblical meaning, to values – a personaland sociological construct. Nietzsche realized that denying the existence ofGod would have consequences: everything rooted in God’s existence would diewith Him. The concept of humans as God-image bearers died. The existence ofobjective truth and absolute morality died. Human beings were reduced to highlyevolved animals, truth to opinion, and virtues to values. All that was left wasthe “will to power.”

These two worlds are very different. A world of virtues is aworld of gravitas where people and ideas mean something. Human significance isderived from God. And because God is the author of goodness, beauty, and truth,there are moral absolutes. To live within the framework of the kingdom of Godis to live virtuously.

On the other hand, a world posited by atheists is a worldwithout weight, light as air. Values are personal, subjective, and relative. Ihave my values and opinions and you have yours. Our fitness and cunning willdetermine who survives.

American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb in the De-Moralization of Society, writes

“It was not until the present century that morality became sothoroughly relativized and subjectified that virtues cease to be ‘virtues’ andbecame ‘values.’”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the word “value” is not foundin Webster’s 1828 dictionary. A lexicographer defining the language of newnation from a distinctly Biblical worldview included virtue but not values.Only a virtuous people can build a free, just, and compassionate nation. Anation free from moral law, a nation of mere values, will not long be free,just, or compassionate. Replacing virtues with values gives voice to theDarwinist mantra “survival of the fittest.”

In his modern classic TheClosing of the American Mind, American professor and classicist AlanBloom chronicled the demise of virtue in the American psyche. There are nolonger virtues, there is now only one virtue: tolerance.

“Relativism is necessary to openness, and this is the virtue,the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years hasdedicated itself to inculcating. Openness – and the relativism that makes itthe only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and variousways of life and kinds of human beings – is the great insight of our times.”

Unfortunately, Christians have surrendered! We have capitulatedto this erosion of language and subconsciously to the worldview of our culture.We are passionate about truth, beauty and goodness. We are concerned about thebreakdown of our families and our cultures. But we have become trapped in therelativist’s language of “values.”

Writing in TotalTruth, Nancy Pearcey succinctly says: “When we use the term values, we are broadcasting to the secular worlds a message thatsays we are only about our owngroup’s idiosyncrasies, which the rest of society should tolerate as long as itdoesn’t upset any important public agendas (emphasisPearcey’s).”

As Professor Bloom said about the modern mind, “A value-creatingman is a plausible substitute for a good man.”

No, there is no substitute for a good man! And the West isreaping the whirlwind of a values-oriented culture, a society of lawlessness.To build a society that is good requires living virtuously. To live virtuously,we must know intimately the One Good, True, and Beautiful God.

First published on the Darrow Miller &Friends website, March 13, 2014.


You canpurchase Pearcey’s book, “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity” through the Colson Book Store.  Purchases help financiallysupport this free ministry.

By Darrow Miller