Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book Review: Seven Books on Ethics

This summer I took a course in Christian ethics. The first six books in this review were on they syllabus, the last I'm throwing in as a bonus because it's quite good and deserves a wider readership than it is getting.

First up is Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context by Glen Stassen and David Gushee. I really enjoyed this book. Its major strength is its rootedness in Scripture, especially the teachings of Jesus. The bulk of the book is ethical reflection on the Sermon on the Mount. I was impressed with the exegetical skill of the authors. While I may not have agreed with every conclusion that they arrived at, there were several moments of illumination for me in the way they handled the text. I was particularly helped by the way they show that Jesus wasn't showing us an impossible ideal that we could never live up to but that the bulk of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount can be broken down into threefold transforming initiatives. One example would be Mt. 5:21-26. Mt. 5:21 represents 'traditional righteousness,' Mt. 5:22 is the vicious cycle that we get stuck in, and Mt. 5:23-26 is the transforming initiative. That is what we are called to do. They break down the entire Sermon on the Mount from 5:22 on in this manner. It is very helpful.

I also liked that Kingdom Ethics relied on virtue ethics or was similar to a virtue ethics approach at many points. It makes for a much more holistic approach to ethics. Part of this stems from my upbringing, but I have a strong distaste for purely rule-based ethics. Overall, I strongly endorse this book. It's a fantastic resource for a course on Christian ethics in colleges and seminaries. I also think that it would be a helpful aid to pastors preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. Any serious student of the Bible who is serious about character formation and able to handle meatier and more academic works would do well to pick up a copy.

Next up is Ethics for a Brave New World by John and Paul Feinberg. This book is significantly different in approach from Kingdom Ethics. The brothers Feinberg start out by giving an introduction to different models for ethics that is very informative. Then they proceed through the usual battery of topics, such as divorce, abortion, war, and homosexuality. The strength of this book is the sheer amount of information that it gives you. They go into great detail discussing all of the pertinent details surrounding the issues. This also is a drawback in some senses, in that the book is now 17 years old making it out of date (however the 2nd edition to be released late this year will rectify that, as it is a thorough updating of the book).

I didn't always like the way arguments were made. The book did a particularly poor job of noting which arguments they considered strong and which they considered weak. There were many times that I felt that there were significant holes in certain arguments that were never addressed. They also took some odd views at times that I disagreed with (like the death penalty is obligatory). Overall, though, the book is more helpful than not, so it wouldn't be a bad option for someone looking to get informed on various ethical debates.

Richard Hays' masterpiece, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics needs no introduction or recommendation from me. At fifteen years old it is already considered a classic in the field of New Testament Ethics, and rightly so.

Hays' book is helpful on a number of levels. First is his thorough survey of New Testament texts where he draws out the various focal points that the writers of the New Testament looked through when addressing ethics (community, cross, and new creation). I also found his survey of five different theologian's theological ethics very informative. In that section Hays was critical but fair, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

One methodological point that I was helped by was his insistence that we let each passage speak in its given mode. For example, a character in a narrative who is used paradigmatically should be used as such, and not turned into a rule. Hays' handling of each of his five test cases is excellent, even if you do not agree with his final conclusions. In particular I found his essay on homosexuality to be the best thing that I have read on the subject (though it is not a subject that I read much about). In conclusion, I cannot recommend Moral Vision of the New Testament highly enough. This should be mandatory reading for every seminarian and pastor.

Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher Wright is for Old Testament ethics what Moral Vision of the New Testament is for New Testament ethics. If I were to list out all of the points at which I found Wright helpful, I'd end up referencing half of the book, so I'll limit myself to a couple of major observations that I found helpful.

His general approach to Old Testament Ethics is to look at the big picture. The law needs to be understood within its narrative framework. A big part of the wider framework of the Old Testament is understanding what God's purposes were for Israel. They were meant to live as a light as an example to the rest of the world. Thus being moral is being a witness. Then all of the rules and laws are subsumed within that wider understanding of God's purposes for his people. One other thing I really enjoyed about this book is that individual ethics is the last chapter. It's not that individual ethics aren't important, but they aren't the primary focus of the Old Testament. Again, like Hays' work on New Testament ethics, I believe that this book should be required reading for every seminarian and every pastor. It will change the way you teach ethics from the Old Testament.

One of the special focuses of our class was the immigration debate that is currently dividing the US. We read two books from different perspectives, both by Evangelical Old Testament scholars. One was Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible by M. Daniel Carroll R. and the other was The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible by James Hoffmeier. It was interesting to see the contrasting approaches that each book took. There was much less overlap than I expected between the two. One definite benefit of Carroll's book was the historical background of immigration to the United States, focusing particularly on Hispanic immigration, that he provided. Hoffmeier's book payed less attention to background issues and spent more time on the biblical text. One interesting contribution that Hoffmeier makes to the discussion is his analysis of immigration in the ANE and the Old Testament, where he shows that immigration laws did exist, were enforced, and viewed as something to be respected.

In the end I tended to side more with Carroll who took a softer stance towards illegal immigration, but both books should be read by any Christian who wants to be biblically informed on this difficult and important issue. They are both fairly brief and not technical making them accessible to a wide audience.

The final book that I'll bring up was not on the syllabus, but is an excellent work in the field of Pauline ethics, that is Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul's Ethics by David Horrell. There are many helpful aspects of this book. He spends some quality time examining Pauline ethics over the past century. In particular he focuses on the work of Hays mentioned above and also Daniel Boyarin's work. He offers penetrating critiques of each. Horrell also helpfully integrates his study of the Pauline text with recent research from the social sciences on group identity and formation. His basic contention is that we need to understand Paul's ethics within their community framework. Paul's goal was to have communal solidarity that allowed difference on matters that were not critical to group identity. This book is very academic in approach, but for those who like to tackle such works, I would strongly encourage you to check out this book (and perhaps literally check it out - from the library as it's a little pricey).

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