Christian Ethics and the Church

Ecclesial Foundations for Moral Thought and Practice

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Philip Turner
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , October
     2015.
     320 pages.
     $26.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780801097072.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Bearing resonances with the work of Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and Oliver O’Donovan, Philip Turner’s Christian Ethics and the Church provides a programmatic outline for ethical reflection and deliberation within the common life of the Christian church. Such a description may elicit suspicion among those familiar with the field that this project is tempted toward sectarianism—a charge that many ecclesially-focused ethicists have striven to avoid for decades now. But Turner’s Christian Ethics and the Church manages to affirm an intra-communitarian outlook while simultaneously suggesting multiple possibilities for Christian public engagement in social and political life. As an ethicist rooted in the Anglican tradition, Turner consistently and admirably charts middle ways between extremes. This book is bold and ambitious in its implications, and yet modest in its specific proposals.

The first part of the book consists of a tripartite comparison-and-contrast between ethics conceived as an individualist pursuit of perfection and purity of heart (John Cassian), a social-gospel approach that seeks to transform society into the kingdom of God (Walter Rauschenbusch), and an ethic rooted in the internal life of a community of faith (John Howard Yoder). The litmus test is how closely each adheres to scripture. A five-page, three-column scripture index indicates the extent to which each author depends upon biblical sources, with Yoder emerging as the closest. Notable differences remain, however, between Yoder’s reading of scripture (and, thereby, his ethics) and that of Turner, so the book proceeds to an extended exegesis of Ephesians in order to prepare for the presentation Turner’s own ecclesially-focused ethic later on. Lest the reader charge Turner with adhering to a canon-within-a-canon, he also provides readings of Matthew, Luke, and Revelation, the cumulative effect of which underscores the biblical warrant—and the specific ethical content—for the Turner’s constructive project.

Depending on one’s inclination to see the glass as half empty or half full, the exegetical chapters may be received as incredibly hopeful or utterly depressing. Turner’s reading of Ephesians, in particular, presents the graces of the Christian life (humility, gentleness, patience, and so on) in a way that some will find truly inspiring. It is equally possible, however, for readers to come away disheartened by the failure of Christian churches to exhibit such virtues when handling internal conflict. Turner’s treatment of the so-called “household codes” in the latter chapters of Ephesians is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this exegesis, as “mutual subjection” in domestic relations becomes a model for ecclesial ethics. Scholars of Pauline ethics will want to read the two chapters on Ephesians with special care.

In the second half of the book, Turner outlines his own ecclesially-focused ethic, moving from a comparative and exegetical approach to a programmatic and constructive one. Here Turner weaves ethics into systematic theology in multiple ways: defining the basis of Christian ethics in a trinitarian fashion, prioritizing the first commandment (love of God) and interpreting the second (love of neighbor) in its light, and placing conversion at the heart of Christian moral understanding.

Having established that Christian ethics should be understood primarily within what St. Benedict called “a school for the service of the Lord,” Christian Ethics and the Church proceeds to explore in its final chapters both the internal, ecclesial setting and the external, public setting of the Christian moral life. Turner’s critical voice becomes more pronounced here, with contemporary spirituality, philanthropy, marriage, political participation, and both Catholic and Protestant moral teaching receiving considerable analysis and critique. A question that persists throughout is the relation of Christ to culture, as Turner rejects H. Richard Niebuhr’s “transformative” model for a formative model in which Christ forms a distinct ecclesial culture. With frequent nods to George Lindbeck, Robert Louis Wilken, and (again) Oliver O’Donovan, this final section is the most promising.

There is much here for contemporary Christian ethicists to reflect upon. Turner writes charitably, but his critiques are unequivocal. Those inclined toward a Yale-school, postliberal approach will find support in the Turner’s project, while others may find themselves quibbling with some of his socially conservative implications. That said, Turner leaves much to be determined by the consciences of individual Christians—at least those formed in the community of the church and cognizant of their limitations. In a manner quite similar to Karl Barth, Turner is reluctant to construct an ethic too certain of itself, while he remains fully aware of the radical difference that is made when ethical reflection is performed in the company of the saints. Perhaps the quickest way to sum up this project would be: “a kinder, gentler version of Stanley Hauerwas—one that will actually encourage you to vote.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Andrew Edwards is a managing editor at Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Turner (PhD, Princeton University) is an Episcopal priest and the author or editor of several books, including The Crisis of Moral Teaching in the Episcopal Church. Now retired, he previously served as professor of Christian ethics at the General Theological Seminary in New York and as dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. More recently, he served as interim dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest and interim rector at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, Texas.

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