Kingdom Ethics

Following Jesus in Contemporary Context

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David P. Gushee, Glen H. Stassen
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , July
     2016.
     550 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802874214.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

From the publication of its first edition in 2003, Kingdom Ethics has been my key textbook for a post-graduate level course on Christian ethics based on the teaching of Jesus, as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapters 5–7). The book’s most distinctive feature was—and still is—an integrative and interdisciplinary approach to ethics that combines biblical studies, ethics, and systematic, practical, and public theology with a range of contemporary case studies. Part 1 (the first third or so of the volume) is entitled “Methodology for Kingdom Ethics,” and begins the book’s lengthy appeal to the values and ethics of the Kingdom of God—outlined in the Sermon on the Mount—as the central self-understanding and teaching of Jesus. The nine chapters of this first section describe the principal dynamics of the Reign of God in terms of, for example, “Virtues of Kingdom People,” “Love,” and “Justice,” to cite some of the chapter subheadings. Of particular significance is the authors’ creative reading of the six pericopes in the second half of Matthew chapter 5 (the “You have heard … but I say to you” paragraphs) that have often been read as idealist and aspirational, and hence, of rather little practical value for ethics. Authors David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen plausibly argue that these, along with some other passages in the Sermon, are better understood as a series of “transforming initiatives” that do not simply offer potential solutions to the problems presented, but actually provide deliverance from vicious cycles of behavior, and enable participation in God’s communally-mediated grace.

The strongly holistic and communal dynamic advocated in the methodology continues in the second part of the book, “Core Moral Issues in Kingdom Ethics,” that forms the remainder of the book. These chapters offer well-informed case studies based on moral issues raised by the Sermon. They cover topics such as criminal and global justice, marriage and divorce, sexuality and gender relations, truth-telling across human life, violence and vengeance, war and peacemaking, healing, inclusive community, abortion and euthanasia, the handling of money and possessions (and economic life more broadly), creation care, racism, and biotechnology—all but one of them derived from a relevant section of the Sermon. Throughout this case study section there is a persistent emphasis on the role of virtuous and character-forming practices.

The strengths of the first edition remain and are reinforced and expanded in a number of ways in this second edition. Perceptive discussion questions are now provided at the end of each chapter and there is a twenty-seven page glossary of terms ranging from “abortion” and “acid rain” through to “white supremacist” and “worldview.” There is a wide-ranging, comprehensive, and updated bibliography. Above all, there is a much clearer focus on methodology—one that avoids the method of many textbooks on ethics: discussion based on what students usually see as tedious taxonomies of abstract ethical theories. This volume’s enhanced emphasis on method remedies an impediment I often encountered with the first edition: students with a background in only one of the central disciplines (biblical studies or ethics or systematic theology or practical theology) struggle with a methodology that introduces approaches that they had not met before. This edition anticipates and corrects this fault in three ways: it introduces and repeatedly refers throughout the volume to some twelve carefully worded “key method elements”; it introduces a fairly comprehensive outline of moral norms in chapter 4, and of moral agency in chapter 9; and it offers clearer content that does not assume prior background knowledge—all of which indicate that the authors have read and reacted to reviews of the first edition. Moreover, the case studies and incidental examples are now much more often drawn from global examples (the first edition took case studies mainly from North America; so thank you, David and Glen, for listening to complaints from the South Pacific and elsewhere!), and are updated in terms of content; most comprehensively in the fast-changing area of bioethics (chapter 21—now linked with Matthew 4:23-24). There is one completely new chapter “So Much Value: The Sacredness of Life”; it is added to the second edition (under discussion of Matthew 6:26) because of the authors’ conviction that the topic is “a cardinal norm in Christian ethics, standing at the same exalted level as love and justice…People should be treated with love and justice because they are sacred in God’s sight” (149). As for the theological stance of the volume, the preface speaks of the wish “to reflect the evangelical Christian commitments” of the authors while drawing even more widely, in this revision, “on the resources of the broader Christian church and academy, and while writing in a way that welcomes all kinds of readers to the table” (xiii). Ecumenically minded as well as global readers will notice that this certainly is a more generous evangelicalism than they sometimes encounter from North America; the decidedly inclusive discussion of LGBT issues in chapter 13 is probably the most notable example of this.

Given the exegetical foundations of the volume, there is a judicious employment of a number of well-known commentaries. Teachers will doubtless have additional texts that suit their course intentions. For example, given that the reception history of the Sermon on the Mount shows that it has been particularly vulnerable to distortions by special interest groups, the hermeneutical savvy of Daniel Patte offers a creative Franco-Filipino (now North American) evaluation of the role of the reader in establishing meaning while allowing both author and text to remain central (see, for example, Patte’s The Challenge of Discipleship [Bloomsbury T&T Clark 1999)]. Charles Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount (Baker Academic, 2006), with its appealing canonical sensitivities, verbal icons, and emphasis on decision-making and character-formation, might also have been added to the bibliography of Kingdom Ethics. And it is a little puzzling to see that none of the writings of Oliver O’Donovan (the doyen of British Christian ethicists) are mentioned.

As the revisions were being made, Stassen became ill and died. Some of his former students were recruited to help work on the topics that he was rewriting. This excellent volume is—most fittingly—dedicated to him.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bob Robinson is Senior Research Fellow at Laidlaw College, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Date of Review: 
November 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, Atlanta, Georgia. His many other books include Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: Genocide and Moral Obligation.

Glen H. Stassen (1936–2014) served as the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. His other books include Living the Sermon on the Mountand Just Peacemaking.

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