Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life
A New Conversation
- ISBN: 9780800697617
- Published By: Fortress Press
- Published: May 2018
From the first page of Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life: A New Conversation, Bruce C. Birch, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Larry L. Rasmussen identify the niche of their intended audience. They are primarily interested in reaching students who want to understand the scriptures as relevant in a radically changing world in which traditional views of scripture can no longer function. The new conversation these authors identify is defined by two “landscapes” that have seen apocalyptic changes in the forty years since the publication of the first edition of The Bible and Ethics in Christian Life (Fortress, 2018). The first “landscape” is the rapidly changing environment of the Earth itself, and the impact that environmental changes have on human life. The second “landscape” is the rapid growth of Christianity in the global South and East (xiii–xxi). In the context of radical and pervasive change, they make a modest contribution to the “immodest [project of] rethinking of our collective existence and identity” (xxii). Their project is bold and offers some interesting insights. It is also highly accessible, but it is limited in some important ways.
The authors summarize their contribution to this conversation with a two-part thesis: “First is the claim that Christian ethics is not synonymous with biblical ethics. The second is that the Bible is somehow formative and normative for Christian ethics” (3). On first impression, neither of these claims is particularly contentious. Most Christian ethicists would agree that Christian ethics is not simply synonymous with or reducible to biblical ethics. However, the book argues that there is no unified theology or ethics to be found in scripture as such, and thus that the bible is a community effort that draws on the interpretative work of generations of the Christians. They also claim that we have experienced a collapse of biblical authority and reject a ‘strict’ view of inspiration. However, while they imply that this strict view of inspiration is common in the Christian community, it is not clear exactly who holds the view that they describe. On their account, God is revealed through scripture, in a sense, but scripture is socio-temporally located “[and] it is clear that no word is the final word concerning God’s self-revelation” (85). Given this, their thesis is not simply that Christian ethics and biblical ethics are not identical, but that there is no biblical ethic—perhaps no formal set of normative propositions—that can be excised from the biblical narrative and reinterpreted, reapplied, or expanded for use in the modern world. Christian ethics is, in their view, simply not that neat. The resulting view does not have the same consensus as their initial claim, and it will receive significant pushback from some Christian Ethicists.
Most Christian ethicists would also agree that the Bible is, in some sense, normative for Christian ethics. However, the authors contend that while Christian ethicists have focused on answering descriptive, constructive, and normative questions, they have commonly failed to consider formative and practical questions (92–93). Further, they argue that in each case Christian ethics must consider formative and practical questions considering God’s real presence in the world (93). Christian ethics is done in and through a relationship with God to effectively bridge the growing gap between Christian theology and the public audience. Because of this, they place significant emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit and scripture in every aspect of ethics. “Only by the power of the Holy Spirit and aided by Scripture can human beings know the ways and will of God, including the purpose for human life and what constitutes morality” (172). This emphasis puts their view of Christian ethics on squarely theological ground, and again this is more contentious than their initial claim. Those who want to focus on public engagement ‘from a Christian worldview,’ but without direct appeal to the scriptures or theological claims may find this difficult to accept.
The authors also expand the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—to include the Earth itself as a source of moral knowledge. “Ethics worthy of the name,” they claim, “must address . . . Earth’s entire web of life and its support systems” (100). They contend that the natural world is a revelation of God and our teacher in theology, and this implies a strong role for some form of natural theology. This is an interesting addition to the Quadrilateral, and it is combined with the argument that the Quadrilateral represents cooperative sources of wisdom rather than competing sources of authority. However, their discussion of the Quadrilateral leaves something to be desired. This is especially evident in the fact that they simultaneously claim that the Bible is the primary source for Christian ethics (171) and that there is no primary source for Christian ethics (177).
The third section of the book begins with an extended attempt to provide exemplars for the model of Christian moral discernment and formation that they offer. However, here it is helpful to apply one of the authors’ own interpretive principles: whose voices are not heard? As exemplars of Christian ethics done well, they hold out the work of Pope Francis, Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Flor de Manacá movement in Pinheiro Baptist Church. The authors claim that their goal in the last two examples is to provide two examples in which both sides in a conflict drew on scripture to present and defend their views (225). However, in each case the voices considered are significantly one-sided: the voices of King and Flor de Manacá are given significant space, but their actual opponents are never identified, and their voices are never heard. The reader is left to assume that King was opposed by racists and the women of Flor de Manacá were opposed by sexist abusers and murderers (223). The effect is that while they acknowledge that the opponents of King and Flor de Manacá were biblically rooted, they illustrate the biblical roots of King and Flor de Manacá while leaving their opponents vague and type-cast. Of further concern is that there is no exemplar from African, East Asian, or Native American communities.
Overall, this book surveys significant changes in the forty years since the publication of the first edition of Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, but there is little in the book that moves beyond the discussions of the last twenty years—the adoption of the earth into the Weslyan Quadrilateral being a major exception. It also leaves out significant contributions from Roman Catholic and Evangelical ethicists and biblical scholars who would provide significant criticism of the views presented as common—does, for instance, Birch et al’s understanding of a traditional view of inspiration describe the view held by many? Further, there is a list of names in both Roman Catholic and Evangelical ethics who have written substantively on the role of scripture in character formation and practical moral issues: N. T. Wright, Christopher Wright, William Spohn, John Frame, and James Keenan and Daniel J. Harrington come to mind. These figures would seem to be interlocutors who are significant given Birch et al’s concern to focus on formative and practical questions. Nevertheless, the book is a clear and concise introduction to the current state of the discussion of Christian Ethics in Mainline Protestantism and will be a useful resource to introduce students to this tradition of thought.
K. Lauriston Smith is a PhD candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.K. Lauriston SmithDate Of Review:January 28, 2022