Augustinian and Ecclesial Christian Ethics

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D. Stephen Long
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , August
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


D. Stephen Long has, for some time now, been a theologian of ecumenical tendencies. Writing on both Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, trained by Methodists and Jesuits, Long’s career has been one of bridge-building where such bridges between traditions can be fruitfully recovered. It is with great interest, therefore, that I approached this volume, which draws the Augustinian tradition and the so-called “ecclesial tradition” of Christian ethics into conversation on their most contentious point: how to love one’s enemies. 

What is meant by these two traditions requires a moment of explanation. The “Augustinians” broadly take their cues from Augustine’s corpus about what it means to live faithfully in the world. Long traces this complex family tree back to its most prominent modern progenitor, Reinhold Niebuhr. Broadly, the Augustinians hold that politically-restrained violence is an unavoidable feature of life in the world, and as such, the question is how best to appropriate that burden. The “ecclesial” tradition, by contrast, takes its historical cues from the Anabaptists, as creatively appropriated by its modern progenitors, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauer was, and James McClendon. Broadly, this view—seeing the church as the primary venue for God’s activity in the world—renounces the use of political violence. 

These two trajectories have long been tropes in academic work, pitted as two radically different ways of viewing not only the theological task but the Christian moral life as well. At some points, this remains true: there is little to bridge Niebuhr’s conception of the kingdom of God as a tragic ideal at history’s edge and Yoder’s conception of the kingdom as a present reality. Still, Augustinians and ecclesial ethicists have learned from one another and reconsidered the terms of the debate since the 1950s. In the first two chapters of the book, Long reconstructs the long and complex histories of these two approaches, showing the internal variances and different interpretations that characterize both trajectories. These chapters alone would be worth the price of the volume, for in these chapters Long provides a wealth of nuanced interpretation about where these traditions began and how they have developed beyond their initial sources. The scope of his scholarship here is impressive and instructive. 

But Long is interested in more than simple reconstruction: the stereotypes that persist about both groups, as those committed to Niebuhr’s realism or Yoder’s ecclesiocentricism in Christian ethics, is largely a trope and does not do justice to either group. As Long notes, the initial argument between Niebuhr and Yoder has long been eclipsed by later thinkers, and as such, it is time to consider where these two might have common cause. In particular, given their diverging commitments regarding the use of political violence, what can these groups say to one another? Throughout the first two chapters, Long develops a fifteen-point critique of the ecclesial ethicists by the Augustinians, asking in the third and final chapter whether this is an unbridgeable divide. On some of the points, such as their common commitment to human finitude or what to make of immanent politics, there is plenty of room for convergence and alliance. On some points, such as the use of violence against the enemies of a nation, there is still a great divide. 

This book, copious in detail and heavily footnoted, is an indispensable guide to scholars seeking to make their way through the thickets of these two approaches in Christian ethics. If there is one critique to be lodged, however, it is that the subtitled issue of “loving enemies” gets lost at times within the broader context of how a Christian is to think about the texture of their political life. At one level, this is not a problem, as questions of lethal violence depend on this much deeper question of what the world is and how people of faith are to negotiate it. But those who are seeking a more focused inquiry on the question of political violence should be prepared to navigate the broader contours before arriving at the question evoked by the book’s subtitle. This quibble aside, the book is a wonderful resource, and should be required reading for those involved in sorting out the complex questions of what Christian participation in the life of the world looks like.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Hardin-Simmons University Logsdon Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

D. Stephen Long is the Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University.


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