Every Good Path

Wisdom and Practical Reason in Christian Ethics and the Book of Proverbs

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Andrew Errington
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     2019.
     272 pages.
     $115.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567687692.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Every Good Path: Wisdom and Practical Reason in Christian Ethics and the Book of Proverbs explores the book of Proverbs as it relates to practical reason in Christian ethics and how this relationship has been understood through church history. Andrew Errington first conceived of the idea for the project while conducting studies on Proverbs over a decade ago (x). T&T Clark releases the book in their Enquiries in Theological Ethics series, which seeks to encourage scholars from differing ecclesial backgrounds to find common ground and form friendships (Bloomsbury - T&T Clark Enquiries in Theological Ethics). Alongside this objective, Errington seeks to find “whether the distinctive character and requirements of action finally unsettle the very category of practical reason” (8, italics original). The study seeks clarity in the role “acting well” plays in Christian ethics (8). The strategy to accomplish the goal is reading Proverbs alongside Thomas Aquinas and Oliver O’Donovon (3). This review will (1) provide a summary of the chapters, (2) give the pros and cons of the book, and (3) recommend an ideal audience for the book.

Errington’s study wrestles with the very nature of biblical wisdom. The nature of biblical wisdom is twofold: First, a concept of wisdom related to cognitive understanding, and second, a concept of wisdom related to physical skill and application. Errington’s evaluation uses Aquinas and O’Donovon as representing significant viewpoints about practical reason in Christian ethics. Also, Aquinas and O’Donovan represent a history of interpretation on the topic, spanning from the 13th century to the 21st century. However, several relevant scholars are used as supplemental conversation partners. Errington establishes the conversation with Aristotle and later incorporates other modern scholars, such as David VanDrunen and David Kelsey.

The book is five chapters and begins by forming a foundation for understanding practical reason in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics with a study of the philosopher in chapter 1 (18). Aristotle suggests wisdom is “speculative” and is “a concept of wise action that emphasizes mental clarity” (194). Next, Errington discusses Aquinas’ theology about practical reason. Errington describes how Aquinas’ account of practical reason is anchored “in eternal, divine reason” (86). Thus, Aquinas presents practical reason as thoughts formed within the mind (195). Third, the book of Proverbs and the ways of wisdom are studied. Errington finds Proverbs portrays wisdom as the outworking of good actions (140). Chapter 4 examines the work of O’Donovan (viii). Finally, chapter 5 summarizes the book and concludes practical and theoretical knowledge are distinct, yet practical wisdom may express a maturity that Christian ethics serves (225–226). Thus, Christian ethics is “located alongside practice” (italics original), instructing on how to “discern good from evil­—to discern the ways of wisdom” (226).

Every Good Path is excellent. The book accomplishes the goals of both the publisher and the author. Errington includes historical figures who influenced many ecclesial backgrounds (e.g., Augustine and Aquinas). In addition to finding common ground amongst historical figures, Errington has an amicable voice in writing. Errington accomplishes the goal of the book by bringing clarity to “acting Good” in Christian ethics. Two elements stand out from the book: (1) the quality of the argument and (2) the presentation of Proverbs. Errington’s presentation of some presupposed understanding of Proverbs is a single area in which improvements may be made.

First, Errington structures and presents the argument well. The material Errington presents is dense both from the amount of material he engages with and technical language. Yet, the choice of chapter arrangement and concise chapter summaries allow readers from multiple backgrounds (philosophy to biblical studies) to engage the material. Errington’s summation of other scholars’ arguments, main points, and views are par excellence and the best quality of the book. Second, Errington has strong exegetical insight in the book of Proverbs. Errington acknowledges receiving counsel from the renowned scholar of biblical wisdom, Raymond Van Leeuwen, who prevented Errington from blunders (ix). Indeed, the conclusions drawn from Proverbs (ch. 3) enabled Errington to assess accurately previous scholarship and present a probable conclusion.

My overall critique of the book is minimal. One critique concerns the choice to hold an “unpopular approach” for handling wisdom literature in light of Jesus (209n93). Errington states that Jesus’ wisdom is different, but not in conflict, from Old Testament wisdom (209). Nevertheless, Errington finds that Jesus affirms but also relativizes or nullifies wisdom’s teachings (209). Errington provides some justification for this conclusion, but the argument does not address two issues. First, how will the renewal of creation influence biblical wisdom? Second, does the passing away of sin nullify both the teaching about sin and the wisdom behind the teaching? Perhaps more elaboration may have made this point clearer. Second, Errington finds Proverbs gives primary focus to physical or practical wisdom (106). This requires a false dichotomy to be driven between thought and action. However, the dichotomy may be one instituted by scholars, and Errington’s conclusion that action rings louder than thought in wisdom may be an overcorrection in understanding wisdom in Proverbs.

Every Good Path is recommended for scholars of Proverbs who have backgrounds in ethics, biblical studies, or theological studies. The book, although dense, is accessible to each field of study. Lastly, scholars seeking new perspectives about the practical and intellectual aspects of wisdom in Proverbs may benefit the most from Errington’s research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ross D. Harmon is a doctoral candidate in Biblical studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Errington is Lecturer at St Mark's National Theological Centre, and Research Fellow of the Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre, Charles Sturt University, Australia.

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