The Freedom of a Christian Ethicist

The Future of a Reformation Legacy

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Brian Brock, Michael Mawson
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , January
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What is the Protestant legacy of Christian ethics, and what does it have to offer to the contemporary theological landscape? This is one of the central questions posed by this new collection of essays, stemming from a 2015 conference at the University of Aberdeen. With essays by luminaries in Protestant Christian ethics, such as Jennifer Herdt, Gerald McKenny, Stanley Hauerwas, and Michael Banner, this volume provides a broad engagement with the Reformation legacies of ethics, assessing not only the past of these legacies but what future there might be for Protestant ethics.

Taking Luther’s dictum that “The Christian is lord of all, completely free of everything; a Christian is a servant, completely attentive to the needs of all” (3) as its backdrop, the volume provides a wealth of explorations into Protestant thought that are methodologically driven rather than issue specific. For example, both McKenny’s and Brian Brock’s chapters focus on the question of how to conceive of the value of human agency in light of a Reformation tradition which so heavily emphasizes the priority of God’s salvific acts. Using the work of Karl Barth (McKenny) and Luther (Brock) to resolve this question, the essays develop the conditions within which Protestant ethics can then proceed. Likewise, Paul Martens’s chapter on the future of Anabaptist ethics lays out the work of John Howard Yoder, asking whether there is any long-term viability of Yoder’s church/world distinction for the work of Christian ethics.

The value of this volume is not only in the examination of methodological issues associated with the Protestant legacy, but in the breadth of Protestant legacies accounted for by the authors. In addition to Lutheran and Calvinist trajectories, the volume contains examinations of Anabaptist thought (Martens), the Quaker tradition (Rachel Muers), and modern Lutheran thought (Michael Mawson). Additional essays which bring Protestant thought into conversation with eudemonism (Herdt) and evangelical thought (Hans G. Ulrich) round out the volume’s explorations well, providing a broad recovery of Protestant thought. Works by Hauerwas appear twice within the book (a bit of an oddity for edited works), but the collection’s first chapter is a sermon by Hauerwas, creating a homiletic backdrop which positions the confessional nature of the volume as a whole. 

It is arguable that the intentional lack of engagement with any number of material issues within ethics makes this a less needed volume. The chapters here, while instructive, are also mostly suggestive in terms of constructive proposals. But the focus on issues of method and recovery provides a solid basis upon which future work can build in a number of directions. By focusing on method, this volume promises to have a longer-lasting value than more time-sensitive books. Finally, the volume would make an intriguing option for courses in Protestant thought, as it introduces the Protestant past without hiding its limitations. The cost of the book is on the prohibitive side for students, whether in hardcover or as an e-book, but is an important resource for instructors, researchers, and libraries interested in this important (and much-needed) methodological conversation.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Brock is a Reader in Moral and Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, UK.

Michael Mawson is Lecturer in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen, UK.



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