Book Review: The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics
Ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells
Wiley-Blackwell, 2006 (1st edition). 528pp.

There is no such thing as “Christian ethics.” Such is a quick summation of the opening essays of a theological collection that espouses, audaciously, to then pursue that precise field of research. Yet Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, themselves Christian ethicists, are unconvinced. Having gathered over thirty of the Christian academic world’s most profound voices for orthodox, biblical, liturgical ethics, they are unconvinced.

It makes for a masterful work of theology.

Ethics and Worship

The centering conviction of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is that the “ethics” of the Christian faith is far less about pat answers to “ethical quandaries” (that is, far less about answers to “the trolley problem”) and more about Christian formation: what kind of people are formed, discipled, and trained by the faith. From this perspective, “ethics” is kind of an unnecessary afterthought, an all-too-modern reflection upon that which earlier, better formed, Christians understood naturally. Truly “Christian” ethics is unreflective, unpremeditated, organically developed, and found in the lived actions of Christian people, something that Hauerwas and Wells make explicit in their introductory essay, “Why Christian Ethics Was Invented”:

Christian identity is not primarily to be found in statements or debates or arguments, but in particular practices, commitments, and habits. (Hauerwas and Wells, BCCE, 37)

From this perspective, then, it is the Christian practice of ecclesiological, sacramental, liturgically-organized communal worship that best provides a suitable on-ramp for conversations about ethics, rather than, as Kantian Rationalists would prefer, a more “natural” morality or “relevant,” consensus-driven liberal democratic mode. A good summation of Hauerwas and Wells’ framework is found in their essay of biblical philadelphia “The Gift of the Church”:

Ethics names the ways in which disciples discern and embody Christ’s life in the world, and the chief way they learn how to do this is through worship. (Ibid., 26)

If this theme sounds familiar to my readers, it is because this is not a new topic for my blog-writing: Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, which I mentioned in my yearly books-in-review, prefigures some of the foundational liturgical-sacramental claims that Hauerwas and Wells use to organize this collection of essays. Likewise, since its publication, BCCE has been influential for a myriad of theologians writing today, especially James K.A. Smith, whose Cultural Liturgies I reviewed for Theologian’s Library. This continuity of theologians asserting that Christian ethics is emergent from Christian worship forms both the bibliographic backdrop for the BCCE and the scholastic reasoning for its continued reception. However radical a departure Hauerwas and Wells have made from Kant-inspired ethics, it is my sense that it is a necessary and foundationally Christian departure.

A Quick Sampling of What To Expect

Rather than give some exhaustive run-down of all that one might find in the BCCE, my review will now, instead, give some smattered highlights. While the collection is overall masterful, it is noteworthy to observe that some essays over-repeat previous themes, or gloss the same introductions overmuch. If read sequentially (as I did) one does begin to skim the front matter knowing that it will be a banal regurgitation of Hauerwas and Wells’ stuff. Some essays are worse about this than others. Nevertheless, the vast majority of essays are so superb that I find it well beyond my reasonable limits as a reviewer to treat each with their due diligence.

Here are some quick highlights:

+ Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan Catholic priest, discusses the problem with the concept of “racial reconciliation” and asserts, instead, the time of greeting as the formation of the People of God

+ Charles Pinches discusses the reading of Scripture as a form of naming and describing, creating the fundamental vocabularies of faith

+ David Matzko McCarthy, following the vein of his Sex and Love in the Home (which I also recommend), discusses a radical (and traditional?!) vision of hospitality in the home that reorients sexual relationships

+ R.R. Reno presents a positive vision (even provocative) towards a Christian work-ethic untainted by either global capitalism or socialist authoritarianism

+ Joseph Mangina corrects our scientific reductionisms regarding bearing children and brings the family into its proper context as a community of hope

And so on! For being a volume that “doesn’t do ethics,” Hauerwas and Wells’ collection pretty much addresses all the questions. Other notable highlights include Joel James Shuman’s address on homosexuality, Stephen Fowl’s thorough exegesis of Ephesians 4:25-5:2 in order to discuss theft, and the essays from William T. Cavanaugh and Kevin J. Vanhoozer. The whole work is worthy and replete with wisdom, liturgical practices, and theo-ethical challenges to the Church catholic.

My recommendation is simply to buy the book. With an updated edition out, the first edition’s cost is quite reasonable, so reasonable that I can’t see why any and every pastor and theologian shouldn’t have it on their shelf. It is perhaps the most comprehensive and helpful work of modern (postliberal / New Traditionalist) theology available today. It is a must-have.

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Book Review: God’s Mediators

God’s Mediators
Andrew S. Malone
IVP Academic, 2017. 230pp.

It should go without saying that one of the more complex and difficult strands to pull out and discuss throughout the course of the biblical canon is that of the intersections between the cultic liturgies of the Mosaic Law and the unique challenges to the assumptions of those under the Mosaic Law when it comes to the New Covenant and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not for nothing that denominational and doctrinal divisions exist solely on the basis of how one parses these relationships: dispensationalism for those who seek to make a clean break and separation, supersessionism for those who seek the advance the New at the expense of the Old, Covenant Theology for a more holistic approach, and N.T. Wright’s New Perspective of Paul for another, but more nuanced, holistic engagement.

Gods MediatorsI say that to point out that I think Andrew S. Malone is jumping into far deeper waters than the tools he allots himself allows. In this latest edition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology (edited by D.A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Malone seeks to peruse the canon of the Scriptures with the aim of developing, as he says, a biblical theology of priesthood. While his attempt is admirable, what he has actually succeeded in doing is revealing the precise limits of “biblical theology” (as deployed by Carson, et al.) and some of its more hidden biases, leading God’s Mediators to be less an insightful tool than a more elaborate bibliography.

The Limitations of the Biblical Theology Approach

I will be free to admit that I find even the term “biblical” theology to be more than a little jarring. Looking at the history of modern theology, one sees “biblical” theology emerging as an opposition and response to various trends in historical-critical and postmodern theological methods (like how Greg Boyd’s “theological interpretation of Scripture” attempts much the same thing; just with Open Theism). In short, for as much as historical-critical (et al.) methods are “modern” in that they represent a fairly-recent foray into particular concerns (origins, historiography, etc.) that the vast majority of Church history found uninteresting, so to are reactionary methods, like “biblical” theology, “modern” in that they begin with an opposition, rather than an affirmation.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t some value to biblical theology as it is. There are merits to its methods. In the previous entry of the NSBTPreaching in the New Testament by Jonathan I. Griffiths (which I reviewed on this site), I found plenty of useful biblical-exegetical nuggets, engagement with Greek texts, and the like to find the volume useful. Focusing in on a (surprisingly) rare topic in the Scriptures such as “preaching” serves as a word-study on the complexities and nuances of that topic. Biblical theology ought never be the main course, since it tends to lead us to overviews and exegetical insight rather than Christian discipleship; but it serves as a useful tool to highlight some of the more complicated miscellany of the Scriptures.

Malone makes two main errors that plague the entirety of his work here. The first is, like those who wish to substitute “biblical” counseling in place of “Christian” counseling, Malone mistakes biblical theology as being the same thing as “theology that is biblical,” and, so doing, places his kind of work on a pedestal of objectivity and scholarship that it simply cannot sustain. The second is that his subject matter is just not amenable to this kind of method: the various lines of priesthood, Old Testament sacrificial systems, Christ’s high priestly role, the priesthood of Israel and the Church, are just far too intricate and far too intertwined for biblical theology to even be successful in un-weaving them.

Sacraments? Anyone?

One of the glaring oversights of this biblical theology project is, unsurprisingly, its lack of any nuanced engagement with sacramental views of the priesthood. Malone attempts to  bypass denominational / doctrinal disputes on this matter by setting up the method of his survey as a biblical theology, but, like any attempted neutrality, all this serves to accomplish is to allow his own doctrinal presumptions show up in his selective reading of the text. For a survey attempting some broad biblical consensus on the nature of priests and the priesthood in the Scriptures, views on priesthood as diverse as that of the Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Presbyterians, and Lutherans are surprisingly absent. As such, passages classically considered within the purview of Christ’s high priesthood, like His Baptism or the Last Supper, and discussed typologically with relation to the sacraments are wholly disregarded.

An especially clear example of this is when Malone addresses the topic of Adam’s priesthood. In the background of his discussion, Malone has already brought certain presumptions on how the high priesthood functions — it defines the holy, allows the people to approach the presence of God, teaches the definitions of holiness (= ethics) — and then re-reads those terms into Adam’s role before God as the imago Dei. Whatever his reasons for beginning the discussion of priests in Exodus, we must observe that there are plenty of creational theologians who think that this discussion must begin instead with Genesis; that is, thinking of Adam as a pre-type of Aaron is wrongheaded, instead we must think of Aaron as some kind of Adam. This is the precise case that Alexander Schmemann makes in For the Life of the World, representing the Eastern Orthodox view on Eucharist, Creation, and the priesthood. That Malone thinks the high priesthood rightly begins with Aaron reveals already his assumptions.

Andrew S Malone

Here we see again the shortfalls of biblical theology on a subject such as priest(hood): for one, how one defines and reads priest(hood) is often already pre-determined by their doctrinal presuppositions. Whether or not one is reading the Bible to source such a survey is almost a moot point: a Catholic or Orthodox reader would see priesthood as a foreground interpreting Eucharistic moments in the text and one who rejects their view on sacraments out-of-hand can all-too-easily ignore such a reading altogether. It is not a neutral or objective view that discounts entire Christian traditions just because it takes for granted the superiority of its own hermeneutic; this is the definition of a biased method.

Abstracted Conclusions, Abstracted Discipleship

Of course, one could argue that a “biblical theology” hopes to deal with just the text, rather than historic receptions of said text or traditional typologies of the text, and that, as a result, ignoring the sacramental conversation or the high church concerns implicit in the understanding of “priest / priesthood” is part of the point. But even if we dismiss sacramental theology’s unique perspective on these terms (which is a modern tendency in theology), even if we dismiss potential verses and situations where we might be able to see the priest(hood) in action that we would have otherwise missed on these grounds, there are still glaring omissions present in Malone’s survey.

These omissions are obvious enough in the read-through, but nowhere do they present themselves with more clarity than in his closing chapter, for “applications.” Here, Malone presents a smattering of unconvincingly-serious discussions on the ends of such a study: a few thoughts on why the priesthood of all believers is important, some offhand suggestions for future exegesis (and his suggestion here to avoid “minimizing” the term priest(hood) is valid; I wish he too had followed through!), and, in an excruciatingly anticlimactic manner, an admonition against the present usage of the term “priest” for certain denominations’ ministers.

These “applications” are all-too-abstract. They are like when the pastor concludes his sermon saying “Now, all you need to do is believe this thing.” That is not an application; it is a doctrinal exhortation. An application would be “Now, here is how you do this thing.” Just as faithful preaching must call its congregation to the practical, concrete acts of the Kingdom, so too faithful theology ought to call its reader to practical, concrete acts. What is particularly surprising about this is that the ministry of the priest(hood) is one of the most action-ed ministry roles in the Bible.

In other words, Malone skips over the vast bulk of Leviticus, the formal washings and cleansings, the offerings, the sacrifices, etc.; in short, he skips over all of the explicit action-ed activities of the priest(hood)’s ministry, the very actions that constitute its proper functioning! Instead, Malone focuses on the preaching-teaching, judging-discerning roles of the priest(hood), roles present in Exodus, for sure, but not emphasized until Ezra’s post-exilic priesthood and the later Second Temple Judaism. This abstracting of the priest(hood)s’ role from their embodied actions results in abstracted conclusions and abstracted discipleship. These conclusions are frustrating, especially given how necessary a renewed vision of the Church qua priesthood of all believers is needed for counteracting a secularized (=demythologized, =disenchanted) world.

Final Thoughts

Ignoring the hermeneutical contributions of a large portion of the Church is lamentable, problematic, and paradigmatic of the problems inherent to biblical theology. But ignoring the cultic acts of the priests and Levites themselves in order to focus on their roles as teachers, like setting up Aaron as the paradigmatic priest without allowing for a creational precedent, is disingenuous to the task of biblical theology itself. One of my disappointments with this work as I began reading it was that it was more of a survey than a monograph; one of my disappointments upon finishing it was that it was not even an effective one.

All being said, I found Malone’s work to be more fraught with inconsistencies than the sort of nuanced and advanced scholarship one hopes from a more-established series like NSBT. In conversations with others who found this addition to be more than lacking, the consensus was that the series has been stalling for some time (those who have attended TEDS suggested that D.A. Carson is spending too much time on his commentaries of the Johannine letters), and this volume certainly speaks to the NSBT‘s need for a renewed vision.

At best, God’s Mediators provides a worthwhile bibliography for writers interested in pursuing the subject further, along with some conservative evangelical approaches to priest(hood); at worst, it presents itself as a solid biblical theology without spending time with some of these texts’ hardest denominational fights and without investing energy into these texts’ most complex (yet rewarding) sequences (namely, the priestly-Levitical cultic actions). If anything, Malone’s work here shows that there is still yet much ground to cover even in proposing basic readings for Exodus and Leviticus’ priestly texts, let alone dealing with the major themes of priest(hood) throughout the entirety of the Scriptures.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.