Building a Theological Bookshelf: Christian Ethics

D. Stephen Long

The place to acquire a reputable knowledge and collection of works in Christian Ethics should not begin with Christian Ethics. Background work should be done first. As a relatively recent academic discipline, Christian Ethics brings together two venerable traditions of thought, moral philosophy and theology. Prudential readers and researchers of Christian Ethics would benefit from having a background in these traditions. They should be adept at inhabiting the two mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation.

Many good works are available for gaining a basic understanding of these doctrines. Mark Gorman’s recommendations in the “Building a Theological Bookshelf” series make for a good beginning. Rowan Williams, Christ: The Heart of Creation (Bloomsbury, 2018), presents a powerful case for considering the Chalcedonian Definition as foundational for relating divine and human agency, a crucial theme for Christian Ethics because central to it is St. Augustine (or Peter Lombard’s) definition of virtue as “what God works in us without us.” That raises a host of difficulties in understanding agency that must be addressed. Thomas Aquinas adds to Augustine’s definition that God works in us without us, but not without our consent. Williams makes a compelling case that the Incarnation assists us in making sense of such an account of virtue.

Reflection on Christian Ethics begins with the Triune God. Each Person of the Trinity is the essence of God, and the Three Persons are the essence of God, and yet there is one Essence in three Persons. This mystery (not a logical puzzle to be solved) sets forth an ecstatic agency in which each of the Persons receives its being from the Others. Made in this image, we too are called to embody an ecstatic agency in which we discover who we are not by securing our virtues through achievements but by receiving them as gifts. Such gifts do not evacuate our agency but establish it. The Incarnation is, as Frederick Denison Maurice, the nineteenth-century Anglican Moral Theologian, put it, the “practical manifestation” of the Trinity in creation making possible this ecstatic agency. His two-volume work, The Kingdom of Christ (1838) is still worth reading. Servais Pinckaers’s Sources of Christian Ethics (Catholic University of American Press, 1995) addresses how divine and human agency work cooperatively through virtues, gifts, fruits, and beatitudes. It is well worth reading.

Once a reasonable grasp of divine and human agency has been achieved, then readers should seek knowledge of the traditions of moral philosophy, especially recognizing the important distinction between modern moral philosophy, with its primary question, “What ought I to do?,” and previous forms of the moral life that begin with the question, “What is a life lived well?” or “What is a good life?” The former question was given its definitive shape by Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics (1874). Its influence (and dullness) cannot be overstated. In many ways, Sidgwick established the framework for the modern academic discipline of ethics in analytical philosophy. The question of the good life was retrieved by G. E. M. Anscombe’s 1958 intervention, “Modern Moral Philosophy” (Philosophy 33, no. 124 [1958]:1–16), in which she coined the term consequentialism, suggested how Sidgwick’s influence was corrupting, and pointed toward Aristotle and Aquinas as an antidote. Her work made possible the virtue ethics of Alasdair MacIntyre and Philippa Foot, which has strong resonances with the Wesleyan tradition (despite Foot’s atheism). Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the second part of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae were given new life. In an ideal world, readers would know this history before venturing into reading Christian ethics. A good place to begin is Julia Annas’s The Morality of Happiness (Oxford University Press, 1993) and MacIntyre’s After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1982).

If readers first take the time to understand the above theological and philosophical traditions, at least to some extent, then they will be better prepared to engage with contemporary issues in Christian Ethics. I would suggest beginning with two collected volumes of essays written by influential Christian ethicists. These two Companions will also provide a rich bibliography for persons interested in teaching, learning, or researching Christian Ethics. Many of the authors in these volumes have written monographs on a variety of ethical matters—sex, gender, race, abortion, war and peace, capital punishment, medicine, colonialism, economics, politics, technology, and much more. After reading the introductions to each of the Companions, readers could examine the issues that interest them as a beginning exercise, then follow it up with the suggested works that conclude each chapter.

Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, eds., Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2006).

Hauerwas and Wells’s four chapters in Part I are one of the best introductions to Christian Ethics available. They show how Christology and ecclesiology are related in the theory and practice of the Christian life. These relationships are then more fully elaborated in the chapters that follow. The structure of the Companion is on the fourfold form of worship: Gathering, Proclamation, Response, and Sending Forth. Gathering corresponds to Part II “Meeting God and One Another,” Proclamation to Part III “Re-encountering the Story,” Response to Part IV “Being Embodied,” and Part V “Re-enacting the Story” and Sending Forth “Being Commissioned” to Part VI. The six parts illumine an “ecclesial ethics.” The chapters assume Hauerwas’s approach to ethics based on “virtue and vision.” Ethics is not a precise, deductive science but an exercise in practical reasoning, discerning how one might and should live if God is who Christ and the church reveal. As Hauerwas puts it, “You can only act in a world you can see, and you can only see a world you can say.” One could call this an aesthetic approach. Christology, ecclesiology, and worship offer forms and patterns that enable participants to discern how to go on in thinking and acting about ethics.

D. Stephen Long and Rebekah K. Miles, eds., Routledge Companion to Christian Ethics (Routledge, 2022).

While the Blackwell Companion sets forth practical reasoning in terms of worship, the Routledge Companion extends those reflections into a central practice of the Christian life: confessing the Triune God. It correlates the contemplative or dogmatic aspect of theology with the practical aspects known as Moral Theology. Confession of faith in the three Persons structures the Companion: belief in God the Father, Mother of us all; God the Son, Word and Wisdom; and God the Holy Spirit, Giver of Life. Each contributor addresses ethical issues such as genetics, white supremacy, digital ethics, transgenderism, climate change, immigration and refugees, death, and more within one of the doctrinal loci. Like the Blackwell Companion, the Routledge Companion is an exercise in practical reasoning. (One downside to this Companion is its cost. The Kindle version is affordable.)

Both the Blackwell and Routledge Companions take a Wesleyan-Anglican approach to Christian Ethics. Although the second part of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae would be essential to understand this approach, Wesley’s work does so as well. Reading the following sermons of Wesley provides important insight into his Christian Ethics:

  • “The Great Privilege of Those Who Are Born of God”
  • “The Lord Our Righteousness”
  • “Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount”

This is the order in which the sermons appeared in the 1771 collection of the Sermons, and they take the reader through what it means to be a new creature in God, how new birth should not be an excuse to avoid one’s own righteousness, and what that righteousness looks like given who Jesus is and what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Reading these sermons in this order might be the best Wesleyan Moral Theology still available to us. Central to Wesley’s Moral Theology is love that establishes and fulfills the law. Unlike some Moral Theology that places grace and law in a dialectical relationship, Wesley understands grace as fulfilling the law, a theme found in both Lev 19 and Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon. Wesley’s Christian ethics provide the theological context to understand the Methodist General Rules: (1) Do good, (2) Do no harm, and (3) Attend upon the ordinances of God. The first two rules bear a striking resemblance to what Aquinas called the first rule of practical reasoning: do good and avoid evil. The third establishes the spirituality appropriate for obeying that rule.

Next, I have selected three significant contemporary works that raise crucial questions, criticisms, and revisions to Christian Ethics. Some of these works call into question what we find in the traditions of Moral Philosophy and Theology noted above, which is all the more reason to attend to them.

Nichole M. Flores, The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy (Georgetown University Press, 2021).

Flores offers a judicious criticism of an ethics of liberalism that individuates rather than cultivates the virtue of solidarity. However, unlike postliberal developments that question democracy, she seeks a more substantive democratic ethics through solidarity by drawing on Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Flores focuses on what she calls the “little stories” of everyday life rather than the “Big Story” of pluralism that offers a bland diversity without attention to the particular. The failures of Christian responses to indigenous Americans are brought out, a crucial issue of settler colonialism. She notes, for instance, that even as Juan Diego is a symbol of the triumph of the poor, how he is remembered erases his indigenous name, “Quauhtlatoatzin (He Who Speaks with the Snakes).”

Vincent Lloyd, Black Dignity: The Struggle against Domination (Yale University Press, 2022).

Black Dignity contains reflections on a Christian ethics and criticisms as well. It shows the promise and perils of Christian ethics in a searching analysis as to how it supports or resists domination. Lloyd offers a persuasive critique of multiculturalism. Black dignity is his alternative practice, and it is a practice. He writes, “Dignity is realized in performance rather than in status” (4). Lloyd is an unusual thinker and writer in that he does not fit nicely into categories or disciplines. He can exegete the “Christian imagination” of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.’s virtue of hope and also explain why Black Lives Matter has not adopted Christian language or practices. This book would pair nicely with W. E. B. Dubois’s monumental, Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, and C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolutions. A strength of Lloyd’s book is the many other Black intellectuals that he draws on, some well-known to Christian ethicists but many not.

Jonathan Tran, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2021).

Tran draws on a specific local church’s attempt to address racism in an effort to shift the discussion of race from identity politics to political economy. He offers a theological ethics that seeks to change not only how we think about race but also about economics. Any church not involved in addressing both these matters fails to fulfill its mission. Yet, accomplishing that mission brings challenges that require more than good motives. The “hierarchical systems of domination” that race “creates and deploys” are not overcome without attention to both race and economics. He looks to Redeemer Church in San Francisco and the Dayspring Corporation it generated as a way forward. He also notes how a proper response to the legacy of white supremacy in the US, including in its churches, requires reparations and ongoing forms of abolition.

Posted Apr 19, 2023