Genre: Christian Ethics
Publication Date: 2008
Reviewed by Josh Olds
QUICK HIT – Reuschling sometimes lacks balance in this provocative academic discussion of developing Christian morality, but her overall goals are noble and her thoughts challenging to modern evangelicals.
While it is improper to judge a book by its cover, it is altogether appropriate to judge it by its title. In her book Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality, Wyndy Corban Reuschling effectively summates the purpose and locus of her thinking. Her ultimate goal in the book is to strike a balanced approach between three classic secular theories of morality and what she sees as a Christian view of morality. All too often Christian ethics is reduced to one, of even an amalgam, of these three systems. Reuschling sets forth the case that relying simply on secular theories not only divorces evangelicalism from its ethical foundation in Christ but also severely limits and sometimes misappropriates what Reuschling conceives of as a proper evangelical ethic.
Reuschling’s introductory chapter begins by summarizing her goals and outlining the book. Most importantly, she spends the majority of the chapter defining evangelicalism and identifying three of its major commitments: personal piety, which correlates to Aristotelian virtue ethics; biblical defense of the gospel, which correlates to Kantian deontological ethics; and salvation as the greatest good to be pursued, which correlates to Mill’s teleological ethics.
From here, Reuschling turns to a description of these ethical systems, presenting arguments that they limit a true Christian ethic. Kant’s deontology is discussed first, with the conclusion that Christians have wallowed in the childish immaturity of obeying external rules rather than cultivating a mature character that holds to internal values. Reuschling’s cogent discussion of the need to go beyond external rules and duty for duty’s sake into internal values and duty for the sake of love and agreement is the strength of this chapter. Mill’s teleology is correctly defined as a system of thinking that believes moral rightness is determined by what maximizes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. A utilitarian outlook upon Church reduces it to an institution that exists to make the religious consumer happy, leads to moral relativism, ignores Christianity’s teaching on caring for minority groups, and rationalizes the ends of an act as morally justifying that act.
Aristotle’s virtue ethics has both a rich social dimension and a robust sense of the need to nurture virtuous habits. Reuschling’s concern with such an ethic is not that it is wrong when subsumed into a Christian worldview, but rather that it cannot express the sum of Christian ethics. She cogently defends the locus of Christian virtue in the person of Jesus Christ. Not simply a purveyor of pietistic actions such as fasting, praying, tithing, or Scripture reading, Jesus thoroughly engaged himself in with a commitment to shalom creating justice and righteousness. The Christian must go beyond virtue ethics into a virtue-of-Christ ethics.
Reuschling’s concluding chapters summarize her work up to this point, then seek to further her conclusions made at the end of the individual chapters on deontology, teleology, and virtue ethics. She then appends two areas wherein she believes Christian ethics can be furthered. The first area is in the development of a holistic conscience that understands the complexities of moral decision making. Such a conscience would assess moral issues with our passionate moral commitments that reflect the heart of God’s justice with practiced determination to live and act according to our moral convictions. This type of conscience can only be created through Scripture and the Christian community. Reiterating what she said in her chapter on deontology, Reuschling reminds readers that life is story, that Scripture is story, and that narrative of each are to be inexorably intertwined. Scripture shapes Christian moral vision while forcing Christianity to deal with the raw effects of evil. Learning to read the narrative of Scripture and distilling from it principles to inculcate into life should be a key Christian practice. This emphasis on narrative ethics, seen throughout the book but brought into primary focus here, is important to understand. Given Reuschling’s emphasis on a narrative construct, she would have benefitted from discussing it at more length and with more directness. Instead, it remains subsumed in the transcendent, all-encompassing idea of a Christian ethic.
Reuschling also advocates the need for practical wisdom, which is the art of complex ethical deliberation. The Christian must be able to analyze moral situations, live with moral complexities and conflicts, and live with the intended and unintended consequences of sin. In her conclusion, Reuschling tackles specific examples of preaching, small groups, and service. In each case, she challenges the evangelical norm, but does so in such a way that is consistent with the evangelical ethic she has maintained. While her conclusions are solid, she would have benefitted from a more extended look at these practical examples, as they seem to be more of a short addendum rather than an important part of the ethic she has constructed.
Ultimately, Reuschling is successful in her attempt to present a revived evangelical ethic. From a theological standpoint, her writing is both a challenge and a breath of fresh air. Her writing is not always balanced in its presentation, but neither is it wildly off-center in its approach. Instead of viewing the secular theories as interlopers into the Christian narrative ethic, she might have done better to understand them as a result of general revelation, where deontology is other-oriented, teleology is future-oriented, and virtue ethics is self-oriented. But however taken, her point that they cannot fulfill a Christian ethic is undoubtedly true, as is her depiction of a robust transcendent Christian ethic. Christians are called beyond duty, beyond happiness, and even beyond piety to a pure worship and expression of God through life.
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