Book Review: Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context
A primary aim of this book is to be an introduction to Christian ethics for students. The first edition of this book has served as a textbook since 2003 and has been widely used around the world, and translated into eight other languages. Sadly, Glen Stassen did not live to see this second edition in print; and the work of bringing it to publication has been carried on by David Gushee, helped by a team of “young scholars trained by Glen, me, or both of us” (xii).
The second edition has been updated with new data, examples (more drawn from a more global context), and taking account of recent scholarship and discussion of the issues covered. It also aims to use more gender-inclusive language, with a more consistent application of methodological commitments. Two chapters from the first edition have been dropped (chapters eight and twelve).
The book is written from an evangelical position, while attempting to be open to other theological positions. What makes this textbook different from others is the way its approach to ethics is structured around the teaching of Jesus, specifically that found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). The book is in two parts. In the first part, the methodological, philosophical and theological basis upon which the authors consider Christian ethics should be formed is laid out. The second part takes up discussion of particular issues, and in this second edition, this material has been “reordered to more closely follow the structure of the Sermon on the Mount” (xiv).
As the book was written “to reclaim Jesus Christ for Christian ethics and for the moral life of the churches” (xvii), the first chapter considers the place of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching and what it means. Focus upon the centrality of Isaiah to this vision provides seven marks of the kingdom: deliverance/salvation, justice, peace, healing, restoration/rebuilding of community, joy, and the experience of God’s presence (10). Focus on the kingdom and these seven marks provides the first two of twelve “key method elements for kingdom ethics”, namely the task of checking how ethical behaviours and attitudes help advance the kingdom and how they stand in relation to these marks, and especially justice for the disadvantaged.
In the remaining eight chapters of the first part, the methodological foundation of their approach is laid in the exploration and exposition of the beatitudes as the kingdom values and the virtues of those who belong to the kingdom. This is followed by an outline of the sources of the moral authority that undergird Christian ethics and Jesus’ own approach to living. The fundamental source is Scripture; we need to attend to Scripture the way Jesus did. His approach was to stand in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel, which amongst other things preferences the moral law over cultic aspects of Scripture, and pays attention to the “inward aspects” and “root causes of behaviour.
Chapter four lays out four ways in which people define what they mean by morality, and three modes of moral reasoning in Christian ethics (the teleological, deontological, and characterological), before outlining how these modes are applied in ethical reasoning. Chapter five draws out “transforming initiatives” to be found in the Sermon on the Mount. Finally, in this first part, three core values: love, justice, and the sacredness of life are presented and discussed. In all the chapters, key ideas and terms, approaches and methods are explained and discussed at appropriate and pertinent points. Furthermore, both here and in the second part, important contributions from other scholars are cited, summarised, and noted (in text references alerting the reader to where s/he may go for further reading). Throughout this first part, the “key method elements” are introduced and all are listed in a chart that concludes the part (190-91).
I debated how to provide an overview of Part Two, as it is difficult to do justice in a relatively brief review. I considered discussing the contents of one or two chapters, but have decided to simply list the topics covered, in the interests of making some more general comments on the whole part. In ten chapters, the authors cover such topics as the death penalty, gender issues and women’s rights, adultery, same-sex relationships, marriage and divorce, truth-telling, just war, pacificism, and peacemaking, and the role and place of prayer (including the Lord’s Prayer) in ethical thinking and decision making. Further topics include economics, property rights and work; ecological issues and “creation care”; racism; and aspects of bioethics such as abortion, reproductive technologies and euthanasia.
In each chapter, passages from the Sermon on the Mount serve as headings to the chapter. Subsequent use of the biblical material ranges from minimal application to quite extensive discussion, though in the case of racism and bioethics no use of that biblical material is made; rather passing reference to other passages is made, which in the case of the chapter on bioethics amount to broad and general points about the value of human life.
The salient and central issues pertaining to each topic are discussed, sometimes in broad, at other times in more detailed terms. The authors do well in outlining and summarising key approaches and theories applied to the issues, and in a number of cases summarise the arguments of a scholar or ethicist whose approach is deemed particularly pertinent or key. Pertinent and sometimes telling instances of ethical situations are described by way of example, or introduction.
The overall impression is of a book that is descriptive and explanatory of the scriptural material, the models and methods that undergird the discipline of Christian ethics, and the issues presented and ways of attending to them. Deeper analysis and exploration of issues will require recourse to further resources. This is to be expected in what is to serve as a textbook (a role that this volume plays admirably). It will serve both beginning students, busy pastors and others for whom Christian ethics is not their area of expertise or knowledge very well.
Nonetheless, there are many wise insights and much helpful advice to be garnered from reading this book. The tone is eirenic, measured and fair. It is also challenging at times: particularly in shining a light on some of the blind-spots in the ethical thinking of the evangelical constituency in the US (and even beyond). Furthermore, the material speaks to an audience beyond the US. While some chapter are specifically directed at the situation in the US, the chapter on racism, for example, others may be applied more widely. And even the chapter on racism contains data pertaining to African Americans (prison or health statistics, for instance) that may easily be transferred to the situation of many Maori in New Zealand.
One cannot help feeling that, in our current situation, where discussion and debate on ethical issues is often fraught and polarized, many readers would come away from a reading of this book with their horizons widened, their prejudices challenged, and their faith informed. I warmly recommend it.
There is a glossary of terms provided: and these terms appear in bold type in the main text. I noted that the terms, “forensic justification”, “lion” and “lamb” (these latter two as images for Jesus) are in bold in the text but missing from the glossary. There is a full bibliography, and author, subject, and scripture indices.
Derek Tovey is book review editor for Stimulus.