March 27, 2008

Reviving Evangelical Ethics: Book Review

As an ethicist and cultural critic, I enjoy engaging all kinds of ideas because I take seriously the biblical injunction to 'take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.'

People face an onslaught of challenges in todays world that necessitate biblical reflection such that their decisions are most glorifying to God. This isn't to imply that the bible contains every answer for ever dilemma we face. It does, however, provide us with principles and rules through which we can consider other matters that aren't specifically mentioned in the Bible.

So I find myself baffled, when with little explanation, I hear it taught that "Christianity isn't a set of rules," that it's about a relationship with God. You probably think at this point that I'm a moron, that I would actually question such a statement. Of course, I accept and embrace that Christianity is about the relationship I have with God, but this isn't to the exclusion of considering ways of right living and a pursuit of God that seeks to glorify him in our lives, lives that are a sequence of actions. I fear we confuse people when we speak of it in any other way.

Often when we consider the overall nature of the bible, we think of the old testament as containing the Law and plethora of unachievable expectations in the form of rules and regulations. Then as grace enters the picture through the loving sacrifice of Jesus, we see the fulfillment of the Law in Christ. The tendency to not see grace in the old testament and see no place for rules in the new testament leaves a believer missing a lot of what the Bible was intended to communicate to its readers.

In her book, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, Wyndy Corbin Reuschling hones in on the topic of ethics and its relationship to the Christian life. She states,
Righteousness or justification is not just 'being made right with God;' it connotes living right with God, fulfilling moral obligations consonant with a new orientation and perspective. To think of being declared righteous' without any accompanying commitment to actually act righteously is not what the biblical writers had in mind in their instructions on the Christian life. (p. 110)
Our ontological status, our state of being righteous, gives great hope to the individual that their eternal future is secure in Christ. But as we unpack what it means to live for Christ, we discover the important element of sanctification and our participation in that process, sinful creatures seeking to live the moral life. Frankly, its clear by looking at our daily activities that we are constantly up against ethical quandries. So how is it that Christianity isn't about rules?

Obviously becoming a Christian isn't dependent upon doing something that puts you in a position of acceptability before God. In that sense, Christianity is not about a set of rules. And of course, living the Christian life is about constantly seeing God's grace manifest in ways unimaginable. We see God's hand care for his children in ways that demonstrates his graciousness. But this isn't to the exclusion of expected ways of living and being.

Reuschling does a great job speaking to the misuses of the Bible and the danger associated with seeing Scripture is merely a set of categorical imperatives. She states,
My concern with this deontological approach is twofold. One is that it actually undermines scripture as revelation, since it limits scripture to little more than a book of revealed rules. Two, this view limits scripture's effectiveness in shaping our moral lives if the primary question posed is "What ought I do?"...For all the emphasis that evangelicals place on the authority of the Bible, a deontological perspective may reduce and diminish the Bible's importance as a source for moral guidance because it restricts ethics to just following principles, rules, and commands, and the Bible to a mere instrument.....Moral formation requires more than just the ability to follow principles and rules. We need the requisit discernment, practical wisdom, and virtues.....The scriptures shape and direct our moral sensibilities, vision, and capacities in many ways. (p. 69-70)
Here she has effectively assisted the church in stating that being a Christian isn't about following a set of rules, but she does not suggest that their are no rules. The Bible is limited if we posit that it is merely a book of rules. Clearly, it contains directives and, as God's spoken Word, it develops us as His followers. What that means is that as we are becoming closer to God in our sanctification, we are gaining wisdom that assists us in our decision-making. As our worldview comes together coherently, we are able to consider whatever comes our direction because we are reflecting on what we know about God and what he has given to us in scripture.

There is much more to be taken from this book, I've merely touched upon some things that I've been considering about ethics as it relates to the lives of women in the church. I believe this will be a helpful book to students of ethics. This book is due to be released in April by Brazos Press, and I obviously encourage you to check it out.

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