Jesus Creed


Samuel Wells and Ben Quash, Introducing Christian Ethics

Reviewed by Wes Vander Lugt

PhD Candidate, University of St Andrews

Samuel Well and Ben Quash indicate in the Preface to Introducing Christian Ethics that their desire in writing this book was to “offer an overview of the whole field of Christian ethics,” one that is accessible to students and even general readers. Their approach in presenting such an overview is unique, not only by synthesizing authorial, theoretical and practical approaches, but also offering their own schema to make sense of the dizzying array of positions and proposals in Christian ethics. They divide Christian ethics into three camps–universal, subversive, and ecclesial–and give us brief glimpses at a range of ethical issues through this trifocal lens.

Universal ethics is “ethics for everyone,” discovering universally applicable laws or principles for actions or their outcomes. Notable figures championing this approach are diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, Albrecht Ritschl, Jeremy Bentham, Joseph Fletcher, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Rawls, and the papal encyclicals. Whereas many ethics textbooks contrast deontological ethics (principles for right action) and consequentalist ethics (principles for the best outcome), Wells and Quash show how these approaches stem from a similar concern for a universal ethic.

Subversive ethics
is “ethics for the excluded,” seeking to deconstruct universal, oppressive
approaches and construct methods more aware of and sensitive to matters of
class, race, gender, disability, and age. Strong voices in this ethical chorus
include Latin American liberation theologians Leonardo and Clodivis Boff and
Gustavo Guti?rrez, African American theologians James Cone and Cornel West, the
South African Kairos Document, Caribbean William Watty, feminist theologians
Phyliss Trible and Schussler Fiorenza, womanists Alice Walker and Delores
Williams, and many others. Most of these approaches begin with praxis and work
toward ethical theory, rather than the other way around, making each expression
of subversive ethics intrinsically local and contextual.

Ecclesial ethics
is “ethics for the church,” focusing more on the character-forming narratives
and communities that make ethical decisions possible. In describing this
approach, Wells and Quash weave fascinating connections between Karl Barth,
George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas,
Oliver O’Donovan, and John Howard Yoder (Wells and Quash would also identify
most closely with this group). While possessing notable differences, these
scholars share a similar commitment to character formation, church practices,
and the narrative (or dramatic) context of Christian ethics.

After tracing
these three approaches to Christian ethics, Wells and Quash test their schema
by demonstrating how each approach differs in practical issues relating to good
order, good life, good relationships, good beginnings and endings, and good
earth. One clear example is their description of a pregnant woman considering
an abortion (p. 192). The universal approach discerns principles for action or
considers the outcome of each choice. The subversive approach recognizes the
influence of the woman’s personal, social and cultural situation in making a
“good” decision. The ecclesial approach shares these concerns but asks several
other key questions, for example: “How did the pregnancy come about, and did it
arise from habitual behavior or a turn of events that was out of character? Is
the women part of a community in which these events are connected with a larger
story than her own?” In short, ecclesial ethics starts from the character of
the woman and her context, exploring the habits and community that play an
enormous role in her decision.

Wells and Quash
address a host of other practical issues in the book, but it may be more helpful
to offer an evaluation and to encourage you to read the book yourself for further
details. Do Wells and Quash succeed in explaining and demonstrating an
appropriate schema for Christian ethics? In my view, the
universal-subversive-ecclesial schema is a brilliant way to understand the
story of Christian ethics, contemporary debates, and the range of approaches to
Christian ethics today. It is, of course, impossible for Wells and Quash to
cover everything and everyone in such a slim volume, but their overview is
quite comprehensive despite their limitations, and a glossary of names at the
back helps to fill in some gaps. It was refreshing to read an introduction to
Christian ethics that outlines the lay of the land as well as suggests several
ways to approach pressing ethical issues. Some readers may be frustrated that
the book is more summative than constructive, but each section definitely
suggests how a constructive approach to practical issues could be developed.

It is my hope that
the presentation of Christian ethics provided in this book will create a
plethora of conversations where its “durability and comprehensiveness” may be tested,
as Wells and Quash hoped. As conversations arise, I surmise that some key
questions may include the following: What do these three approaches to
Christian ethics have to learn from other, and to what extent are they
compatible or incompatible? How can all of these approaches to Christian ethics
be enriched by interaction with other disciplines such as the arts, sociology,
psychology, economics, etc.? Is it appropriate to lump all non-Western ethics with
subversive ethics, especially given the shift in hegemony within the Christian
world to the Southern hemisphere? Are all approaches to Christian ethics that
seek to be thoroughly local and contextual inevitably subversive? What does it
look like to maintain biblical authority while pursuing a universal,
subversive, or ecclesial ethic? These are just a few questions that may help to
guide the conversation forward regarding the insightful proposal Wells and
Quash have offered. Introducing Christian
is one of the best textbooks on Christian ethics to date, and I
recommend it to anyone attempting to grasp the big picture of Christian ethics
and to gain wisdom for navigating difficult ethical issues.

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