Thinking Ethically with a Bible in Your Hand: a book review

What contribution does the Bible make to the discipline of ethics? Why are some actions called ‘good’ and others decried as ‘evil’? Can the scriptures speak to ethical dilemmas which weren’t known to the ancient world?  How should we use the teachings of Jesus when he doesn’t address our pet moral issue? Contrary to our popular understanding of ethics, it is not reducable to mere morality. Morality is a system of right and wrong–rules and regulations; ethics asks the question of why something may be right or wrong.  It helps us clarify our thinking about good and evil. Peter Gosnell, associate professor of religion at Muskingum University has a new book which explores what the Bible has to teach us on ethics.  The Ethical Vision of the Bible: Learning Good From Knowing God shows how our relationship with God provides the basis for morality.

 Gosnell doesn’t do is walk us through a list of moral issues, ethical issues and suggest a set of rules about how to navigate the modern world. Instead Gosnell is intent on helping us think biblically about issues by walking us through several books of the Bible. He examines the Torah and shows how biblical thinking on ethics is rooted in creation and God’s covenant relationship with his people (chapter 2), the relationship of law and covenant in Exodus (chapter 3), and the relationship of holiness and love in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (chapter 4). Chapter five is where Gosnell comes closest to describing a consequentialist ethic as he examines the ethical claims of Proverbs. Chapter six looks at Isaiah and demonstrates how the prophetic message of  divine accusation and judgment is rooted in an intensification of Torah.  Chapter’s seven and eight illustrate how the gospels (Luke and Matthew) place covenant ethics under the rubric of kingdom and disciple. In both gospels. people are beneath God and Jesus in their relationship with him,  and so approach him with humility and seek to learn from Jesus as a exemplar, and follow him as master. Luke lays emphasis on thinking of others before oneself, whereas Matthew lays greater stress on the concepts of kingdom and discipleship.  The final chapters look at Paul, his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor.), and his letter to Romans.  1 Corinthians and Romans offer two poles in the Pauline corpus.  When Paul wrote the Corinthians he was addressing a range of moral concerns. Romans is a more general letter exploring theological concerns.  However Gosnell demonstrates that Paul consistently roots his ethic in the death and resurrection of Jesus and what it means for believers to live in a sustained relationship with Him.

Gosnell illustrates how the Bible’s concept of ethics defies easy categorization. Virtue ethics, ethical egoism, utilitarianism, duty, divine command theory or teleology do not do justice to the range of biblical material.  The Bible has much to say about consequences, character formation, moral duty, and divine command.  The people of God are moving towards  a future (the full in-breaking of the Kingdom of God).  But Gosnell roots all this in a robust concept of relationship.

If there is an academic discipline in which I may feign expertise, it may be theological ethics. I have a Master’s of Divinity, which means I have a generalist degree and I am really not an expert. Despite this, I did participate in an informal ethics reading group in seminary, was a T.A. for pastoral ethics and had my thinking stimulated by a rousing seminar in Old Testament ethics (which remains one of the high points of my academic career). Suffice to say, I am fairly well-read in biblical and theological ethics. From my vantage point, I think that Gosnell is excellent at describing the nature of ethics of the Bible.   There are biblical genres which Gosnell leaves largely unexplored (i.e. narrative history outside of the Torah, Psalms, Apocalyptic). However, I think these genres would also demonstrate the relational-rooted ethics he describes, especially with how rooted the historical books are in the theology of Deuteronomy, and how the Psalms illustrate and praise Torah. I give this book five stars and recommend it for anyone wanting to explore the depths of biblical ethics.  This is an ideal text for a class on biblical ethics. ★★★★★

Thank you to IVP Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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