Anglo-Catholic Evangelical Ethics: a ★★★★★ book review

In seminary I read about deontological, consequentialist and virtue ethics; however, I didn’t read much in the way of Catholic moral teaching. Aquinas was mentioned and footnoted, but not engaged with in any substantial way. My understanding of virtue ethics was mostly meted out to me by Hauerwas. Daniel Westberg’s Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics as Action, Character and Grace delves deeply into the moral heritage of the Catholic and Anglican tradition exploring the nature of character formation, practical reason and ethical living.

9780830824601Westberg wrote this book as an attempt “to breath new life into [the] Anglican tradition, with the immediate aim of providing a systematic presentation of Christian ethics that builds on the Thomistic foundation with Catholic moral theology” (9). His wider, and more inclusive, purpose is to “provide  for the general Christian public a blending of the strengths of the Catholic tradition with evangelical emphases and convictions” (10). This combination of Catholic and evangelical insights, is designed to help readers from both traditions, to see the strengths offered by each (28). Westberg explores Thomist ethics in an evangelical key, sighting scripture and attending to the nature of conversion. His book divides into two parts. In part one Westberg describes and advances the components for a renewed moral theology. Part two looks in-depth at the seven classic virtues.

Part 1.

In chapter one, he argues for renewal of moral theology with a: (1) renewed biblical basis, (2) a sound moral psychology, (3) an understanding of the proper place for law in ethics, and (4) and thoughtfulness about the spirituality of virtue/character formation (25-26). In chapter two, Westberg discusses the relationship between purpose, reason and action and describes the ‘Thomistic Practical Syllogism.’ It is composed of an operating principle (‘Do this’ or ‘avoid this’), a minor premise evaluating a proposed action, and a conclusion (a commitment to do or not do something) (39-44).

Chapter three looks in more detail at Aquinas’s view of practical reasoning. Whereas the traditional reading of Aquinas identifies  a twleve stages in the process of human action, alternating between reason and will, Westberg sees the intellect and volition working in concert, and describes Aquinas’s reasoning as a four stage process comprised of: (1) Intention  → (2) Deliberation(if required) → (3)Decision → (4) Execution (51).  This model  describes the components of reasoning that birth  to an action; however a person’s intentions are shaped by  a person’s desires and history. “One simply has desire sand attitudes that have been adopted, shaped and instilled by past experience. One deliberates about and decides on the actions that are judged as means to the purposes one already has” (54). This means a persons formation determines where her reasoning takes her. Chapter four discusses how to evaluate good and bad actions based on their object, their end, and the circumstance (62-65). This ethical framework takes into account the situations in which ethical actions occur without capitulating to relativism (68). Westberg also observes the role of consequences in Aquinas’ theology. (69)

Chapter five describes  the relationship  between actions, disposition and character. Developing our capacity toward virtuous living involves moderating emotions, coordinating reason and will, and developing a habitus which imparts the skill and disposition that enable the virtuous life (80). This involves intentional practice, “We develop self control by understanding the reasons for it, desiring it and actually making decisions that incorporate moderation and self control in, for example, eating or sexual pleasure” (84).  Yet Westberg  argues that within this schema, faith, hope, and love are theological virtues gifted to us by the Spirit. We are unable to develop them by ourselves. The final three chapters of part one, explore the reality of sin (chapter six), the nature of conversion to Christ(chapter seven), and the role of the Law in Christian formation (chapter eight).

Part 2

Part two begins with an overview of the virtues, discussing their interrelationship and the central role of prudence. In chapter ten, Westberg walks through the seven classic virtues assigning a chapter to each of them. The four cardinal virtues discussed are ‘wisdom in action’ (prudence or practical wisdom); justice, fortitude, and self control (or temperance)(discussed in chaptets ten through thirteen). The theological virtues are faith, love and hope (chapters fourteen through sixteen).

Westberg’s treatment of the cardinal virtues offers practical insight for character development. In discussing practical wisdom (prudence) he observes the intellectual character of this virtue and discusses its relationship with other virtues, “The moral virtues depend on practical wisdom, but practical wisdom cannot be developed without the simultaneous development of the other moral virtues” (175). The virtue of justice has to do with how we relate to other persons (i.e. righting wrongs, restitution, gratitude to others, truth telling, etc). Fortitude is moral courage and commitment. Temperance is the ‘one virtue directed purely toward oneself'(209). It involves mastering appetites and living in moderation. Each of these virtues are shared by Christians and non-Christians alike, and Westberg correlates the exercise of virtues in Christian and secular settings (i.e.  the virtue of justice based in the dignity of human beings created in the image of God is in some sense related  to contemporary secular discussions of human rights).

The theological virtues have God as its source and focus (221). Westberg treat faith as an intellectual virtue, our belief in the God of the gospel. Love and hope are virtues of ‘the will. Westberg describes love as friendship with God—unselfish love (239-240). “Hope perfects the will by directing our desire to what God offers in the age to come” (259). Westberg takes on the notion that agape love is purely non-preferential. He show the biblical evidence doesn’t warrant the strong a divide between phileo and agape often argued by evangelicals influenced by the Lutheran tradition (238-40). Instead he views God’s love as inherently unselfish (instead of selfless, self sacrifice).  The telos of new creation gives us Hope and enables us to work for justice with fortitude. The content of of our hope helps us avoid both a liberal activism or an escapist quietism (270).


 

Virtue Ethics is sometimes criticized for an overemphasis on character—’being’ is seen as  more significant than ‘doing’  or ‘decision-making’ Because Westberg roots his exploration in Thomas Aquinas’s moral theology, he gives significant space to both virtue formation and moral decision-making. In fact, his discussion of practical reason, precedes his exploration of the virtues (though he hints at their strong relationship to one another). This means Westberg (or Thomas) is not guilty of some of the reductionisms that virtue ethicists are accused of (neither are many virtue ethicists). Action and character both come into sharp focus.

Westberg wrote this book as a seminary textbook and it is well suited for that purpose.Students will find  solid engagement with Catholic moral theology and theological ethics. But does it have any practical import outside the classroom? Put another way: is practical reasoning, practical? Yes it is. Pastors can utilize this framework to encourage ethical reasoning in congregants. The discussion of the seven classic virtues is fruitful for personal use, or for anyone responsible for Christian spiritual formation. Westberg is theologically rigorous, so the typical lay person may find it difficult to wade in, but certainly the framework Westberg presents is applicable more broadly in the lives of ordinary Christians. I recommend this for Christian leaders and educators concerned about spiritual formation. Westberg  doesn’t provide a ‘practical how-to,’ but a way of ‘thinking through’ moral decisions’ and actions. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review

 

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.

Entering Deeper into the Psalms: a book review

I know that I’m not alone in loving the Psalms. Many of us have found comfort, strength and words for prayer. My own love for the Psalms was whetted years ago when I read Eugene Peterson’s devotional works (especially The Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Answering God). Since that time I’ve read many good many more books on the Psalms, some devotional, some academic. I have a short list of books I really like on the Psalms, and am happy to add a new book to my list!

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms by Gordon Wenham

So I was excited when I saw Gordon Wenham’The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wenham is one of my favorite commentators  and is an adjunct professor at Trinity College, Bristol. I have appreciated his writings but have never read his treatment of the Psalms. In the Psalter Reclaimed,  Wenham culls together his lectures on the Psalms delivered between 1997 and 2010. Despite the occasional nature of these essays, there is a remarkable cohesion to the book as a whole. Wenham examines the liturgical use of Psalms and their personal devotional use in prayer. He also discusses the Messianic nature of the Royal Psalms (and in what sense they are Messianic), the ethics of the psalms, the value of praying the imprecatory Psalms, the vision of God’s steadfast love as expressed in Psalm 103, and the Psalm’s vision of the nations (enemies of God who at last lift their voice in praise).

This may be one of the greatest introductory books on the Psalms for the sheer breadth of what Wenham is able to cover in a short book. He comes from a strong Reformed Anglican tradition and therefore has a lot to say about the liturgical use of Psalms  to enrich our corporate worship and to provide moral instruction.  He discusses the various genres of Psalms in his section on ‘praying the Psalms’ and demonstrates how the various types (i.e. Pslams of Lament, praises,  Royal Psalms, etc.) speak to the various seasons of the Christian life.  This emphasis on the liturgical and personal use of the Psalms makes this a great introductory book for anyone seeking to enter deeper into the Spirituality of the Psalms

But Wenham is not simply writing a lay introduction. These essays also discuss how current scholarship enriches our understanding of the text.  And so he shows how speech-act theory helps describe the performative nature of the Psalms, Canonical l criticism reveals the meaning behind the Psalm superscriptions and the internal organization of the book,  he proposes a theological hermeneutic which takes the Royal Psalms past their historical-literary context into the realm of New Testament fulfillment, and he reviews historic and current discussions  of the imprecatory Psalms and whether they may be  appropriately prayed by Christians. Wenham’s skill as an exegete and a scholar are evident throughout.

I especially liked his treatment on the ethical import of the Psalms because Wenham’s Story as Torah was the book that alerted me to the way ethics were embedded in Hebrew Narrative. In abbreviated form he gives a compelling case for the ethical use of Psalms to provide moral instruction and encourages modern readers to mine the Psalms for what it tells us about Biblical Ethics.

Because this book is an edited collection of earlier lectures there is some overlap in the chapters which you wouldn’t expect in a full length monograph. Wenham also doesn’t say everything that needs to be said on the Psalms (though he points us to some great resources). But this book is an introductory text and I think that anyone’s understanding of the Psalms will be enriched by reading this. I recommend this book to scholar, student, clergy and lay-person alike. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Hungry, Hungry Hippo: My life as a Glutton

Hungry Hungry DriscollHistorically Lent has been a time where Christians pay attention to where our appetites have led us astray. So I thought it made sense to start my reflections on the seven deadly sins by examining the sin of Gluttony (for information on my approach, track back to the last post). But another reason for starting here is more personal. I am a 7 on the Enneagram which means I enjoy life and all its various pleasures. When I am healthy, I am enthusiastic, imaginative and full of joy, but the sin I am susceptible to is gluttony. I am someone who left to my own devices avoids pain by self medicating. However I am not really alone. We live in a consumer culture which feeds our personal preferences, appetites and desires at every turn. When things are going well we enjoy the sensual pleasures of a well cooked meal paired with fine wine (or beer). When things are going badly we find our favorite comfort foods: ice cream, chocolate, Tapitio Doritos, homemade chili or spam musubi. We feed ourselves to cope with what can’t be changed and we indulge the guilty pleasures of too much far too often. This is personal issue for me but it is a broad cultural issue as well (statistics on obesity back this up). So while I may be tempted towards gluttony my whole culture conspires against me.

The reason that Gluttony is so prevalent in our culture is that we regard it as no big deal. The Christian tradition regarded Gluttony as one of the deadly sins. Today we regard some of the physical problems associated with over-eating deadly but do not really see Gluttony as a spiritual problem.

So how do you know you are a Glutton?

So I am a glutton, are you? How would you know? The assumption is that we all know gluttons when we see them because we’ve stood behind them at Taco Bell. Yet there is so much more to Gluttony than overeating. Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung says that in the Middle Ages Gluttony was described with this slogan, “Too daintly, too sumptuously, too greedily, too much. (Glittering Vices, 141). Overeating is Gluttony, But Gluttony is more than just overeating. How much is enough? It includes any sort of practice which involves letting your personal appetites run wild. Catering to your inner-foody or your delicate tastes is a form of Gluttony. As Deyoung observes, “It is possible to eat healthy and appropriate foods in a manner that betrays desire gone awry. The question is not whether we are fat or thin, polite or impolite, but whether we are eating to satisfy our own wants, in a way that elevates our own satisfaction above other goods (Glittering Vices, 145).”

DeYoung also observes that modern inventions such as chewing gum and Diet Coke are ways that we can give into our appetites and personal desires but minimize the physical impact of our choices. The result is that we eat and drink ‘guilt free’ but we are still eating and drinking for our own personal gratification (147). Sin isn’t just crouching at the door; Gluttony is squatting in the stall because we let it in and regard its presence as no big deal.

What to do about our Gluttony

In the Christian tradition one way to become aware of the ways we are enslaved to appetites and unhealthily feeding them is to fast. Fasting reveals to us the things that control us. This is why many of us give up coffee, chocolate or alcohol during Lent. These are all good things to be enjoyed in their place but fasting from them reveals the ways in which we have allowed our desire and dependence on each to rule us. So fasting during Lent is one way to set the reset button on our appetites so we can freely enjoy all these things properly without being mastered by them.

Kallistos Ware describes the value of a Lenten fast:

The Primary aim at fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence on God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food… involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we feel the full force of Christ’s statement, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow confident in our own abilities, aquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The observance of a physical fast undermines this sinful complacency (quoted in Glittering Vices, 157).

The Virtue of Temperance

The goal of fasting is not simply to eat less but to be content in God. While I agree with Ware and DeYoung above about how fasting breaks the bonds of Gluttony in us, fasting is a step on the journey towards finding contentment in God. A severe fast would be an over-correction and would do little to reign in our appetites. The virtue of Temperance implies appropriate self restraint not heroic asceticism. John Cassian records some sound advice from one of the Desert fathers:

We must rapidly ensure that we do not slide into danger on account of the urge for bodily pleasure. We must not anticpate food before the time for it and we must not overdo it; on the other hand, when the due hour comes, we must have our food and our sleep, regardless of our reluctance. Each battle is raised by the devil. Yet too much restraint can be more harmful than a satisfied appetite. Where the latter is concerned, one may, as a result of saving compunction, move on to a measured austerity. But with the former this is impossible (John Cassian, Conferneces-Classics of Western Spirituality, 76).

So I recommend for you and for me that we overcome Gluttony through gentle discipline, curbing our appetites so that they do not master us. I personally didn’t give up anything food related this Lent, but in small ways I am looking for ways to guard against Gluttony and enjoy God’s good things without being controlled by them.

This is not Mark Driscoll

Seven Deadly Sins: Pracitices of Spiritual Deformation

Bosch Deadly Sins

You may regard this post as a teaser. I plan over the next couple of weeks to post reflections on each of the deadly sins, but I want to say something about what the deadly sins are and my approach to them. My hope is to probe each of the deadly sins as a means of taking inventory of my own soul(’tis the season to be penitent) but also to offer up some insights from the Christian tradition for those like me who struggle.

The Seven Sins were once eight but because of cutbacks Satan had to lay one of the sins off. Alright, maybe that isn’t exactly the story, but the Seven Deadly Sins did come out of a list of eight that one of the desert fathers, Evagrius of Ponticus(345-399 CE)formulated. These ‘eight thoughts’ were part of a demonic strategy to tempt the faithful (monks) away from their rule and their commitment to God. Evagrius’ buddy John Cassian (360-435 CE) built on Evagrius’ thinking but kept his list: Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Wrath, Sadness, Sloth(Acedia), Vainglory andPride. With Gregory the Great (530-604 CE) pride was separated out from the list and identified as a root sin of all the others. When Aquinas formulated his list these were the sins: Vainglory, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Wrath, Lust and Gluttony. This is the list I will be interacting with the later list but I think that Evagrius, Cassian and the desert dudes still have important things to say.

Following Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s insightful book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies(Brazos, 2009), I will be interacting with each of these sins as ‘vice’ rather than ‘Sin.’ What’s the difference? Sin is a term used broadly to refer to either a wrong action or a persisting condition. Vice is a more limited term referring specifically to practiced sin. Through a series of habitual acts the vice (i.e. Gluttony, Lust, Greed) (de)forms spiritual character. Think of it this way: if you overeat you have committed the ‘sin; of gluttony; if you are caught in the ‘vice of gluttony,’ you habitually overeat and thus are a glutton.

By thinking of each of these ‘deadly sins’ as a vice my aim will be to see where our habitual practices have spiritual mis-shaped us and then propose alternative practices which shape us in the virtuous life and our pursuit of God. I am excited by this series of posts, so please stay tuned. They will be Sinsational.