Magnuson, Ken. Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues. Invitation to Theological Studies Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2020.
This is an excellent introduction to Christian ethics. Parts 1 and 2, which deal with the philosophical and biblical foundations for ethics, are excellent. Magnuson does a good job of surveying and critiquing major approaches to ethics. He also lays out a Christian approach to ethics that accounts for the major aspects of ethics: commands, virtues, and goals. Magnuson upholds he authority of Scripture, and his chapters on the role of the Bible in Christian ethics (including his discussion of the Christian and the Mosaic law) are excellent. Parts 3, 4, and 5 deal with specific areas of ethical concern: “Marriage and Human Sexuality,” “The Sanctity of Human Life,” and “Social Order and the Environment,” respectively. The chapters in parts 3 and 5 were stronger than the chapters in part 5. In the chapter on homosexuality, I thought Magnuson was overly dependent on Preston Sprinkle, though he dissented from him at all the right places.
Grudem, Wayne. Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018.
Grudem’s Christian Ethics has the same strengths and weaknesses as his Systematic Theology and his Politics. Positively, Grudem is a devout man who has ransacked the Scriptures to see what they say about a host of ethical topics. As a concordance to ethics, this book excels. Grudem also writes with a high view of Scripture’s inspiration, inerrancy, and authority. He rightly understands how the Christian relates to the Mosaic law, an important issue in a biblically-oriented ethic book. Grudem also writes accessibly. This is a book that people without formal theological training can read and benefit from.
Nonetheless, Grudem’s work contains some significant weaknesses. The subtitle is An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning. However, Grudem is skeptical of theological moral reasoning. He is afraid that reasoning from broad theological principles to ethical conclusions introduces too much subjectivity into ethics. There is some truth to this concern, but instead of rejecting theological moral reasoning, it is better to pair it with reliance on specific biblical texts. Both approaches are mutually reinforcing. In fact, the subjectivity that Grudem decries is not entirely absent from his book. For instance, in the chapter on self-defense Grudem relies heavily on Proverbs 25:26, “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.” Grudem argues that a Christian who does not exercise self-defense (later in the chapter he argues for using guns in self-defense) is a “polluted fountain” whose “testimony of the Christian’s life would be tarnished and diminished by acting in a cowardly way” (555).Grudem assumes that “giving way before the wicked” is giving way before “a violent attack.” But this is not necessarily the best interpretation of the proverb. Some think that the proverb refers to a righteous man who gives way to pressure or temptation from the wicked and compromises his integrity (Lange, Keil and Delitzsch, Bridges, Garrett, Steveson, Waltke, Steinmann) while others think it refers to a situation in which the wicked have gained supremacy over the righteous (Toy, Van Leeuwen, Ross). (Kitchen accepts both interpretations and Fox is ambiguous.) Grudem’s use of this verse is not compatible with the former interpretation. But even if the latter interpretation is adopted, it is not clear that it applies to the kind of situation Grudem envisages. It is one thing to say that it is a tragedy for righteous people in public life to be overcome by wicked people. It is another to say that if a righteous man doesn’t shoot the wicked person who is about to rob him by gun point, he is “a polluted fountain.” Reasoning theologically from Genesis 9’s teaching that all human life bears the image of God and Exodus 22:2-3’s teaching that a thief may only be killed at night (when one may suspect he is after someone’s life rather than merely their positions), it is reasonable to conclude that if giving way before a violent man can spare one’s own life and result in not taking another’s life, that would be the preferred option.
Grudem’s methodology of collecting Scripture passages about given topics does not explicitly have a place for assessing the situation to which those passages must be applied. However, that is an aspect of ethics that Grudem cannot avoid. Possibly because it is not a stated part of his methodology, Grudem handles secondary sources poorly. Often he’ll interreact with only a few newspaper level sources that already share his perspective on the situation.
These are significant weaknesses that hinder the profitability of this text. However, it remains useful as a concordance of Scripture passages relevant to major ethical topics.
Frame, John M. Doctrine of the Christian Life. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008.
I re-read portions of this book again this year. In particular, I was looking at how Frame’s normative, situational, and existential perspectives align with triads I was finding in other writers. This is how I thought this issues through:
Frame raises a number of triads in Part 1 of DCL. C. S. Lewis and Ken Magnuson also have triads and Oliver O’Donovan has two approaches to ethics.
|Elements in ethical judgments||Norm||Situation||Person|
|Ethical approaches||Deontological||Teleological||[none listed]|
|Three ingredients to good works||Right standard||Right goal||Right motive|
|Types of ethics||Command ethics||Narrative ethics||Virtue Ethics|
|Three subjects of ethical predication||Persons||Acts||Attitudes|
|C. S. Lewis||Fair Play||Purpose of human life||Internal Rectitude|
|Wayne Grudem||Actual behavior||Results||Personal Character|
|Oliver O’Donovan||Ordered moral field||Ordered moral subject|
- It’s apparent to me that there are a variety of legitimate triads in ethics, though a triadic division is not always necessary. Oliver O’Donovan’s Ordered moral field would contain both norms and situations.
- How these triads relate to each other is not always clear.
- Frame’s Persons, Acts, and Attitudes is similar to Magnuson’s Agents, Acts, and Ends (Lewis seems to exactly align with Magnuson.) But
- Frame aligns Persons with the normative perspective / deontological ethics while Magnuson (rightly, I think) links Agents with virtue ethics.
- Frame aligns Acts with the situational perspective / teological ethics, while Magnuson (again, rightly) links Acts with deontological ethics.
- Frame and Magnuson’s triad diverges in that where Frame has Attitudes, Magnuson has Ends. Here I think Magnuson’s triad is superior to Frame’s.
- I’m not sure, in Frame’s triad, what Persons stands for in distinction from Acts and Attitudes since persons act and they have attitudes. Nor am I certain why Frame aligns Persons with the normative perspective.
- For Magnuson Agents clearly refers to the inner man, virtues, character etc. in distinction from what the person does and what his goals are. Interestingly, Frame notes, “Both ‘persons’ and ‘attitudes’ are good candidates for the existential perspective” (DCL, 11, n. 8). Note also that in another of Frame’s triads (“elements in ethical judgments”) person is aligned to the existential perspective and virtue ethics. I think that indicates that Frame’s three subjects of ethical predication triad isn’t well-formed.
- If we follow Magnuson’s Agents, Acts, and Ends formulation, I think we do get a correlation with virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and teleological ethics. Frame correlates these ethical approaches to the person and the existential perspective, the norm and the normative perspective, and the situation and the situational perspective.
- Agents, virtue ethics, existential perspective, and the person do all seem to align.
- Acts, deontological ethics, the normative perspective, and norms also seem to align.
- Ends and teleological ethics align with each other but seem distinct from the situational perspective and the situation. I think Frame could fit the situational perspective with ends and teleological ethics by saying that our ultimate situation is eschatological, but that is not what is going on when persons are applying norms to a situation. In this case I think persons (with the right virtues and right ends) are applying norms to a situation.
- Frame’s triads also align deontological ethics with command ethics (in that he algins both with the normative perspective) and teleological ethics with narrative ethics (in that he aligns both with the situational perspective). I think the first alignment works, but I think the second alignment is apples and oranges. This is probably due to the fact that there are more than three types of ethics or ethical approaches. And while some will algin more with one of the perspectives, some will align with multiple perspectives.
- It is helpful to say that in making ethical choices Persons apply Norms to Situations. I also find it helpful to say that in evaluating ethical choices we need to look at Agents, Acts and Ends.
But these two triads are not different ways of saying the same thing. Persons in the first triad includes Agents and Ends in the Second, and Situations in the first triad is absent from the second.
Thus a more accurate chart would look like:
|Right standard||Right goal||Right motive|
|Deontological ethics||Teleological ethics||Virtue ethics|
|Fair Play||Purpose of human life||Internal Rectitude|
|Actual behavior||Results||Personal character|
|Ordered moral field||Ordered moral subject|
Mitchell, C. Ben. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide. Edited by David S. Dockery. Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.
A brief (under 100 pages) introduction to ethics. Surveys key ethical portions of the Bible: the Decalogue and Sermon on the Mount, ethical issues that arise in the Bible, ethical theories and the present challenge of ethical relativism, key evangelical thinkers (John Murray, Carl Henry, Arthur Holmes, Stanley Hauerwas, Oliver O’Donovan, Gilbert Meilaender), and approaches to the use of the Bible in ethics. Its brevity requires it to be very introductory.
Tinpe, Kevin and Craig A. Boyd, eds. Virtues and Their Vices. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
This book provides a helpful introduction to virtue ethics and to several virtues and vices. The essay quality is good but varies by writer. Note also that several contributors are Roman Catholic and that Catholic theology informs their discussion.
Udemans, Godefridus. The Practice of Faith, Hope, and Love. Translated by Annemie Godbehere. Edited by Joel Beeke. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012.
The title demarcates the three main foci of this book. Under the heading of Faith Udemans exposits the Apostles’ Creed, under the heading of Hope he exposits the Lord’s Prayer, and under the heading of Love he exposits the Decalogue. I’ve read this book slowly over a number of years, and this year I read his exposition and application of commandments 5-10 in the Decalogue. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Miller, Patrick D. The Ten Commandments. Interpretation. Louisville: WJK, 2009.
The real value of this book is the way Miller traces each commandment through the entirety of Scripture. Miller is not a conservative interpreter, so his exegesis and application must be read with great discernment.
Meilaender, Gilbert. Bioethics: A Primer for Christians. 4th ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020.
In this brief volume Meilaender orients Christians to think carefully about bioethics in general and covers procreation (especially artificial reproduction), abortion, genetic therapy, prenatal screening, suicide and euthanasia, organ donation, human experimentation, embryonic research, refusing treatment.
Tollefsen, Christopher O. Lying and Christian Ethics. New Studies in Christian Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Tollefsen makes a philosophical case for the position that lying is never acceptable (though some non-verbal deception may be). Aside from some reasoning tied particularly to Catholic tradition, this book makes a persuasive case. It also helpfully surveys the views of Augustine and Aquinas, whose view Tollefsen shares, and those of Cassian, Bonhoeffer, and Richard Niebuhr, who argue for opposing views.
Grudem’s treatment of this topic in the Piper festschrift and in his ethics book is also good. John Murray’s chapter on this topic in Principles of Conduct is also very good.
Newkirk, Matthew. Just Deceivers: An Exploration of the Motif of Deception in the Books of Samuel. Pickwick, 2015.
Newkirk seeks to make an exegetical case, primarily but not exclusively from the Books of Samuel, that deception, including lies, which do not cause “unjust harm or disadvantage to another person” are permitted by Scripture.
Those who take the position that lying is never permissible will distinguishing lying from withholding some of the truth from those who ought not know it, from ambiguous language, or from ambiguous actions. Newkirk treats all of these flatly under the category of deception. This is an important factor in evaluating Newkirk’s work because it narrows the examples which serve as defeaters to the lying-is-never-acceptable position.
The narratives relevant to Newkirk’s challenge to the thesis that lying is always wrong (but that ambiguous speech or actions are not necessarily always wrong) are (using Newkirk’s labels and evaluation):
B: Samuel’s lie to the Bethlehemites (1 Samuel 16:1-5)
C & D: Michal’s lie to deceive the messengers of Saul and, subsequently Saul (1 Samuel 19:12-17)
E: Jonathan’s lie to Saul about David’s absence from the feast (1 Samuel 20:6, 28-29)
G: David’s lie to Achish regarding his raiding activity (1 Samuel 27:10)
R: Joab and the Tekoite wise woman’s lie to David (2 Samuel 14:1-21)
T: Hushai’s lie to Absalom when he gave him poor military counsel (2 Samuel 17:5-14)
H: The woman’s lie to Absalom’s servants about the location of the messengers from Hushai to Abimelech (2 Samule 17:19-20)
These are all narratives that include lies which Newkirk argues receive positive evaluation/characterization. However, I do not think that the narrator’s evaluation of C, D, G, or R is positive.
C& D: Newkirk neglects the negative element of Michal having and using an idol in the deception and the ambivalent characterization of her in general. He relies too much on the success of her deception and the fact that her lie gets the last word in the account to conclude that the narrator’s characterization of the episode is positive.
G: Newkirk argues that the characterization of this lie is positive because it shows that David is characterized as a royal figure bringing territory under Israelite control. However, in the broader context, David finds himself conscripted to fight against Israel and Ziklag is sacked with the women and children captured. Thus it seems that the narrative presents negative consequences for his lies. While positive consequences do not justify lies, negative consequences can signal that lies are at best problematic at worst sins that bring punishment.
R: Newkirk weighs this passage positively because he sees parallels between the Tekoite and Abigail, David’s wife. The more pertinent information seems to be that Joab is behind the deception, and Newkirk has identified Joab’s other deceptions as unjustified. Further, the result of this deception is that Absalom is brought back and into a position where he can undertake a coup against David.
In two of these episodes (B, T), I doubt that a lie takes place:
B: Newkirk claims that Samuel lied when he said he has come to sacrifice to Yhwh when he really came to anoint David king. However, telling only part of the truth to people who ought not have the full truth is not a lie.
T: Newkirk says that Hushai lied when he said that Ahithophel’s counsel was not good. Likewise, he said Hushai lied when he said that David would not stay with the people (since he did 17:21) and when he said that David would hide himself in a pit since Hushai last saw David on the Mount of Olives (a mount being the opposite of a pit). However, given then Hushai, even on Newkirk’s own account, scrupulous to speak ambiguously rather than lie outright when presenting himself to Absalom as an advisor, given that David was certainly not going to remain on the top of the Mount of Olives, and given that he did not know that David stayed with the people, it seems strange to call these lies. Hushai is a counselor providing hypotheticals, not a reporter of David’s actual movements. With regard to the statement that Ahithophel’s counsel is not good, Newkirk grants that this too could be ambiguous language (good for whom?).
Episodes E and H are the most challenging for a lying-is-always-wrong thesis.
E: Since David and Jonathan are characterized positively, Newkirk wants to characterize Jonathan’s lie to Saul at David’s behest positively, though he grants (“the author does not provide specific data to assess confidently.” Against this positive evaluation is the fact that David’s next lie is to the priest Ahimelech at Nob, a lie which ends up with the priests being killed, and David recognizing his culpability.
H: The woman who hid the messengers to David lied by telling Absalom’s servants that the messengers had already crossed the river when they were actually hiding under a well she had covered. Newkirk draws a parallel to Rahab, and since he thinks the Bible characterizes Rahab’s lie positively, he concludes this lie should be characterized positively as well.
However, it is difficult to reason from a single narrative example (or a handful of narrative examples if one broadens out beyond the books of Samuel) to the conclusion that the Bible condones some lying given blanket statements in Scripture condemning lying or relating God’s character to truth in distinction from lying. Newkirk attempted to contextualize these passages to narrow the scope of their blanket statements. These efforts were not convincing.
Newkirk’s book provides a valuable service in identifying key narratives in which lying seems to be approved in Scripture. However, I thought Newkirk failed to convincingly demonstrate his thesis.
Yancey, George. Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006.
Part 1 of this book outlines four secular models for thinking about racism, two from the political left and two from the right. At present many conservative Christians are rightly concerned that left-wing approaches to addressing racism are shaping Christian thought, but too often they simply adopt secular viewpoints from the right as if they were biblical. Yancey’s book helpfully critiques secular approaches from all sides as sub-biblical. In part 2 of this book Yancey seeks to formulate a biblically-based approach to racism that takes into account the sin natures of both majority and minority groups. This is an insightful book that deserves wide readership