Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: Christian Ethics

Mortimer Adler says, when you critique a book, you're supposed to critique the book the author intended to write not the book you wish he'd written. It's in that spirit I set out to review Wayne Grudem's Christian Ethics.

I was excited when I saw it was available for free review copies. This is an area in which I haven't read much, and there are so many moral issues either giving us trouble now or looming on the horizon, so I was eager to dive in.

Grudem says, "I have written this book for Christians who want to understand what the Bible teaches about how to obey God faithfully in their daily lives." It was written to serve as a textbook or a guide for the lay believer, and it can be read straight through or readers can dip into whichever chapters address their particular concerns. The format is very similar to his Systematic Theology. He gives his arguments in a cleanly laid out format, then he provides "questions for personal application," a list of special terms from the chapter that appear in the glossary, and a bibliography of other works that weigh in on the same topics, followed by a scripture memory passage and a hymn.

He lists six "distinctive features" of his book: a clear biblical basis for ethics, clarity in the explanation of ethical teachings, application to life, focus on the evangelical world, hope for progress int he unity of the church on ethical issues, and a sense of the urgent need for greater ethical understanding in the whole church. I totally agree that those features characterize the book, most especially the first.

The first part of the book lays down a foundation for the discussion of ethics: where do they come from, why do we care, how do we know God's will? Then he discusses the possibility of the impossible moral conundrum (ie, where the believer must choose between sinful options) and how to use the Old Testament for ethical guidance. After that he launches into the various ethical topics using the Ten Commandments as organizational headings. (For example, under "You shall not steal", he handles property rights, "work, rest, vacations, and retirement," increasing prosperity, poverty, business ethics, and more.)

Now it's time to "critique the book the author intended to write." So how'd he do? If you're familiar with his other work, it'll come as no surprise that he's thorough, thoughtful, and clear. You may not always agree with what he says, but he says it well. I think he let himself off a little too easy on the topic of impossible moral situations, but this is a very, very difficult area that most of us — thankfully — will never really experience.

On the individual issues he was, again, very thorough and, in my humble opinion, completely biblical — and honest when he's going beyond what the biblical text actually says. I do wish he gone into more detail on medical and/or genetic "improvements" on humans (one of the issues looming on the horizon), but it's hardly a classical problem at this point.

My only real complaint comes from the book I wish he'd written. I was hoping to get a more generalized methodology for approaching new issues. I expected something like that in his chapters on "factors to consider in making ethical decisions" and using the OT for guidance. I didn't really get what I was looking for. I don't know if such a thing doesn't exist or if I was just expecting too much. Or perhaps that's simply not the book he set out to write.

Judging the book he wrote on the grounds of what he says he intended to do, it's a good book. It's not the only such book (he lists many, many others), but it's well written, comprehensive, and thoroughly biblical. I got the electronic version for free, but some day I'll probably pick up a hard copy for the shelf.

I reserve that fifth star for only the most important books, but this one would easily be four stars. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic of biblical ethics and to everyone who's not.