Book Review: Introducing Christian Ethics by Quash, Wells and Eklund

Overview

Introducing Christian Ethics by Quash and Wells and Eklund states its aim as offering an ‘engaging introduction’ to the field of ethics, suitable for beginners.[1] It attempts to show the evolution of ethical practice through the ages, and considers factors under the headings of Universal, Subversive and Ecclesial ethics. The book considers both theoretical and applied ethics, and looks at the place and evolution of ethical thinking throughout history. I will show that on balance, the authors have failed in some of these areas.

The title is never explained: Christian ethics, as opposed to other kinds of ethics, is never defined. McCabe argues, ‘there is no such thing as Christian ethics. There is just ethics.’[2] The book includes both historically important scholars and theologies, and those that are currently important, and whilst some are considered ‘Christian’ others are not.

Themes Discussed

The book begins by considering the place of Scripture in Christian ethics, and the types of authority it should have. There is a very brief overview of the aims of the Gospels and their influence on ethics. This is better explained by Hays, who shows in detail the shape of the New Testament books and how ethics can be based on them.[3] Hays shows the aims of the authors and how, for example, the issues of their culture and their own understanding affected their teaching.[4] These themes are excluded from Introducing Christian Ethics. The overview is cursory and gives limited information (and I suggest is therefore unnecessary).

The book then describes the growth of the church from biblical times, through the time of dominance under Constantine (AD 280-337) and to modern times. This was an interesting overview, introducing most of the key figures and explaining their role in the evolution of Christianity. There were again many technical terms introduced.[5] These are helpful, but rather detract from the general overview of history, as each one must be read, understood, and assimilated.

One aspect of the book that was helpful was a link between the events of history and the influence on the church. For example, a link is made between the French Revolution and suspicion in the church towards liberal theology.[6]

The definition of ethical terms and their link to scholars was also useful. For example, deontological ethics (‘duty-based’ ethics) and universalism are linked to Kant, who taught that freedom was to ‘not be controlled by external desires,’ and who rejected both mysticism and empiricism in favour of duty.[7] For Kant (and universalists) there are no exceptions, ethics become rules that last in every situation. For example, lying is wrong, and therefore always wrong, even if telling the truth would result harm to an innocent. Utilitarianism is portrayed through the teaching of Bentham and Mills.[8] Following Hutcheson, they believed in, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’

Although the book devotes a paragraph to reflecting on Mills’ views, there is a more detailed evaluation given by Austin in his book. He disputes whether an outcome-based morality is possible, given that humans are incapable of being impartial.[9] Porter’s writing also questions the viability of Mills’ views, saying the evaluation of what constitutes happiness, and how it might be measured, must rely on more than intuition.[10]

The above examples illustrate one weakness with the book: It attempts to do too much, to impart too much information, and therefore is unable to properly evaluate it. It would be better to either simply impart a factual overview (with no evaluation) or to limit the number of scholars mentioned and to include a more thorough discussion of their views.

There is some discussion of intuitionism.[11] An example of the ‘founding fathers of America’ is given, which is helpful for grounding the theory, which is described in the same way as one might describe having a conscience, though this word is not used.

The book then goes on to define and discuss universal, subversive and ecclesial ethics.[12] Chapter Six begins with subversive ethics, and has a notable omission. The authors include discussion of liberation theology (relating both to class and race) and feminist theology with its ‘hermeneutic of suspicion.’[13] Theology relating to disability and age are also discussed. However, there is no discussion of gay theology. There is a brief inclusion of ‘lesbian ethics,’ (one short paragraph) but no discussion. This is surprising. Gay theology is a growing branch of theology, with many books and much discussion.[14] The issue is considered in depth later in the book, but not included as a theology.

Ecclesial ethics have been influenced by Hauerwas and Yoder. Interestingly, the authors have included reference to Yoder’s personal life.[15] Yoder was something of a sex maniac, and this contrasts with his stated views on pacifism (because abusing women contradicts an antithesis to violence). The inclusion is interesting because there are no personal details of other theologians and scholars, their personal lives are separate from their teaching—the wives of Socrates, Kant’s poverty, Hauerwas’ loveless marriage are not mentioned.[16] Perhaps this is due to the enormity of disparity between the teaching and lifestyle of Yoder.

The discussion on same-sex relationships extends to 10 pages.[17] It is in-depth, with a balanced explanation of the various stances. I was pleased to see that it not only discussed the issue of same-sex relationships, but also noted how the debate compares and contrasts with other issues. For example, the argument that humans were created with distinct genders compares to humans being created vegetarians, and when New Testament passages are contextualised in the gay debate, it is the same process as when they are contextualised in relation to slavery or the role of women or divorce.

Wider Implications

One implication arising from the book is that throughout the ages, various scholars have genuinely attempted to discern the truth regarding ethical living—yet their views differ. Therefore, the ethicist today should perhaps hold their views humbly, knowing that other people will differ whilst being equally sincere. There is sometimes a mood of superiority in theological books, which denies the possibility that in a changing world, the author might be wrong.

This is especially pertinent for universalists, who might be challenged by unexpected situations. To believe that lying or violence or stealing is intrinsically wrong, might be viewed as naïve when tested by an extreme situation. Holding a view of pacifism, for example, might be untenable if ever confronted with violence towards loved ones. This was illustrated in the life of Bonhoeffer, who held a belief in pacifism and yet became part of a plot to kill Hitler.[18]

It would also appear from the example of Yoder, that the ethical stance taken by a leader should be reflected in their lifestyle choices. Even academics expect some continuity between what is being theorised and what is being practised.

General Conclusion

I would suggest that in terms of ‘usability’ the authors have definitely failed in their objectives. They have in effect written an encyclopaedia, explaining a myriad of different terms and introducing most of the key influencers in the field of ethics and philosophy. However, this has resulted in an unwieldly book, one that is difficult for the beginner to assimilate. (Incidentally, the physical book is also unwieldly, being an unusually large size for a textbook, with wide margins.)

The book often cross-references, mentioning topics that are discussed in later chapters, which breaks continuity and leaves the reader struggling to understand the issue under discussion.[19] It would be difficult to use the book as an encyclopaedia, as only some of the people and ideas discussed are included in the index, though this is the description that best fits the content. The most accessible chapters are those where the reader brings some previous knowledge, as the ideas can then be scanned quickly and it is possible to see particular theologies in a greater whole. This book is therefore, in my opinion, not an ‘introduction’ nor written for ‘beginners.’ This is a detailed account of the many theologies that have resulted in ethical views, described within their historical setting. As such, it has value, but it requires some pre-reading of other books.


[1] Samuel Wells, Ben Quash, Rebekah Eklund Introducing Christian Ethics (NJ, Wiley Blackwell, 2017).

[2] Herbert McCabe, God Matters (London, Continuum, 2005) p. 19.

[3] Richard B. Hays The Moral Vision of the New Testament (NJ, Harper Collins, 1996).

[4] Hays. For example, Matthew’s Gospel was written at a time when the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and the Torah was being debated, p. 96. It was also more than 50 years after Jesus’ death, so the teaching was expecting long-term discipleship within the church, not simply a few months as in the Gospels written earlier, p. 104.

[5] For example, ‘anchorite,’ ‘eremite’ and ‘cenobite’ are introduced, defining the various types of monastic life. p. 46 and p. 410.

[6] Wells, Quash and Eckland, p. 58.

[7] Well, Quash and Eckland, pp 134 – 136.

[8] Wells, Quash and Eckland, pp 137 -139.

[9] Victor Lee Austin, Christian Ethics (London, Bloomsbury, 2012) p. 54.

[10] Jean Porter, The Recovery of Virtue: The Relevance of Aquinas for Christian Ethics (KY, John Knox Press, 1990) p. 20.

[11] Wells, Quash and Eckland, p. 140.

[12] Following detailed descriptions, there is a brief definition, p. 215.

[13] Wells, Quash and Eckland, p. 179.

[14] A search on Amazon for ‘gay theology’ returns over 1,000 results. Amazon <https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=gay+theology&crid=1ICFO6JQENP6S&sprefix=gay+theology%2Caps%2C62&ref=nb_sb_noss_1>[accessed 5/12/2022]

[15] Wells, Quash and Eckland, p. 222.

[16] Based on internet research:Youtube < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dJXokB6iY0> [accessed 5/12/2022]

[17] Wells, Quash and Eckland, pp. 327 – 339.

[18] John W. Matthews, Bonhoeffer: A Brief Overview of the Life and Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: (Theology for Life) (MN, Lutheran University Press, 2002).

[19] For example, randomly taking the pages 276-277, nine scholars are introduced, seven ideas are discussed and there is one cross-reference to another chapter.

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