Volume 21 - Issue 2

Of Making Books

By David Kingdon

In 1995, IVP brought out its New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology. Thereby hangs a long tale. The idea had been officially mooted for 14 years before publication—about the time it took Jacob, whose ethics could be shaky in his earlier years, to acquire Leah and Rachel at the hands of Laban, whose ethics were shakier still. It was originally planned as a dictionary of Christian Ethics, but it became clear that the lines between Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology were becoming increasingly blurred and that a wider group would profit from a dictionary that combined the disciplines. With changes on the staff of IVP in the early 1980s and with the publication of the New Dictionary of Theology in 1988, it took time for idea to become reality.

Its format contains a feature of special interest. For it is in two parts, the first of which consists of 18 4,000-word articles, ordered according to a principle of theological arrangement. This part was designed, as the Preface states, to ‘give a basic introduction to the main themes of Christian ethics and pastoral theology’. The articles in it can be used ‘as a text book, offering the reader a broad survey of the field’. The second part consists of articles ranging from 250 to 1,000 words in length. Widely diverse subjects come under consideration: cannibalism and picketing are treated alongside media ethics, reproductive technologies, Third World aid and the theory of double-effect. It was no small job devising a reference system that makes it easy to move from the first to the second part and vice versa; not all typesetting firms have the technology to implement it.

From the outset, the idea was to make the Dictionary accessible to Christians in the professions, in commerce and in industry, who had no formal theological training. It therefore tries to avoid or to explain technicalities. But, of course, it is the work of experts: it is a great encouragement that international evangelical scholarship in these areas is of a standard that enabled this production. Within the parameters of evangelicalism, there has been no attempt to conceal differences. For example, no uniform line is taken on the vexed issues of divorce and remarriage. No doubt some will wish there were a firmer line taken, others, a more flexible approach. Be that as it may, early indications are that the Dictionary is proving its worth. Nor is its use limited to adults: there are reports of teenagers using it. It should certainly be of help to theological students and, as a major publishing event, it is appropriate to bring it to the attention of readers of Themelios.

‘Of making many books there is no end’, said the Teacher, ‘and much study wearies the body’ (Ecc. 12:12). This verse is surrounded with reference to the things that mattered to the Teacher: knowledge, uprightness, truth, wisdom. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes certainly studied—to find the right words, the right proverbs, the right sayings. And a book was certainly made out of them. For he wanted to impress on his hearers one thing, at the last: ‘Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.’ The study and the writing that have gone into the New Dictionary have been spiritually framed, it is hoped, by such considerations as these.

The Dictionary unites theology and ethics but, as we have noted, it is separate from the earlier New Dictionary of Theology. Perhaps a later generation will look back on us and say that, in those days, ‘theology’ and ‘ethics’ were often treated separately. Probably, evangelicalism is associated more with a ‘theology’ than an ‘ethics’. What are the distinctives of ‘evangelicalism’, we are asked, when people want to know exactly what the word means. Often, the answer is given in terms of doctrinal convictions. And perhaps this can mislead ‘evangelicals’ into one-sidedness. For we believe in the centrality of the love of God and of neighbour in Christianity, yet we never define evangelicalism in terms of these, for they are not distinguishing characteristics. Because doctrinal characteristics are frequently distinguishing characteristics, we make them the defining characteristics of our Christianity, in a way that associates our Christianity with doctrine and not with ethics, or with ethics only over a very restricted area.

We need to give to reflection on ethics the time we give to reflection in theology: to account pastoral theology as important as dogmatic theology. (We use the distinctions not because they are recommended, but because they are operative.) Once we do, our conception of the shape of the theological task will probably begin to change. Theologians often feel free to ‘do’ their theology independently of non-theologians. They will not get far or be maximally fruitful if they proceed in that way in tackling questions in ethics. How can pressing questions in medical ethics, for example, that desperately need deep theological attention, be better approached than when the nurse, the doctor, the lawyer, the health care administrator and the theologian try somehow to work together? The mind of Christ is conveyed to the body of Christ. Christ can sovereignly convey this in many ways. But it is clearly an appropriate expression of the body of Christ that members of the body co-operate in Christian reflection on issues in ethics. Wherever possible, the more our ‘inter-disciplinary’ work can be done at local, congregational level, the better. Out of a community bound together in love, led by sensitive pastors engaged in theological exploration, can come insight into ethical questions that stalk our social life. Surely Christian witness today can be effective not least by its articulation of a coherent social ethic. We hope that the Dictionary contributes worthily to that end.


David Kingdon