Biblical Ethics, The Changing Continuity of Christian Ethics

Written by R. E. O. White Reviewed By Christopher J.H. Wright

In the late 1960s I was giving a course of lectures on Christian Ethics at the Belfast Bible College, and found myself hampered by the lack of up-to-date books on the subject. I especially bemoaned the absence of anything on OT ethics, apart from occasional introductory sections to NT works—and my chief guide at the time, L. H. Marshall, lacked even that. I therefore give a very hearty welcome to this book, for, as the publisher correctly says, ‘nothing comparable has appeared for many years’.

The word ‘Biblical’ in the title is justified by the inclusion of two chapters on the OT out of the twelve in the book. One might complain that this is inadequate to the larger part of the biblical canon, but then, to have treated OT ethics in anything like the depth achieved for the NT would have resulted in an enormous volume. There then follow four chapters on Jesus, one on the primitive church, two on Paul, one each on Peter and John, and one on the ‘ “Sub-Apostolic” Discipline’ of 2 Peter, Jude, James, Hebrews, the Pastorals, Matthew and Luke, and Revelation. So the claim to be ‘comprehensive’ is also well-founded. The whole is launched with an introduction justifying the enterprise by asserting that there is such a thing as a valid Christian ethic which is fundamentally biblical, historical, and dynamically linked to the living Christ, and concluded with an epilogue that says much the same but looks forward to the second volume on the historical development of Christian ethics.

The first OT chapter, with its somewhat old-fashioned sounding title: ‘Legacies of Earlier Hebrew Religion’, outlines seven major contributions of the OT to Christian ethics. After noting the centrality of God (‘the theocratic approach’) these include a brief commentary on the Decalogue, helpful summaries of the Covenant Code, Deuteronomy, the Holiness Code, and the earlier and later prophets. The second chapter takes us through the morality of the Psalter and Wisdom Literature (in which I was pleased to see a good treatment of Job 31, an important chapter for OT ethics that is often overlooked), to the legalism and sects of later Judaism.

There is an unfortunate dependence in these chapters upon the literature of the early 20th century, and so a number of hoary views are espoused which current OT scholarship would dispute or reject. These include: regarding the prophets as the initiators of the unique link between morality and religion; the alleged ‘nomadic origins’ of Israel and the attribution of her ‘moral “Puritanism” and democracy’ to those roots; Deuteronomy as being the legal precipitate of eighth-century prophecy; Jeremiah and Ezekiel as having introduced de novo the moral development of individual responsibility. The very dated and limited bibliography to the OT chapters sadly means that they will not be of as much use to the student as they could have been if more reference had been made to the quantity of literature on OT theology which bears on OT ethics. Eichrodt, Muilenburg, von Rad, Zimmerli, are all missing. Nevertheless, the general reader will certainly find here more than he could easily find elsewhere—namely, a reasonably substantial overview of the contribution of the OT to Christian ethics.

The chapters on Jesus begin with a survey of his attitude to the Judaism of his time and then expound his message around two central themes: ‘The Family of God and the Life of Sonship’, and ‘The Kingdom of God and the Life of Obedience’. The treatment is well organized, clearly readable and covers the teaching of Jesus comprehensively, though one wished for a more definite statement of the fact that Jesus was not primarily a moral teacher but that his ethic was generated by who he was and what he had come to accomplish. Full weight is given to the social as well as the personal dimensions of the ethic of the Kingdom of God, though the discussion of these may appear bland to some and not matching up to the radical challenge and perceived threat that Jesus embodied and presented to the social establishment of his day. The fourth chapter on Jesus is a discussion of the ‘Life of Imitation’, not only in terms of the content such a concept gives to Christian ethics, but also as to the way it guarantees their abiding validity. One hopes that White’s second volume will expound the variety of historical interpretation of this theme. Once again, I found the bibliographical weakness a matter of concern here. The most frequently quoted authors are: Glover (1917), Inge (1930), Scott (1924) and Marshall (1946). The absence of any reference to the Gospel scholarship of, say, Hunter, Jeremias, Dodd, Manson, or Ladd, not only from the text and footnotes, but even from the full bibliography, is astonishing.

The chapter on ‘Ethics in the Primitive Church’ not only makes use of Acts, but also draws on the lists of ethical imperatives scattered throughout the epistles which White, following Selwyn and others, regards as enshrining the oral teaching and catechesis given to new converts. He outlines six thematic patterns of such instruction, grouped around certain key-words, such as: abstain; watch; put off; put on; submit; rejoice; resist.

In my view, the chapters on Paul are the most satisfying in the book (though the bibliographical weakness persists). The first thoroughly expounds the theological presuppositions that govern Paul’s moral teaching, making unmistakably clear that, for Paul, morality was not just a consequence of redemption, but rather that redemption itself was a moral transformation. The fulfilment of righteousness is God’s goal in all that he does for us and in us. Salvation from sin and this age, new creation, regeneration, the indwelling Spirit, etc., are all geared to this end. ‘By grace you are saved … unto good works.’ The second outlines ‘Paul’s Ethical Directives’ with a thoroughness achieved by a classification which the author admits is artificial, but certainly aids clarity. It covers Paul’s teaching on the new life at the level of individual virtue, in marriage and family, at work, within the church, and in society. The outline in each case is balanced, fair to Paul and clear—the happier outcome of the lecture origin of the material. He rightly points out Paul’s agreement with Jesus on the ethical implications of the Kingdom of God, which Paul ‘translates’ into the Lordship of Christ as the ‘ruling concept in Christian ethics’. One would have liked further amplification of this point, and also of the eschatological dynamic of Paul’s ethical thought.

That there are another 40 pages devoted to other NT writers is valuable in itself, since ‘NT Ethics’ is often limited to a survey of Jesus and Paul. The summaries are succinct and helpful in each case, though I feel sure that James deserves more than 3 pages! Mention is made of the OT derivation of some of Peter’s ethical counsels, but I felt that they were not adequately assessed, in view of the way 1 Peter is saturated with OT allusion and reference. This is an indication of a wider gap, which is that although the OT is discussed as regards its ‘legacy’ to Christianity, there is no grappling with the examples of the way NT authors actually used and applied it ethically. This would have opened up the hermeneutical issues of biblical ethics regarding how we go about applying both OT and NT in our own day. Perhaps that lay beyond the scope of this volume and may be discussed in the next. Finally, with Revelation, White finely describes the ultimate goal of biblical ethics—as it is the goal of biblical theology and indeed of all human history—as a ‘world redeemed, cleansed and made beautiful … but the city, like the garden, is only secure and satisfying when man walks there with his God’ (p. 225).

Christopher J.H. Wright

Principal, All Nations Christian College, Ware