Christian Ethics: A New Covenant Model

Written by Hak Joon Lee Reviewed By Chase R. Kuhn

Producing a textbook on Christian Ethics is no short order. Perhaps it demands more than most disciplines: definition of terms, an organizing principle, engagement with philosophy, theology, scriptural exegesis, history, and contemporary society. Hak Joon Lee, Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, has offered a bold and thorough treatment of Christian Ethics. He endeavors to present what he believes to be a novel approach (p. 9), organizing his ethics around the concept/metaphor of covenant.

The book is organized into two halves, the first focusing on theory (“New Covenant Ethics”) and the second on application (“Social Ethics”). The first half is the most demanding for the reader. In the opening two chapters, the metaphor of “covenant” is introduced and given a biblical and theological justification as the dominant organizing principle for ethics. This exploration establishes the author’s position (broadly) within the Reformed tradition. Chapters 3 and 4 begin to identify what he means by “new covenant” ethics. The author’s approach is Hegelian, specifying three dialectics that he believes are typical of a covenant: unilateral-bilateral, communal-communicative, and memory-hope. This is all subsumed under the overarching covenantal theo-drama of liberation-restoration. Underpinning these dialectics are the triad of justice, love, and power, which are always held in balance, working toward the goal (“cosmic actualization,” p. 55) of shalom. The author contends for four moral practices that characterize “new covenant ethics”—communicative engagement, just peacemaking, grassroots community organization, and nonviolent action—built upon the theological characteristics of trinitarian theology, eschatology, liberation-restoration, the harmony of love-justice-power, just peacemaking, nonviolence, ecumenism, and the eucharist (i.e., sacramentalism). As this paragraph demonstrates, there is an abundance of conceptual material to be held together in the proposed schema. This is done cogently, and perhaps comprehensively, but readers will struggle to discern if it is ideology driving the principles, or the other way around. This is not helped by the descriptive nature of much that is presented.

The final six chapters of the first half explore how the theory presented could be evaluated, compared, and applied. Chapter 8 is strong in demonstrating how the dialectical nature of the model makes room for various ethical “motifs” (modes) to be held together (rather than showing preference) and the way it embraces teleology, deontology, and virtue. Chapter 9, however, is disappointing as the dialectical nature of the method seeks to simultaneously uphold biblical authority while maintaining a biblical-critical posture. Theological justification is given through a Barthian rationale (pp. 197–98), in which the author seeks to distinguish between divine authority and scriptural authority. The concluding chapter of the section (ch. 10) provides a practical model of how the theory will be utilized, while detailing some key characteristics of the model (e.g., the dialectical, analogical, communal, and communicative). The author seeks to demonstrate the capacity of the model for handling real-world problems. Epistemologically, the author contends for a “critical-realist” position, maintaining consistency with his dialects, and denies a purely objectivist or subjectivist approach.

The second half of the book is given to considering social ethics. The author begins his treatment with an overview of social ethics and the “covenantal social imagination.” This chapter (ch. 11) is foundational for the following exploration of issues as the author demonstrates how spheres and institutions comprise society. He imagines his model possessing a unique capaciousness and plausibility for an increasingly pluralistic society (p. 245). The issues explored in the subsequent chapters include distributive justice (ch. 12), politics (ch. 13), economics (ch. 14), creation care (ch. 15), criminal justice (ch. 16), race (ch. 17), sex and marriage (ch. 18), medical ethics (ch. 19), and war, peace, and just peacemaking (ch. 20). These chapters are much clearer than the first half of the book and demonstrate the value of the comprehensive model offered. Issues are treated systematically, and the model proposed gives fair voice to secular positions while seeking to uphold a Christian ethic for society. However, in trying to strike a balance between a biblical position and one that is livable today in broader society, the results are mixed and confusing. So, with regards to pre-marital sex, the author advocates neither condemning nor condoning immoral behavior (pp. 411–12). Instead, he proposes modeling a better way that will lead to sanctification in others. With regards to same-sex marriage, he upholds the biblical vision of marriage between a man and a woman on grounds of created complementarity (though not necessarily complementarian), and the reiteration of this good design in the ministry of Jesus. However, he also supports the right of homosexuals in the broader community to be joined in marriage. The difference, he believes, is that such unions are more contractual than covenantal, as God has purposed them to be (pp. 423–25).

The strength of this volume is the maturity of thought represented in the model. Hak Joon Lee has been thinking, teaching, and writing on these matters for many years. There is a cogency and practicability to what he offers, as is seen through the second half of the volume. Furthermore, there is an admirable charity in his writing that seeks the common good. The questions he raises in regard to a host of ethical issues are honest and searching, and need to be considered.

The weaknesses of the volume, however, are not insignificant. While the work is comprehensive and sophisticated, most readers will find the first half conceptually cumbersome. The dialectics do not help, as readers are presented with thoughts constantly in tension. The author doesn’t dismiss absolute truth or morality, but he doesn’t see them as necessarily within reach either. In many ways, this is admirable and appropriate as we await eschatological perfection. However, at many points, this will lead the readers to the conclusion that truth and morality are emerging, rather than real. Although the author tries to mitigate such concerns by advocating a critical realist position, most evangelical readers will find his lack of certainty frustrating.

The work also struggles stylistically. At points, the volume is beautifully poetic, but at other times it is technically verbose. The conceptual difficulty could be mitigated by a few changes. The constant repetition of dialectical phraseology could be left out or replaced by simpler wording. In fact, repetition is a recurring issue. The volume often says the same thing (at times almost verbatim) within a matter of a few paragraphs (e.g., pp. 12, 32, 38–39, 41, 44–45, 78, 82, 201–2, 223, 400, 402–3, etc.).

Theologically, there are several positions stated as a matter of fact that readers will find strange if not unconvincing. One example is the notion of kenosis (pp. 67, 68, 102) which is applied not only to the incarnation but also to the person of the Spirit. This is proposed as a measure of respecting human agency. Likewise, social trinitarianism (pp. 69, 78) is assumed as the way trinitarian theology is related to ethics. This includes question-begging statements about “the historical actualization of triune life (perichōrēsis ad extra)” as the “purpose of the covenant” (p. 78). Moreover, the claim of biblical contradictions and inconsistencies, along with the encouragement to read Scripture using a “hermeneutics both of trust and suspicion, of yielding and of assertion” (p. 200), is not without issues.

Finally, there are some major lacunae that keep the positions presented from being more persuasive. First, there is little mention of the regenerating work of the Spirit (though the Spirit is present in the volume at several points). Along with this, there is no mention of gospel proclamation or repentance. This is problematic because the new covenant is determined to be universal. But is this in scope or inclusion? The author seems to propose the latter (pp. 250–52), creating confusion around moral ability, the implications of sin, and accountability. At points, there are swipes at evangelicals (p. 197), biblicists (p. 206), fundamentalists (p. 194), postliberals (p. 195), and two-kingdoms theology (p. 245), with no support being offered for his caricatured criticisms. Furthermore, there is little engagement with scholars that would have been important interlocutors on several points—such as Oliver O’Donovan on moral realism and/or justice and political theology; David VanDrunen on covenants or natural law; and Stanley Hauerwas on virtue and community formation. Failure to engage with the work of these scholars means that readers are less likely to be persuaded by the author’s conclusions and more likely to view them as novel or inferior alternatives.

Readers of this journal should be encouraged to read this volume if they are looking to engage with a moderate theological treatment of Christian ethics, which offers a robust and comprehensive model. However, I doubt it will become a set text for courses on Christian ethics, as evangelicals will be dissatisfied not only by the conceptual clutter but by the theological shortcomings of the work.

Chase R. Kuhn

Chase R. Kuhn
Moore Theological College
Newtown, New South Wales, Australia

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