Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues

Written by Ken Magnuson Reviewed By Andrew J. Spencer

Ken Magnuson is the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society and also serves on the faculty of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught ethics for more than two decades. Invitation to Christian Ethics reflects the accumulated experience that comes from explaining topics to students in a way that is comprehensible, adaptable, and encourages retention. This is a book that balances both the foundational discussions of ethical methodology and a careful sifting of the data on contemporary issues. The result is a comprehensive introduction to ethics that is theologically oriented, Scripture-centric, and more comprehensive than many similar textbooks on the market.

The volume is divided into five parts. In part 1, Magnuson presents a case for ethics as a distinctly Christian enterprise, rather than as seeing it a variation on other forms of ethics with a veneer of biblical references to illustrate the moral reasoning. He also introduces and critiques the various approaches to moral reasoning, including consequentialism, deontology, etc. Here a basic framework for moral decision making consistent with the Christian tradition is outlined. The second part shifts to the biblical roots of Christian ethics. Magnuson is clear that the Bible is the supreme authority for Christian ethics and relevant even to contemporary questions that on the surface seem to exceed the technological vision of the biblical authors. He then addresses the application of the Old Testament to contemporary ethics, discussing the relationship between law and grace in some detail. This is followed by an exploration of the New Testament as a source of moral norms and the final foundation for ethical reasoning. This foundational material forms about a quarter of the content of the book, which seems appropriate given its significance.

Part 3 shifts to the practical application of ethics. Magnuson begins by tackling sexual ethics, which he does primarily by building a positive theology of sexuality, thereby demonstrating that what falls outside of that is an offense to God. He then explores the foundations of marriage and its purposes, showing how an understanding of the marital relationship puts most cultural contortions of the relationship out of bounds. In the next chapter divorce and remarriage are the primary focus: Magnuson argues that divorce is permissible in certain circumstances and that remarriage is possible in the cases of adultery and desertion. To complete its survey of sexual ethics, the book wrestles with the ethics of homosexuality, sexual identity, and gender. Throughout the discussions of these complex topics, Magnuson carefully defines key terms and explains the historical Christian perspective with both biblical and theological support.

The sanctity of human life is the focus of the fourth part of the book, beginning with the moral status of the human embryo, which is a necessary foundation for understanding the ethics of assisted reproductive technologies and grappling with the question of abortion. Additionally, Magnuson explores the morality of euthanasia and suicide. The content of these moral arguments not only includes strong biblical argumentation, but also legal and technological information to help the reader better understand what is at stake.

In Part 5, Magnuson moves from human life to the social order, where he outlines a biblical perspective on capital punishment and traces through the moral reasoning involved in just war ethics and pacifism. He then deals with the culturally contentious issues of race relations and creation care.

Throughout the volume, Magnuson handles alternative perspectives in such a way that those who disagree with him are likely to recognize their position as he presents it. He is also fair to other viewpoints, showing their strengths and weaknesses and explaining why he arrives at his conclusions. The methodology Magnuson employs is likewise very helpful, which will make this book valuable for years to come. Instead of focusing on marginal cases to show why something is right or wrong, inundating the reader with data and statistics, Invitation to Christian Ethics employs careful theological reasoning based on Scripture in order to work out the issue. This way, when technology changes or a new study is released, the process of reasoning from theological principles to ethics will remain useful. At the same time, on many issues, Magnuson has done the work to explain the history, particularly in the US, so that court cases, laws, and other significant events can help inform the reader’s understanding of the contemporary discourse.

This is a book that would serve well as a backbone text in a college or seminary ethics course. It would also fit well into the library of a church or on a pastor’s shelf. Its language is appropriately technical, with explanations offered as needed, but also clear and accessible. It will likewise be helpful resource for counseling or for exegetical preachers as they seek to rightly divide God’s word in light of contemporary ethical questions. Although it will rarely be exhaustive enough to answer every issue in detail, Invitation to Christian Ethics is a good starting place for real world questions. Magnuson has written a worthy introduction to Christian ethics.

Andrew J. Spencer

Andrew Spencer is a PhD candidate in theological studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of assessment and institutional research at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Other Articles in this Issue

This paper will outline the canon-conscious worldview of Ben Sira, highlight the major contents of his authoritative corpus of Jewish Writings, and describe his hermeneutical strategies...

Scholarly discussions concerning the nature of OT hope are arguably most passionate and divisive when the figure of the anointed one (often designated the messiah) is in view...

The book of Esther presents a challenge for many modern interpreters, since the book does not mention the name of God or his direct action...

Christians have long wrestled with how to read the Law in light of the work of Christ...