The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

Written by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, eds Reviewed By Kyle Strobel

Hauerwas and Wells, as one might expect, have created a somewhat unusual companion to Christian ethics. My use of the term unusual should not come to denote obscure or unhelpful, but quite the opposite. Hauerwas and Wells are able to achieve what few companion volumes actually do—provide a coherent and provocative argument that is buttressed by the dozens of essays that follow their introduction. By doing so, they have done a great service to academics and pastors alike. To academics, because they remind the academy that Christian thought is always ethical thought, the proclamation of the church always has ethical imperatives. In other words, theology and ethics are two interwoven realities. Furthermore, for the pastor, because theology and ethics are ultimately tasks of the church, and the worship of the church serves as the seedbed for ethical discourse.

To begin, Hauerwas and Wells cast a vision for their endeavor: “The aim of this volume is to stretch, inspire, and develop the reader’s conception of Christian worship in order to challenge, enrich, and transform the reader’s notions of the form and content of Christian ethics” (p. 3). Notice the priority. The form and content of Christian ethics are transformed in the context of Christian worship. Christian ethical discourse is done within the lived reality of the worshipping community. This is not simply a comment about the place of this discussion, but focuses specifically on the development of a distinctively Christian ethical impulse. The Christian liturgy is formative for Christian ethics. Through a series of “ordered practices” that help “shape the character and assumptions of Christians.” Think about the practices of a worshipping community, from the novelty of introducing yourself to a stranger to confessing sin, celebrating, naming truth and anticipating the heavenly banquet by partaking of the Lord’s Supper (the term “eucharist” is saved for the broad movement from greeting to dismissal and not the Lord’s Supper more narrowly). The rule of life that the church embodies signals a deep conviction about the ways of the world. By partaking in this way of life, the church naturally establishes a forum for ethical discourse and pedagogy.

To allow the liturgy to form the volume the contents are broken down into five main headings. The first heading, “Meeting God and One Another,” addresses issues related to gathering, greeting, praising, and reconciling. The topics are incredibly diverse, from the nature of worship to racial reconciliation to the prophetic witness of the mentally disabled. The everyday practices of the church, from greeting one another to praising her Lord, orients everything from the church to the arts to the neglected, and focuses on unity in a way often ignored. The second heading is “Re-Encountering the Story.” The focal point of this second section is on how Scripture “shapes the character of Christians and the mind of the church.” Under this section are practices like reading Scripture, listening, proclaiming, discerning, etc. The ethical issues addressed span the distance between character formation to authority, justice to politics and reasoning in light of the tradition.

The third section is entitled “Being Embodied,” and highlights the point of the service after the proclamation of the word. These focus on particular practices not always included in celebrations of Eucharist, but a part of some—baptism and marriage. As such, the focus in these chapters is on the nature of the church as one body. Here, we find chapters addressing poverty, grief, race, abortion, health care and cloning, etc. This section provides a broad swath of ethical concerns from marriage to discipline to gender, all through the lens that the people of God are one people, united in Christ. The fourth section is the largest grouping of practices, and it is called “Re-Enacting the Story.” This section focuses on the preparation and consumption of the Eucharist meal itself. Issues such as offering, globalization and power, euthanasia, genetically modified foods, homosexuality, and time are covered under the banner of the shared body of Christ. The fifth heading concerns the ways a service are completed. It is entitled, “Being Commissioned.” The focal point of this section is on the dismissal of the people of God—the church and her vocation as she disperses back into the world. This last section is short, comprising three chapters, which focus on wealth and theft, conception and the family, and being sent as witnesses. The volume concludes with an afterword of two chapters, one on the virtue of the liturgy and an afterword by Rowan Williams.

As suggested by this outline, this volume seeks to give texture to the ethical imperatives latent in Christian worship. The essays, overall, are very good, some focusing on the nature of worship and ethics in the abstract and others connecting in a deeply personal way with the authors. An example of the first is Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay “Praising in Song: Beauty and the Arts,” where he seeks to “investigate the role of beauty and aesthetics in the Christian life.” Under this goal, Vanhoozer addresses Christian ethics with “evangelical imagination”—“the ability to see what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ.” As for the second kind of essay, Brian Brock serves as a helpful example. In his essay, “Praise: The Prophetic Public Presence of the Mentally Disabled,” Brock narrates various circumstances that his family has been confronted with regarding their son Adam and his mental disabilities. Brock raises questions concerning the apparent belief in welcoming everyone in public spaces, and offers a variety of stories that suggest the opposite. These experiences move from the public spaces of society at large to the worshipping community of the church.

This volume would be ideal for upper-divisional undergraduate and seminary/graduate level courses in Christian ethics and pastoral theology. The overall quality of the essays is extremely high and accessible. For the training of those interesting in pastoral ministry, this volume has much more to offer than most texts on Christian ethics. By grounding the key questions of ethics in the worship of the church, this text can help future pastors recognize that the acts of worship are far from innocuous moments of piety, but are, in fact, deeply prophetic political acts in the world. This volume is highly recommended. While I have purposely not focused on the decision-making of the various authors, what should stand out is the method, an issue that is unfortunately left aside in many discussions of ethics in seminaries and undergraduate courses. Let me suggest, rather, that this volume excellently raises the issues and properly locates them within the proclamation and practice of the church.

Kyle Strobel

Kyle Strobel
Talbot School of Theology
La Miranda, California, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

Too often people think of the Reformation in terms of an abstract theological debate...

Abstract: Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, edited by Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry, argues that evangelical scholars have failed to embrace historical criticism to the extent that they could and should...

Thomas Prince, editor of The Christian History—the first religious periodical in American history—could hardly have invented the Great Awakening, as Frank Lambert argues...

Theology is first and foremost about who God is and then about what he has done...

I would like to consider several elements in reviewing Bray’s work...