The Making of Christian Morality - A Review

There is a common approach to Christian ethics, especially among revisionists, that views the development of Christian thought as a synthetic process rather than an organic one. That view is on display in David Horrell’s recent book, The Making of Christian Morality: Reading Paul in Ancient and Modern Contexts.

Horrell is professor of New Testament studies at the University of Exeter. I was introduced to him through his work in ecotheology, particularly in his attempt to re-read Paul’s letter through an environmentally friendly lens in Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, and his plea for revising Christian hermeneutics in light of environmental concerns in The Bible and the Environment.

Although Horrell’s title includes the entire New Testament, the bulk of his career has been invested in Pauline studies. For Horrell, the study of Paul is distinct from the study of Christian thought, since he views Paul’s writings and those he believes to be incorrectly attributed to Paul to be radically different from the rest of the Christian tradition. This sort of approach, which is fairly typical in critical approaches to Christian scholarship, makes reshaping Scripture for his desired purposes much easier.

The Making of Christian Morality is a collection of essays, all of which were published elsewhere and/or delivered as conference papers. The result is a somewhat loose connection of individual entries in topics that interest Horrell rather than a cogent argument about a particular topic.

The book contains three parts, with each section focusing on a particular subject of concern. Part One deals with Horrell’s interest in the sociohistorical context of Paul’s writings. His first essay begins by ignoring the possibility of continuity between the authors of Scripture, but goes on to argue against distinct “Pauline” churches, which are a central plank in the arguments of some revisionists. In Chapter Two, Horrell debunks some popular constructs about early church architecture largely by revealing the slim evidence that some conclusions (which have and will likely make their way into commentaries and sermons) were based on. This is the most useful essay in the volume and relies on interdisciplinary research that basically calls for Christian scholars to hold their opinions until further evidence can be uncovered. The third essay largely argues from silence and conjecture that Philemon may have been a middle-class Christian instead of a major patron of the church. This apparently is a significant topic of concern in Pauline studies. The most significant contribution of this essay is Horrell’s astute observation that the supposed household baptism that forms the strongest biblical evidence for paedobaptism was not evidenced in Philemon’s household, where Onesimus was converted well after his master. Chapter Four explores the way the language of family was used in the Pauline corpus. The argument of this chapter functions best alongside Horrell’s assumptions about what is authentic and inauthentic, which, to little surprise is partially a function of the conclusions he and others draw about the use of language in the letters attributed to Paul.

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Part Two shifts to the topic of Pauline ethics. The fifth essay begins with the assertion that “in the study of Pauline ethics the contours of current debate are still shaped by the early contributions of Rudolf Bultmann.” This helps explain the limited value of Horrell’s work and other works on “Pauline ethics” for Christians and those who study Christian ethics. This essay emphasizes the centrality of the resurrection in Pauline ethics, but resolves with a whimper as Horrell considers how that vision can help lead toward a Rawlsian consensus ethics, which is an essential part of the liberal order as Horrell sees it. In Chapter Six, Horrell uses Pauline ethics to argue that ethics ought to be culturally determined. That is, that a Pauline ethics is best evidenced by agreement with and enforcement of norms that are generally socially acceptable. To oversimplify the case (but still to give a sense of the argument), a Pauline ethics is one that rejects Christians as a contrast community and develops a community of people that affirm the values of the culture better than the culture. The seventh chapter explores the concept of humility as a central part of a Pauline ethics (though largely consistent with and perhaps drawn from other non-Christian sources.).

In Part Three Horrell shifts to a discussion of contemporary application of Pauline ethics. The first essay, which deals with various models of ethics, is largely a call to see Scripture as an insufficient basis for ethics. Horrell writes, “So, while reading Paul in the context of our contemporary debates can be suggestive and fruitful, using Paul’s texts to ‘think with’ does not by any means suffice for the task of thinking about adequate models for Christian ethics, but only marks the beginning of the work.” In a different context that statement could be taken as hopeful, but Horrell’s intent is to reject the sufficiency and authority of Scripture and encourage his readers to rely on other (and perhaps contradictory) sources for moral authority. Chapter Nine is something of an abbreviated version of Horrell’s book, Greening Paul, and is another entry into the genre of revisionist scholarship that tries to recover themes from Scripture that reinforce a particular desired outcome. This essay highlights the central emphasis of Horrell’s project as he writes, “reconfiguring our religious and cultural traditions in light of the new challenges that face us is a crucial task.” Pauline studies are useful inasmuch as they power activism in that matches societies demands on the topics of particular concern. The book concludes with the tenth essay, which outlines some contributions that Horrell feels Paul can make to ecojustice, but ends with a fizzle when Horrell can be helpful to “reconfigure our vision of the world around us, and to ground a revised theology that (re)integrates humanity into solidarity with the whole community of creation––critical tasks indeed––but neither he nor any of the biblical writers can give us substantive answer to the question as to what, in concrete terms, we then should do.” According to Horrell’s own writing, then, the best thing for people to do may be to put the Bible down and start looking for answers in the ever-evolving pool of scientific research shaped by a never-static summum bonum.

Horrell’s work is excellent by the measures of critical biblical scholarship. His writing is lucid and clear. Those that accept his assumptions will likely find this book illuminating and thought provoking. Christian scholars that accept the integrity of Scripture will continually find themselves started by the overwhelming number of basic assumptions that rest on “scholarly consensus,” which in turn is often founded on wishful thinking and obtuse readings of Scripture.

This book illustrates the need for Christian ethicists to continue thinking about Scripture, orthodox Christian theology, and how to apply the vision inspired by those sources to contemporary issues like creation care. When the standard of scholarly excellence is supposedly set by those that deny the basic character and sufficiency of Scripture, there is a need for resources that interact with those sources and aid authentic, well-reasoned faith to the discussion.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Biblical Authority After Babel - A Review

In the year Protestants are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, many tend to review the Reformation as either an unchristian schism or a tragic necessity. These sentiments tend to obscure a more positive view that the Reformation was a much needed liberation of Christendom from the hegemonic theological and doxological distortions of the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity. As a result, a common mood is for Protestants to wring their hands and confess to divisiveness while Roman Catholics wag their finger at the destructive individualism and doctrinal plurality they argue is the necessary result of the five solas Reformation and the theological recovery movement known as the Reformation. Liberal Christians, both those who claim continuity with Roman Catholicism and those who chart their course by revising other theological traditions, tend to see the interpretive plurality that resulted from the Reformation as an indication that the main principle of the Reformers—namely, sola scriptura—is a fundamental failure and that Scripture is an insufficient foundation upon which to build Christianity.

In Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Kevin Vanhoozer makes a positive case for Reformed Christianity built upon a robust development of the five solas. Vanhoozer unpacks his apology for Mere Protestant Christianity in five chapters with a separate introduction and conclusion. This book is a modified version of a series of lectures given a Moore College, the result is a more conversational and accessible volume than some of Vanhoozer’s other work, which is to say that this volume combined Vanhoozer’s academic rigor with clear, readable prose to create a much-needed tool and treasure for contemporary Protestants.

The body of this volume is comprised of five chapters in addition a substantive introduction and conclusion. Each of the five chapters highlights one of the five solas of the Reformation, though, as is clear from the title of the book, there is one sola to rule them all. Since sola scriptura is at the heart of true Protestantism, that idea functions as the glue that holds the entire volume together.

In the introduction, Vanhoozer begins by addressing the elephant in the room in considerations of contemporary Protestantism: Can separating from “The Church” ever be considered a good thing? He addresses some of the more common historical critiques of the Reformation, but remains confident that Protestantism was not fundamentally schismatic in its origins. Rather, Luther sought to reform Roman Catholic dogma because of severe errors in it and the Roman church forcefully rejected attempts at theological correction. Thus, Luther’s actions were not simply a protest against the error of the papacy. Instead, Vanhoover notes, “To protest is to testify for something, namely, the integrity of the gospel, and, as we will see, this includes the church’s catholicity.” (pg. 15) That catholicity includes more than the claims of Rome’s devotees to sole stewards of unqualified, universal truth. At the same time, Vanhoozer is critical of versions of Protestantism that have been divisive and individualistic in their interpretation, that is why he pursues the concept of “Mere Protestantism,” which is the sort of Protestantism that “encourages the church to hold fast to the gospel, and to one another.” (pg. 33). That vision, which Vanhoozer explores through his exposition of the five solas, is exactly why the Reformation was both necessary and good.

In Chapter One, Vanhoozer focuses on sola gratia, and by virtue expounds the gospel to his readers. Grace in the gospel is what ignites the Christian to God exalting praise, allows Christians to see the good in the world, and focuses the believer’s gaze eternally on the procurator and source of all grace—the Holy Trinity. It is God’s grace alone that enables fallible humans to have access to God’s infallible word and be able to comprehend any of it; the Spirit illuminates Scripture because of grace alone, which provides understanding of the path to salvation. Vanhoozer argues it is God’s grace alone to give Scripture and also to illuminate it that keeps the accusation of autonomous interpretation from being true among authentic believers.

The second chapter covers sola fide, which Vanhoozer uses to counter the argument that the Reformation begat skepticism. This accusation seems a bit strange, since the meaning of sola fide is “by faith alone,” which is used in reference to the sole necessary response to God’s gracious offer of salvation. In its original context, the term was meant to differentiate the gospel faith of the Reformers from the myriad of religious duties foisted on believers by the Roman hierarchy. Returning to the central theme of the place of Scripture, Vanhoozer is careful to show that the reading of Scripture encouraged by the Reformers was not one of skepticism, but of faith. Vanhoozer then considers several different hermeneutical methods and epistemical failures that are not consistent with biblical faith. Instead of subverting the authority of the church through private readings of Scripture, Vanhoozer argues the faithful reading of Scripture requires the authority of the God, working through the historic community of believers. It is God and his gift of Scripture—not the hierarchy of the Church—that are ultimately affirmed by faith alone. As Vanhoozer sums up, “True faith has to do not with anti-intellectual fideism or private judgment, then, but rather with testimonial rationality and public trust, the trust of God’s people in the testimony of God’s Spirit to the reliability of God’s Word.“ (pgs. 106-107)

Chapter Three digs into sola scriptura. Vanhoozer notes, “Sola scriptura is perhaps the most challenging of the solas to retrieve. Even many Protestant theologians now urge its abandonment on the grounds that in insisting on Scripture alone, it overlooks or even excludes the importance of tradition, the necessity of hermeneutics, and the relationship between Word and Spirit.” (pgs. 109-110) It is in the reliance on Scripture alone that those who regret the Reformation find the root of division. As Vanhoozer points out, however, divisiveness is driven more by solo scriptura rather than sola scriptura. The distinction is clear and obvious for those willing to consider it. Sola scriptura refers to relying on Scripture only as the primary authority in theology. There are other sources that inform theology, but those sources must be normed to the overarching authority of humans. This, of course, presumes the clarity, sufficiency, and coherence of Scripture. Vanhoozer discusses these, then he surveys other understandings of authority, but concludes that a robust understanding of sola scriptura brings Christians together, even simply in conversational disagreement, and that rejection of the concept through naïve biblicism and covert traditionalism is what leads to division.

The fourth chapter interprets solus Christus, which is the affirmation that Christ alone is the only mediator between God and humanity. In all practicality, this has sidelined the parish priest in Protestantism, since a sanctioned representative of the church is no longer needed for forgiveness of sin or receipt of grace through the eucharist. However, Vanhoozer argues that the priesthood of all believers has not minimized the significance of the local Church, as some claim (and as some flawed interpreters have posited). Rather, it has sanctified the lives of the lowly congregant, giving him or her a part to play in the divine drama coequal with ecclesial leaders in community with Christ. This means that local congregations have the right, privilege, and responsibility to rightly interpret Scripture and minister as the local instantiation of the body of Christ.

Chapter Five celebrates the final sola: soli Deo gloria. This is a fitting climax to the volume as Vanhoozer notes, “Soli Deo Gloria, like the other solas, is partially intended to exclude an error. In this case, what is excluded is not human works but the end for which we work: human glorification.” (pg. 182) The failure of the Reformers and their spiritual heirs is partially explained by the loss of unity around this concept, and the sometimes unwillingness to unite or work together due to human turf wars. Vanhoozer does not decry denominations; rather he rejects divisiveness due to human pride. Instead, he commends legitimate, gracious division of matters of interpretation, with an ongoing dialogical argument toward truth. Such dialog, conducted for God’s glory alone is a recognition of the authority of Scripture and the unity of the one, holy, catholic church. According to Vanhoozer, “The glory of mere Protestant Christianity is the conference and communion of holy nations, itself a gift that glorifies God in magnifying Jesus Christ.” (pg. 212)

This volume is just the sort of book needed for our present time. The term “evangelical” is quickly becoming meaningless as progressives deny the doctrinal content of the term and reject biblical authority. At the same time, it is being used as a vague political label that refers to a supposed conversion experience, but represents right wing politics. What Vanhoozer presents is a positive case for a properly evangelical, Mere Protestant Christianity, that rejects the divisiveness of the Roman Catholic tradition and pursues unity in the core of Christianity, which is the gospel.

Biblical Authority After Babel may be, without exaggeration, one of the most important books to be released in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Though Protestantism is not perfect, Vanhoozer explains the beauty and necessity of standing for truth against error and preserving the gospel for the sake of all.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.