Review of Evangelical Ethics: A Reader

The recent anthology, Evangelical Ethics, from Westminster John Knox Press seemed promising. There has been no such collection focusing on scholarship from Evangelical Christian sources in wide circulation in recent decades. This is not due to a lack of ethical writing, but no one has previously taken up the mantle of chronicler to produce a volume. This lays a groundwork of expectation for the recent release from David Gushee and Isaac B. Sharp.

What Kind of Evangelical?

Unfortunately, this book suffers from excessive editorial interference. In the introduction, the editors acknowledge there are different understandings of Evangelicalism.

This dates back to the sociological versus doctrinal understandings that have formed a fissure between so-called progressive Evangelicals and conservative Evangelicals. The main qualification for the sociological understanding of Evangelical is claiming the title and being from a historically Evangelical tradition.

Often there is a residual discussion of the centrality of the gospel, but the many times the personal impact of the gospel is obscured by an emphasis on social activity. For conservative Evangelicals, the qualifications for the title are primarily doctrinal.

Doctrinally centered Evangelicals ask question like: Is Scripture understood to be the supreme norm? Is the gospel, including its impact on individual salvation, central to the life of the Christian? These are the primary concerns.

Gushee and Sharp acknowledge the division and then largely dismiss those who hold to a doctrinal understanding of Evangelicalism.

As a result, the most clearly identifiable Evangelicals in the list of included authors are Carl F. H. Henry and Francis Schaeffer. The selection from Henry is from The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which was chosen to illustrate how Henry had an interest in social ethics. A valid selection and a good one. Schaeffer’s selection is from How Should We Then Live. This, too is a worthy selection, though the introduction notes that his tone is “declinist” and that it seems to center on the issue of abortion, as if that was unwarranted in 1976 with Roe V. Wade a distant memory of three years previous .

Emphasis on Social Ethics

The volume is structured to minimize the significance of personal ethics. In fact, the only social issues considered in any depth in this text are economics and race. These are two worthy issues, but by avoiding personal ethics including abortion and sexual ethics, a false portrait is painted.

The image represented is also one of support for only one position on the issues discussed, as if there had been no ongoing conversation with differing views. Additionally, the issue of environmentalism is largely ignored, which is not representative of the last several decades of Evangelical thought, whether progressive or doctrinally centered.

Missing Voices

Instead of selecting texts that represent Evangelicalism as it is, the editors have selected texts that represent Evangelicalism as it is in their idealized world.

As such, minorities are significantly over-represented. This is not to discount the voice of those minorities, but if the major voices of a movement are mainly white men, then a reader that purports to describe that movement should represent the reality not the rosy vision of the chroniclers. The selections in this volume amount to historical revisionism.

The book is only about 160 pages. Most readers are at least twice that length. There was no lack of source material, so it is unclear why the volume turned out so unbalanced.

Missing from the relatively slim volume are John Stott, Oliver O’Donovan, Daniel Heimbach, the Feinberg brothers, John Jefferson Davis, John Frame, Cornelius Van Til, Wayne Grudem, Arthur Holmes, Stanley Grenz and others. Instead, a crowd of individuals who have largely rejected the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture, which has typically been a hallmark of Evangelical theology.

In other words, this is a misrepresentation of the actual history and content of Evangelical ethics. If, as the title implies, the intent was to provide representative samples of the field, then it has largely failed.

Mixed Voices

That being said, some of the essays included are powerful. John Perkins’ testimony of being beaten and through that experience seeing the need for white men to hear the gospel is powerful. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s essay on the holistic power of the gospel for changing and redeeming the world is helpful.

Both the essay by Henry and the one by Schaeffer fairly represent a significant segment of doctrinally faithful Evangelicalism. There is some quality, but it is such a corpus permixtum that the volume has lost its center in Evangelical identity.

Certainly this highly massaged image will please those hoping to pull the Evangelical movement away from their traditional reliance on Scripture and interest in orthodoxy. That is exactly why the volume drew praise on the back cover from Lisa Sowle Cahill, who is theologically liberal. If the goal is to try to “redeem” the perception of Evangelical ethics from an emphasis traditional concern for doctrinal orthodoxy, then this book is a masterpiece.

Tragedy of homogeneity

One of the most beneficial aspects of my seminary education, both at the graduate and postgraduate level, have been the opportunities to read opposing viewpoints and figure out what makes those thinkers believe what they do. In other words, it is good to read people you don’t agree with.

This is why I read what David Gushee writes, as a general rule. He is generally sound in his reasoning even when I find his premises or conclusions unacceptable. Here I think he, along with Strong, have deprived future progressives of the benefit of an accessible, curated volume of primary sources that reflect historical reality.

The editors have thus increased the likelihood that some progressive Evangelicals and more liberal thinkers that read this volume will remain in the echo chamber of their own tradition and remain unexposed to conservative theologians. This minimizes the potential benefit of what could have been a significant volume for the long term.

Evangelical Ethics: A Reader (Library of Theological Ethics)
By David P. Gushee, Isaac B. Sharp

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