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An Excellent Primer
on July 22, 2007
The goal of this book is to introduce the Christian reader to the broad discipline of ethics and its many facets, and to provide a specifically Christian perspective on the discipline and practice of ethics. The book begins by discussing the importance of ethics and attempting to distinguish Christian ethics from both other approaches to doing ethics and from other areas of Christian concern, such as pastoral care. Hollinger understands Christian ethics to involve both theory and application, and to be rooted in a specifically Christian worldview "that gives account of who we are as human beings, what is fundamentally wrong with the human condition, and what remedy exists for that malady." (16)
The book is divided into four major sections that deal with various aspects of the theory and practice of ethics. The first section, "The Foundations of Christian Ethics," introduces the reader to some of the most prominent foundational theories of ethics. Hollinger looks at and critiques utilitarianism, principle based ethics, and character or virtue ethics, noting positive and negative aspects of each approach and concluding that none of them provides a sufficient foundation for the theory or practice of Christian ethics. He concludes this section of the book with a chapter on the importance of a Christian worldview foundation for doing Christian ethics.
The second section of the book, "The Context of Christian Ethics," deals with the contexts in which Christians must attempt to formulate and live out their various ethical commitments. Hollinger devotes a chapter to both modernity and postmodernity as the key contexts in which Christian ethics must now be done. He explains what he sees as the primary defining features of each context and the challenges they present for Christian ethics. I suspect the author's treatment of postmodernity may be controversial for some readers. Exactly what constitutes the defining characteristics of postmodernity is still a highly disputed question, and Christian thinkers favorably predisposed towards postmodern perspectives may disagree with Hollinger's summary of its defining traits or find it overly negative.
The third section of the book, "Making Ethical Decisions," deals with the various factors that go into making ethical decisions. Hollinger uses a threefold typology taken from Edward Long to explore the different ways ethical decisions can be made. This typology includes prescriptive, deliberative and relational motifs for ethical decision making. Hollinger analyses and critiques each motif before setting out his own conclusion that Christian ethical decisions must be made within a "priority of modified prescriptivism." (147) This conclusion is rooted in Hollinger's understanding of a Christian worldview and the theological perspective that arises from it. In further chapters Hollinger explores the use of the Bible and the place of empirical judgments in making ethical decisions.
The last section of the book, "Applying Christian Ethics in Culture and Society," deals with how our view of the relationship between Christ and culture will influence the way we attempt to live out Christian ethical commitments in the world. Hollinger uses Niebuhr's famous fivefold typology to present various views of the relationship between Christ and culture. Hollinger acknowledges the critiques leveled by some thinkers against Niebuhr's typology, but still finds it useful as a general guide. He examines and critiques each of the various types of the Christ/culture relationship from within a Christian worldview perspective "that seeks to be faithful to both the paradigm of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation and the model of Jesus himself." (214) Hollinger uses the phrase "Christ in but not of culture" to express this approach, reflecting Niebuhr's typology while adding his own approach. Other chapters in this section of the book investigate the question of justice in society, and the issue of applying Christian ethics in a pluralistic setting. The last chapter of the book looks at various models of Christian influence in society, offering nine possible models, critiquing each one, and concluding with advice on how to wisely go about choosing a model
Overall, I find this book to be an excellent introduction to the theory and practice of Christian ethics, covering a broad range of important topics clearly and succinctly, but also with some depth. W hat I especially appreciate is the author's insistence that Christian ethics must be done primarily from the foundation of a Christian worldview, rather than attempting to adopt and baptize secular approaches to ethics. As the book's subtitle suggests, the author understands well that making ethical decisions in a fallen and complex world is often difficult. Nevertheless, the author believes that "there are divine designs for human life and that God has spoken in his written and incarnate Word relative to those designs." (147) Therefore, rather than offering simplistic and easy answers to his readers, the author attempts to equip them with the tools and guidance necessary for beginning genuinely Christian ethical reflection and practice. I highly recommend this book for both personal or classroom use as an introduction to or refresher on the subject of Christian ethics.