Briefly Considered: Books for Formation in Ethics

Briefly Considered:
Books for Formation in Ethics


Included in this selection of books related to Christian and Lutheran ethics are some standard titles often recommended, a few newer publications, and a couple of now-less-known titles that are worth reclaiming. Reading a few or more of these will provide an informed background and assist with teaching others about ethical theory, the broader scope of Christian ethics, and the distinct Gospel perspective of Lutheran ethics.

Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, D. Stephen Long (Oxford University Press, 2010), 152 pages. This inclusion in the Oxford “Very Short” series keeps its titled promise by including just four short chapters. The author briefly and helpfully overviews the sources of Christian ethics, the history of Christian ethics, and Christian ethics in modern and postmodern times. Chapter Four then poses some questions for Christian ethics around sex, money and power. Here the author begins by stating, “The purpose of Christian Ethics is to help us live well, and in so doing make God’s name holy.” While many Christians will agree, we can consider other books suggested in this “Briefly Considered” section to notice that the Lutheran ethos expresses the purpose for our ethical reasoning, choices, and actions somewhat differently (though not antithetically).

The Ethics of Martin Luther, Paul Althaus (Fortress Press, 1972), 196 pages. This companion volume to Althaus’s The Theology of Martin Luther serves as a standard introduction to Luther’s biblical ethics that locates man between God and the devil and the life of the Christian as a struggle with himself. Luther did not write a book on ethics per se. Therefore, in order to convey Luther’s powerful ethic of the Gospel, Althaus takes us through some essential elements of Luther’s theological framework including justification, natural law and the commandments, the doctrine of vocation, and the two kingdoms. To demonstrate the tension (tentatio) in which the Christian must always live and make decisions, Althaus provides discussions on matters important to Luther and just as timely for us: marriage, employment, economics, and government. The reader will gain a grasp of how Luther, with St. Paul, sustains moral norms but is not ultimately ruled by such norms—a view that many find peculiar and some find disturbing.

A Textbook of Christian Ethics, 4th ed., Robin Gill (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 592 pages. Sometimes a textbook is just what we need, especially if the price is reasonable (available new for $25). Now in its fourth edition, this book is a superb resource in the field of ethics overall. It is highly recommended for upper-division undergraduate or standard graduate courses and as a go-to reference for the rest of us. For each topic, Gill uses extended selections from primary sources such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, and shorter extracts from contemporary writers. Readers can easily select topics from the table of contents, the bibliography, and the index.

Christian Ethics, 2nd ed., Norman L. Geisler (Baker Academic, 2010), 448 pages. Again, the price is right for this standard textbook at $19 new. Geisler has long been recognized as an organized thinker in the Calvinist tradition who has written extensively in classical apologetics and presents material in accessible ways. His ethics text offers a structured approach to the assumptions and presuppositions of ethical systems. The reader can use his work to gain insights into the orientation of the moral and ethical views of students, parishioners, and sources in the popular culture.

Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Touchstone, 1995), 384 pages. Bonhoeffer wrote what we have in this unfinished book in the early 1940s when he was a double agent inside the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. Still in his thirties—he was 39 when executed by the Nazis—he shows profound insight about the human condition and the power of the Gospel for Christian agency. His views perennially provoke discussion, and, agree or not with all he says, this book along with The Cost of Discipleship is required reading for an informed discussion of Lutheran ethics in the present age.

A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics, Joel Biermann (Fortress Press, 2014), 192 pages. Virtue ethics is typically associated with Aristotle, Aquinas, and Scholasticism—all sources for which Luther, early on, had little use. In our 21st century, however, we hear concern from many Christians about the decay of morality and the Judeo-Christian tradition with its synthesis of classical concepts of antiquity, natural law, and Christian orthodoxy through the works of Augustine and other Church Fathers. This concern has prompted a new look at virtue ethics today. Biermann argues that Christian doctrine, specifically as articulated within a Lutheran framework, is altogether capable of encouraging a robust pursuit of character formation while maintaining a faithful expression of justification by grace alone through faith alone. (For a more thorough review of this book see the article by Terrance Groth, Issues in Christian Education, Spring 2016, Vol. 49. No. 2.)

Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper (Ignatius Press, 2016), 145 pages. For further background in the concepts of virtue ethics, see this influential book first published in 1952 by a Catholic philosopher. One of the senses of the Latin word schola (from which we also derive our English word, school) has to do with a pause from work allowing for learning, that is, leisure. While an appeal to leisure can prompt contempt in a meritocracy (recall Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class and his acerbic critique on conspicuous consumption and economic injustice), Pieper points out that an attitude of the mind and a condition of the soul that fosters a capacity to perceive the reality of the world takes time not devoted to sloth and useless diversions but to the intense rigor of study—and it takes time (or schola) to develop such virtues and character. Lutherans might locate such thinking in the doctrine of vocation.

Faith and Faithfulness: Basic Themes in Christian Ethics, Gilbert Meilaender, (Notre Dame, 1991), 192 pages. Meilaender provides readers with a rich discussion ranging from Augustine to Bambi to E.B. White and, in doing so, helps us see that a Lutheran ethic is not merely a detached academic pursuit but is central to faith and life. Especially helpful is his demonstrating that Christian ethics is a matter of applying different biblical teachings—teachings always held in appropriate tension with each other but unified as a life lived for the well-being of the neighbor. Says one reviewer, the book “takes up and brilliantly answers questions a thoughtful but busy Christian non-philosopher might have.” You may need to interlibrary loan this book.

The Borderland of Right and Wrong, Theodore Graebner (Concordia Publishing House, 1951), 178 pages. Graebner was editor of the Lutheran Witness for many years in the mid-twentieth century, and this book may at first seem quaint: it discusses such controversies as dancing and playing cards. But Graebner takes us through a study of adiaphora (that which is neither required nor forbidden) and examines carefully the 1 Corinthians 8–10 texts and the nature of Christian liberty. In our present times when ethics has been reduced to pre-emptive attacks about “hate” in order to claim the moral high ground, the reader can benefit by stepping away from today and considering how the church handled and mishandled the doctrine of sanctification a couple of generations ago.


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