Reviewed by Timothy A. Gabrielson
David W. Jones, associate professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers the third installment in the new series B&H Studies in Biblical Ethics, edited by Daniel R. Heimback, also at Southeastern. Jones’s An Introduction to Biblical Ethics is “essentially the content of [his] biblical ethics class in book form” (xiv). It is constructed as an introductory textbook, and in this it succeeds: the layout of the book is clear, the writing is straightforward, technical discussions are left for the footnotes, there is a glossary of potentially unfamiliar terms in the back, and each chapter ends with a succinct conclusion and summary points. To a student just entering the field, these are good footholds that make this slim monograph accessible. It is also clearly aimed at an evangelical audience: the main conversation partners are the likes of Norman Geisler, Scott Rae, and John Frame, while prominent ethicists outside evangelicalism, such as Richard Hays, Stanley Hauerwas, or Alasdair MacIntyre, receive little to no mention.
The centerpiece of Jones’s Biblical Ethics is the moral law, particularly the Decalogue. Chapter 1 defines biblical ethics, situates his system within deontological theory, over against consequentialist models – relegating virtue theory to a single footnote (p. 7 n. 14) – and then stresses a triad of conduct, character, and goals that occur within any “moral event.” Chapters 2–5 give the theoretical defense of the law as the guide for Christian morals. Chapter 2 is on the nature of the law, or how the law relates to God. Jones allows natural revelation a limited role in evidencing the divine law, but the Reformation principle of human depravity cautions against any widespread usefulness of, say, natural-law ethics. Special revelation, the Bible, must take precedence. At this point Jones poses the dilemma of Plato’s Euthyphro to argue that the law reveals God’s nature; his authority is neither “above” nor “under” the law, rather it is expressed by the law.
Chapter 3 deals with a major objection against a Christian appropriation of the law for ethics, namely, whether the gospel has made it irrelevant. After dividing the law between ceremonial, civil, and moral “interpretive categories” (57), Jones argues for a “semicontinuity approach” (74, passim) of the OT law to Christians today. Insofar as the Mosaic commandments apply only to ancient Israelite cult or state, they have been fulfilled by Christ, but insofar as they show the divine standard of goodness, they are timelessly valid.
The fourth chapter concerns the law’s coherence. Jones gives a typology of five resolutions to apparent contradictions between laws: antinomianism, situationalism, conflicting absolutism, graded absolutism, and nonconflicting absolutism. Rahab hiding the spies (Josh 2) is given as a test case. Jones advocates the last option, that no universal law properly defined is fundamentally incompatible with another. When Rahab said she did not know where the spies were, she was not “lying,” because lying (per his glossary) is “malicious nontruth-telling” (208, ital. mine), while she was intending instead to protect. Chapter 5 gives the structure of the law (well illustrated on p. 110), as Jones sees it. The ultimate objective is to glorify God, which is done by loving God, as seen in Commandments 1–4, and loving others, as seen in Commandments 5–10. This correlation of Jesus’s summary of the law (Matt 22:34–40 and pars.) with the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1–17 and Deut 5:1–22) is a good bridge between the Old Testament and New and reasonably demonstrates the ongoing applicability of the Decalogue.
Whereas Chapters 2–5 serve as the defense of the centrality of law to Christian morals, Chapter 6–8 are the practical application. In the first of these chapters (“The Giving of the Law”), Jones gives literary and historical context for the Decalogue, including the differing enumerations of the Ten Commandments among Jewish and Christian traditions, and argues that the commandments are “a summary or codification of the moral law” (129). As becomes clear in the following chapters, he sees each command as standing for a whole category of ethics.
Chapter 7 focuses on the “first table,” the four commandments that define proper human-divine relations. The first two “stipulate that believers are not only to worship the correct God . . . but also, they must worship the correct God correctly” (148–49). The third commandment covers a variety of speech patterns associated with God, and the fourth our temporal worship and rest. On the latter, Jones draws a hard line: “not to observe the Sabbath . . . is to behave in a distinctly un-Christlike manner, undermining the message of hope in the gospel” (167).
In Chapter 8 Jones argues that the “second table” of commandments involves human authority (“honor your parents”), human life (“do not murder”), relational intimacy (“do not commit adultery”), material stewardship (“do not steal”), truth (“do not bear false witness”), and motives (“do not covet”), respectively. For both Chapters 7 and 8, Jones moves from the specific command to its general category, and ends with a slew of other topics that are involved. For example, the commandment “Do not commit adultery” outlaws not only extramarital sexual acts, but also lust (based on Matt 5:27–28) and spiritual unfaithfulness (based on Eph 5:22–33 and other passages). Painting in the broadest of strokes, Jones concludes with this list:
Common moral and theological issues commonly discussed under the seventh commandment include adultery, polygamy, pedophilia, bestiality, harlotry, premarital sex, lust, pornography, sexual violence, sexual harassment, rape, incest, homosexuality, prostitution, modesty, divorce, masturbation, birth control, dating/courtship, sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, cohabitation, celibacy, singleness, in vitro fertilization, surrogate pregnancy, and genetic engineering (185).
Needless to say, Jones gets considerable mileage out of each commandment. Chapter 9 is a short conclusion.
There are certainly strengths to Biblical Ethics, not least its tone of moral seriousness and desire to glorify God. It deals with many important topics and gives an instructive overview of things to consider for those beginning Christian ethics as a discipline. For a reflection on the Ten Commandments from a Christian perspective, there is much to commend it.
Despite this, as a work on biblical ethics as a whole, I have reservations. For one, this introduction is largely abstract. Outside of the seventh and eighth chapters, there is only one concrete, modern ethical (or ritual?) choice considered at any length, that of cremation (117–20). Even within chapters 7–8 Jones’s main point is to set up ten categories of morality. When he touches on specific topics, he gives minimal practical guidance on how to apply his principles. The list surrounding the seventh commandment (see above), for example, raises manifold questions that Jones does not answer. If the seventh commandment prohibits polygamy, why did numerous OT heroes before and after Moses practice it? In what sense is birth control implicated by “do not commit adultery” or the general category “relational intimacy”? The evangelical concern on the topic usually centers on the sanctity of life, and in any case there are many forms of birth control that work in appreciably different ways. And what precisely does Jones think the seventh commandment says about STDs, celibacy, and genetic engineering? Perhaps he means these lists merely as springboards for in-class discussion, but the monograph would have benefitted from specific examples of navigating these often-treacherous waters. In the conclusion Jones notes, “Although God’s moral standards are not hidden or complex, discerning the applicable biblical norms in any given scenario can prove difficult” (202). Quite true – and thus the pressing need for consideration of detailed life situations.
Second, its title notwithstanding, this volume is moral theology more than biblical ethics. Jones defines “biblical ethics” as “the study and application of the morals prescribed in God’s Word that pertain to the kind of conduct, character, and goals required of one who professes to be in a redemptive relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ” (6, ital. his). This is specifically differentiated from “moral theology” or “Christian ethics” on the basis of its attentiveness to the Bible. However, there is no in-depth exegesis anywhere in Biblical Ethics. Sparingly are biblical scholars mentioned, and I never saw reference to a commentary. Almost exclusively footnotes are instead to ethicists. This would be understandable were the book intended as moral theology, but as biblical ethics it is significantly weakened. An incidental problem this raises is his employment of John 8:11 (184–85), a passage not original to the Fourth Gospel and therefore of doubtful canonical muster. More significant is that he reads Paul’s use of “do not covet” in Rom 7 as evidence that Paul struggled with coveting, and that this in part led to his conversion (195). Now Rom 7 is a notoriously difficult passage, among the most difficult in the Pauline corpus, but many scholars think Paul speaks here not of himself but retells the story of Adam’s fall; and even if he speaks of himself, whether it is before or after his call is unclear. More important still, Jones reads law-gospel passages in Paul and Hebrews in ways that seem to me to misunderstand the context and are out-of-step with biblical scholarship. This leads to my third and last concern.
Finally, I have misgivings about choosing the “law of God” to be “the core element in a system of biblical ethics” (29). To be sure, it is manifest that neither Jesus nor Paul, neither James nor John envisioned a wholesale rejection of Torah, for they all continued to appeal to it and enforce it numerous times. In this Jones is without doubt in the right. But the practical weight this gives to continuity over discontinuity seems to me excessive, and its effects are evident at several points in his interpretation. Jones gives Heb 12:18–24 as evidence for the “spectacular events surrounding the giving of the moral law” (124), as if the passage reinforces Mosaic law, but the original point is that Christians have come not to Mount Sinai and Torah but that which has surpassed it, Mount Zion and Jesus Christ. Similarly, the Holy Spirit plays a minor role within Biblical Ethics, only being mentioned ten times: five times as the guide into truth, three times in footnotes, and twice in quotations. Only once is the Holy Spirit said to empower believers to live ethically, and even there in relation to the law (132 n. 13). Yet in Paul’s writings in particular, the Holy Spirit is the antidote for the flesh’s inability to keep the law (e.g., Rom 7–8). Paul tells the Galatians to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16), for “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18); he then offers the “fruit of the Spirit” (5:22–23), a passage never used by Jones, as positive counterpoint to the works of the flesh (5:19–21). The NT ethic displays a fundamental shift away from law-keeping as such and toward conformity to Christ and the inner working of the Spirit. In theory Jones’ “semicontinity” approach can accommodate this, but in practice it is hard, if not impossible, to adopt the law as the focal point of Christian ethics and still give due weight to these aspects of discontinuity.
The above criticisms are not meant to impugn the value of Biblical Ethics wholesale, which contains much that is worthwhile. It is to ask whether its title properly represents what it accomplishes. For an introduction to a theological use of the Ten Commandments in contemporary evangelicalism, this book merits due attention. For an introduction to biblical ethics, however, I would turn elsewhere.
Timothy A. Gabrielson is a PhD candidate in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.
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An Introduction To Biblical Ethics