The first thing a reader may notice about this updated textbook from IVP Academic is its thickness. This volume is larger than the next two biblical ethics books combined. The size makes one think that the book will be very technical and detailed, but it isn’t. The textbook could easily be understood on the college level.
The book offers an aerial view of biblical ethics in relation to a number of alternatives. Just as a globe is designed to be a representation of all the nations of the earth, so, too, this book hopes to represent biblical ethics in contrast to the world of alternatives in ethics. McQuilkin and Copan — each a significant scholar in his own right — have joined forces to offer this third edition of Introduction to Biblical Ethics. Originally the work of Robertson McQuilkin alone, this third edition incorporates the unique insights of Paul Copan, one of McQuilkin’s former students at Columbia International.
In addition to introducing biblical ethics, the authors critique relativism, social contract, utilitarianism, deontology, evolutionary ethics, and theological ethics. Once the reader realizes the breadth of the project, the book seems quickly to shrink. How could a single book cover such a vast array of subjects? Idolatry, speech, greed, hope, contentment, rest, leisure, poverty, wealth, theft, deception, abortion, infanticide, dating, romance, gay marriage, homosexuality, economics, criminal justice, murder, racism, war, labor, and church state relations — these topics represent but a portion of the many ethical conversations recorded in this text.
The book is divided primarily into two different “books.” Book One features a consideration of foundational issues such as love, law, sin, virtue, vice, and the alternatives to biblical ethics. Book Two aims to apply the Bible to life.
In Book One, the authors first define love: “…biblical love is a self-giving commitment or devotion—whether to God or to fellow humans…properly ordered….” Already in the introduction, the authors state (with Carl Henry in mind) that Christian ethics is personal and that its origins are found in relation to the God who commands (divine command ethics). With such a framework in place, they are able to define love in an adequate manner, accounting for the vast array of cultural definitions and clarifying the copious biblical vocabulary on the subject.
The authors go well beyond the facile, emotional aspects of romantic love to provide the readers with solid biblical and theological substance. Chapter 2 is remarkable for its clarity, distinguishing biblical love from self-love. Such clarity helps prove the case for love being a foundational aspect of Christian ethics.
Though they are relatively brief, the other chapters in this volume are no less profound than the two chapters on love. The subject of “Law” gets two chapters, the first establishing a biblical definition of law, the second focusing on the implications of Christ having fulfilled the law. In their chapters on the law, McQuilkin and Copan ultimately affirm the dependence believers have on a personal God revealing himself, rather than attempting to codify certain commands, principles, or duties. This section offers a helpful guide for avoiding the six common forms of legalism.
The next two chapters (5 and 6) make the case for the biblical doctrine of original sin. McQuilkin and Copan present an evangelical case for their conclusion. They say, “The God and Creator of free moral agents is no more the author of sin than the Wright brothers are the authors of airplane crashes” (100). They quote the Canons of Dort in an effort to establish that God is not the author of sin.
Breaking with their “two chapters per theme” pattern, the authors spend Part IV unpacking three chapters of material on the theme of “Virtues and Vices.” Potentially more troubling than breaking the pattern, however, was the break from specific “biblical” categories. Where love, law, sin, and obedience are clearly biblical themes, virtue and vice are themes derived from the western philosophical tradition.
Those familiar with the jargon of ethics will recognize immediately the desire the authors have to affirm virtue ethics. However, McQuilkin and Copan use chapter 7 to draw distinctions between the classical concept of virtue ethics and the form of biblical ethics they espouse which shapes Christians toward virtuous character. Helpfully, the authors criticize virtue ethics for its lack of humility, its lack of categorizing sin properly, and its focus on the individual to the exclusion of the church.
At the conclusion of Book One, the authors discuss various alternatives to biblical ethics. They critique relativism, social contract, and utilitarianism in chapter 10. In chapter 11, they consider Kant and the ethics of duty, along with some new material (for this edition) on evolutionary ethics. Finally, in light of debates in philosophy concerning “foundations,” these authors posit God as the foundation for morality.
The remainder of the book (which is organized under the heading “Book Two”) is given to application. Chapter 12 defends the holiness of God and hits a high point of application when McQuilkin and Copan condemn the “formal” practice of “worshiping” idols in times of persecution to avoid being killed. Readers are forcefully reminded of Christ’s word that those who deny Him before men will be denied before His father (Matthew 10:33). Chapter 13 continues to explain how to worship and serve a holy God through speech and rest.
After detailing how to honor God alone, the authors discuss sex, marriage, and the family. After introducing their basic theology of sexuality (chapter fourteen), they delineate violations of God’s purposes for marriage in chapter 15. The next chapter is an explanation of non-marital violations of God’s design for human sexuality (masturbation, fornication, etc.). The authors use chapter 17 to consider our contemporary practice of romance, dating, and engagement.
The next two chapters consider the ongoing debate on homosexuality and gay marriage. While these chapters are well-informed with fresh data, they are inherently out of date, given the 2015 Obergfell decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the insightful notes in this section is the recognition that those seeking a redefinition of marriage to include gays have so far been unable to offer their own definition of the term marriage (much less ground such a definition satisfactorily).
In Part VIII (chapters 21-25), McQuilkin and Copan focus attention on life issues. Chapter 21 features the prohibition of murder and racism, while recognizing certain instances in which killing is not strictly forbidden. The pages devoted to racism are serious and informed, complete with a clarion call for the church to lead the way forward in race relations. Chapter 22 discusses abortion and infanticide, promoting the value and dignity of all human life at conception.
This section of the book on life issues continues in Chapter 23 with discussions on suicide, euthanasia, and other medical considerations such as artificial insemination, animal rights, and organ transplants — way too much information for a single chapter! The rest of Part VIII tackles the difficult topics of war, pacifism, crime, and punishment.
Part IX offers a very pragmatic counterpart to the heaviness of topics in the prior chapters. Not that lying in business or stealing from employers is light and easy fare! Still, the discussions on economics, labor, wealth, and leisure feel a little removed from the gravity of infanticide and assisted suicide. The chapters in this section provide an overall discussion of “the Christian work ethic” applied in the marketplace both locally and globally. The “Copan” perspective on economic issues is less sympathetic toward “socialist-style” governments than the “McQuilkin” perspective. Both authors agree that the church is obligated to serve the poor faithfully.
The next section features conversations related to Christians and society. These chapters (29-32) advocate a kind of civil engagement between Christians and the government. This civil engagement rejects both a “naked” public square devoid of religious influence and a “sacred” public square which privileges a singular religion or sect. Chapter 31 spells out the various roles of government contrasted with roles of the church. Chapter 32 queries when (and if) it is appropriate for Christians to engage in civil disobedience. The authors are sympathetic toward non-violent resistance and condone violence against government only when a secondary government is available.
Finally, the remaining two chapters (which form Part XI) consider questions related to knowing and doing God’s will — especially given the fact that there exists so much diversity within evangelicalism on moral decision making. Also in this final section on knowing God’s will, the authors make a brief argument for a Molinist position reconciling God’s sovereignty with human responsibility.
Insight and wisdom abound in this volume. Ethical instruction flows in a torrent of theologically informed, biblical exposition. I found myself constantly expecting to critique the book for being much wider than it is deep, but I was routinely surprised by the depth of insight the volume provides. Just as the Mississippi River proves that a river can be both deep and wide, so, too, this text proves that a single volume can display the breadth of biblical ethics with theological depth.
Readers will find areas of disagreement here and there, but the authors themselves disagree on some issues. The arrangement of the subject matter may be questioned as well. Yet there is no denying the clear focus of the authors — outlining from the Scriptures a biblical case for Christian ethics.
Greg Cochran (PhD, SBTS) is Director of Applied Theology in the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University.
Buy the books
An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom, 3rd edition