Reviewed by Devin Maddox
C. Ben Mitchell’s (Union University) Ethics and Moral Reasoning is the volume on Christian Ethics in David S. Dockery’s (Trinity International University) “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition” series with Crossway. The series exists, in Dockery’s words, “for Christian students and others associated with college and university campuses, including faculty, staff, trustees, and other various constituents” (11). The book’s trim size and accessible word count lends itself to entry-level engagement with various fields of the Christian intellectual tradition. I find Mitchell’s guide to Christian ethics to be anything but “entry-level.”
How might one scholar approach cramming an entire academic discipline — one to which he has likely devoted most of his life — into a pocketsize book? It’s a crushing prospect. First, he possibility might be to take a close look at a small set of issues. Second, he might skim the surface of many issues. A third possibility, Mitchell’s approach, is both deep and wide, covering a wide breadth of content with remarkable concision.
Mitchell frames Christian ethics around one of the big three philosophical questions. Mitchell writes, “The big three questions of philosophy include metaphysics (What is?), epistemology (How do you know?), and axiology (What is value? and What is valuable?).” (17) Axiology, Mitchell says, is the big philosophical question that drives moral reasoning; “This book is a guide to thinking about the good.”
The taxonomy of Christian ethics, as an academic discipline, is bound up in descriptive and prescriptive (or normative) ethics, applied ethics, and metaethics. These categories are used by teachers and moral philosophers to classify the level of discourse in the field, both secular and Christian. Since Mitchell is primarily concerned with Christian moral reasoning, he introduces three moral relationships that define the topography of ethics as it relates to the Christian intellectual tradition — relationship to God, to others, and to self (18).
Ethics and Moral Reasoning is organized into five distinct parts. The first chapter defines the modern problem facing “the moral world today,” namely moral relativism. Mitchell writes:
What we need to realize is that relativism is not merely an assertion. Oh, some people do assert it, but it’s in fact an argument for a particular way of understanding morality. Only by understanding the argument will we be better prepared to respond to the claims relativists make. The argument for what we might call “normative ethical relativism” has two premises and a conclusion. It is “normative” in that it maintains it is the way things should be. It is relativistic because it claims that the notions of right and wrong or good and bad should not be the same for everyone, everywhere, at all times. (24)
Moral relativism, as Mitchell notes, fails to answer the questions, “What’s right, what’s wrong, and how do you know?” (30). For that reason, he turns to the second part, on the history of moral reasoning. This section is comprised of two chapters, covering everything from Old Testament ethics to issues such infanticide and abortion. He quotes everyone from Josephus (35) to Harry Truman (52). Appealing to a pantheon — please excuse the metaphor — of approaches to moral decision-making and moral authorities, Mitchel does it all.
Chapter four — the beginning of what I discern to be the third part of the book — picks up with the Enlightenment, a move that suggests Mitchell sees this as, perhaps, the turning point for the West’s struggle with moral relativism. He waltzes with Kant, Bentham, and Mill right into a thorough characterization of the Enlightenment project’s many failures. Maybe this is why we, modern heirs of the Enlightenment, live amongst moral chaos.
Mitchell, himself an evangelical scholar, would be remiss in his duties were he not to include the fifth chapter on evangelical ethics. More so than any other movement since America’s Great Awakenings, the evangelical movement has given shape to American Christianity. Mitchell chooses to highlight Murray, Henry, Holmes, Hauerwas, O’Donnovan, and Meilander. Nevermind that Mitchell’s name probably ought to rank among them; Mitchell lays out a succinct and robust survey of the evangelical movement’s best ethicists in America and the U.K. in the fourth part of the book.
Finally, Mitchell concludes with reflection on various approaches to using the Bible in moral decision-making. This chapter probably belongs somewhere closer to the introduction of this Student’s Guide, but his bullet list of instructions for finding ethical guidance is worth the $11.99 for the book. They are as follows (95-96):
- Pray for divine illumination
- Define the ethical issues or problems
- Clarify the issue to be examined
- Glean all spiritual data on the issue with attention to: commandments, principles, examples
- Study the scriptural instruction carefully with attention to: genre, literary style and organization, definitions and grammar, context, overall theme, purpose, historical significance.
- What does the text say in its context?
- What does the text mean today?
- Apply the biblical instruction: engage in dialogue with the community of the faithful, study the history of Christian ethics
- Formulate an ethical position
Professors in search of course texts for their syllabus will find Mitchell’s “Resources for Further Study” in the back of the book (106-107) an invaluable cache of good ideas. While I’d like to see more primary text classics (like Henry’s Christian Personal Ethics, Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens, or Bonhoeffer’s Ethics) therein, many of the readers (such as Clark and Rakestraw’s Readings in Christian Ethics) in the list contain sturdy primary readings to make up for the lack of primary texts elsewhere.
Mitchell’s contribution to the “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition” series provides readers the opportunity for a quick dip in the intellectual deep-end of the pool. Students, or professors, in search of lightweight material need look elsewhere. Mitchell’s book is a serious treatment of 1) the history of moral reasoning, particularly as it relates to the Western Christian intellectual tradition, and 2) application for life in the twenty-first century. I’m not sure any resource exists that covers so much ground in such a short amount of time.
Devin Maddox is the Christian living and Christian leadership trade book publisher at B&H Publishing Group and a pastor at Redemption City Church. He is also a PhD student in Applied Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, focusing his research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s early life and writing. He and his wife, Cara, and two boys and live in Nashville, Tennessee.