Published on July 25, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

P&R Publishing, 2015 | 384 pages

Reviewed by Greg Cochran


Most pastors and scholars I know have a favorite Bible—that one copy of the Sacred Scriptures in which the needed verse always seems to leap from the page for him. I have such a Bible. It is my “old reliable.” It’s nothing fancy. It has no study notes. The cover is bonded leather. The decorative gold edging has long since faded under the withering effects of being carried through numerous rainstorms. My Bible isn’t pretty. But it’s reliable. I know where the verses are. I remember which side of the page holds Ephesians 2:10. I can rely on the cross references and the white space in the margins. This NASB is my old reliable—a comfortable, reliable source of important truth for me anytime I need it.

Likewise, in the study of ethics I have found my “old reliable.” Fortunately, the book isn’t actually old. While originally published in 1985, John Jefferson Davis’ Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today has recently been revised and expanded for a fourth edition. While keeping the same format and order of the earlier (2004) version, the fourth edition adds a section on “Termination of Treatment” in the chapter dedicated to euthanasia. Davis also adds chapter thirteen, “Slavery, Race, and Racism in America.”


Summary and Evaluation

As with his earlier edition, Davis begins with an exploration of the dimensions of moral decision making. In a world in which moral confusion is “making great progress,” Davis outlines four fundamental issues for Christians. First, Christians must be able to apply their convictions to actual cases of moral activity (casuistry). Second, Christians must have a foundational conviction concerning the Scriptures as their source of moral authority (inerrancy). Third, Davis succinctly defends “contextual absolutism,” upholding the idea that there are moral absolutes which are fixed, ultimately not conflicting with one another (Non-conflicting Absolutism). Finally, Davis builds a case for Christians engaging the culture on moral issues through an appeal to God’s general revelation in creation (Revelation).

Chapter two attempts to apply God’s revelation to the issue of contraception. Davis traces contraception from the early Egyptian papyri (c. 1900 B.C.) to modern spermicides, birth control devices, sterilization procedures, and natural family planning. Davis divides the moral consideration of contraception into two parts: Roman Catholic and Protestant. The Roman Catholic condemnation of contraception is rooted mostly in Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture on the subject, while the Protestant view has been shaped by the Reformation and its reconsideration of whether marriage is a sacrament. Davis acknowledges that there is little direct reference in the Scriptures to contraception, but much instruction concerning sex and marriage. Davis concludes this chapter with a plea for Christian parents to be fruitful and multiply.

Chapter three moves from the various methods for preventing birth through contraception to the various reproductive technologies intending to cause births. The first such technology is artificial insemination (AID).[1] Should single mothers get pregnant via insemination? Should a lesbian couple have children through this method?

Artificial insemination has its historical roots in animal husbandry. While successful with animals, the procedure is still debatable with humans. Davis notes several studies which question the long-term effects of the procedure. He also notes a number of legal implications related to this process. Could (or should) we encourage a man to father 150 or more children through artificial insemination? Might there be cases of inadvertent incest? Should genetic screening decide whose sperm to use?

Davis notes that this procedure is morally illicit according to Roman Catholic ethicists on account of its association with masturbation and is not the expression of the natural conjugal act between a husband and a wife. Protestants have not been as clear or as adamant concerning the practice.

The same lack of clarity exists in surrogate motherhood. For Davis, both AID and surrogate motherhood offer the same moral dilemma—introducing third parties into the marriage and family dynamic. “In both cases, a third party intrudes both biologically and emotionally into the sanctity of the marriage bond. One marriage partner, but not the other, is biologically fulfilled through the process” (74).

Other issues considered in this chapter include sex selection technology and in vitro fertilization (IVF). Concerning both of these issues, Davis spends most of his energy establishing the various safety issues which ought to lead Christians to caution regarding these procedures. As he says, “The judgment of Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey would appear to be sound: ‘A small risk of grave induced injury is still a morally unacceptable risk.’ Further research is needed to establish definitively the safety of in vitro fertilization…. Until such evidence is available, IVF may represent a form of experimentation exposing human subjects to as yet unknown risks” (88).

Chapter four continues with a concern for the ethical issues related to family. In this chapter, Davis considers the foundation for family: Marriage. More accurately, this chapter might be titled the demise of marriage. Davis notes how the divorce rate in the U.S. has doubled since 1960. More than 800,000 marriages end in divorce each year.

Davis traces Christian concepts of marriage and divorce from Augustine to Luther and Calvin. He outlines the Roman Catholic teaching from the Council of Carthage to Peter Lombard, the Council of Trent, to the current practice of annulments. Then he focuses on the pertinent instructions in the Old and the New Testaments, giving special attention to Deuteronomy, the Gospels, and Paul’s letters (especially 1 Corinthians).

From these texts, Davis draws the conclusion that divorce is not good and should be avoided. From the gospels and 1 Corinthians, Davis argues that divorce is possible for sexual immorality and desertion of the marriage. He limits desertion to a narrowly defined physical desertion and suggests the church has not adequately applied the option of separation for a time of marriage reconciliation.

While holding a high view of marriage, Davis concludes, “In the New Testament, divorce is not considered an unforgivable sin” (103). Davis offers guidance on the issues of remarriage and whether a divorced person can serve as a pastor. Certainly, Davis’s conclusions won’t satisfy all questions related to marriage, divorce, and remarriage, but he does show every concern to remain true to the Scriptures.

Moving forward, Davis turns his attention to homosexuality in chapter five. In the next edition, Davis will no doubt need to expand this chapter with a more thorough consideration of transgender issues, same sex marriage, and the concept of biological sex. On the issue of homosexuality, however, Davis is quite reliable, noting the history of homosexuality, the medical concerns related to homosexuality, and legal issues germane to the subject.

Davis addresses homosexuality from a biblical and pastoral perspective. He does not waiver on the clarity of the Bible’s declaration of homosexuality as a sin. Instead of accommodating the culture’s acceptance of homosexuality, Davis advocates for a two-pronged strategy: “A properly balanced response on the part of the church would require at least two key elements: firm biblical teaching and meaningful personal support for the homosexual who seeks to overcome such an orientation” (125).

For Davis, the church needs to proclaim with confidence the divine power of God’s grace over sin—including the sin of homosexuality. Davis concludes the chapter with an admonition for Christian fidelity to biblical norms. Instead of fighting the issue from the framework of the “culture wars,” Davis suggests, “Christians would perhaps be wiser to concentrate their time and energy on making their own marriages and sexual behaviors more congruent with the high standards of Scripture and the gospel” (129).

In the next chapter, Davis helps the church respond to our society’s embrace of abortion. Davis argues that the Bible upholds the dignity and worth of every human being, regardless of the state of development or physical dependency, from the moment of conception to natural death.

As with other chapters, Davis walks through the historical and legal development of our current acceptance of abortion. Davis gives a good summary of the early church’s rejection of abortion procedures. He later details some of the tragic medical complications which have occurred in abortions, including an exposition of the psychological damage many women have suffered from having abortions.

Logically connected to abortion is the issue of euthanasia. Abortion brings forward the value of human life at conception, while euthanasia reminds us of human dignity until natural death. Chapter seven is Davis’s appeal to view human life as a gift from God, to be held in honor until natural death.

In chapter seven, Davis makes helpful distinctions concerning active versus passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia (which the Bible condemns) directly intends the death of another. Another helpful distinction occurs between using ordinary means (which we should) to save a life and extraordinary means (which we may or may not employ). On the basis of human life being created in the image of God, Davis argues that euthanasia violates the biblical command against murder (Ex. 20:13).

Chapter eight offers a sober assessment of capital punishment. Noting that capital punishment has existed as far back as history can trace, Davis is honest about disagreements on the issue within the early church fathers. Davis argues that capital punishment is an issue of retributive justice, in which the punishment actually fits the severity of the crime of murder. Relying on a compelling argument from C. S. Lewis, Davis makes clear that deterrence is not the motivating force for capital punishment. Ultimately, Davis’s case in support of capital punishment is gospel-minded. As he says, “Because it underscores man’s accountability for his actions, it serves as a grim reminder of the need to make peace with God while the opportunity yet remains” (213).

Chapter nine moves to a discussion of civil disobedience and revolution. Again, Davis begins with an historical overview then proceeds to flesh out biblical and theological perspectives. Davis discusses the various biblical examples of disobedience ranging from the refusal of the Hebrew midwives to kill newborn babies to the early apostles refusing to halt their preaching of the gospel. Davis justifies such disobedience on the basis of his exposition of Romans 13 and other appropriate texts. Davis distinguishes between permissible disobedience and mandatory disobedience. Davis also makes a very helpful distinction between civil justice and the perfect justice of God which is brought about only through the work of the Holy Spirit.

In chapter ten, Davis continues his discussion of violence with a focus on war and peace. After a few pages on the history of war, he engages in a longer discussion of the two historic Christian positions on war and peace (Just war tradition and the Pacifist tradition). With Pope John Paul II, Davis agrees, “However paradoxical it may appear, the person who deeply desires peace rejects any kind of pacifism which is cowardice or the simple preservation of tranquility” (246). Davis concludes this chapter with a consideration of nuclear weapons and nuclear pacifism. Even with the increase of weapon technology, just war remains a viable Christian option.

Chapter eleven moves to the environment and focuses specifically on the rise of the environmental movement in the U.S. Davis chronicles the shift from thinking anthropocentrically about the environment to thinking biocentrically. The new order does not give human beings a central place in earth’s biosphere. Davis walks through various texts from creation to new creation to establish a redemptive framework for how Christians should relate to the environment.

Chapter twelve offers an overview of the genetic revolution beginning with Davis’s now predictable historical introduction. Beginning with Gregor Mendel, Davis offers a clear chronology to explain how we arrived at cloning and genetic engineering today.

Davis next attempts to provide a framework for understanding genetics by reminding the reader of the three major systems of moral decision making (deontological, teleological, and consequential ethics). He further discusses norms, contexts, intentions, means, and consequences in relation to ethical decisions in genetics. Rather than attempting a code of rights and wrongs, Davis aims in this chapter to empower Christians to think and speak to issues in genetic ethics.

In his final chapter, Davis addresses race relations in the U.S. As noted, this chapter has been added for this new edition. Davis provides a lengthy discussion of the history of the U.S. slave trade. He then outlines both the pro- and the anti-slavery arguments made by Christians in the nineteenth century. Davis offers a just critique of the pro-slavery arguments. He also demonstrates how the scientists and cultural elites pushing the eugenics agenda fomented racism in the north and south.

After shorter discussions on affirmative action and racial reparations, Davis concludes this chapter (and the book) with an appeal to Martin Luther King’s call to judge others not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Along with this appeal from King, Davis pleads for all Christians to work for the reconciliation of all peoples to God.


Greg Cochran is Director of Applied Theology, School of Christian Ministries, California Baptist University.


[1] Davis briefly establishes that the growing demand for artificial insemination is likely related to the decreasing population via abortion, 60.

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Evangelical Ethics

P&R Publishing, 2015 | 384 pages

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