A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Steve West
About the Author
Ken Magnuson is the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, as well as Professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS
1 An Invitation to Christian Ethics
2 Ethics and Moral Reasoning
PART TWO: BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS
3 The Bible and Christian Ethics
4 Aspects of Biblical Ethics: Old Testament
5 Aspects of Biblical Ethics: New Testament
PART THREE: MARRIAGE AND HUMAN SEXUALITY
6 Sexual Ethics
7 Marriage and Sexuality
8 Divorce and Remarriage
9 Homosexuality, Sexual Identity, and Gender
PART FOUR: THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN LIFE
10 Bioethics and Human Personhood: The Case of the Human Embryo
11 Infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technologies
13 Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide
PART FIVE: SOCIAL ORDER AND THE ENVIRONMENT
14 Capital Punishment
15 Just War, Pacifism, and the Use of Lethal Force
16 Race Relations
17 Creation Care
Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues is a book that comes from a widely-respected and well-qualified thinker and ethicist. It will be especially useful for pastors and students, but the number of available textbooks on ethics from an evangelical perspective is already quite large. Besides the standard texts by Rae, the Feinbergs, Davis, Frame, and Geisler (to name but a few), there is also the recent addition of Grudem’s large book on ethical issues. It is difficult to remain biblical and evangelical while also having something new to say or present things in a fresh perspective.
Magnuson’s book is quite good, and one feels the familiarity of the evangelical ground in both the subjects that are discussed and the way that they are developed. Nevertheless, there are a few salient points—more of perspective than anything else—which provide enough unique material to keep the book interesting even for those who have already read a selection of standard evangelical texts on ethics. From an evangelical perspective, it would be difficult to find much fault with Magnuson’s main conclusions. Even when he arrives at a minor conclusion on which Christians can legitimately disagree, his position is within the pale of evangelical ethics and he acknowledges that there are other allowable conclusions that can be reached. On all of the major issues, he upholds norms and points of view that are at home in a broad evangelicalism. His use and understanding of the tripartite division of the law, as well as the role he assigns to the Decalogue, will not be the framework that every evangelical favors, but his work is careful and entirely within the bounds of Christian thinking.
There are places in the book where one wishes for more development. For example, the discussion on philosophical systems of ethics seems a little bit incomplete and lacking detail at times. This is not due to a lack of competence: this book is an invitation and introduction to the field, and it is pretty consistent at maintaining that level and focus. Still, some more development and nuance concerning major ethical systems and philosophical figures would have strengthened the book. A lack of development was also felt in reading the treatment on climate change. Considering how exceptionally important this issue is, the amount of space devoted to it was very small, and the main thrust was that there is a diversity of opinion surrounding the issue. Without needing to be an expert on the science of climatology or the politicization of the issue, a lot more could have been said.
There are points that Magnuson makes which are thought-provoking, even if one disagrees with him. Against the majority view of evangelical ethicists, he argues that using donor sperm or a donor egg in Artificial Reproductive Technologies is adulterous (even though it is not sexual adultery or lustful) since it violates the one-flesh union of covenant partners. This is a position that is often mentioned as a foil by Christian ethicists, but only to be dismissed. Magnuson makes a case, though, and even if his case is judged as insufficient, his points are worth pondering. This is a great asset in a book on ethics: he makes you think. Readers will also have to think about his arguments that capital punishment is biblical and justifiable, but that the administration of it in America is unsustainable given current practice. Likewise, some readers will be challenged by his rejection of both militarism and pacifism, and his acceptance of just war doctrine, combined with his view that it is difficult to see how nuclear weapons in their current iteration could be used in an ethically acceptable way.
One of the features of this book which is very refreshing and provides a great example to students is that he is not dispassionate about the issues he writes about. Time and again Magnuson reminds the reader that these issues involve people, and people need love, care, healing, and forgiveness. His empathy and care come through especially in his work in the chapter on LGBTQ issues and the chapter on race relations. He does not compromise truth, but he speaks with real compassion and humanity. This ethos is one of the genuine strengths of the book, and one can only hope that the same spirit will breathe through those who read it.
On balance, this is a good, standard book on evangelical ethics. It is suitable for classroom use or for personal study. It is squarely evangelical in content, yet it is not merely a rehash of typical observations and points. In certain areas, reading the material makes you wish that more had been written, which in turn serves as a stimulus for further study. That, of course, is the book’s design: it is An Invitation to Christian Ethics, and it invites you to go deeper into the field. It’s good on its own, and it’s very good as a springboard into further reading and reflection.
Steve West is pastor of Madoc Baptist Church in Madoc, Ontario. He is also adjunct professor at Toronto Baptist Seminary and an assistant editor here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
INVITATION TO CHRISTIAN ETHICS: MORAL REASONING AND CONTEMPORARY ISSUES, by Ken Magnuson