Review by Jacob Shatzer
In these two new edited volumes, Joel Green and Jacqueline Lapsley have taken various essays from the large Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011) to make them more easily accessible for classroom or personal study. Since none of the material is new, I will focus instead on the overall use of these individual volumes for pastors, teachers, and church members. While the cost of these smaller volumes make them a valuable addition to a pastoral library and a good recommendation to those interested in the Bible and ethics, some of the essays are more helpful than others. In particular, parts of the methodological essays that begin each volume may actually un-do the very confidence in and enthusiasm for Scripture that would motivate a reader to pick up these texts in the first place. When these essays are buried in a dictionary they do not have the same level of influence that they do introducing a shorter volume, as they do in this case.
In the OT volume, the opening essays helpfully orient the challenges of any “ethics of the Old Testament.” Verhey’s “Ethics of Scripture” leads off with a helpful overview of how each section of the Bible can connect to ethical material. Bruce Birch’s “Scripture in Ethics: Methodological Issues” is helpful to some extent, though Birch emphasizes perceived differences and problems in the text to such a degree that he leaves the reader wondering if anyone has enough expertise to gain ethical insight from the text and its diversity. He repeatedly insists that there is “no singular unified Christian ethic to be recovered” (15) and “the canon functions not as a static deposit of timeless truth, but rather as a partner in conversation with our own experience of God’s presence in our lives” (17). While such statements are helpful to a degree, they can leave the interpreter open to imposing her own beliefs on the text rather than taking the time and effort to listen to God’s Word and to be open to unified messages. In Birch’s quest to speak of the Bible as a “living resource” (18) he fails to see the degree to which it can be a life-giving resource, preferring to privilege the interpreter and the community above the text. Birch’s Scripture shapes ethics slowly, like water shaping rocks; he does not seem to have room, however, for Scripture’s role in dramatic conversions of ethical perspectives. Surely God uses Scripture in both ways, and more, for that matter! M. Daniel Carrol R.’s “Old Testament Ethics” categorizes approaches to OT ethics, noting the difference between descriptive and normative work and providing three approaches to OT ethics: “behind” the text approaches that look at the historical-cultural setting and the editorial history of the text; “systems approaches” that privilege a part of the OT, such as the law; and “literary and canonical approaches” that pay special attention to the final form of the text and its connection to Christian communities. By the end of the overview, the reader is left with Verhey’s helpful overview of the sections of the entire Bible, Birch’s emphasis on diversity and supposed impossibility of a consistent ethic, and Carrol R.’s categories. An additional essay written specifically for this volume is needed, one that could help draw these perspectives together into a methodological foundation.
The overview of the NT volume yields similar results. The volume repeats portions of Verhey’s piece as “Ethics in Scripture” (by removing the OT sections of the essay), Charles Cosgrove contributes the other two essays in the overview: “Scripture in Christian Ethics” and “New Testament Ethics.” The first proceeds through church history, with sections on the early church, the patristic period, the medieval period, the reformation era, and the modern (and postmodern) era. Though such a range requires simplification, the essay does a good job of drawing out the diversity with which the Christian church has found ethical material in the Bible without emphasizing diversity to such a degree that it harms any sense of unity. In the NT essay, Cosgrove focuses particularly on method as it relates to the NT, focusing on an ethical orientation to example, to the concrete and particular, to different modes of moral reasoning, and to pursuing integrated visions of morality. As such this essay also helps balance the diversity of the biblical witness with helpful modes for considering unity and cohesion.
Both volumes next proceed through the canon, book-by-book, providing approximately two-three pages on each book, with essays on particular topics interspersed where appropriate (for example, “Holiness Code” comes after the essay on Leviticus). The book-focused entries are a mix of general introductory material (author, date, etc.) and ethical reflections of varying lengths. In some cases, the ethical section of the entry is little more than two sentences mentioning various themes. These entries are very helpful for incorporating brief ethical considerations into broader introductory matters, but those coming to the book hoping for the ethical material to be developed will be disappointed. The OT volume includes a chapter on deuterocanonical/apocryphal books, treated in the same format as the other book entries. The NT volume contains book entries with more appropriately proportioned ethical reflection. On average, these entries include less of the typical introductory material and more focus on ethical concepts, which is a welcome difference from the OT volume.
Each volume concludes with a chapter on selected topics. In the OT, these include: biblical accounts of creation, Dead Sea scrolls, ethics of exile, ethics of priestly literature, law, poetic discourse and ethics, and the Ten Commandments. The NT treats: fruit of the Spirit, the Golden Rule, healthcare systems in Scripture, kingdom of God, lists of vices and virtues, love command, love of enemy, love of neighbor, Sermon on the Mount, and the use of parables in ethics. (In addition, the NT volume adds a chapter on “beyond” the NT, including essays on the apostolic fathers and the Didache.) These essays provide some of the most interesting and challenging material of the volumes, as they bring to bear a great range of texts onto particular issues or develop specific concepts more fully. These entries, however, are of a markedly different tone and length (in many cases) than the book entries that make up the bulk of the volume, thus contributing to the lack of cohesion and vision for the entire work.
These two volumes are a convenient way to introduce interested people to various issues in relating the Bible and ethics (the stated purpose of each volume). However, since they are entries taken from a larger dictionary, the volumes lack an overall vision and coherence that would strengthen any approach to the topic. Each book would serve a pastor well as a reference tool for alerting him to ethical issues within particular biblical books, but other tools would be required to dig further into the topics to incorporate them into a sermon, for example. Similarly, the books would be helpful for Bible study leaders or interested church members. However, due to the variety of perspectives on method, the necessary brevity and surface-level treatment of ethical issues, and lack of overall coherence in each volume, they are best seen as smaller reference works, not books to be read through to get a sense of “the Bible and ethics.” Situated properly they serve well, but rare will be the reader who proceeds through them entry by entry, and some may grow tired of the emphasis on diversity (often) at the expense of any unity.
Dr. Jacob Shatzer is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Sterling College. He is also Book Review Editor for Ethics here at Books At a Glance.
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The Old And The New Testament And Ethics