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date: 28 November 2020

Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

An introduction to a book such as this one serves prospective readers best if it tells them what they should know in order to determine whether it is the sort of book they want to read — providing that information is the aim here. The various Handbooks published by Oxford University Press are not aimed at beginners; nor are they aimed only at scholars who work in a particular field. Their target falls somewhere between those two groups — those who know a good bit, who would be in a position to do advanced work in a field, and who might be helped and stimulated by a survey of the field. It is hoped that this volume will do that for readers interested in the field of theological ethics. So this is a book not in ethics generally but in a certain kind of ethics, and it attempts to survey that field. An overview of the topics covered is presented.

Keywords: theological ethics, Christianity, Handbooks, introduction

An introduction to a book such as this one serves prospective readers best if it tells them what they should know in order to determine whether it is the sort of book they want to read. Providing that information is our aim here.

The various Handbooks published by Oxford University Press are not aimed at beginners; nor are they aimed only at scholars who work in a particular field. Their target falls somewhere between those two groups—those who know a good bit, who would be in a position to do advanced work in a field, and who might be helped and stimulated by a survey of the field. We think and hope that this volume will do that for readers interested in the field of theological ethics. So this is a Handbook not in ethics generally but in a certain kind of ethics, and it attempts to survey that field.

Nevertheless, the task of surveying a field can be accomplished in many different ways, and we have chosen a particular approach. Readers should understand that it is the collection of essays, taken as a whole, that surveys the field of theological ethics. We have assigned specific topics to our contributors, but we have not asked them to provide a survey of the topic on which they write. On the contrary, we have permitted, and even encouraged, them to do more than catalogue what has been said on the topic. Ethics is, after all, a normative discipline, and it has seemed appropriate to us that contributors should, as they see fit, develop their own constructive arguments. Thus, a reader of these essays will do more than learn ‘about’ a variety of topics in theological ethics; he or she will also enter into the ongoing conversation that constitutes theological ethics.

(p. 2) At the same time, as we noted above, this Handbook treats not some generic area known as ethics, but the discipline of theological ethics in particular. That is, it contemplates the moral life as it is lived, imagined, and spoken of within the more encompassing field of Christian theology, for which thought and action can never be neatly separated. This is, of course, not the only angle from which one might think about the moral life, but it is one that has deeply influenced our civilization and that continues to shape the lives of large numbers of people.

There is, to be sure, no single vision of how ethics ought to fit into the larger enterprise of Christian theology, and, just as we have invited our contributors to shape their essays in accord with their own normative commitments, we have done the same in developing the structure of this Handbook. (We have not, however, limited the contributors to those who share our vision.) At the very outset of his Institutes, John Calvin articulates two related premisses: that ‘without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God’, and that ‘without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self’. However these may be ‘mutually connected’ in a person's life (and the connection may work differently in the lives of different people), Calvin suggests that ‘the order of right teaching requires that we discuss the former [knowledge of God] first, then proceed afterward to treat the latter [knowledge of ourselves]’.

The structure of this Handbook should suggest to a discerning reader that we have, at least in a general way, followed Calvin's lead. That is, we begin with a set of essays on ‘dogmatics and ethics’, intimating thereby that, whatever may be true of other kinds of ethics, Christian theological ethics must treat the shape of the moral life and the meaning of our humanity within the context of who God is and what God does. (One need not think of this as peculiarly indebted to Calvin, however; after all, the Summa Theologiae begins in the Pars Prima with God and only thereafter turns to man.) It is, of course, possible, to adopt the opposite strategy, as much of modern theology has done, and begin with the human subject, moving from that starting-point to talk of God. (And, indeed, some of our contributors do so.) But the structure of this Handbook, even if not each of its essays, suggests that theological ethics is, finally, a branch of dogmatics. Those with any Barthian inclinations at all might wish to go even further and argue that—since in Jesus Christ our human life has been taken into God's own life—the character and structure of our life cannot be a free-standing topic but must be part and parcel of theology. That, at any rate, is how things look from within the circle of faith.

The opening section of essays under the rubric of ‘dogmatics and ethics’ is followed by four sections whose essays deal, respectively, with the sources of Christian moral knowledge, the structure of Christian life, the spirit of Christian life, and the spheres of Christian life.

Almost any kind of systematic ethical reflection will need to consider the sort of people we ought to be, the goals we ought to seek, and the actions we ought to do or decline to do. For a Christian ethic, however, developed within the contours (p. 3) sketched by dogmatic theology, this generic sort of ethical reflection will be shaped in important ways by Christian faith. Ethical reflection must necessarily draw on a range of sources. Almost everyone is likely to make use of personal (or communal) experience and, to a greater or lesser degree, human powers of reason. In addition to these, Christians rely on authoritative texts, even though it is no easy matter to explain how scriptural texts function in moral reflection. In addition, Christians do not—or, at least, should not—think of themselves as free-floating philosophers of the moral life. Their thinking takes place within—and is instructed and disciplined by—the community of believers, both living (as a present community of discourse) and dead (as a tradition of discourse). How one makes use of these diverse sources of moral insight has often been a matter of controversy among Christians, and it remains an ongoing project within theological ethics.

Among the standard topics of theological ethics are some that deal with the structure or shape of the Christian life and some that deal with what we may call the spirit of the Christian life. Perhaps the two most general ways of giving Christian structure to the moral life—ways that, still today, correspond in very rough form to Roman Catholic and Protestant approaches—have been in terms of virtue and vocation. But there are other terms—such as ‘responsibility’—that have risen to special prominence in more recent times; there are perennial topics—such as the place of ‘rules’ in Christian life—that affect our understanding of life's shape; and there are limits—most especially death—which give their own structure to life. To treat only such topics, however, is to fall considerably short of all that theology has wanted to say about the meaning of life in Christ, and—in order to capture not only the structure but also the spirit of this life—we have included essays on what have traditionally been regarded as the three chief theological virtues: faith, hope, and love.

Instructed by the variety of sources from which they gain moral knowledge about both the structure and the spirit of their life, Christians live within a variety of spheres that give a distinctively social or institutional cast to life. These spheres—such as government, family, economy, and culture—have sometimes been spoken of in terms such as ‘orders of creation’ or ‘mandates’. We have preferred the simple term ‘spheres’, especially because we have included here as a sphere of Christian life a community not generally included when one thinks in terms of orders of creation: namely, the church. It would be, to say the very least, inadequate to depict the social setting of Christian life in terms only of those communities—such as government and economy—which are shared by those within and without the church. For, in fact, some of the deepest problems Christians encounter when thinking about how they ought to live—and some of the issues that have most troubled recent reflection in theological ethics—have to do precisely with how one manages the intricate simultaneities required to live within the church and the other spheres of life.

Finally, in the last section of this Handbook, we gather together essays that treat the structure not of the Christian life itself but of the discipline of theological (p. 4) ethics. We do this by offering essays that revisit and re-examine a few works (most of them single volumes by scholars in theological ethics or moral theology) that have given a kind of shape or structure to ethics, especially as it has become a distinct and specialized branch of theological study. These are not necessarily the best books ever written in theological ethics (though at least several of them might lay justified claim to such a title); rather, they are books that have given students of Christian ethics a vision of the whole, a sense of how the disparate materials of the discipline can be gathered together in coherent and constructive ways. To revisit and rethink books of this sort is perhaps as instructive a way into the field of theological ethics as one can imagine.

Of course, any of the essays in this volume may be read by itself for insight into a particular topic, and we hope many of them will be read in this way. Better still, however, is to take the handbook whole, to read it as a mode of entry into the focused (yet also quite diverse) conversation that is the continuing tradition of discourse we call ‘theological ethics’.