A Review of Paul Jersild’s Spirit Ethics: Scripture and the Moral Life

[1] At one point in his discussion of the interaction between the Bible and its readers, Paul Jersild acknowledges the inevitable reality that “…what each of us brings to the text has a bearing on what we receive from it . . .” (53). While his point is to caution against “self-interested interpretations” of Scripture, Jersild’s observation applies equally as well to reviewers of books whose critiques are informed by their own particular locations and interests. In the case of my reading of Jersild’s astutely written Spirit Ethics: Scripture and the Moral Life, those interests reflect someone who teaches in a small religion and philosophy department at a Lutheran liberal arts college and who, though an expert in neither biblical studies nor theological ethics, frequently is called upon to teach courses related to these areas outside my own scholarly expertise. What I “bring to the text” of Spirit Ethics is a need for a resource that guides, informs, clarifies, and offers perspective on the relationship between biblically informed Christian faith and ethically responsible Christian life, not only for myself but also for the students I teach.

[2] Fortunately, Jersild’s interest in writing the book directly addresses that need. “My hope,” he writes, “is that this work will help the reader gain a clearer perspective on the issues involved in relating the Bible and tradition to the Christian life and to the church’s mission in the contemporary world” (7). In this effort, Jersild admirably succeeds. The comments that I offer here will take seriously Jersild’s stated intent and address, in turn, the content of the work as well as the book’s utility for its intended audience.

[3] Lest the main title ignite Lutheran suspicions of an attempt to by-pass Scripture as the norm of Christian faith and life – akin to Luther’s rail against the Schwärmer – the sub-title secures the footing of the book on familiar Lutheran ground. In fact, Jersild’s incorporation of the role of the Spirit in Christian ethical formation supports his argument for the place of Scripture in the moral life. The story of Jesus defines the Christian understanding of the Spirit who is active in Christian community (4). The task of the Christian community is to discern the present work of the Spirit, understood through the story of Jesus, in the present life of Church and in the world.

[4] Of course, the convergence of the Bible and contemporary issues within the life of the Church may be standard fare for any work that presents itself as Christian ethics. However, the critical differences begin to emerge from the hermeneutical presuppositions one brings to the task, not only with regard to Scripture but concerning one’s approach to the Church and culture as well. To his credit, Jersild deals openly with these differences. In fact, sorting through the various hermeneutical options employed in Christian moral reflection is the major concern of the work.

[5] The organization of the book serves the purpose well. The two opening chapters, “Postmodernism and Christian Ethics,” and “The Church in a Pluralistic Society,” establish the social and cultural context which contemporary Christian ethics seeks to address. In these chapters, Jersild acknowledges the dislocation of the church as a privileged voice in society. Yet he sees the loss of authority of the church in the public arena as an opportunity as well as a challenge to gain a hearing among competing voices. In order to meet the challenge, the church has the opportunity to become reacquainted with its own basic narrative, the Bible, and therefore to become better grounded in the normative text of its faith and life.

[6] In the third chapter, “Determining ‘What the Bible Says,'” Jersild offers a cogent but carefully nuanced defense of historical-critical methodology. His defense is directed against two extremes. The first extreme, evident in contemporary fundamentalism, “. . . claims that the Bible essentially is a book of propositional statements that are either true or false, and that a foundational document for the church’s faith cannot contain what is false without undermining both itself as God’s Word and the faith of the whole Church” (46-47). To the other extreme reflected in postmodern mentality, Jersild is somewhat more open in acknowledging that “. . . a discriminating approach to reader response criticism can be helpful in encouraging a fresh expectation in the church’s approach to the biblical text” (54). Yet he remains suspicious of reader-oriented approaches to textual interpretation that shift the location of meaning, as well as authority, from the text to the reader. Biblical inspiration, Jersild argues, resides exclusively neither in the past with the writing of the text nor in the present experience of the reader, but in the “…whole dimension of the church’s life, from inspired writers to the receiving community of believers” (57).

[7] The fourth chapter, “The Ethical Content and Authority of the Bible,” brings the previous discussion of the postmodern context of the church and the challenge of biblical interpretation directly to bear on the task of ethical decision making. Here, Jersild helpfully catalogs various types of ethical material contained in the Bible: law or commandments, paradigms or models of conduct, principles or ideals, and exhortations and imperatives. A more subtle distinction that Jersild points out as background is the difference between biblical ethics and Christian ethics. The distinction is a critical as well as helpful one, and, in my reading, worth elaboration beyond the attention Jersild gives it. Biblical ethics refers to the moral stances adopted by persons and communities within the biblical narrative itself. Identifying those positions is largely a historical task. Christian ethics, by contrast, is the constructive work of the contemporary Christian community in its historical and cultural location. Here, the task is not simply to replicate the stance of persons within the Bible, but to translate biblical ideals and principles for the moral life into the contemporary experience of the church. The point helps to lay the foundation for Jersild’s clear argument for a christological approach to Christian ethics, portraying Jesus as God’s deed above Jesus as a moral teacher.

[8] The specific nature of the church as the locus of moral reflection is made explicit in the fifth chapter, “Spirit Ethics and a Responsible Church.” Here, Jersild writes, “A spirit ethics necessarily focuses attention on the community of faith as the matrix in which ethical people are formed and nurtured. Trinitarian theology recognizes in the Spirit the active presence of God, at work in the community of believers through the Word, which is implanted in people of faith and embodied by them in the world” (86). The connection among Spirit, community of believers, Word, and world mark the boundaries within which Jersild operates throughout the book and serve to bring this section of the discussion to a close by calling attention to responsible social ethics that include individual identity within the context of community and hold in tension the reality of the presence of the Kingdom of God with the anticipation of its future completion.

[9] Several recurrent themes in these opening five chapters weave throughout the case Jersild builds for a “spirit ethics.” Among these themes, one of the most prominent is the continuing need for the church to be in conversation both with its tradition of biblical interpretation and the public square. This theme builds on a refined commitment to Luther’s “two-kingdoms or realms” doctrine and contrasts Jersild’s approach with ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas, whose “. . . countercultural stance on the part of the church” means that “. . . there is no point to the church’s engaging society in dialogue. . . .” Rather, Jersild forcefully argues, “‘to be the church’ must include the desire to maintain a vigorous engagement with the powers that be, not based on expectations of making an impact as much as exercising faithfulness” (39). This position also lays the foundation for Jersild’s vigorous appeal for a strong sense of social ethics in the church.

[10] A second major theme relates to the limits placed on the church’s own vision as a result of the reality of human sin and the contextual particularity of the church in a given place and time. Jersild employs some of his best writing in developing this theme: “The question being raised here is the appropriateness of the church’s claim to possess the truth. We can affirm the truth, confess the truth, and profess the truth, but we cannot claim it as a possession” (14; emphasis in original). Jersild’s point is not that the church has nothing authentic to say to the issues of the day but to guard against hubris when the church confuses its perceptions formed within its own historical location with the truth of the gospel itself. Since an eschatological future serves as “. . . the point of orientation for the Christian life,” Christian ethical pronouncements will always be provisional within the course of history. Jersild mentions several times in the opening chapters the importance of the eschatological dimension to Christian ethics. For my interest in using book for teaching, here is another place where more development, perhaps as separate section within any one of the first five chapters, would be helpful. How does the church’s faith in the future of Jesus, proleptically revealed in the resurrection, specifically shape the direction of Christian action in the present? While the answer to the question is implied throughout the rest of Jersild’s discussion, more explicit discussion of the point would not only be useful but, perhaps as well, strengthen the overall case.

[11] A third theme is more of a position intrinsic to Jersild’s basic argument: Spirit ethics favors principles over propositions; it has more to do with life in Christ than a specific code of conduct. Negatively stated, the point seeks to avoid making absolute the contextually contingent ethical codes contained in Scripture. Positively stated, the point expresses the intent of Jesus himself, who “. . . is not intent on imposing a law as much as conveying a vision of what is to be, a vision that too often we do not allow to empower and direct our lives as believers” (81).

[12] A fourth and critical theme is the role of the church as community discerning the direction of the Spirit who leads the community from Scripture to the world. Because of the contingent nature of individual human existence as well as that of the church, differences of interpretation within the community are to be expected. However, that reality makes the role of the church more, not less, important: “Contested moral issues will always require the deliberation of Christians together, addressing the various facets of the issue with clear consciousness of who they are as followers of Christ” (80).

[13] A fifth important theme, and one that helps to bring the discussion full circle, emphasizes the importance for the church to listen and learn from the culture it inhabits. The theme proceeds from three points:
a) the recognition, evident in the Bible itself, that God is at work “among the nations,”
b) specific cases where society has been in front of the church on issues of justice and equality, and
c) instances where the culture, through, for example, the natural and social sciences, offers insight into the “facts of the matter” as they relate to ethical issues. Listening to the culture yields the net effect of strengthening rather than weakening the church’s witness. The dialogical character of the church’s encounter with culture means that “rather than claiming to be indisputably right on these matters in virtue of a direct pipeline to divine truth, the church must rely on the force and cogency of its arguments, rooted in its theological convictions as well as its reading of the contemporary scene. . . . When the church speaks out with strong conviction, which it certainly must, it should be in a way that invites dialogue and honest encounter with those with whom it disagrees” (32).

[14] Having established his case in the first five chapters for a “spirit ethics,” Jersild devotes the remaining three chapters of the book to the application of the approach to three pressing ethical issues in the life of the church; euthanasia and assisted suicide (chapter 6), homosexuality (chapter 7), and genetics (chapter 8). The issues are well chosen not only for their relevance to the contemporary church and society but because each illustrates the challenge posed by issues that defy the facile application of biblical propositional statements to contemporary Christian moral life. The case of homosexuality, the issue with most obvious biblical textual precedents behind it, illustrates the point to the extent that contemporary society understands the issue in a different light from the one presupposed by the relevant biblical texts.

[15] Though thoughtfully considered, the particular stand that Jersild takes on each issue is less important than their utility as illustrations of his concluding point, that “. . . absolutely essential to any discussion of scriptural authority for the moral life is the ongoing engagement of the church with the moral environment of society and the issues this raises for the church. . . . This process constitutes a hermeneutical circle in which both scriptural heritage and contemporary experience interpret each other, bringing about a creative situation in which the church can speak with a fresh and powerful word to society” (172). For Christians, the entry point into the conversation occurs “at the basic level of our identity as the body of Christ (where) we hear and appropriate the good news of Jesus Christ and claim him as Lord. What this means for the moral life is then worked out among ourselves and in the daily encounter with others at both individual and corporate levels of life” (172).

[16] The book makes a compelling case for the approach that Jersild advocates, but from “what I bring to the text” there is more to appreciate about the book than the cogency of its argument. For purposes of teaching, the book does a fairly of good job of presenting “descriptive ethics” alongside the “prescriptive” position that Jersild advocates. To be sure, descriptive ethics is not Jersild’s intent here. But he does make clear and helpful distinctions along the way for non-specialist readers, calling to attention, for example, the differences between deontological and teleological ethics, ethics of character, virtue, and duty, and so on. At times he relies on short-hand phrases, such as “theology of glory,” assuming familiarity of the background on the part of his audience, and other terms such as “closed canon” and the distinction between “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxis” that require clarification and elaboration in settings where I teach. But these are relatively few and minor and, at any rate, constitute opportunities for “teaching moments” in the classroom.

[17] Much more to be appreciated is the sensitive manner in which Jersild handles points of view with which he disagrees. Rather then closing off these points of view from discussion, Jersild handles them in such a way that opens them up for discussion and exploration in class or at students’ own initiative through class projects. In sum, one can use Jersild’s book either to follow his own argument, or to use it as a guide into other approaches that relate Scripture to moral life, or both. In fact, to refer to Jersild’s discussion as an “argument” is itself too strong. Rather, his approach exemplifies the kind of dialogue within the church – and the church-related college – that he advocates, acknowledging the value of diverse voices within the community and maintaining (self-)critical distance from any absolute claims.

[18] The book also models a way of applying “spirit ethics” to issues beyond the three that Jersild includes by way of illustration. In my situation, students chose to pursue his discussion of genetics, but opted to explore the relevance of “spirit ethics” to other issues, such as racial justice, on their own. That adaptability itself serves the intention of the book and demonstrates its utility in fulfilling that purpose.

[19] Finally, especially in light of Jersild’s own concern about the role of Christian community, a word should be said about the relevance of Spirit Ethics in the life of the church, particularly in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An argument can be made, it seems to me, that an important factor challenging consensus within the church on moral issues, reflected in the ELCA social statements, is a lack of consensus on how the church reads and interprets its own Scripture. Paul Jersild has taken an important step here toward addressing that issue. To be sure, not everyone will agree with the approach he outlines in Spirit Ethics. But he has at the very least established a framework for – and modeled – the kind of dialogue on the issue that will be critical for the church to move forward. I commend his book for use in the college classroom and in the congregation as a point of entry into the discussion.