Review: Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life: A New Conversation by Bruce C. Birch, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Larry Rasmussen

[1] This book is not simply a third edition of the foundational text used in many college and seminary classrooms over the years (including by this author) to study the use of Scripture as a source for doing Christian Ethics. (Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, by Birch and Rasmussen, 1978, 1989) Instead, it represents a new conversation, as the title and the inclusion of new authors indicate, about the important intersection of Christian Ethics and Biblical Interpretation.

[2] As in the previous versions, the book continues to ask and respond to the question “how [can] we engage the Bible as a resource for contemporary life?” But it does so with the perspectives of two additional authors, both representing next generations in their fields as well as different social experiences. The new edition also reflects the growing body of scholarship that focuses on the intersections between Biblical Studies and Christian Ethics. The authors ask fresh questions, explore topics relevant to the 21st Century, and add new ethical and biblical approaches to those provided in the initial version.

[3] These pages offer a richness of learning and application that will be of value to trained scholars as well as readers who are new to the study of ethics and bible.  The volume is filled with contemporary issues, innovative reminders of the basics, and directions for future conversations “for those who believe the Bible and ethics do matter in a world deemed sacred.” (xxii) In fact, the authors hope that on-going conversations will emerge from the conversation their book represents.

[4] The book will provide college-level audiences a stimulating learning opportunity. It could also be useful for pastors and other teachers of the church who might find new understandings of scripture and ethics for use in faith formation among laity in congregations.

[5] The introduction to the book provides the context in which the book is written. The landscapes of our world, both beyond and in the Christian church and the academy, are changing drastically. One important addition to the previous work is the treatment of the planet/creation as recipient of moral or immoral action alongside humans. In fact, the planetary eco-system, the authors argue, is to be given equal moral weight alongside the diversity of humanity. This opens the reader’s eyes to a richer fullness of the challenges we face as well as cause through our actions, visions, and being.

[6] The first and second chapters are slow reads for anyone not steeped in the in-house discussions regarding the differences between biblical and Christian ethics and the foundation of scripture in community as well as other scholarly issues that arise when the fields of Biblical scholarship and ethics meet. Fortunately, they are short, and while necessary for academics, could be skipped by teachers/students if lacking time without detracting from the main lessons of the book.

[7] The next two chapters (Chapters Three and Four) get to the heart of important questions many Christians are asking today concerning scripture: what is the Bible’s authority for Christian faith and life in the world and how should we interpret the Bible in and for this time and place? Both of these chapters are crucial for the study of Bible and Ethics.

[8] Chapter Three reminds us that the authority of scripture comes not from the book itself but from God, whose working through the experience of Christian community over time empowers the community’s life in this world. The Scriptures are the living and life-giving (properly interpreted) consequence of God’s on-going activity in the community. Chapter Three also lifts up the relationship of the Bible with the other sources of ethics: tradition, experience, and reason.

[9] Chapter Four focuses on questions of interpretation; how do we read the Bible? After making a good case against the literalism so prevalent today, the authors guide their readers through interrelated positive ways of interpreting scripture for ethics today, offering some helpful examples connected to contemporary moral questions. The reader is also given eight practical guidelines for the use of the Bible in moral discernment at the end of the chapter, a welcome gift summarizing the first four chapters. (p. 87)

[10] The book then delves into foundational information and guidance for actually doing Christian Ethics. Chapters Five through Seven are the highlight of the book, clearly though with intensity laying out everything a Christian needs to know about doing Christian ethics but has been terrified to ask. All the basics of Christian ethics are there: the difference between ethics and morality, the approaches (methods) of ethics, the sources, central questions to ask when doing ethics, defining the moral actors, recipients, acts, consequences and context of moral situations, how to do moral discernment for practical living, the moral formation of communities and individuals and much more. These chapters also include plenty of examples and illustrations exploring moral issues relevant to the church today such as race, climate change and globalization.

[11] These three chapters could easily be pulled out and used as a resource for learning the basics of how to do Christian ethics. However, they also tie in well to the more specific question of the book regarding the role of Scripture in doing Christian Ethics. Again, the authors provide the gift of summarizing the previous chapters with a well-presented step-by-step process for moral deliberation and action. (pp. 196-198)

[12] The most disappointing part of the book for this reader was Chapter Eight. The purpose of the chapter was to show how the theory and tools presented in previous chapters could play out in practical life. However, instead of focusing on one or two specific moral questions that are relevant to the church right now and doing some in-depth moral deliberation using Scripture as a resource, the authors chose to draw from already existing material representing moral deliberation (e.g. Laudato Si; the Civil Rights movement, etc.) in order to try and show how those works accomplished the type of biblically-based moral deliberation described earlier in the book. While offering interesting insight and analysis, the work of the previous chapters was hidden or got lost in the analysis and it was difficult to see how the tools and theory could be applied practically to strong, healthy moral deliberation.

[13] Chapter Nine provides a valuable conversation about the place of the faith community in the process of moral deliberation and doing Christian ethics. Five roles of the church are discussed, each of which offers inspiring direction for congregations and the wider church to explore the moral issues of the day and consider how Christians and their community are called to respond. These five roles are: the church as a community of moral identity formation; the church as a bearer of the Christian tradition; the church as a community of moral discernment and deliberation; the church as an agent of action; and the church as a moral haven, nourished and inspired to function in first four roles.

[14] Finally, Chapter Ten concludes the book with a summary and a challenge toward the action of embodying the Christian faith experienced through the Scriptures and discerned through the work of Christian ethics.

[15] Despite the drastic changes emerging from 2020 into 2021, the new conversation about Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life is still relevant, and certainly needed as Christians discern together how we shall live as followers of Christ and be the body of Christ in this time and space, and how the Judeo-Christian Scriptures can be a valuable resource for this discernment. This is a welcome and exciting resource for the scholarly, educational and practical moral deliberation that needs to be done by and for the church in the world during these morally messy times.

Laurie A. Jungling

Laurie A. Jungling, Ph.D, was an Associate Professor of Religion and Ethics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and is in the process of returning to parish ministry.