Review: Power and Purpose: Paul Ramsey and Contemporary Christian Political Theology (Eerdmans, 2015)

[1] In this book Hollowell has set for himself two tasks that are, by his own admission, uphill battles. He wants, in the first place, to argue that Paul Ramsey’s intellectual legacy merits more scholarly attention than Ramsey currently enjoys. His work, Hollowell thinks, is far too neglected in contemporary scholarship and syllabi in Christian ethics. Ramsey is “an afterthought,” Hollowell writes, “to Christian ethics professors who move swiftly from Niebuhr’s ‘Protestant liberalism’ to John Howard Yoder’s and Stanley Hauerwas’s ‘postliberalism’” (1). In the second place, Hollowell wants to demonstrate that Ramsey was much more than simply a thinker who invoked Christian concepts in order to speak to politics and applied ethics. Hollowell succeeds in his second task through a thorough analysis of the robust theological foundations on which Ramsey’s concrete ethical positions were built. The first task, though, strikes me as a harder sell. Hollowell shows several ways in which Ramsey’s thought could engage contemporary concerns in Christian theological ethics, but this book left me wondering whether (and to what extent) Ramsey’s work could speak to the most urgent moral issues that have demanded our attention in the years since his death. Can we harness Paul Ramsey’s work to address, for example, environmental crises, new and more subtle forms of institutionalized racism, or sharply rising levels of economic inequality? Hollowell’s book convincingly demonstrates that Ramsey based his moral and political positions squarely on theological ideas, but it is less clear that Ramsey’s work is relevant for urgent questions in the early 21st century.

[2] Hollowell begins with a section on Ramsey’s evolving theological commitments, and capably shows that these commitments are at the core of his views on applied ethical questions. This section includes chapters on Ramsey’s concepts of covenant and repentance, and a third chapter on his biblical interpretation. In each of these chapters, Hollowell attends to Ramsey’s intellectual debts and tracks the ways in which his thought develops over time. He is also not afraid to highlight weaknesses in Ramsey’s thought. The second section takes up questions that move into more obviously political territory. These questions include interpersonal bonds (considered in relation to Ramsey’s critique of Joseph Fletcher’s “situation ethics”), tragedy and dirty hands, and the relationship between moral rules and character. In the third and final section, Hollwell explores Ramsey’s potential to contribute to contemporary discussions in Christian theological ethics. Hollowell convincingly argues that Ramsey’s work could offer beneficial resources to scholarship on contingency and virtue (represented by John Bowlin and Jennifer Herdt), 21st century Augustinian political theologies (Charles Mathewes and Eric Gregory), and Daniel M. Bell, Jr.’s “discipleship” approach to just-war thinking. In these chapters he readily admits that Ramsey’s work had certain weaknesses that contemporary ethicists in these fields could address. In short, Hollowell argues that Ramsey’s work is relevant today because of the mutual illumination it offers to writers in these sub-fields of Christian ethics. The scholarship in each of these sections is responsible and through. The writing is clear throughout. And the structure of the book supports Hollowell’s argument about the centrality of theological ideas such as covenant, which inform Ramsey’s positions on specific moral questions.

[3] This book has many strengths that will reward readers interested in Ramsey and political theology. Chief among them is that Hollowell delivers on the argument that Ramsey should be remembered as a political thinker with deep roots in Christian theology, rather than as an applied ethicist who thought about specific moral issues partly by using Christian concepts and categories. In addition, the writing is leavened by Hollowell’s use of material from the Paul Ramsey Papers, housed at Duke University. This is especially true when Hollowell draws on personal correspondence. Ramsey’s passion and irritability come through in responses to colleagues, critics, and graduate students, all of whom elicited “testy” responses from Ramsey (17, 186). In passages like these, Hollowell’s research in the Ramsey Papers brings Ramsey to life by revealing his personality. In addition, Hollowell is often able to retrieve promising conclusions from conversations that seem tired and dated. For example, chapter 4 analyzes Ramsey’s critique of Joseph Fletcher’s “situation ethics.” Even though Fletcher’s work has not had a positive influence within Christian ethical discourse in many decades, Hollowell uses this debate to highlight important elements of Ramsey’s theological anthropology (which, he notes, is decidedly rooted in his theory of covenant). His analysis of Ramsey’s critique of Fletcher also illuminates Ramsey’s understanding of the limitations to which churches should be subject in political discourse. Hollowell summarizes Ramsey’s vision, explaining that

It is not simply choice, or the act of judgment, that marks political competence; if decision-making is not to be arbitrary or baseless, it must be properly framed by structures identifying and upholding positions of authority. It must also be properly informed by particular facts…The church simply cannot set for itself the task of instructing political authorities on matters of fact – even in the information age, those who do not occupy high levels of political authority do not have access to the same information. The politics of the church is not an information game. (98-99)

The limitations Ramsey placed on churches in political discourse are worth reconsideration. Hollwell’s retrieval of these limits from the critique of situation ethics makes this debate more relevant than it seems to be at first glance.

[4] Such strengths make Hollowell’s book easy and rewarding to read. At times, though, the argument is unnecessarily narrow. For example, in the chapter on virtue and contingency Hollwell puts Ramsey in dialogue with John Bowlin and Jennifer Herdt. These are surely excellent conversation partners for Ramsey’s work. But Hollowell omits reference to Martha Nussbaum, whose work on virtue and contingency has been enormously influential. Reference to Nussbaum in this chapter would not only add conceptual breadth to the conversation that Hollowell wants to recreate; it could also make a case for a broader audience to reconsider Ramsey’s work. In addition, the substantive argument in this chapter calls for more explanation than Hollowell gives.

[5] Surveying Ramsey’s moral psychology, Hollowell reads both Herdt and Ramsey as Thomists, not Augustinians, in light of the “organic” relationship they posit between virtue and human nature (158). That is to say that human beings can cultivate the virtues naturally, and need not rely on divine grace to impart positive qualities of character. Hollowell reasons that Ramsey shares this view with Herdt and Aquinas, noting that even though “the movement from imperfection to perfection lies only in God’s hands, our imperfect pursuit of virtue need not itself be classified as a vice. For Ramsey, as for Aquinas, this simplistically collapses the Christian life into contrition” (159). This strikes me as a rather shallow basis on which to associate Ramsey with Thomist political theology.

[6] Thinking of Ramsey as a Thomist on this question also introduces a problem of coherence in his thought that Hollowell does not address. If Ramsey follows Aquinas on the possibility of natural virtue, does he also follow Aquinas on the related topic of the function of the law? Would such a position be reconcilable with a generally Augustinian emphasis on sin, force, and restraint in political life? Thinking of Ramsey as a Thomist, even in a limited sense, is a thought-provoking prospect, but I wished Hollowell had attended more carefully to the potential conflict between Thomist and Augustinian ideas in Ramsey’s thought.

[7] Lastly, this book left me wondering about Ramsey’s relevance. Yes, Hollowell makes an excellent case that Ramsey’s work can be put into productive discourse with contemporary scholarship on virtue, Augustinian political theology, and just-war discipleship. But is the potential to illuminate those conversations enough to inspire a revival of Ramsey’s work? Since his death, several urgent moral crises have called for more attention from Christian ethicists, such as environmental degradation, structural racism, and economic inequality. If we return to Paul Ramsey, will we find an ethicist who can guide us in reflection on these problems? Hollowell’s scholarship is excellent, his writing is clear, and readers will appreciate his attention to the theological core of Ramsey’s moral thought. But I am not sure how Hollowell would respond to this question, which I take to be an important indicator of Ramsey’s relevance today.

[8] The strengths of this book outweigh these misgivings. This book makes a strong contribution to scholarship on Paul Ramsey and American political theology. Scholars and graduate students in these fields (especially those who study Bowlin, Herdt, Mathewes, Gregory, and Bell) will be grateful for Hollowell’s work.

Daniel A. Morris

Dr. Daniel A. Morris is a lecturer in Religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.