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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 268–270 

Book Review

An Introduction to Christian Ethics: History, Movements, People

Harry Huebner. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012. 672 pages.

Reviewed by Ramon Rempel

What is Christian ethics? Many answers to this question will take for granted that Christian ethics is a particular kind of solution to ethical issues, a kind of stance taken on issues such as abortion, divorce, and capital punishment. Such an approach makes a number of key unquestioned and connected assumptions: that Christian ethics is but a form of ethics in general, that it is best understood in terms of decision-making in the moment, and that its logic is independent of community and abstracted from character. In other words, Christian ethics has been compartmentalized and subsumed under “broader” notions of what constitutes appropriate and {269} acceptable modes of thought. Consequently, a textbook on Christian ethics ought to do something more than add to the cacophony of voices all advocating a version of “decisionism” while leaving the assumptions of that approach unchecked.

This book by Harry Huebner, recently retired Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Canadian Mennonite University, is a notable step in the right direction. His text is a significant effort not only in how it attempts to address ethics for Christians—how it should be taught, learned, and practiced—but also as an argument for how such books should be written. This is a difficult task. He is attempting both to narrate a faithful vision of what Christian ethics is and to address and critique the “standard” approach to Christian ethics. Perhaps this is why the book is so long and detailed. But for a book of such length, the argument is clear: Christian ethics is distinct from ethics in general in that it names a way of life and a type of character particular to those within the Christian community. To think otherwise leads to asking the wrong questions. Asking the right questions is a significant part of learning to live as a Christian.

Huebner’s approach is best described as a narrative of Christian thought and practice. His retelling begins with an historical overview of the history of Christian ethics from its beginnings through the Enlightenment. This approach follows from the basic claim that every ethic presupposes a sociology, an enactment. This is a conscious effort both to put ethics in context and to indicate the source of our modern approach to ethics. Huebner rightly shows that the current focus on issues and moral dilemmas is generated by Enlightenment assumptions of individual autonomy and abstracted rationality. He goes further to argue that in teaching, learning, and applying Christian ethics, our focus should be on the skills (virtues) required to live a faithful Christian life. Thus, Christian ethics is a matter of character. If this is right, then it is not enough to write a book about principles abstracted from context and ideas dissociated from the people in whom they originate. Instead, a book on Christian ethics needs to give an account of characters. Learning Christian ethics is then a matter of acquiring the needed skills by emulating significant people. This explains the focus of the second half of the book where Huebner explores the lives and contexts of twenty-two theologians/ethicists from the past 150 years. In many ways this section is not very different from the earlier historical overview. Here the narrative is simply told in finer detail. One could bicker about his choices but Huebner quite deliberately presents a diverse range of theologians: women, Third World, and minority theologians are all included in his picture. The result is an account which is complicated but edifying.

While his history of Christian ethics will be familiar to readers of Alasdair MacIntyre, Huebner’s work differs in that a focus on the church {270} remains central. The church is the body in which Christian ethics can be comprehended and practiced. Huebner likens learning to live as a Christian to learning a sport. A sport requires coaching, role models, apprenticeship, practice, and a community of those with the resources to support such learning. One could hardly learn to play baseball apart from a community of baseball players. Similarly, one can’t learn to live as a Christian apart from other Christians in the church.

Despite some misgivings about its length and detailed exposition, I have begun to use this text in my ethics classes. I use it because I recognize the significance of what it attempts. My students need to hear a voice that calls them to go beyond the holding of one position or another and exposes the poverty in much current moral debate. This book challenges them to re-examine their thought and practice. This is a challenge we should all accept.

Ramon Rempel, M.A.
Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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