**I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review**
Intervarsity Press’ Christian Ethics: Four Views (edited by Steve Wilkens) is a minor-but-intriguing departure from the standard makeup of the Spectrum Multiview Books series, in that the four authors aren’t all answering quite the same question. Only two positions- Claire Brown Peterson’s case for Natural Law and John Hare’s defense of Divine Command Theory- contradict one another, with both answering the question “What makes an action right or wrong?” Brad J. Kallenberg writes the essay on Virtue Ethics, proposing an answer to the question “How do people become virtuous?” Peter Goodwin Heltzel rounds out the book with an essay on Prophetic Ethics, a somewhat loosely-defined term that isn’t entirely clear in the question it addresses. But more on that later.
Kallenberg opens the discussion with his essay on Virtue Ethics, defending the idea that ethics, character formation, and community values are inextricably linked. Kallenberg holds that good people are the result of good communities, and that the basic “building blocks” of a person’s behavior are habits, which ethicists should be supremely concerned with. As Kallenberg puts it, “If a burglar is breaking into your house, it is too late to begin lifting weights… you are always becoming the person you are” (32). Kallenberg writes clearly and with regular helpful illustrations, making his chapter perhaps the most accessible in the book. The responses are largely positive, as virtue ethics has long been accepted by Christian ethicists and is the backbone for most theories about how people become ethical or unethical people. Two common refrains are the difficulty of speaking about communities apart from speaking of individuals and the inability of virtue ethics to describe why an action is right or wrong. Again, though, this isn’t the question Kallenberg is addressing. That issue is taken up by Peterson and Hare in the next two essays.
Claire Peterson Brown advocates for a Natural Law theory of ethics, holding that “morality is rooted in central truths about who we are as human beings” (83). Peterson’s basic argument is that an action is right or wrong based upon how it corresponds with the “point” or “telos” of humanity. The main question that a proponent of moral law asks when trying to decide what course of action to take is “what is my duty in this scenario as a human and as a Christian in particular?” Peterson makes a good case for her point, though at times she seems to be advocating for virtue ethics as much as traditional Natural Law. This is not surprising as, again, these two viewpoints aren’t answering quite the same question. The real debate in the book is between Peterson’s Natural Law Theory and Hare’s Divine Command. It’s easiest to talk about these essays in tandem, so we’ll move to Hare and come back to Peterson.
If Natural Law theory holds that the resources for identifying an action as right or wrong are present in nature and specifically in the human, Divine Command theory holds that “right” and “wrong” are not categories discernable from nature, but direct results of God’s instructions. According to Natural Law, murder is wrong because murder prevents human flourishing. According to Divine Command, murder is wrong specifically and exclusively because God said it is wrong. These positions may sound similar, but the implications of both are of extreme importance, making the debate between Peterson and Brown the centerpiece of the book.
Hare’s argument was the high point of the book for me. I personally am in the Divine Command camp, but not for the same reasons as Hare. Hare is a philosopher at Calvin College, and makes his argument based on philosophy rather than theology. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a purely philosophical argument (i.e, not primarily from Scripture or the Christian theological tradition) for the idea that right and wrong are solely dependent upon God’s decrees. The argument is fascinating and coherent, but beware: dense and multiple readings ahead.
The final essay and response set of the book is Peter Goodwin Heltzel’s “Prophetic Ethics,” which is written eloquently and passionately. This section is, however, the weakest part of the book in my opinion for two reasons. First, I had some difficulty reading Heltzel’s sermon-like essay because Heltzel reads the other three essayists extremely uncharitably. He doesn’t read Kallenberg or Peterson particularly carefully or closely (in the case of Peterson’s essay, he seems to have missed the point entirely). In responding to Hare’s essay, Heltzel first begins by rejecting Hare’s argument on the grounds that he bases his position on Kant, who held racist beliefs. This is an ad-hominem twice-removed: Hare’s argument is incorrect because it uses the argument of a person who held the common racist beliefs of his time. Heltzel also wonders (again uncharitably) why “Hare is so invested in commands?” (160) and accuses him of being more reliant “on Kant of Königsberg than Jesus of Nazareth” (160). Heltzel’s response to Hare is exceedingly uncharitable, going as far as to connect Hare’s position to slavery and antisemitism, despite Hare and Heltzel’s positions being perhaps the most similar in the book.
I say “perhaps” because I’m now entirely positive what Heltzel means when he advocates for “Prophetic” ethics. While I have no objection to his style being more sermonic than systematic like the other three contributors, he doesn’t ultimately leave the reader with a clear sense of what “prophetic ethics” entails. Kallenberg, the paradigm of charity in all of his responses, compares reading Heltzel’s essay to hearing a series of variations on a musical theme that one hasn’t actually heard (197-198). Heltzel’s argument reads like a sermon on justice, but doesn’t ultimately lead the reader to any solid grounding for determining what makes an action just or unjust. Heltzel points to specific moments in history to identify them as one or the other, but doesn’t provide a system by which his thoughts could be applied to situations other than the ones he discusses directly. At its most basic, Heltzel’s “Prophetic Ethics” section seems to be an endorsement of a general American progressive political ideology, making his use of the biblical idea of the “prophet” deeply troubling to me.
If you have an interest in Christian ethics, I recommend this book. I recommend it strongly. Hare’s essay on Divine Command theory is masterful and unique, and Kallenburg’s essay on Virtue Ethics and Brown’s essay on Natural Law both provide accessible introductions to key concepts in Christian ethics. Even Heltzel’s less-than-clear Prophetic Ethics essay makes some helpful points and allows for some quality discussion in the response section. I’m a fan of Intervarsity Press’ Spectrum Multiviews series. This is one of their strongest- even if more uneven- offerings to date. For those interested in how Christians determine right and wrong and how we become people who chose the former over the latter, IVP has put together a great resource.
This topic is of huge interest to me, and I have lots more I would like to discuss related to the subject. If you’re interested in more of my thoughts on each of the positions or why I think that Divine Command makes the most sense of Christian ethics, comment here or, better yet, let me know on my Facebook page! I’d love to continue this conversation over there, and will gladly do so if there’s any interest. Let me know!