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Getting into ethics

08 May 2012

A useful textbook, says David Atkinson


Theological Ethics (SCM Core Text)
Edward Dowler

SCM Press £25 (978-0-334-04199-3)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

I CAN see this being, as a Core Text, a very useful working textbook for ethics classes in theological colleges. Indeed, that is how it began, as lec­tures in St Stephen’s House, Oxford, where Edward Dowler was vice-principal before becoming the Vicar of Clay Hill, London. In some respects, it still reads like expanded lecture notes, with occasional press cuttings, case studies, and questions for discussion slotted in.

Dowler has set himself the task of exploring key concepts in the Christian moral tradition, drawing heavily on writers such as August­ine, Aquinas, and Aristotle, as well as Stanley Hauer­was, Vatican II, and Pope Benedict XVI, various papal encyclicals, and Oliver O’Donovan. The flavour is predomin­antly of Catholic moral theo­logy, engaging with the Bible.

On the first page, we are straight into Augustine and Pelagius on sin and grace. The general reader could do with some more preliminaries about why the book was written, and indeed what “ethics” is about, and how “theological ethics” fits into Christian moral life.

The first part gives a very useful summary of significant writings on sin, grace, natural law, virtue, and conscience. Part 2 compares and contrasts Catholic and Protestant approaches to happiness as the good; faith and works; reason and revelation; sin and sins; deontology, consequentialism, and emotivism. The final part returns to the con­cepts of Part 1 and engages with more re­cent writers: Northcott on en­viron­ment; Barth on natural law; Pope John Paul II on conscience, Hauer­was on virtue. We are briefly pointed to­wards the relation of ethics to liturgy, community, and eschatology, and a final chapter is on love.

There are some surprising omissions: no mention of Roman Catholic writers such as Germain Grisez or Charles Curran. Protestant Paul Ramsey gets one line, and Lutheran Helmut Thielicke gets none at all. There is not even a glance at Anglican Kenneth Kirk. It is more surprising that we have to work hard to discover a Trinitarian shape to Christian ethics, or, indeed, a Christological centre. There is not much help in understanding what impact the theologies of creation, incarnation, the cross, the resur­rection, Pentecost, or the Kingdom of God have on the way Christians “do ethics”; nor much hint that theological ethics leads into disciple­ship and worship. Nor even that it could be exciting.

But as a core study text for ethics classes, this, none the less, has a wealth of useful resources.

Dr Atkinson is an hon. assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark.

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