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Book review: A Primer in Christian Ethics: Christ and the struggle to live well by Luke Bretherton

by
08 December 2023

Robin Gill considers an Augustinian approach to ethics defended

THE British theologian Luke Bretherton is now Professor of Moral and Political Theology at Duke University, and a new book from him is always welcome. He has already written extensively on citizenship, politics, and hospitality, and won the Michael Ramsey Prize. His work is always eirenic and connects with a wide range of ethical issues.

This new Primer is no exception. It is not exactly an introduction to Christian ethics — it says almost nothing, for example, about Eastern Orthodox approaches and is thin on different Roman Catholic approaches. It is, instead, a spirited and wide-ranging defence of a rather Augustinian approach to Christian ethics — frequently emphasising the fallen nature of humanity and “the tragic nature of politics in this age before Christ’s return”. It is written in three parts depicting different stages of Christian ethical response.

In the first, “Describing Well”, he makes an important ecological distinction: “If humans are the centre of things, then nature is undervalued (an anthropocentric account), but if nature simply replaces humans (biocentric of ecocentric accounts), then humans are undervalued. . . By contrast, if God is the centre of what determines value (a theocentric account), then both human and non-human forms of life can be properly valued, and both are answerable to God.”

Humans are then seen as neither masters nor custodians of creation, but, rather, “have a particular and specific value within the whole”. This he terms a “metabolic” approach, recognising that humans are not the only agents, since “we are always already entangled in and constituted through the lives of others. Both autonomy and absolute difference are fantasies.” He also argues, persuasively, that Christians should “listen” to strangers, to those in need, to the poor and destitute, and to the wisdom of ancestors.

Next, in “Acting Well”, he emphasises the limits of human moral agency: “A Christian ethic entails recognizing that the path to goodness begins by admitting we are not just finite; we are also sinners.” He also examines the Euthyphro dilemma in relation to divine commands — i.e. “Does God command the good because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by God?” — arguing that “God is not some deranged sergeant major ordering us to march up and down on a capricious whim,” and that “God’s commands cannot be arbitrary because they extend from God’s nature and thereby have love and the flourishing of creation as their goal.”

He also commends the South African concept of ubuntu, and defends both rule-based and virtue-based approaches to “acting well”. Yet, he finally concludes that “to act well under the conditions of finitude and fallenness we cannot rely on commands, rules and virtues alone. We also need ways of deliberating and coming to judgment so as to generate practical wisdom about what to do and how to do it,” especially as enacted in the person of Jesus Christ.

The final part, “Living Well with Others”, opens with an extended and somewhat diffuse discussion of the importance of, and ambiguity of, human intimacy in a fallen world, citing the Song of Songs and Jesus’s relationship with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. He commends covenantal intimacy, while warning against reducing human intimacy to “fornication” and the distortions of pornography.

A chapter follows on work, arguing that “through work we respond to and make something out of our environments,” while also arguing, unsurprisingly, that “material security, work, and economics are not the sum total of the meaning and purpose of life.” A concluding chapter explores politics, arguing that “it is through politics that we determine whether our life with others . . . is just or unjust, generous or heartless, peaceable or violent, attuned or destructive of creation,” but ends on the apocalyptic note of the tragic nature of politics and the very mixed track record of Churches in politics.

Much to ponder here, but, perhaps, not the author’s best book.


Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of
Theology.

A Primer in Christian Ethics: Christ and the struggle to live well
Luke Bretherton
Cambridge University Press £23.99
(978-1-009-32902-6)
Church Times Bookshop £21.59

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