- The Freedom of a Christian Ethicist: The Future of a Reformation Legacy ed. by Brian Brock, Michael Mawson
This volume offers revised versions of ten papers presented at a conference, “The Freedom of a Christian Ethicist,” which took place at Aberdeen University in October 2014. The title, of course, is a spin on Luther’s famous 1520 treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian.” The editors note that, compared to Roman Catholic or secular philosophical ethics, Protestant ethics has been in retreat for the last several decades. That is a wakeup call to seek renewal for the discipline, but given the cross purposes among authors here, it is not likely that this collection will revive it.
This book deals not specifically with Lutheran but instead Protestant ethics in general. Some of its authors appreciate the Lutheran tradition, but several resoundingly do not. The criticisms of Luther, when they appear, tend to be clichés, ignoring new developments in Luther studies which no longer project onto Luther an angst-ridden, individualistic existentialist but instead find in him a robust communitarian evidenced by his advocacy of the three estates of church, home, and civic community. Predictably Stanley Hauerwas chides the Lutheran tradition for failing to acknowledge that salvation transforms citizens embodied “in time and space” setting them in tension with all other forms of citizenship (11). For Hauerwas, Luther paved the way for Protestant Liberalism which sold out genuine Christian community for secular, capitalist-framed individualism, lacking any real leverage to challenge greed and self-centeredness (97). Gerald McKenny unguardedly claims that the magisterial Protestants Luther and Calvin do not speak to contemporary people because they no longer feel threatened by God’s wrath (18). Contemporary men and women feel alienated when God is presented as acting entirely apart from human agency. In contrast to Luther and Calvin, it is better to look to twentieth-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth who advocated that through Christ humanity can be a genuine partner with God in God’s ongoing creation (22).
Appealing to its messianic roots, German theologian Hans Ulrich sees Christian faith as empowering. As portrayed in Scripture, God’s [End Page 440] story incorporates humans into its life; thereby humans are liberated from the perception that they are merely cogs in an aimless reproductive cycle (59). In a delightful essay, Brian Brock presents Luther’s 1521 Commentary on the Magnificat as the best resource for interpreting Karl Barth’s ethics of divine command. Luther does not become entangled in attempting to infer ethical maxims from the Magnificat but instead plumbs the depths of the gospel narrative as humans confront competing moral claims (67). “For Christians, there is no ‘I’ except in Jesus Christ and therefore within the ecclesial ‘we’. There is also no ecclesial ‘we’ not constituted by those centres of agency which have been turned to Christ by the Holy Spirit. Only a truncated ecclesiology would deny some role to individual agency in Christian discipleship . . .” (73).
Paul Martens mines the Anabaptist ethics of Howard Yoder in order to ascertain the limits of individual freedom for Christians. For Martens, Luther separated faith from works and so allowed Christian practices to be colonized by positions, such as individualism, alien to the peace and justice stance of primitive Christianity (110). Michael Mawson also draws on the thinking of Yoder and places it in relation to Bonhoeffer. In contrast to the Anabaptist tradition, Mawson finds promise in Bonhoeffer’s theology to challenge the assumption that Christian discipleship is reducible to a specific social program. Instead, it is completely defined by loyalty to Jesus Christ alone (135). Rachel Muers offers an interpretation of the 1660 Quaker Declaration of the Harmless and Innocent People of God and finds not only its eschewal of violence valuable but also its affirmation that God’s Spirit opens humans to new possibilities of implementing God’s love in the world (156). Building on her affirmation of a Christian eudaimonism, the view that doing good is rewarded with self-fulfillment, Jennifer Herdt offers an...