Ben Mitchell. 2013. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide. Wheaton: Crossway.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
A key insight in my personal study of ethics is simple. Because everyone interprets an event through their own lens, ethics focuses on interpretation. Whose interpretation has the most merit and why?
In his book, Ethics and Moral Reasoning, Ben Mitchell writes:
“Although every person may pursue the human telos, Christians enjoy the aid of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who motivates them both to will and to do God’s God pleasure as they follow the path of the Lord Jesus.” (97)
If Jesus is my measure of everything in life—Jesus is my denominator—then with the help of the Holy Spirit I am better able to navigate our shark-infested world than by adopting any ethical school of thought, no matter how sophisticated.
In part one of this review, I give a general outline of Mitchell’s work. In part two, I will summarize his views on biblical, enlightenment, and Evangelical ethical thinking.
Biblical ethics is important enough to Mitchell that he about a third of his book to it written in two chapters. In his chapter on the Old Testament, Mitchell starts by surveying a number of hot-button issues, including:
- Marriage and family
- Labor and vocation
- Sanctity and dignity of human life
- Infanticide and abortion
- Gladiatorial brutality
- Gender equality
- Racial equality (32-38).
Many of these issues were axiomatic until the demise of Christendom within the last generation. In the absence of consensus on basic issues, church teaching on these issues cannot be assumed. Pastors find themselves triaging fundamental church doctrines against an increasingly more limited attention span of their congregations and frequently open hostility to many traditional interpretations of scripture.
After surveying these issues, Mitchell moves to examining each of Ten Commandments (38-52). Mitchell offers these general insights into the Commandments:
- The law expresses general principles, not case law.
- The law is given by God himself.
- Any offense against the law is an offense against the law giver.
- Biblical law is the foundation for Western jurisprudence (38-39).
This last point is important. Questions about biblical law’s applicability have the potential to cascade through the rest of Western jurisprudence.
In his discussion of the New Testament, Michell focuses on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and initiates a discussion of natural law. He writes:
“To claim that there is a natural law is to claim that there is a normative moral order governed by that law, not by mere convention or mutual agree.” (61)
This is no small point. In putting forward new teaching on homosexuality in the church, denominations offering this teaching are disputing the doctrine of natural law (and the divine inspiration of scripture) that binds us irrespective of public opinion or the ruling of church leaders.
Concerning the Enlightenment, Mitchell writes:
“Can we be good without God and his revelations? Many thinkers of the Enlightenment thought so. The religious wars in Europe from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries did not leave people flush with confidence that agreement on faith, ethics, and politics was possible. The Enlightenment or age of reason was in many ways a response to this dilemma.” (65)
The idea that truth could be discovered independent of theological assumptions, while novel, proved impossible to validate philosophically. Secularism has proven to be a Christian heresy, quite unworkable when separated from its Christian foundations because other foundations cannot be found or are typically arbitrarily inserted. If this is unclear, ask yourself what justification exists for human rights, absent being created in the image of God and being loved by God.
For Mitchell, evangelical ethics stems from God and scripture. He writes:
“The Bible is the norming norm or revealed basis for evangelical reflections about the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is against the canon (rule) of Scripture that evangelical seek to compare and contrast all moral teaching.” (77)
Citing Kyle Fedler, Mitchell outlines these guidelines for interpreting scripture:
- No single method for the use of scripture is adequate.
- Whenever possible, the Bible should be read in its historical and cultural context.
- Not all scripture carries the same normative weight.
- Although Scripture is primary, normative, and authoritative, it is not our only source of guidance and wisdom. (93-95)
The evangelical rule, in so many words, is: the Bible says it, that settles it. However, scholars like Fedler suggest that in practice this rule is hard to apply rigorously.
Ben Mitchell’s Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide is a gem. It provides a short, concise statement of a Christian ethical perspective.
Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part Two
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.