In his preface to the second edition of A Short History of Ethics , Alasdair MacIntyre notes the absurdity of his attempt to treat Christian ethics in a mere ten pages sandwiched “between 109 pages on Greek ethics and 149 pages on Western European ethics” from the Renaissance onward. He blames this in part on the failure of mid-twentieth century biblical scholars to set Paul in a clear light”to grasp the eschatological tension in Christianity that permits a serious contribution to the understanding of the virtues that make human community possible, whether natural or ecclesial. MacIntyre’s chapter on Christian ethics is his book’s weakest link, and MacIntyre’s self-criticism (whatever one thinks of his criticism of biblical scholars) is not nearly severe enough, although he has done penance for it since. Fortunately, in Christian Ethics: A Brief History , Michael Banner”albeit without reference to MacIntyre’s book”has written the missing pages. Banner is convinced that “the story of ethics in the West has been, at its core, the story of Christian ethics.”

Banner begins where MacIntyre, by allusion, leaves off in his After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory ” with a treatment of St. Benedict, or, rather, of the Rule of St Benedict, which addresses the threefold question of what it means to live well, how to do so, and why we should do so. The Rule, claims Banner, “gives an extremely grounded, worldly account of the good life here and now””an account that concerns itself with human community in the light of the two great commandments to love God and neighbor. Banner highlights the place of the Scriptures”not the fragmented Scriptures of early Christian communities or of modern biblical scholarship, but the Christocentric Scriptures of the conciliar Church”in the life of the community, even if he does so at the expense of a fuller account of Benedict’s answer to the “why we should” question. The eschatological tension present in the Rule is also highlighted.

Because Banner sees the Rule as “the practice of which Augustine’s theology is the theory,” he turns next to Augustine. According to Banner, Augustine’s theology “deepened and darkened the whole subject of ethics by proposing that the problem of how to be human was a problem not chiefly of knowledge, but of will””a disordered will. Yet, through the doctrine of redemptive grace to which it appealed, his theology produced “Christianity’s paradigmatic answer to the question of ethics”: a way of being, exemplified by both Augustine and Benedict, that is “worldly, but otherworldly; melancholy and hopeful; critical, yet patient.”

Glancing wistfully at Gregory, Anselm, and Bernard, Banner leaps forward to Aquinas. For one whose own theological axis runs between Augustine and Barth, his treatment of Aquinas is not unsympathetic. But he has very little sympathy for Thomism. The subtitle of this chapter”“Natural Law and the Loss of Christian Ethics””points us to Banner’s main business here, which is to criticize “the pretensions of Thomism to establish ethics on the basis of reason alone.” A general tendency to legalism and moralism, made worse by the casuistry that emerged from the penitentials and by post-Reformation suspicion of revealed theology, led to the loss of the distinctively Christian elements in ethics that Aquinas himself had maintained and that Vatican II set out to recover. It may be remarked in passing, however, that this discussion would benefit not only from more precision in the matter of Thomism but also from a clearer distinction between the ontological and epistemological dimensions of natural law, a point already made to Barthians by Oliver O’Donovan in Resurrection and Moral Order . (Curiously, that fine book does not appear in Banner’s brief bibliographies.)

As one might expect, Banner comes next to Luther. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he is not convinced that Luther makes good on his second thesis in The Freedom of the Christian , that the Christian is the perfectly dutiful servant of all. Moreover, Luther is too negative about the role of reason and at the same time too generous in granting autonomy to the secular order. Luther’s reactionary Augustinianism, in other words, does not represent a recovery of authentically Christian ethics but puts the whole enterprise at risk of failure. One misses here a treatment of Calvin, which one also might have expected.

The next chapter treats “the turn to the subject” in Kant, Butler, and Kierkegaard (Montaigne, Hobbes, and Hume also figure) and is followed by a chapter on “suspecting the subject” that is devoted to Nietzsche and the genealogists, including Marx, Darwin, and Freud. The former is one of the best chapters in the book and, like several others, a fine example of making complex material comprehensible without leaving the misimpression that it is simple. The latter brings an Augustinian dialectic to bear on the genealogists, not shying from their critique both of human nature and of the history of ethics, but questioning the conflation of “is” and “ought” that is the consequence of their lack of a Christian doctrine of the Fall and of divine grace.

The penultimate chapter deals with the twentieth-century “revival” of Christian ethics, both Protestant and Catholic, under the leadership of Karl Barth and John Paul II, respectively.

The final chapter brings us into the present by examining the way human community is challenged both by the advance of genetics and by the rise of consequentialist ethics. Banner, who was director of the ESRC Genomics Forum at the University of Edinburgh before coming to his current home at Trinity College, Cambridge, is a very useful guide here. One wonders, however, whether there might have been more promise in bringing the book around to the question of a new Benedict, or at least a renewed Benedictine spirit, had these chapters been placed in reverse order, the discussion of Barth and John Paul II forming the book’s conclusion.

But were Banner to take up that question in a revised edition, he would need to rethink and rewrite the chapter on Barth and John Paul, which is the weakest part of the book. His decision to distinguish between the immense contributions of the two by way of appeal to the refusal of apologetics by Barth and the (putative) acceptance of apologetics by John Paul is a mistake. Beneath this decision lies, one suspects, a characteristically Barthian misunderstanding of natural law and of the appeal to right reason in the Catholic tradition. Perhaps backing up a little”to Leo XIII, say, who ought not to be omitted, even from a brief history”would help to sort out this confusion and to pose more sharply the question about the relation between the fallenness of the will and the weakness or perversion of the intellect. It also would allow Banner to move from the (gently apologetic?) feel of his current final chapter to something still more authentically Augustinian. On the twisting line that runs from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI there emerges a Thomism tempered by Augustine, at once critical but patient, melancholy but hopeful; and the point on that line that is John Paul II is constituted by as fine a dialectic of the critical and the hopeful as one could hope to discover.

Anyone who has tried to offer, in any form, a brief history of Christian ethics”or even has thought of trying it”knows that it is next to impossible. This means that everyone will find his or her own reasons to criticize Banner’s attempt. Certainly, the book has the lacunae, both historical and theological, that a Catholic audience might expect from a Protestant author. Moreover, the book’s genre does not fully display this particular author’s powerful analytical skills or give free reign to his potent wit. It is not the same kind of book, in other words, as his Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems , which no serious student or teacher of ethics can afford to pass over. But one can put Banner’s new book in the hands of students with confidence that they can read it (not so with MacIntyre) and that they will be in a far better position to engage both Christian and Western European ethics when they have read it. If the thought of a second edition, albeit a revised one, seems a little premature, it is a measure of the respect that the first edition deserves.

Douglas Farrow is professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal.

Articles by Douglas Farrow

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