Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics as Action, Character, and Grace
by daniel a. westberg
ivp academic, 281 pages, $25.00
For some time now, First Things has sought to bring Catholics and evangelicals together. Richard John Neuhaus, Charles Colson, and their fellow travelers have engaged in an fruitful ecumenism of the trenches, discovering as they went along that they had more in common than they knew, particularly with respect to Christian ethics and the church’s public witness. And much though not all of First Things’ work has been in the service of a religiously informed “public philosophy,” seeking to find a common language for perennial truths about marriage, life, freedom, and other issues in the public square.
Here now is a very fine book that we might describe as the theological rather than philosophical embodiment of Catholics and evangelicals together. Daniel Westberg, an Episcopal priest and professor at Nashotah House who learned his trade from Oliver O’Donovan and Herbert McCabe, has given us a lively and learned introduction to moral theology, one that seeks to renew a venerable Catholic and Thomist tradition by rooting it more deeply in its biblical, evangelical, and Christ-centered origins. It is a largely Thomist book, published by Intervarsity Press: Would this have been possible without what Colson and Neuhaus started?
Westberg has harvested the fruits of this rapprochement for us, and it makes for a very rich harvest. It is not coincidental that Westberg writes as an Anglican, for Anglicans at their best have understood themselves as evangelical catholics. For some time, Anglican seminaries taught a kind of re-appropriated Thomist moral theology, by way of classic books from figures such as Kenneth Kirk, R. C. Mortimer, and Lindsey Dewar, drawing not only from Aquinas but also from its peculiarly Anglican blending with Reformed theology and Christ-centered piety in Richard Hooker and Jeremy Taylor. This tradition, Westberg writes, was largely swept away in the 1960’s by Joseph Fletcher’s situation ethics and various new methodologies. To a certain extent, it was set aside for good reasons, as it too often focused on obedience to law without showing how the law points us towards the good and lovely God. But to a much greater extent, Westberg believes that legitimate criticisms led us to cast away a tradition of real depth, nuance, and staying power. He aims to renew moral theology in the Anglican tradition, showing how what Fletcher and others criticized as the rigid legalism of the older school can be overcome by a more authentically Thomist and biblically evangelical approach.
A major element of Westberg’s approach is to de-emphasize the place of natural law in Christian ethics, in favor of a biblical and Christocentric virtue ethics approach. This is not, he contends, to view the recent turn to virtue ethics as an alternative to natural law, but rather to give it its proper place. Though concern for natural law is not wrong per se, Westberg points out that Aquinas himself gave very little space to it in his lengthy Summa. For Westberg, much more heat than light has been caused in recent decades by a fruitless debate between legalism and liberalism. Right practical reasoning for Aquinas was not simply a matter of conscientious obedience to God’s law, but of rightly intending, judging, and doing the good on our way to the goal of the Christian life, friendship with the God who made us for himself, the “love that moves the sun and all the other stars.” For this, Christ himself is our pattern. God’s laws and rules serve to warn us away from certain means for accomplishing our goals (e.g., murder, or lying), and to affirm certain others (e.g., loving your neighbor, or truth-telling). But to reach our true goal, we need not only law but more deeply a renewed moral vision and the character and grace to live as Christ’s disciples.
Given this outlook, Westberg’s book consists of two parts. First, we are given an in-depth discussion of the process of practical reasoning; the moral evaluation of human action; a philosophical psychology that draws together the roles of intellect, will, and emotion in human acts and in the development of virtuous or vicious moral character; the nature of sin and the foundational role of conversion to Christ; and the place of law in the Christian life. One of the gems of the book is its careful and clear Thomist treatment of practical reason and human action. Nothing in ethics is clear until we are clear about these foundational issues, and here Westberg distills for us his expert knowledge of the subject. We are guided by a wise and firm hand to avoid opposing reason and will, and to integrate our emotions into moral action. Much mischief today stems from none-too-careful and often unexamined models of human action. Are our personal ‘feelings’ and ‘experiences’ self-validating fonts of unquestionable moral truth? If not, is ethics instead a matter of universal reason’s triumph over individual emotion and tribal perspective? This is a false opposition, albeit one with great power today to bewitch and confuse. Aquinas has thought these matters through to the bottom, and there are few better guides than Westberg.
The book’s second half is a discussion of the four cardinal and three theological virtues. Westberg aims throughout to transmit the Thomist tradition of moral theology, and in this he succeeds. But it is no mere repetition of the tradition; Westberg sets himself the task of renewal by way of supplementing and correcting the master where necessary with biblical, Reformation, and evangelical insights. Thus in the chapter on faith, Westberg defends Aquinas’s view that faith is indeed to do with the intellect’s assent to truths about God, not reducible to a feeling of trust or absolute dependency. This is crucial, for faith gives us new goals for our actions, forming the basis for distinctively Christian ethics. Modern liberalism is thereby wrong to suppose that doctrine does not matter for ethics. But as the Reformers knew, faith in the Bible is not a merely intellectual matter, but also denotes the trust and surrender that restores our personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Westberg thus shows how the catholic and evangelical emphases complement each other.
Westberg also shows how “renewal” goes more than one way. Throughout, evangelical readers are challenged to see the genuinely biblical nature of material they might at first have viewed with a suspicious eye (such as the very idea of virtue), and are led to see the value of the precise philosophical and ethical concepts that are the glory of Catholic ethics. And the book carries on a rich conversation not only between Catholic and evangelical voices both classic and contemporary, but also with insights from modern psychology and key interlocutors such as Oliver O’Donovan, Herbert McCabe, Jennifer Herdt, Romanus Cessario, and Richard Hays. Anglican readers of the book will be most pleased, as Westberg weaves in material from the Book of Common Prayer and the Anglican tradition throughout. But there is enough here to speak to a wide variety of Christian backgrounds.
It is possible to wonder, at points, whether Westberg has fully succeeded in the catholic-and-evangelical synthesis that he seeks. For instance, he often cites Richard Hays’s three “focal images” from The Moral Vision of the New Testament—community, cross, and new creation—but he arguably does not lend as much weight to the centrality of the cross in the shape of the Christian moral life as Hays. Here, ironically enough, it may be the case that John Paul II himself can be of service in Westberg’s project of a biblically evangelical catholic ethics. Who more than St. John Paul II has shown us from Scripture our world’s deep need for the mercy of the Father (Dives in misericordia) and the suffering, patient love of the Son for the least of these (Evangelium vitae)? Jesus Christ is the shape that charity takes in this fallen world, and that shape is one of suffering and merciful love on behalf of and alongside the poor, broken, and sinful.
But these are suggestions rather than criticisms. Westberg’s book grew out of long experience teaching seminarians, and it would no doubt serve very well for introductory ethics courses in seminaries and Christian colleges alike. So too, it would do quite well for anyone seeking a guide through the thicket of contemporary moral discourse, one that reaches below the shallowness of today’s chatter to ever so patiently and carefully teach the basic philosophical concepts without which we will never move beyond confusion to achieve meaningful disagreement, and then below even that to depict the rich theological roots of the Christian moral life.
Jordan Hylden is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School.