Reviving Evangelical Ethics by Wyndy Corbin Reuschling

Introduction

Ashland Theological Seminary professor of ethics and theology, Wyndy Corbin-Reuschling tackles the challenge of revitalizing evangelical ethics by addressing the “promises and pitfalls of classic models of morality” in order to expose their impact on moral awareness and practices in Reviving Evangelical Ethics (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 7-12). The author constructs an ambitious argument that reveals the appeals and disadvantages of these classic theories of ethics from Immanuel Kant’s deontology, John Stuart Mill’s teleology, and Aristotle’s virtue ethic (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008,12-13).

Furthermore, Corbin-Reuschling identifies herself as a Christian “social ethicist” who makes both evangelical and feminist assertions about the nature and conscious awareness of Christian morality (Reuschling, 2008, 27). Hence, the author encourages evangelicals to take “more” seriously the authority of Jesus Christ, the guidance of Scripture, and recognize that the Christian community is morally still developing (Reuschling, 2008, 28). In this book critique, the writer will discuss the author’s goal, summarize the book’s content, compare and contrast the three different classical ethical models with the ethical systems from Wilkens and Geisler, as well as, critique Reuschling’s approach to her intended audience.

Author’s Goal

Corbin-Reuschling explicitly states that the goal of Reviving Evangelical Ethics is to address the “misconceptions” surrounding the subject of ethics in general, and specifically, to examine those “misconceptions” about the nature of Christian ethics (Reuschling, 2008, 10). Writing in a pedagogic manner that is more applicable to the academic abilities of graduate level seminary students, scholars, professional church leaders, and theologians, Corbin-Reuschling (2008) demonstrates a valiant effort that thoughtfully engages the reader. With a perceptiveness that challenges the established classic theories of ethics from Kant’s deontology, Mill’s teleology, and Aristotle’s virtue ethic. The author affirms that theses classic theories of such prominent philosophers have guided Christian understanding of morality and ethics for centuries, thus influencing evangelical spirituality and practices in a way that is not biblical (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 10-1). Traditional teachings from secular philosophers that underlay the fundamental beliefs and practices of evangelicals.

Furthermore, Kant, Mill, and Aristotle’s classic moral philosophies of ethics have limitations, according to Corbin-Reuschling (2008). In order to identify these boundaries, the author analyzes each classic theory, then reconstructs a broader, more scripturally based biblical foundation for Christian ethics (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 12). In hopes of fostering “moral understanding and discourse” along with real-world involvement for the ethical transformation of Christian life through moral practices, as a commitment to God in the name of Jesus Christ (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 10-12). The author defends her goals within seven well organized, information rich, scholarly written chapters.

Summary

Reviving Evangelical Ethics begins with an extensive introduction, where Corbin-Reuschling clearly conveys the suppositions of the book and what the reader can expect from the upcoming chapters concerning the effects of classic theories of ethics in general and expressly in Christian evangelical ethics. The introduction concludes with an affirmation that the reader is about to embark on a journey. A scholarly pursuit, which will lead to the discovery of biblically based ethical practices in a personal and social context, which acknowledges traditional classic models of ethics, “patriarchal assumptions” and the need to embrace the “gospel of Jesus Christ according to the Word of God (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 27-28).

In the chapters that follow, the author strategically addresses the “classic models of morality,” discusses the concept of “trust and obey,” declares that “we’ve a story to tell,” recognize that there is a “sweet hour of prayer,” and addresses “reviving evangelical ethics,” before concluding with the “practices for reviving evangelical ethics” (Corbin-Reuschling 2008, 29-182). Hence, chapter one contemplates three ways of constructing ethics in moral thinking based on the philosophical teachings of duty by Kent, utility by Mill, and virtue by Aristotle (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 29).

The “categorical imperative” is the cornerstone of Kant’s moral philosophy, which attempts to reduce the conflict between what “we may want to do and what we ought to do” (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 34). With the “duty to tell the truth” as the most recognizable example of Kantian morality (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 35). Within the scope of what Kantian philosophy can contribute to evangelical ethics, there are both appeals and disadvantages to this ideology that impacts Christian practices and spirituality.

These appeals and disadvantages involves Kant’s four concept of duty, 1) morality is universal and mandatory for everyone, 2) follow the “Golden Rule,” 3) obey irrespective of personal character and consequence, and 4) humans are essentially logical, distinctive, and independent (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 40-40). This concept of deontology perpetuates morality as a duty or obligation, where Christian ethics is understood as obligations of universal moral truths that can be quantified into rules and commands, therefore, the Bible can be perceived basically as a compilation of rules to obey (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 31-41).

While, Mills affirmed that it is the responsibility of ethics to prescribe duty, however, no model of ethics should require that the exclusive motivation for “all that one does” be based on a feeling of duty (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 42). Furthermore, as an empiricist, Mill believed that humans must rely on their senses and experiences to “induce and make general conclusions” about morality and use the world of senses, feelings, and experiences in an effort to maximized happiness (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 43). Whereas, as duty was the primary focus of Kant, the primary focus of Mill is happiness. Nevertheless, there are both appeals and disadvantages to Mill’s ideology that impacts Christian practices and spirituality as well.

For both the appeals and disadvantages of Mill’s teleology assumptions are reflect by 1) particular ideas and epistemological beliefs of evangelicalism, 2) societies, communities, and churches are just a collection of individuals, 3) an ideal of happiness is established and as with Kantian there is the concept of, 4) the “Golden Rule” (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 42-50). However, Mill’s utilitarianism encourages a lack of moral consensus, where by morality is seen as the aspiration of the individual, and the “best we can do” is ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number of individuals (Corbin-Reuschling 2008, 41-51). However, just as with Kent and Mill’s philosophies, there are both appeals and disadvantages to Aristotle’s dogma that influences evangelical practices and devoutness to Christianity.

Aristotle asserts that there are two kinds of virtue, intellectual and moral, which involve characteristics and qualities, as well as, behavior and intentions that restrain and direct human determination or will (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 54). For, Aristotle’s notion of virtue reflects the perspective that Christian morality is the same as “personal piety” and a collection of characteristics and qualities that are pleasing to God (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 51-62). Furthermore, there are both appeals and disadvantages of Aristotle’s construct as well.

According to Aristotle’s philosophy, 1) virtues can be affirmed in the scriptures, 2) the homogenous groups of individuals are different then the “ekklesia” heterogeneous groups of individuals that reflect a diversity of humanity in God’s kingdom, 3) virtue is not based on a relationship with God, and 4) personal religiousness is not dependent on fellowship with God (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 61-62). The author affirms that duties, experiences, and virtues all have a place in understanding morality from a Christian prospective, however it is imperative that evangelicals understand the roles and limitations of each in ethical practices and spirituality according to Scripture (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 62-63).

In chapter two, Corbin-Reuschling address the limitations of deontology by highlighting the concepts of “trust and obey” in order to demonstrate the limitations that results when evangelical ethics is reduced to ordinary rules to be obeyed and duties to be carried out (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 65-67). Therefore, under Kantian philosophy, God is not necessary since human beings can reason to ascertain truth, follow “universal moral code,” and respond accordingly to situations, based on a personal understanding of duty and obligation (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 67-80). However, evangelicals must understand that there is a higher purpose to duty and obligation for obedience. Christians are required to fellowship with God, read the Bible, and interact with the Holy Spirit, therefore evangelicals must interpret, accumulate wisdom, and reorient their lives as followers of Jesus Christ based on ethics according to Scripture (Corbin-Reuschling 2008, 65-87).

With a vivid description of a scene from a church from the nineteen nineties, in chapter three, Corbin-Reuschling (2008) describes the contemporary Christian worship service in an endeavor to accurately express utilitarianism as depicted in evangelicalism. The author then addresses “is the greatest good for the Christian faith based on achieving the “greatest number” saved by any means necessary, since the end results justifies the process (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 89-94). The author affirms that outreach and evangelism are “good practices” that require “creativity, openness, thought and imagination, however, there is a need for individuals that are transfixed by the moral concept of the “kingdom of God” (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 95-112). There is a need for evangelical practices to continue to be moved forward by “results-oriented perspectives” as moderately observed in Mill’s teleology, however “what works” must be replaced and expanded upon with “what is good” that works (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 113).

Chapter four introduces the reader to limits of “personal virtue ethics” as codified by Aristotle’s philosophical ethical views, for it is not enough to just “be right with God,” Christians must learn to “be right with others as well” (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 115-120). The author cautions against spiritual customs that do not demonstrate personal and communal faith and trust in the righteousness and goodness of God as evangelicals are still being reconcile through Jesus Christ (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 121-141).

“Moral conscience, community, and competency” in chapter five exemplifies the goal of “reviving evangelical ethics, since Christian moral inspection and introspection is a serious and essential responsibility of the church (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 143). Deontology, teleology and virtue ethics are important for conveying responsibilities and commitments to others, identifying consequences and outcomes, and crediting decisions based on character and behavior, respectively; however, it is virtues exercised in diverse social contexts based on Scripture, the mission of the kingdom of God united in the development of Christian virtues integrated by conscience and community that evangelicals must revive (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 145-167).

In the concluding chapter, Corbin-Reuschling (2008) affirms that deontology, teleology, and virtue ethics are essential components of moral insight and ethical reflection. However, their philosophies must be inserted into the framework of the Christian narrative so that evangelicals affirm biblical principles, the church, and character development in view of “Christian ethics as truly Christian” (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 169). Since Christian faith and commitment goes beyond classic ethical ideas to true and transforming moral living based on Scripture and offered by God through Jesus Christ (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 112-182).

Three Kinds of Ethics, Wilkens & Geisler

Many of the concepts, ideology, and beliefs present by Corbin-Reuschling (2008) in Reviving Evangelical Ethics are paralleled in the ethical systems by Wilkens and Geisler’s presentations of Christian ethics in Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethic and Christian Ethics, respectively. Wilkens review the philosophies of Plato, Kant, and Socrates in a fashion suitable to the general reader and comes to the conclusion that while faith is important, “truthfulness, goodness, and rightness” need to be characterized not only by one’s conclusions about morality, but also, by the means by which one arrives at those conclusions (Wilkens, 2011, 114-222). While Geisler tackle Christian ethics and comes to similar conclusions through a methodical academic approach. Following guidance from the “two views of ethics” by Geisler, (2010, 15-20), it is visually comprehensive to compare and contrast Corbin-Reuschling, Wilkens, and Geisler’s view in table.

Table 1

Comparison of Three Views on Ethics

Corbin-Reuschling Wilkens Geisler
Deontological Ethics Deontological Ethics Deontological Ethics
Teleological Ethics Teleological Ethics Teleological Ethics
Virtue Ethics Virtue Ethics Situational Ethics
Evolutionary Ethics
Narrative Ethics
Situation Ethics

It is evident that Corbin-Reuschling, Wilkens, and Geisler all address the same constructs of ethics in general and Christian ethics in specifics, although with marginally different perspectives. While these scholars presented the topic of ethics through the use of a few different classic theorists, illustrations, and style of writing, they each gave a clear account of plausible approaches to Christian ethics for assimilation and awareness of practices and spirituality in the life of evangelicals.

While each author is reflective in his or her approach given the intended audience, each of their accounts are equally clear with many similarities and overlaps as identified by topic in the aforementioned table. With the greatest similarities found in the relevance of biblical and theological consideration as a function in Christian ethics. The authors effectively identify the role of the Christian, the church, the community, and scripture. However, Corbin-Reuschling presents the strongest claim that the Bible is not just a book of rules and Christians must go beyond that understanding in order to implement the three kinds of ethical systems based on classical ethics and biblical principles (Corbin-Reuschling, 2008, 112-182).

Critique of Approach for Audience

Corbin-Reuschling has provided a through, thought provoking text that provides helpful biblical and theological reflection for individuals seeking an academic presentation of Christian ethics. Additionally, Reviving Evangelical Ethics is for the reader who can grasps a Christian worldview from start to finish. It is excellent reading material for individuals that appreciate an evangelical ethical approach established firmly biblical concepts and classic ethics. Furthermore, a basic knowledge of western philosophy to help anchor the content, as the reading level is demanding and intellectually thought-provoking.

As mentioned earlier it is a book that is perhaps best suited to educators, theology students, theology professor, and academic church leaders, who embrace the Christian culture or would like to learn more about evangelical’s ethical practices and religiousness. As apparent in the number of illustrations and case studies, the reader must be able to extrapolate knowledge and see the theoretical in the concrete examples. This is a well written progressive book. Corbin-Reuschling (2008) analyzes some of the limitations of classic ethics theories and construct a more viable practical and spiritual method, based on Scripture, for the academic audience.

 Conclusion

 Corbin-Reuschling’s presentation of the material in Reviving Evangelical Ethics was so painfully real and honest from the viewpoint as a Christian evangelical female. Her approach and candidness encouraged me on a personal and professional level as a Christian female majoring in theological studies. It was an amazement to hear an intellectually informative, socially inspiring, and fiercely revealing academic voice of a female Christian scholar expounding on Christian ethics with exceptional academic ability, command of the English language and respect for the role of God in ethics.  This a book that I will read again and again. There are so few scholarly female voices in this arena and weighted side-by-side with Wilkens and Geisler, her voice was outstanding and well represented the task of deconstructing traditional evangelical ethics and offering a more tangible biblically based framework for operating morally as Christians unto God in the name of Jesus Christ. 

Bibliography

Corbin-Reuschling, Wyndy. Reviving Evangelical Ethics. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008.

Geisler, Norman. Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010

Wilkens, Steve. Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethic: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong. 2nd ed. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 201