Book Review: An Introduction to Christian Ethics

Book Review 16

Roger H. Crook.  An Introduction to Christian Ethics (5th edition).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.  xi + 308 p.

In this introductory work Robert Crook seeks to write a text that will enable students who are unfamiliar with the discipline to begin to “develop a method of dealing with the thorny moral issues that they face not only as students but also as people involved in the life of the broader community (vii).”

This commitment to practicality is evidenced by the layout of the book.  Section I is devoted to exploring the basic definitions, concepts, and approaches to the field.  In this area fundamental definitions are given and other religious approaches to ethics are explicated. 

Sections II explores Crook’s approach to ethical thinking and decision-making.  In this section we see Crook interact with the biblical material and theological issues related to ethics.  Finally, section III is a broad exploration of several contemporary issues.  Little personal conviction is stated by Crook in the final section, but rather an explication of the salient points of each issue is highlighted.  What follows are some general comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

To begin, Crook “recognizes as viable options a number of other” Christians systems, and seeks to present them without evaluation (vii).  While Crook admits in the same paragraph that as a text on Christian ethics it must make certain assumptions, throughout the book Crook aims at prescription, not description. 

In the first section Crook by and large achieves a level of detachment.  This goal of demonstrating a Niebuhrian sense of humility (or pluralism as Yoder critiqued it) becomes a bit awkward when Crook turns more intensely to the biblical and theological issues surrounding ethics.  Here Crook for the most part comes down off his perch of detachment and admittedly gives his own method for ethical decision making (cf vii-viii).

This shift in method is made difficult by the overall absence of the abstract theories enumerated in section I of the book.  On page 54 Crook admits that at the conclusion of the methodological survey that he emphasizes the responsiblity of the individual to God in Christ, whose character is formed within the Christian community.  From this short endorsement one can discern both Crook’s preference for Niebuhrian/Gustafsonian “responsibility ethics” and virtue ethics, at least in as much as it focuses on communal aspects of virtue formation (36-41, 43-45).  However no indepth attempt at justifying these preferences are given, and instead Crook merely turns to an examination of the use of biblical, theological, and experiential (mind, conscience, & and the prompting of the Spirit) resources in his own framework.

While i appreciate Crook’s concern to not brainwash beginners, the unwillingness to demonstrate the inner logic he  sees between ethical theory and his biblical and theological beliefs could just as easily leave the beginner wondering what exactly the point of the first section was.  Crook may have given students plenty of fish, but hasn’t shown them how to fish for these interconnections themselves.

At this point it seems reasonable to see if there is a reason for this noticable gap other than simple pedagogical preference.  Although this may sound harsh, this unwillingness to connect his theoretical preferences with his biblical and theological convictions is that their connection proves to be rather thin at times. 

For example, Crook argues that

for Paul, as for Jesus, the starting point in thinking about human life was the sovereignty of God (87).

When one reads further the nature of this sovereign being is relativized due to our limited human vantage point.  Here, where the mention of the revelatory incarnation would be so helpful, we instead find a more generic description of God as person, creator, sovereign, and judge (94-95). 

This is not to say that Crook’s rendering of biblical and theological ethics carries nothing of substance, but only that his approach ends up rendering his general guidelines for decision making vague, making the practical value of all his analysis impoverished. 

At this point, in only reading one book by Crook, it is hard to tell if this is simple intellectual humility or evidence of a high class intellectual elitism, similar to what Yoder criticized Niebuhr for in his classic Christ & CultureYoder criticized Niebuhr for cloaking an arrogance which believed that the ivy-league elite alone could understand the complexity of culture and the lack of a “right answer” within the apparent humility of admitting such difficulties.  Thus, only the Yale-taught relativist could understand that there was no right answer, and all who opposed this humble relativism would be met with scathing hostility.  Given Crook’s close proximity to Niebuhrian thought & Richard’s disciple Gustafson, Crook’s analysis may hide the same intent.  Only further reading can resolve this issue.*

Regardless of the reason for these deficiencies, it should come as little surprise that these ambiguities lead to a 3rd section characterized largely by description, with little conviction given and even less defended by the author. 

In sum, Crook’s descriptions are fair, generous, and accessible to beginners from beginning to end.  This is the strength of the book.  However, if one believes that Christian teaching, if it is to be Christian, must move beyond mere description and into the prescriptive realm, then Crook’s book will have little value outside of providing vital foundation pieces, as lucid and helpful as they are.  Thus, this book highlights a deeper problem within the field of Christian ethics an education; the relationship between the church and modern  educational models.**

*Much of the critique of section II of Crook’s book is born out of Yoder’s critique of H.R. Niebuhr in the book “Authentic Transformation.”

**This was first made apparent to me, from all places, in the blogosphere!  Click here for the simple post that illuminated this point.

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