Posted On February 7, 2019

Christian Ethics by Wayne Grudem — Book Review

by | Feb 7, 2019 | Theology

book cover of Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning by Wayne GrudemTrigger warning! Not only did Crossway provide me with free digital copies of this book in exchange for an honest review, but it also has Wayne Grudem’s name on it. That’s right — from the guy who is infamously labeled as the greatest academic advocate of the charismatic movement and all of its abuses now comes a book about ethics! Bring on the tongues and glitter clouds!

Seriously though, this is an excellent book, and Grudem is probably against fake glitter clouds. Whether you find Christian Ethics to be good in a few particulars will depend upon your pneumatology and your hermeneutics. I’ll also admit that I have not read the entire book, as it’s quite long, but I believe I’ve read enough to write a sound review of its method and the content which I’ve had the pleasure to examine.

Grudem defines Christian ethics in this way:

Christian ethics is any study that answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach us about which acts, attitudes, and personal character traits receive God’s approval, and which do not?”

Thus, Grudem goes on in the course of 42 chapters to address a myriad of ethical topics indexed largely by the Ten Commandments.

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Protecting God’s Honor
    • Commandment 1: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
    • Commandment 2: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image.”
    • Commandment 3: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”
    • Commandment 9: “You shall not bear false witness.”
    • Commandment 4: “Remember the Sabbath day.”
  • Part 3: Protecting Human Authority
    • Commandment 5: “Honor your father and your mother.”
  • Part 4: Protecting Human Life
    • Commandment 6: “You shall not murder.”
  • Part 5: Protecting Marriage
    • Commandment 7: “You shall not commit adultery.”
  • Part 6: Protecting Property
    • Commandment 8: “You shall not steal.”
  • Part 7: Protecting Purity of Heart
    • Commandment 10: “You shall not covet.”

A Solid Foundation

The above index really doesn’t do the entire table of contents justice, as there are so many chapters within each part. Just to give a glimpse, part 1 contains the following eight chapters:

  • 1 — Introduction to Christian Ethics
  • 2 — The Ultimate Basis for Ethics: The Moral Character of God
  • 3 — Our Source of Ethical Standards: The Bible
  • 4 — The Goal of Ethics: Living for the Glory of God
  • 5 — The Joys and Blessings of Obedience to God and the Harmful Consequences of Sin
  • 6 — How to Know God’s Will: Factors to Consider in Making Ethical Decisions
  • 7 — Christians Will Never Have to Choose the “Lesser Sin”
  • 8 — How Should Christians Use the Old Testament for Ethical Guidance?

Chapters one through four indeed lay a solid foundation upon which the rest of the book goes on to more specific topics. And yes, that last one is where Things Above Us authors and readers may begin to differ, but the point within is at least well-argued and worth considering. To be brutally honest, I find myself woefully undereducated on this very topic, so I at least found it to be helpful in my own processing.

A Sampling of Controversies

A few other chapters are worth highlighting for their contribution to discussions on which typical Things Above Us readers may usually disagree or take particular interest.

“No Carved Images”

Chapter 10 concerns the biblical prohibition against carved images and addresses images of the Father, images of false gods, images of Jesus, and visual arts in general. Unfortunately, his argument that “this commandment does not prohibit pictures of Christ” is quite short and doesn’t appear to address the most classical arguments against this position, even though I find myself presently aligned with his position. Addressing this particular issue in only three paragraphs of text is bound to leave some questions and arguments unanswered, but given the prominence of the question in Christian history and modern-day theological dialogue, I believe the question deserves more discussion.

The Sabbath Commandment

In a chapter dedicated to the Sabbath commandment, Grudem does a good job articulating the classical Reformed position and charitably articulates his own view of the Sabbath commandment not being morally binding on people today. His arguments include the termination of the Mosaic Covenant, the lack of the Sabbath commandment’s reaffirmation in the New Testament, and how the Sabbath commandment summarizes “many other commandments about special holidays and other ceremonies.” Grudem then goes on to modern applications such as on what day of the week Christians should generally meet to worship and having regular days of rest from work.

Poverty and Wealth

Since “social justice” appears to be the topic de l’année, it’s appropriate that Grudem has already included a chapter that addresses topics of monetary inequality, helping the poor, government-based assistance, and even a short discourse on why he refuses to use the term “social justice.” This appears to be one of the longest chapters in the book, if not the longest, and is quite comprehensive.

So How About That Charismaticism?

Although Grudem has many good things to say about the sufficiency of Scripture, here’s where we see him toe the line in regards to modern-day charismai.

The sufficiency of Scripture shows us that no modern revelations from God are to be placed on a level equal to Scripture in authority. Throughout the history of the church, and especially in the modern charismatic movement, people have claimed that God has given revelations through them for the church. However we may evaluate such claims, [33] we must never regard such revelations as equal to scripture. [34] Rather, we must insist that God does not require us to obey any moral directives that come to us through such means but are not confirmed by Scripture. [35]

(Emphasis original; footnote numbers reformatted.)

In each of these footnotes, Grudem inserts notes concerning his view on continuing revelation from God and refers to some of his other writings, most notably his Systematic Theology. He specifically denies cessationism in footnote 35:

I do not wish to imply at this point that I am adopting a “cessationist” view of spiritual gifts (that is, a view that certain gifts, such as prophecy and speaking in tongues, ceased when the apostles died). I only wish at this point to state that there is a danger in explicitly or even implicitly giving these gifts a status that effectively challenges the authority or the sufficiency of Scripture in Christians’ lives.

There really is so much to like in Christian Ethics that I find it kind of sad that this part has to be addressed, but indeed, it’s too important to omit. This may not be terribly important for already-cessationist pastors and theologians who are seeking resources that will help them in their work, as this isn’t Grudem’s actual argument for his position. However, a pastor or teacher who rightly feels responsible for his flock should be duly warned before issuing Christian Ethics as a class textbook to a group of students that may not be prepared to come across an argument like this and already have a solid foundation upon which to critique it. Still yet, one may reasonably be less cautious about using Christian Ethics in a church teaching setting than using Grudem’s Systematic Theology, as the latter argues at much more considerable length for continuationist pneumatology.

 

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