THE HOW AND WHY OF LOVE: AN INTRODUCTION TO EVANGELICAL ETHICS
The How And Why Of Love
An introduction to evangelical ethics
By Michael Hill
Matthias Media. 278 pages. £10.00
ISBN 1 876326 45 X
Over the years conservative evangelical ethicists have produced a number of thoughtful, nuanced and rigorous attempts to describe a coherent and biblical approach to ethics. Those still worth every penny they cost and a good deal of close attention would include John Murray’s Principles of Conduct (1957), David Cook’s The Moral Maze (1983), Greg Bahnsen’s By This Standard (1985), Oliver O’ Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order (1994), David Clyde Jones’ Biblical Christian Ethics (1994) and John Stott’s New Issues Facing Christians Today (1999). A worthy recent addition to the list is Dennis Hollinger’s Choosing the Good, (2002). Other helpful contributions have come from Norman Geisler, Norman Shields, and Stanley Grenz. And, of course, all men and women of sound mind eagerly await the forthcoming publication of John Frame’s Doctrine of the Christian Life.
The simple question, then, for its potential reader or purchaser is, should Michael Hill’s book, The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics, be added to this list ? Or, further, if a person were to read just one introductory evangelical ethics book, should this be it ?
The book is in four parts. The first part, ‘Understanding Ethics’, introduces the discipline of ethics and surveys ‘Various Accounts of Morality’. Part Two, ‘The Bible and Ethics’, is the heart of the book, endeavouring to construct an ethical approach which takes full account of biblical theology and the development of God’s purpose for the world. The final chapter in this section, ‘Sketching a Biblically based Theory of Christian Ethics’ tells us that Christian ethics is theological, kingdom-based, teleological, Christological, Trinitarian, interrelational, covenantal, inclusive and complex. In a summary statement, Hill tells us that a Christian ethic, sensitive to biblical theology and kingdom-based, enables us to determine that ‘An action or trait of character is right if and only if it promotes (creates or maintains) mutual love relationships between (a) God and humans, and, (b) humans and humans.’ He qualifies the application of this by his concept of a ‘retrieval ethic’.
‘Armed with a theory’ (Hill’s words) the book proceeds to Part Three, ‘Moral Issues’ and gives consideration to sex and marriage, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia. The book closes with ‘Practical Application’ in Part Four, consisting of a single chapter, ‘How to Live a Moral Life’.
How, then, does Hill’s book add real value ? Regrettably, this reviewer struggles to find a positive answer. The book is neither a summary of previous work, nor a survey of the terrain, nor a reliable guide to the issues and nor does it make an important new contribution to the study of ethics. Part One is unexceptional. In Part Two a number of the crucial questions, insights and distinctions of Reformed ethical thinking are marginalized or neglected and, in one or two places, actually misrepresented. The strengths of alternative ethical approaches are passed over. In Part Three, Hill’s ‘theory’ produces little new insight and, in places, succeeds only in confusing the issues. And Part Four, is motherhood and apple pie – loved by all but altogether familiar.
The key emphases of the work, regarded as a proposal for evangelical ethics, are those upon, first, biblical theology and, second, ‘mutual love relationships’. Few, if any, evangelicals would deny the importance of either of these. What is surprising is that the author seems to think that this amounts to a new contribution, stating in his preface: ‘The idea occurred to me that if the Bible was the Word of God and should be understood as a unit, then an ethic based on just part of the Scripture would be inadequate … I was determined to discern the ethical approach or approaches taken in the Scriptures and on the basis of this knowledge develop a theory of Christian ethics consistent with the Bible.’
It is not that there is not a good deal of important and faithful material in this book but rather that those familiar with works such as those mentioned above will gain little new benefit from Michael Hill’s book; those seeking a single book introduction to evangelical ethics can do better; and those who do read this as their first or only such introduction will receive a treatment which, while broadly evangelical, is frankly somewhat quirky. The fact is, sadly, that what is new in this book is not good. And what is good in this book may be found, better framed, elsewhere.