[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1978702019″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/511nIF3j2EL-1.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”209″]Mapping the Landscape
of Christian Ethics
A Review of
Augustinian and Ecclesial Christian Ethics:
On Loving Enemies
D. Stephen Long
Hardback: Lexington Books, 2018
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Reviewed by David W. Opderbeck
Steve Long has a talent for seeing a way through tensions between competing movements in contemporary theology. In his 2014 book Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Fortress Press, 2014), Long addressed the debates over natural theology and the analogia entis that still divide Protestant theology in a Barthian key from Catholic theology sympathetic to von Balthasar. As Long showed in that book, while there are real differences, contemporary theology can benefit from insights from both of these great thinkers, even as Barth and von Balthasar benefitted in their own lifetimes from their personal friendship.
Now, in Augustinian and Ecclesial Christian Ethics, Long takes up a related set of differences in Christian ethics, between “neo-Anabaptists” and “neo-Augustinians.” The “neo-Anabaptists” – or, as Long comes to refer to them, the “ecclesial” ethicists, are represented by John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, James William McClendon, and others who have taken up their work. The “neo-Augustinians” are represented by Oliver O’Donovan, John Milbank, Eric Gregory, Charles Mathewes, Jennifer Herdt, and others who are more sympathetic to the “Augustinian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr. In many ways, the ecclesial ethicists represent the Barthian side of Saving Karl Barth, while the neo-Augustinians represent the von Balthasarian side (though O’Donovan is perhaps a Barthian Augustinian).
In his introduction, Long notes a common experience for many readers who have felt chilled both by right wing fundamentalism and left wing progressivism: ecclesial ethics “gave us a way to embrace Christian orthodoxy without coupling it to a bankrupt populist, evangelical Christianity.” Further, Long, suggests, people attracted to ecclesial ethics, “saw it making common cause with what appeared to be a similar movement in the UK – radical orthodoxy.” Unfortunately, Long admits, “[w]e were, overall, wrong.”
I count myself as one of those disappointed hopefuls. I even did a PhD in the home of radical orthodoxy (the University of Nottingham) based on those hopes. I still very much appreciate radical orthodoxy’s early promise and energy, just as I remain grateful for the influence of Stanley Hauerwas and other ecclesial ethicists, but I think Long is correct that the vision of a more unified transcontinental movement has dissipated.
The bulk of Long’s text traces the lineage of both the ecclesial and neo-Augustinian approaches in particular through the criticisms each approach has brought against the other. Long’s discussion suggests that one of the key reasons we were wrong in hoping that ecclesial ethics and radical orthodoxy could draw together Anabaptist and Augustinian streams of the tradition is the need for more attention to differences in ecclesiology and eschatology. The most basic, historic differences between these approaches, of course, concern how the Church should relate to the temporal governing powers in this present age. Long offers some important and helpful suggestions for how both ecclesial ethicists and neo-Augustinians could temper their views and move just a bit closer to each other, even if they finally also hold some of their differences in creative tension.
Long summarizes these places of convergence and creative tension in three main theses in his conclusion: first, any common project must agree that neither America nor any other nation-state is a “salvific institution”; second, the church’s role in relation to the nation-state is as a “conversation partner,” not as an institution that seeks control over the levers of temporal government; and third, the conversation must entail deeper reflection on the meaning of human “freedom.” As Long asks, “[w]ho will sustain an ancient, positive view of liberty”?, that is, freedom as a freedom from evil that facilitates a positive vision of authentic human flourishing, rather than freedom primarily as negative liberty, a freedom to live however one pleases free of external restraints, so long as that freedom does not unduly impinge on another individual’s basic negative liberties, regardless of any other broader conception of the good. I think this is one of the most important points Long makes. The argument between today’s “conservatives” and “progressives” usually assumes the same radically libertarian view of “freedom” as negative liberty, which is not the predominant view of “freedom” in the Biblical literature or the Christian tradition.
There is one area in which I’d like to see more discussion on this front, which reflects my own background and interests: the role of the rule of law and its effect of mitigating the inherent violence in the exercise of police powers. Any discussion of the rule of law raises the question of “natural law,” which is not really addressed in Long’s text. This is perhaps not surprising, since both the ecclesial and neo-Augustinian ethicists Long surveys are contemporary Protestant theologians – indeed, even the moniker “theological ethics,” rather than “moral theology,” reflects a Protestant bent. This is true even of the Anglo-Catholic neo-Augustinians, notably John Milbank, who claim to be extending Roman Catholic social teaching rather than doing “Protestant” theology.
Part of the problem with any discussion of “natural law” in relation to Long’s central theses is the influence today of the “new natural law” – a school of thought led by John Finnis that emphasizes the capacity of human reason, apart from any specifically religious claims, to discern objective principles of the good. The ecclesial ethicists generally echo Barth’s “nein” to this kind of natural theology, and the neo-Augustinians, for the most part, likewise reject the claim that a meaningful account of social order can derive from human reason without at least glaringly begging the question of God — or, in Milbank’s case, without starting with the question of God. But there are also Catholic neo-Augustinians, such as Jean Porter, writing on natural law from a more classically theological perspective in ways that could help further bridge the gaps Long identifies.
For any reader of this Review who is disturbed by our current political culture, Long’s Augustinian and Ecclesial Christian Ethics is important reading. If you are not already deeply versed in the contemporary political theologians Long surveys, it may be difficult reading at points, but keep at it and take notes. Even as someone knee-deep in this world already, I have two pages of notes for further reading in the flyleaf of my copy of Long’s book. This is what thoughtful, engaged contemporary political theology looks like.
David W. Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School. In addition to his law background, David holds a PhD in Systematic and Philosophical Theology from the University of Nottingham.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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