A Review of
Christian Ethics: A New Covenant Model
Hak Joon Lee
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2021
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Reviewed by Justin Cober- Lake
People in every Age have likely felt the same way; it feels harder than ever to make wise, ethical decisions right now. The public conversation doesn’t help. Vitriolic political posturing drags ethics into partisan camps. Within the church, debates on difficult issues tend to rely on arguments from legalism or fundamentalism on one side or a scriptural looseness on the other. Paths through the argumentative clutter can hide during the best of times; in the 2020s, we practically need a philosophical bushwhacking.
Scholar Hak Joon Lee steps into the mess with his landmark Christian Ethics: A New Covenant Model. Lee’s work develops the idea of new covenant ethics with a philosophical and theological framework that serves as a guide for actual, practical implementation. Throughout the first half of the work, he develops the structure of his concept, creating an idea that is expansive enough to provide proper coverage, yet precise enough to be applicable in nearly any ethical dilemma. In the second half of the book, he applies new covenant ethics to ten of the most pressing public issues we face today (he focuses more on communal concerns rather than interpersonal challenges, but the ideas would work in any setting).
Lee diligently defines and organizes all components of his thought. He doesn’t simply argue his way forward, but he builds a structure for us to use as we progress. Ethics, he writes, is “a normative endeavor to organize human life toward goodness, happiness, and thriving, while avoiding or mitigating confusion and chaos” (3). Covenant (and he traces the narrative of Biblical covenant nicely), he argues, “is the modus operandi that God takes in interacting with humanity and the world, and God fulfills God’s purpose for humanity and creation through covenant” (7). He comes to focus more on the Noachian than the Sinai covenant (a change from much contemporary thinking on Christian ethics) in moving toward the covenant of Jesus. He can then develop his explicit central thesis: “this book constructs a coherent and plausible form of Christian ethics (its method, practices, and social ethics) centered on the new covenant of Jesus: new covenant ethics” (9).
After tracing the Bible’s various covenants and finding their “consummation” in the covenant of Jesus, Lee begins the difficult and rewarding task of building his structure (45). Initially, he looks at the triadic components of covenant. (As an aside, while Lee frequently utilizes terms like “triadic components,” he’s far more readable than that point might suggest, and writes with the necessary clarity to make engaging the book more of a treat than a scholastic trudge.) These three pieces are justice, love, and power, and Lee will refer to their interactive nature throughout Christian Ethics.
Under a narrative focused on liberation and restoration, Lee examines three dialectics essential to the Biblical drama: unilateral-bilateral, communal-communicative, and memory-hope, which also rely on and overlap with each other. The terms might sound intimidating or esoteric, but as Lee fleshes them out, they help explain what covenant is and how it fits into God’s plan for his creation. The dialectics explain how we relate to God and how we look forward by understanding the past, all with an eschatological hope.
From that foundation, Lee develops four practices essential to new covenant ethics: just peacemaking, communicative engagement, grassroots community organizing, and nonviolent action. These practices, which naturally overlap, allow a consideration of ethics to turn into practical activity. Lee’s work relies less on thought experiments and more on working toward shalom. His ability to merge theology into action results work that’s not simply compelling as an argument, but practical and effective in implementation.
In the midst of this writing, Lee doesn’t just create a system and then employ it. He also consistently engages with other thinkers and paradigms, revealing the strengths of his vision. He considers various forms of Christian ethics, building on what’s come before him. He articulates particular norms and values, looks at sources of moral authority, and examines types and levels of ethical reasoning. By the time he finishes section one of the book, Lee’s structure has a solidity and elegance that makes it as sturdy as it is spiritually appealing.
The second half of the book, then, gets down to understanding how we can deploy this framework throughout our lives. Lee thoroughly grounds these discussions in our current moment, letting nothing become too abstracted. Significantly, he often situates his ethical topics in relation to the rise of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, an often hidden or implicit ideology prominent in the modern West, prioritizes the free market, the rise of individualism, and general deregulation and privatization. Lee finds this approach to culture to be totalizing and more grounded in contract than in covenant. His own view of working through community and communication sits at odds with much of the modern world, but offers a path to renewal and shalom.
As Lee demonstrates his hopeful methodology on topics ranging from distributive justice to creation care to sex and more, he doesn’t typically point to concrete answers or specific policies so much as he gives us the tools to work towards a more ethical way to be. Writing on criminal justice, for example, he writes, “Retribution is the exercise of justice against crimes, while restoration is performance of love to offenders” (365). He reaches this conclusion by considering his love/justice/power triad and the utility of legal justice within a covenantal society. You might not find a law to pass in the chapter, but you will find both a strong Christian ethical direction as well as the tools with which to articulate precise actions. Lee’s approach avoids the dogmatic hindrances of legalism without succumbing to the potential capriciousness of a highly particularist venture (and, yes, considering Lee in conversation with Bonhoeffer would prove to be rewarding).
Even sympathetic readers will likely, maybe hopefully, find places to quibble with Lee. His take on pacifism comes from a very limited definition of the ideology, and he explicitly acknowledges that he addresses only one sort of pacifism. Sticking to that definition, however, leads him to broad generalizations about particular branches that put his new covenant ethics further removed from the sort of nonviolent resistance that Lee seems likely to support. Readers might find places that warrant further development– like a quick reference to vegetarianism– that make sense, but seem out-of-the-blue. These potential debates, though, can all happen quite fruitfully within Lee’s larger new covenant ethics– a structure secure enough to not only hold, but to invite, discussion.
In a sense, Lee proposes a middle road between some of our errors, but his work offers more complexity. It grows its roots deep not in resistance to current discourse, but in an embracing of scripture. Lee marks out a coherent vision that runs throughout scripture and that makes sense of God’s plan from creation to eschaton. This ethic is orderly, surprisingly accessible, and particularly useful. It’s a remarkable project to offer a work of ethics that takes such care within such an encompassing view, and it’s as encouraging as it is sophisticated, all while keeping God at its center.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.