The Mod | “The Making of Christian Morality: Reading Paul in Ancient and Modern Contexts” by David G. Horrell

Tuesday, 16 Jul 2019

This work is a collection of essays written over the past two decades by the prominent British New Testament scholar, David Horrell. In the not-so-distant past, mainstream scholars typically tried to study the New Testament merely in an objective, historical way. More recently, many of these scholars have shown renewed interest in how biblical texts may inform contemporary theological and ethical issues. Horrell writes as part of this latter movement. The book’s essays cover a wide range of topics related to the Pauline epistles. In Horrell’s own words, the three Parts of the book move “from the concrete social circumstances in which the earliest [Christian] communities gathered, through studies of Paul’s ethics, to the contemporary appropriation of the Pauline writings…” (xiii).

It is worth mentioning up front that although each chapter on its own is coherent, the essays do not come together very well to constitute a unified and coherent book. Near the beginning of the volume, Horrell admits that there are “a few points of overlap” (xiii) among the essays. This is an understatement—many discussions and comments that appear one place in the book are repeated elsewhere. Horrell decided not to eliminate the repetitiveness because he wished to uphold the integrity of the individual essays. The essays also contain a number of sections that repeat material from other books Horrell has written. Having read his work Solidarity and Difference (2d ed., 2015) shortly before reading the present volume, I noticed many strikingly similar discussions between the two. It is obviously within the author’s (and publisher’s) discretion to construct a book with this internally and externally repetitive material, but potential readers should be aware of this.

Part I (chapters 1-4) deals with the “sociohistorical context” of the early Christian churches and their surrounding communities. These essays engage scholarly debates that aren’t on the radar of most Christians reading the New Testament, such as what sort of home the worship services described in 1 Corinthians met in, or how wealthy Philemon was (or wasn’t). The essays in Part I will probably be of least interest to readers of Modern Reformation, although they may find thought-provoking material in Chapter 4, where Horrell discusses Paul’s use of family language (such as “brothers”) to describe fellow Christians.

Part II (chapters 5-7) turns to particular issues of ethics that emerge in Paul’s letters. Chapter 5 focuses on 1 Corinthians 5. Horrell considers how Paul here emphasizes the distinctive identity of the church, yet without promoting a sexual ethic that was different from that of the surrounding culture. Chapter 6 turns especially to 1 Corinthians 8-10, where Paul gives instructions regarding food sacrificed to idols and how this should shape relationships among Christians.  Chapter 7 considers Philippians 2:6-11 and its theme of humility according to the imitation of Christ. These chapters in Part II deal thoughtfully with important themes in Paul’s epistles and may prove to be the most helpful part of the book for Modern Reformation readers.

In Part III (chapters 8-10), Horrell concludes by reflecting on the relevance of Paul for two big contemporary ethical issues, the liberalism-versus-communitarianism debate and ecological responsibility. (The former may not be self-explanatory. “Liberalism” here refers to the quest for a morality in the public square that is rational, accessible to all people, and universally valid. “Communitarianism” here refers to the conviction that people’s morality is intimately shaped by the communities and traditions in which they live, and hence communitarians are skeptical about the quest to find a universal, rational morality that everybody in every context should be able to affirm.) Horrell acknowledges that Paul did not address either issue, but believes that his thought provides material that may be helpful for thinking through them. Since these are indeed controversial issues today, it is worth assessing briefly Horrell’s method of utilizing Paul for contemporary ethics.

Horrell doesn’t approach Pauline texts with a high view of biblical inspiration or authority. He believes that Paul himself wrote only about half of the New Testament letters attributed to him; he regards Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus as pseudo-Pauline. He also is open to correcting Paul’s ethics when need be. For example, the development of a suitable “ecojustice ethic” requires “substantial and constructive development beyond, even against, Paul” (227). And since he believes Paul derived much of his morality (e.g., his sexual ethics) from his surrounding culture, Christian ethics today shouldn’t necessarily repeat Paul’s ideas, since that may just be a reproduction of an ancient morality (178).

With this sort of view of Scripture, Horrell naturally feels a greater freedom in how he uses biblical texts than do those with a higher view of Scriptural authority. When discussing liberalism vs. communitarianism, for example, he states that he presumes simply that the Bible is a “primary source for the Christian tradition,” and that theologians “engage” Scripture so they might “further develop that tradition in response to contemporary dilemmas and issues” (166). He explains his method more fully when treating ecological issues. He promotes an approach that is “exegetically serious,” yet which recognizes that its engagement with biblical texts is “a constructive and creative act, shaped by the perceived priorities of the contemporary context” (215). What this means is that just as Martin Luther “found in Paul a message of justification by faith” that became the heart of the Lutheran tradition, so also today ecological crises might “inspire new kinds of engagement with the Bible” (216).

Horrell is right to recognize that nobody reads Scripture in a vacuum. We are all deeply affected by the social and intellectual contexts in which we live, and we all come to Scripture with various questions and biases, many of which we are often not even aware. It is also legitimate to seek insight from Scripture on contemporary issues that the biblical writers themselves didn’t contemplate. What Scripture says explicitly often has profound implications for things it doesn’t address. But some fundamental questions remain. Should our perceived contemporary needs direct us to downplay what Scripture emphasizes, or should Scripture itself set the agenda for what is most important? And should recognition of how much we’re shaped by our contexts lead us to deny that there is any truly objective, divinely-established moral vision that Scripture obligates Christians to follow, or should this recognition instead prompt us to be all the more careful about submitting all of our thoughts and desires to Scripture? Horrell’s method points us to the first option in each case, while a high view of Scripture, I believe, points us to the second options. When it comes to doing careful reading of Pauline texts, Horrell’s work offers many useful insights. But when he moves to constructive Christian ethics for today, Horrell’s approach to Scripture makes him a less than reliable guide.

 

 

David VanDrunen is the Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California.  He is the author or editor of eleven books, most recently Aquinas Among the Protestants and God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life.  He lives with his wife and son in Escondido, CA.

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