Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Captive to Christ, Open to the World

I was given Brian Brock's Captive to Christ, Open to the World a few weeks ago and just got around to reading the first chapter/conversation. It is really a quite brilliant piece of theological reflection on the interaction between Scripture and Christian living. Out of the many insights on offer one in particular stood out the most.

Brock is critical of virtue ethics or an ethic of character. He thinks that this way of seeing the moral life easily leads to an obsession with the self and the self's moral progress. Indeed, Brock thinks that this is an unscriptural way of seeing the moral life. He says: "...I don't think Scripture allows us to frame Christian ethics as a matter of moral improvement" (10). According to Brock, "moral improvement is the result, not the aim of Christian ethics" (10). Brock goes on to cite Samson and David as examples of the kind of moral life that Scripture is interested in. This is a life which is at times obedient and disobedient to the divine claim, but a life which is never abandoned by God in virtue of his faithfulness. In the end, then, the aim of Christian ethics is not self-improvement, but a response of faith to the faithfulness of God.

I like this way of understanding things, though I think a focus on the New Testament would almost certainly bring character and virtue back into play. It is quite obvious that the stories of David and Samson were not told in order to convey the moral progress they made. Samson ended up getting his hair cut during one of his frequent visits to a prostitute, while David's last act was to give his son and successor Solomon a list of people who needed to get got. But as we move to the New Testament we are met by characters who, well, develop character. Peter is one such example, Paul another. Of course neither are immune to sin even as they progress, yet Paul is so confident in his character that he can say to the Corinthians "imitate me as I imitate Christ." Imitation as a form of moral training is very much at home in character/virtue ethics. Of course we cannot imagine David or Samson encouraging us to imitate them, and so Brock's model is appropriate within the context of their narratives. But my initial reaction to his insight is that it cannot be applied across the board.

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