New Testament Foundations for Christian Ethics, by Willi Marxsen. Translated by O. C. Dean, J Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993. 319 pp. $17.00 (paper). ISBN 0-8006-2749-0.
Biblical Interpretation and Christian Ethics, by J.I.H. McDonald. New Studies in Christian Ethics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993 305 pp. $54.95. ISBN 0-521-43059-3.
MCDONALD; reader in Christian ethics and New Testament studies at the University of Edinburgh, has provided an overview of the interpretation and use of biblical ethics from liberalism through neoorthodoxy to some of the contemporary options in relating the biblical text and Christian ethics.
Part One focuses on liberalism. McDonald briefly sketches the Enlightenment as background to liberalism, its antipathy to authority, its concern for universal principles, and its historical understanding; then he turns to liberalism itself and to its engagement with the biblical text utilizing the tools of historical criticism and attempting to discern "eternal values."
Part Two begins with an account of factors that undermined the liberal consensus: the discovery of apocalyptic eschatology at the center of Jesus' proclamation, the philosophical challenges to the idealist tradition, and the development of form criticism. McDonald focuses on the reactions to these factors as they bear on the interpretation and use of the biblical texts for ethics, reactions that range from historical skepticism and "interim ethics" to Christian existentialism and a focus on the covenant community. He raises the question in this context whether a Christian ethic oriented toward scripture is necessarily alienated from the "real" social world of secularism and pluralism, and he surveys some of the efforts in mid-century to do social ethics in the light of the biblical texts.
Part Three turns to "post-modern" interpretation. Using the categories of Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, McDonald focuses in separate chapters on "the ethics of historical reading" and "the ethics of accountability" for the moral consequences of particular readings of scripture. In the chapter on "ethics and historical interpretation" he asks not what the text means but what kind of reading does justice to the text in its historical context. Here he attends especially to sociological studies of Israel, Jesus, and the early churches. In the chapter on "ethics and contemporary reading" he attends especially to feminist and liberation hermeneutics. McDonald advocates a position he calls "socio-hermeneutics," which involves both "distantiation" ("the differentiation of worlds so that each of them is treated with integrity") and "the participation of the interpreter in the dynamics of the text." This final chapter also contains a series of very brief illustrations of the sort of movement in interpretation "from present praxis through interpretation to renewed praxis" that his socio-hermeneutics authorizes (treating politics, the family, homosexuality, economics, ecology, and racism).
McDonald's overview is useful because interpretation stands in a tradition, whether acknowledged or not. If we would understand the current difficulties and possibilities in reading the biblical text as somehow related to the tasks of Christian moral reflection, then we must understand the interpretive tradition(s) in which we stand. …