Behaving in Public: How to Do Christian Ethics

By Jones, Christopher D. | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Behaving in Public: How to Do Christian Ethics


Jones, Christopher D., Anglican Theological Review


Behaving in Public: How to Do Christian Ethics. By Nigel Biggar. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 2011. 142 pp. $16.00 (paper).

In an age of increasing divisiveness and polarization, Nigel Biggar's Behaving in Public proposes a compelling new way for Christians to engage issues of public concern. Eschewing the familiar options of "either a 'conservative' biblical and theological seriousness, which is shy of attending too closely to public policy; or 'liberal' engagement with public policy, which is theologically thin and bland" (p. xvii), Biggar develops a quintessentially Anglican ethic - which he calls "Barthian Thomism" - that can speak in public with theological integrity and practical wisdom.

Biggar's Barthian Thomism is a "constructive integration" (p. 108) that situates Karl Earth's comprehensive theological vision within Thomas Aquinas's natural law framework. Like Earth, Biggar wants Christian ethics to display theological narrative integrity, meaning the narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and reconciliation ought to govern Christian thought, speech, and action. Like Aquinas, Biggar holds that the creation of the world by the one God entails the existence of one moral reality, which all human beings experience and know in varying degrees of clarity and completeness. The integration of these two perspectives yields the view that the revelation of God in Christ - which logically follows the revelation in creation - supplements and corrects what has been misunderstood about the natural law as a consequence of pervasive human sin (p. 109). Biggar contends this widespread yet imperfect awareness of God s revelation in the natural law justifies the conclusion that the story Christians tell, and the positions they advocate, can be understood and valued by non-Christians when properly explained. Thus, theological narrative integrity does not remove the option of forging some measure of consensus with non-Christians on pressing issues of public policy. Biggar is no sectarian.

The classically Anglican feature of this ethic is its use of casuistry - which fits the British appreciation of the empirical and follows the example of Anglican moralists like Kenneth Kirk (pp. 1 10-1 1 1) - in moving from general theological and moral principles to formulate particular policy proposals and moral guidelines in concrete cases. Biggar, therefore, expounds an ethic that resists the "conservative/liberal" dichotomy. His confidence in Scripture and the Christian tradition motivates humble, charitable, and prophetic public engagement that ranges from "the theologically sublime" to "the casuistically meticulous" (p. 23).

This delightful and important book is divided into five concise chapters. Chapter 1 defines theological narrative integrity. Biggar wants Christians to "tell it as they see it," all the while remembering the integrity of their speech is what matters, not its distinctiveness, as the former is a virtue and the latter "is an accident of history" (pp. …

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