Book review: A Primer in Christian Ethics

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Luke Bretherton, A Primer in Christian Ethics: Christ and the Struggle to Live Well, (Cambridge: CUP, 2023)

reviewed by James Butler, CMS

Luke Bretherton is on top form in this book. While the idea of a primer might lead you to expect a shorter volume, don’t let the fact it runs to over 350 pages put you off. It does get a bit technical in places, but the vision it paints for ethics and human flourishing is bold and persuasive. I found myself very much drawn to the account, and agreeing with so much of what is written. Rather than beginning with exploring different approaches, Bretherton carefully articulates a particular approach to Christian ethics and living well, albeit one that draws on a wealth of different accounts, sources and approaches.

I was particularly taken with the close listening encouraged in Part I, which offered an integrated account of listening to creaturely life, Scripture, strangers, cries for liberation and ancestors. The chapter on Scripture is particularly helpful, reflecting on how to take the Bible seriously as the word of God and as an authority for faith, without having to subscribe to a doctrine of inerrancy or literalist readings of the Bible. In fact Bretherton suggests that to do this is actually a less faithful engagement with Scripture. Listening to this variety of voices enables the world to be described well and provides a good starting point to discerning and judging well. This is where Part II comes in, looking at acting well and exploring moral agency. This is a more technical section, and some will feel it is rather dense in its writing, but its brilliance is in the way it is able to draw from a multitude of sources without getting bogged down or side-tracked. Many will want more on each of the topics dealt with in Part II, but with each chapter ending with suggested readings there are plenty of opportunities to explore these themes further. Many of them are also explored in more depth in Bretherton’s other works, particularly Christ and the Common Life

Part III, entitled “living well with others”, seeks to draw out some of the fruit of the process so far, to explore the common life. Bretherton is clear that ethics is not just about individual action, but about living life together, and for this reason in the last three chapters he looks at social, economic and political life. Again, there is much here which is rich, informative and based in a wealth of wisdom and experience. However, I couldn’t help feel that it remained a somewhat big picture. Perhaps this is the nature of ethics needing to take place in a context, and be worked out in a particular place with particular people, but at times I felt that the church he talked about felt a bit distant from gritty everyday life. I think there might have been ways to draw more clearly on the kinds of voices Bretherton drew attention to in Part I to land it more clearly in everyday life. The chapters seemed to move towards the church being a contrast community and I wondered whether a clearer sense of church as people scattered through the world and engaging in the messiness of life, work, relationships and politics could feature more centrally in the account. That said, overall I found it compelling, speaking both to the ways in which I think about the Christian life and the way I live as a Christian.

I also think it is a rich text for thinking about mission and pioneering. While Bretherton’s lens is Christian ethics, his vision for living well through attentive listening, moral formation and exploring a common life is a rich source of inspiration for missiology and for pioneering. I think the invitation, and indeed challenge, to make the connection to living well and the common life is one that is underexplored in missiology. As Christians our approaches to economics and politics can often be too simplistic and end up maintaining the status quo rather than engaging in complex ways to challenge and change. For this reason, I think pioneers and mission workers will benefit greatly from following Bretherton’s thinking and challenge, particularly given the clear starting point of attentive listening. 

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