The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism
A review of Daryl Charles', "The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church's Moral Vision," by Dr. C. Fred Smith.
Charles, J. Daryl The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church’s Moral Vision. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2002 Paperback, 262 pages.
Books lamenting the lack of intellectual rigor among evangelicals, and books calling the Church to adopt a biblical worldview approach to cultural engagement have become common in recent years. Daryl Charles’ recent The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church’s Moral Vision reprises these important topics, but emphasizing the matter of ethics, he adds a fresh pointedness to the urgency of these matters. He contends that because evangelical ethics lacks any theological foundation, evangelicalism stands in danger of losing both its identity and any hope of influencing public life.
Charles argues also that evangelicals must unite faith and reason. The division between them so common in today’s churches is actually encouraged from the pulpits and leaves believers poorly equipped to engage in cultural battles. Evangelicals must have a coherent worldview if they are to make an impact. However, they engage more in protest than in persuasion, he believes, and fail to offer pro-active and rigorous moral arguments that will be persuasive in the public arena. There must also be, he believes, an intentional effort at ethical formation in the churches because the secular educational system abandoned teaching ethics in favor of “values clarification” long ago. Charles believes the churches must teach and emphasize the concept of virtue rather than values, and prepare members to live out and contend for a virtuous life.
Charles offers three models for doing ethics that are drawn from the Scriptures. The first, the Pauline model, is the natural law approach. Charles challenges the usual assumption regarding natural law, that it is antithetical to Christian ethics because it is a form of ethics without God. Instead, he believes that natural law arises out of the way God has created the world. General revelation applied to ethics is, he believes, the substance of natural law. What is surprising here is the way in which he approaches this topic. He points to the Mars Hill speech by Paul. Paul uses the situation of the Athenians, worshipping an unknown god, and he quotes from one of their own poets. While this may be illustrative of cultural engagement in preaching generally, one is hard pressed to see how it relates to natural law ethics. One wishes that Charles had looked to Romans 1 as a paradigm for understanding how natural law and general revelation function.
Charles is on better ground with his other two biblical models, the Petrine model and the Disciples’ model. The Petrine model focuses on 2 Peter as a book that encourages virtue and especially the famous virtue list in chapter one. Charles shows why a virtue ethic is important for believers.
The Disciples’ model examines the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matt 5:16-21. Here Charles finds warrant for law based ethics. He charges modern evangelicals with neglecting the law expressed in the Torah and encourages them to take obedience to it seriously as a response of love to God who has given them grace in Jesus Christ.
Charles points out that Jesus did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, and that not one jot or tittle of the Law will pass away. Therefore, there is continuity between the Old Testament and the New on matters of morality, and Christians should take seriously the demands of moral law. In some sense this is no more than the old truth that the moral law of the Old Testament has not been abolished, even though the ceremonial and civil law is not for believers today. What makes this chapter worthwhile is the serious reflection on the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount for today’s Christian.
Charles then offers a chapter exploring some of the polarities involved in any serious biblical reflection on ethics. Pointing out that an infinite God will necessarily be beyond human comprehension resulting in certain polarities in the revelation of His will. Charles offers a reflection on horizontal and vertical polarities. The vertical polarities have to do with the distance between God in all His fullness and the limited understanding of His disciples. The horizontal polarities relate to tensions between applying principles in the real world, such as the tension between justice and mercy. The value of this chapter is in its call to us to be aware of these tensions and to reflect deeply on their meaning. Charles calls upon Christian colleges and seminaries to include a serious course on ethics as a requirement in their degree plans and recommends resources for them.
Finally, there is an epilogue dealing with an issue that surfaces several times in the book-the matter of euthanasia. Charles is convinced that a proper understanding of who we are as human beings is essential to ethics, and that such things as euthanasia and the “right to die” arise from a false understanding of the nature of humanity. This chapter makes good use of certain German resources unfamiliar to many evangelicals, even those who deal with this issue.
Charles’ book has certain deficiencies. For one thing, one is hard pressed to discover any way to integrate the differing models for ethics offered in the second half of the book. Are these to be followed simultaneously, successively, as a matter of whatever “works” in a given situation? Are they different expressions of one single biblical ethics? The unity of the Godhead and of His revelation would seem to demand that there be some way to tie these together. Also one wishes he had spent more time discussing just how theology informs ethics, how these are to be brought together. The reader is left with a conviction that something needs to be done, but not much help in doing it. Finally there is the matter of audience. At times Charles is apparently addressing Evangelicals generally. At others he seems to be addressing the larger world and its need for ethical reform. The chapter on teaching ethics is apparently addressed to Christian college administrators and has little relevance to other audiences he is seeking to reach. One may assume that his audience is the serious Evangelical academic who can sort out the different audiences being addressed, but it would have been better if Charles had kept the matter of audience in mind a little more clearly.
These criticisms notwithstanding, Charles has given us a book most worthy of attention. His call to take seriously such matters as virtue ethics and natural law need to be heard, as well as his discussion of matters related to worldview and ethics. Charles gives us a beginning point for serious discussion and much more reading. While it is only a beginning, it is a beginning, and a worthy one for reflection.
C. Fred Smith, Ph.D.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas