Book Review: ‘The Word Became Flesh: A Rapprochement of Christian Natural Law and Radical Christological Ethics’, by David Griffin

The Word Became Flesh: A Rapprochement of Christian Natural Law and Radical Christological Ethics‘, by David Griffin, Wipf and Stock, 290 pp.  $35.00

In this volume, David Griffin attempts to bring traditional natural law ethics and radical christological ethics together to form a super-ethic: one that has the universal normative force of classical natural law while also retaining the focus on Jesus Christ that more radical ethics has sought to bring to the fore. There is a large range of conversation partners here: Cicero, Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Torrance, Bonhoeffer, Chalcedon and confessional Anabaptism all make appearances here in Griffin’s attempt to synthesize the best of all these voices together. The book is divided into three sections: part one deals with classical natural law ethics, part two with radical ethics (drawing principally from confessional Anabaptism), and part three attempts to reconfigure both of these under Chalcedon.

The first section is an investigation of natural law ethics at a bit of a meta-level. Here, things like epistemological considerations, biblical data, naturalistic objections to an ethical realism and theological concerns are all treated, albeit somewhat briefly. Calvin, Torrance and Alister McGrath are key figures in this chapter. The next chapter is an exposition of natural law theory from a protological  standpoint (concerned here with human origins) as well as a teleological standpoint (concerned here with purpose and ends). The former is drawn out by way of Cicero and Calvin, the latter by way of Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. Griffin notes a deficiency in all of these, however, since none of these various articulations of natural law draw anything from Christ.For Griffin an ethic must be christological to be properly Christian, and this may be the key takeaway from this section.

Of these three sections, the second, focusing on Anabaptism, is where I learned the most, since I’m not well read in Anabaptist theology. In two chapters Griffin discusses theological, philosophical and textual issues as well as historical and confessional issues The material here comes mostly from confessional texts, as well as John Howard Yoder, and highlights how early Anabaptist theologians worked from the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels as the ultimate norm for Christian ethics. Topics such as the state, violence, pasificism, law and gospel, christology and vocation are all taken up here. In particular, Griffin sees five areas where radical ethics takes its cues from christology:

First, it decisively prioritizes the New Testament over the Old. Second, it acts as an explicit control belief [a ‘basic and authentic personal committment’, p. 76). Third, it expresses a coherent set of concrete practices. Fourth, it asserts that these practices, although particular to Jesus, possess universal significance. Finally, it disavows metaphysical dualism in favour of the congruence between form and substance. (p. 89)

The first chapter of the final section, chapter five, works with Barth and Bonhoeffer’s act/being doctrines and Chalcedon to integrate two-natures christology  with a theory of moral, or practical, reasoning. Chapter six uses Maximus the Confessor and T.F. Torrance’s distinct interpretations of Chalcedon in order to reconfigure natural law into a properly human and yet distinctly christological practice. The final chapter focuses on Barth and his Church Dogmatics, particularly Barth’s christological anthropology.

This is, overall, an exceedingly helpful volume, which could easily serve as a primer on both classical natural law and the radical tradition of ethics. Close attention is paid to primary sources, and even complex figures (such as Maximus) are broken down in a very accessible way  that avoids any sense of being ‘dumbed down’. Maximus in particular receives a solid treatment, and Griffin is to be commended for laying out clearly and precisely the subtleties and contours of Maximus’s thought (logoi, tropoi, and the gnomic will are all clearly presented here).

Perhaps a weakness, however, is that this study attempts to be too wide-ranging and so ends up covering a few too many topics without the depth of treatment needed. Bonhoeffer, for example, is given scant treatment after his brief appearance, which is a bit odd since the majority of his writings focus on ethics (and a good portion of his Ethics is a sustained criticism of various natural law theories). While Act and Being, the primary work by Bonhoeffer engaged with here, is an important work that is handled well, I am left wondering why his explicitly ethical writings weren’t considered. Another example along these lines is Kant, who is frequently invoked but rarely expounded on in depth, as well as the more kenotic-style theologies of Nancy Murphy and George Ellis (which is actually expounded at some length but rarely revisited). Perhaps the most puzzling, however, is the lack of discussion of the will as it relates to moral reasoning. As often as Griffin uses a given understanding of the will (Kant’s, for example) as a foil for his project, little time is spent actually getting a clear conception of the will in view. This is a serious shortcoming for any discussion of moral and practical reasoning.

The same sort of weakness is also present in Griffin’s discussion of classic natural law – Cicero is given roughly a page and a half, for example, and while Griffin’s treatment of Cicero is handled well it certainly should have been a little more in-depth, given that the project is to synthesize the classical natural law view with differing views. By the same token, Barth receives a disproportionate amount of space. I suppose my criticism boiled down is this: by admirably trying to engage a large number of sources and voices, Griffin stretched himself a little thin.

Having said that: this volume goes a long way towards addressing central concerns that both classic natural law theory and more radical christological ethics have, and Griffin does a good job of bringing them into conversation. Anyone interested in natural law and ethics from a Christian standpoint will benefit from this book.




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