Daniel A. Westberg. Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics As Action, Character and Grace. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Daniel Westberg teaches ethics and moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. In Renewing Moral Theology, Westberg explores the topic of Christian ethics, focusing in particular on the thinking of Thomas Aquinas. Anglican liturgy and teaching are also a significant aspect of this book, as Westberg compares and critiques what they have said about sin, repentance, and God’s law.
The book interacts with a variety of issues and questions. Is Christian morality merely a matter of obeying rules, or is there more than that? Are the virtues interconnected with each other? If Christian faith is necessary for true love to exist, how can one account for non-Christians who have virtues? Can one attain virtue by continually practicing it until it becomes habitual, or does there need to be an inward transformation or disposition? How can Christians approach God’s law, when the positive commands are more difficult to apply and obey than the negative ones (and I definitely appreciated this observation!). Westberg also addresses mortal and venial sins, and the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Westberg discusses these subjects thoughtfully, while interacting with a variety of Christian thinkers.
My favorite parts of the book were Westberg’s treatment of the topic of love. This was surprising to me, since I am not exactly a people-person, and I usually feel put down when I read Christian discussions of love—-put down, and presented with a lot of commands that are far beyond my reach. And, indeed, in reading Westberg’s book, I did feel as if I fall short of Christian morality, especially in the area of courage. Still, Westberg did offer a possibly new way for me to understand I Corinthians 13, the love chapter. The chapter does address how humans relate to each other, but, for Westberg, it is also about human love for God. It talks about the future beatific vision of God that people will have, after all. In light of that, love is more important than faith and hope because faith and hope will become unnecessary when we are actually seeing God, but our love for God will still exist and be significant. The reason that Paul says that self-sacrifice and giving to the poor are nothing without love is that love for God (and God’s love) should provide the context and foundation for those things. I am not entirely sure if Westberg’s approach works exegetically, since I Corinthians 13 focuses so much on horizontal human relationships, and yet it does make sense to me practically. I have often felt put down by I Corinthians 13 because I really struggle to like and to interact with people. I believe that I should still be convicted and shaped by the values of I Corinthians 13, and yet I also think that I should remember that God’s love is to serve as a foundation for my love.
Westberg’s chapter about love interested me because he wrestled with the conceptualization of love. Should we see it as self-sacrifice, as if egoism is not a part of it at all? Should we see agape love as an impartial desire for the well-being of others, even of those we may not particularly like? Westberg acknowledges validity in both approaches while also critiquing them, and he settles on a definition of love that centers on human friendship and fellowship with God. Under this conceptualization, we love others because God loves them, and we desire, not only their material well-being, but their fellowship with God as well.
In terms of critiques of the book, there were times when I thought that Westberg was a bit legalistic. Of course, Westberg was distancing himself from legalism by focusing, not on rules, but rather on the formation of character in reference to a relationship with God. Still, Westberg’s section on gluttony did not particularly appeal to me, for he seemed to me to be criticizing those who are interested in gourmet cooking and detailed recipes. I would ask: Cannot enjoying good food be a part of enjoying God? God did give us taste buds, after all! Westberg later does offer a brief criticism of the idea that one should always engage in pleasure for a purpose, however, as opposed to enjoying the pleasure because it is pleasing.
I also disagreed with Westberg when he said that animals cannot show concern. I wrote in the margin, “Who says?”
Overall, though, I was edified by this book.
Intervarsity Press sent me a complimentary review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.