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Spring 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 1 · pp. 108–110 

Book Review

Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context

Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003. 538 pages.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud

Baptist theological ethicist Glen Stassen, longtime seminary professor (now at Fuller Theological Seminary), prolific writer, and friend of {109} Mennonites, has teamed with a younger colleague, David Gushee (of Union University in Tennessee) to write a quite impressive introduction to Christian ethics. Kingdom Ethics will surely establish itself as a widely used seminary textbook, but should also find an appreciative readership among pastors, college students, and many others.

Stassen and Gushee write with exceptional clarity and cover an impressive array of issues for a single volume text. Their general approach should elicit much approval from present-day Anabaptists. They self-consciously orient Christian ethics around the teaching of Jesus, in particular the Sermon on the Mount.

The authors understand the kingdom of God motif to be the key to understanding Jesus’ ethical message—and from start to finish they assert that this message is normative for present-day Christians. Questions concerning the timing of the kingdom are secondary to the characteristics of the kingdom.

The kingdom’s central characteristic is holistic salvation—God’s work to deliver humans from oppression, injustice, guilt, death, war, slavery, imprisonment, and exile (28). The kingdom Jesus established is new, but it is also in direct continuity with the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah. Stassen and Gushee do a fine job of making this continuity clear.

Part of the importance of this book lies in its fresh treatment of the Sermon on the Mount as the orienting point for Christian ethics. Stassen and Gushee challenge the traditional idealist approaches to the Sermon that have actually led to a diminishing of its importance as a guide for Christian living. They propose a new strategy for reading the Sermon: finding throughout a series of “transforming initiatives,” creative and life-enhancing practices that solve problems, provide deliverance from vicious cycles of anger and insult, and empower Jesus’ followers to participate in God’s grace mediated through faith communities.

I find this approach to the Sermon to be quite profound and attractive. The persuasiveness of the argument in enhanced by being applied to a large variety of present-day issues such as war and peace, criminal justice, abortion, euthanasia, biotechnology, marriage and divorce, sexuality, and gender roles.

Though necessarily brief, these discussions of applied ethics are in general thoughtful and sensitive (one exception being the rather superficial treatment of homosexuality). The general direction of the arguments likely will be seen as attractive by most readers of this journal—a consistently pro-life stance and moderately conservative views on various sexual issues. {110}

Writers of books with the breadth of Kingdom Ethics face a difficult challenge in sustaining a clear narrative focus. My main criticism stems from this point. I found it a bit confusing to move from the very helpful discussion of general orientation, to various applied chapters, and then back to more theoretical discussions of love and justice, and then again back to more applied discussion.

Overall, though, this is an excellent book. Along with the pathbreaking treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, I found the discussion of justice to be of special value.

In the context of our increasingly vengeful, materialistic, and nationalistic North American culture, Stassen and Gushee deserve our gratitude for articulating a genuinely counter-cultural approach to Christian ethics.

Ted Grimsrud
Assoc. Prof. of Theology and Peace Studies
Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia

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