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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 136–137 

Book Review

The Poetics of Grace: Christian Ethics as Theodicy

Jeph Holloway. Volume 1, The Hope of God’s Calling. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013. 304 pages.

Reviewed by David Faber

The Poetics of Grace is a carefully argued, thoughtful book that repays the attention that it requires. It is the first volume of a projected two-volume work, the second part of which is to be titled The Worthy Walk.

Holloway’s book is intended in part as a corrective to the way in which evangelicals have approached ethical engagement. In the preface he writes, “I am persuaded that what so often counts for contemporary evangelical Christianity is anything but evangelical” (ix). Holloway’s thesis is that the evangelical Christian desire to engage with and transform culture is good, but that these Christians have uncritically adopted tactics and strategies for transformation that are inconsistent with the good news of Jesus Christ. The primary concern of ethics, he says, is to address the presence of evil in the world. Ethics, in the Western philosophical and theological tradition, has approached that question by starting with either the question “What should I do?” or “What kind of person should I be?” Holloway says these are the wrong questions. For Christian ethics, the starting point should be, “What is God doing about evil?” Hence his subtitle for the book, Christian Ethics as Theodicy.

Holloway follows a clear three-part pattern in each of the book’s three chapters. He begins by explicating and critiquing an important intellectual figure or movement that has influenced American religious culture. He continues by showing how Paul’s letter to the Ephesians provides an alternative to the figure or movement addressed in the first section. Finally, Holloway directs his attention to an issue in applied ethics, attempting to show how the insights derived from his reading of Ephesians should inform our approach to the ethical issue.

In the first chapter, “We Are His Workmanship: A Theocentric Ethic,” Holloway addresses the Enlightenment project for ethics as embodied in the work of the late eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who held that “the moral life is primarily the activity of the autonomous individual who discovers and acts on what reason dictates as morally obligatory” (43). The book of Ephesians, on the other hand, “will not sustain any approach to the moral life separate from the character, actions and will of God made known through Jesus Christ” (49). Christian ethics is theocentric because an understanding the moral life depends on an understanding of the character of God as revealed to Jesus. Holloway concludes this chapter by showing how Ephesians can help Christians develop an understanding of work in which the purpose of work is the well-being of the community rather than the profit of the individual (71). {137}

Chapter two, “Created in Christ Jesus: A Redemptive Ethic,” contrasts Friedrich Nietzsche’s indictment of Christianity as a religion unworthy of self-respecting people with the Pauline vision that “believers are participants in the poetics of grace—God making all things new in love and mercy” (140). Holloway then uses the preceding discussions of knowledge, power, and the idea of making all things new to address some of the issues raised by recent advances in biology regarding eugenics.

The concluding chapter of this volume is entitled “New Life in the One Body of Christ: An Ecclesial Ethic.” Holloway takes on Reinhold Niebuhr’s influential view that Christian engagement with the larger culture should involve Christian realism. Christian realism holds that the best Christians can hope for in response to evil is an approximation of the biblical standard of justice and that “for the Christian faith to have public relevance it must be through some means other than the church as the primary setting for the formation and practice of and witness to life as God intends” (199). As the chapter title indicates, Holloway holds that Ephesians supports understanding a Christian ethic as one in which the church as a community is central. He contrasts the Pax Romana, which created “peace” through intimidation embodied in the threat of crucifixion, with the Pax Christi, which creates peace and reconciliation through suffering love, as embodied in the crucifixion.

Holloway concludes this chapter and the book with an extended discussion of what Ephesians teaches regarding marriage. He argues that “For Paul, the microcosm of the household is to reflect not the macrocosm of the state . . . but the community of faith gathered for worship” (263). He rejects views of marriage based on male authority and argues for marriage based on “mutual service and sacrificial love” (261).

The book would be strengthened by providing a clearer account of how the historical philosophical figures addressed—Kant, Nietzsche, and Niebuhr—influence contemporary evangelical thought. Even so, the book is consistently thought-provoking and insightful. Noteworthy is the way he juxtaposes disparate areas, such as history of philosophy, interpretation of Ephesians, and applied ethics. Scholars in one of these areas will benefit from exposure to the others. Pastors will see a thoughtful way of engaging contemporary issues like work and marriage through Scripture. For those interested in bioethics or in the role of the church in political engagement, Holloway’s discussions of the new eugenics and of Niebuhr’s Christian realism are especially timely and helpful. One hopes that volume 2 of The Poetics of Grace will match the standard of volume 1.

David Faber, PhD
Bible, Religion and Philosophy
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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