Books reviewed by James Woodward

Singing the Ethos of God:
on the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture

Singing the Ethos of God: on the Place of Christian Ethics in Scriptureby Brian Brock
Eerdmans, 2007. 386pp. ISBN 978 0 8028 0379 5.

Brian Brock, a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, has written a work of extreme concentration and intensity. Without his labouring the point in a hostile way, it is born partly of a Christian’s frustration at the assumption in most modern academic writing on the Bible that, in conducting exegesis of the Bible, one does well to lay one’s religious self (supposing that one has one!) aside for fear that it contaminates and perverts the scholarly purity of one’s account of the text. The text must be imagined, as vividly as evidence allows, in the context of its composition, and such an account of it constitutes its significance. To imagine further meaning into it is not only to deal in hypothesis and inaccuracy but also to import a kind of impurity.

Before the Enlightenment things were different. Christian exegetes, both Catholic and Protestant, were used to reading the Scriptures, Old Testament as well as New, as a Christian book, written for the Church. Not that one was free to make one’s own brand of religious inferences from it:  there were traditions of interpretation, masters to follow, Augustine and Luther being prime examples. Here, the tradition is resumed, with Karl Barth as the more recent implicit master. Brock writes demandingly for our specialist-ridden times: the book is best classified as a work of moral theology, but the reader is offered Psalms in Hebrew and Latin, and, far from rooting his Christian exposition in the New Testament, he offers us texts usually by way of adjuncts to points raised for other reasons, and guides us through Christian theological and spiritual exegesis of Psalms, after the manner of former times.

After a critical discussion of a number of writers in the field and of a range of possible approaches currently on offer in biblical ethics, Brock turns to his preferred option: a traditional confessional view of biblical theology and ethics. In two long chapters, we are introduced to Augustine’s and then Luther’s magisterial expositions of Psalms, seen as works of Christian spiritual and moral formation. The context of both men’s writing was pastoral and spiritual:  they sought to form Christian lives and, in expounding the Old Testament, read it as an integral part of the Christian canon, with Christ, God’s Word, active in and through it. Final chapters discuss some of the features of the kind of ethical-cum-spiritual exegesis which the tradition of the Masters fostered in the Church and then lead us through an exegesis of  Psalms 130 and 104 designed to enhance our formation in the Christian life. The book turns into a set of high-grade retreat addresses, designed to enhance our Christian awareness and deepen our spirituality. ‘Attentiveness and rigor remain prerequisites. But this attentiveness to the nuance of Scripture and the way it links with our experience is best understood as a craft’ (p. 259). We could scarcely be further in ethos and culture from the average modern western university department of theology.

This is therefore a book that might be taken to respond to the complaint of the educated person in the pew that the experience of liturgy and the traditional language of faith are at odds not only with ordinary life but also with what we now know about the Bible and early Christianity. The response is, however, that of ignoring the complaint and re-installing – with grace and intelligence – the manners of former days. It is done without confrontation of any kind, simply by setting out the traditional stall with the attractiveness of the fluent and kindly spiritual guide who appeals to sides of ourselves that are in need of exercise and to whose appeal we remain (it is hoped) capable of warming. It is a manner utterly different from the crudity of the Bible-basher or even the traditionally conservative scholar. Brock does not discuss any items on the traditional critical agenda, but simply draws us to see where he is leading us and, if possible, to follow.

Now all of us who are practising Christians and are used to taking part in liturgical worship, with its traditions and customs, and are also versed in the modern critical study of the Bible and the history of the Church, are aware of tensions. Mostly, we tell ourselves that any community has its customs that become marked by age but are retained partly from convenience and partly because we value their venerable quality as an element in our cohesion as a body of people. Words and forms carry different flavours when used in different circumstances and it has to be accepted that newcomers and outsiders will find them odd and must simply learn the language. If we visit a foreign country it is absurd to complain that the inhabitants do not speak our tongue, and the same is true in its own measure when we embark in a new social environment with its own long history and acquired habits.

But there may be limits; things might be done better. And while, for example, shared formal worship where a wide range of people is involved may well best operate in accordance with the consideration just outlined, in other circumstances it is inadequate. Whether it is approved of or not, the historical study of the Bible in a critical way is well established and many people have been instructed in its principles and general results. We just know that the past is a foreign country where they did things differently;  that the Old Testament reflects many strands of development, perhaps over a long period, and cannot be intelligently read as if it were a Christian collection of writings; and that the New Testament comes from the world of the first century, with its mixture of cultures. We just know that the Christian faith itself, in its beliefs and formulas, developed its formulation over a period of years and did not spring fully formed from the writings of the New Testament. We also know that those writings reflect diversity and controversy in the early Christian communities which leave their traces for the discerning eye and sometimes stare us in the face. We may go further and see this as both a natural state of affairs and positively encouraging:  they were as we are!  So we come to accept the Christian community and its enterprise as a ‘walk with God’ that is far from being immune to the accidents and shifts that occur in any process of human development. We may even be glad that these things are so, not just because God has given them under these conditions but because there are virtues in things being thus.

There may be something positively perverse in ignoring factors that are so widely known and recognized. In the book before us, it is wonderful to be guided through selected psalms, but worth asking whether the underlying principle (that Christ is at work in these words) can really be made to apply to all the psalms, let alone all the Old Testament scriptures.  Can we now engage in the hermeneutical gymnastics that once seemed necessary but which a modern sense of history renders extraordinary and deeply eccentric – and that is surely religiously unnecessary? In other words Brian Brock has chosen cases that admitted of the treatment he administers, and he has produced much edifying material which warms us and stops us treating these ancient poems simply as items from a long past world.  But it is going too far to see doctrines at work that no longer ring true in the manner of former times – when they held sway for reasons that we can understand but not now own for ourselves.

There is a deeper point. We commonly speak of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as being together ‘people of the book’ because we share reverence for the old Jewish scriptures. But this can lead us to ignore the fact that Christianity does not necessarily see those Scriptures in the same way as either of the other two faiths. For Christian faith, the centre is not the book but the person of Jesus, making God known and acting as the focus of relationship with God, deliberately exposing himself to changing circumstances and perceptions:  he signifies and embodies the vulnerability of God. But how hard this is to accept in its implications for human uncertainty! To see Scripture as seen in the tradition Brock seeks to revive is to attribute to the Bible a solidity and fixity which God renounced in our midst.

James Woodward