An Ethics Bibliography

With some autobiographical vignettes.  One theologian I have repeatedly came back to over the past ten years is Oliver O’Donovan.  His command of Scripture, Theology, and the Western Philosophical tradition is awe-inspiring. He forms the backdrop of this post.  The following texts are generally from easier to harder.

Section 1

General text: Holmes, Arthur.  Ethics.  Basic, but covers the issues from an Evangelical perspective.
Classical Text:  Augustine, Confessions.  With special attention to book 10 and following.
Classical, contd.  Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.  Almost every ethical treatment derives from and presupposes him in some fashion.

Section 2

General Text: Davis, John Jefferson.  Evangelical Ethics.  A bit more thorough than Holmes but same general vision.
Classical text: Clifford, “Will to Believe.”  Essay.  Holds to the skeptical position that we can’t believe or act on a belief unless we have sufficient reason for that belief.
Response:  James, William and passim.  Clifford’s thesis has been destroyed in every generation since he wrote it, but liberal philosophy of religion profs are still impressed by it we have to keep responding to it.

Section 3

General Text: Geisler, Norma.  Ethics: Issues and Options.  Surprisingly good.  Holds to the (probably correct) position of graded absolutism and gives fairly good treatments on abortion and capital punishment.  Annihilates Fletcher’s “situation ethics.”
History:  MacIntyre, Alasdair.  Greg Bahnsen recommended this work.  MacIntyre had just converted to Christ from Marxism, so there are some inaccuracies in this work.  But…probably the best succinct treatment of the history of ethics without sacrificing depth.
Classical: Augustine, City of God.  This will take a while but it is the best thing ever written on ethics.

Section 4

General Text: Murray, John.  Principles of Conduct.  Classic Reformed primer.  Mostly outstanding.  Fumbles (and ultimately contradicts himself) the chapter on “lying.”
Specialized: Moreland and Rae, Body and Soul.  Some very technical conversations, but the best thing written on anthropology and defense of pro-life.

Section 5 (These are more difficult)

General text: O’Donovan, Oliver.  Resurrection and Moral Order.  OO isn’t trying to give answers to “what should I do in _______?”  Rather, he is showing you the Augustinian vision and letting you apply it.
History.  O’Donovans.  From Irenaeus to Grotius.  Readings on Christian politics in church history.  The O’Donovans’ introductions are worth a graduate course in themselves.
Specialized.  O’Donovans, Bonds of Imperfection.  My favorite text. They take some major themes in the above text and develop them in larger essays.

Section 6.

General text:  Budzizewski, J. Written on the Heart.  I’m not sure of his natural law conclusions, but there are some excellent discussions of Locke, Bentham, etc.
History:  Budzizewski, J. Evangelicals in the Public Square.  Lucid treatments and critiques of different “transformational” options in modern Evangelicalism.  Covers Carl Henry, Schaeffer, Kuyper, and Yoder.
Specialized.  MacIntyre, Alasdair.  After Virtue.  Explores the role “virtue” played in ancient societies and how it might play in post-Nietzsche ones.

Section 7 (Difficult)

General Text:  O’Donovan, Oliver.  The Desire of the Nations.  Explores the role of “political theology” from ancient Israel to the modern liberal nation-state. Peerless. Contrary to popular thought, he is not advocating “Christendom.”  He is simply noting that “Christendom” is a historical effect of the church’s witness to power.
Specialized: O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment. Continues some themes in DoN and clarifies some ambiguities.  Shows how moderns use terms like “judgment” and “representation” without knowing the convoluted genealogical mutations of those terms.  Very difficult read but worthwhile.

Honorable Mention

Hauerwas, Stanley.  Resident Aliens and passim.  Very accessible introduction to the neo-anabaptist option.  Kind of smarmy and really doesn’t deal with any challenges to his position.  Hauerwas has more substantial essays elsewhere that are quite fun and rewarding.

Frame, John.  Passim.  I don’t know which Frame text to recommend.  They are kind of all the same.  His “perspectivalism” is important but I am unsure on how far to take it.

O’Donovan.  Space, World, and Time.  This is a more accessible treatment than RMO.  I have not read it so I can’t comment further, aside that it will probably be outstanding.

Milbank, John.  Theology and Social Theory. Probably the last thing you should read.  Advanced treatments of Augustine, Foucault, Nietzsche and others.  Still, the sections on Augustine are illuminating.

Markus, R. A.  Saeculum.  Tries to make Augustine out to be a modern neo-liberal on international order.  See O’Donovan’s essay on Augustine for a decent critique.  However, Markus does successfully argue that Augustine “shifted” from a theocratic imperialism to a softer “realism” by the end of City of God.

Feinberg, John.  Ethics for a Brave New World.  Soft dispensationalist treatment of ethics.  Very thorough discussions on sexual ethics and bio-ethics.

Nietzsche, Fr. Genealogy of Morals.  Classic critique of godless bourgeoisie from a godless perspective.  Suggests “ressentiment” as a category of modern ethical thought.

Plato.  Republic.


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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