"Renewing Moral Theology" by Daniel A. Westberg. A Review

Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics as Action, Character and GraceRenewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics as Action, Character and Grace by Daniel A. Westberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How do you get people to do the “right thing”? Much of the business ethics market, educational character building schematics, and even Christian moral instruction focuses on the “do this, don’t do that.” Whether it has to do with federal regulations and EEOC guidelines, scholastic programs, or religious teaching, most agendas aim at reaching the cerebral and external. Daniel Westberg (DPhil, Oxford University), professor of ethics and moral theology at Nashotah House, Nashotah, Wisconsin, approaches the subject from a more comprehensive position that encompasses the rational, applicable, volitional  and emotional in his new 281 page paperback, “Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics as Action, Character and Grace.” The book is informed and shaped by Thomistic, Augustinian, Catholic, and Protestant (especially Anglican) ethical theologies to “provide for the general Christian public a blending of the strengths of the Catholic tradition with evangelical emphases and convictions” (10). Westberg seeks to renew Christian confidence in “the area of moral convictions” (Ibid.), and writes for thoughtful Christian readers, parishioners, pastors and seminarians.

“Renewing Moral Theology” unfolds in two parts, the first laying the case for, and shape of, moral theology, especially from an Anglican perspective, that brings together and harmonizes “Catholic and Protestant traditions in a helpful way” (27). The second part of the book walks the reader through the seven classic virtues; prudence (wisdom in action), justice, fortitude, self-control, faith, love and hope. The underlying principle throughout the work is that all of “our genuine actions ( . . . ) have moral import and are moral actions. That is, they are expressions of purpose, desires and attitudes revealed in decisions to do something.” Therefore the book is “unabashedly teleological,” that is, our actions flow toward, and flow out of, an “ultimate end or purpose ( . . . ) that can be described as the supreme good, sheer joy and complete fulfillment” (31). In other words, don’t skip to the second half of the book (the virtues) until you have grasped the first part (purpose, reason and action).

In the beginning portion of “Renewing Moral Theology” Westberg, learning from Augustine, Aquinas and Scripture, maps out an ethical model that pulls together the combined roles of human reasoning and willing, attraction and action in moral direction. The author moves the reader away from the primacy of obligation in moral motivation, to the predominance of attraction to joy and the good; “it is easier to see that the more fundamental picture of being attracted to good things ( . . . ) and through them to the good itself is sounder philosophically, psychologically and biblically. The sense of duty is secondary to overall purpose. ( . . . ) the motivation prompting action is a desire for fulfillment – to achieve a more complete level of being ( . . . ) perfect well-being and happiness” (33). He then adds to motivation the importance of thoughtfulness in morality, for actions “are the result of desire guided by reason” (35). This place of motivation will show up throughout the book as the author will make, in a clearheaded way, claims such as this; "It is hope and motivation that underlie human actions, and our motivation increases with hopefulness, and more hopeful people are motivated to attain more challenging and fruitful goals" (207).

Westberg delves further into the how and why of good engagements and judgments, bringing in the significance of habitus (a developed dispositional trait), conversion, and the Law. He rightly perceives that we “need to realize that the goal of the moral life is to attain that state of harmony between intention, attitude and emotion, so that it will become natural and joyful for us to perform what we know is right and good” (80). That goal of what is right and good is lucidly defined with the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, as “to glorify God, and enjoy him forever”.

The second segment of “Renewing Moral Theology” uses, and thoughtfully reflects on, the seven classic virtues. Westberg assures the reader that though this looks more like a check list approach, he is simply doing it for the purpose of analyzing and describing (142). To compartmentalize each virtue as a stand-alone character is an impossibility, for in truth “a person cannot have any of the moral virtues without having them all” (143). The author then launches into the four cardinal virtues and the three theological qualities, examining what they are and repeatedly displaying the interdependence of each with the others. Westberg does not necessarily remain within the fence line of staid and sterile definitions for each characteristic, but will pleasantly and biblically surprise readers here and there by stretching and molding each quality so that new contours stand out, where once they may have been overlooked. Probably the most pronounced, for me at least, was his description of love, where he shows that the primary definition of agape moves from (though it is still included) self-sacrificial love “to the concept of friendship or union with God” (235). It is interesting, and surely intentional, that the final three chapters are faith, love and hope – in that order, so that the book ends with hope; the hope that will find its maximum pleasure in the return of our Lord and Savior, when we will finally be all we were meant to be, enjoying God in unrestrained fullness.

“Renewing Moral Theology” holds together the classic Protestant distinctive of justification by grace alone through faith alone, while learning from more traditional Catholic sources, and it seems to me that Westberg has achieved his Anglican via media. This material would be a great asset for fathers and mothers as they think deeply about the morality they desire for their children. Pastors, priests, seminarians, and attentive Christians of all stripes will benefit immensely, especially if this work is read and discussed with others. It is not a simple read written in a popular style, yet with some intentionality, it is definitely manageable and understandable.  Westberg has done a masterful job. I highly recommend the book.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for the free copy of the book used for this review.

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