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THE MORAL QUEST BY STANLEY J. GRENZ: A BOOK REVIEW


The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics. Stanley J. Grenz. InterVarsity Press, 1997.379 pp.$30.00. ISBN0-8308-1549-X.

This book is, according to Stanley Grenz himself, the result of fifteen years of teaching ethics.[1] Just a quick glance through the exhaustive endnotes (some 48 pages), and the bibliography (some 17 pages long) demonstrates that Grenz has put a colossal amount of research into this book. It comes with an index for scripture usage, and for the main ideas and authors that we meet as we read through the book. The purpose of the book is to outline, in contrast with the varying philosophical and theological moral systems that have been advanced throughout the years, what the author calls a biblical ethics. In the preface he summarizes his conclusion: “My basic conclusion is that the Christian ethic is the outworking in life of the theological vision disclosed in and through the narrative given to us in Scripture.”[2] Grenz recognizes that in order to write a book that provides a complete moral theory he will have to interact with the some of the more important moral theories that have been produced by the philosophers and theologians of the past.

In his first chapter he takes the time to outline some of what he considers are the main concepts in moral philosophy, and the ways of distinguishing between the different moral theories. The clearest point that he makes in this chapter is that there is essentially no difference between the terms ethics and morals. He says, “Although ethics and morality may not be completely synonymous, to set up too strict a distinction between the two is probably arbitrary. As we noted above, the presence of the two terms in our language reflects our dual Greek and Latin heritage. Most people tend to use the words somewhat interchangeably.”[3] Unfortunately his distinctions are, in general, more confusing than helpful. He would have been better served if he had simply explained that there are three main questions that distinguish the different views, and that all views can fit under these questions. 1. How do we determine what is morally right and what is morally wrong? 2. What is this distinction or determination based upon? 3. How do we go about becoming morally virtuous people? Most moral theories can be easily categorized based upon how they respond to these three questions. Grenz, however, chooses to distinguish between theories that are either deontological or teleological.[4] He then turns to a distinction based upon values and distinguishes between theories based upon what they see as valuable: pleasure, positive interest or self-realization (eudaimonian ethics somehow finds itself into this category).[5] The most important distinctions that he makes are found when he examines the question of the foundations of morality. He distinguishes between what he considers to be three basic theories: 1. Naturalism (by which he seems to be referring to Natural Law theory, although he seems to include some form of the Divine Command Theory under this category.[6]).[7] 2. Intuitionism, which is described as the theory that we simply know intuitively what is right and wrong.[8] 3. Noncognitivism or emotivism.[9] He concludes this first section with the overly general and unwarranted claim that “Upon closer inspection, however, we discover that the path we have been pursuing is actually a dead end. We have been walking around in a cul-de-sac. Universal human reason can only lead back to our starting point – the reasonable self.”[10]

Though it seems that Grenz has already, in the first chapter, without examining any of the actual views of the great philosophers and theologians of years gone by, sounded the death tolls for philosophical ethics, he continues in his second chapter to consider the views of five different philosophical views on morality. In chapter two he expounds the views of Plato,[11] Aristotle,[12] Epicurus,[13] the Stoics,[14] and Plotinus.[15] Without going into detail about any one of the authors, the attentive philosopher will most likely note that these are very introductory surveys of the views of these great thinkers. Unfortunately the treatement given to these philosophers is unfortunate. Their theories are much more elaborate than Grenz lets on. Frequently his explanations are simply false. It makes the reader wonder whether Grenz understood these thinkers well enough to be able to criticize them. In this reviewers humble opinion this section is so horrendous that it should have been left out of the book.

The third chapter is a summary of how Grenz views the ethical theory that is to be found in the Bible. This section is quite interesting for any student of the Bible and seems to be influenced primarily by a reformed interpretation of scripture. Throughout this chapter Grenz contrasts the philosophical moral theories with the claims of the Bible and constantly attempts to show that the philosophical attempts at explaining morality have failed, whereas the Bible has succeeded. In order to make such comparisons Grenz is obligated to make such raging generalizations that he is, in many cases, simply wrong. In this chapter we also see him introducing the notions of community that will become so important for his later development of his theory of “Biblical morality”.[16] We also find him opposing eudaimonian ethics and the teaching of Christ in claims such as, “For Jesus the good life is not the quest for happiness but the pursuit of God’s kingdom.”[17] He does, however, describe what he sees as a biblical principle (as opposed to a philosophical moral principle), that “Conduct flows from character, he taught, but true character arises from devotion.”[18] (Devotion, of course, is just a way of conducting oneself.) Aristotelian philosophers would immediately point out that this is exactly what Aristotle himself would say.[19]

From his interpretation of the Bible and what the Bible teaches about ethics, Grenz then takes us, in chapter 4 into the moral theories of three men who he claims are the best representatives of Christian moral thought in their respective time periods: Augustine, Aquinas and Luther. Now, it seems that the first two choices would be generally accepted. However, it is certainly strange that Luther is included in his list of great Christian ethicists. However, be that as it may, this chapter falls prey to the same problems of the chapter on the moral theories of the Greek philosophers, notably when he comes to Aquinas’s moral theory. In this reviewers humble opinion, it would have been a good idea for the author to read, a little bit more attentively, the Summa Theologiae, coupled with a wonderful book, also written by a protestant theologian, entitled Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought: a Critique of Protestant View on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas.[20] In section 5 Grenz outlines a colossal number of contemporary Christian views of ethics. In the section 6 he explains why it is important for Christians to engage in ethical discussions in the public forum. Finally, in sections 7 and 8 Grenz outlines his own theory which is a combination of what he calls the Theonomous view of biblical ethics,[21] and the notion of comprehensive love. It seems that his moral theory fits nicely into the category of Divine Command Theories. He founds his moral theory soundly on the Bible,[22] as interpreted by Grenz, in what seems to be a reformed understanding of scriptures.  Chapter 8 is an interesting, but, unfortunately, unenlightening explanation of the notion of comprehensive love. He sets out to explain how the principle of love, as exposed in the Bible, is the basis for all of Christian ethics. However, he never actually tells us what love is, and concludes the chapter with a quote from Paul Tillich claiming that love cannot be defined.[23] Now, he has just spent the last 20 pages telling us what it means to apply an ethic of comprehensive love in the church, yet, unfortunately we cannot know what love is? He can point out 4 different types of love, show how they are used in scripture, how we must integrate them into our lives, and even how God demonstrates each of these different types of love in the trinity, yet, we cannot know what love is; love is indefinable! This makes the philosopher reminisce (pun intended) about Socrates discussion with Euthyphro about what it means to be just. Socrates asks the young Euthyphro to tell him what it means to be pious. Euthyphro goes on to give a list of pious actions. Socrates responds, “Bear in mind then that I did not bid you tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious, for you agreed that all impious actions are impious and all pious actions pious through one form, or don’t you remember?”[24] How is Grenz able to talk about so many types of love if he does not know what love itself is?

In conclusion, in spite of the fact that I agreed with much of what Grenz has to say about what a Christian ethics should look like (mostly found in the last two chapters of the book), I disagree adamantly with how he arrives at almost all of his conclusions. I honestly got the feeling that he couldn't explain why his conclusions were right. Overall, I have to say that Grenz is guilty of oversimplification of a number of philosophical and theological views concerning moral philosophy, of misunderstanding the philosophers and theologians that he explains and subsequently rejects, and, sometimes, what he says about the various philosophical and theological viewpoints is blatantly false. Furthermore, Grenz is constantly, throughout the book, contrasting the general philosophical effort to talk about ethics (saying that it is circular and futile) with the theological or biblical view of ethics, interpreted by Grenz (which is inherently true). This contrast seems to demonstrate a misunderstanding of the relationship between faith and reason, as well as a certain naive view of biblical interpretation. Sometimes he gets things right, however, when he does, I always get the frustrating feeling that the point is made better elsewhere. Furthermore he contradicts himself but doesn't seem to realize it,[25] and criticizes authors that he clearly does not understand. All in all I was thoroughly disappointed with this book due to the points enumerated above. I would not recommend it to someone who has never studied moral philosophy before, as they will not be able to discern between Grenz's blatant misinterpretations of the various philosophers and theologians, and what he gets right. It might be of interest to someone who has a background in ethics, or who is teaching a course in moral philosophy as they will certainly find many interesting conclusions (last two chapters), and citations to use as foils against which they can give a proper interpretation of the various philosophers and theologians.



[1]Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest (Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity Press, 1997), 10.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid., 23. In this quote, he refers to the definitions of the respective words, ethics and morals, that he gave just a couple paragraphs earlier. The two words mean the same thing, “custom or habit. (Ibid.)”

[4]Ibid., 29-36.

[5]Ibid., 36-40.

[6]Ibid., 47

[7]Ibid., 44-48.

[8]Ibid., 48-50.

[9]Ibid., 51-54.

[10]Ibid., 57.

[11]Ibid., 60-67.

[12]Ibid., 67-77.

[13]Ibid., 77-82.

[14]Ibid., 82-88.

[15]Ibid., 88-93.

[16]Ibid., 103.

[17]Ibid., 110.

[18]Ibid., 116.

[19]Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 2, ch. 1, 1103b21-26,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon, trans. W. D. Ross (New York: Random House, 1941), 953.

[20]Arvin Vos, Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought (Washington, D. C.: Christian University Press, 1985).

[21]Grenz, 251.

[22]Ibid., 96, 197, 205, 212, 215, 218, 231, 256.

[23]Ibid., 296.

[24]Plato, “Euthyphro, 6d-e,” in Five Dialogues, trans. G. M. A. Grube, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2002), 8.

[25]Grenz, 217, 224, 237, 277.

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