Stanley Grenz’s 1997 book, The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics, aims to help readers understand what it is to be ethical and how an ethical approach to life can lead to greater connections with the world around us. As he states in his introduction, “we are all ethicists” (Grenz 13) in the way we react to large events and small, and the choices that we make in our daily lives. Grenz takes this exploration of ethics into the realm of theology in an attempt to create a text which lays the groundwork not only for ethical living, but for Christian ethical living through the application of morality in everyday situations. One of the strengths of Grenz’s book is its accessibility to individuals who may have only a basic understanding of ethics, philosophy, and the Christian tradition. However, he makes it very clear that his overarching goal is to provide a “specifically Christian vision of the moral life” (Grenz 10) that uses scripture as a foundation for this exploration. Thus, while it is not a book intended solely for Christians, a deeper understanding of the overall text is facilitated by a general awareness of Scripture and Christian philosophy as Grenz attempts to explain how issues of right and wrong impact on the lives of Christians. This review will focus on the first four chapters of The Moral Quest as they provide a good starting-off point for Grenz’s exploration of ethics and Christianity. These chapters explore Christian Ethics and the Ethical Task, The Greek Ethical Tradition, Ethics in the Bible, and Model Christian Proposals, thereby offering a historical perspective on ethical living which go on to inform later sections of the book which explore Christian ethics from a modern perspective.
In Chapter One, Christian Ethics and the Ethical Task, Grenz lays the foundation for his text by providing an overview of the important terminology that the reader will encounter throughout his book. He makes the crucial distinction between the theoretical study of ethics and the practical application of morality while acknowledging that the modern layperson will likely use the two terms almost synonymously. The pursuit of moral philosophy involves questions about how an individual should live their life, the meaning of right and wrong, and, most importantly, “how one can justify judgements about what is right, good, worthwhile, or just, and precisely what such judgements mean” (Grenz 24). Reflecting on morality is not solely a Christian pursuit, but rather demonstrates the human need to understand their place in the universe through the application of reason, an endeavor Grenz terms “general ethics” (Grenz 24). The author further explores general ethics by explaining the history and meaning of normative ethics, empirical ethics, and the role of moral obligations as they impact on an individual’s decisions and standards of conduct. Analytic ethics is another aspect of the study of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of morality in order to better understand the meaning behind moral and nonmoral behaviors while asking how individuals form value judgements about right and wrong. In exploring these complicated concepts, Grenz provides examples of specific situations in which an individual may be forced to make a moral judgement. For example, he looks at the abortion debate from the perspective of Socrates and Plato in order to illustrate the various approaches that can be employed when making ethical decisions. He also notes that, from a Christian perspective, the issue of an individual’s character may come into play in their decision making, and suggests that “maybe we should abandon the search for an ethic of doing and seek instead to devise and ethic of being (or of virtue)” (Grenz 40). Although the study of general ethics suggests that humans pursue ethical decisions to further their pursuit of an enjoyable good life, Grenz states that ultimately it is up to each individual to determine what “the good life” (Grenz 56) means to them.
In Chapter Two, The Greek Ethical Tradition, Grenz explores the contributions made by ancient Greek philosophers in molding our modern understanding of the Western ethical tradition. The Greek ethical quest was largely focused on determining how individuals should live their lives in order to reach a specific “ultimate end” (Grenz 60) or telos. The primary philosophers of this era were Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, and Plotinus, all of whom had unique approaches to reconciling ethics and the human pursuit of a good life. Plato was interested in ordered integration, an approach which sought to understand how individuals can harmonize their true nature with the world around them. Aristotle created an ethical approach to understanding human well-being. The Stoics main philosophy was one which emphasized self-control. Finally, Plotinus tried to understand how the pursuit of an ethical life related to divinity.
In Chapter Three, Ethics in the Bible, Grenz suggests that most Christians are likely guilty, at one time or another, of “misusing the Bible” (Grenz 96) in ways which could be considered unethical or self-serving. However, he argues that the solid narrative within the Bible contains many ethical teachings which can best be understood in the context of the narrative itself. More importantly, the story of Jesus provides readers with an ethical framework through which they can best determine how to live their lives in an ethical and moral way.
In Chapter Four, Model Christian Proposals, Grenz looks at the ethical proposals of Augustine, Aquinas, and Martin Luther and the Reformers to illustrate the historical path that has led to the modern understanding of Christian ethics. As Grenz writes, these three proposals “represent the central ways classical Christian thinkers have sought to construct a theological ethic within the context of the world around them” (Grenz 130). Augustine looked at ethics as a way to reconcile the secular world with the Christian world through a deeper understanding of the role that God’s love plays on shaping human ethical behavior. Aquinas’ proposal suggested that ethics lies at the root of human existence and informs every aspect of the human life, thereby providing our lives with purpose. Martin Luther and the Reformers looked at ethics as a way for humans to demonstrate their obedience to God.
The Moral Quest poses as many questions as it answers, thereby inviting readers to take part in the ongoing debate of what it means to be an ethical Christian. The first four chapters of his book provides a theological framework rooted in Christian philosophy to emphasize that the most important precepts of ethics remains largely unchanged since the time of the Greek philosophers. Thus, the purpose of The Moral Quest which Grenz invites readers to take with him is not merely an academic understanding of ethics, but “the task of reflecting in our relationships the love that lies at the heart of the biblical God” (Grenz 21).
Grenz, Stanley J. The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.