Does the Bible matter for Christian morality? And if so, in what way? While the answers seem self-evident to many Christians, for Roman Catholics this has not been the case. As late as 1960, no less than John Courtney Murray, arguably the most influential Roman Catholic theologian the United States has ever produced, could be surprised by the assumption that morality could take its cue from the text of Scripture and not the natural moral law. Jesus and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges Between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology, by Daniel Harrington and James Keenan, is a valuable effort to make good on Vatican II's insistence in 1965 that moral theology be shaped more profoundly than before by Scripture.
As the subtitle shows, the authors seek to effectuate dialogue between biblical scholarship and Christian ethical reflection. This "bridge" is brought about in two ways. First, by having each author—Harrington the biblical exegete and Keenan the moral theologian—write a section of each chapter out of his academic specialty, and second, with the claim that virtue ethics, "the approach to ethics that principally asks 'Who should we become?' " (207) and not "What should we do?", is the path to fruitful dialogue.
The first two chapters remind the reader that there are wrong ways of making the Bible matter for morality. Harrington adroitly summarizes the history of his academic discipline's attempt to respect the difference between the world-view of the ancient biblical texts and our world-view and still discover Scripture's ethical significance for today. Keenan summarizes much of the history of moral theology as having emphasized sin and particular actions rather than sanctified persons and character, this in part due to its de-emphasis on Scripture, and interprets virtue ethics as a corrective to this. Also, he knows that virtue-talk is sometimes too fuzzy or vapid. "Whenever we hear someone talk about the virtues, we should know which ones and for what end" (25).
The heart of the book correlates the three paradigmatic questions of virtue ethics, borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre, with three important biblical themes from the synoptic gospels. Each paring is given its own chapter. In this way, "The kingdom of God as horizon and goal" answers the question "Who ought we to become?", "Disciples of Christ" answers the question "Who are we?" and "The sermon on the mount and Christian virtue" answers the question "How do we get there?" The authors' claim "that there is a strong congruency between the concerns of Scripture and the concerns of virtue ethics" (p. 67) is substantiated by examples, but is summarized nicely at the close of the book. "Virtue language arises naturally from the Bible. Why? Because the Bible reveals to us not only God's call to us but also the transforming power of that call. We are transformed precisely as persons, and the common language that has been used cross-culturally to describe transformed persons has always been virtue" (197).
The later chapters examine what Scripture and moral-theological reflection can say about specific issues, such as marriage, divorce, celibacy, homosexuality, abortion, and the environment. What is interesting here is Keenan's treatment of these matters within the context of fidelity and mercy, the latter being, along with reconciliation and hope, specifically Christian virtues, he argues. Threaded throughout the book is the proposal that the New Testament and the early church show us that Christian morality is more than simply motivating people to do what they already know by human reason to be the right thing. That is, notwithstanding the similarities between Christian morality and non-Christian morality (e.g., Jesus did not invent the Golden Rule or the command to love), these Christian virtues shape an ethic that is distinctively though not exclusively Christian in content or substance. This claim might stand in some tension with the claim of the cross-cultural significance of the language of virtue.
Though the book offers a nuanced Scriptural and theological perspective on the state (political authority), it does not unfortunately take up one of the central questions of our time, that of state-sanctioned mass violence (war).
In sum, Harrington and Keenan skillfully demonstrate how moral theology can be informed by New Testament studies. The way in which New Testament studies can be informed by moral theology receives less attention. Nevertheless, the authors "are proposing that our ability to understand any scriptural passage depends not on impersonal lenses but on a triad of character traits that are necessary to understand Scripture" (198), a welcome though perhaps controversial claim as it relates to the specialty of biblical scholarship.
While the book emerged from a class for graduate students, it rightfully seeks a hearing with professional theologians and pastors of all Christian traditions. I also recommend it as an upper division college theology text. The book contains a glossary of technical terms and, at the end of each chapter, questions for discussion.