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Christian Ethics

Results Refine results Refine results Clear all. It was simply that their cultural and mental horizons excluded a fundamental assumption of our theology and ethics, namely, that the world is important. Hence any dialogue between modern Christian ethicists whose reasonings mostly presuppose that the world is here to stay, and first-century Christians who thought maybe it will end at tea- time tomorrow, is likely to be at cross-purposes.

It is easy to be alert to it in instances where biblical writers expressly indicate that their ethical statements are bound up with their imminentist eschatology e. Admittedly, appeals to the eschatological colouring of ethical teachings in the New Testament writings can be overdone. It may be significant that in an epistle which very clearly reflects the 'imminentist' expectations of one Pauline community 1 Thessalonians: cf.

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I remarked above that common sense tells us that the biblical writers' cultural and theological horizons are likely be different from our own. A less common sense will warn us that this may be so especially where the horizons of biblical writers appear to coincide with ours. For example: we may too easily assume that underlying the statements about sexual matters to be found in the Bible there is a universal, perennial rationale which must, therefore, make them directly relevant to us.

But this may be an assumption induced in us by our failure to enter into the cultural worlds of the biblical writers. For regarding, first, the Old Testament and the Old Testament, in matters sexual, has probably burnt deeper into the Christian psyche than the New , the factors which typically underlie sexual prohibitions in certain well-thumbed pages have more to do with cultural taboos where 'purity' is, from our point of view, non-moral and where, for example, menstruation, contact with a corpse, cross-dressing, same-sex relations and intercourse with animals are all deemed equally to be dreaded, and apparently for the same kind of reason , than with anything that most Christians nowadays would admit to thinking had anything to do with sexual morality, or else were based on considerations of 'property rights', such as may be quite foreign or even morally unacceptable to us.

Then, with regard to New Testament writers, we need to enquire from case to case to what extent their attitudes towards sexual matters derived from the same cultural sensibilities as those of Old Testament writers. Vatican II e. The following random reflections might alert us to the distance between present-day Christian convictions about sexual morality and those of New Testament writers: 1 In the whole of 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul discusses sex, marriage and celibacy, he never once mentions agape.

Power and Christian Ethics

This is especially odd from our point of view if as many interpreters believe Paul's purpose in that chapter was precisely to correct wrong-headed views on those subjects. He uses several different motiv- ations. Some of these are not easy to interpret, but respect for the other is definitely not one of them. Paul is apparently not at all concerned for the prostitute's well-being, and agape is conspicuously absent from the passage.

Lecture 1: Issues in Christian Ethics - Dr. John Feinberg

What would surely be a paramount consideration of most Christian ethicists today in any discussion of sexual morality simply has no look-in with Paul in this passage. Perhaps it is also significant 3 that the subject of sexual morality was nothing like as fascinating to New Testament writers as it is to us, and the Gospel traditions are almost totally silent about it. Then, in how many other areas would we need to query whether the ethical perspectives of some or all New Testament writers coincide with the best of ours?

It may be significant that in the very area where Christian ethicists have taken it for granted that they do — namely, neighbour love — there may in fact be a radical divergence or only a partial overlap. We should not assume that everywhere in the New Testament the love' that Bible readers warm to really measures up to our own best Christian appraisals of love. In some places it does; and sometimes it surpasses all that we might have thought love to be capable of. But this is not always so.

The love that is fervently commended in the Johannine epistles turns out to be a sectarian-type love, whose flipside is fear and hatred.

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Raymond E. Brown says of it: No more eloquent voice [than that of the author of 1 John] is raised in the NT for love within the brotherhood and sisterhood. Yet that same voice is extremely bitter in condemning opponents who had been members of the community and were no longer. Those who believe that God has given His people the biblical books as a guide should recognize that part of the guidance is to learn from the dangers attested in them, as well as from their great insights. For New Testament writers are typically concerned with the perfection of the subject who loves, and only obliquely, if at all, with the interests and needs of the one loved.

Christian ethical perspectives on marriage and family life in modern Western culture

From this one might infer that the New Testament writers seem not to know of the altruism that is cherished in the best of our own culture, and arguably, in the most really Christian souls; and that the love they commend is in the last analysis albeit ever so spiritually self-centred; 14 or, alternatively, one could take the difference in perspective as a cue for critical self-questioning about possible deficiencies in our own culture's evaluation of love.

But all that aside, the point I am concerned to make here is that there is a difference in perspective, and Christian ethicists need to be aware of it. The Bible's diversity The Bible is a collection of writings produced in many different cultural contexts over a very long period of time even the New Testament writings, in the judgement of most historical-critical scholars, are assign- able to a sixty- or seventy-year period. These writings are not like so many chapters of a catechism produced under editorial direction but, for the most part, free-standing literary works, whose authors held a wide range of theological viewpoints and who each chose one or more of a variety of literary genres through which to express them.

Even among New Testament writers, alongside a small number of fundamental beliefs held in common, there is a considerable diversity of theological and ethical viewpoints, extending even to the manner in which those fundamental beliefs are understood and articulated.

Problems arise only for dogmaticians and ethicists who link the Bible's normativity with its canonical status and who, in addition, care about theoretical consist- ency. For if canonicity renders the Bible normative, it must render all of it normative, even when elements in it stand in tension with each other or are mutually exclusive.

For ethicists, this problem presents itself perhaps most acutely in the New Testament writers' repudiation of at least some of the purity laws, which lie at the heart of Torah. For, as canonical texts they invite Christians to accept that at a very convenient point in time i. When Peter heard the voice from heaven telling him 'What God has cleansed, you must not call common [defiling]', it is not surprising that he was 'inwardly perplexed' Acts Purity laws apart, there still remains the problem what canonically minded ethicists are to make of those Old Testament passages which, for example, command or commend the ideology of holy war, or which speak of polygamy or adultery without batting an eyelid.

Most Christians, I imagine, now regard such texts as belonging to an irretrievably distant moral world. But on the logic of canonicity the discarding of 'obsolete' elements including the purity laws is possible only by way of arbitrary selectivity, or by appeals to some kind of progressive divine pedagogy, which comes to the same thing. For the notion of 'pedagogic progressivity' cuts more ways than one. If it justifies our discarding some elements in the Old Testament, does it not by parity of reasoning justify our discarding the lot a la Marcion?

But to discard all Old Testament ethical teachings as but yellowed records of some elementary stage of the divine pedagogy, now superseded, would be to deprive ourselves of many inspiring ethical perspectives which are lacking in the New Testament, and without which Christians' moral vision would be very much the poorer. For example, the Old Testament exhibits imaginations of God, creation and the future which differ markedly from those of the New Testament, but are not, surely, for that reason less to be cherished.

May not Psalm , for example, or the Song of Solomon, and all those Old Testament texts which celebrate joy in this creation be 'meant' as a counterpoint to the world-shunning attitudes of most New Testament writers? In any case, theories of progressivity beg the question as to where the progressivity is supposed to end. The usual view is that it ends with the revelation of the New Testament, seen as definitive Heb l:lf. But we need to be discriminating about New Testament ethical teachings too; and we can only be thus discriminating on some theory of progressivity which extends into the New Testament.

In reality, theories about a progressive divine pedagogy provide no honest way out of the problems which confront canonically-minded Christian ethicists. For even within the two collections taken separately there are a variety of ethical perspectives, and different or even plainly incompatible stances on some quite specific ethical issues. To confine ourselves to examples from the New Testament The ethical stances of Matthew and Paul are quite different which is not surprising, given that these writers were addressing two quite different forms of Christianity.

To his Jewish Christian community looking for ethical guidance, Matthew recommended Torah reinterpreted and reprior- itized in the light of his Christology and his appreciation of the Jesus tradition, and accommodated, so it seems, to his community's needs and to the requirements of an incipient gentile mission; whereas Paul wanted his gentile communities to put Torah out of mind,18 and to look rather to the Spirit, to community discernment and to traditional Christian baptismal catechesis supplemented by selective endorsements of current Jewish and Hellenistic moral standards as an adequate guide to conduct.

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And let us not complicate matters by noting that the Song had got lyrical about erotic love. Then, attitudes towards society at large differ markedly as between Paul's epistles and Acts; the ethical evaluation of the state and of civil authorities expressed in Romans —7 is hardly compatible with Revelation 13, or even with 1 Corinthians —11; and the evaluation of the moral condition of humankind extra evangelium is very different in Romans from what it is in Acts 17, and very different in Romans 2:l4f.

Then, even regarding such a particular issue as divorce In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus' prohibition is presented as absolute, whereas Matthew has Jesus include an 'exceptive clause' which has caused some exegetes, especially Roman Catholics, to engage in endless exegetical gymnastics aimed at showing that Matthew's Jesus after all admits of no exceptions to the divorce prohibition ; and Paul in 1 Corinthians —16, as it seems to some including, traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church in its canonical-legal practice ,21 allows for some accommodation of, or departure from, Jesus' prohibition in certain circumstances.

The diversity of the New Testament writers' moral teachings calls into question any use of the Bible which relies in one way or another on being able to speak of 'what the Bible says', or of 'biblical morality' or of 'the New Testament teaching'. Hays acknowledges that such a synthesis will require bold selectivity.


But any selectivity is bound to end up with a canon within the canon, which is a flight from the logic of canonicity and a common ploy of canonically-minded interpreters who want to have their cake and eat it. I leave aside for now the question whether it is possible to establish connections, parallels or analogies between the situations addressed by particular biblical writers then, and situations which typically confront us now — supposing that establishing such connections, etc. In the case of Paul's letters, for example with the possible exception of Romans , and in the case of, say, the Johannine epistles, so much is obvious.

It is perhaps less obvious in relation to the Gospels.

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They too, however, almost certainly had in view the circum- stances of particular communities. A careful study of each Evangelist's redactional strategy suggests so much. So it will not do to bring to the interpretation, say, of Matthew, only the general knowledge that he speaks out of the culture of some kind of first-century Jewish Christianity fatal as it would be to overlook this fact.