Review of:  Ogletree, Thomas W. The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics: A Constructive Essay. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

In his book, The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics, Ogletree attempts to delineate – by tracing the philosophical approaches of the biblical authors – a constructive recreation of biblical materials so as to contribute to Christian ethics and contemporary moral thought in general.  It is his explicit goal to avoid a full reproduction of biblical ethics a well as a full-fledged system of Christian ethics.  From the outset he makes it clear that although the book moves towards an explicit interpretation of notions gathered from his study these will be, by and large insufficient and await further study and systematisation.

Thus, in his study, the author is clearly positioned to attempt to find a fusion of horizons between contemporary means of understanding and the Bible.  The Bible can only have an impact on Christian ethics if it is re-interpreted, “fused”, to our contemporary horizon of meaning: “to say the same things as the texts, we must say something different, for that ‘same’ things can live again only if it’s expressed in a way that is suited to the different reality within which we live.”[1] To achieve this, the author proposes to look through the text using form and tradition criticism, arguing that it is the specific historical context and interactions of the text that will provide valuable insights into moral thought development in the Bible. To begin, Ogletree locates his study within contemporary structures of ethics and then proceeds to analyze Biblical material before drawing some conclusions.

The first step of this study proceeds as an analysis of current structures of moral being by way of phenomenological observation – mainly through the lenses of intentionality and intersubjectivity, while also making mention of embodiment and temporality.  The author states that it is because two horizons of being meet, the Bible and ours, that we need to look at current thought that has found roots in structures of being.  In Ogletree`s view, it is only from the standpoint of our reality that we can first meet the Bible and make it meaningful to the language of Christian ethics.  Thus he proposes three streams of moral pre-understanding that underlie the structures of the world: Consequentialism, Deontology, and Perfectionism.  Consequentialism concerns itself with the actions and likely results of actions (which we observe in economic and political sectors), while Deontology focuses on the duties and obligations that make for peaceful and just human interaction (institutionalized in our laws, courts, bureaucracies, etc.). Lastly, Pefectionism delineates the need for the development of the self, the becoming of a virtuous moral actor (this has basis in Aristotelian thought and can be seen most readily in schools, universities and prophetic religious groups).  Declaring that any single one of these approaches is inadequate by themselves, Ogletree proposes his own paradigm to encompass all three streams: historical contextualism. Noticing temporality as a common feature between all three approaches, Ogletree believes that this “historical contextualism” is the horizon that can transcend all other horizons of understanding, since it is temporal.  Acknowledging temporality as the unifying factor, historical contextualism serves to accomplish two things: it alerts us to concrete experiences in history that form our understandings and it asks us to look at the wider aspect of meaning in which our moral life is situated:  It demands that we question our “meaning of being”, a question that transcends all other inquiries as the most basic.

Having established his investigation from this standpoint, Ogletree moves to the Bible, specifically the Old Testament.  Through the understanding of covenant the author traces a line of thought from the Pentateuch to prophetic and post-exilic literature.  He begins on the premise that the obligations for Israel are not just a matter of a contract to be kept but are “integral features of their concrete social and historical reality taken in its totality.”[2] Israel as a covenantal people are people that have been give a gift (in the form of law) which is not there to oppress but to enable the giving of grace by a God who wants relationship, mediated by the understanding of Yahweh’s actions for his people in history.  In that sense, the moral life of Israel is already couched in terms of historical contextualism.  Practically, the language of the Old Testament is deontological in nature, explaining the roles and duties of a covenantal people of God.  Perfectionist language, when it appears, is subjugated to the notion of duty to the household and a tribal society.  It is only in post-exilic prophetic literature that perfectionist language appears as a standalone thought, while at the same time eschatology begins to take firmer roots.  Thus, the people of Israel move from a historically grounded covenantal relationship passing through the challenges of monarchy, prophetic criticism and post-exilic oppression and arrive at an understanding of the law apart from historical reality. Ogletree specifies that in its “final” post-exilic presentation, law becomes a historical point in time and not a set of duties mediated by continued historical experience.

This movement and development is best observed in light of two fundamental notions at stake for Israel.  Firstly, from the beginning Israel is seen as God’s people, and exclusively so.  This is challenged when monarchy comes into the picture and results in a re-orientation towards God and a call to the reformation of a holy people through prophetic criticism.  Post-exilic historical processes develop this thought further and introduce the language of eschatology bringing with it a hope for a brighter future (leaving room for an ethics of suffering in the here and now). At the same time Israel now becomes the shining light that will guide all nations to God (a clear re-phrasing of the idea of exclusivity).  Secondly, and in some ways paralleling this first idea, is the underlying call for justice in Old Testament literature. According to Ogletree, social solidarity is the key component of law – this can be readily noticed in tribal structures of Pentateuchal Israel. However, the introduction of monarchical structure challenges and endangers this solidarity and engenders calls for justice, which is at the core of prophetic criticism. It is with the introduction of eschatological thought that justice now becomes a hope for a better tomorrow while in the present there a focus on the inner person, in other words, the move to perfectionist moralities as interim solutions to the problems of flawed nature (for Ogletree this would coincide with the release of law from historical action).

This of course leads us to the next area of inquiry – the New Testament.  Despite a disclaimer that Pauline literature may come chronologically earlier, he begins his inquiry with the Synoptic Gospels. Here we do best to summarize some dominant themes.  Firstly, eschatology emerges as an overarching theme.  This is presented in the Kingdom of God/Heaven and rests in tension of the imminent presence versus the future arrival of this Kingdom.  It is the continuing theme and thus connects Old and New Testament. Secondly, this new eschatology gives way to perfectionist language, as embodied in the idea of discipleship: how to live out the reality of a new order while living the structures of the old.  Of course the Synoptic authors treat this topic differently, although a uniting theme is that discipleship will be disruptive to common social and family structures.  Thirdly, there is an emphasis on a new community, which is that of a gathered people.  In the authors view, this is clearly an outworking of the universalizing theme seen in later post-exilic Old Testament literature. According to Ogletree, the Synoptics move to treat community not as a tribal society anymore, but as a group of gathered people sharing in a community of faith and not bound by a cultic and social history.

Although this theme is examined more deeply under Pauline thought, it is important for Ogletree acknowledge the way the Synoptic authors treat the idea of Israel’s legacy.  He argues that Mark is most willing to break with that legacy, arguing that Israel has had their chance and God has moved on to the gentiles. Israel’s legacy does not involve the spreading of the law and customs, but it is through Israel’s displacement that the nations will come to God. On the other hand, Matthew and Luke seem more willing to incorporate Israel into this vision of a gathered people, albeit in different ways.  Both readily agree that the laws and traditions of history should be kept; but while Luke sees the gathered people as engrafted to a truly repentant Israel, Matthew chooses to re-interpret the law in terms of the command of love. This changes the thrust from the deontological to the perfectionist, and in many way stretches the categories of legal language.  Despite these differences, however, all Synoptic authors see a practical displacement of Jewish tradition and laws.  The thrust of universalization is now directed toward cultural and social realities of a Hellenic world.  In the final balance, therefore, Ogletree does not perceive the Synoptics to present a balanced biblical social ethic.  Rather, Ogletree would argue that Matthew and Luke’s respective focuses on forgiveness and stewardship of possessions pose interesting challenges to current moral thought and structures that could be further developed in non-biblical ethics.

Before concluding his study, Ogletree gives us a brief glimpse into Pauline thought.  In the author’s view, Paul continues the same line of eschatological thinking as Mark.  He is concerned with the identity of an eschatological community and its fidelity to Christ (or discipleship).  However, what distinguishes Paul is that he breaks even more clearly from Jewish legacy by moving to redefine the gathered community as a people of promise.  In Ogletree’s opinion, therefore, Paul sees the law as having been fulfilled in Christ.  Abraham, who had faith based on the promise of God, becomes to the historical marker rather than Mosaic law.  Thus all can be saved, Jews and Gentiles alike, through faith in Jesus Christ.  This is enacted in the image of death and resurrection: “Christian existence is dying and rising with Christ in ways appropriate to the various relationships in which one stands.”[3] Paul elaborates this with reference the body of Christ as a multicultural community.  The Body of Christ is made up of all who believe, regardless of culture. As such it is concerned with making all feel as integral part of the community. The Body of Christ also serves as dialectic between the new order and the old as it holds togetherness in respect and harmony above all earthly structures and conventions.  In this light, what is in the old order is relative and only significant as we need to make use of it to survive.  What becomes important is the existence within the church of a body that respects all and asks for respect from all, that celebrates diversity and holds unifying love above all else.  Ogletree does leave room to allow that Paul might have made allowance for a gradual eroding of unjust structures of the old order in the form of gentler language, but that pseudo-Pauline writings misunderstand and appropriate this into more fundamental compliance with old social orders (such as inequality of women, etc.)[4] While Ogletree does consider the implications of some the command-like sayings by Paul, he places these firmly within the frame work of perfectionist language, which he argues transcends Paul’s writing. In Ogletrees opinion, it is the multicultural and tolerant nature of the gathered community that, in the end result, holds the most appeal and challenge for modern ethical thought.

Ogletree concludes his study by connecting some of the common notions noticed in his previous analysis.  He concludes that for the church to be effective in this world, it must concentrate on remaining an eschatological community engaged in the dialectic of the present and the not-yet present realities.  It is the church’s responsibility to bring to concrete existence that which is promised. This of course enters reality itself as dialectic, since the old structures resist the new, both within us and socially. Thus, the churches responsibility is primarily to be the Body of Christ and as such has some but limited capabilities to hold accountable existing social structures. The presence of the church in social ethics only goes as far as being a dialectic eschatological community. On the other hand, Ogletree will readily break with Paul as he encourages a continuing dialectic between promise and law.  He argues that “to represent matters which have been…settled in negotiation process, and to keep those matter before the community, the language of law reappears as an essential vehicle of moral understanding.”[5] Thus, it is pre-exilic Israel that continues to provide a measure of accountability to an otherwise fully perfectionist language (although perfectionist in relationship).  In the end, however, Ogletree almost fully rejects Synoptic treatments of ethics and aligns himself fully behind Paul.

Overall, Ogletree produces a good study with some great insights.  One particularly enlightening insight is his discussion on the treatment of the law in the Synoptic Gospels and the ethical dimension that it spells out.  His approach to the Bible by fusing it with our own reality, by describing certain understandings of the moral life structuralized in the current social ethics, is also enriching and provides food for thought.  I am not quite sure, however, whether his use of historical contextualism is as helpful as he suggest it is.  He seems right to argue that the “meaning of being” question underlies all inquiries into morality and existence; however, it is my opinion that giving it a more prominent role in the analysis would have been wise.  Although Ogletree consents that historical contextualism inherently exists within the other three approaches he outlines, he nevertheless spends too much time trying to identify the specifics of each theme within the biblical text and often glosses over historical contextualism, leaving it implicit rather than explicit.  Thus he can, for example, claim that Israel is pre-critically a society based on historical criticism, which frees him to then quickly move onto deontology and perfectionism.  In the same vein, he moves quickly from a society that is based on an active understanding of what God has been doing to a post-exilic, eschatological New Testament view of what God is and will be doing, since both still require a temporal horizon and deal with the larger issue of meaning of being.  It is in my opinion that an important aspect of historicity is lost within this rapid movement from past to future and misses an important dimension of the Christ event, which not only looks forward as it brings something to the now and the future, but also looks backward to the beginning (as Creator enters creation).  What falls by the wayside for contemporary Christian ethics therefore is a grounding of the gathered people in a movement larger than themselves, one that precedes and proceeds and one that places its meaning of being not on the future saving activity but on the already accomplished redemption in the past of what is being brought into existence now.

This permits Ogletree to present a somewhat ambiguous notion of the social importance of the people of God, or the gathered community.  This I believe is most exemplified in the fact that he seems to imply that only in Paul do we find a viable way for the church to be socially relevant. This only happens in two ways however: firstly, as a Body of Christ in dialectic with the world; secondly, by challenging the established order, but only through individual voices and feeble statements. Even Paul, he argues, sees the social order as relative and passing, and therefore not within the realm of the church’s grasp.  Thus he completely rejects the notion of social ethics within the Synoptic, thereby insisting that the importance of Christ is confined even-handedly to the perfectionism of following the virtuosity of Christ and the activity of promise and grace.  What gets left behind is the question of whether Christ, as a historical moral actor, has anything to say to the structures he was living in – an answer it seems that Ogletree would give as “no,” since Christ-activity in so far as it is historical is grounded only in eschatological terms.

I would argue, however, that discipleship becomes more than perfectionism (even if qualified in a relational paradigm) and is grounded on the historical activity of a Creator redeeming all of creation – which certainly applies to all earthly structures as well – in dialectic with the past, present and future. Henceforth, the church becomes an embodied presence of redeeming activity that is actively bringing the future into being while redeeming the past. This provides room for continuity within the Synoptics (bringing unity between themes of forgiveness and stewardship), and also between the Old and the New Testament. Similarly, it would also lend an improved understanding to the ideas of crucifixion and resurrection, continuing a historical theme in Christ and a valid social ethics paradigm. This provides new possibilities and allows more room for an ethic of suffering that is not only personal but also has social meaning (such as we find historically in the Anabaptist movement, for example).  In other words, it is my opinion that the entering of the divine into history carries huge implications for the social structures it touches.  Thus it is not only the eschatological nature of the gathered community, but much more so it’s very structure, existence and activity that becomes of social importance in this world. And while Ogletree does seem to come close, he does not seem to want to provide enough social space for the institutional church as it gets lost in an unending dialectic between what is already coming and what is yet to come. In the end, it is of fundamental importance that Ogletree places Christian ethics itself in a sort of dualistic existence. On one hand he proclaims the importance of biblical material for the gathered people of a promise, while on the other hand he wants to draw out themes that might help and challenge contemporary secular ethics. He does not seem to be interested in their enactment in a faithful community that is rooted in the historical involvement of Yahweh, but rather wants to see these themes as a standalone criticism or challenge to contemporary ethics.

The underlying problem seems to be Ogletree’s use of the Bible itself.  As he attempts to fuse the two horizons of meaning he seems to give prominence to our current structures of ethics.  It becomes important for him to find contemporary ethical thought in Biblical literature, and is thus forced to make contemporary thought more important than it maybe should be. To give the Bible its proper space requires us to also give the Bible the time to and importance to create new understandings and new structures of ethics that do not exist yet or have been forgotten.  This of course is not what Ogletree attempts to do, but maybe it would be important to do so.  One category I would propose is to give more space and time to the concept of revelation as a biblical ethical understanding.  Thus, the Bible becomes more than just a document that needs to situated in a social and historical context but as a continual breaking in of the divine in contemporary reality.  Within the Bible itself, revelation becomes a key concept that allows for relationship between God and this world and that allows for incarnation and embodiment, as the world participates in God, or God participates in this world.  Therefore, the covenant enters as revelation, prophetic criticism is phrased as divine language and God enters concretely into history as human through the divine revelation of Jesus Christ.  One could even find revelation categories in Pauline thought, for example, in his writing about the mystery of Christ.  This new category would allow for more profound impact of the Bible for Christian ethics because it focuses on God’s continual redeeming action for structures, people and nature. For example, it would require of us a more detailed reading of the life of Jesus Christ as an ethical category and locate discipleship within the realm of the socio/political. The gathered community becomes an extension of God’s revelation on earth and thus participates actively in this redeeming work and provides a challenge to secular ethical thought.  And the Bible, as the canon of this eschatological community is the mediator of this revelation as it continually points us to what God has been doing, what he is doing, and what he will be doing.


[1] Thomas W. Ogletree, The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics: A Constructive Essay

(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 3.

[2] Ogeltree, Use of the Bible, 50.

[3] Ogeltree, Use of the Bible, 152.

[4] Ogletree argues that Paul sees women as fully equal, with the exception of two “inserted” passages all truly Pauline writings see women as equal partners.

[5] Ogeltree, Use of the Bible, 201.

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