Christian Social Teachings: A Reader in Christian Social Ethics from the Bible to the Present. George W. Forell, Editor, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2013.

[1] Why do we need a book such as Forell’s Christian Social Teachings? And, why do we need an update? As we will see, in an age where many suffer from historical amnesia, the excellent revision and expansion of Forell’s work by James Childs is a significant contribution to an important but neglected field.

 [2] Forell’s, Christian Social Teachings was first published in 1966, with a subtitle “A Reader in Christian Social Ethics from the Bible to the Present”.  Childs has revised and updated that volume. He has also strengthened the selections in the time periods covered by Forell.

 The Value of Forrell’s Original Work

 [3] First, one of the strengths of Forell’s original work was his emphasis on the Bible as a foundation for the Church’s social teachings. Second, in his selections, Forell did not want mere fragments, but substantive material. Third, Forell’s selections showed how individuals responded to specific issues in  particular historical situations.  Fourth, Forell’s selections were ecumenical. It was refreshing to see selections from Luther and Calvin side by side with selections by Thomas Aquinas and other medieval figures. The ecumenicity was limited, however, since there was no selection from anyone of the Eastern Orthodox Church following the East-West split in the year 1054.   

Revisions by Childs

[4] Childs divides Forell’s work into nine parts. He then adds two new parts covering a time period from 1966 to the 21st century.  Childs devotes “Part 1: Biblical Influences,” to selections from the Old and New Testament. He begins with the Ten Commandments (not in Forell’s   original). He adds a selection on the Jubilee year from Leviticus 25: 8-10 and the biblical selections that echo the Jubilee motif (Luke 4:14-21, Mt. 11:2-6), which is important for the Church’s social teachings. He also adds the Good Samaritan parable (Lk. 10:25-37) and a section on the dangers of material acquisition (Lk 12). Unfortunately, Childs deletes Rev. 13 which serves as a good balance to Rom. 13 regarding a Christian’s relationship to the world.

 [5] In “Part 2, The Early Church,” Childs follows Forell closely, adds a chapter to The Epistle of Barnabas, retains selections by Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. In his treatment of Augustine, Childs retains all but two of the original selections in Forell. He adds Augustine’s “A Good Marriage” (which provides keen insights into Augustine’ view of family), and also a section on Augustine’s important seminal thinking on Just War.

 [6] In “Part 3: The Medieval Church,” Childs deals with Monasticism, Mysticism, Thomas Aquinas, and the Medieval Papacy. On Monasticism, Childs deletes “The Sayings of the Fathers” but he adds St Francis’s Canticle of the Sun. Under Mysticism, Childs uses extensive excerpts from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s On The Love of God, one of the great works of the medieval period. It is refreshing to see Child’s addition of a selection from Catherine of Siena not in Forell’s original. In fact, there were no selections by women in the original. It would have been even more gratifying to see a selection from a Julian of Norwich in addition to Catherine of Siena.  Childs retains most of Forell’s selections from Thomas Aquinas.​

[7] In “Part 4: The Reformation”—we see some major differences between the selections of Luther by Forell and Childs.  Forell noted that he wanted to “illustrate the character of Luther’s Teaching” and began with Luther’s 95 Theses. Childs alludes to the 95 Theses in his introduction, but begins with Luther’s Treatise on Christian Liberty, which he correctly sees as a “foundational treatise for understanding Luther’s approach to the Christian Ethic”. Childs also deletes some of Luther’s letters including the one to the German nobility.  But Childs adds Temporal Authority; When Should it be Obeyed?, which provides excellent insights into Luther’s understanding of Church-State relationships. Childs also adds Luther’s Against the Robbing and Murderous Horde of Peasants, which shows one of the dark sides of Luther. Childs retains Forell’s selections on John Calvin, the Anabaptists and the Jesuit legacy.

 [8] In “Part 5: Post Reformation England and America,” Childs retains Forell’s selections on the Puritans, but deletes selections by John Milton, Richard Baxter (an important Puritan moderate), and Cotton Mather. Childs then adds a new selection from a very important figure in American religious history, Roger Wiliams’ The Bloody Tenent of Persecution. He also retain’s Forell’s selections from the Quakers, including Opposition to War and the Abolition of Slavery.

[9] In “Part 5: Eighteenth Century Voices”—Childs retains the selections by John Locke and Joseph Butler but dropped a selections by G. Lessing, The Tale of Three Rings, and also Thomas Paine’s, Age of Reason. On Pietism, Childs retains the selections by Philip Jacob Spener and August Hermann Francke but drops a selection by Count Zinzendorf. I concur that the work of Lessing and Paine are not too helpful for understanding Christian social teachings.

[10] A notable omission among these 18th voices is the work of Jonathan Edwards. The Forell selection from Edwards was deleted. Without a Cotton Mather or a Jonathan Edwards, the role of a major strand of American Protestantism is diminished in this revised volume.

 [11] In “Part 7: Nineteenth-Century Voices,” there is a major departure from Forell. On Schleiermacher, Childs substitutes a selection On Christian Social Ethics (from Christian Faith), for Forell’s Schleiermacher selection from On Religion, Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.  I think is a good swap since the focus of this book is on social ethics and social teachings. He retains the selections by Horace Bushnell but drops several selections in the original—by Herder, de Tocqueville, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, and a work by Episcopal Bishop Lawrence on the relationship of wealth to morals. All of these are valuable historical pieces, but I concur with Childs that they have limited value for Christian social teachings.

[12]    In this section, Child’s does add some significant new readings-- a selection by Frederick Denison Maurice, the prime mover of Christian Socialism in England, two very important African-American voices-Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas, and a selection by Albrecht Ritschl, an important pioneer in the development of liberal Protestant theology, including the Social Gospel movement.

 [13] In “Part 8: Nineteeth and Twentieth Century Catholic Social Teaching,” Childs retains the selection in Forell on Reum Novarum, but substitutes Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno  for other papal encyclicals. Childs retains the selection from Pope John XXIII Pacem an Terris  (an encyclical addressing the world as well as the Church) but drops Forell’s selection,  Mater et Magistra  and adds a selection from a significant Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.  These changes by Childs provide a more helpful understanding of the evolution of official Roman Catholic social teachings.

[14] Childs also adds selections from two important documents by the United States Catholic Bishops—The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and our Response (1983) and Economic Justice for All (1986). Both of these Roman Catholic documents have ecumenical significance.               

[15] In “Part 9: Early to Mid-Twentieth Century Voices,” Childs follows the selections by Forell on the Social Gospel - Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch. Childs follows Forell in the selections by Reinhold Niebuhr (from Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Justice and Love and Christian Faith and Natural law), but drops Niebuhr’s article on The Hydrogen Bomb.  In dealing with Tillich, Childs uses an excerpt from the more mature Tillich—Systematics Volume Three on the Kingdom of God, in place of the Forell selection from Tillich’s Love, Power and Justice. The selection by Karl Barth on the Christian Community and Civic Community is retained, and Childs adds an important piece from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (Concrete Commandment and Divine Mandate) along with his Letters from Prison.

 [16] Parts 10 and 11 deal with the contemporary setting and contain all new selections chosen by Childs--In “Part 10: Twentieth Century Feminist and Womanist Ethics,” Childs has chosen selections from three of the most prominent and influential feminist voices—Rosemary Ruether, Lisa Cahill, and Beverly Harrison, as well as three of the leading influential womanist voices—Katie Canon, Jacquelyn Grant and Delores Williams.           

[17] In “Part 11: Contemporary Issues--The Mid-Twentieth Century to the Present,” Childs has divided this lengthy part into seven sections (1) Justice and Liberation—with selections from Martin Luther King, Jr., the famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and excellent selections by James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Jon Sobrino--all pivotal figures in the development of African-American and Latin American liberation theology

          (2) On Human Sexuality, Childs has included important selections from the work of Charles Curran, Christine Gudorf, Margaret Farley and also statements from the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops and the World Council of Churches.

           (3) In the environmental arena, he has chosen four pivotal figures—Joseph Sittler, Larry Rasmussen, Sally McFague and James Nash. All four have had a strong influence in shaping the field of ecological ethics.

           (4) In biomedical ethics, the selections by Childs from Paul Ramsey, Joseph Fletcher, Richard McCormick, and Paul Jersild show pivotal figures who influenced  the discipline and yet represented varying viewpoints.

          (5) On a section of Pacifism, Just War and Terrorism, Childs has selected works by three important figures, Pope John Paul II,  David Hoekema on Practical Pacifism, and Jean Bethke Elshtain on a Just War on terror.                                                         

[18] Childs also includes a section (6) on Virtue Ethics with selections from the work of Stanley Hauerwas, Jean Porter and John Howard Yoder. (7) The final section deals with Trinitarian Theology and Social Ethics, with works by Catherine LaCugna and Jurgen Moltmann.

[19] It is important to note that true to the intention of George Forell, the new additions by Childs are substantive selections from prominent authors, and they are not fragments. That is an important feature of this book.

Overall Appraisal

[20]    It is clear that Childs was more interested in getting the best articulation of the subject’s position than Forell.  Forell had a bias in favor of selecting communications (Letters) made by individuals during specific controversies. Both approaches have merit, but they cannot be both achieved in a one volume work.  Much can be said about the selections Childs retained, those he added, and ones he deleted from the original Forell. All in all, although there are some losses, I think Childs has actually strengthened the selections in the time period covered by Forell. 

 [21] This book is well structured. the introductions to the selections are solid and useful. In some instances, the introductions by Forell are used, but usually modified by Childs to have more contemporary significance. The new introductions by Childs are pithy and excellent. The “Further Reading” sections after each part will prove to be very valuable to the reader who wants to probe deeper and further.  The documentation of the original sources at the end of the book is quite useful. In addition, there is a very useful "Thematic Organization of Sources" at the beginning of the book for those who want to address the readings by theme and not chronology.

[22] The presence of woman’s voices is much more prominent here than in the original. But in addition to modern women, there have been others significant contributors to Christian social teachings like Julian of Norwich, Hildegaard of Bingen, and many other women who deserve inclusion in subsequent compilations of historical Christian social teachings.

 [23] This book builds on the ecumenicity of the original, and expands it significantly. It has done a much more effective job in integrating the Protestant and Roman Catholic strands than does the original. The deficiency in the original however, of not having contributions by any Eastern Orthodox writers since the separation in 1054, was not corrected. It would have been helpful if there were included selections from at least one modern representative from the East, since Eastern Orthodoxy excels in integrating Trinitarian theology, ethics and divine worship in creative ways. The works of Nicholas Berdyaev, Stanley Harakas, Vigen Guroian, Patriarch  Bartholomew I (on ecological ethics) come to mind.

[24] Despite these shortcomings, I have high praise for this volume. Beginning with the Bible and moving creatively to the present is no small accomplishment. When I taught at Boston University School of Theology, I used to teach a graduate course on “The History of the Social Teachings of the Churches.” We used Ernst Troeltsch’s Social Teachings of the Christian Church as a basic text, but we always needed to supplement it with original historical sources and contemporary readings. If I were to teach that course again, I would use this revised book.

 [25] This book is valuable not only to the student of historical theology and historical Christian social teachings, it can also be valuable to ministers and their congregations. We all need to be continually reminded that we have all come from somewhere.  History does not begin with us. We can learn from those who went before us. As the philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  I think I have answered the opening questions of why we need such a book as Forell’s and why we needed an update.

[26] In an endorsement of the new revision, Charles Curran, a pivotal figure in Christian Ethics, especially in Roman Catholic circles, wrote: “...Forell’s classic book has come to life once again thanks to the outstanding revision and updating by James M. Childs. This book, with its impressive breadth, depth, and ecumenical sensitivity, provides a unique source for giving students access to the most significant texts in Christian social ethics from the Bible to the present day.”   I fully agree with that tribute.

The Rev. Dr. Norman Faramelli, now retired, was a former Lecturer in Philosophy, Theology and Ethics at the Boston University School of Theology, as well an adjunct professor in Christian Ethics at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.


© April 2014

Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)

Volume 14, Issue 4