Reviews of

Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics

In Bloomsbury, David G. HORRELL, NT Ethics, Paul, Samuli Siikavirta on October 26, 2010 at 2:55 pm

2010.10.05 | David G. Horrell, Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics. London: T&T Clark, 2005. 360 pp. ISBN 0567083349. Hardback.

Reviewed by Samuli Siikavirta, University of Cambridge.

You can find the author’s response to this review here.

Horrell concludes with three alternative ways of appropriating Pauline ethics to contemporary situations and dilemmas. As the first alternative, Horrell presents thinking ‘with’ Paul along the lines of Hauerwas’s ecclesial ethics, secondly, ‘beyond’ Paul to offer a mediating position between communitarian and liberal ethics, and thirdly, ‘against’ Paul due to the sheer differences between our plural society and the Pauline communitarian context.

The primary goal of David G. Horrell’s book is to bring Paul’s ethical teaching into interplay with contemporary ethical theory. Horrell’s motivation for bringing Paul back from the allegedly irrelevant world of overly contextual ancient Judaeo-Hellenistic thought is a healthy one: it is too often the case in the current ethical debates that tear up Christian churches worldwide that some or most of Paul’s ethical teaching is simply dismissed as if its date of expiry had passed long before John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Horrell insists on the NT being relevant to modern ethical theory (p. 32).

The name of the book, ‘Solidarity and Difference,’ conveys the twofold challenge faced by Christian and indeed Pauline ethics: finding the balance between concern for the other (the ‘Christian’ attitude) and leaving the other alone (the ‘Jewish’ model). In other words, the fundamental question asked by the book is: “How did Paul – and how might we – conceive of human communities as places of solidarity and difference?” (p. 44) For these concepts, Horrell is particularly indebted to the work of Daniel Boyarin whom he considers his forerunner and one of the few scholars to have undertaken to bring Paul beyond the church to the wider community as well. To take Paul’s ethics to the social, political and public spheres of contemporary societies may be contrary to the Apostle’s original intention, Horrell admits (p. 46), but keeps Paul topical to our world today. Horrell does not even try to start to deduce from the exegesis of the NT text like many other NT ethicists (e.g. R. Hays who sets out with ‘listening to the text’) but lets his exegesis be shaped by questions arising from the chosen context of contemporary ethical debate (p. 273).

Horrell agrees with Victor P. Furnish in that Paul writes primarily as an apostle who works and writes his ethical convictions within the narrative framework “of the whole redemptive event of Christ” (p. 45). He rightly sees a strong, inseparable connection between Paul’s theology and ethics – even if the two are forcefully separated by many. Similarly, the author laments the gap between the rather arbitrary fields of Christian ethics and NT ethics – a gap that has been widened in the past four to five decades in academic theology.

Horrell focuses on the Pauline epistles as “precisely conscious reflection on moral issues, (…) a kind of moral philosophy,” contrary to Meeks who finds it hard to see the links between the Bible and contemporary ethics of any considerable, non-anachronistic value (p. 31). The author wants to avoid the Bultmannian idea that the ‘indicative’ and the ‘imperative’ in Paul’s ethics be self-contradictory and paradoxical. He tackles this thematic via social-scientific perspectives (ch. 3).

Horrell begins his book with a thorough and helpful account of the exegetical and systematic debates around Pauline ethics from the 19th century onwards. He approaches the major scholars through the themes of the Bultmannian indicative – imperative debate, the sources of Pauline ethics, and its socio-political applications.

In the second chapter, the author goes on to give an outline of the contemporary ethical theory. He explicitly states it will not function as the model of the interpretation of Paul’s ethics but as a mere introduction to the modern ethical field as a backdrop to the later discussions. The focus is on the Anglo-American debate between the liberal and communitarian approach to political ethics. Again, Boyarin’s thoughts of the Pauline balancing between human solidarity and the valuing of difference carries a lot of importance here. As representatives of the two strands, Horrell has chosen Jürgen Habermas’ Discourse Ethics and Stanley Hauerwas’ Ecclesial Ethics. His account is factually very clear, systematic and easy to understand and is given helpfully at the beginning of his book to the theologian who knows little about political ethics. Horrell sees both differences and some common ground in the two approaches. All in all the account of the debate “sets a contemporary scene” for Horrell’s reading of Paul (p. 81). For instance, the appeal to universal rationality in Discourse Ethics raises interesting questions about Paul’s foundation for his ethics.

In Chapter three, Horrell sets out to place Paul in his conceptual framework for understanding what his “texts are, what they are doing, and how we should conceive of Paul’s ‘ethics’ within them” (p. 83). It is a narrative myth constructing a symbolic universe and giving meaning and order to the lives of those who dwell in it that Horrell takes as Paul’s conceptual framework. Of course, by the myth Horrell means the narrative of the saving work of Jesus Christ. This is a myth enacted in ritual, the author holds, a narrative that forms a community in which its members’ worldview and ethics are both shaped by it. Because of the close interconnectedness of the narrative of Christ and the ethics of the community, Horrell suggests not only the explicitly parenetic passages in Paul can be taken as ethical but that everything there is relevant. This is a bold claim emphasising the connection between Paul’s theology and his ethics. And, as far as the liberal-communitarian debate is concerned, Horrell holds that Paul’s view is in the light of this framework closer to the communitarian approach.

Chapters 4 to 8 comprise the exegetical part of Horrell’s study, coming after the introduction of the contemporary ethical debate. It would be impossible to go through Horrell’s exegesis satisfactorily in this short space. Suffice it to say that the author goes through the construction of the Christian ethical community (ch. 4), the moral boundaries of the community (ch. 5), the Pauline teaching on ‘other-regard’ betwixt the strong and the weak (ch. 6), the imitation and teaching of Christ (ch. 7) and the Pauline references to universal ethical principles shared by all people irrespective of culture or religion (ch. 8). To go through all these vast Pauline themes in such short space cannot do justice to all the riches therein for Horrell either. For instance, he only spares four and a half pages for discussion on baptism. He does rightly observe that being baptised into Christ and made one body is not merely about sharing in the same salvation but also about a duty to treat others as members of the same body that transcends social and gender boundaries. “The basis for solidarity, for the construction of community, as the central Christian ritual show, is found in Paul’s Christology: as believers make the story of Christ their own, participating in his death and new life, so they leave behind the old world, and become members of one body, in Christ.” (p. 132) The Christological foundation of baptism for the lives of Christians and ethical living would, however, deserve more scope for discussion.

The main focus of this review shall be on Horrell’s concluding theses about the shape of Pauline ethics and their application in our time. As to the shape of Pauline ethics, the author presents seven theses. (1) “The ‘metanorms’ of Paul’s ethics are most concisely described as the imperatives of corporate solidarity and other-regard.” By metanorms Horrell means the principles that determine the moral framework of ethical practice in the Pauline communities. The author holds that ‘corporate solidarity’ was emphasised because of the Pauline impulses towards egalitarianism. To Horrell’s ‘other-regard’ belong love, love of neighbour, social humility, renunciation of status etc. By detaching these metanorms from “Paul’s mythic discourse” (cf. Hays’ ‘cross’ and ‘new creation’), he seeks to make Pauline ethics more widely applicable. Whether this does justice to Paul’s own thinking can yet again be disputed.

(2) “Corporate solidarity does not imply the erasure of difference: Paul is concerned to sustain diversity within the ecclesial community, including differences of ethical convictions and cultural practices, though only insofar as these fall within the limits of tolerable diversity determined in part by the obligatory metanorms.” Simply put, Horrell means that the imperative of solidarity does not equate with sameness. He maintains that the moral consciousness taught by 1 Cor. or faith in Romans help the Christian determine whether a difference is legitimate or ought to be erased. The metanorm of ‘other-regard’ can be seen in action clearly in the Pauline instruction on eating or not eating food – it requires tolerance. Diversity can only be allowed if it does not destroy the solidarity of the community in Christ, as all Christians are in union with Christ.

(3) “Within the context of corporate solidarity, other-regard is the moral imperative that enables the other to remain different, even in relation to ethical convictions. Yet this also implies the relativization of these different identities and ethical stances, insofar as they are regarded as different possibilities encompassed within a wider basis for  solidarity and identity, where certain moral obligations are incumbent upon all.” Again, it is all about generous other-regard, tolerance and acceptance rather than moral concord to Horrell. The Jewish food regulations work as a concrete example of his point: tolerance for those whose consciousness does or does not allow for eating foods forbidden by the law must be exercised while demonstrating solidarity in Christ, particularly in the eucharist. What defines the Christian identity is union with Christ instead of cultural or ethical practices. This sounds right but does make me think whether Horrell dismisses ethical concord too easily – after all, he himself acknowledges that Pauline ethics cannot be separated from Pauline theology.

(4) “The solidarity of the Christian community is depicted as that of a pure and holy community, standing in sharp distinction from the world. Yet the rhetoric of distinction is counterbalanced by the indications that ethical values are to a considerable extent shared in common and that social interaction remains in various respects open.”  Horrell believes that what distinguished the Pauline Christian communities from the ‘world’ was not its utterly different set of morality but its more thorough obedience of the ethical values it shared with the non-Christians. This is why, the writer thinks, Paul had to push transgressors outside the Christian community as he does in 1 Cor. 5, for otherwise there would be no distinction between ‘us’ and the ‘world’. I am left to wonder whether Horrell does indeed forget about his own claim that Christian ethics ultimately stems from the effectual narrative of the Christ event. It sounds unjust to the narrative itself to claim that redemption from the personal power of hamartia and freedom from it would not make Christian morality utterly different in its very core from that of the non-Christian Hellenistic world.

(5) “Although Paul’s ethics are focused on the ecclesial community, there are explicit indications that he sees a common knowledge of good and evil as accessible to, and attained by, humanity in general. He also exhorts Christians to do ‘good’ to all, by which he means that which all will recognize and affirm as good.” Romans 1 – 3 does imply this, and Horrell’s point about submission to the knowledge of good and evil of the non-Christian rulers in Rom. 13 together with the exhortation to do good to all point to the same. However, what about the motivation and reasoning for this kind of moral activity? Does it not make a difference how Paul thinks the Christian has died with Christ to sin in baptism and will rise with Christ on the last day to a wholly new sin-free creation? Does not this fundamentally Christian motivation for moral living distinguish the whole of Paul’s ethical teaching from the non-Christian knowledge of good and evil?

(6) “Paul’s ethics are thoroughly grounded in the myth which constitutes Paul’s ‘theology’, the story which establishes the world-view and the ethos he promotes. His reflective moral arguments also depend upon this theology for their content and motivations. Christology is especially important in giving shape and substance to Paul’s ethics.” There we have it. Despite this sixth thesis and Horrell’s insistence on his not undermining the uniquely christological foundation of Pauline ethics, he runs the risk of doing so. It is helpful, however, that he shows how Christology forms the foundation for both solidarity and other-regard.

(7) “While Paul’s theology and especially Christology shape the substance of his ethics at the level of metanorms, provide the basis for moral argument and motivation, and determine the ways in which distinctive identity is  conceived and practised, they cannot explain why Paul holds certain specific ethical convictions, for example, concerning what constitutes sexual immorality. These reflect substantive convictions shared with, and derived from, his contemporary world, especially Judaism.” Paul does not explain, the author thinks, why union with a pórnê tarnishes the Christian’s union Christ and the marital union does not – he simply presumes the latter is right and the former wrong similarly to his contemporary Jewish thinkers and Greco-Roman philosphers. Horrell holds that precisely because the Pauline ethical convictions are to such a great extent shared with and derived from the world, they can be viewed also in the light of the liberal-communitarian debate of today.

And this is indeed what Horrell does in four theses. (1) “Paul’s ethics exhibit a fundamental congruence with Hauerwas’s ecclesial ethics and (thus) share basic characteristics of the communitarian approach.” Paul is similar to Hauerwas in that both of them exemplify a –“communitarian-type ethic” in which moral identity is formed within a community with a strong tradition and via practices (rituals) that form its character. By the rituals, Horrell rightly refers to baptism and the Lord’s supper discussed more thoroughly in chapter 4 of the book.

(2) “Notwithstanding the basic similarity of approach, there are various respects in which Paul’s way of doing ethics raises critical questions about the convictions and priorities of Hauerwas’s ecclesial ethics, not least concerning its polemic against liberalism.” Horrell criticises Hauerwas for not acknowledging that without the secular ‘liberal’ debate on slavery and women’s rights, for instance, there may not have come a time when they were considered unethical from a Christian perspective. Horrell holds that precisely because of the scope of universally shared ethical principles that Paul allows for, this kind of moral reasoning that comes from the outside cannot be dismissed as non-Christian and therefore wrong. The author seems to exhort his readers to fruitful dialogue with ‘outsiders’ to find common ethical ground. In this way, Horrell maintains, Paul can be seen much more friendly towards liberalism than one might initially think.

(3) “There are clear and basic differences between Paul’s ethics and the liberal approach represented by Habermas’s discourse ethics, but there are also notable and significant structural and substantive similarities.” Appeal for consensus, unity and harmony, within which tolerable differences can be valued; appeal for solidarity and other-regard; appeal for tolerance within a framework of intolerance. These are all shared with the liberal ethical approach. Horrell’s point is rightly not to convert Christians to support the liberal system blindly, but to point out that the differences between Christian ecclesial morality and liberal ethics cannot be drawn so sharply as one might want.

(4) “Notwithstanding the similarities between Pauline and liberal ethics, Paul’s approach to ethics supports certain criticisms of the liberal project emanating from the communitarian perspective.” Horrell rightly asks, “How are the (liberal) values of plurality, tolerance and difference, and the social solidarity which they presume, to be fostered, motivated and exemplified, if not through some kind of traditioned story, embodied in rituals and communally shared?” The narrative framework of the Christ event and the Christians’ participation in Christ through baptism and the eucharist is indeed a powerful “traditioned story”.

Finally, Horrell concludes with three alternative ways of appropriating Pauline ethics to contemporary situations and dilemmas. As the first alternative, Horrell presents thinking ‘with’ Paul along the lines of Hauerwas’s ecclesial ethics, secondly, ‘beyond’ Paul to offer a mediating position between communitarian and liberal ethics, and thirdly, ‘against’ Paul due to the sheer differences between our plural society and the Pauline communitarian context.

In the first alternative of thinking ‘with’ Paul, it is helpful to point out that Paul always wrote to communities of Christians and that even his appeals to universal ethics touch on the people within this particular community. As a correct critique of Hauerwas, however, Horrell notes that Paul is not concerned with  withdrawal from the world but with being  the Church in the world. Again, the author reiterates his conviction of how Pauline sexual morality derives mostly from his contemporary world. He also emphasises again Paul’s shared ethical convictions between the Greco-Roman and Jewish world.

The second option stems from the fact that even when Paul “most strongly appeals for the purity of the ecclesial community, his appeal also intimates that the ethical norm is shared by all (1 Cor. 5:1-13)”. Paul is concerned with the Christian in-group fulfilling the contemporary moral standards more perfectly than the outsiders, and by doing so he acknowledges that there is a shared morality between Christians and non-Christians, Horrell insists.

Thirdly and lastly, Horrell asks whether Paul’s treatment of the cultural pluralism of his Christian communities could offer potential for social thought in our modern societies faced with pluralism. Gently but rather surprisingly, Horrell suggests the possibility of creating new foundational myths on which a universal ethic can stand irrespective of the Pauline insistence on the foundation being found in Christ alone. The model for this is found in Paul’s attempt to unite Jews and Gentiles in one communal body with a new story, i.e. that of Christ.

What this new story or these new myths may be remains unanswered by the author. It is here that Horrell’s interesting attempt to make Pauline ethics relevant to our times limps at its worst. Who knows, perhaps it is his intention. Perhaps the message between the lines is, after all, that to be truthful to Pauline ethics is to view it in an ecclesial context that may, in its own part, make a difference in the worldwide community. This, as opposed to the attempt to create new myths out of nothing to replace the Christological foundation of Pauline ethics, would be an easier point with which one may agree.

Samuli Siikavirta
University of Cambridge
mss43 [ at ]


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