Frederick V. SIMMONS, ed., with Brian SORRELLS .  Love and Christian Ethics: Tradition, Theory, and Society.  Moral Traditions Series.  Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2017. pp. 408.  $39.95 pb; $79.95 hc.  ISBN: 9781626163676.  Reviewed by James T. BRETZKE, S.J., Boston College School of Theology & Ministry, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.


The collection includes 21 chapters, plus an Introduction and Afterword, by a mostly by well-known Anglo-American senior scholars (including several emeriti), representing primarily Protestant and Roman Catholic backgrounds, but also with an essay each on a Jewish and Muslim perspective.  Six of the essays are by women and at least two are by authors who self-identify as gay, so there clearly has been an editorial attempt to represent a cross-section of views and approaches.  Conceived as a Festschrift for Yale emeritus professor Gene Outka, a good deal of the thematic motivation stems from a re-examination of the classic work of 20th C. Swedish Lutheran Anders Nygren on agape and eros, which of course Outka himself early established his reputation on analyzing.  The essays are organized into three areas: Tradition, Theory, and Society covering Western Christian thought about the ethical significance of love, enduring theoretical questions, and the implications of Christian love for social ethics.  An Introduction by the editor gives a concise overview of each contribution, and an Afterword by Georgetown’s William Werpehowski weaves together some (though not all) of the principal themes that emerged from the various chapters.

In the space of a short review it is impossible even to list the titles of each essay, but let me lift up one from each of the three parts of the collection.  In the Tradition Section Thomas Ogletree looks carefully at the context and purpose of the Old Testament Covenant found in Deuteronomy and then similarly does a carefully exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount to note contrasts as well as complementary features in understanding the biblical Love Command.  He concludes that the Sermon on the Mount is “congruent with Deuteronomy’s repeated declarations of the Lord’s steadfast love for the people of Israel and the corresponding summons to the people to love the Lord in return” but that Jesus’ “primary focus was to generate a grassroots movement devoted to renewing and transforming Israel’s formative traditions in ways that would enable people to orient their lives toward God’s ultimate redemptive purposes.  In important respects, this movement embodied Israel’s prophetic legacy, revealing what had been hidden and uncovering what was concealed” and “embrace not simply love for God and for neighbors and strangers, but also love for enemies and prosecutors.  Such love finds expression in concrete initiatives to address and to resolve deep-seated divisions and conflicts among human beings” (pp. 32-3).

In the Theory Section Sr. Margaret Farley’s “Forgiveness in the Service of Love,” gives an excellent theoretical overview of some of the contemporary concerns and debates dealing with forgiveness, especially in relation to social sin and oppression.  Particularly helpful is the notion of “anticipatory forgiveness” in situations in which full forgiveness and reconciliation cannot be realized in the concrete at this particular moment in time, but prepares for the possibility in which “the one who is forgiven (the perpetrator) acknowledges the injury and becomes able to recognize and accept, in turn, a forgiving embrace” (p. 167).

In the Society Section Cathleen Kaveny’s essay blends together in a most original and insightful manner her familiarity with Outka’s core work coupled with her own expertise in American law and theological ethics by reviewing a complicated marriage/divorce/contract case in the Wisconsin Watts v. Watts and outlining how a careful construction of law can help and/or hinder the larger purposes of theological ethics that Outka himself holds in his position on universal love, which “necessitates substantive, and not simply procedural, fairness in our treatment of these neighbors.  As such, laws and legal decisions that strain to articulate viably generalizable rules (for ‘distant neighbors’) at the expense of substantive fidelity to the individual persons involved in a case (‘near neighbors’) seem to fall short of the demands of universal love” (p. 270).

While the collection is solid and helpful throughout and generally well-conceived, it is still regrettable that the scope could not have been broadened a bit more to include perspectives that might come from non-Western traditions and to include authors who do their principal work outside of the Anglo-American axis.  Nevertheless no one book can meet every legitimate need and hopefully reflections on the authors represented here may well indeed spur others to publish articles or books which may complement, and even challenge, the main perspectives detailed here.