Interview with Jeph Holloway: Contemporary Christian Ethics and the Importance of Paul

Dr. Jeph Holloway

Interviewing is loads of fun, especially if the person you are interviewing is someone as great as Dr. Jeph Holloway, prof. of Theology, Ethics, and Philosophy at East Texas Baptist University. My last blog post was a quick review of his latest book, published last April. If you are interested in ethics, theology, or philosophy at all check out the book. Link can be found on last post.

This post is the first in a series of transcriptions of the interview we did on January 22, 2014. Check it out below.

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Taylor: Could you give a quick “elevator ride” synopsis of your latest book that was published last year? If you understand what I mean by “elevator ride” synopsis…

Jeph: Sure. Yes. If I’m going up the elevator it depends on how tall the building is. But, quickly, my concern is to explore Christian ethics in a way that is first biblically informed, but because biblically informed will be something of a contrast to the way Christian ethics is so often pursued.

I understand the basic message of the bible to be addressing a question of the relationship between God who is the good creator of a good creation and the tension that is evoked with that confession. We live in a world that seems to be so different than the goodness unveiled in Genesis 1. We grapple with the questions of God’s goodness in light of personal struggle, societal conflicts, international tensions, and so on. And so we are pressed to ask the question: What is God doing about evil?

I think that the testimony of scripture in both Old and New Testaments is that God, through God’s redemptive work, is creating a people, whose lives sustained in worship, bear witness to God’s purpose for creation. I state that explicitly in the book, and the book intends to unfold that in a number of different ways, primarily in dialogue with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I believe that that sentiment, or that outlook, is canonical. And, if I had time or space in the book, and I had thought about doing it at one point, I would have shown that in the OT in the law, the prophets, the writings, and also in the gospels, in the book of Revelation, and in Paul himself.

I’m persuaded that too often whenever Christian ethics does give some engagement with scripture it does so piecemeal, with little snippets. It has an idea and has a verse that seems to purport that. I’m reluctant at having a large paradigm that I only support with a text here and there without substantive engagement in a prolonged, detailed way the biblical text.

And, so, since Ephesians is only 6 chapters you think “Well, that’s manageable!”  I selected Ephesians as something of the primary frame of reference for exploring these themes. I think Ephesians remarkably puts on display an emphasis that Christian ethics has to begin with what God is doing. So, a theocentric ethic. But what God is doing is what he is doing through Christ, a redemptive ethic. And what God is doing through Christ is not simply granting salvation from this world into the next world for the individual believer , but God through Christ is creating a people whose entire existence is reshaped, redirected, repatterned for God’s purposes in the context of worship where we can then be the kind of people who can exhibit to the world what God intended for creation from the beginning and where God will ultimately take all things.

Now that’s, that’s it in a nutshell. I hope that’s precise and concise enough.

But, what I do want to do with that, also, is to highlight the distinctiveness of this understanding of Christian ethics by way of contrast with other perspectives on the moral life. And so, for example, in the first major chapter, a theocentric ethic, I begin by asking first not “What should I do?” but, “What’s God doing?”. I draw comparison with Immanuel Kant who very intentionally, deliberately sought to drive a wedge between religion in general, Christianity in particular, and the moral life. He was seeking to establish the foundations of morality independent from any theological frame of reference.  Paul’s not doing that. Paul will be very particular in his insistence that the life he seeks to present in his letters is grounded in the character and identity and purposes of God. And so we cannot sever theology from ethics in Paul.

But, that’s just one example of my concern to present what I think is a Christian ethics by way of contrast with other models that so predominate in our culture.

T: I would say that was spot on. Great. It was a long elevator ride too!

Really tall building.

J: Well, there are some buildings that go up, ya know, 70 or 80 floors. If we were in New York we would still be on the elevator.

T: Kind of deviating from the book, but still staying in its realm, why did you first become interested in the study of Paul and did this lead organically to writing on ethics rather than, say, doing work specifically in sociology and foregoing, like some do, the ethical dimension?

J: Well, though there would be some among southern Baptists who might doubt this, I have always, since I became a Christian, been something of a Biblicist. My concern has been to understand what it is we find in scripture. To be frank that is part of why I am at somewhat of a distance from some circles in the southern Baptist convention. That I am willing to do that kind of work that seeks substantive engagement with scripture wherever it might go, even if it doesn’t conform to prevailing patterns of normalcy in some denominations. That’s my intent, that’s my own hunger, to understand what it is that we find in the Bible.

I took my first course in Christian ethics back in 1981 or 82 and became convinced that this discipline is where all the various disciplines in theological studies find their coherence. Asking, ok, we’re studying the bible, church history, theology, philosophy of religion and all that kind of stuff; but, where does it go? And how is this to shape the lives of God’s people in this world? And, so I believe that Christian ethics as a discipline has the concern to bring focus to any of a number of theological pursuits.

In my course of study I took a course on Ethics and the Letters of Paul. Ever since I had became a Christian and started reading the Bible I found Paul intriguing. That course further deepened my interest in and hunger to understand what Paul was up to. And I think, stepping back from it, for this primary reason Paul is the first one in the NT, the first of the writers of what we find in the NT, who is doing what I think Christian ethics needs to be doing: asking, “What does life within the sphere of the Gospel look like?”

And, exploring that, detailing that, writing about that within the context of real life issues in the early Christian communities that he primarily sought to establish, whether at Corinth or the churches of Galatia, or Philippi, or the churches in and around Ephesus.  Paul is the first one whose writings we have in the NT that is seeking to take the story of Christ, the Cross, Resurrection,  the fulfillment of the incorporation of the gentiles into the people of Israel through Christ, all of that and exploring, “All right, what does life look like for us?” And, “what is our calling in this world in light of how we understand God to be at work?”

So, I consider the letters of Paul to be fundamentally pastoral in that respect.  And, I think, that’s a basic reason why I’ve been so intrigued by the letters of Paul all this time. And, it’s been with me for the last 30 plus years, in teaching courses on ethics in the letters of Paul, on writing my dissertation on ethics and the letters of Paul. Then when Dr. Harris [Dean of School of Religion at ETBU] asked, “Well, we’re going to be starting a graduate program at ETBU; what course would you like to teach?”  It was, “Well, duh! Ethics in the Letters of Paul!”

Because I see in Paul that model of what I think Christian ethics needs to be, I find him to be a premier resource of what I hope to offer in terms of Christian ethics needs to be. 

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