Gustafson, James M.
James M. Gustafson 1925–
American theologian, educator, and author.
The following entry provides an overview of Gustafson's career through 1996.
A theologian and the author of several books about Christian life and ethics, Gustafson is best known for his landmark Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume I: Theology and Ethics (1981) and Volume II: Ethics and Theology (1984). Theocentrism, according to Gustafson, focuses on human experience, the proper ethical evaluation of which must be consistent with empirical scientific data and God's overall plan for the whole of creation—a plan that, he asserts, exceeds purely human interests. Such a perspective is at odds with the scripturally dogmatic Judeo-Christian anthropocentric approach, which views humankind as the focus of creation and God's activity. However, even though Gustafson requires religious piety as a foundation for construing right ethical-moral conclusions, traditionalist Christian ethicians still condemn theocentrism as naturalistic and non-Christian.
Gustafson was born and raised in Norway, Michigan. He served in Burma and India during World War II, and after returning home he received his Bachelor of Science from Northwestern University in 1948. He went on to receive a Bachelor of Divinity from the University of Chicago in 1951 and a doctorate from Yale University in 1955. For a time Gustafson served as the pastor of a Congregational Church. He taught at Yale from 1955 to 1972 and during that time he published his first book, The Advancement of Theological Education (1957). In 1972 Gustafson joined the faculty at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he wrote his landmark work, the two-volume Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective. Since 1987 he has been the Henry R. Luce Professor of Humanities and Comparative Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Gustafson's principal writings focus on the development of a new methodology for analyzing contemporary ethical issues. In his Treasure in Earthen Vessels: Church as a Human Community (1961), he emphasized the pivotal importance of history and culture in the development of the Christian life. With the publication of Christ and the Moral Life (1968) and On Being Responsible: Issues in Personal Ethics (1968), Gustafson began to examine various ethical approaches for moral-ethical decision-making. For example, On Being Responsible explores excerpts from the writings of Karl Barth, Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John XXIII, and Max Weber in order to clarify the role of personal responsibility in ethical decision-making. In The Church as Moral Decision Maker (1971), Gustafson calls for the Church to be a community that encourages moral discourse, while his essay in Moral Education: Five Lectures (1971) explores the notion of moral autonomy and accountability in contemporary ethics. Critically acclaimed for its careful scholarship, Theology and Christian Ethics (1974) examines moral education and discernment in moral decision-making, the role of the theologian and the scriptures in making moral decisions, the relationship between spiritual life and moral life, and the influence of history and science on moral decisions. The history of the development of various Christian ethical systems and their apparent convergence during the late twentieth century is the subject of Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement (1978). Earlier in his writing he showed a preference for relativism as opposed to objectivism. According to relativism, moral good is relative to a particular group and time, while objectivism asserts that there is some unchanging moral good that anyone can attain. However, Gustafson did not like the tendency of relativism to yield to subjectivism, in which moral good becomes whatever particular people say it is. In ethical discussions subjectivism requires that the world exists only for the benefit of human-kind. In religious discussions subjectivism turns God into the instrument to fulfill human wants. These pitfalls of subjectivism are part of what Gustafson refers to as anthropocentrism, or the view that human beings are at the center of things. In an effort to overcome anthropocentrism, Gustafson developed a new approach to ethics in his Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective in which he related four points: an interpretation of God, of the world, of persons as moral agents, and of how such persons should make moral-choices. The theocentric perspective views human experiences as being part of God's grand design for the universe and promotes the consideration of empirical scientific and historical data in ethical-moral decision-making, while denying the dogmatic and doctrinal primacy accorded the scriptures, theology, and tradition in defining the morality of a situation.
Gustafson's critics are varied in their reaction to his work, but they share a respect for the importance and erudition of his approach to ethics. Many critics question his explanations of faith, piety, and human suffering, while others wonder at his Christology and his notion of God. A common concern among traditionalist Christian ethicians is that Gustafson's work values empirical scientific data over and above traditionalist Christian anthropocentric theology, dogma, and doctrine. Most reviewers applaud the clarity of his scholarly style, and the thoroughness with which he covers the material. In addition, theologians and ethicians agree that Gustafson's work—especially his Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective—substantially contributes to the ongoing development of contemporary ethics.
The Advancement of Theological Education [with H. Richard Niebuhr and D. D. Williams] (essays) 1957
Treasure in Earthen Vessels: Church as a Human Community (essays) 1961
Christ and the Moral Life (essays) 1968
On Being Responsible: Issues in Personal Ethics [editor with James T. Laney] (essays) 1968
Sixties: Radical Change in American Religion [editor with R. D. Lambert] (essays) 1970
The Church as Moral Decision Maker (essays) 1971
Christian Ethics and the Community (essays) 1971
Moral Education: Five Lectures [with Richard S. Peters, Lawrence Kohlberg, Bruno Bettleheim, and Kenneth Kenniston] (essays) 1971
Theology and Christian Ethics (essays) 1974
Can Ethics Be Christian? (essays) 1975
The Contributions of Theology to Modern Ethics (essays) 1975
Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement (essays) 1978
Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume I: Theology and Ethics (essays) 1981
Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume II: Ethics and Theology (essays) 1984
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SOURCE: A review of The Church as Moral Decision Maker, in Commonweal, Vol. XCIV, No. 2, March 19, 1971, pp. 43-4.
[In the following review, Curran states that although the material in Gustafson's The Church as Moral Decision Maker is a bit dated, the church needs "the type of careful, reflective, analytic moral discourse which Gustafson handles so well."]
This slim volume [The Church as Moral Decision Maker] gathers together eight previously published essays by James M. Gustafson which are now grouped together around the two general themes of the church in society and moral perspectives on the church.
The subject matter of the essays is somewhat dated; for example, the first essay on Christian attitudes towards a technological society originally appeared over ten years ago. Since then there has been much theological discussion about technology and secularity. Likewise the essays on the church do not propose any radical new types of church community but rather assume that churches will continue to exist in the future much the same as they were a few years ago. One would never come away from reading this book with the impression that the church is experiencing any real crisis today.
This book does not attempt to suggest radical reforms in the church. No one would ever include these essays in any "futuristic symposium" on the church in the next...
(The entire section is 802 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Theology and Christian Ethics, in Commonweal, Vol CII, No. 16, October 24, 1975, pp. 24-5.
[In the following review, Dedek praises Gustafson's essays in Theology and Christian Ethics.]
James Gustafson is one of the ablest theologians of our time. His writings have made a significant contribution to ethical clarity. They also reveal a man of penetrating intellect, wide reading, profound faith, a natural skepticism, openness and fairness, and a finely balanced judgment. He is one of the truly wise men of our age. The Christian world still awaits his development of a systematic ethics. It would be interesting to see how Gustafson would put together the profound insights found in his disparate essays and reviews and in particular how he would put together the Lutheran and Calvinistic streams in his own ethical thought.
In the meantime Charles M. Swezey again has collected some of Gustafson's essays to make up the present volume [Theology and Christian Ethics]. Swezey also has written an excellent seventeen-page introduction which gives us a fine summary of some of the basic ingredients in Gustafson's ethical thought. Also a bibliography of Gustafson's writings between 1951 and 1973 has been compiled by the Reverend Ms. S. Anita Stauffer and is appended to the book.
The fourteen essays which form Theology and Christian Ethics were...
(The entire section is 537 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement, in The Critic, Vol. 37, July, 1978, pp. 4-5, 8.
[In the following review, Herr falls short of agreeing with Gustafson's theory, but he praises Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement as well-written and informative.]
Gustafson has earned the compliment which Goethe, with perhaps less justification, bestowed on Kant. Reading this short work [Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement] is like entering a lighted room.
His basic thesis is fairly simple, though perhaps debatable: both Catholic and Protestant ethicians are becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of their respective traditions; this may make it possible to reestablish a basis for a truly Christian, as opposed to sectarian, ethics.
The principal support for this thesis is a remarkably clear and concise historical analysis which no mere summary can possibly do justice. For early Christianity, Gustafson argues, as for Judaism, the concept of law was central to moral theology because a body of law was needed to guide the confessor and the rabbi in carrying out their professional duties. In the Catholic tradition this "juridical" approach led to the development of natural law ethics (and here Gustafson gives an explanation of the natural law tradition,...
(The entire section is 588 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume I: Theology and Ethics, in Commonweal, Vol. CIX, No. 13, July 16, 1982, pp. 408-09.
[In the following review, Maguire criticizes the theocentric view of God that Gustafson sets forth in his Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume I: Theology and Ethics, but asserts that there are still good things in the book.]
To embark upon elementary theological explanation is a very personal and generously self-revealing endeavor. It's also rare. Much theology settles for analysis of waves, leaving unexamined the unseen currents that define our direction and destiny. It is, therefore, an intellectual event when someone reaches for the radical metaphors and myths that sustain a dominant religious worldview and subjects them to bold scrutiny. When the author of such a venture is a well-known theologian whose work is admired by many, the significance of the event is extenuated.
James Gustafson's volume under review is the product of thirty years of energetic labor in the field of theological ethics. He has not undertaken previously a work of such scope nor, he says, will he do so again. He has given us a serious work meriting serious attention.
It is Gustafson's purpose to save us from our "egocentric predicament." His intention is that both Christian ethics and much of Western...
(The entire section is 1086 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume II: Ethics and Theology, in The Christian Century, Vol 102, No. 17, pp. 503-4.
[In the following review, Seltser lauds Gustafson's treatment of theological ethics in his Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective.]
This long-awaited [Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective] is the second volume of a systematic work by one of the most influential and respected figures in the field of Christian ethics. In his earlier volume, James Gustafson presented his basic theological position, which is summarized again in the first part of this book. He then compares his approach to that of several theological and philosophical figures, before moving on to "apply" it to four spheres of social life (marriage and family, suicide, population and nutrition, and the allocation of biomedical research funding).
In a brief review it is impossible to do justice to the range and depth of Gustafson's project. I shall merely identify two particularly distinctive features of his approach. First, his central theological claim is embodied in the title of the two-volume set. He is arguing against what he rightly considers to be the anthropocentric tendencies of most recent Christian theology; he insists that Christians cannot continue to assume that God is concerned ultimately with human salvation, or that history is established for the...
(The entire section is 605 words.)
SOURCE: "Consent in Time of Affliction: The Ethics of a Circumspect Theist," in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 22-36.
[In the following essay, Sowle Cahill summarizes the different points of Gustafson's argument from his Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective.]
The two volumes of Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective demonstrate again and predictably the reasons for which Gustafson is widely respected by his colleagues in theological ethics, even those who disagree with his recent difficult theses. These volumes exhibit familiarity with major and minor theological figures ranging across the breadth of the Christian tradition, and exemplify an unerring talent for homing in on the crucial lines of division among central theological alternatives, those on which other authors are more slow to focus, or to address directly. Both volumes propose a "theocentric" position in contradistinction from the anthropocentrism which Gustafson judges to have characterized most Christian theology and ethics. By "anthropocentrism" he means an interpretation of religious experience, faith, and theology which centers on humanity, and considers the deity's existence primarily in relation to human welfare (1981:96-99). Gustafson's fundamental project is to develop a perspective on God which begins from historical, social human experience and in which the affective dimensions of...
(The entire section is 6282 words.)
SOURCE: "Nature and Nature's God," in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 37-52.
[In the following essay, Toulmin discusses how Gustafson's Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective fits into the history of theological discourse, and he asserts that the author is both old-fashioned and revolutionary in his arguments.]
Early in Volume I of Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, James Gustafson quotes Alasdair MacIntyre's recent criticism of contemporary theologians: that they "are often more interested in other theologians than they are in God" (Gustafson, 1981:68). Nobody would ever criticise Gustafson himself in these terms. However unhappy some readers may be about his conclusions, the subject of his argument is never in doubt, and he never diverts us for long into the seductive by ways of current theological debate, such as "method," "interpretation," and the "transcendental" nature of religious ideas. Not only James Gustafson's "ethics" is theocentric: the same is true of his whole way of thinking and feeling. So, again and again in the two volumes of this important work, he quietly but insistently draws his readers back to the specific issues that are the immediate topics of his reflections: about the nature of any approach to matters of conduct that places at its center the relationship of human agents to God....
(The entire section is 6074 words.)
SOURCE: "Gustafson's God: Who? What? Where? (Etc.)," in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 53-70.
[In the following essay, McCormick analyzes Gustafson's Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective by questioning Gustafson in four areas: anthropocentrism, christology, revelation-inspiration, and practical ethics.]
The name of James Gustafson is associated with voluminous reading, disciplined scholarship, and exacting analysis—in a word, with critical erudition. In combination these qualities have instructed all of us, especially where we are inclined by our biases, loyalties, other pressures, or simply myopia to oversimplify problems or take convenient shortcuts. Gustafson's contributions over the years have been enormous, perhaps most enduringly on his peers and students. Because his work has taken us beyond the privacy and limitations of our own insights, I feel certain that Gustafson would welcome attempts at a similar service.
There are two facets of Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective [Hereafter Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Vol. I or Vol. II will be referred to as ETP, Vol. I or Vol. II] that I want to note here. First, these two volumes constitute Gustafson's Meisterstück. By that I mean that they gather systematically and order the fragmentary pieces of some thirty years of work. He seems to regard the...
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SOURCE: "A Response to Critics," in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 185-209.
[In the following excerpt, Gustafson responds to five critics of his Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective including Stanley Hauerwas, Richard A. McCormick, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Stephen Toulmin, and Paul Ramsey. He asserts that his critics missed many of his important points and misconstrued others.]
In 1981, I delivered the Ryerson Lecture at the University of Chicago, a lectureship which requires that a scholar present his or her work to an audience drawn from the entire university community. In that lecture, "Say Something Theological!", I stated the four major foci or themes of my work; it comes as close to a compact statement of my self-understanding, fully stated in Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, as I have produced. I shall quote the lead sentences from each part of the lecture as a backdrop against which I can address my interpreters and critics.
"To say something theological is to say something religious. Theology has its deepest significance within the context of piety, and in the context of a historic religious tradition."
"To say something theological is to say something about how things really and ultimately are."
"To say something theological is to say something ethical."...
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SOURCE: A review of Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Vol. II, in Interpretation, Vol. XL, No. 3, July, 1986, pp. 330-31.
[In the following review, Gunnemann asserts that one of the strongest parts of Gustafson's Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Vol. II "is the way in which empirical description informs the discussion of the four problem areas" that Gustafson presents.]
In this second volume [called Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume Two] of his major work in theological ethics, Gustafson uses the theocentric perspective developed in volume one to address more specifically ethical literature and problems. The first half of the work is a detailed comparison of his own approach with "benchmarks" from theology and moral philosophy, specifically, with the work of Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner, and Paul Ramsey in theology, and of Utilitarianism (especially John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick) and Kant in moral philosophy. The second half of the book addresses four contemporary "areas of human experience": marriage and family, suicide, population and nutrition, and the allocation of biomedical research funding.
Gustafson's overall aim is to show how "a comprehensive and coherent account of theological ethics" leads to and supports his method of discernment in dealing with moral problems. This complex account, worked out in volume one and...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Ethics from a Theocentric Prespective, Volume I: Theology and Ethics, in Reference Services Review, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1994, pp. 84-86.
[In the following excerpt, Gray summarizes the differences between the prevailing view of anthropocentric theology and Gustafson's version of a theocentric theology.]
The inherent logic of Gustafson's argument requires that he describe the prevailing perspective of anthropocentric theology before he sets forth his own preferred view of theology as a theocentrism. This he proceeds to do in his first chapter. The conclusion that most present-day theologizing is highly anthropocentric is inescapable when one examines the content of what are frequently called "religious studies" in academic institutions. Whether a course in religious studies has its point of departure in psychoanalytical, sociological, or anthropological emphases and doctrines, the central question to be asked essentially never varies: What benefits do human beings derive from theological beliefs? Those benefits may range from the crudely emotional to the highly intellectual. Gustafson describes the temptation into which an anthropocentric view of God leads us:
The temptation is always to put the Deity and the forces of religious piety in the service of the needs and desires of individuals, small groups, and societies…. Religion—its...
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Childress, James F., and William H. Boley. Review of Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume II: Ethics and Theology, by James M. Gustafson. The Journal of Religion 67, No. 3 (July 1987): 392-95.
Examines the "eight distinctive features" of Gustafson's theocentric ethics, including the role that piety plays in making moral assessments.
Connery, John R., S.J. Review of Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume II: Ethics and Theology, by James M. Gustafson. Theological Studies 46, No. 4 (December 1985): 738-39.
Praises Gustafson's Ethics from a Theocentric Prespective for bringing the theological dimension back into ethics.
Gaffney, James. Review of Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement, by James M. Gustafson. America 138, No. 17 (6 May 1978): 369.
Asserts that Gustafson is well qualified for explaining the differences in how Protestants and Catholics approach ethical matters and for explaining why they are so different.
Hauerwas, Stanley. "Time and History in Theological Ethics: The Work of James Gustafson." The Journal of Religious Ethics 13, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 3-21.
(The entire section is 598 words.)