James M. Gustafson Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


Charles E. Curran (review date 19 March 1971)

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 century or even the church in the '70s. There are no sweeping criticisms of the present and no prophetic blueprints for the future, but this book does make a significant contribution to the discussion, if only to remind us of the continuing need for careful analysis in our discourse about the church and society.

In these essays Gustafson carefully pursues his critical analysis of the church as a voluntary association and of the society in which we live. The scholarly, analytical and...

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John F. Dedek (review date 24 October 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

William Herr (review date July 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Daniel C. Maguire (review date 16 July 1982)

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,...

(The entire section is 1086 words.)

Barry J. Seltser (review date 15 May 1985)

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...

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Lisa Sowle Cahill (essay date Spring 1985)

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,...

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Stephen Toulmin (essay date Spring 1985)

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...

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Richard McCormick, S.J. (essay date Spring 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 7921 words.)

James M. Gustafson (essay date Spring 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 12242 words.)

John P. Gunnemann (review date July 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 728 words.)

Richard A. Gray (review date 1994)

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...

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Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 598 words.)