Do we need Karl Barth’s help with ethics?

karl_barthI have a confession to make: I feel rather ambivalent about Karl Barth. As a theology undergraduate, I absolutely loved reading his Evangelical Theology. But when doing my PhD on hermeneutics and Revelation, I came across some of his later writing on saga, and was very much less convinced. In rejecting the legacy of Liberal Protestantism’s historical criticism, I sensed he had let go of history, as some of his critics have suggested—and felt vindicated in preferring the approach of Wolfhart Pannenberg.

Michael Leyden’s fascinating Grove booklet on Barth’s ethics sums up the ambivalence many feel in his introduction—and makes the case for attending to him more closely. Michael is Priest-in-Charge of Weston with Shavington, Chester Diocece, and is lecturer in Systematic Theology and Ethics at St Mellitus in the North West. He completed his PhD on Barth’s ethics.

Karl Barth was one of the most important Protestant theologians to emerge in Europe since the sixteenth century. Indeed, according to Pope Pius XII (1876–1958), he was the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). He spoke with a prophetic voice, calling the church to reject the prevailing liberal Protestant suspicion of Christian doctrine, which he himself had once believed, and to renew confidence in its ancient confession, to allow its doctrinal beliefs to shape its practice, and to treat theology as critical self-examination of its faithfulness to Jesus Christ. It was a bold challenge that still resonates with many Christians today.

Barth was also a pastor, whose famous five-volume Church Dogmatics was regarded as a primer for preachers. Yet he is not so well known in churches today. Certainly most clergy have encountered him in training, but his vast number of publications means that even among them Barth is known mostly by reputation—the pipe-smoking, German-speaking theologian who wrote big books!

The next chapter includes a helpful biographical sketch, which puts Barth clearly into his historical context. Michael then turns to Barth’s distinctive approach to ethics. Characteristically, when much thinking about ethics centres on human action and human decision, Barth consistently centres the question on God’s intention instead.

At the heart of the project of ethics is the question, ‘What should we do?’ It drives the process of reflection and moral discernment which leads to concrete actions. In a lecture for clergy entitled ‘The Problem of Ethics Today’, Barth treated this question as the ethical question, but added the caveat that Christians do not mean, ‘What do we think we should do?’ but rather ‘What does God will for us?’ In the shadow of disappointment he felt over his teachers’ support for the First World War, Barth was looking for a new way of thinking about ethics. This lecture was a kind of ground-clearing exercise, helping clergy to notice both that the ethical question—‘What should we do?’—must be asked and answered afresh in every generation, and also, importantly, that the gospel is our only resource for answering it. Anything else fails to reckon with God who is manifest in Jesus Christ.

The rest of this chapter explores the lecture as an outline of Barth’s ethical thinking—and highlights both Barth’s important insights as well as some of the challenging aspects of his approach. The next chapter considers the relation of Barth’s ethical thinking to his wider project of doctrine in the Church Dogmatics, once again with his relentless focus on God as the subject of all Christian thinking.

Barth argued that ethics also belongs within the sphere of dogmatic theology. This was a bold claim. To many it seems that the practical nature of ethics is a step removed from the conceptual intricacies of dogmatics, but Barth famously argued that ‘Dogmatics is itself ethics; and ethics is also dogmatics.’ To understand what he meant we must recall that human action always follows God’s action. God acted first in creation; God is the primary agent in our reconciliation through Christ; God will act finally in the redemption of all things. Humans are contingent; we depend upon God for existence, meaning, purpose and direction. So to describe what a fully human life looks like, we must attend to God. We must give an account of God’s identity and action, and of God’s intention for human beings revealed in Jesus. Barth thought of the (full) humanity of Christ as the benchmark for all other human beings. Throughout the Church Dogmatics, therefore, Barth discussed the impact of the doctrine of God the creator, reconciler and redeemer on the way we understand, and live in, the world around us.

In a sense, Barth is in this insisting that ethics is the pinnacle of dogmatic theology, since theology only matters when it is lived out. There is a parallel here with Paul Scott Wilson’s claim in the first edition of his The Practice of Preaching, where he claims that preaching is the pinnacle of theology, since it is here that theology is expressed and put into practice. Not surprisingly, Michael Leyden then goes on to locate this idea within Barth’s understanding of the proclamation of the gospel, which is both liberating and demanding. In the light of recent discussions about God’s grace, I was fascinated to read this summary of Barth’s understanding of gospel as law.

For Barth, hearing and receiving the divine command is, again, an existential experience. We feel it, and as such we know ourselves to be confronted by God. Moreover, it is an ongoing experience that happens more than once. We hear and rehear the word, from moment to moment, because always and everywhere God addresses human beings in Christ. Barth describes this as God’s ‘claim’ on us. It is powerful and dramatic language: to hear the gospel of freedom and forgiveness is also to have my life claimed by God. There is no escape. We might think of our whole outlook and imagination as having been captured by, and reorientated towards, God. And the only response to this, Barth argued, is obedience, that is, to fall in with what God has done in Christ. The gospel here begins to feel like law because it makes demands of us. It requires us to acknowledge, believe, and live in the light of the new reality God has established: that we are those to whom God has drawn near, whom God forgives and heals, and whom God calls. This is not law in the sense of slavish obedience, but joyful response to God’s love. A response made possible because Jesus Christ stands in solidarity with us as a fellow human creature.

All this raises the question of whether we must then move the focus from God himself to humanity, because humanity has an obligation to respond to this word. This is where (as Michael admits) some of Barth’s thinking becomes challenging, as he reconfigures the notion of human responsibility.

Humanity has been scrutinized in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the human Jesus, and in his obedience to God as our fellow creature he has made good our sinful shortcomings. Reality has been radically altered, and our existence is now textured differently.40 What, then, is the place of human agency? How does Barth think ethics can continue if Jesus Christ has spoken for us? The answer lies in reconfiguring responsibility. Through faith and baptism (Rom 5-6) a Christian, as one who is ‘in Christ’ (for example, Rom 8.1; Gal 1.22; Eph 4.32; 2 Cor 5.17) lives a life that treats the gospel as foundational for human existence. That is to say, we not only say we believe that God addresses us in Christ, we also act as if it were true!

Thus the kind of responsibility Barth advocated is about prospective decision-making on the basis of what we believe God has already said and done in Christ. As Barth put it, ‘We are made responsible as we have heard the voice of the risen Lord.’41 In other words, we hear first the gracious address of God in Christ, and with it the claim of God in the form of command, and this makes us responsible. But we cannot obey God in our own strength; sin prevents our obedience. Instead we participate in Jesus’ representative human answer by living responsibly—that is, living in the light of Christ’s resurrection victory over sin and death. Hence it is the risen Lord whose voice is heard. We learn to live like him, making decisions that are analogous to his obedient decision. It means embodying, in answer to the ethical question ‘What should we do?’ the new Christ-centred reality. The old has gone and the new has come (2 Cor 5.17)! All of this happens through faith, shaped and informed by Scripture and the creeds.

This is exciting, though quite high-level, theological stuff. Even as it casts a vision for ethical thinking, it rather falls short of working out ethics in practice, and Michael acknowledges this, and clarifies exactly what contribution Barth makes.

Barth was reluctant to prescribe exactly what should be done, as most ethicists like to do. There are clear instances where he does discuss specific moral issues in the Dogmatics, for example warfare, but these fall into a minority category. He was not writing an ethics primer, but offered something more like a theological map of the moral terrain. In doing so he refused to lay claim to God’s will or enshrine it in moral principles and casuistic structures. Because God addresses human beings, and God is free, the word is also free….

Though Barth’s ethics are not as prescriptive as we might expect or desire, we should not mistake that as a lack of concern for action. Moral reasoning is the necessary prelude to action, and what Barth offers is something akin to a grammar for Christian moral reasoning.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 14.27.45I am left a little frustrated that Barth cannot say very much more specific, for the sake of avoiding being over-systematic or prescriptive about ethics, and to avoid focussing on human activity at the expense of focussing on God. It seems to me, though, that God, in God’s freedom, might accept the limits necessary for God to be consistent—for the sake of humanity—which suggests there might be more that can be said without undermining the sense of God’s own sovereignty.

But at the same the booklet highlights Barth’s vital corrective to seeing ethics as programmatic, instrumentalist, or focussed solely on human action rather than on God’s intent. It is a fascinating read —and really well written. If anyone can persuade you of the importance and relevance of Barth’s ethics, then it is Michael Leyden! Read and enjoy.

Doctrine in Practice: Introducing Karl Barth’s Moral Theology by Michael Leyden can be ordered post-free from the Grove website, and you can sign up to receive email information about new titles.

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