Commanding Grace: Studies in Karl Barth's Ethics


In this seminal volume, thirteen contemporary theologians revisit the theological ethics of Karl Barth as it bears on such topics as the moral significance of Jesus Christ, the Christian as ethical agent, the just war theory, the virtues and limits of democracy, and the difference between an economy of competition and possession and an economy of grace.
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In this seminal volume, thirteen contemporary theologians revisit the theological ethics of Karl Barth as it bears on such topics as the moral significance of Jesus Christ, the Christian as ethical agent, the just war theory, the virtues and limits of democracy, and the difference between an economy of competition and possession and an economy of grace.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Karl Barth's rich and commanding thought on the ethics of the gospel calls for theological scholarship of a high order. This splendid collection has it in thirteen stellar essays on the ethics of war, democracy, punishment, economics, freedom, and other topics in Barth's thought.”
— Gary Dorrien
Columbia University

“This authoritative collection is a notable addition to the rediscovery of Barth's ethical thought. The essayists know Barth well, take him seriously as a moral theologian, and offer their readers well-articulated judgments.”
— John Webster
King's College, Aberdeen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802865700
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 8/15/2010
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel L. Migliore is the Charles Hodge Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. His other books include Called to Freedom: Liberation Theology and the Future of Christian Doctrine and Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Abbreviations viii

Contributors ix

1 Commanding Grace: Karl Barth's Theological Ethics Daniel L. Migliore 1

2 Karl Barth's Ethics Revisited Nigel Biggar 26

3 The Spirit and the Letter: Protestant Thomism and Nigel Biggar's "Karl Barth's Ethics Revisited" Eric Gregory 50

4 Karl Barth and Just War: A Conversation with Roman Catholicism William Werpehowski 60

5 Barth and Werpehowski on War, Presumption, and Exception John R. Bowlin 83

6 Barth and Democracy: Political Witness without Ideology David Haddorff 96

7 Karl Barth and the Varieties of Democracy: A Response to David Haddorff's "Barth and Democracy: Political Witness without Ideology" Todd V. Cioffi 122

8 Crime, Punishment, and Atonement: Karl Barth on the Death of Christ Timothy Gorringe 136

9 For Us and for Our Salvation: A Response to Timothy Gorringe Katherine Sonderegger 162

10 Barth and the Economy of Grace Kathryn Tanner 176

11 Karl Barth on the Economy: In Dialogue with Kathryn Tanner Christopher R. J. Holmes 198

12 Barth and the Christian as Ethical Agent: An Ontological Study of the Shape of Christian Ethics Paul T. Nimmo 216

13 Karl Barth's Conception(s) of Human and Divine Freedom(s) Jesse Couenhoven 239

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First Chapter

Commanding Grace

Studies in Karl Barth's Ethics

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6570-0

Chapter One

Commanding Grace: Karl Barth's Theological Ethics

Daniel L. Migliore

Interest in Barth's theology continues to grow. Its consistently high quality, often stunning originality, remarkable comprehensiveness, and strong provocations to fresh theological reflection in both church and academy assure its place among the most influential theological writings of the modern era. Best known for its singular christocentric exposition of the core doctrines of Christian faith, Barth's theology is also notable for its contributions to the history of doctrine, to biblical exegesis, to the interface of theology and philosophy, and by no means least, to theological ethics, the topic that receives special attention in this volume. A number of the articles included here were presented at the conference "Karl Barth and Theological Ethics" held at Princeton Theological Seminary, June 22-25, 2008. Others were subsequently written by participants at the conference in response to the original presentations.

From the beginning, the project that we know as Church Dogmatics was also a project in the reconstruction of Christian ethics. In the current renaissance of Barth studies, the study of his theological ethics has an important place even if this aspect of his thought has not received as much attention as many of his doctrinal topics. That is reason enough for the present volume. One way of formulating the wider question that the volume attempts to address is: Can Barth the magisterial dogmatic theologian offer significant help to theology and church today in the area of Christian ethics, a discipline Oliver O'Donovan has succinctly defined as thinking "from truths of Christian faith to conclusions in Christian action"?

Already in 1911, in a speech to members of a factory union in Safenwil, Barth explored the "inner connection" between the message and work of Jesus the incarnate Word of God and the values and aspirations of modern social democracy. In that address he advanced the blockbuster thesis that "Jesus is the movement for social justice, and the movement for social justice is Jesus in the present." In later years, Barth would express himself quite differently; nevertheless, it is clear that for the Safenwil pastor Christology and ethics were already tightly intertwined.

As Barth would later explain, when WWI broke out, he was shocked to learn that ninety-three German intellectuals, including many of his revered teachers, had issued a manifesto supporting the war policy of the kaiser. He describes the impact of that event as "the twilight of the gods," a failure of the theology of his revered teachers in the face of the ideology of war, exposing the fact that religion and scholarship could be so easily changed into "intellectual 42 cm cannons." By the end of WWI, in his famous Tambach lecture, "The Christian's Place in Society," Barth approached the question of the relationship between Christian faith and social responsibility much more critically than he had in his earlier lecture to Safenwil workers. He now distanced himself from an uncritical affiliation with Christian socialism even as in the intervening years he had taken leave of the theology and ethics of nineteenth-century liberal Protestant theology. The true Christian, Barth argued, is not any Christian, whether conservative or revolutionary; the true Christian is the Christ. The kingdom of God is not the kingdom we build but "the wholly other Kingdom which is God's." Barth did not then, nor did he ever, understand this emphasis in a quietist or merely otherworldly sense. Toward the end of his life, in an exposition of the petition "Thy kingdom come," Barth wrote that Christians "not only wait but also hasten.... Their waiting takes place in the hastening.... [T]he petition 'Thy kingdom come' is not an indolent and despondent prayer but one that is zealous and brave."

It is not my task in this introductory essay to trace the continuities and discontinuities in the development of Barth's theological ethics. It is sufficient to make the point that, early and late, Barth saw dogmatics and ethics as inseparable. For him, when rightly understood, both are based on the living Word of God that announces a gift to be freely and joyfully received and that contains a command to be freely and joyfully obeyed. From the Romans commentary where Barth states that "The problem of ethics is identical with the problem of dogmatics: Soli Deo Gloria"; to the Münster Ethics of 1928 (repeated in Bonn in 1930-31), which he wrote as the necessary companion to his first two cycles of dogmatics in Göttingen and Münster, and in which he declared that "not just in general, but also in particular, the concern of ethics is a proper concern of dogmatics"; through the production of the Church Dogmatics, which is structured in such a way that extended treatments of ethics immediately follow the doctrines of God, creation, and reconciliation because "dogmatics has no option: it has to be ethics as well" — through all the phases of his theological work, Barth viewed dogmatics and ethics as a seamless garment. Had Barth lived to complete his plan, he would surely have included a treatise on ethics in volume V, the projected doctrine of redemption. For Barth, from beginning to end, dogmatics and ethics belong together.

While the unity of dogmatics and ethics in Barth's thinking is clear enough, there is far less consensus in the assessment of this union. Why has Barth's theological ethics met with some considerable head-shaking, if not severe criticism, from the earliest period of his work to the present? Is it simply because in this area of his work, as in others, Barth is simply determined to swim against the current? Are the presuppositions and method of his ethical reflection those of an outsider to the guild who does not conform to established schools of ethical reflection such as deontological, teleological, or contextual ethics? Or is it because Barth's ethics, in making a 180-degree turn away from modernity's doctrine of unrestricted human autonomy, rides a pendulum swing to a view of divine heteronomy that supposedly has no place for free human agency? Or is it because, as numerous critics charge, Barth's ethics offers little concrete ethical guidance, little help in everyday Christian decision making, save to refer to the living Word of God addressing hearers in their concrete life situations by the power of the Holy Spirit? Does Barth dismiss all rules and generalizations in Christian ethics with the result that he is simply unable to say that in every situation there are some things that are commanded and some things that are forbidden? Or again, the critics ask, is Barth's ethics able to make any significant contribution to public discussion of ethical issues in a pluralist society, or does he write ethics only for a ghettoized Christian community? Such questions compel many ethicists, even those with a high appreciation for Barth's work, to look for a way beyond Barth, whether by a retrieval of natural law ethics (the route taken early on by Emil Brunner), or by retrieval of Thomistic theology in which, as Fergus Kerr notes, the inseparability of dogmatics and ethics is emphasized as strongly as by Barth, or by an ethics of virtue and Christian character cultivated by church practices (the route taken by Stanley Hauerwas and others).

As will become apparent from the essays in this volume, even those who find much to approve of in Barth's ethics part company with him at one point or another. We should not expect it to be otherwise. Barth intended his work in ethics, as in theology, not to close down debate but to challenge long-established ways of thinking with fresh attention to the voice of Scripture as it centrally attests God's work of reconciliation in Christ. Our authors were chosen not because they toe some inflexible party line in the interpretation of Barth's theological ethics but because they value the contributions he makes and the challenges he poses in this area and are determined to think creatively with him and at times also beyond or even against him.

By way of preparing the reader unacquainted with Barth's ethics for the essays that follow, I propose several basic questions that need to be asked in reading and assessing his writings on ethics to measure the extent to which his work may have continuing value for church and society today. First, what understanding of God, humanity, and their relationship forms the dogmatic context of Barth's theological ethics? Second, how are grace and command, gift and task, gospel and law related in Barth's ethics? Third, what understanding of human freedom, maturity, and responsibility is at work in Barth's theological ethics? Fourth, is Barth's theological ethics able to provide any helpful guidance in the area of public policy, especially as it relates to such matters as systems of economy, the modern democratic state, and the exercise of state power? Barth's answers to these four questions might be summarized by the phrases "covenant of the triune God," "commanding grace and gracious command," "freedom to love," and "power in the service of just community."

The Covenantal Context of Barth's Theological Ethics

Barth sets ethics in a particular theological context. The word "context" can, of course, have a multitude of meanings. If used in relation to Barth's construal of the location of Christian ethics, it does not refer primarily to the psychological or religious situation of the individual Christian. Nor does it refer in the first place to the political, cultural, or economic context of the church at a particular place and time. The context in which Barth situates ethics is a distinctive theological depiction of the reality in which humans are called to live and act. More specifically, Barth's description of the context of theological ethics, far from being a vague theism, is unabashedly Trinitarian. That is, the context of ethics for Barth is the decision and activity of the triune God to establish in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ a covenant of free grace made present and imparted by the power of the Holy Spirit. The aim of the free grace of God the Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, "actualised and revealed in God's covenant with man, is the restoration of man to the divine likeness and therefore to fellowship with God in eternal life." As attested in Scripture and proclaimed in the witness of the church, the covenant of God with the people of Israel confirmed and fulfilled in Jesus Christ for all humanity is the context of Barth's theological ethics.

John Webster, author of Barth's Ethics of Reconciliation, calls this covenantal context of Barth's ethics his "moral ontology," that is, "a depiction of the world of human action as it is enclosed and governed by the creative, redemptive, and sanctifying work of God in Christ, present by the power of the Holy Spirit." Nigel Biggar, a contributor to this volume and author of The Hastening That Waits: Karl Barth's Ethics, similarly describes the covenantal context of Barth's theological ethics as the activity of the triune God in which God is self-defined from all eternity as God for us and humanity is defined as humanity for God. On this point Biggar and Webster are agreed: the covenantal activity of the triune God constitutes for Barth the real world in which Christian ethical reflection takes place. For Barth, then, the discipline of theological ethics does not exist in a vacuum. The perennial question of ethics: "What are we to do?" properly follows the questions of the identity and activity of God. "The command of the one God," Barth writes, "is centrally the command of the Lord of the covenant, in which the action of sinful man is determined, ordered, and limited by the free grace of the faithful God manifested and operative in Jesus Christ."

The word and work of the triune God in which Barth's ethics is situated is not only particular; it is always also a living word and work, personally addressing particular human beings here and now. The God who as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer covenants with humanity in Jesus Christ is the living God. God's activity is not imprisoned in the past; it calls for faithful response of particular human beings in the concreteness of the present. If God is the living Lord, it follows that the divine command is a living command and cannot be reduced to a general rule or set of rules. This is the reason for Barth's well-known rejection of ethical "casuistry." As Barth defines the term, casuistry is any understanding of the divine command as "made up of biblical texts in which there are believed to be seen universally binding divine ordinances and directions, of certain propositions again presumed to be universally valid, of the natural moral law generally perceptible to human reason, and finally of particular norms which have been handed down historically in the tradition of Western Christianity and which lay claim to universal validity." Note that in this passage Barth clearly disavows every ossification of the divine command even if it takes the form of a biblical text or set of texts. Leave aside for the moment the debate whether Barth himself engages at times in some forms of casuistic reasoning. As Barth uses the term, casuistry is any form of ethical reflection that turns the living Word of God into abstract, general rules that supposedly govern Christian behavior in all circumstances. Casuistry for Barth, we might say, is the colonization of Christian ethics. It results, in his words, from "a lack of confidence in the Spirit (who is the Lord) as the Guide, Lawgiver and Judge in respect of Christian action."

Barth's critique of what he calls casuistry, however, is only one side, and indeed only the negative side, of his advocacy of a responsible theological ethics. The idea that Barth's critique of casuistry reflects a disdain of careful reasoning in the work of theology and ethics is entirely mistaken. According to Barth, when one becomes open to the history of Jesus Christ as God's salvation history for the world, this does not mean that one "takes leave of his wits and starts raving. It means that he finally comes to himself, to rationality.... There is no more intimate friend of sound human understanding than the Holy Spirit."

The other, positive side of Barth's critique of casuistry is his insistence that Christian ethics, when pursued in its proper context of the covenantal activity of the triune God, offers a "formed reference" for Christian ethical reflection. Far from being empty or amorphous, the formed reference to the concrete divine-human encounter above all in Jesus Christ is such as to give substantive guidance and direction to Christian life and action. Christian ethics is informed, formed, and reformed by the covenant history of God the Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer with humanity. In this history, God is the free and faithful God who remains ever true to Godself and God's gracious purposes, and the human creature is truly human as it freely and gladly corresponds in its action to the activity of God. In Barth's view, a concrete encounter of a particular human being with the divine command of the living Lord does not float freely on an ocean of indeterminacy. Instead, it is a moment in the concrete history of God with us in which God speaks and acts anew yet remains ever faithful to Godself and to God's creatures. God is "the living, eternally rich God" whose mercy is "new every moment," who never simply repeats himself, yet who is ever constant and faithful. Similarly, the particular human encountered by the specific command of God is not for Barth an abstraction, a humanity in general existing everywhere or nowhere. Instead, the real human being is the actual, concrete human creature who is ever and again called to free obedience to the command of the gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ. As Barth writes, "True man and his good action can be viewed only from the standpoint of the true and active God and His goodness. It is this connexion with dogmatics which guards ethics against arbitrary assertions, arguments or conclusions, and allows it to follow a secure path to fruitful judgments."

If theological ethics for Barth is situated always in the context of the covenantal activity of the living and faithful God revealed in Jesus Christ, its task can be neither the compilation of a set of general rules nor the call for a leap in the dark. If on the one hand theological ethics must not be based on arbitrary divine commands, lacking in constancy and varying according to divine whim or capriciousness, on the other hand theological ethics must not be the reduction of the divine command to a set of universal rules that in effect replace God's living lordship with completely autonomous human decisions and actions. All this prompts the question among Barth's critics of whether Barth so emphasizes the actuality and particularity of the encounter between the gracious God who commands and the human creature who is called to faith and obedience that Barth is unable to give theological ethics any universally regulatory content.


Excerpted from Commanding Grace Copyright © 2010 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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