Karl Barth’s Ethical Vision

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As a young evangelical Christian, I was taught early on that Barth’s neoorthodoxy was the cause of liberalism in the Church today. Of course, I had never personally read Barth, only encountering him through conservative secondary sources. Preparing this essay forced me to read Barth for myself, as well as learn a great deal about his historical situation. I was surprised to learn three things. First, I enjoyed Barth’s writing style and his emphasis on Christ and the Holy Spirit. It was evident that Barth was devout and committed to the supernatural nature of the Christian faith. Second, Barth was writing in reaction to the growing liberalism within the Church. He very much saw himself as a conservative. And finally, I found his view on scripture to be highly inventive. I found myself repeatedly wonder if Barth had a high view of scripture, even though he declared it a fallible historical document. I do not claim to be a Barthian scholar by virtue of my limited study. However, I do feel I understand him a great deal more. I hope you find this essay as fascinating as I found preparing it. 


There is little doubt that Karl Barth has had a substantial impact on the landscape of evangelical theology. Can the same be said for his ethics? Yes and no. On the one hand, Barth lays out an ethical vision that has had far reaching implications for Christian moral theory. There can be no question that the nature of contemporary Christian ethics is more situationally minded, giving greater attention to the historical particularity of the ethical agent. While Barth cannot be solely credited with this turn from the absolute toward that which is more relative, his focus on the command of God to each individual has certainly fomented its growth.[1]  On the other hand, Barth’s ethical teachings are ambiguous (at times even contradictory), lacking the kind of practical specificity that would render them useful in making actual decisions. As such, Barth’s ethical teachings are often overlooked, only recently receiving significant scholarly analysis.[2] This essay will humbly attempt to present Barth’s ethical position in as positive a light as possible, especially in response to criticisms that it is too subjective and essentially impractical. The goal is to determine whether Barth is successful in overcoming these criticisms (revealing him as merely the victim of fundamentalist butchers and cannibals), or whether he truly was a wolf in sheep’s clothing leading Evangelical Christianity down the road of moral relativism.[3]

Before analyzing these criticisms I will attempt to provide a brief summary of Barth’s position, primarily in his own words, and primarily as stated in his Church Dogmatics. Despite most scholars agreeing that Barth’s ethical views evolve over the years, I will incorporate a few notations from his early works, particularly when they are in agreement with what is stated in greater detail in the Dogmatics. It is fitting that we look to Barth’s systematic theology for ethics; for him, the Christian approach to morality is grounded in doctrine. Specifically, it is the command of God to elect and sanctify man through Jesus Christ that becomes the determining doctrine for Barth’s ethics. The Gospel and the grace of God revealed in Christ’s work on the cross become the foundation upon which his theological ethics is established.

BARTH AND ABSOLUTE ETHICS

Given that some have charged Barth with being ambiguous, it may be easier to begin by defining his ethical approach in terms of what it is not. First and foremost, Barth stood against moral absolutes that delineated timeless and general rules of moral behavior. Barth emphatically tells us that obedience to the command of God is not found in a universal principle but is instead “a very particular matter –something which comes to each individual in a highly particular way in his own particular time and situation.”[4] This emphasis on the historical particularity of the ethical agent directly flows from Barth’s conception of God. In his brilliant book, Being in Action, Paul Nimmo argues that Barth sees God as a dynamic, living being in action “who speaks through the Word of God and exists in relationship with creatures.”[5] Barth says of God that

His eternal being of and by Himself has not to be understood as a being which is inactive because of its pure deity, but as a being which is supremely active in a positing of itself which is eternally new.[6]

Barth does not hold a rigid or static conception of God. God is a being who acts in the lives of his creatures anew each day. As such, understanding how we are to act cannot be separated from our personal encounter with God in our historical particularity. Alexander Massmann tells us that for Barth, “morals are not about action, but about an encounter with God.”[7] Once the ethical agent is claimed by God through divine election, her ontological status corresponds to God’s. She is transformed into a being in action, just as God is in action.

Barth saw the delineation of ethical principles as undercutting this dynamic relationship between God and man. Barth tells us that moral principles,

are instruments of the misinterpretation and misapplication of the command, provoking the very desires which are excluded by the command, the very attempt at human self-justification and sanctification which is forbidden by God and absolutely fatal.[8]

This naturally invites the question of how Barth deals with passages of scripture which seem to present us with universal moral principles, such as the Ten Commandments or The Sermon on the Mount. Barth explains that these kinds of passages can only be understood in their specific historical and concrete particularity. What these texts do reveal is the moral ontology underlying a personal encounter between God and specific ethical agents. As such, they are merely summaries of God’s specific will being made known to specific individuals at a specific time. Barth cautions that we must never view the command of God as remaining “somewhere behind us as the past of an instruction and conversion already accomplished.”[9] We must instead ask what God wills for us today. While these rules, axioms and commands are clearly good, Barth tells us that we must “bracket and hold in reserve all that we think we know” about them, understanding that God has a specific will for us today. “None of these has an unlimited claim to be valid again today as it was valid yesterday.”[10]

This can be illustrated by pointing to the common Christian goal of imitating Christ and all that he commanded his disciples. Barth sees this as an aspiration based upon the view that scripture consists of universal commands and principles that are to be timelessly followed. Instead, he argues that we need to view these texts as showing what Christ required of his followers at that specific time. What he requires of us today will likely be similar, but simply imitating what Christ commanded his disciples may very well put us out of God’s will for our own life.  Our circumstances are different, thus God’s command to us will necessarily be different (albeit retaining a degree of similarity). Barth says,

the action of man must be one which always and in all directions is open, eager to learn, capable of modification, perpetually ready, in obedience to the exclusively sovereign command of God, to allow itself to be orientated afresh and in very different ways from those which might have seemed possible and necessary on the basis of man’s own ideas of his ability and capacity.[11]

The Bible should not be approached as an ethical rule book from which we retrieve timeless moral principles. Instead the Bible is a witness to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The Bible recounts stories of God revealing himself to particular human beings in particular historical contexts. The most important of these revelatory stories is that of Jesus. Viewing scripture as communicating eternal truths for all people, places the focus of scripture on man. Instead, Barth tells us to place the focus on God. The specific commands of scripture are not about man and what he needs to do, but rather about God and who he is. The “particular commands” revealed in scripture should be seen as bringing us face to face with the person of God. This shifts the moral vision away from principles and rules to having a vision of a living God who actively speaks afresh to each individual. Barth is therefore not concerned with delineating the content of ethics. Instead, he is concerned with the form it takes, as revelation of who God is.

The concept of the command of God denotes a dynamic reality. … The command of God is the event in which God commands. It is a specific command of God in each specific form of his dealings with man, in each specific time, in relation to the presuppositions and consequences of each specific existence of each man. It is the one very definite thing that God demands for this or that man. The command of God is not a principle of action . . . God in his command, however, tells him very concretely what he is to do or not do here and now in these or those particular circumstances.[12]

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BARTH AND NATURAL LAW

Next, Barth was a fierce critic of natural law. Natural law ethicists contend that by virtue of creating the universe, God has imbued it with an order that reflects his rational and moral nature. Therefore, there is a point of contact between God, creation, and mankind, enabling the rational discernment of general moral principles. For advocates of natural law, this point of contact is the analogia entis. David Haddorff tells us that, “Regarding moral knowledge, this presumes that persons can objectively discover the human good through natural reason or experience or through some “moral order” established through God’s creation (order of creation).”[13] Barth famously referred to this doctrine as the invention of the anti-Christ, specifically in that it made claim to know the good apart from the revelation of God. Barth vigorously maintained that there can be no understanding of morality in abstraction of revelation; to suggest otherwise ascribes an ability to man which he simply does not possess. Barth felt that natural law interposed general moral truths between God and man, which then dictated how God should act apart from the individual’s historical particularity.[14] This gives us a static, rationalistic conception of God, rather than a living and active God that personally engages with humanity.

Barth, however, should not be viewed as entirely negating so-called orders of creation. For example, there does seem to be tension between Barth’s repudiation of natural law seen in CD II/2, and his acknowledgement of the constant character of the command of God in CD III/4. Nigel Biggar reconciles this tension by pointing out that Barth never intended to repudiate the “ontological notion that moral law is based, proximately and in part, on human nature.”[15] According to him, Barth merely intended to highlight the insufficiency of human reason and reflection to know such orders of creation apart from the Word of God in Jesus Christ. Biggar reads Barth as pointing to humanity’s quest for what is good as indicating some kind of inherent contact between God and man. Regarding this aspect of human nature, early in his career Barth writes, “The ethical question is obviously not just one question among many others but is in an eminent sense the question of human existence.”[16] Building on this idea, Alexander Massmann tells us,

After the universal moral question has been raised in every human person, God asserts God’s self successfully in gospel and commandment, since only God’s grace and command provide an answer to this question.[17]

In the place of the analogia entis Barth substitutes the analogia fidei, which posits an analogy, “not between divine and human being, but between divine and human action.”[18] Human nature becomes a suitable medium for God’s revelation only after the work of election, as the I-Thou relationship is established between God and man. This forms the analogy upon which revelation becomes possible.[19] Barth himself maintains,

If there is a real analogy between God and man … what other analogy can it be than the analogy of being which is posited and created by the work and action of God Himself, the analogy which has its actuality from God and from God alone, and therefore in faith and in faith alone? How can we assert any other analogy …?[20]

This means that Barth views the image of God in man, not as something inherent at birth, but “exclusively the affair of God Himself in His disposing of man in incomprehensible mercy.”[21] Only through this divine act can humans share in what God is and have an ontological connection with the divine. Nimmo tells us, “It is revealed in this very particular history –in which humanity is elected in Jesus Christ –that individuals share in what He is and therefore in the history actualized in Him.”[22] The image of God is constituted in man only as an act of transformation, as the result of God’s sovereign decision of election. Barth uses the language of the imago Dei when he writes that the ethical agent “should become the image of God: the reflection which represents, although in itself it is completely different from, God and His action; the reflection in which God recognizes Himself and His action.”[23] This actualization of the imago Dei in the ethical agent is the goal of her election.

Barth’s rejection of natural law also explains his distaste for casuistry, which Barth sees as putting man in the position of God, distinguishing between good and evil. Barth viewed casuistry as setting up ethical rationalism independent of God, where sinful humans deduce rules and their application on the basis of first principles.

BARTH AND DIVINE COMMAND ETHICS

Finally, while it may be tempting to do, Barth’s ethics should not be viewed as a version of divine command theory. Simply put, divine command ethics understands moral obligation on the sole basis of what God chooses to command. Good does not exist independently of God’s will, the good is what God wills. Theoretically, since God is not bound to any external duties, he can command whatever he wills. Divine command ethicists typically assert that what God has commanded in scripture represents his will toward man. Those viewing Barth in this way see a voluntaristic bent in his emphasis on the command of God, especially since he has little place for constant orders of creation. Biggar tells us that such a voluntaristic approach would mean that “since right and wrong are decided by God’s commanding, and since God is free to command as he pleases, there can be no constant features of the nature of created reality from which we can rationally derive reliable ethical principles.”[24]

However, Barth does not use the language of command in a voluntaristic or Occamist sense. According to Haddorff, Barth’s command prioritizes divine action which stresses “a living God’s engagement with persons, society and the world.”[25] Contrary to traditional divine command theory, Barth’s command of God is not a proposition grasped by reason. Barth himself states that, “we never at any point know the divine command in itself and as such, but only in its relations.”[26] God’s command does not present itself in the form of a principle or timeless imperative that is revealed in scripture; it is God meeting the individual in a deeply personal way. If we are to view Barth as a divine command theorist, then this subjective aspect becomes highly problematic, as what God commands to one person could very well be the exact opposite of what he commands to another. To avoid the charge that God’s command is arbitrary, Barth will need to provide some kind of ‘objective’ grounding.

BARTH AND THE PROBLEM OF SUBJECTIVITY

Having a relatively clear understanding of what Barth’s ethical vision does and does not entail, we can now consider the most significant criticisms of his approach. The first is that his position is too subjective, depending upon the individual’s affirmation of the command of God to them. If Barth is unable to overcome this charge, then his theological ethics is essentially tantamount to relativism.

For Barth, “theological ethics is itself dogmatics, not an independent discipline alongside it.”[27] This aphorism indicates that theology must be the engine that drives and informs ethical development. Theological reasons are Barth’s primary justification for his positions. Barth never accepted the idea that ethics was somehow a separate discipline from theology, characterizing any attempt to split the two as insidious.

We regard all these attempts at a methodological distinction between dogmatics and ethics as ethically suspect because with great regularity there takes place in all of them a suspicious change in direction, a suspicious exchange of subjects, namely, of God and man . . . [28]

In his early ethical lectures at Münster (1928) and Bonn (1930), Barth was already beginning to assert ethics as an auxiliary science of dogmatics. If dogmatics shows us how and what we are to believe, then how we should act can proceed only on the basis of those beliefs. Barth very clearly tied this to an “old Augustinian theme that we must view together divine and human action in grace as two sides of one and the same event.”[29]   But ethics is not a mere flip to the other side “once enough has been said about what God has done for and to and in us.”[30] To separate the behavior of the Christian from the behavior of God is an ontological abstraction that fails to see the ethical agent as a being in action, “called to correspond to the being in action of God.”[31] For Barth, the question of human existence has its origin in the Word of God, which is the theme of theology and dogmatics. Theological ethics is therefore never justified within the sphere of philosophical ethics. Theological ethics is obedience to the Word of God. Unfortunately, theology is never produced in a philosophical vacuum. Despite Barth’s efforts to remain grounded in scripture alone, philosophical beliefs permeate his thinking.

Many evangelicals have embraced Barth because of his rejection of the immanentistic theology of modern liberal Protestantism. Liberal theology tended to either downplay God’s transcendence, or simply deny it altogether. This tradition was clearly shaped by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who reduced religion entirely to the realm of the ethical. For Kant and the liberal theologians who followed his thinking, prayer and worship were specifically idle distractions from what Christianity was truly about: duty to moral truth. It was Christianity within the confines of reason, albeit practical reason. To Barth’s credit, his Church Dogmatics is very much a reaction against this thinking. While a Kantian sense of duty is retained in his theology, it is duty to the command of God. Barth shifts the moral discussion back to the realm of the metaphysical. In direct contrast to this liberal tradition, Barth constructs his ethics on a transcendent, living and active God, in which prayer and worship remain integral (as will be shown below). If rationalistic liberalism made God in man’s image (often entirely rejecting any supernatural element), then Barth’s approach returns man to being transformed supernaturally into the image of God.

One of the earliest criticisms of Barth’s approach was that he went too far in denying the immanence of God, emphasizing him as the “wholly other.” Cornelius Van Til’s 1946 book The New Modernism, specifically took Barth to task for rejecting the orthodox understanding that God retains a direct revelational presence in the universe. Van Til maintained that by virtue of creating the temporal, a permanent and objectively accessible revelation of God is available to man.[32] Far from a rejection of Kantian thought, Van Til saw Barth as completely embodying Kant’s metaphysical skepticism.

vantilBarth has repeatedly asserted his desire to construct his theology in total independence of all the philosophical schools. Yet he has also admitted that in his earlier writings he had been influenced by modern epistemology. Indeed he has been keenly aware of the fact that his theology at every stage has taken a definite attitude toward, and has at least been negatively oriented to, the modern epistemological debate. The Ritschlian theology in which Barth was nurtured was controlled by a modern form of the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant.[33]

To be sure, Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal realms does bolster a theology of radical transcendence and likely informs Barth’s theology to some degree. Kant believed that if we can only have conceptual knowledge of sensory experience, then we are in essence “cut off” from knowing the world as it truly is. Therefore, knowledge of transcendental reality is utterly incomprehensible. On the one hand, it can be said that Barth accepted Kant’s skepticism about reason’s ability to know God (which likely fueled his criticism of the analogia entis). Van Til and others saw this reflected in his “theology of crisis,” which painted God as a distant stranger to humans, who because of sin and the finitude of human nature cannot unambiguously comprehend God’s will.  For Van Til, this radical overemphasis on divine transcendence was neither based on Christian scripture nor theistic.[34]

On the other hand, Barth is in clear disagreement with Kantian idealism and the notion that humans are the ultimate interpreters of reality (which appears to be the concern of Van Til).[35] For Barth, man is not entirely cut off from God and left on his own to forge “his own” morality. God is able to bridge the epistemological gulf by speaking to man revelationally, through a direct command of God. Though man cannot know God, God can make himself (and his will) known to man. In this sense, Barth cannot properly be accused of personalism. But it is precisely this theological approach that leads Carl F. H. Henry to criticize Barth as being too subjective (the ethics of revelation reduces ethical action to a subjective experience which the individual embraces on blind faith). For Henry, this is nothing more than theological existentialism. Existentialism emphasizes the individual particularity of the ethical being. The theological existentialist asks, “What is God speaking to me? What is right for me in this particular situation?”

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Barth professes to derive ethics from the sovereign transcendent command of God alone. The Word of God seeks man out and confronts him from above. No point-of-contact in man’s moral life supplies continuity between God and man. The Wholly Other shapes his own point of contact in the confrontation.  It is in the spirit’s address that man in the midst of his existential involvement deals with God.[36]

Barth may not side with Kant in justifying the discovery of moral truth “by means of a process of autonomous reasoning,”[37] but the influence of Kant is undeniable.  Because we are alienated from God, we can only discover ethical truth in a personal encounter with God in which the divine invades the here and now of the individual. The result is an emphasis on the subjective particularity of morality rather than an objective comprehension of universal principle. While this is clearly Kierkegaardian in its emphasis, one must remember that Kierkegaard’s subjective supra-rational turn was formulated in response to the metaphysical skepticism of Kant. Kierkegaard’s contrast between religious-ethical knowledge and empirical knowledge reflects Kant’s division of the noumenal and phenomenal. Kierkegaard’s influence is reflected in Barth’s preface to his second edition to Romans, where he cites the Dane’s “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and humanity.[38] For Henry, such an emphasis is problematic in that it makes ethics purely subjective, with man being “related to moral claims only by non-cognitive decision.”[39]

It is important to note that these philosophical and theological underpinnings directly impacted how Barth approached the Bible, likely necessitating his unique view of the command of God. While he may have rejected the immanentistic theology of liberal Protestantism, he did not fully reject the liberal skepticism regarding the supernatural nature of scripture. Given his acceptance of the “infinite qualitative difference” between God and man, it is not surprising that Barth believed the Bible to contain errors. As the product of finite, sinful humans, how could it be anything other than fallible?[40] But despite his acceptance of scripture’s fallibility, he still considered it authoritative. When Barth speaks of the command of God or the word of God, he is not speaking of the words of scripture. Instead, he is referring to a divinely supernatural revelation to a specific person.

For Barth, the Bible should not be viewed as the revelation of God (the actual words), but as a witness to the revelation of God to particular people in particular times. This entails that there is no such thing as revelation “in itself.”[41] Thus, while the Bible may contain historical inaccuracies, it is a profoundly historical work. Massmann says of Barth’s position,

When the Bible gives an account of revelation it means to narrate history, i.e., not to tell of a relation between God and man that exists generally in every time and place and that is always in process, but to tell of an event that takes place there and only there, then and only then, between God and certain very specific men.[42]

This reduces the Biblical texts to a strictly personalistic encounter between an individual person and God. Barth claims that “A real witness is not identical with that to which it witnesses, but it sets it before us.”[43] This means that divine revelation can only be conceived actualistically.[44] According to Barth, “It is only by revelation that revelation can be spoken in the Bible and that it can be heard as the real substance of the Bible.”[45] It is then that the Holy Spirit “actually reveals and makes known and imparts and writes on our heart and conscience the will of God.”[46] Because of this, Barth tells us that “in Holy Scripture the command of God does not confront us in the guise of rules, principles, axioms and general moral truths, but purely in the form of concrete, historical, unique and singular orders, prohibitions and directions.”[47]  Barth claims we do damage to scripture when we attempt to “generalize and transform them into universally valid principles.”[48]

But where does all this discussion leave us? Given Barth’s views on transcendence and scripture, I can only know God through individual subjective experience, via a personal revelation of the command of God to me. The Bible should not be viewed as anything more than an historical record of one subjective encounter with God after another, which God then uses as a tool to subjectively speak to me when I read it. In a very real sense, Barth is basing our own subjective encounter with God upon the subjective encounter of others. How does Barth escape all this subjectivity?

BARTH AND CHRISTOLOGY

In light of these views, it is easy to see how some could charge Barth with removing all objectivity and continuity for ethics and relegating it to relativistic subjectivity. Given Barth’s emphasis upon the personal self-authenticating nature of the divine command, it is only natural to wonder how one can distinguish between an authentic command of God and mere personal desire. Bartholomew Carey asks,

The question I have is this: is it possible that one could be absolutely, subjectively certain that one had heard the command of God, when in fact one had heard only the echo of one’s own desires? The testimony of history seems to answer this question with a “yes.” (The history of religious fanaticism is a long and not so venerable one. And it is usually characterized by its insistence on a Biblical authenticity and by an immediate divine authorization, i.e., by an absolute “certainty” of the divine command).[49]

Biggar indicates that this is the most obvious problem facing Barth’s approach: “[I]t is difficult to locate an event of hearing a command of God in ordinary human experience. Even if one does regard God as a real, living super-Person, one is not aware of being constantly confronted by divine commands to do this or that.”[50] Thus, how can we know we are not simply deceiving ourselves when we claim to hear the command of God?  If the command of God is self-attesting, and if there is no other criterion by which to determine its authenticity other than its origin, then how can it be distinguished from relativism? Barth seems to recognize this danger.

If this is so, it might easily be asked whether this does not amount in practice to a Direction to let oneself be governed from moment to moment and situation to situation by a kind of direct and particular divine inspiration and guidance, and to prepare oneself, to make and keep oneself fit and ready, for the reception of such guidance, perhaps by quiet times or similar exercises.[51]

In order to overcome this charge, Barth must provide a qualification. Here, Barth’s Christological approach places the command of God securely in Christ. Biggar tells us that the person of Christ “not only reveals the benevolent form of God’s commanding, but also informs its content.”[52]  Therefore the command of God can never be seen in isolation as the command of the Creator, but rather as the command of all members of the Trinity: the creator, reconciler, and the redeemer. Massmann tells us that Jesus Christ is indeed the beginning of God. By electing humanity from eternity, God has eternally put himself in relationship with humanity.[53] As Colossians 2:9 tells us, “In Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Likewise, Nimmo concludes that “for Barth, the beginning of all the ways and works of God, and therefore of the identity of God, is the self-giving of God in Jesus Christ.”[54]

By adding this qualification, Barth seems to avoid the claim that God is capricious, confirming a certain material continuity between the divine command in Scripture and the divine command today.[55] The constancy and content of the command of God is guaranteed in Christ. What is the command of God for us? Barth tells us it “is the word and work of God in Jesus Christ, in which the right action of man has already been performed and therefore waits only to be confirmed by our action.”[56] Jesus Christ is the only ultimate determination for the life of the believer. Barth says, “All the new and inconceivable predicates of our life are real because they are the predicates of Jesus Christ.”[57] God’s will is that our ethical actions correspond to our election in Christ. Barth affirms that “out of man’s life there should come a repetition, an analogy, a parallel to His own being –that he should be conformable to Christ.”[58] The pattern of God’s command is Christ. Therefore, Barth is able to posit that “the divine command which can and will be given to us and heard by us … cannot either formally or materially differ from that which was given to them and heard by them,”[59] in scripture. When this is properly grasped, it becomes clear how Barth can write that “In different times and circumstances [the command of God] is the same and not the same.”[60] While continuity is retained, the power of the Holy Spirit “produces the same effect in continually new forms.”[61]

BARTH AND THE PROBLEM OF ETHICAL RELEVANCE

The second major criticism of Barth’s ethical vision is that it is simply that . . . a vision. Given the above discussion, it’s easy to see how Barth’s ethics may be accused of being of little use to the Christian looking for answers on what to do in a certain situation. It should be clear that providing answers was not a part of Barth’s agenda. He was determined to present an ethic of transformation, where the elect in Christ share an ontological grounding with the God who has claimed them as his own. However, Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas believes that while this may provide a compelling ethical vision, it remains too abstract.[62] Nigel Biggar goes further, suggesting that unless we can find principles in Barth’s ethics, “a novel by Trollope would be more useful in the moral education of the young than selections from the Church Dogmatics.”[63] Of course, Biggar is optimistic that the reader can find practical principles for ethical decision making and identifying the command of God.

So where does the Christian seeking ethical guidance begin? Barth himself characterizes the search as beginning with surrender. Barth says that we can be sure that we have a

Father in Heaven who, in a way that far transcends that of any earthly father, is ready to give the good to those who ask him. . .  The man who does all this can grasp the fact that God never makes a mistake, and that for all his fallibility he himself will not make a mistake. Asking, seeking and knocking, he will definitely do the will of God.[64]

This means that the Christian begins with an attitude of submission expressed in humble prayer to God. Barth states that prayer is “the normal action corresponding to the fulfillment of the covenant in Jesus Christ”[65] For him it is the most effective thing that the Christian can do and is the most fundamental of actions. Barth writes of prayer that it is “the one thing necessary, the one thing that is demanded of the Christian, the one service that is required of him.”[66]

It is interesting to note that because of the fundamental nature of prayer, Barth views the Sabbath day of rest as one of the most extensive commands of scripture. In keeping the Sabbath, the Christian cultivates a life characterized by prayer and worship.[67] Far from being a negative command requiring the believer to withdraw from culture for twenty-four hours, it is a positive action in which the Christian seeks out and celebrates the command of God. Thus, the Sabbath becomes an effective tool in orienting the believer in prayer and surrender to God.

Barth then directs the Christian to the scriptures, where they are to pray that “the Bible may be the Word of God here and now.”[68] Even though it is only God who can open the door to a revelation event in scripture, it is up to us as to whether we “wait at this door or leave it for other doors, whether we want to enter and knock or sit idly facing it.”[69] And for Barth this requires prayer. “[W]e cannot read and understand Holy Scripture without prayer, that is, without invoking the grace of God.”[70] Nimmo tells us that “while the divine command is to be heard afresh in every new moment, the ethical agent who is commanded lives in and with a history that cannot and should not be excluded in the practice of theological ethics.”[71] This means that the Christian is to approach the scripture in a particular way, understanding that she is part of a larger history of God’s action. While Barth tells us of the vertical command of God, God speaking directly to an individual in their historical particularity, there is also the horizontal element of the command, which places the individual within the entire history of God commanding his people.

Barth addresses the problem of an arbitrary command in not only speaking of a vertical dimension of God’s command, which denotes the irreducible character of the event, but also of its horizontal aspect, in which God’s commanding constitutes a continuity. The continuity of God’s command consists in God’s faithfulness as the Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer.[72]

Each individual encounter in this history represents a distinct moment in the larger context of the divine order. It is this horizontal dimension that accounts for “the constancy and continuity both of the divine command and human action.”[73]

In CD II/ 2, Massmann argues that Barth delineates a few simple rules which help the reader avoid the possibility of distorting scripture.[74] First, the reader should not come to the scriptures with a high-handed attitude of judgment. The Bible must be approached in prayerful surrender. The reader must cast aside any presuppositions about what the Bible says and be open to hearing the individual command of God. Second, the reader must become contemporaneous with the text. Here Barth tells us that

The Bible wills that we should be contemporaneous with and of the same mind as these other men in regard to the divine command, our hearing and understanding of it, and our situation as affected by it. In this connection we are to be in every sense the contemporaries of these men. Whether or not we comply with this biblical intention is another question. But it cannot well be denied that this is its intention, and that its texts were conceived and written down with the object of exercising this influence upon its readers and hearers.[75]

This means that we are to identify features within the text that resemble features of our own experience, “in a way resembling a judge who explores the extent to which a case matches with an existing legal precedent, or, in continental law, subsumes a particular case under a general rule specified by a law.”[76] Finally, Barth affirms the classic Protestant doctrines of the sufficiency, perspicuity, and self-imposition of Scripture. The scriptures can be easily understood by any layperson, and even works to correct us when we misinterpret the text. As sinners we are prone to make mistakes, but the Bible will defend itself “against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church.”[77]

In keeping with his views on the particularity of the command of God, Barth is quick to remind us that placing oneself within the horizontal outline of God’s history provides “guidance to the individual in the form of an approximation to the knowledge of the divine command and right human action.”[78] He refers to it as a definite lead, but not a determination. Nimmo directs us to Bruce McCormack who notes that “what God has said through the prophets and apostles to the Church in the past may give hints of what he will say through the same to the Church in our own day, but he is not bound to repeat himself.”[79]  But the Christian does not simply look at the horizontal history of scripture. We must also be mindful of how the command of God has addressed us in the past.

[W]hat we will and do should take place in this self-examination –with a glance backward at what we willed and did formerly, and forward to what we shall will and do in the path that is now to be pursued or not, and therefore with a readiness for the next thing, or rather for the judgment which we approach in and with it –this is our proper attitude to the divine decision which awaits our own decision in God’s command.[80]

But just as God’s consistency does not guarantee that the command of God to the individual will be in keeping with how God has commanded others in the past, it likewise does not guarantee that it will be in keeping with how he has commanded the individual in the past. Barth tells us that “even if our enquiry as to God’s command leads us necessarily to a different answer today from that of yesterday, then no wrong is done to the former.”[81]

CONCLUSION

It would seem that these criticisms of subjectivity and irrelevance are necessarily tied together. Even though Barth provides helpful guidelines in seeking out and hearing the command of God (he should be applauded for the reverence that is reflected in the guidance discussed above), and even though he grounds the subjective command of God firmly in Christ, he never fully escapes his ultimate qualification that God is free to command otherwise.

In regard to the criticism of subjectivity, Barth answers that we can find constancy in God’s commands because of his Christological qualification, as well as his emphasis on the horizontal continuity of scripture. But neither of these preclude God’s command to us being different than what we might expect given these qualifications. As was noted earlier, Barth tells us that none of these considerations provides “an unlimited claim” to validate today what was valid yesterday.[82] Barth’s qualification has a qualification of its own. Any attempt to find objective stability in the command of God is overridden by the qualification of God’s freedom to act anew. In regard to the criticism of irrelevance and impracticability, even when we follow the steps delineated above and turn to scripture for guidance, we can have no confidence that God’s command to them will be the same to us. The result is that even if one can claim that Barth’s theological ethics does provide specific guidance for today’s Christian, his emphasis on subjectivity undermines it.

Barth is never able to overcome the fundamental weakness of his approach: our inability to distinguish between a genuine command of God and personal whim. Even if someone commits an action entirely “out of step” with the teachings of scripture, if they are certain in their assertion that it is an authentic command of God, on what basis can their claim be refuted? Certainly not because it conflicts with scripture, and certainly not because it conflicts with the way God has commanded the individual in the past. It seems that Barth fell victim to this weakness in his own personal life. Even though he wrote extensively about the significance of monogamous matrimony, he maintained a decades long adulterous relationship with his personal secretary which he justified as decreed by God.[83] While the moral failings of an individual should never be the grounds upon which to invalidate teachings, in the case of Barth his polyamorous relationship with his wife and mistress illustrate that his theological ethics can be used to justify any behavior.

Karl-Barth-und-Charlotte-von-Kirschbaum_1-klein

Karl Barth & Charlotte von Kirschbaum

I had mentioned earlier that Barth’s theological ethics should not be viewed as a version of divine command theory. Given the above criticisms, one might argue that I was wrong in that assertion. I stand by it on the basis of the following distinction: The divine command ethicist will either objectively ground God’s command in scripture or in natural law; Barth does neither. Barth grounds the divine command in the certainty of a private supernatural revelation. Is that private experience authentic? Perhaps, but can we ever really know for sure? All we are left with is an existential leap of faith and an assertion of the will. It is for this reason that I see Barth’s ethical vision as essentially relativistic, grounded in an existentialist approach to truth.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide an analysis of the varieties of existentialism. Whether one considers themselves a Christian existentialist, or an atheistic existentialist, the starting point is subjectivity. In the case of Barth, it is the subjective experience of the command of God. In the case of the atheist, it is the subjective experience of coming to believe that there is no God. Both are subjective leaps of faith where the individual decides what is true for them personally, and then acts in accordance. I agree with Sartre’s assessment of existentialism that the question of God’s existence is irrelevant.[84] For Sartre, there was essentially no distinction between the atheist and Christian existentialist: at the end of the day, both make a subjective choice to believe what they will. For both, there is no reality except in action. The Barthian may protest that it is the prompting of the Holy Spirit that offers guidance and encouragement to accept the command of God as true. But again, it is the individual who makes the subjective determination as to what the Spirit might be prompting. How are we to discern between a legitimate prompting of the Spirit and a mere will to power? Barth himself seems to recognize this risk when he says of the Spirit’s leading,

[E]ven in giving this encouragement, it can not save man from what is expected of him, namely, to dare to make for himself the leap of choice, decision and action, which he must make for himself and on his own responsibility . . . and it cannot conceal from him that this leap, if it is not one of obedience, can only be a leap in the dark in the worst sense of the term.[85]

Regardless of the many admirable and ingenious aspects of Barth’s theology, using it as a guide for ethical decision-making has the very real potential of leading the Christian down the dark road of moral relativism. Perhaps, we can find no better warning of this than what Anna Katharina Barth wrote in a personal letter to her son, dated 1933. Barth’s mother expressed her disapproval with Karl’s behavior, directing him back to the universally binding commandments found in God’s word. She very pointedly asked him, “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”[86] The simple response should be that it is good for nothing.


[1]Joseph Fletcher talks about the influence of Barth in his seminal work, Situation Ethics. While he acknowledges the insights of Barth regarding the situational nature of ethical decisions, he criticizes Barth for retaining belief in the intrinsic nature of good and bad.

[2]I have chosen to primarily focus on scholarly analysis within the last twenty years.

[3]The allusion here is to Barth’s own characterization of his critics, and to Van Til’s characterization of Barth.

[4]Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1967), IV/2: 547.

[5]Paul T. Nimmo, Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth’s Ethical Vision (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 6.

[6]Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1:561

[7]Alexander Massmann, Citizenship in Heaven and on Earth: Karl Barth’s Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 62.

[8]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:727.

[9]Ibid., II/2:647.

[10]Ibid., II/2:646.

[11]Ibid., III/4:629.

[12]Karl Barth, The Christian Life, ed. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 33.

[13]David Haddorff, Christian Ethics as Witness: Barth’s Ethics for a World at Risk (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 204.

[14]Nimmo, Being in Action, 48.

[15]Nigel Biggar, “Barth’s Trinitarian Ethic,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 218.

[16]Karl Barth and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Ethics ed. Dietrich Braun (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1981), 16. Emphasis is mine.

[17]Massmann, Citizenship, 191.

[18]Haddorff, Christian Ethics, 204.

[19]Massmann, Citizenship, 78.

[20]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1:83.

[21]Ibid., III/1:202.

[22]Nimmo, Being in Action, 94.

[23]Barth, Church Dogmatics, CD II/2:575.

[24]Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 217.

[25]Haddorff, Christian Ethics, 208.

[26]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/ 2:550.

[27]Barth, Ethics, 18.

[28]Ibid., 12.

[29]Ibid., 11.

[30]Ibid., 15.

[31]Nimmo, Being in Action, 1.

[32]Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1946), 5.

[33]Ibid., vii-viii.

[34]George Harinck, “How can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa? The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 25.

[35]John E. Hare, “Karl Barth, American Evangelicalism, and Kant,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 77.

[36]Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 134.

[37]Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 214.

[38]Ibid., 213.

[39]Henry, Personal Ethics, 135.

[40]D.G. Hart, “Beyond the Battle for the Bible: What Evangelicals Missed in Van Til’s Critique of Barth,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 51.

[41]Nimmo, Being in Action, 26.

[42]Massmann, Citizenship, 92.

[43]Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2:463.

[44]Nimmo, Being in Action, 26.

[45]Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2:469.

[46]Ibid., IV/2: 372.

[47]Ibid., III/4:12.

[48]Ibid., II/2:672.

[49]Bartholomew Carey, “God’s Command and Human Judgment: The Problem of Karl Barth’s Command Category in his Doctrine of Theological Ethics,” Dominicana 52, no. 1 (Spring 1967): 64.

[50]Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 214.

[51]Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/4:15.

[52]Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 216.

[53]Massmann, Citizenship, 172.

[54]Nimmo, Being in Action, 8.

[55]Ibid., 33.

[56]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:543.

[57]Ibid., II/2:761.

[58]Ibid., I/2:277.

[59]Ibid., II/2:706.

[60]Ibid.

[61]Ibid., I/2:684.

[62]Nimmo, Being in Action, 74.

[63]Ibid., 75.

[64]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:695.

[65]Barth, Christian Life, 43.

[66]Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/3:265.

[67]Massmann, Citizenship, 278.

[68]Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2: 514.

[69]Ibid., I/1:533.

[70]Ibid., I/2:684.

[71]Nimmo, Being in Action, 64.

[72]Massmann, Citizenship, 270.

[73]Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/4:17.

[74]Massmann, Citizenship, 235.

[75]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:701-702.

[76]Massmann, Citizenship, 225.

[77]Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1:106.

[78]Ibid., III/4:31.

[79]Nimmo, Being in Action, 36.

[80]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:635.

[81]Ibid., II/2:648.

[82]Ibid., II/2:646.

[83]For a complete analysis of the letters between Barth, his wife, and his mistress, see Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today, vol. 74 (2) (2017): 86-111

[84]I am thinking here of Sartre’s comments in his 1946 lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism.

[85]Ibid., III/4:16.

[86]Tietz, “Barth and Kirschbaum,” 106-107.

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