Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Blogging with Barth: CD 2.2 §36.1 "The Command of God and the Ethical Problem" pp. 509-542

Check here for previous posts in the "Blogging with Barth" series or check here for a detailed reading schedule for the Church Dogmatics with links to the respective posts I've written to accompany each day's reading.

The Leitsatz (thesis statement) for §36 states: "As the doctrine of God’s command, ethics interprets the Law as the form of the Gospel, i.e., as the sanctincation which comes to man through the electing God. Because Jesus Christ is the holy God and sanctified man in One, it has its basis in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Because the God who claims man for Himself makes Himself originally responsible for him, it forms part of the doctrine of God. Its function is to bear primary witness to the grace of God in so far as this is the saving engagement and commitment of man."

In paragraph §36 ("Ethics as a Task of the Doctrine of God") and subsection §36.1 ("The Command of God and the Ethical Problem"), Barth begins by reminding us that the covenant of grace between God and humanity has two implications. First, it implies divine election. Secondly, it implies divine command.
In the true Christian concept of the covenant of God with man the doctrine of the divine election of grace is the first element, and the doctrine of the divine command is the second. It is only in this concept of the covenant that the concept of God can itself find completion (509).
This dual foundation, election and ethics, is then dealt with under the doctrine of God in Barth's systematics. God wills something for humanity (election), and He wills something from Him (command) (509-510). But doesn't the divine command overrule God's grace? Such that it becomes all about our obedience? No. God's grace is a ruling grace. The one word of God is both gospel and law.
To answer this question cannot, then, impose any limitation upon the knowledge of the absolute authority of God’s grace. There can be no question, therefore, of having to speak of anything other than the Gospel. What we have to establish is that the being and essence and activity of God as the Lord of the covenant between Himself and man include a relationship to the being and essence and activity of man. It is as He makes Himself responsible for man that God makes man, too, responsible. Ruling grace is commanding grace. The Gospel itself has the form and fashion of the Law. The one Word of God is both Gospel and Law. It is not Law by itself and independent of the Gospel. But it is also not Gospel without Law. In its content, it is Gospel; in its form and fashion, it is Law. It is first Gospel and then Law. It is the Gospel which contains and encloses the Law as the ark of the covenant the tables of Sinai. But it is both Gospel and Law. The one Word of God which is the revelation and work of His grace is also Law. That is, it is a prior decision concerning man’s self-determination. It is the claiming of his freedom. It regulates and judges the use that is made of this freedom. As the one Word of God, which is the revelation and work of His grace, disposes of man, it is also the impulse directing him to a future that is in keeping with this “disposing.” As the one Word of God which is the revelation and work of His grace reaches us, its aim is that our being and action should be conformed to His. “Be ye (literally, ye shall be) therefore perfect (literally, directed to your objective), even as (i.e., corresponding to it in creaturely-human fashion as) your Father which is in heaven is perfect (directed to His objective)” (Mt. 5:48). The truth of the evangelical indicative means that the full stop with which it concludes becomes an exclamation mark. It becomes itself an imperative. The concept of the covenant between God and man concluded in Jesus Christ is not exhausted in the doctrine of the divine election of grace. The election itself and as such demands that it be understood as God’s command directed to man; as the sanctification or claiming which comes to elected man from the electing God in the fact that when God turns to Him and gives Himself to him He becomes his Commander (511-512).
Barth argues that ethics belongs not just to dogmatics, but under the doctrine of God. In this way, Barth primary aim in writing about ethics is to help his readers recognize the revolutionary claim of God upon their lives.
This makes it plain that ethics belongs not only to dogmatics in general but to the doctrine of God. This is something which ought to have been apparent for some time. For who can possibly see what is meant by the knowledge of God, His divine being, His divine perfections, the election of His grace, without an awareness at every point of the demand which is put to man by the fact that this God is his God, the God of man? (512).
Barth puts it boldly and bluntly:
...the dogmatics of the Christian Church, and basically the Christian doctrine of God, is ethics,” and doctrine is “the answer to the ethical question” (II/ 2: 515). 
For Barth, therefore, the whole theological enterprise can be seen as driven by the need to answer questions of ethics, and theology is sterile unless it informs us about how to live. Of course, sinful humanity would like nothing more than to be the arbiter of what is good or evil. This is many ways is reflected in the history of ethical thought. But this is not possible.
Before he was, before the world was, God drew him to Himself when he destined him to obedience to His command. But, strangely enough, it is just because of this that the impossible—sin—presses so insistently. For man is not content simply to be the answer to this question by the grace of God. He wants to be like God. He wants to know of himself (as God does) what is good and evil. He therefore wants to give this answer himself and of himself. So, then, as a result and in prolongation of the fall, we have “ethics,” or, rather, the multifarious ethical systems, the attempted human answers to the ethical question. But this question can be solved only as it was originally put—by the grace of God, by the fact that this allows man actually to be the answer (517).
When the ethical thinker who starts out from that general conception encounters the attestation of the command of God in the Christian doctrine of God, he finds himself precipitated into a strange world because he is confronted by an enigmatic knowledge of the Whence? and Whither? of all ethical enquiry and reply. This violates at its nerve centre what usually passes for ethical reflection and explanation. As we cannot disguise this in relation to the doctrine of God, it is something which we can only have or not have. It presupposes a fundamental decision which, described in the categories of revelation and faith, undoubtedly means an unprecedented demand, if not worse. The problem of ethics generally—the law or good or value which it seeks as a standard by which human action and modes of action are to be measured, and according to which they are to be performed, the problem of the truth and knowledge of the good—is no problem at all in the ethics immanent in the Christian conception of God, in the doctrine of the command of God. For in virtue of the fact that the command of God is the form of His electing grace, it is the starting-point of every ethical question and answer. It is the starting-point which is already given and to that extent presupposed and certain in itself, so that it can never be surpassed or compromised from any quarter (519).
We cannot do ethics in a vacuum. Barth rejects three different ways of "doing" ethics. First, would be the mistake of having an apologetic discussion with general ethics, a move recommended by some bright lights in the tradition, for example, Schleiermacher (522). To concede to such a discussion is to  abandon the premise that theological ethics is rooted in the doctrine of God and dogmatics.

The second mistake would be to allow an isolation of theological ethics from philosophical ethics - a kind of "two spheres" approach. This approach would impose a restriction on theological ethics that is not warranted or appropriate.
But the temptation which comes from the opposition to theological ethics might take a very different form, or one that is apparently very different. The desired adjustment to general ethical thinking and language can be undertaken in the form of a proper isolation of theological ethics from the former, of a suitable allocation of roles to the two. The attempt can be made to show that, whatever may be the interconnexion between them, there is a twofold ethical inquiry, let us say, a “theological” and a “philosophical,” which touch and limit but do not abolish each other. By an ultimately friendly demarcation of the difference between the two, the special task of theological ethics can be defined and preserved, and an attempt made to assure its formal compatibility with that of ethics generally (524-525).
What we have to ask in relation to this view is whether theology can seriously contemplate two things. First, can it really be restricted in this way to a sphere which is no doubt remarkably distinguished by the concepts of religion, revelation, Church, grace, Spirit, etc., but which is characterised as a very narrow and rather obscure sphere by its isolation from the sphere of reason, experience and human self-determination? And secondly, can it really ascribe to reason, experience, human self-determination, etc., an independent content of truth, an autonomous dignity and authority, which in its own preoccupation with revelation and the outpourings of Christian self-consciousness it can safely leave on one side? To put the question differently: Is God’s revelation revelation of the truth, or is it only the source of certain religious ideas and obligations, alongside which there are very different ones in other spheres? Outside and alongside the kingdom of Jesus Christ are there other respectable kingdoms? Can and should theology of all things be content to speak, not with universal validity, but only esoterically? Is it, or is it not, serious in its alleged knowledge of a Whence? and Whither? of all ethical enquiry and reply which are superior to all reason, experience and self-determination? (526).
The third mistake would be to too tightly coordinate the relationship between theological ethics and general ethics, i.e. moral philosophy and moral theology, (for example, in the way that Roman Catholicism has). The ultimate problem with such an approach is that one's ethics begin, rather than with God in Jesus Christ, but in a metaphysics of being, and because of this the framework of the command of the grace of God as the content of theological ethics cannot have the status which properly belongs to it.
For this Roman Catholic co-ordination of moral philosophy and moral theology is based on the basic view of the harmony which is achieved in the concept of being between nature and super-nature, reason and revelation, man and God. And it is quite impossible to see how in this basic view grace can really emerge as grace and the command as command. According to this view, the fall does not alter the fact that man’s imitative knowledge is capable and to that extent partakes of true being even without grace, and therefore—analogia entis—of communion with the supreme essential being, with God, and therefore with the supreme good, although on account of the fall a special illumination by the grace of revelation is needed actually to prevent it from falling into error (530).
This presupposition of the Roman Catholic construction is in every respect unacceptable. Strong opposition must be made to the idea that the metaphysics of being, the starting-point of this line of thought, is the place from which we can do the work of Christian theology, from which we can see and describe grace and nature, revelation and reason, God and man, both as they are in themselves and in their mutual relationship. The harmony in which they are co-ordinated within this system is surreptitious. For what has that metaphysics of being to do with the God who is the basis and Lord of the Church? (530-531).
If this God is He who in Jesus Christ became man, revealing Himself and reconciling the world with Himself, it follows that the relationship between Him and man consists in the event in which God accepted man out of pure, free compassion, in which He drew him to Himself out of pure kindness, but first and last in the eternal decree of the covenant of grace, in God’s eternal predestination. It is not with the theory of the relationship between creaturely and creative being, but with the theory of this divine praxis, with the consideration and conception of this divine act, of its eternal decree and its temporal execution, that theology, and therefore theological ethics, must deal (531).
Having dispensed with all that, Barth can now make some definitive statements regarding theological ethics. Theological ethics concerns itself with the sum of the good and the reality of the command of God as the sum of the good. This is no "mere possibility" but is reality.
But this means, first, that the reality of the good as such, the reality of the command of God as the sum of the good, cannot be treated as a mere possibility. We cannot first make a problem of the reality of the good in the command of God, or of the reality of the command of God as the sum of the good, and then come back to the affirmation of them in the form of a solution of the problem. We cannot even incidentally reckon with the possibility that there is no good, or that it consists in something other than the command of God. We cannot even incidentally make it the object of our choice. For if we do, it is no longer this good, not even if we do finally approve it. This good is chosen only in obedience, i.e., in the choice in whose making we have no choice, because we are chosen ourselves and can only make this one choice. Its possibility demands our recognition and apprehension as it is included in its reality as the reality of God, which either includes all possibility or excludes it as an impossible possibility. Even when it takes up the ethical problem, theological thinking is always bound to this reality (536). 
Not only that, but theological ethics concerns the right conduct of humanity and it cannot cease to attest and interpret the reality of God. It thus directs its attention to the Word of work of God which have taken place in Jesus Christ (537ff).
This orientation of theological ethics means, secondly, that while it, too, enquires concerning the right conduct of man, it cannot cease to attest and interpret the reality of God, and therefore His Word and work. It cannot change either its direction or its theme. When it asks about right conduct, it cannot stealthily become an indicative or imperative representation of the Christian; an empirical or ideal depiction of Christian existence. It cannot turn its back on the Word of God in order, for a change, to see what has become of the man who hears the Word of God, or what will perhaps become of him. Even as ethics, theology is wholly and utterly the knowledge and representation of the Word and work of God (537-538).
What right conduct is for man is determined absolutely in the right conduct of God. It is determined in Jesus Christ. He is the electing God and elected man in One. But He is also the sanctifying God and sanctified man in One. In His person God has acted rightly towards us. And in the same person man has also acted rightly for us. In His person God has judged man and restored him to His image. And in His person again man has reconstituted himself in the divine likeness. We do not need any other image but this: neither another image of God nor another image of man and his right conduct; neither another Gospel nor another Law. In the one image of Jesus Christ we have both the Gospel which reconciles us with God and illumines us and consoles us, and the Law which in contradistinction to all the laws which we ourselves find or fabricate really binds and obligates us. This is the Law to which theological ethics clings. It is ethics of grace or it is not theological ethics. For it is in grace—the grace of God in Jesus Christ—that even the command of God is established and fulfilled and revealed as such. Therefore “to become obedient,” “to act rightly,” “to realise the good,” never means anything other than to become obedient to the revelation of the grace of God; to live as a man to whom grace has come in Jesus Christ (538-539).
Jesus Christ forms the center of theological ethics because by him God has done what is right for humanity, and in Him, humanity can do what is right for God. Barth concludes with a discussion of the possibility of non-theological ethics. He concludes that yes, in part, the good may be known and done apart from Jesus Christ, but only because of God's wisdom and patience (see how Barth is rooting it again in the Doctrine of God?); and yet, the forms no basis for an independent ethics.
Thanks to the wisdom and patience of God, and the inconsequence of men, it is quite possible in practice that Christian insights and deductions may actually exist where their Christian presuppositions are wholly concealed, or where a closer investigation would reveal all kinds of presuppositions that are only to a small extent Christian. There are many people who live by Christian presuppositions, who even represent and proclaim them, and yet if they were questioned, could only tell us something very far from satisfactory or quite unsatisfactory, something which we might have to dismiss as heathenism or Jewish doctrine. The wise course, then, is to keep to what they actually know and not to what they unfortunately seem not to know or even in their folly to deny. The business of the reader or hearer of this type of ethics is tacitly to supplement and correct its more doubtful—implicit or explicit—presuppositions (as Paul did in Ac. 17:28), and for the rest to learn from it what it actually has to teach. But this does not in the least alter, but rather confirms, the fact that in thesi, in principle—and this is what concerns us here—correct ethics can only be Christian ethics, and Christian ethics, if it speaks scientifically, cannot be differentiated from theological ethics. In the last analysis, therefore, the only strict answer to our question is to say that in a scientific form there is only one ethics, theological ethics (542).