Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Blogging with Barth: CD 2.2 §36.2 "The Way of Theological Ethics" pp. 543-551

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 §36.2 ("The Way of Theological Ethics"), Barth deals with the nature of theological ethics. He begins with a reminder that the nature of theological ethics is rooted in the election of God, and more particularly, in the doctrine of God Himself.
It is the Christian doctrine of God, or, more exactly, the knowledge of the electing grace of God in Jesus Christ, which decides the nature and aim of theological ethics, of ethics as an element of Church dogmatics. It has its basis, therefore, in the doctrine of God Himself. For the God who claims man makes Himself originally responsible for man. The fact that He gives man His command, that He subjects man to His command, means that He makes Himself responsible not only for its authority but also for its fulfilment. Therefore we do not speak completely about God Himself if we do not go on at once to speak also about His command. But it is the Christian doctrine of God, or, more exactly, the knowledge of the electing grace of God in Jesus Christ, which also decides the special way of theological ethics, the special form of its enquiry and reply, the attainment of its fundamental principles (543).
Barth begins with a negative reflection - what the nature of theological ethics is not. It is not a general philosophical ethics.
In view of this matter, we must first refuse to follow all those attempts at theological ethics which start from the assumption that it is to be built on, or to proceed from, a general human ethics, a “philosophical” ethics. In the relationship between the command of God and the ethical problem, as we have defined it in its main features, there is not a universal moral element autonomously confronting the Christian. It is, therefore, quite out of the question methodically to subordinate the latter to the former, to build it on, or to derive it from, it (543).
Also, theological ethics is primarily concerned with human life or human orientation rather the command of God (543-544). He reviews objections to this claim by other ethicists in a small print section of pp. 544-546.
But again, in view of the matter in mind, we shall have to cut ourselves free from all those deductions and classifications which start from the presupposition that while dogmatics has to do with God and faith in Him, the concern of ethics is with man and his life. This distinction usually avenges itself at once, for the distinctive Whence? and Whither? of theological ethics are smothered by the various questions man as such has to put and would like to see answered in relation to the shaping of his life. These questions of human life replace the command of God as the proper theme, the framework of all thinking on the subject (543-544).
Barth then turns to a more positive reflection on the nature of theological ethics. First, the nature of theological ethics rests upon and presents the Word of God, which he contends purchases and has a claim upon humanity.
If we ask first concerning the basis of ethics, the first task which obviously confronts us is to understand and present the Word of God as the subject which claims us. It is to understand and present the Word of God in its character as the command which sanctifies man. This basis will be our particular concern in this final chapter of the doctrine of God. The goodness of human action consists in the goodness with which God acts toward man. But God deals with man through His Word. His Word is the sum and plenitude of all good, because God Himself is good. Therefore man does good in so far as he hears the Word of God and acts as a hearer of this Word. In this action as a hearer he is obedient. Why is obedience good? Because it derives from hearing, because it is the action of a hearer, namely, of the hearer of the Word of God. It is good because the divine address is good, because God Himself is good (546).
He then moves to show that theological ethics has a task of showing God's good action towards humanity, which means God's claim, decision, and judgement is upon humanity.
Man does good in so far as his action is Christian. A Christian is one who knows that God has accepted him in Jesus Christ, that a decision has been made concerning him in Jesus Christ as the eternal Word of God, and that he has been called into covenant with Him by Jesus Christ as the Word of God spoken in time. When he knows this, when he is “judged” by God through confrontation and fellowship with Jesus Christ, his action, too, becomes a “judged” action. It is in the fact that it is “judged” that its goodness consists. Therefore its goodness derives from this confrontation and fellowship. His action is good because the divine address which is an eternal and temporal event in Jesus Christ is good, because God Himself is good. In its simplest and most basic expression this is the theological answer to the ethical question. This is the sum and substance of theological ethics. The characteristic feature of the theological answer to the ethical problem is that—although it also answers the question of the goodness of human action—it understands man from the very outset as addressed by God, so that in regard to the goodness of his action it can only point away from man to what God says, to God Himself (547).
Barth also contends that the command of God is an event. This is such an important on-going theme in the work of Barth. In the sanctifying command of God we understand God Himself as an acting God.
The first thing that theological ethics has to show, and to develop as a basic and all-comprehensive truth, is the fact and extent that this command of God is an event. This is the specific ethico-dogmatic task as it now confronts us within the framework of the doctrine of God. We cannot emphasise too strongly the fact that by the ruling principle of theological ethics, by the sanctifying command of God—corresponding to the fact that we do not know God Himself otherwise than as acting God—we have to understand a divine action, and therefore an event—not a reality which is, but a reality which occurs. Not to see it in this way is not to see it at all. It is not seen when we try to see it from the safe shelter of a general theory. It is not seen when we think we see a being and then ask whether and to what extent we can derive from this being this or that obligation. The proposition: “There is a command of God,” is quite inadequate as a description of what concerns us. 
For we should naturally have to weigh against it the denial: No, “there is” no command of God. What “there is” is not as such the command of God. But the core of the matter is that God gives His command, that he gives Himself to be our Commander. God’s command, God Himself, gives Himself to be known. And as He does so, He is heard. Man is made responsible. He is brought into that confrontation and fellowship with Jesus Christ. And his action acquires that determination. The command of God is the decision about the goodness of human action. As the divine action it precedes human action. It is only on the basis of this reality, which is not in any sense static but active, not in any sense general but supremely particular, that theological ethics has to make answer to the ethical question. Its theory is simply the theory of this practice. It is because this practice occurs, because theological ethics cannot escape noticing this practice, in the contemplation of this practice, that theological ethics fashions its concepts. The same practice of the Word of God forms the basis of the Christian Church. It is in view of it that there is faith and obedience in the Church. It is in view of it that all theology has its legitimacy and its necessity. It is as God gives man His command, as He gives Himself to man to be his Commander, that God claims him for Himself, that He makes His decision concerning him and executes His judgment upon him. It is as He does this that He sanctifies him, and the good (which is God Himself) enters into the realm of human existence. To understand the command of God as this claim and decision and judgment will therefore be the first task to which we must address ourselves in the present context (548).
Barth will develop this more fully later in the Church Dogmatics in a three-fold way:
Once this foundation has been laid, in later sections of the Church Dogmatics we shall have to show in detail to what extent this divine command is actually directed to man. Even as His command, the Word of God is the Word of His truth and reality in the act of creation, in the act of reconciliation and in the act of redemption. Or we might put it in this way, that it reveals the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ as the kingdom of nature, the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of glory. Or we might say that it manifests the pre-temporal, cotemporal and post-temporal eternity of God. Or, alternatively, it speaks to us about our determination for God, our relationship to Him and the goal of our perfection in Him. As the command of God, too, His Word has this threefold meaning and content. The concept of the command of God includes the concepts: the command of God the Creator, the command of God the Reconciler and the command of God the Redeemer. The three concepts are identical with the fundamental concepts of dogmatics which it is the task of theological ethics to explain and recapitulate in their ethical content (549).