Barth in Meta-ethical Terms, part I

The Barth conference has come around again, and gone by now, but I've gotten a goodly number of hits on an older article about general and special ethics in Barth. Which isn't a great statement of the case, and I really ought to update it, but every time I go to do so, I find I don't know enough. (Basically, the Hans Dieter Betz problem. It leads to an endless research cycle.) But today, I'm going to make a start—and I'm also going to try to do something I've never successfully done before, which is to make a multi-entry promise to my audience and keep it. A series on Barth's ethics in meta-ethical perspective.

What is Barth doing, in terms of ethical/moral theory? I've attempted to answer this question before, largely on the basis of problematic analyses of Barth's own ethical position. If you begin by insisting that Barth's ethics must belong to some comprehensible option in ethics, you will inevitably go about understanding him in terms of what kind of a theory he's got. And especially among ethicists who do not do dogmatics, this will lead you readily astray. It really does take a theologian and Bible scholar.

First things first, and the first thing is to realize some of how Barth is a peculiar ethicist. We will get nowhere with Barth if we do not begin by understanding the population for which he does ethics. This can't be ignored; Barth is not doing a general ethical theory of right or wrong human action. His categoricals, unlike Kant's, only reach out so far, and no farther. Barth is performing ethical theory for, on behalf of, and as a member of the church—that is, the community of human beings subject in relationship to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is definitely revealed in Jesus Christ and understood as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This relationship—however unreliable its human party may be at any and all times—is the salient defining feature of the moral field. It is not a closed relationship; as this God is understood to be the creator of the whole creation, the relationship is designed to be open toward the inclusion of all relevant creatures.

And beyond that (this may well be a flaw), I'm going to proceed on the understanding that I have of Barth's ethics, without drawing that picture for you here in advance. I will assume that you have some grasp of what the thing I'm classifying is, and I can give you a reading list if you'd like. To flesh out the assumption, salient bits will be adduced as we go, and I will be better able to draw a picture for you at the end.

The point of this series is a tour through the options of meta-ethics by a theologian and Bible scholar who has spent several years, and will be spending a dissertation, working on Barth's ethics. And just as a meta-ethical tour, it will be quite long enough as it is! You are, of course and as always, welcome to correct me and dispute with me on details both presented and omitted. I am less expert on the individual options in philosophical ethics than I am on Barth, and I will be working of necessity in broad strokes even where I am reasonably expert. And my expertise, such as it is, is by no means perfect—so speak up!

So: the first question in classification tends to be "realist or anti-realist." For Barth that's not as easy a question to answer as it might seem. Divine command theory is one of the anti-realist options, and Barth is frequently placed there on account of speaking about the command of God. But let's begin by looking at moral realism.

There's something attractive about moral realism as a place for Barth's ethics. The lowest common denominator here for realist moral theories is the understanding that an ethical statement may be verifiably true or false on the basis of external characteristics. There is a fact of the matter, to which a decision or action corresponds either positively or negatively. The attraction: that God is real and evident is an undebatable part of Barth's theology. God, this particular actual god who has done these things and been witnessed in self-revelation, may, can, and must be known externally to ourselves.

At the same time, for Barth unlike Thomas, we must say that moral naturalism, the subset of realism in which the fact of the matter may be deduced from or reduced to the naturally knowable, doesn't fit. The idea that moral values relate to moral facts is reasonably acceptable; the idea that moral facts relate to natural facts is not. For Barth, increasing our natural knowledge of the world does not increase our basis for moral knowledge. Nature is not a path to knowledge of God; God may not be known as a natural object, or from natural objects. Being known, God may be seen at work in the creation, but God may only be known as God gives Godself to be known, being the autonomous creator and not any sort of creature. Even in Christ, we do not know about God from the human nature.

Next up: Non-naturalist moral realism.


  1. Look forward to this series (btw, I have had the same problem ... intending to do a blog series on something, and then because life circumstances happen my original intention takes second seat ... so Godspeed to you on the series, Matt :).

    Have you read John Webster's:

    Barth's Ethics of Reconciliation


    Barth's Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth's Thought

    I've started both of these in the past, and need to finish them. I really like the latter (e.g. "Barth's Moral Theology").

    Anyway, just curious, if you have read these, what you think of Webster's reading of Barth (since both of these books are pertinent to your series' topic).

    1. I discovered Webster early in my love affair with Barth. His view of a non-disjunctive Barth from the early writings into the dogmatics is quite compelling. And I respect his texts on Barth's ethics, though it's been about a year and a half since I went through them.

      My most recent attempts at a book list on Barth and Ethics you've seen (here on Darren's how-to). Webster definitely goes on the list (I don't mention him because Darren already did), but I really need to re-read him with what I've learned since last time and see how he holds up.

      Honestly, my favorite work on Barth's ethics is still Nigel Biggar's, even though it reaches hopefully for a goal Barth didn't necessarily achieve by the end. That's still a feature by comparison with many of the texts in this area. He gets the gestalt and goes after it with gusto.

    2. And as to the series, I'm taking a page out of the webcomics artists' playbook, and buffering. The trick seems to be to write ahead while you have the steam and publish at a delay in manageable units.

    3. I will have to read Biggar's book then. Yes, I remember your list off of Darren's post; thanks for sharing that.

    4. That is a good idea on posting a series. I might have to try that myself!


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