Dogmatics in the Service of Ethics

Can or should ethics be separable from theology? More importantly, since these two actually are treated as separate discourses: when we connect them up, which will serve the other? Making ethics serve theology means that we might just have to do what we say. But it can then be suggested that what we call "ethics" is something parochial, a restricted set of something that ought to be a universal task—and therefore something that can only be universalized by the assertion of our dogmatic priorities over others. If we make theology serve ethics, on the other hand, we suggest that our faith will have to yield to some external priority. This is certainly one of the false dichotomies endemic to modernity. How do we escape it?

The question in Barth studies is most often something like this: "what role does ethics play in Barth's dogmatics?" How does Barth use ethics in the service of theology, in other words. I'm compelled by my reading to see that as exactly the wrong question. It's backwards, because it presumes that theology is the primary and most important task. Barth will, of course, tell you that dogmatics serves—most explicitly, that it serves the proclamation of the church, and that it serves most clearly by following out that proclamation into what it requires of the action of the church. So there's definitely a relation here, between dogmatics and ethics, that Barth acknowledges. But what direction does it go?

Gerald McKenny's chapter on "Dogmatics and Ethics" in The Analogy of Grace is quite good as coverage of some of the issues involved here. He brings out what I take to be a core thesis of Barth's on this issue: when ethics is subordinated to theology, as a discipline within its ambit, it becomes the implementation of dogma and doctrine, the opinions and teachings of the church. Attempts to make ethics primary in this relationship do not generally free it from its subordination to dogma and doctrine. The moral thought remains subordinated to some form of dogma and doctrine, some version of what we think about the situation, even when we give to morality the lion's share of the attention—and even when it is "liberated" into subordination to the dogma and doctrine of a humanist, rather than a Christian, perspective.

And we may see that this is so especially among fundamentalists. I say this, because it is inevitably among the fundamentalists of any religion that its culture is most thoroughly included in dogmatics. A nod in the general direction of Mars Hill and the Gospel Coalition today will suffice—or perhaps a mention of Sayyid Qutb, to evoke a better class of fundamentalism. This is ethics treated as the working out in life of a determined system of thought. This is the natural extension of total-system orthodoxy. Ethics does not leave its subordinate role, but the priority given to ethics—to community behavior and to a certain pattern of action—is itself the justification for a certain pattern of dogma and doctrine. It is the justification for the importance of a "robust" orthodoxy, a version of the faith that holds to a representative constellation of doctrines in their mutual interdependence with the community rule. This is ethics as "practicing what we preach," in the best of cases. Not that this is unique to fundamentalisms, by any means—such groups are simply more dogged about working out the logic given them! They execute the program as written. Such attention to self-consistency is a necessary illustration of the flaws in any system.

It is in exactly this way that Barth says that what we call ethics within the discipline of theology serves—and why Barth calls this instead "the doctrine of the command of God." The handling of the question as to what we should therefore do, within the critical inquiry as to the truth of our object. This is the function, for example, of the concluding parts of each volume of the Church Dogmatics, in which Barth turns to the ethical implications of the material covered. Yet this is not the task of ethics as such. This is merely the demonstration of dogmatics in the service of ethics. If these components of ethical reflection on dogma and doctrine are not the thing itself, but instead a component of theological reflection, a matter of getting what we teach about God's command correct—which is the meaning of "the doctrine of the command of God"—then what is ethics itself? Is it something independent of and external to dogmatics? Can it be such a thing?

The trick is also to uphold, as Barth does, the denial of any independent ethics. We must deny that ethics as a discipline might be free of theology, or superior to it in the sense of perhaps including theology ... and perhaps other things as well. Barth insists that ethics cannot be "free" because inevitably such "freedom" from theology, from Christian dogma and doctrine, is the excuse for an ethics subordinate to some other set of teachings. It is manumission into some other service.

If ethics cannot fit under theology without being reduced to reflection on the doctrine of the divine command, and it cannot be independent of theology, what remains? Can we invert the relationship? Can dogmatics fit under ethics?

I'm inclined to believe that it does. That dogmatics, as the critical inquiry into truth in our understanding of God, as it is represented in our opinions and teachings on the subject, is a matter of investigating what we take to be the foundations of our actions. As Bonhoeffer mentions in his Ethics, we are the creature that, because of sin, can know and understand things—and also not do them. We rely on the penultimate, we cling to it. We make much of our knowledge and understandings. And we act on the basis of our understanding, and perhaps against it more often than is healthy—but we rely on that cut-out between truth and action. We insist on acting on the basis of the truth as reduced to sensible limits. The truth as we comprehend it. It is morally incumbent upon such creatures that we systematically investigate our understandings because they are not true. This is the role of dogmatics in the service of ethics. It is the role of any philosophy, likewise.

What then is ethics? It is actually something superior to dogmatics? Can we understand it as something qualitatively different?

That, I don't think we can do. Instead, we need to realize that the symbiosis of these two disciplines is real and necessary. How can we do this? As far as I'm concerned, the same way Barth does: by seeing them both subordinate to a third thing. Something which is really the first and only thing: the Word of God.


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