General and Special Ethics in Barth's Church Dogmatics

I tried this once before, long ago and far away in mind when I was doing my comps. It wasn't bad—I'm not embarrassed to have it out there, and it's usually in the top five of the most-viewed posts of anything I've written here—but I can certainly do better now.

What do we mean when we say "general ethics"? We mean more than just theory as alternated with practice in "special ethics." We mean by "general ethics" an approach to the ethos of the whole, an approach to reasonably universal principles that permit us to handle every situation—if perhaps with situational refinements. And so when we say "special ethics" we mean something different. If general ethics handles what might be called "natural duties," special ethics handles the cases in the world, down where the rubber of our tires hits that bumpy surface of the road, that don't seem to admit of universal and general solutions.

The world, you see, is inevitably the unequal and imbalanced and biased world, the tilted playing field on which equitable and universal principles routinely land on their sides, tires spinning in the air. And it is for that reason that we talk about what is really the classic topos of duties, the ground on which Plato's Socrates, for example, feels around for normative principles—but he is far from unique in that! The SEP calls this topic "special obligations." It's a field in which balancing unequal relationships and their demands is the game. For this reason, discussion in special ethics is inevitably done from situation, from relativity, from localities in which the game seems to be playable by sensible rules.

This is, of course, the divide that Kant's formulation of the categorical imperative attempts to bridge, back from special into general consideration, so that we cannot justify in situational ethics anything we could not justify universally. So that species are always members of a genus, even though different, and there are therefore no true hapax ergomena, no actions that are justifiable as exceptions. I have something like the converse sensibility, which is that every ethical genre must be derived from its species. I'm not so sure there aren't sui generis moral acts, but the bar for that is pretty high. In any event, "universal principles," if there are such things, have no existence apart from specific cases, in the thick description of which resides the data we need to model their possibilities.

With all of that by way of introduction, what may we say that Barth is doing, in terms of ethics, in the Church Dogmatics?

Situated Dogmatics/Ethics

Once, when I tried to answer this question, I was convinced that what Barth did in volume III on creation, when he got to ethics, was to dive down into specifics, and that the ethics of election in the doctrine of God was the truly general part. Now, not only do I not believe that Barth was ever not doing ethics, but I also hold the exact opposite opinion about the division into general and special in the Dogmatics.

First off, Barth hardly believes in general ethics at all. I've come to understand that, when Barth speaks of ethics as sin, he is talking about the procession from general to specific without a proper grounding—as though we had any right to our ideas of moral value and the nature of the universal context of ethics. We have no right to ethical genera that do not derive from properly defined ethical species. No moral principles or axioms, no ethical a priori. If, for Barth, the first commandment is the only allowable theological "axiom," spoken against the very idea of anything being axiomatic in theology but trust in God, I would push the statement that it is also the only allowable ethical "axiom," the relationship between God and humanity so defined being the fundamental shape of ethics itself. Nothing can be presupposed before this, and it conditions all presuppositions that follow.

This is connected to a point I mentioned back when I ran my series on Barth and meta-ethics. The first thing that has to be acknowledged about the Church Dogmatics (especially as distinct from its Münster precursor) is its focus on a specific situation. It is not generally human, or even generally Christian, but specifically ecclesial (kirkliche), in scope. Of course, it goes no finer than that, either—Barth, despite being basically a Reformed theologian, refuses to do Reformed dogmatics, or Lutheran dogmatics, or Catholic dogmatics, as though Heppe, Schmid, or Denzinger had a genuine right to the term "dogmatics"—and, for that matter, he refuses to respect any sectarian situation as a worthy context for talk about the relationship between God and humanity. At best, he is doing post-Reformation dogmatics—but then, aren't we all?

The Church as Situation

What does this mean, this situation "thus far and no farther" in terms of defining the church? First, we have to say that Barth isn't doing general human ethics, to be sure. For that, he would have to believe that humans could stand sui generis, and that the human genus were the sufficient context for the discussion. Etsi deus non daretur. Sin.

So: what is the fact of human being? If we are following Barth, we must say that the fact of human being is being-before-God, coram Deo. Specifically, being before God in Christ. True human being is Christic, if not religiously Christian. Which is not to privilege the religion in any of its manifestations, but it is to say that, for Barth, when we recognize our true selves in the recreating work of the Holy Spirit in us, it will be Christ we recognize. We are Christian, if we know ourselves truly.

But we cannot stop there, as though the Modern assumption were correct, and we were free and independent individuals constituted eternally before God, Christian in our recognition of our dependence on God. No; we are constituted in this way temporally, bound within time and history and community and standing in the traditions of those who have been so before us, and those who are so around us. We are not Christians without the Church, in the sense that there has always been one, holy, universal and missionary assembly of those in the world who stand consciously before God in the relationship God has made for us.

This is the reality in which we participate, just as surely as it is the reality in which our "churches" participate. This, for Barth, is the real and necessary nature of the divine-human relationship. It cannot be improved by further division, by decision among Christians as though it were more or less true here or there. There is no truth to smaller divisions of this situation in those terms. We might describe "Lutheran ethics," or "Reformed ethics," or "Catholic moral theology," but only as sectarian perspectives, as dangerous in that way as they are valuable, that must be brought into conversation. Which Barth does!

The Situation as Genre

So: this is the genre of Barth's dogmatics. This human situation, defined in this way, is the special scope within which he can do "general" ethics. It is also the way in which these ecclesial dogmatics do not produce a merely parochial ethics.

Now, to get there, Barth has had to assume the special relationships that make up the state of play in which any given Christian in the Church finds themselves. And this state of play is not explained from the beginning—it is assumed. It is defended, at the very beginning, as though it might be a parochial concern, an artificial restriction to just this group. It is defended against a world that sees the church as a religion, as optional, as a matter of ambiguous social forces and institutions, something that may be useful or dangerous, but is by no means necessary—even to the practice of Christianity. And, as such a thing, it would be.

Barth suffers this because he does not begin at the beginning. He begins in the middle, where he and all of us stand. But he also refuses to take this situation as though it could be a beginning. The true beginning is the same place Thomas begins, with God the Creator—but we cannot begin there as though we could walk a straight line from there to here. As though the act of creation and every present moment were continuous. That way lies all manner of naturalism, no matter how it attempts to account for decay and degradation across time.

We must realize that the creature tells us lies about itself, about its "right" arrangement and order. Not maliciously, as though it knew the truth and chose to hide it, but precisely because it has no sense of direction, no internal grasp of its origin. The creation is not itself revelation. It exists separately from God's existence, which is not a function of sin, even though its existence out of relationship with God is. Even apart from sin, there is a juncture between the free and independent God and the free and independent creature. In sin it is disjunctive, and in God's action conjunctive, but it is always and intentionally a juncture. These things do never not stand in some relationship.

Beginning in medias res

So Barth begins doing what appears to be special ethics from the present juncture, this moment in time and space and life in which we stand before God. There is nowhere else to begin, but here in the middle, on the uneven ground. And he begins by characterizing this middle, and the approach to being the church (and therefore to doing theology and ethics) that is appropriate to it. And he proceeds to discuss the eternal God as seen and known from this middle place in time and space and life.

But when he reaches the economy of God's actions, he is finally ready to present the beginning, and with it the construction of those relationships in which we stand as creatures before the Creator. Suddenly, in volume III, we have arrived at the point where Barth is willing to do truly general ethics, and construct that situation basic to the first two volumes from its origins. It is in the doctrine of creation that the truly general situation in which we find ourselves can be understood from its principles. And where do we proceed from there, but back to that situation in volume IV?

But there is something brilliant that Barth does, still in volume III. Having built this general situation from principles gathered from creation, he breaks it down into valid species. And those species are individual. They relate to every specific situation you will find yourself in—but all of those are species of this genus. You are this particular human being, before and with this God and all other creatures, in all of them.


So: what has Barth done? He starts with what any moral theorist would call a special case, human life in the church, in relationship to God, and builds from it up to an understanding of God as it may be gained from that situation. Clearly special ethics for the church in the world. Clearly and intentionally an evaluative discussion of the church-group and its fidelity to the relationships that make up its situation. That's what dogmatics is, and how it serves preaching. It keeps the church's actions responsible to its proclamation, and its proclamation responsible to the object of that proclamation, God. And we land back here in volume IV.

But in between volumes II and IV, Barth has done something very different. He doesn't build a description of the church as a special case within the world. He builds a description of the human as a creature, part of the whole creation, and of human nature from its origin. He describes the nature of evil and sin with respect to this created nature—negatively, of course. But this nature is not something lost. We have not been de-natured, only misdirected. That is not a simple thing, either! It is not as though sin were a directed path that we could walk in reverse. It is a thing, in Barth, that only God overcomes in returning us, each and all, to our natures in the work of the Spirit. And, while it may explain our disunity, it does not explain our differences. We are unique individuals because of God's own providence, and our situations are part of a complex interplay of that providence, which is the gift of the Lord of creation, and our own creaturely agency in its complex misdirectedness.

And so Barth pans from a class of special ethics that he makes as general as he can, back up to the best total framework he can derive, and then down still farther to individual situations within that general class, before he returns to treating the class generally again in volume IV—this time with the proper grounding. Not a simple answer, but then, reality is never as simple as theory. What does it give us, if we follow him? I think it gives us several things, of course, among which is a more humble way to speak about creation in ethics, but it also enforces a bit of general humility upon us to understand that we are parts of a greater whole in practically every way possible. While our actions are relevant, and we are called to act responsibly, Barth builds a framework in which we can realize that there is nothing ultimate about us or the world in which we find ourselves. All that is ultimate in our nature, our existence, and our fate belongs to God alone: the one who creates, reconciles, and redeems. This is the basis for our moral freedom: the fact that it does not matter eternally, but only proximately and temporally, what we do.


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