Confession and Proclamation

I've been trying for a while to express why I find Barth's Gifford Lectures on the knowledge of God and the service of God according to the Scots Confession, and his Göttingen course on the Reformed Confessions, so necessary to his ethics. And that's basically because they're not essential to his ethics, as we have understood it in the literature so far. And they're not going to figure heavily in my dissertation at this rate, either. The ground has to be laid for them, first. But I can't shake the feeling that they belong, nonetheless.

Yesterday's very brief post (there are advantages to composing on an iPod) was half an attempt to get this bit right, and half an attempt to be succinct about my sense that dogmatics and ethics in Barth are both subordinated to a third thing, the Word of God:
Two things are morally incumbent upon the Christian. We must confess none but God, and we must preach nothing but the gospel. Ethics as a task follows from these. It is the project of living in consistency with them. Dogmatics, or theology, instead pursues them. It is the project of verifying today that what we confess is in fact none other than God, and that what we preach is in fact nothing other than the gospel.

From these, all else follows.
But this is not the normal way we speak of ethics in its relationship to dogmatics, or about ethics simpliciter. We must, as fundamental obligations, confess and preach? What good does that accomplish?

The problem is that, when we talk about ethics, we talk about law and duties, obedience and disobedience to commandments. Confession and proclamation aren't among the usual commands we consider. We don't tend to think of them as actions in the world. Which may perhaps be because they belong so clearly to the sphere of the church. We are disillusioned about the value of such so-called "religious" actions. And we are so disillusioned because we get the sense that they do not lead to action in the world, which is a real problem.

But Barth doesn't make a distinction between the sphere of the church and the sphere of the world that would allow such an exclusion between "religious" and "secular" actions. Perhaps that's the danger of referring to the Zwei-Reihe-Lehre as the doctrine of the "Two Kingdoms," rather than the two modes of governance we see ourselves subject to in the world.

And certainly, there is a kind of apocalyptic authenticity to the separation of church and state, and their opposition. But that takes the logical "or" under which either one alone, or both together, are true, and applies an exclusivity through which only one or the other may pass. We go from a situation in which these things may be opposed, to a situation in which they must be—which is false.

We are not either in the church or the world, and therefore schizophrenic (in the literal sense of having divided intentions) to the extent that we exist in both. Christian ethics cannot survive such incoherency. Nor can we permit the tyranny of church culture over secular culture, any more than we allow its opposite. The better apocalyptic insight will deprive both sets of culture, both of these so-called "spheres" as conceived in human terms, of their legitimacy. (Which Barth does.) There is no "church" whose nature is other than creature before the Creator. And there is no "world" whose nature is other than creature before the Creator. There is no true sphere of action but the sphere of creation. And there is no legitimacy to be had by any creature, except to the extent that they respond to God's action in the created world.

Which means that the beginning of all ethics is response to God. Response is the root of all responsibility. The image of God in us is our correspondence to God. Follow that verbal root! This is why the proper response to vocation is invocation. Ora is the source and ground of all labora. It is the circuit into which we must be plugged to do any useful work. We cannot speak justly of ethics without speaking of the Word of God—without realizing that we stand in correspondence with and to that Word, before we ever choose to respond to it. Without realizing that we cannot justly think of ethics in separation from God, any more than we can justly think of existence in separation from God. And so, as the root of all moral action, we confess. And we preach. And this is the ground of what we therefore do.

Can we do ethics in any authentic way without understanding who we are? Can we understand who we are without confessing God? Can we confess God without proclamation of that same God?

And yet I won't say what Barth might, which is that there is no ethics without this God, confessed in this way. I will gladly content myself to teach Muslims to do ethics in an analogously authentic sense, and Jews likewise—as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Humanists, and all manner of others. Have you an understanding of your origin, and of the constitutive relationships in which you stand? Could you be without them? Then you cannot in any authentic sense do without them, either. I do not confess and preach in order to convert. I confess and preach in order to be, and therefore to do, what I truly am.

And, of course, I do dogmatics and ethics constantly, in order to repudiate the things that I have been and have done before God, and to become and act better.


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