Ethics with Barth
by Matthew Rose
Ashgate, 226 pages, $89.95
This is a necessary book, whether one is concerned to understand Barth or to understand the moral life. Matthew Rose has seen, with clarity and depth, what Barth is really up to, a rare achievement—even, for his precise topic, perhaps a novum. Moreover, he has laid out his results in reasonable compass and perspicuous order.
Rose proposes his interpretation as a contrary to the standard opinion of English-language commentary—from Reinhold Niebuhr to Rowan Williams—which describes Barth’s ethics as one-sidedly critical and anti-humanist. By way of emphasizing his contrary understanding, Rose opens his book with an indeed surprising proposition of Barth’s: “The human soul is Christian by nature.” Putting Rose’s diagnosis of the general fault my way, people have supposed that no one could have said what Barth in fact says, and have therefore not seen what Barth is up to.
Barth’s ethics are theological ethics in a special sense: They are themselves theology, in that they derive unilaterally from his doctrine of God and the revisionary metaphysics that doctrine involves. The structure of Rose’s book reflects this: a first part is devoted to God and metaphysics, and a second part is devoted to the material ethics. The matter of the first part coincides with my own primary concern for Barth’s thought, and I will testify that in my judgment Rose is spot on.
It will not excuse readers of this review from reading the book if I devise a cryptic version of the principle of Barth’s ethics, as Rose discerns it: Since Jesus Christ is the universal Logos, following Christ and acting with the grain of creation are the same thing. Accordingly, we learn what is good for us creatures from what the Logos is and does as creature. That, of course, leaves a sufficiency of things to be explained; and Rose tracks down one question and line of reflection after another—which sometimes means explaining why a position Barth takes resists explanation.
The second part of Rose’s book provides exegesis of the sections of the dogmatics devoted expressly to ethics. Barth planned three distinctly founded treatments, one within each of the doctrines of creation, reconciliation, and redemption—the last is missing because his dogmatics remained unfinished. Rose views this structure as perhaps Barth’s most original and lasting contribution to theological ethics: The human life corresponding to the triune God is too rich to be described under one systematic rubric; it must follow the trinitarian distinctions and mutual indwelling.
I have not done much with this part of Barth’s work. This is in part due to the tight focus of my interest. In part it is because of an uneasiness some passages awake in me. But for the most part it has been mere sloth or exhaustion. Now Rose has done the hard work for me, and I am grateful—though with some twinge of conscience.
And with a remaining, indeed perhaps increased, twinge of that uneasiness—about Barth, not Rose. For when I have on occasion spent serious time with his ethics—e.g., with Christengemeinde und Brüdergemeinde—I have been disappointed. I think there may be a loose connection in Barth’s passage from God and metaphysics to material ethics. Barth’s regular device is that a human phenomenon is good if it is an analogy of some christological/trinitarian feature. For what I just called “analogy” Barth has a grab-basket of language: analogy, image, reflection, mirror, correspondence, and so on. But surely each of these terms inhabits a somewhat different semantic field. It seems to me that Barth’s notion may be so imprecise that it lacks disciplinary grip, that it can accommodate whatever result he wants. My suspicion lacks the scholarship to claim authority; I mention it because I wonder if Rose, who does have the authority, may share it. He is scrupulous in giving his subject the benefit of the doubt, and avoids heavy critique; but there are some signs of similar unease.
Matthew Rose’s book appears in a series of Barth Studies edited by John Webster, George Hunsinger, and Hans-Anton Drewes. The editors and Ashgate Press are to be heartily thanked for bringing it to us.
Robert W. Jenson’s latest work is a theological commentary on the Book of Ezekiel for Brazos Press.