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Narrative and Ethics in Barth
By William Werpehowski
"At least two implications follow concerning the relation between Barth's use of biblical narrative and his theological ethics. First, biblical narrative is used to show how the God who transcends us in Jesus Christ remains free from us, so that our corresponding self-transcendence in relation may be a genuinely revolutionary discipleship. Secondly, biblical narrative depicts the way in which the God who relates to us in Jesus Christ remains, in and as the basis of transcendence, free for us. Our corresponding response may, therefore, be a discipleship that is genuinely faithful service."
IN remembering Karl Barth, and in renewing our commitment to learn from him, we would do well not to overlook the lovely simplicity with which he sometimes expressed himself. A wellknown example of this can be found in Church Dogmatics, IV/2, where he acknowledges indebtedness to Abel Burckhardt, his first teacher of theology. Burckhardt's collection of children's hymns was the medium of instruction, and of these songs, Barth wrote:
What made an indelible impression on me was the homely naturalness with which these very modest compositions spoke of the events of Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost as things which might take place any day in Basel or its environs like any other important happenings. History? Doctrine? Dogma? Myth? No--but things actually taking place, so that we could see and hear and lay up in our hearts. For as these songs were sung in the everyday language we were then beginning to hear and speak, and as we joined in singing, we took our mother's hand, as it were, and went to the stall at Bethlehem, and to the streets of Jerusalem where, greeted by children of a similar age, the Savior made His entry, and to the dark hill of Golgotha, and as the sun rose to the garden of Joseph.... It was all present without needing to be made present.1
Barth's touching tribute appears at the conclusion of an argument proposing: (1) that the manifold activities of the Christian life tacitly
William Werpehowski is Professor of Religion and Undergraduate Coordinator of the Religious Studies Department at Villanova University. He graduated from Princeton University and from Yale University where he received the Ph.D.
1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/2, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958), pp. 112-13. Further references to the Church Dogmatics will appear in the text. On the significance of this passage, cf. D.F. Ford, "Barth's Interpretation of the Bible," in S.W. Sykes, ed., Karl Barth: Studies of his Theological Method (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 57.
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presuppose that the Savior whom we remember in these activities "is Himself in action now, today, and here"; and (2) that this action of Jesus Christ is of a piece with the history of his life, death, and resurrection as attested in the New Testament. These theological proposals are complex, of course, and they are certainly relevant to the themes of this essay; but we must not run past Barth's simple witness to Burckhardt's wise simplicity.
We find the same simplicity, as well as, perhaps, a distant reflection of Barth's early instruction, in one of his later addresses on Christian ethics.
God became, was, and is a man. And it happened that God as this man was not a success, but had to suffer and died as a condemned criminal on the gallows. And it happened, further, that this man who was God was raised from the dead. But thereby it happened that every man in Him and all men by Him were exalted to the glory of God. I anticipate. The conclusion of this history consists in this: that it will happen, it will be revealed for all and to all, that our guilt and need is taken away by the person of this man, and that we are called in the person of this man to the glory of God. Thus it happened, and therein happened that God was and is and will be gracious to us. That is the history between God and man, the history of Jesus Christ, God's covenant and mercy. It is to this history that Christian ethics is related.
Christian ethics is the fruit that grows on this tree. Christian ethics cannot be understood if this story is omitted or misinterpreted. For it is just this history which calls out continually to the activity of men.2
In the Bible, Barth adds, we find the "indispensable documents" by which we may call to remembrance the history of Jesus Christ; there we also find an account of that "condition of life" created among us by the grace of God. "From the Bible we learn to submit to such a condition of life."3
In what follows, I propose to develop this summary statement of Christian ethics in its relation to that particular history which is described biblically. The dialectical complexity of Barth's own elaboration, which I intend to follow and evaluate, should not have us lose sight of the basic theological commitment underlying the form and content of the texts we have already considered-a commitment simply to follow that very particular God who precedes and authorizes and encompasses all of our talk about God.
Barth's interest in the history of God in Jesus Christ properly warrants our interest in the category of narrative; for narrative is a literary category appropriate to the task of depicting that history in its biblical attestation. The history in question is taken to be that of an agent. The identity of that agent is fittingly depicted in a narrative that may "characterize" God through the patterned description of God's
2 Karl Barth,
God Here and Now, trans. Paul M. van Buren (New York: Harper & Row,
1964), p. 88
3 Ibid., p. 90.
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action and passion, as found within the movement of biblical plot.4 It is clear from Barth's account of God's being as a being-in-act (II/1, pp. 257-72), and of the being of Jesus Christ as constituted by this action (III/2, pp. 55-61), that a kind of narrative interpretation is at work in his theology. Yet it is important to refine our understanding of the way this sort of interpretation is secured, at lease implicitly, through Barth's method of theological justification. Otherwise we may overlook some particular uses to which narrative interpretation is put in Barth's work, along with identity-descriptions of God.
Barth justifies theological positions without reference to a universal ground of rationality outside the internal logic of Christian faith. He seeks to show how they contribute to a maximally coherent system of belief, following a critical process of testing and revision. More specifically, his task begins from accepting the actuality of some form of theological knowledge, and proceeds to an argument showing how that knowledge is possible in its correspondence to the being of God. The theological necessity of any claim is established by tracing back from it to an understanding of how its content refers to that gracious being. In this way, the integrity of divine revelation as God's self-interpretation is preserved.
God's self-interpretation [revelation] is interpretation as correspondence. Let it be well noted: as his own interpreter God corresponds to his own being. Since, however, God as his own interpreter (also in his external works) is he himself, since also in this happening as such it is a question of the being of God, then the highest and last statement which can be made about the being of God is: God corresponds to himself.5
Let me provide an illustration of this approach. A central claim of Barth's theological anthropology is that in its creaturely determination as God's covenant partner, humanity is cohumanity. This means that creaturely human being is as it ought to be when I and Thou stand with one another in a glad mutuality of assistance. The proposal is fully comprehended and warranted for Barth when it becomes clear that human beings as male and female, I and Thou, in their nature correspond to the being of the triune God who decided from all eternity to enact a covenant of reconciliation in Jesus Christ. The former claim about humanity corresponds to the latter claim about the God who is I and Thou in trinitarian relation, and who as such is the God who wills a covenant with us. This covenant is the original of the creaturely covenants in which we may live in our own sphere. Here, as with all of Barth's theology, faith's search for understanding may yield the grateful recognition that our words about God are really "at home" in the Word of God, and that our search holds promise of fulfillment.
F. Thiemann, Revelation and Theology: The Gospel as Narrated Promise (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), pp. 86-91.
5 Eberhard Jungel, The Doctrine of the Trinity: God's Being Is in Becoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 23-24.
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Barth's narrative interpretation of biblical materials does offer a helpful example of how perhaps to construe the canon as a whole (that is, by our ability to follow the story of God in our relation to Israel and Jesus Christ); it also focuses attention away from philosophical anthropology as theological foundation and toward "the centrality of God's agency within biblical narrative and Christian community"6 But Barth's narrative interpretation also fittingly communicates the way in which God's being-in-act is a history of a certain sort.
The history of a being begins, continues, and is completed when something other than itself and transcending its own nature encounters it, approaches it, and determines its being in the nature proper to it, so that it is compelled and enabled to transcend itself in response and in relation to this new factor. The history of a being occurs when it is caught up in this movement, change and relation, when the circular movement is broken from without by a movement towards it and the corresponding movement from it, when it is transcended from without so that it must and can transcend itself outwards (II/2, p. 158).
The feature of temporal self-transcendence in differentiated relation is found paradigmatically in the being of God, the one who loves in freedom ad intra and ad extra. The eternal God is preeminently one who becomes. "The Father begets, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit proceeds; here is 'before and after,' here is God 'again and yet again'."7 The rational basis for considering God's life with us and our life with God as historical is that these histories correspond to that triune history. Once again, "God corresponds to Himself." Now the literary category of narrative "emphasizes the interaction of circumstance and character, incident and identity, in an ordered chronological sequence."8 Because of that emphasis, a narrative reading of Scripture is appropriately employed to display the temporal interaction of the approach of the transcending God in relation to human actors in self-transcending response. As a tool that may preserve the correspondence of this interaction with the very being of God, the category properly serves the form and purpose of Barth's theological argumentation.
"The art of narrating, as well as the corresponding art of following a story ... require that we are able to extract a configuration from a succession."9 On the basis of the preceding, it makes sense to say that the general configuration of meaning that Barth may extract in his reading of biblical narrative, and especially of the gospel narratives of the story of Jesus Christ, will be eminently historical in Barth's sense. At least two implications follow concerning the relation between Barth's
Revelation and Theology, p. 84.
7 Robert Jenson, God After God The God of the Past and the God of the Future, Seen in the Work of Karl Barth (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), p. 128.
8 Thiemann, Revelation and Theology, p. 86.
9 Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays in Language, Action, and Interpretation, ed. and trans. John B. Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 278.
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use of biblical narrative and his theological ethics. First, biblical narrative is used to show how the God who transcends us in Jesus Christ remains free from us, so that our corresponding self-transcendence in relation may be a genuinely revolutionary discipleship. Secondly, biblical narrative depicts the way in which the God who relates to us in Jesus Christ remains, in and as the basis of transcendence, free for us. Our corresponding response may, therefore, be a discipleship that is genuinely faithful service.
In connection with the first implication, consider Barth's treatment of the revolutionary character of the "Royal Man," Jesus Christ. As a man who exists analogously to the mode of existence of God, Jesus is not only "the one who is ignored and forgotten and despised and discounted by men"; nor is he merely the one who, "in fellowship and conformity with this God who is poor in the world, is also poor ... acknowledging those who ... are in different ways poor men as this world counts poverty" (IV/2, pp. 167, 169). As the one known in biblical depiction, Jesus corresponds to the being of God in the display of a "remarkable freedom" in relation to the "orders of life and value current in the world about Him." This freedom is unclassifiable from the standpoint of these orders.
He had need of none of them in the sense of an absolute authority which was vitally necessary for Him, and which He could prescribe and defend as vitally necessary for others because it was an absolute authority. On the other hand, He had no need consistently to break any of them, to try to overthrow them altogether, to work for their replacement or amendment. He could live in these orders.... He simply revealed the limit and frontier of all these things-the freedom of the kingdom of God.... Inevitably, then, He clashed with these orders in the interpretation commonly placed on them in the world in which He lived. inevitably their provisional and relative character ... were all occasionally disclosed-not in principle, only occasionally, but on these occasions quite unmistakably (IV/2, p. 172).
Barth defends the validity of this account in a startling excursus which illustrates Jesus' royal freedom in gospel narratives (IV/2, pp. 173-79). He describes, on the one hand, the "passive conservatism" of Jesus-his clear acceptance of the temple as his Father's house, his respect for the order of family, his honoring of the law. In his relation to economic and political arrangements, there is no direct and principled repudiation. On the other hand, the biblical narratives about Jesus show "no trace of any consistent recognition in principle." His acceptance was of one who stood superior to them, in the freedom of the Kingdom of God. So he witnesses to a reality higher than the temple, and he sets himself and his family of followers over against his conventional family. There is the assault on the law in his attitude toward the Sabbath. His parables strikingly challenge existing economic relationships, and his
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stance toward the state includes a clear vision of how its authority is severely limited and relativized.
From this simple juxtaposition of seemingly conflicting patterns of acceptance and challenge, Barth derives a configuration of meaning. The juxtaposition both conceals and reveals the "indissoluble antithesis" of God's kingdom to all human kingdoms, along with the denial that here there may be no neutral compatibility between the old and the new. Indeed, Jesus' most radical assault on the old is established by his "ignoring and transcending" of it, and by "the alien presence with which he confronted it in its own sphere."
Thus, in the economic and political spheres, we find in Jesus' life and teachings "a questioning of the very presuppositions which is all the more powerful in its lack of any direct aggressiveness." In his and his followers' accepting of the insecurity of dispossession, and in their rejection of violence, we find the "incommensurable factor" which reflects how it is that "the world is concretely violated by God Himself."
In the excursus, Barth seeks to show how Jesus' freedom from us, in correspondence with the freedom of God, is depicted in the biblical stories themselves. He warns that if we do not know Jesus as this revolutionary, then what we would know instead, "in a mild or wild transcendence," is only ourselves. Thus the pressing concern to protect theology from anthropology finds expression even here in his reading of biblical narratives. More important for our purposes is the way in which this account illuminates one side of Barth's understanding of Christian discipleship. Inasmuch as the disciple is a witness to Jesus and the radically new thing Jesus brings, his or her self-denial must reflect the "break" with the orders of the world and their false dominion. "The world which sighs under these powers must hear and receive and rejoice that their lordship is broken. But this declaration cannot be made by the existence of those who are merely free inwardly. If the message is to be given, the world must see and hear at least an indication, or sign, of what has taken place. The break made by God in Jesus must become history" (IV/2, p. 544). No particular or general principle set over against the "lordless powers" can intervene between the one calling and the disciple called, or between the one called and the world which may hear. Any such principle jeopardizes the freedom which must not be bound by the world, even and especially as the world remains the basis by which its negation is apprehended. It confuses the break which must "ignore and transcend" worldly orders with one that may still validate the world through its relative overcoming.
The commanding of Jesus as found in the gospel accounts does, nevertheless, proceed along certain clear lines which are always relevant. In the case of worldly possessions, worldly honor, the use of violent force, the authority of family, and the structures of the world of piety, the disciple may be commanded to act in ways that, again, do not so
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much reverse as ignore the presuppositions of these spheres. Not merely in support of a more egalitarian form of attachment to possessions, but in a freedom from possession (which may still be expressed egalitarianly); not just in a non-violent approach to the relationship between friend and foe, but in witness to the invalidation of that relationship (which may still be expressed non-violently); not in a form of service which may win honor among men and women, but in the ignoring and transcending of these canons of honor (which hardly overrules the disciple's proper service); in these and other ways, too, the disciple may follow in freedom.
For Barth, this statement of Jesus' radical freedom can never be the last or even the first word to be said about the royal man Jesus and his call to discipleship. The first and last word is that Jesus, with God, is for humanity in love and faithfulness. Jesus' freedom from us, including his freedom to say No to us, is finally secondary to and based upon his Yes, which the biblical stories depict in his being the deliverer of joy and comfort, the compassionate servant of human need (IV/2, pp. 173-92). He casts the light of the kingdom, with its promise of release from the ills that burden suffering humanity. In his reading of the stories of Jesus' miracles, Barth proposes that the aim of these acts is to help the sufferer to live again as a creature; in this help, we find "manifestations of the kingdom drawn near." "Freedom from" is based on "freedom for." God's No, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is founded on God's gracious Yes. We move, accordingly, to an elaboration of the second implication described above.
Barth develops the ethical ramification of God's Yes, in part, through narrative interpretations of biblical materials. His interpretations serve at least three purposes. First, he establishes what he calls the basis of biblical ethics. Second, he provides a vision of the obedience of the disciple. Third, he accounts for the spheres of God's activity in the world as they pertain to certain moral issues.
The basis of biblical ethics is the order and pattern of indicative and imperative illustrated in Deut. 6:20ff.
When your son asks you in time to come, "what is the meaning of the testimonies and statutes and the ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded you?" then you shall say to your son, "we were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and gracious, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commitment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.
This text and others like it stand as "the answer of the Bible to the question of the legitimacy of the divine claim" (II/2, p. 562). God's
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command is warranted by the story of what God has done for us. The command, therefore, is never abstract. It is never preliminary or subsequent to the grace of God. It is always "the form, or shape, or garment of grace."
Christian obedience, it follows, is a matter of witnessing appropriately to the story of what God has done for us. Since that action amounts to a "liberation and loosing" (II/2, p. 602), the divine command always has the form of a permission to be one who belongs to Jesus Christ as a covenant-partner. One may belong to and share in the history of the covenant of grace which Jesus enacts, a history "to which the interest of the whole Bible, in both its parts, is indissolubly directed." Obedience cannot consist in mere conformity to general rules or principles, as such, for:
It is just in the course of this history that there arises the commanding and forbidding.... If we are to understand this, we may as little think of abstracting from this story as from the person of the God who commands. On the contrary, we must continually keep before us and therefore understand the person in the history and the history in the person.... How strangely would the Bible deviate from its proper theme and content if it presented matters otherwise than it actually does in the shape of this, so to speak, historical ethics, if it were to describe the will of God as the establishment and proclamation of general precepts and rules which can be filled out only on the basis of the reflection and decision of man (II/2, p. 678).
In fact, it is crucial to see that the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount do not set out any general law, negatively or positively. They only delimit the definite sphere of God's action. Barth interprets the giving of the Commandments and the preaching of the Sermon as moments in a larger story that opposes the notion that here we have general commands and prohibitions given to us here and now. The revealing of the Commandments reveals above all a certain sort of God and a certain sort of people. God will command and forbid within the framework of the Commandments, but we err if we confuse the framework with the picture of commanding and forbidding itself. The picture is governed by Israel's success or failure in heeding the voice of the "angel" referred to in Ex. 23:20f., the angel sent by God whom the people must heed in their history with God.
The pattern of framework and picture, of delimitation of sphere and lived history, corresponds to the New Testament depiction of the Sermon on the Mount and its aftermath. Here also a definite history is disclosed in condensation, as it were. It is the history of the Kingdom of the new humanity. Here also the framework is not identified with the picture, for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the new life it inspires is distinguished from the proclamation itself. Yet that life will always involve a series of events that repeat and confirm the event proclaimed in the Sermon (II/2, p. 688).
Barth's reading of the biblical tests is certainly open to challenge, but any challenge must recognize what Barth is trying to do. He is trying to show that these prescriptions play a role in the biblical depiction of the
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covenant of grace that exposes how obedience is not to be frozen in these prescriptions. Obedience is historically concrete and thus bound to its biblical depiction, as discovered in the stories of Abraham, Peter, the centurion at Capernaum, and so forth. At the same time, obedience is not to be frozen in these stories. While the commands given there by God must be seen as concerning us directly, becoming also God's command to us, they must also be the commands of Jesus Christ as he speaks "to us, calling us in the particular situation of obedience determined by His Word" (IV/2, p. 553). That situation is not any mere application or translation of these stories to the "right" situation as we determine it; for "we have to realize that the command of Jesus given us itself creates the situation and all the conditions of the situation in which we have to obey.... In obedience we are not about to leap. We are already leaping" (IV/2, p. 542). We are concretely and currently implicated in a moral universe constituted by the history of God in Christ. Because Jesus lives, we may confirm and renew, but never copy, the biblically storied commands. Because Jesus lives, the life and death and victory of Jesus Christ as attested in the New Testament "takes place today and will again take place tomorrow, in the course of which He is the living Jesus Christ," and in which "we now, today, and here are invited to participate with supreme realism" (IV/2, p. 112; cf. IV/1, pp. 224-28).
The discipleship that correlates with this view of obedience includes faithful service of the neighbor. As those who can look only where they see God looking, Christians are called to concern themselves with human beings beloved of God. They may offer the assistance by which suffering people may be more able to live as creatures again; but that assistance, as it stands in continuity with God the Creator, will also bear the marks of that "break" with the orders of the world which any witness to God's Kingdom may and must manifest. They may serve their fellow creatures without validating the norms of mammon, worldly honor, and violent force. The help by which we may provide for the other a measure of creaturely freedom-"of psychological freedom, space to breathe and move, of joy, of opportunity for experience and development"-is decisively a witness to the Kingdom as it ignores and transcends these norms for the sake of the other (III/4, p. 500). It may express in fitting fashion both the secondary "No" to the orders of the world (and to the human presumption to assimilate God's Kingdom to these orders), and the primary "Yes" to the neighbor as he or she stands in that world.
The history of God in Christ may also be more specifically described in reference to particular moral problems. Barth will describe the spheres in which God's activity for us always takes place; this "horizontal" dimension of the divine command establishes a "constancy and continuity" which "persists in all the differentiations of individual cases" (III/4, p. 17). "Special ethics" amounts to a commentary on the history of relationship between God and persons, and it is not surprising that Barth will turn to biblical narratives in his attempt to offer the commentary. What is surprising is that he does not always, or even
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often, turn to them explicitly. When discussing the ethics of suicide, however, he does. Deeper insight into both the character and possibilities of Barth's ethics will repay careful scrutiny of his discussion.
Barth's treatment of suicide specifies his more general position concerning the respect owed to human life. Our freedom for life is a freedom to treat it as a benefit and loan given by God (III/4, pp. 327-35). While not a second god, it remains "good and worthwhile because [it is] the one great opportunity of meeting God and rejoicing in His praise." The birth of Christ, in which God takes life, stands as the great revelation of the respect owed to life in correspondence with God's valuing of it. So besides treating life with astonishment, humility, and awe, one must simply will to live in response to God's showing us this favor, entrusting us with this divine possession, and offering us this opportunity. Indifferent, willful, or wanton destruction of life, including one's own, is met with an unqualified No (III/4, p. 403).
In the case of suicide, or "self-murder," Barth focuses on the kind of act in which self-destruction in the face of affliction represents an exercise of a supposed sovereignty of the self over itself. In this act, one stands before oneself as one's own judge, ruling that one's life is too obvious a failure, or too intolerable a burden, or all too dishonorable, and therefore fit for extinction. The unauthorized and rebellious will to judge oneself in this way is based on a tragically mistaken supposition. As afflicted and assaulted, the would-be suicide finds God hidden from one as one's own God; one is thus tempted to see oneself as utterly sovereign in light of this "dreadful void," and conceives continued life as a compulsion, a necessity conforming to some law of virtue, or social or individual responsibility. Suicide is that "last and supreme act of sovereignty" to liberate oneself from the necessity of living. It is an act, moreover, which will not be stayed by the counterforce of these laws. But to will life before God is to will that we are permitted to live. The despair that anticipates and accompanies self-judgment is possible and necessary only if we must live; they "are necessary only if we are charged to help ourselves, if pressure is extended from some quarter to take life into our own hands, to be our own masters, to make something significant of ourselves, to justify, sanctify, save and glorify ourselves, and ... to have to recognize at some point and in some way that we cannot really succeed in doing this" (III/4, p. 407).
The supposition is false. God is gracious, and we may live by the fact that it is the gracious God who justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies. These activities are not required of us. All there is for us to do is receive and acknowledge that grace. This word is the one light that may shine in the darkness of affliction; it contains the corrective that undercuts the "impatient revolt against the supposed necessity." The gracious God in Jesus Christ would speak the word that "there is for us inexhaustible, illimitable, and unfailing forgiveness, help, and hope" (III/4, p. 408).
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The biblical correlate for this theological analysis can be found in the three great cases of suicide discovered in the bible. In Saul, the first king of Israel, Ahithophel, David's turncoat adviser, and, above all in Judas, we find figures who stand deeply in the shadow of the biblical narrative. They are depicted as judged for sinning against the free grace of God. Saul wishes to be a king in the manner of the world. The clever Ahithophel, in going over to Absalom, reveals his foolishness in not recognizing David as the elect of God. Judas, an apostle and disciple chosen by Jesus, reserves for his own decision the terms of obedience. For these three in their effort to be sovereign in face of the fidelity and mercy of God, suicide is their "logical end" (III/4, p. 409). But this resistance is resisted and defeated by the mercy of God, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his will as Judge to be judged in our place, and in the vindication of his life and work by the one he called Abba, we find the basis for a love that has overcome even this. God's conclusive Yes overcomes every human No.
This summary captures, I think, the terse and synthetic manner in which Barth will draw general conclusions from his reading of a number of different and complex biblical tests; but the summary is unfair to the extent that it does not attend to the richness of Barth's biblical reading.10 So let me try to reconstruct in greater detail how his extended interpretations of the stories of Saul and Judas develop in connection with our moral question.
According to I Sam. 8:5, the elders of Israel come together in Ramah and say to Samuel, the last of the Judges, "appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations." The Lord tells Samuel to grant the request: "for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being over them (8:7). The Israelites appear dissatisfied with the lordship of God and the leaders appointed by God; they would expect security from another source of authority and power (8:19-20). Yet the character of the narrative makes clear that God will give them up to their king with the intention that that king remains a servant elected and called by God. The double-sided character emerges more clearly in the surprising election of Saul, who comes from the smallest of the families of the smallest of the tribes of Israel. Saul is told by Samuel that God has appointed him prince, not king, over Israel, whatever the people may call him (10:1). In his encounter with the prophets and his falling into ecstasy, both promised him by Samuel as a sign and confirmation of God's favor, Saul is in effect counted as still belonging to the order of the prophet. In the fact that he cannot be found when the people seek him, and that Yahweh must lead them to him, we have again a nagging
10 It is also unfair in ignoring Barth's account of exceptions to the "unqualified No." While I cannot make the case here, I am not entirely persuaded by James Gustafson's suggestion that that account contributes ineliminable logical difficulties to Barth's ethical position. James M. Gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective. Volume Two: Ethics and Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 191; but cf. p. 187.
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reminder that Israel is and is not getting what it wants. It may get its lord, but only as the Lord's servant.
Saul fails in the latter commission. The story in I Samuel recounts a pair of sins by which Saul's kingship is lost. In advance of war with the Philistines, and fearing his people would leave him, given Samuel's delay in coming to the host, Saul takes the prerogative of offering the sacrifice. (I Sam. 13:8). Samuel's subsequent rebuke indicates for Barth that in this act Saul simply sets before the people "the false image upon which the people had fed in their perverted demand" for a king. He sought to lead the people in their relationship to God, rather than waiting for God to direct and lead. The second fault (15:8) consists in not fulfilling God's command totally to destroy the Amalekites. Saul spares king Agag, along with the better cattle. Again, Saul fears the people and wishes to please them. In these rather small compromises with the way of other kings and nations and gods, Saul gives his lordship precedence over his servant status. His fear governs his actions, but this binds him to a worldly law that cannot support him. Quite the contrary, this fear and its aftermath remain the basis for all his other wickedness, culminating in his suicide. Saul refuses to stand faithfully before God, however mild the refusal. He finds himself under the compulsion to live in the light (or in the darkness) of a rule of self-justification. As that rule convicts him, so he is free to convict himself. Poignantly, his suicide continues to reflect his fear, though now in terms of the ignominy that the approach of the Philistines promises him after their final military victory. He would kill himself, "lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and make sport of me" (31:4). He thus dies well, but only as a man who would be king (IV/1, pp. 437-445).
Judas is genuinely one of the twelve, and is perhaps distinguished in belonging to the tribe of Judah, the seed of David. Barth sees him as guilty, like Saul, of a minimum; he leads the high-priests to Jesus at a time and in a place suitable for avoiding a ruckus. He just delivers Jesus into their hands, a delivery which continues after his own onto the cross. Barth takes the Johannine account of the anointing at Bethany to provide the clue to Judas' fault (John 12:1-8). Mary's act of complete and extravagant devotion is rejected by Judas, who reserves for himself the right to decide how to obey and follow. In Matthew's version, it is not Judas but "the disciples" who complain of the extravagance: "they were indignant, saying 'Why this waste?'" (Matt. 26:8b). Relating this latter scene of the disciples' collective uncertainty about which of them would hand Jesus over, Barth concludes that the situation between Jesus and Judas is "only a heightened form of the situation between Jesus and all other men," including and especially the men and women who would follow him (II/2, p. 476). That situation of "reservation" on the part of the disciple is confirmed in the narrative of the price paid for Jesus and its Old Testament parallel (Matt. 16:15). The prophet Zechariah had sought to protect the flock of sheep "doomed to slaughter" at the hands of wicked shepherds. Zechariah became impatient with the sheep, and
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they detested him. So he is given a wage of thirty pieces of silver, and the relation is severed (Zech. 11:4-12). The Lord commands Zechariah to cast the wage into the treasury of the temple, seeing it as "the lordly price at which I was paid off by them" (11:13). In the text of the New Testament, Judas takes the place of the prophet, and the situation is reversed. Payment is made not for protecting sheep who would tie slaughtered, but for handing over the shepherd for slaughter. Judas is one of the flock withdrawing himself from the shepherd, counting his care as suspect. Judas, for Barth, does what God's people always do-buy God off in exchange for a measure of independence. So Judas is handed back what he, as the representative of God's people, dares to offer God in place of what is really owed (II/2, p. 464). Judas does repent of his handing over when he finds that Jesus, an innocent, is condemned and handed over to Pilate. But the penitence is dependent on himself, on his own work, as it is also in league with the world into which Jesus is delivered. By Barth's reading, the same reservation which leads him to hand Jesus over, the same failure of surrender to the point of glorifying the way of the cross, also forecloses making full restitution for the deed.
Judas can only see to the matter himself, as the high-priests tell him. He can only act on his own, in accord with what he bargained for. His hanging himself discloses that Judas has no future as a disciple; the life of discipleship can only continue in following the crucified Jesus, raised from the dead. As before, and now in his suicide, Judas acts as his own judge, taking to himself the final judgment of his act, as if thereby order would be restored. But the departure taken at Bethany does not restore order (II/2, pp. 458-72). The reserve of Judas is illumined in the text of Matthew by the juxtaposition of his flight to the high-priests with the inauguration of Jesus' passion as a mission unto death on behalf of sinners, and indeed on behalf of the poor about whom the disciples worry in their reservation. In the narrative, the turning to the high-priests is linked to the querulous turning from the way of the cross in suffering solidarity with sin and misery. Judas' reserve takes him to his own tree, and the despair he would destroy along with himself is based on his sense of having lost the race he set for himself. We know little of what exactly that race involved. It might be viewed as the effort to force Jesus' hand, to have him display power in a fashion that would get the real revolution of the Messiah going. We are not told, and Barth does not speculate. But in the text's silence, the sense of disrelation of Judas' way to Jesus' way is heightened.
The sense of disrelation is also communicated in the negative correspondence of Jesus and Judas as isolated penitents.11 Barth's reading of the Gethsemane narratives develops the way in which Jesus' Abba prayer reflects the understanding that the dreadful thing approaching him "was the coming concealment of the Lordship of God under the
11 Cf. Ford, "Barth's Interpretation of the Bible," p. 73.
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lordship of evil and evil men." Jesus "prays that, directed by God's providence, the facts might speak a different language from that which they are about to speak, that in their end and consequence they should not be against Him, just as He had decided for God and not against Him in the wilderness" (IV/1, p. 269). Note that Jesus only prays. Barth's sense of contrast with Judas is reflected in the very language he uses to describe what Jesus does and does not do. "He does not demand. He does not advance any claims. He does not lay upon God any conditions. He does not reserve his future obedience. He does not abandon his status as a penitent. He does not cease to allow that God is in the right, even against Himself. He does not try to anticipate his justification by Him in any form, or to determine it Himself. He does not think of trying to be judge in His own cause and in God's cause" (IV/1, p. 270). He says, with increasing conviction, "Thy will be done."
In light of the contrast, disciples of Jesus may be able to see both how they are delivered up to the world in and with the crucified and risen Lord, and how they, as those for whom Jesus was delivered up, would hold in reserve their devotion. They may see the affliction which the first delivery can involve, bearing as it does the dignity of the cross, in their witness of good news to the suffering. They may see the suicidal logic of the reservation, and they may learn that they, too, would be suicides. They may pray to God in their own affliction, and they may give themselves in works of love to people who believe that they must live, uncovering by their revolutionary fellowship a piece of a different picture. Serving others in their need, disciples may recall that such also is their own need. As suicide is rejected, a testimony to its rejection may be given in word and deed, a testimony that must become history in the love that stands surety for the neighbor, and in the joy that overtakes sorrow without extinguishing it.12 They may see that they cannot take their own lives because they are always called already to have given them away. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, which for Barth discloses the meaning of the answer given to Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, gives them permission to do so.
From this lengthier rendition of Barth's interpretation of biblical narrative, we can see that he tries, in George Lindbeck's words, to show how the scriptural world is able to absorb the universe, how it "supplies the interpretive framework within which believers live their lives and understand reality."13 The task of Christian ethics is to argue from what that scriptural world depicts, the history of God in relation to Israel and Jesus, to conclusions about the spheres of God's activity relevant to the Christian's conforming behavior. However successfully or unsuccessfully
Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, trans. Clarence K. Pott (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1986), p. 55.
13 George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. Il 7.
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Barth executes this task, it does relate in interesting and important ways to interesting and important work currently being done in Christian ethics. Let us try, in conclusion, to evaluate Barth's ethical vision in light of some of this work in the form of theses, with commentary.
(1) Because it is based on the history of the God gracious to us in Jesus Christ, Barth's Christian ethic is an ethic of virtue.
I have argued elsewhere that Barth's ethic of divine command is not liable to the charge of "intuitionism" or "occasionalism." On the contrary, Barth can well account for the way in which the hearer of the command is shaped in and by a history that provides the basis for the development and growth of character.14 Stanley Hauerwas is one Christian ethicist who made the wrongful charge, and, happily, he seems no longer bound to it. In his recent work, in fact, Hauerwas adopts a position toward the status of moral rules and the basis of biblical ethics that is remarkably akin to Barth's own.15 Correspondingly, Hauerwas would (or should) share with Barth the notion that "we know who we are only when we place ourselves ... within God's story"; or the idea that "to learn to be God's creature ... is to learn to be at home in God's world."16 The "placing" and "learning" of which Hauerwas speaks include the development of virtues, attitudes, and dispositions enabling the disciple to correspond in his or her pattern of action to God's own. Barth's biblical interpretation concerning moral questions can be seen to impart a sense of these moral skills and perspectives. One may come to learn of penitence when contrasting the narrative expressions in Judas and Jesus; one may learn something more of the joy one is permitted to live by in its contrast with the fear of Saul or the reserve of Judas. That we may learn these things and come to be a person grateful and faithful to God is finally made possible by the gift of God's self-manifestation and the faithfulness God displays across the course of our lives.
Since, however, the history of the gracious God is also a history of the sovereign God who in Christ "laid the axe at the root of the trees," one must not conclude that the disciple's history with God is an easy continuity. On the contrary, the disciple for Barth lives simul justus et peccator; therefore, he or she is always only "falling out with oneself" (IV/2, pp. 570-74). The falling out is with the old one who may be lifted up out of identifications with the orders of life judged by God. The disciple shares these identifications with non-Christians, and the work of Christian ethics must include Christians' loving witness to the world and to one another of the new freedom that stands for us over against the current spheres of politics, economics, recognition, family, etc. While Hauerwas may be correct in his claim that the primary task of the Christian community is to maintain its particular identity, he may need
Werpehowski, "Command and History in the Ethics of Karl Barth," Journal
of Religious Ethics (Fall 1981): 298-320.
15 Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), pp. 23-24.
16 Ibid., p. 27.
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the reminder, posed by Barth, that the community is free to be itself in active witness to and for the world of suffering creatures. He might recall Barth's arguments, derived in part from the narratives of Jesus, that the world of piety also stands judged as the "pious world with its continual need to publicize itself," even in its radical contrast to liberal individualism (IV/2, p. 552). Repeatedly and merely falling out with oneself in the Christian community and for suffering creatures through prayer and righteous action in the world, the Christian disciple may be, on Barth's terms, virtuous.
(2) Because it is based on the history of the sovereign God present to us in Jesus Christ, Barth's Christian ethic is a theocentric ethic.
In his remarkable and relentless attack on anthropocentrism in Christian theology and ethics, James Gustafson laments that "religion and God have been put in the service of human needs."17 This implies the denial of God as God, as the powers and ordering that sustain and bear down upon us. A theocentric ethic must reverse this tendency, especially, for Gustafson, through a focus on finite humanity in its continuity with the natural world which God also sustains and limits. Karl Barth's ethics, he says, "are as theocentric as any in this century"; yet Barth, too, remains anthropocentric in his conviction that "the commands of God are primarily in the service of the needs of man."18
What Gustafson rejects, at least in large part, is Barth's ordering of all of the acts of God ad extra to covenant partnership with humanity in Jesus Christ. But these acts correspond to the being of God, not to us and our needs, and in Jesus Christ we discover a thoroughgoing No to any effort to use God as an instrument of our needs. That effort only yields a reflection of ourselves. There may be great value in Gustafson's theological plea to relativize radically humanity's importance and possibility in light of its connections with the natural world; but for Barth the change in human life accomplished by God in Jesus Christ overcomes the dichotomy between anthropocentrism and theocentrism upon which Gustafson relies.19 Consequently, Barth's ethic becomes so theocentric as to rule out as impossible theological attention to human needs, except as they are measured and transfigured in the light of God.
(3) For Barth, God's sovereign freedom apart from us is the external basis of God's freedom for us; thus Barth's ethic of virtue can never be identified with a theological ethic of idea.
In the essay "Fate and Idea in Theology,"20 Barth questions the adequacy of what he calls theological idealism. That view involves "the
M. Gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective. Volume One: Theology
and Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 83.
18 Ibid., p. 95. Cf. Gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Vol. II, pp. 28-29, 35.
19 Cf. Richard A. McCormick's use of Barth in "Gustafson's God: Who? What? Where? (Etc.)," Journal of Religious Ethics (Spring 1985): 56-62.
20 Karl Barth, "Schicksal and Idee in der Theologie," Theologische Fragen und Antworten (Evangelischer Verlag, 1957). All references to this essay are to George Hunsinger's typescript translation.
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self-reflection of spirit over against nature." It seeks to direct us to a God who exists in genuine transcendence, who is the presupposition of all that is given, objective, and conditioned. If this theology is to be adequate, it must allow that its criterion of truth is a possibility specific to God and not to us; moreover, the transcendence to which it points must never be just the self-transcendence of our created and fallen spirits. The condition of the possibility of the knowledge of God belongs to God alone.21
There is a hint of a problematic theology of idea in Stanley Hauerwas' ethic of virtue. While his uses of biblical narrative often yield rich theological insight, he often will forego these uses in favor of a general category of narrative that expresses the particular, historical, and social bases of human existence. The story of the Christian community is correlated with this category, and then almost systematically set over against the destructive vision of liberalism, with its suspicion of tradition and its praise of individualism.22 These different uses of different senses of "narrative" sometimes emerge in the consideration of a single issue. In his treatment of suicide, for example, Hauerwas refers to a biblically derived understanding of life as a divine gift. Then he proceeds to an account of the way suicides reflect and prepare for the erosion of trust necessary to sustain community life. Poignantly, he notes how suicides may point to a community's abandonment of its members. It may also undermine trust because our will to live must include the recognition of our need and obligation to be counted on and trusted in by others, even in the midst of suffering. Finally, Hauerwas sets the claims of this second approach in critical relation to the community-eroding forces of liberalism, with its stress on an ideal of autonomy that only deceives and isolates.23 These last two moves appear to derive theological claims from the framework of a general philosophical anthropology, and/or from the dialectical negation of contemporary cultural expressions of meaning and value. In short, they seem to engage characteristic maneuvers of Protestant liberalism and/or Barth's Romans commentary (second edition).24
To overcome the dangers of a theology of idea, the gracious God must
pp. 22-23, 29-30.
22 Cf. Thiemann, Revelation and Theology, pp. 175-76, n. 19.
23 Here I rely on Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Bondi, "Memory, Community and the Reasons for Living: Reflections on Suicide and Euthanasia," in Stanley Hauerwas, Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), pp. 101-15; and on Hauerwas' recent essay, "Rational Suicide and Reasons for Living," in his Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), pp. 100-13. See also "On Taking Religion Seriously: The Challenge of Jonestown," in Stanley Hauerwas, Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 198 5), pp. 91-106.
24 For a splendid statement of Barth's movement from the Romans commentary to Church Dogmatics, see Hans W. Frei, "An Afterword: Eberhard Busch's Biography of Karl Barth," Karl Barth in Review, ed. H-Martin Rumscheidt (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1981).
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be understood to be sovereign, free apart from us and our dialectical positings of transcendence. Following this understanding, Christian ethics will still have to say much of what Hauerwas says; but it may say it differently, as it may also say some more and better things. In the light of biblical narratives,25 it may be better able to address the depth of affliction that overcomes people, Christian and otherwise. It may need to qualify or reject as unhelpful talk about obligations to go on living as it applies to the afflicted. It may be able to say good things for liberal culture, in the name of the Kingdom and its promise that one may live.
(4) For Barth, God's triune freedom for us is the internal basis of God's sovereignty apart from us; hence Barth's theocentric ethic can never be a theological ethic of fate.
Barth also expresses hesitation in "Fate and Idea" toward a theological realism which would discover God in fate-"a fate that befalls human beings inwardly-outwardly, subjectively-objectively, something which becomes all too powerful for them and takes them prisoner, setting them in absolute dependence." This God "must represent the one reality present in all other reality, hidden but not entirely hidden there."26 Characteristically, he worries because this approach makes God "accessible apart from God as the performer of his work-which is the Word that comes to us.... God distinguishes himself from fate by the fact that he is not so much there as rather that he comes.27
There is a suggestion of a problematic theology of fate in Gustafson's theocentric ethic. It does involve a correlation between a phenomenology of religious consciousness and the order of nature. The powers of God are given or made manifest to the pious consciousness in experiences of relations in that order (including its human dimensions). Gustafson repudiates the idea of divine revelation because it "seems to suggest we can speak of God in se," apart from our construals of God, as acting like a person.28 In addition, he questions the appropriateness of construals of God as personal agent, since they seem to jeopardize theocentricity in various ways.29 But Barth's theology of revelation challenges the
Hauerwas' very Barth-like assertion that "God has revealed himself narratively
in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus.... Scripture as a whole tells
the story of the covenant with Israel, the life, death, and resurrection of
Jesus, and the ongoing history of the church as the recapitulation of that life"
(The Peaceable Kingdom, pp. 28-29). Statements like these lead me to
hesitate in attributing to Hauerwas a hint of a problematic theology of idea.
On the other hand, consider how Hauerwas continues the passage: "This empirical
observation is not merely an interesting one; this notion of the essential nature
of narrative as the form of God's salvation is why we rightly attribute
to Scripture the truth necessary for our salvation" (author's emphasis). This
sentence is not so Barth-like. In his seeming use of narrative as a general
category correlating human historical being with God's salvific work, Hauerwas
here stands somewhat apart from a theologian who would insist that the form,
as well as the content, of God's salvation is Jesus Christ.
26 Barth, "Fate and Idea in Theology," pp. 13, 15.
27 Ibid., p. 19.
28 James M. Gustafson, "A Response to Critics," Journal of Religious Ethics (Fall, 1985): 197-98.
29 Gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Vol. 1, pp. 179-80, 264-71.
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distinction between our construals of divinity and divinity "in itself." It warrants, in fact, a construal of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit so that God may be, in God's very self, possible for or capable of revelation. The construal of God as triune is authorized as following God's self-construal, depicted biblically. In arguing from actuality to possibility in God, Barth shows how the doctrine of the Trinity "should prevent the being of God being understood as a human construction," and hence as a servant of human needs.30 The resurrection promise in Jesus Christ is delivered for us by one who is able to do so apart from us, who is already "ours in advance." So for Barth, God's being for us makes ethics all the more theocentric. He is thus disposed to ask the theologian of fate: "Wouldn't it perhaps be better for this God to be called simply nature?"31
The most important issue between Gustafson and Barth is not the moral status of the natural order, nor anthropocentrism, nor Gustafson's charge that Barth's christological reading of Scripture is too simple and neat. The most important issue is whether God can be understood as a historical agent who graciously comes to us with the good news of resurrection promise in Jesus Christ. Without that possibility, a theocentric ethic is left with Gustafson's conviction that God does not guarantee human good. While the powers of God can offer the afflicted opportunities for movement out of despair, they do not always. The powers of God may make life an unbearable burden. In such cases, one must consent to one's own or another's suicide, and make room for enmity toward God; "one has to consent to the reality that the powers that bring life into being do not always sustain it but can lead to its untimely and tragic destruction."32
It is fair to say that in at least one respect Karl Barth's ethical thought stands as an alternative to two major proposals in Christian ethics made in this decade. The same question, posed from different sides of Barth's dialectical view of God's historical being, may be asked of Hauerwas and Gustafson. It is whether their work makes way for the grace of the self-revealing God in Jesus Christ. The counter-questions that can be asked of Barth are several. In what sense is God an agent? How can a doctrine of revelation be defended? How are covenantal ethics related to the structures of nature? Is resurrection finally an exceedingly anthropocentric and indefensible notion? What is the proper relation between church and world? How illuminating is an approach to suffering and tragedy that speaks of suicide as already rejected? How workable and coherent is an ethic based on correspondence to the being of God depicted in Scripture? These several questions are as complex as they are important. They require careful theological and philosophical attention. But we must not forget that they may be counter-questions to a
The Doctrine of the Trinity, p. 25.
31 Barth, "Fate and Idea in Theology," p. 22.
32 Gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Vol. II, p. 216.
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question that remains wise in its simplicity. It is a question about the possibility of the good of redemption delivered to us, unexacted, by the prevenient God. Those of us who would work on the question and the counter-questions would continue to profit from reading Barth in all his dialectical richness and power. But we should also read well his simple words, the words praising Abel Burckhardt, the words of the first article of the Barmen Confession, the words of tribute to Mozart, or maybe the words with which I will close: "God ... is free grace. And therefore because free grace is a joyous thing, the proclamation for which God commanded the prophets and the apostles, the proclamation of the Christian church, is gospel, joyous news."33
33 Barth, God Here and Now, pp. 28-29.