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Focusing on how things ought to be

16 November 2010

This is a valuable but demanding study, says David Atkinson


The Analogy of Grace: Karl Barth’s moral theology
Gerald McKenny
Oxford University Press £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

IT WAS in 1922 that the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote of “The Problem of Ethics Today”, noting that when the question about how things are is merged with the ethical question about how things might be — that is, about the good — it “partakes of the nature of crisis”; for human beings are not spectators facing this question: we ourselves are called in question by what ought to be.

Barth begins to “cut the circle” by pointing to the freedom of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Over the years, Barth’s understanding of the prob­lem and his exposition of divine grace matured and developed, so that he saw the whole of his massive Church Dogmatics as theological ethics, and devoted a concluding section of each dogmatic topic (reve­lation, God, creation, recon­ciliation, redemption) to ethics.

Gerald McKenny, of the Univers­ity of Notre Dame, has provided a comprehensive scholarly investiga­tion of the development of Barth’s ethical thinking, and thereby an extended exposition of the primary themes of Barth’s theology in rela­tion to human moral action.

There have been comparatively few studies of Barth’s ethics, though McKenny does engage with those that have been published, notably by English authors such as John Webster (Barth’s Ethics of Reconcilia­tion, CUP, 1995, and Barth’s Moral Theology, T. & T. Clark, 2004) and Nigel Biggar (The Hastening that Waits, Clarendon, 1993).

McKenny illustrates how, in Barth’s theology, God’s goodness is expressed in God’s being with and for the human other as God’s cov­enant partner. The covenant pro­m­ise (“I will be your God”) and command (“You will be my people”) are fulfilled in Christ, elected from eternity to fellowship with God.

The command of God to us, therefore, is the summons to con­firm in our lives what has already been done for us in Christ. To grasp human life from the standpoint of the Word of God is to see it deter­mined by God’s grace. Grace en­ables us both to recognise God’s claim on us and that we fail to meet it, and also that we “stand in God’s pleasure none the less”.

McKenny explores the contrast between Barth’s ethics of grace and the “bourgeois vision of the moral life” which relies on human capa­city, and the uneasy fit between Barth and “mainstream” theological ethics. He expounds Barth’s treat­ment of sanctification, of gospel and law, of the space for genuinely human action and reasoning as distinct from God’s action, and of gratitude as the “paradigmatic human action” in response to grace. Human life in the world is meant to be a series of “signs of grace”, a “lifelong song of praise glorifying God”.

This very valuable, if demanding, study should be in every theological library.

Dr David Atkinson is Hon. Assistant Bishop in Southwark diocese.

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