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Book Reviews


Karl Barth and Christian Ethics

Werpehowski, William. Karl Barth and Christian Ethics: Living in Truth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014), xv + 188. $104.95 (hardback)

Reviewed by Matthew Dowling (December 03, 2015)



“The dogmatics of the Christian Church, and basically the doctrine of God, is ethics” (CD II/2:515). This, as much as any statement, captures how Barth thought of the ethical task. When one grasps something of the profundity of this statement, then one will have a better sense of how inseparable Barth considered the link between how the Church should live and the task of theology. As Barth contended, the Church should seek to follow the will of God, an assertion he rooted in the claim of God on the people of God, because the covenant relation that God established with humanity has a double implication: election and command. It is the broad topic of divine command ethics which William Werpehowski critically and constructively engages in his book, Karl Barth and Christian Ethics: Living in Truth.

Dr. Werpehowski currently holds the Robert L. McDevitt, K.S.G., K.C.H.S. and Catherine H. McDevitt L.C.H.S. Chair in Catholic Theology at Georgetown University. He previously spent several decades as a professor of Theology and director of the Center for Peace and Justice Education at Villanova University.

This volume was published by Ashgate as part of their Barth Studies series and was a focus (in draft form) of members of the Yale-Princeton Theology Group who convened in Princeton in 2012 to discuss it. As Werpehowski states in his preface, he hopes readers will “come away with a deeper comprehension of [Barth’s] ethics and a greater readiness to think critically with him in conversations about what Christians ought to be and to do.” The content of the book is comprised of material previously available in print but brought together here and revised (chapters 1-6, 9) with the addition of new material (chapters 7, 8, and 10).

Werpehowski’s volume proceeds in two parts. The first part is given over to “Divine Command, Narrative, and Ethics” and is comprised of chapters 1-4. Readers familiar with Werpehowski’s work will recognize in these chapters his continuing engagement with Barth’s surprising relation of divine command ethics, narrative theology, and virtue ethics. In part two, “Virtue, Moral Practices, and Discernment,” the discussion and critical engagement in the chapters centers upon specific moral themes and development in the area of theological ethics shaped by Barth’s consideration of the “reality-constituting acts of God” and his theology, which presupposes a “moral ontology.”

In Chapter One (“Divine Commands and Philosophical Dilemmas”), Werpehowski examines Barth’s approach to the question of the nature and source of the good (asking “Why ought we to obey the command of God?”) and shows, in dialogue with formulations from the famous “Euthyphro Dilemma” and Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, that because God is fundamentally for us in Jesus Christ, God has claimed us as Lord and Master in such a way that human obedience is an expression of our fellowship with God and conformity to Jesus Christ. In other words, humans freely, authentically, and fully assent to God’s self-disclosure. As Werpehowski summarizes, “God’s commands are right because God commands them; but what God commands is always bound to the divine decision that is Jesus Christ” (12).

In his second chapter, “Command and History,” Werpehowski engages two important thinkers and their contemporary critiques of Barth’s ethics of divine command: James M. Gustafson and Stanley Hauerwas. By suggesting that their readings of Barth are too restrictive both with respect to the portion of the ethical writings considered and the general style of interpreting Barth, the author attempts to show that Barth’s ethics are able to account for important facets of human moral agency. As he suggests, Barth’s ethics incorporate a concept of history which grounds reasons for action, character, and ‘growth-in-continuity’ (categories considered missing by the critics) in his category of “history of relationship with God.” For this reason Barth’s ethics ultimately do not fall to these important thinker’s critiques. Barth’s Christian ethic is, qualifiedly but genuinely, an ethic of virtue. Like John Webster’s excellent work on human action and moral theology (to mention just one scholar), Werpehowski is not to be missed as a counterpoint to those interpretations which underestimate Barth’s moral ontology.

Chapter three “Narrative and Ethics”, begins with the observation that Barth’s interest in the history of God in Jesus Christ warrants our interest in the category of narrative. He suggests that Barth’s account of God’s being as a being-in-act and of the being of Jesus Christ as constituted by this action means that a narrative interpretation is at work in Barth’s theology (38). Content in the chapter explores how biblical narrative figures in Barth’s theological ethics. Particularly interesting in this section is the analysis of Barth’s take on suicide and the synthetic manner in which Barth read from a number of different and complex texts towards a theological and ethical consideration of killing oneself. Not to be missed, readers should note Werpehowski’s four guidelines for evaluating Barth’s ethical vision listed at the end of the chapter.

In what is likely the heart of the book, chapter four, “Realism and Discernment”, finishes the first major part of the volume with a discussion about how (what Werpehowski calls) God’s “dynamic realism” stands at the center of Barth’s ethical thought. Werpehowski explores the significance of Barth’s “conceptual redescription” in theological ethics as he subverted modernity’s claim that the moral world could be organized around the self in such a way that the self was a kind of moral spectator and center of judgment. Rather, as a determination of the elect because of the election of humanity by God who is for us, the elect creature exists in grateful witness, who, because she knows grace, she knows God’s sovereign will and desires in gratitude to do it as she is addressed by God. In essence, Barth’s project counters the incipient nihilism of the Kantian ethic, as he builds a theological ethic on the foundation of Jesus Christ. This analysis is really about how one hears the divine command and the ways that divine grace impacts human moral action. Werpehowski explores a very interesting facet of Barth’s theological ethics in the remainder of the chapter: how his critical exposition of themes and their implications for faithful response and action bear on issues of sickness and illusion (with Mary Baker Eddy as the dialogue partner) and how one should honor bad parents. As Werpehowski concludes, “a practice of pursuing a coherent normative account of Christian existence through testing and revision of the language of faith, forged in Bible and tradition, is an essential aspect of Barth’s theological work and, I think, one of his great contributions to Christian ethics today” (62).

Part two comprises chapters five through ten and is given over to “Virtue, Moral Practices, and Discernment.” This section in many ways represents an application of the first part of the book and Barth’s theological ethic to various areas of concern. Here we must be more brief. Chapter five (“What Shall Parents Teach Their Children?”) and six (“In Search of Real Children: Innocence, Absence and Becoming a Self”) explores the divine command in the realm of parental responsibilities and the vocation of children. Chapter seven (“Love of God and the Moral Meaning of Joy”) analyzes how the affection of joy and the disposition of virtues enable us to feel joy well and can serve as a basis for integrity in the Christian life (note this chapter’s reflection on joy in the thoughts of Karl Barth, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Aquinas). Chapter eight (“Hiddenness, Disclosure, and the Reality of God: The Practice of Truth Telling”) looks at the practice of truth telling and being truthful. Both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s reflections are brought critically together in this chapter to great effect.

Chapter nine (“Practical Wisdom and Integrity”) explores the virtues of prudence and practical wisdom and the sort of “surpassing reasonableness” to which it disposes in the sanctified life of the justified sinner who is reconciled with God in Jesus Christ. Chapter ten (“Desire, Reverence, and Friendship”) is an extensive and free-flowing theological exchange which examines the topic of the love of neighbor.

Weaknesses in the book, if present, were not noted by this reviewer. One of the strengths of this volume, aside from it being a collection of work from a respected, veteran scholar, is that there is a coherent flow to the chapters which readers will likely appreciate. Also, it is always appreciated when an author or editor uses footnotes rather than endnotes - this work has footnotes. An index is included in the volume. The preface to the book is a helpful orientation for readers who may not be as familiar with Barth’s ethical project and Werpehowski’s work within it. Reading a collected volume of this kind from cover to cover is made easier by the applied nature of the second part of the book, which will likely draw the reader along.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.