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Reformed Virtue After Barth

​Nolan, Kirk J. Reformed Virtue After Barth: Developing Moral Virtue Ethics in the Reformed Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 208 pp. $30.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Michael J. Leyden (June 27, 2017)



For those of us concerned with the discipline of Christian moral reasoning, one of the great delights of the past twenty-five years has been the introduction of Karl Barth’s voice into ethical discourse. Attitudes have changed towards his moral theology during that time, and scholars have been increasingly open to his distinctive and sometimes contrary understanding of ethics. Broadly speaking there are two approaches in the secondary literature. The first seeks to make sense of Barth’s project and give a coherent account of what he was doing and why (scholars such as Paul Matheny, John Webster, and Paul Nimmo are good examples of this). The second seeks to bring Barth into an existing conversation about particular issues either to clarify, critique, or extend the discussion. The present work by Kirk Nolan, Assistant Professor of Religion at Presbyterian College, adopts the second approach. This is not a book on Barth’s ethics per se, neither is it making the case that he was a virtue theorist (though, in places, it does more than suggest the compatibility of virtue theory and Barth’s theology with varying degrees of success). Rather, the book explores the constructive possibility of a Reformed virtue theory if Barth’s theological concerns are heard and received. As such, this volume primarily addresses an ethical debate in the Reformed tradition, which Nolan thinks will benefit from Barth’s insight that ethics is “grounded in and shaped by a covenant based in God’s free election of humankind” (5). For exclusivist Barthians this may be frustrating, as there is clearly space for a more comprehensive and thorough reading of the ethics of the Church Dogmatics. Yet, it is an interesting and provocative proposal.

Following the introduction, the volume is divided into five chapters: three descriptive chapters and two constructive chapters. Chapter 1 outlines the history of virtue ethics in the Reformed tradition and begins by noting the “the current lack of attention to virtue in the tradition” despite a historic legacy in Calvin’s Institutes, The Westminster Confession, and Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue. Drawing on these three, Nolan explores the contours of Reformed virtue theory, and in particular the natural metaphors used to describe God’s engagement with the world. He concludes by outlining how “Barth’s theology has the potential to make powerful contributions to Reformed moral virtue ethics” by redirecting, re-describing, and reorientating the project “as to the proper source of morality” in God (35). Barth’s emphatic Christological method challenges the natural theology which Calvin and Edwards employ, and replaces it with a more thoroughgoing (and arguably quite particular) Chalcedonianism.

Chapters 2 and 3 take serious note of Barth’s critique of the virtue tradition, whilst also suggesting one possible way in which Barth may be a critical friend of virtue ethics. Barth’s Christocentrism is the basis of the critique, particularly as read from the human-side of the Chalcedonian formula, since, for Barth, “the defining features of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ are also the determinative characteristics of what makes us human beings” (38). Ethically speaking, these relational features determine the shape and content of human agency and the course of ethical deliberation. Furthermore, Nolan observes that Barth’s emphasis on incarnation and revelation undergird his objection to the analogia entis and habitual grace, both of which feature in traditional Reformed virtue theories, and is the basis of his claim that what it means to be human is something we learn only from God who reveals it to us in Christ. Barth has not convinced critics such as Sheila Davaney here: “she argues that . . . Barth’s account of divine and human interaction fails to provide a place for human responsibility and integrity” (39). Davaney’s is an oft-rehearsed retort, initially championed by John Cullberg and Robert Willis; Barth’s emphasis on God is said to overwhelm human capacity and ability, providing no room for the human being to act (and without a proper place for human agency there is little work for the Christian ethicist to do!). However, building on John Webster’s work, Nolan rebuts Davaney’s account of both divine and human agency in Barth for its overemphasis on divine sovereignty at the expense of divine condescension. The latter enables meaningful human action, because the full human Jesus Christ was an ethical agent. His point is that only when sovereignty and condescension are held in balance (and some degree of tension!) can a genuine picture of human agency be offered. It is the humanity of Christ, assumed in the incarnation, which enables us to speak about our own genuine humanity because it holds before us the image of what full humanity is. Here is a crucial part of Nolan’s developing argument: the humanity of Christ is indicative of the kind of moral life other human beings are to cultivate in words and deeds, something to move towards in our decisions and actions. This is not simply by being an example to us of the moral life, but more provocatively by being the directly embodied address and command of God to us. Our humanity is therefore found in response to his humanity. With this in mind, Chapter 3 attends to William Werpehowski’s assessment of Barth’s ethics as a type of narratival virtue ethics — i.e. because Barth thinks each of us has a moral history, in which we are encountered and commanded by God “moment by moment”, all of our decisions in the present also draw upon our decisions of the past — and delineates a series of convergences and divergences between Werpehowski’s reading of Barth and Barth’s objections to virtue theory. While Werpehowski’s insight that Barth can offer something useful to virtue ethics is affirmed, the divergences in detail mean that Nolan must find an alternative way to do Barthian virtue: ”Reformed virtue ethics on Barthian lines will have to part ways with Werpehowski’s reading of Barth” (71). Thus, the task of the final chapters is to outline Nolan’s constructive proposal.

Chapter 4 begins with five (Barthian) theological commitments around which Nolan structures his Reformed virtue ethics: 1) God is the God who has chosen unequivocally to be God for us; 2) our identity in Christ is marked by the struggle between old and new, simul justice et peccator; 3) the relationship between God and us is unidirectional, such that God’s grace is given to us in revelation, not through our own natural capacities; 4) the relationship between God and us is Chalcedonian in character; 5) grace is not separable from the God made known in Jesus Christ but is in fact identified with that person. With these in mind, he offers his critical reading of three of Thomas’ virtues: temperance, prudence, and charity. Attention to specific virtues allows Nolan to show what this ethics would look like in reality. In each case, Nolan argues that Barth’s approach sees the enactment of these virtues as human response to divine command. This places the theological emphasis on God and not human capacity. However, just as Thomas thought practicing virtues makes us more virtuous, so Nolan argues obedience to God’s commands in Christ affects the respondent: “our response to God’s initiating activity strengthens the virtue” (91). Significantly, Nolan argues that the need to cultivate these virtues in obedience is absolutely necessary because of the “marked struggle” mentioned above; since we are justified sinners, our response to the divine command is a struggle for us, in which we must choose obedience not disobedience. As we do, we grow more able to respond rightly in the future. This movement, framed theologically by the covenant of grace and practically by the community of faith, is our personal and corporate history, and the cultivation of virtuous responses to God’s command is our formation as Christian disciples. The final chapter explores what this has looked like in concrete terms in the recent history of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and suggests ways forward.

Nolan’s argument is interesting, and it is worthy of attention. As a constructive work, drawing on Barthian insights to re-envision Christian virtue ethics, it is exciting and provocative. As an account of what Barth is doing constructively with his moral theology, I am much less convinced. The eventful character of divine address in Barth’s ethics in the Church Dogmatics is much more dynamic and surprising than I think Nolan allows. Nonetheless there is much to inspire here too — his emphasis on human responsibility before God is a strand of Barth’s moral theology which is often overlooked. Readers will be tested and stimulated by this book, both ethicists and Barth scholars alike, and will be forced to re-examine and sharpen their own ideas. For this reason they should read it.

Michael J. Leyden, Tutor and Lecturer in Systematic Theology, St Mellitus College

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.