Gerald McKenny’s remarkable accomplishment in The Analogy of Grace is to make the concepts and commitments of Karl Barth’s moral theology clear and distinct without ignoring their strangeness or avoiding their controversy. McKenny, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame, recognizes that Barth so radically reworks our fundamental concepts and practices of ethical inquiry as to render them almost unrecognizable. Because of this, McKenny argues, “Barth’s approach to ethics is neither well understood nor widely appreciated” (vii). In order to deepen understanding and widen appreciation of Barth’s ethical thought, McKenny gives an account of Barth’s moral theology that resists the all too common interpretive impulse to attenuate the strange and the controversial by assimilating them to the familiar and the consensual. On the one hand, and against many of Barth’s opponents, McKenny refuses to dismiss Barth’s radicality on the grounds that its unintelligibility is tantamount to incoherence. On the other, and against many of Barth’s proponents, McKenny refuses to diminish Barth’s radicality in the interest of coherence. Instead, McKenny provides a subtle and sophisticated exposition that patiently tarries with the unintelligibility that initially confronts readers of Barth’s ethics. He diligently labors over the details long enough for intelligibility to emerge from within Barth’s radical Denkform. Neither an antagonist nor an apologist, McKenny writes as “an author whose thought has been deeply influenced by Barth for a reader who is vaguely familiar with his position and at least somewhat skeptical of it” (viii). In so doing he throws into sharp relief both the problems and prospects of Barth’s ethics. And for this, all those who read The Analogy of Grace – whether critic or advocate, novice or expert – should be grateful.
McKenny begins by observing that, “[W]e could describe the Church Dogmatics as a lengthy set of variations on a theme that, while unmistakably in control of each movement, is never presented on its own but appears only in its variations” (vii).The Analogy of Grace is McKenny’s explication of the implicit theme present throughout Barth’s variations, not only in the Dogmatics but indeed across his entire corpus. Dogmatically considered, the theme is that God is none other than the God who loves in freedom and determines to be for and with humanity as Jesus Christ. Ethically considered, the theme is that the good is nothing other than that which is announced and accomplished by Jesus Christ. The central concern of Barth’s ethics, therefore, is “that human life should be lived as an analogy of grace” (5). With this in mind, McKenny proceeds – much as Barth does – dialectically and recursively. “While the chapters are arranged to present this concern in a logical progression of ideas,” writes McKenny, “each chapter stands on its own and can be read independently of the others” (x). Each chapter, in a sense, “begins again at the beginning,” reiterating but not repeating what has been said before in order to elaborate and extend the argument – both Barth’s and his own.
McKenny’s argument is that Barth’s moral theology is a sustained meditation on, and modulating solution to, “The Problem of Ethics” (the titular theme of Chapter One). That problem is encapsulated in two familiar yet seemingly contradictory Barthian dictums: first, all ethics is dogmatics and all dogmatics is ethics; second, ethics is sin. How can this be? Just as dogmatics must do what it cannot, namely, speak about God, ethics must do what it cannot, namely, specify the good. But just as dogmatics can speak about God because God already has spoken, so too ethics can specify the good because God already has done the good. Barth’s moral theology is as thoroughly christological as is his doctrinal theology and, like his dogmatics, Barth’s ethics is a theology of crisis: the crisis of human judgment in its encounter with divine judgment.
The epicenter of this crisis is Barth’s struggle to articulate, both to state and to relate, the divine and the human without identifying them such that “God” becomes nothing more than “Man in a loud voice.” He must affirm the analogy of grace while denying any analogy of being. Thus it simply is not the case that Barth’s view of divine action leaves no room for human action. It is the relation between these that preoccupies his moral theology. But that preoccupation centers on the divine-human relation in the being and action of Jesus Christ. Barth pursues an account of ordinary human action only after and by way of analogy. As McKenny so eloquently puts it, for Barth, “The moral life is not a human journey here to there; rather, it is the concrete signification in our conduct of God’s movement there to here” (14). Moral theology is not a story of human ascension but of divine condescension. The goodness of the Christian in the present remains hidden with Christ in the eschaton. Our sanctification no less than our justification is alien righteousness. Moral theology must consequently begin from the divine determination of humanity as God’s covenant partner that precedes human action, and await the divine decision that follows human action. It must tarry in the meantime with the ambiguity and calamity of our action, the contingency of both the circumstances and consequences of our doings. But this is precisely what Western ethics, whether theological or philosophical, has refused to do. Western ethics is an unending attempt to decide and to act apart from divine determination and decision, to know and to do the good apart from providence. Barth’s response to this persistent refusal issues in the two most distinctive and debatable features of his ethics: his accounts of the Western ethical tradition and of practical reason. The chapters detailing these, two and six respectively, are perhaps the most important in The Analogy of Grace.
In Chapter Two, “Barth’s Moral Theology and Modern Ethics,” McKenny rehearses Barth’s narrative of modernity and locates him within that same narrative. Barth’s story is as simple as it is striking: modernity is nothing other than the apotheosis of the Edenic attempt to know and to judge good and evil apart from God. Modernity is distinctive only in that it makes explicit what has been implicit all along. There is, claims Barth, a fundamental continuity between the premodern and the modern. Eudaimonism, pietism, and rationalism all concur that the good is accessible and achievable, despite disagreeing as to whether that accessibility comes through nature, feeling, or reason. Against these common enemies, uncommon allies though they may be, stand the Reformers and, with them, Barth. So McKenny: “[His] position involves two controversial claims: first, that the theme of the Protestant Reformation [i.e. salvation by grace through faith] breaks with a continuity that unites the medieval and the modern; second, that modernity supplies the terms in which the theme of the Reformation can be expressed in an ethical form” (81). But this break and the stand Barth makes upon it are more complicated than they appear in this summation. McKenny hastens to add that Barth’s narrative has two subplots: one theological, the other philosophical. In the theological subplot, Protestant orthodoxy betrays the Reformers by resorting to a biblicism that reduces revelation to a scriptural law no less objectionable than Catholic natural law or Enlightenment rational law. In the philosophical subplot, Fichte betrays Kant by replacing the alterity of the law with the interiority of the subject. These turns to scripture and to the subject are turns away from God. They are an attempt to know and do the good apart from the good announced and accomplished in Christ, to distinguish human standards apart from the divine standard. “At stake in this distinction is whether ethics attests the Christian proclamation of sin and redemption or becomes a substitute for the latter” (109). Barth refuses this substitution. But his refusal does not posit orthodoxy against modernity. He does not reject modernity per se; rather, he rejects one form of modernity. Barth stands within and between orthodoxy and modernity. Calvin and Kant play Augustine and Aristotle to Barth’s Thomas. Calvin provides Barth with the theological content of alterity: the divine command. Kant provides him with its philosophical form: the categorical imperative. Barth’s moral theology thus undertakes the project of “securing a Christologically corrected Kantian form of morality against what he saw as its Fichtean corruption” (91).
Chapter Six, “Ethical Reflection and Instruction,” describes this form of morality at the level of practical rationality. Barth variously describes the proper exercise of practical reason as “reflection,” “examination,” and “testing.” However, throughout the chapter McKenny rightly insists that Barthian reflection comes very close to other forms of ethical deliberation. Barth’s ethical reflection consists of two stages: the first holds much in common with ethical deliberation, and the second does not. The first stage considers the value and disvalue of immanent possibilities for action. Then the second reconsiders them in relation to the will of God. In the first stage, the consideration is a rational determination based on criteria presumably shared with unbelieving and otherwise-believing fellows. At this point the distinction between Barthian ethical reflection and other forms of ethical deliberation seems to be formal and subjective: ethical reflection proceeds with its determination by “doing all of this before God” (232). For moral theology, responsibility to and for others is explicitly linked with accountability to God. Moreover, it always holds in mind that, “There is something more at stake in any situation of choice than the value or disvalue that can be determined by common rational insight” (235). But this “something more” that is at stake becomes materially and objectively relevant only in the second stage. This relevance is further limited to situations in which the decision reached at the second stage overrules that of the first: the so-called boundary situation. Yet McKenny reminds that Barth insists that the Grenzfall, the “paradoxical form of the command,” is no more transparent or certain than the “normal form.” It too awaits divine judgment. The best ethical reflection can do is to determine the domains – the location and limitation – in which the command of God comes: family, state, etc. McKenny describes this as “significant approximation” of, and “pedagogical preparation” for, the command of God (264). Ethical instruction can thus provide nothing more than a topography of covenant history. And ethical reflection finally can be nothing other than prayer.
All this raises nearly as many questions as it answers, of course. But the questions that McKenny does answer are important ones. His answers reintroduce Barth as a serious voice in contemporary debates within modern moral theology and moral philosophy. The new questions McKenny raises are better questions because they emerge from the answers that Barth himself has already given. Consequently, the disagreements that will arise from them are all the more interesting. McKenny himself asks such questions throughout The Analogy of Grace. The most important of these pertain to Barth’s accounts of the Western ethical tradition and practical reason. Although Barth’s historiography is plausible, is it the only way to construe these matters? McKenny states that it is not. Are the versions of eudaimonism, pietism, and rationalism that Barth presents as illustrations the only possible versions? McKenny suggests there are alternatives to Barth’s construals. Although Barth distinguishes between ethical deliberation and ethical reflection, does this make a difference? McKenny believes that it does. If the first stage of reflection is an immanent consideration, how does the second stage make an objective difference when it confirms the decision of the first stage? McKenny leaves this unanswered because he self-consciously ignores Barth’s political theology. Readers of The Analogy of Grace must hope that McKenny takes up these matters in a subsequent constructive moral theology of his own. We can be thankful for now that he has helped us to put aside both straw man versions of a Barth who has no strengths, and strong man versions of a Barth who has no weaknesses. McKenny has given us a comprehensive reading that corrects older mis-readings and builds upon recent re-readings of Barth’s ethics. With The Analogy of Grace in hand, Barth’s critics and advocates alike can move forward together discussing and debating the significance of his moral theology, both its meaning and importance for theological existence today.
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.