The Making of Stanley Hauerwas

David B. Hunsicker. The Making of Stanley Hauerwas: Bridging Barth and Postliberalism, New Explorations in Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), xvi +234 pp. $40.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Luke Zerra (May 28, 2020)

The thesis of The Making of Stanley Hauerwas is easily stated: Hauerwas is a Barthian and a postliberal; the one informs the other so that Hauerwas is postliberal insofar as he is Barthian and vice versa. This raises the question of what the terms “Barthian” and “postliberal” mean, as well as what it means for Hauerwas to take them up. Hunsicker argues Hauerwas is a Barthian in a direct but low-flying sense. He does not follow Barth point by point, but “understands the basic impulse that set Barth’s theology in motion: the rejection of Protestant liberalism” (6). Hauerwas learns from Barth how to diagnose and go beyond the problems of liberal theology. Hunsicker’s deployment of “postliberal” follows from this. Hauerwas is postliberal insofar as he articulates a theology and ethics after liberal Protestantism. Key here is Hauerwas’s highlighting of the relationship between “Christian convictions and Christian practices” (10). Where protestant liberalism is said to unhitch doctrine and ethics, Hauerwas strives to “describe human agency as it relates to the God who is presupposed in the basic narratives of the Christian faith” (10). Hauerwas’s postliberalism is sustained by what he learned from Barth, and his Barthianism is identified with his desire for a theological imagination that is genuinely post-liberal.

Hunsicker makes this argument that Hauerwas is a Barthian and a postliberal in response to what he calls the “Schleiermacher thesis” and the “Ritschl thesis.” The Schleiermacher thesis, exemplified by Nicholas Healy’s Hauerwas: a (Very) Critical Introduction (Eerdmans, 2014), holds that Hauerwas’s ecclesial focus risks substituting the church for God as theology’s subject matter. As the charges go, Hauerwas is closer to Schleiermacher than to Barth theologically, because he places more focus on the Church’s communal experience than God’s revelation in Christ. The Ritschl thesis, advanced by John Webster and Nigel Biggar, claims that Hauerwas’s Christology is one of moral exemplarity and that his view of scripture emphasizes its ecclesial importance at the expense of its revelatory nature. On both counts, Hauerwas stands accused of repeating the habits of Protestant liberalism and thus being un-Barthian. Hunsicker seeks to defend Hauerwas against these claims.

Hunsicker’s case comes in three parts. Part one rehearses key moments in Hauerwas’s biography and identifies major influences that shape him as a Barthian. Key here is Hauerwas’s diagnosis that Protestant liberalism falsely divorced doctrine from ethics. This separation occurred, first, through the Kantian claim that if God is a subject beyond empirical knowledge then theology ought to be about morality and, secondly, through the claim that morality could be established without reference to particular religious convictions. If the first narrative allows human action to replace God as the subject of theology, then the second allows America to replace the church as the site of moral formation among Christian ethicists on Hauerwas and Hunsicker’s telling. Barth, by insisting that practical reason flows from a theological description of the world, gives Hauerwas the resources to resist the Kantian narrative that separated doctrine from ethics. Hauerwas learns to resist the second narrative from several thinkers, including H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey, but Hunsicker identifies John Howard Yoder as the key influential voice in Hauerwas’s theological development. What Yoder gives Hauerwas is an insistence on the church, not the state, as the context for Christian ethics. Although Barth seems to be absent here, Hunsicker argues that Hauerwas understands the projects of Barth and Yoder “to be largely commensurate with each other” (43). Commensurability is perhaps too strong an identification, but the important point is Yoder’s role in mediating Barth to Hauerwas through texts like Karl Barth and the Problem of War (Abingdon, 1970) and in personal conversation. Hauerwas thus learns from Yoder to read Barth in a manner that rejects an ethic which implicitly privileges the interests of the state. Barth, Hunsicker shows in part one, is central for Hauerwas’s diagnosis and prescription for the problems of Protestant liberalism.

Parts two and three take on, respectively, the twin challenges of the Schleiermacher and Ritschl theses. In response to the Schleiermacher thesis, Hunsicker argues that Hauerwas’s ecclesiocentrism is a development of insights learned from Barth’s Christocentrism. These are materially different central focuses, but Hunsicker argues Hauerwas’s ecclesial focus is on the church as a site where Christ constitutes a people as members of his body. The Schleiermacher thesis is overcome because Hauerwas’s ecclesiocentrism, on Hunsicker’s view, privileges divine rather than human activity. In considering the Ritschl thesis, Hunsicker agrees with the claim that Hauerwas emphasizes scripture’s ecclesial mediation in a way Barth never would but argues that this does not make Hauerwas a Protestant liberal. This is because Hauerwas’s aim in prioritizing communal reading of scripture is to resist prioritizing the individual’s interpretation of scripture, which Hauerwas thinks is a liberal move present in American churches across political divides.

I see two issues in Hunsicker’s work related to the central terms of “Barthian” and “postliberal.” First, though Hunsicker makes an excellent case for the influence of Barth on the formal shape of Hauerwas’s thought, key divergences seemingly remain on the level of moral theory. Hunsicker is attentive to some of these, showing how some differences—such as Hauerwas’s and Barth’s respective ecclesial and Christological focuses—can be read as places were Hauerwas develops insights from Barth. Yet, I worry more fundamental differences remain. Hauerwas’s ethics, for instance, is oriented around the notions of character and virtue while Barth’s is centered on the idea of divine command (cf. CD II/2 §§36-39). While some readings of Barth put him in conversation with virtue ethics, such as Kirk Nolan’s Reformed Virtue After Barth (WJK, 2014), Barth and Hauerwas’s central categories for moral reasoning ultimately differ in some important ways. It is one thing to say that Hauerwas takes from Barth important insights about the narrative shape of Christian life or for diagnosing issues in liberal Protestant social ethics, but it is quite another to suggest that how Hauerwas thinks about human action and reasoning is Barthian. Can one have Barth’s focus on divine command and the focus on character and virtue that Hauerwas takes from Alasdair MacIntyre or Thomas Aquinas? Hunsicker is wise to not reduce Hauerwas to Barth, noting differences such as Hauerwas’s embrace of casuistry, which Barth rejects (chapters 3 and 8). However, it is still worth interrogating how Barthian Hauerwas is if he is a moral theologian whose moral theology turns out to be quite different than Barth’s at key points. Here’s an example. Hauerwas is a pacifist, arguing that nonviolence is sustained by the virtues and bears witness to Christ’s Lordship. Barth resists what he takes to be the moral absolutism of pacifism, instead leaving open the possibility of “borderline cases” wherein God’s command must be discerned (CD III/4 §55). This is not just a difference in judgment about war’s moral status, but a difference in moral reflection. Hauerwas is committed to nonviolence and its constitutive virtues as essential to Christian witness while Barth is committed to God’s freedom to command violence in exceptional cases. Both seek to bear witness to Christ’s Lordship and to promote peace within particular contexts, yet important differences seem to remain. These are complex issues, yet I trust Hunsicker’s deft analysis of Barth’s formal influence on Hauerwas’s moral theology will inspire many to take them up.

The second point relates to the terms “liberal” and “postliberal.” As mentioned, Hunsicker coordinates Hauerwas’s Barthianism to postliberalism, with the understanding that Hauerwas learned from Barth how to do theology after liberalism. This raises the question of the relation between the German and American liberalisms to which Barth and Hauerwas are respectively responding. Barth’s work came as a bombshell on the playground of the theologians tutored by liberal theologians such as Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, or Ritschl while Hauerwas’s work threw a similar bombshell at liberal Protestant ethicists following Rauschenbusch or the Niebuhr brothers. How similar, however, are these two liberalisms? For instance, the Niebuhr brothers, James Gustafson, and Paul Lehmann each bear the imprint of Barth’s influence yet remain more or less tethered—on Hauerwas’s telling—to liberal habits of thought (see Hauerwas, “Christian Ethics in America [and the JRE],” in Journal of Religious Ethics 25.3 [1997]: 57-76). I agree with Hunsicker that there are formal similarities and family resemblances between the liberalisms to which Barth and Hauerwas were each responding. I also agree that reading Barth gave Hauerwas a critical purchase on social ethics in the Protestant liberal vein. Yet I worry that running the two traditions together risks casting “liberalism” as too neatly defined, thus obscuring the particularities of what Barth and Hauerwas each responded to. I also worry that if someone like H. Richard Niebuhr can have dispositions influenced by both Barth and liberalism then why not Hauerwas? This worry is amplified if one follows readers of Barth—such as Bruce McCormack or Christoph Chalamet—who claim Barth himself never fully shed his liberalism. Since much of the book is defending the claim that Hauerwas is not a liberal because he is a Barthian, then these points need to be dealt with carefully and with precision. For Hauerwas to be postliberal we must be clear on what liberalism is and this may mean admitting the categories are fluid and at overlapping at points.

These questions come not from a place of skepticism towards Hunsicker’s thesis that Hauerwas is a Barthian and postliberal, but rather because of how generative this book was for my thinking as an ethicist variously invested in Barth’s theology as a resource for moral reflection. One particularly generative claim Hunsicker makes is that Hauerwas can, in important ways, be thought of as a pragmatist of sorts (9). As Hunsicker notes, pragmatic themes in George Lindbeck and other postliberal theologians have been recognized; yet in my judgment pragmatism is not adequately recognized as a feature of Hauerwas or Barth’s thought. Hauerwas’s pragmatism arises in the importance of performance and witness to his work. Hauerwas is convinced that Christian claims are intelligible by being enacted in the church’s life. The doctrinal commitment that Christ is Lord—to give a Hauerwasian example—is performed through the church’s witness of nonviolence. Hauerwas, Hunsicker suggests, take up this variety of pragmatism from what he has learned from Barth about keeping doctrine and ethics together. That Hauerwas learns this from Barth shows Barth is more of a pragmatist than often acknowledged and shows that Hauerwas’s pragmatic moments come not only from his reading of Wittgenstein but from Barth’s influence. I hope Hunsicker’s insight bears fruit for fuller treatments comparing Hauerwas’s moral reasoning with that of pragmatist thinkers, something Hauerwas himself has done in conversation with Jeffrey Stout and Romand Coles. I also hope Hunsicker’s insights regarding pragmatism will help to further readings of Barth’s thought, such as those offered by Derek Woodard-Lehman or Peter Ochs, as pragmatic in important ways. Identifying pragmatic strands in Hauerwas, and by extension Barth, is an important suggestion on Hunsicker’s part, and one with which more readers of Hauerwas and Barth ought to wrestle.

Given how prolific and occasional Hauerwas’s writing is, Hunsicker does a great service to ethicists and Barth scholars by drawing together Hauerwas’s various engagements with Barth into a synoptic vision. For budding theologians and ethicists, The Making of Stanley Hauerwas stands as a helpful example of how to hold theological and moral claims together. In my judgment, Hunsicker makes a convincing case that Hauerwas’s theological vision is formally “Barthian” in a low-flying, but meaningful sense. This is to say that Hauerwas neither claims to be a Barth scholar nor to follow all of Barth’s theological decisions. Nonetheless, Hauerwas can be said to be a “Barthian” in the sense that his critique of Protestant liberalism, wedding of doctrine and ethics, and focus on the narrative of God’s work in Christ as central for moral reasoning are all taken from meaningful engagement with Barth. There is much to learn from Hunsicker’s work, and I trust it will be a central guide for those navigating the thought of either Hauerwas or Barth.

Luke Zerra, Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton Theological Seminary

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.