"Karl Barth and Theological Ethics," A Conference Report


Originally published in the Karl Barth Society of North America Newsletter 37 (Fall 2008): 1-5.


By David W. Congdon, Princeton Theological Seminary.

On June 22-25, 2008, scholars, pastors, students, and interested lay people from around the world gathered in Erdman Hall at Princeton Theological Seminary for the third annual Karl Barth Conference on the topic of "Karl Barth and Theological Ethics." Co-sponsored by the Center for Barth Studies and the Karl Barth Society of North America, the conference began with a banquet on Sunday evening at which Daniel Migliore offered words of welcome and introduction. He began by presenting the question which this conference sought to address: "Can Barth, as a magisterial dogmatic theologian, offer significant help to theology and the church today in the area of Christian ethics?" In addition to noting the way Barth intertwined theology and ethics throughout his theological career, Migliore presented four basic questions that would serve both as a framework for the conference and as a way to probe more deeply into his initial question. Paraphrased, the four questions are as follows:

  1. What understanding of God, humanity, and their covenantal relationship forms the dogmatic matrix for Barth's theological ethics?
  2. How are grace and command, gift and task, related in Barth's theology?
  3. Is Barth's ethics able to guide public policy?
  4. What is Barth's understanding of human freedom?

Migliore then discussed each of these questions briefly. His reflections on each question were an occasion for him both to introduce each of the presenters at the conference and to place their work in conversation with other scholars who have commented on Barth's ethics.

Nigel Biggar (University of Oxford) gave the first lecture on Monday morning on the topic of "Barth's Trinitarian Ethics Revisited." Biggar is well-known for his highly regarded work on Barth's ethics, The Hastening that Waits, originally published in 1993. Since then, his work has shifted from theological ethics to various issues in philosophical and practical ethics. This paper was the first opportunity in over a decade for Biggar to reconsider Barth's ethics. In this reassessment of Barth, he expressed appreciation for Barth's attempt at a trinitarian and eschatological ethics grounded in prayer. Biggar criticized Barth's theological ethics, however, for being too narrowly theological. He began by challenging the centrality that Barth gives to the category of divine command, arguing instead that command and law should be subservient to the more fundamental category of "human flourishing." Biggar argued that Barth's resistance to an ethics focused on the "human good" betrayed an overall failure to ground ethics in the lived experience of everyday Christians. He proposed that we abandon the distinction between "theological ethics" and "Christian ethics," and thus incorporate non-theological data into our ethical reflection. Christian ethics, as a project in existential self-understanding, need not always be explicitly theological, even though God's revelation remains the supreme criterion. Biggar concluded by summarizing his ethical proposals, suggesting that we develop a Christological and biblical account of ethics which engages more concretely with specific human experiences.

Kathryn Tanner (University of Chicago Divinity School) spoke in the afternoon on "Barth and the Economy of Grace." She began by examining the "third way" which Barth advocates throughout his theology: e.g., between communism and capitalism, univocity and equivocity. This "third way" testifies to the distinction between God's kingdom and human kingdoms, allowing the gospel to claim us in every sphere of our existence. Tanner then examined Barth's discussion of capitalism in the Church Dogmatics. She found Barth's criticism of capitalist ideology and his positive affirmation of Christ's lordship to be purely formal in nature: there is nothing specific to capitalism in his critique of it as a "lordless power," and there is nothing uniquely Christological to his alternative. Moreover, his discussion of capitalism is fundamentally the same from his early pre-Romans days to his mature writings in the Church Dogmatics, which betrays a lack of theological reflection. For the bulk of the paper, then, Tanner furthered her constructive project toward a "non-competitive economy of giving and receiving" in which all human relationships are thoroughly reordered. She fleshed this out in terms of Christology and the Trinity before focusing on the implications of this alternative economy for human society, arguing for the establishment of "common property" or "public goods" which enrich both giver and receiver. In her conclusion, Tanner stated that a properly Christocentric ordering of human life must not be identified with any available economic option. Against both capitalism and socialism—which are both based on competitive relations—an "economy of grace" will remain the "third way."

Following Tanner, Timothy Gorringe (University of Exeter) lectured on "Barth and the Penal Justice System." Gorringe is a member of the Iona Community and has written extensively on theological ethics in relation to politics, agriculture, economics, and the environment. In his paper, he explored whether Barth's theology offers resources for thinking through problems within the criminal justice system. Gorringe began by distinguishing between sin and crime, and between retributive and restorative justice. His thesis was that Barth's doctrine of reconciliation as articulated specifically in "The Judge Judged in Our Place" (¶59.2) offers a dogmatic grounding for a restorative model of criminal justice, which seeks to bring offenders and victims into a face-to-face encounter for the sake of reconciliation and shalom. Gorringe then explored Barth's fourfold explication of the statement that Christ died "for us," in which Barth says that Christ took our place (1) as the Judge, (2) as the one judged, (3) in the judgment on the cross, and (4) in acting justly. The consequence of Barth's theology is an ethic of reconciliation and enemy-love which undermines retributivism. As Barth wrote, "For the sake of this best, the worst had to happen to sinful man: not out of any desire for vengeance and retribution on the part of God, but because of the radical nature of the divine love" (CD IV/1, 254). Gorringe closed by arguing that our society should be marked by forgiveness and love, not by retribution and vengeance.

On Tuesday morning, the conference turned to issues in political ethics. William Werpehowski, a self-proclaimed "Catholic Barthian" and professor at Villanova University, spoke on "Barth and Just War Theory." In an attempt to bring the two closer in alignment, he argued that Barth and classical Just War Theory (JWT) both seek "to stigmatize war without absolutely condemning it." He began by outlining traditional JWT in connection with the statement on war and peace articulated by the U.S. Catholic bishops in The Challenge of Peace of 1983. He then turned to Barth's reflections on (1) the ugliness of war and (2) the role of the state in promoting peace and justice. In each case, while differences between Barth and JWT were noted (e.g., Barth's rejection of casuistry and his notion that in war every person is a "belligerent"), Werpehowski also showed how they were closer than many often think. In short, he argued that JWT can be marshaled in support of building a peaceful society which stands against the idolatry of "lordless power." Werpehowski concluded by stating that Catholics must learn from Barth, just as much as Barth(ians) should learn from Catholics. In light of Barth's statement that "pacifism has almost infinite arguments in its favour" (CD III/4, 455), Catholic communities and institutions should teach and practice this truth more faithfully by showing how JWT seeks to prevent war, and by making objections to war normative within the Christian community.

In a paper responding to Werpehowski, John Bowlin (Princeton Theological Seminary) queried the consistency in Barth's treatment of war, and thus the cogency of Werpehowski's interpretation of Barth. Werpehowski presented Barth as having a "presumption against war," such that the burden of proof is always on the one engaging in war. Yet in his discussion of the state's response to unjust aggression, Barth states that there is a divine command to wage war in response; the presumption is against those who would prevent a combative response. Furthermore, the "exceptional case" seems to be an exception to both the Old Testament prohibition of murder and the New Testament presumption against unjust killing, resulting in an incoherent moral theology. Bowlin thus argued that Barth's ethics of war is not as precise as it should be and requires the kind of rehabilitation that Werpehowski offers.

David Haddorff (St. John's University) spoke on Tuesday afternoon on "Barth and Democracy." Similar to Tanner, he argued that Barth's understanding of Christian political ethics forms a "third way" between those who see civil society as the agent of social change (the "dominant" group, including Thomistic and liberation ethics) and those who see the church as the only valid social agent over against the state (the "emergent" group, including Milbank and Hauerwas). Haddorff explored Barth's political ethics by way of an illuminating passage from Barth's "Table Talk," in which he offers a revision of Thomas Jefferson's opening line of the "Declaration of Independence": "We hold these truths to be evident, that all men are created in togetherness and mutual responsibility, and that they are endowed by their Creator with freedom of life within the bounds of a rightfully established common order." Haddorff then organized his paper around the themes of truth, ontology, and responsibility, offering a diachronic reading of Barth's ethical writings, from the political essays of the 1930s to Church Dogmatics IV. While Barth tends toward an "emergent" ecclesiology, following Daniel Bell's typology above, he offers a more robust account of how the church engages the secular polis because of his Christocentric analogia relationis and his covenantal understanding of the God-world relation. In the end, Barth's ethics of reconciliation lead him to state that "the gospel moves in the direction of the democratic state" and "the church always stands for the constitutional state." The ecclesial community remains distinct, while always advocating for a just and non-ideological political order which enforces the rule of law.

Todd Cioffi (Whitworth University) responded to Haddorff's paper by probing the kind of democratic state supported by Barth's theology. Haddorff spent much of his time looking at Barth's 1938 and 1946 essays on politics—translated as "Justification and Justice" and "The Christian Community and the Civil Community," respectively—but Cioffi showed that the 1938 essay fails to demonstrate a material connection between divine justification and human justice, while the 1946 essay, by contrast, argues for a strong analogical relationship between the ecclesial and civil communities. Cioffi then sought to connect these two essays by looking at a key passage from Church Dogmatics II/1 (1940), where Barth states that God's reconciliation of humanity in Jesus Christ requires humanity to engage in the ministry of reconciliation. And because this reconciliation is actual for all people, every person is responsible before God, including those in the civil community. Moreover, since God's reconciliation takes the form of a "sympathetic communion" with the weakest and lowest of society, Cioffi argued that Barth's theology leads not only to a constitutional democracy, but to a kind of democratic socialism. According to Cioffi, Barth is not interested in just any kind of democracy, but a democracy which best reflects the fact that God came to seek and save the lost. And this must include economic democracy in which there is a redistribution of power.

Monday and Tuesday concluded, respectively, with after-dinner talks by Robert Jenson and Karlfried Froehlich. On Monday night, Jenson talked about Barth as pedagogue and theologian. Regarding the first, he told stories about how Barth treated students, both in seminars and in colloquiums. According to Jenson, when you challenged Barth, he did you the honor of treating you like Tillich or Bultmann, "against whom all weapons were fair." Jenson concluded by listing aspects of Barth's theology that he has "not been able to shake off." These include the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity, the importance of theological ontology, the centrality of election, the nature of eternity, the use of the language of event and decision to speak about the reality of God, and Barth's struggle against the German Christians. On Tuesday night, Froehlich told more stories about hearing Barth give lectures, beginning with a lecture on Christian ethics in 1946, when Froehlich was 16 years old. Barth's seminars—of which Froehlich mentioned two that he attended, one on Luther and another on Catholic ecclesiology—were conducted under the gaze of a bust of Schleiermacher. Froehlich focused his talk, though, on the politically charged statements by Barth, in which he opposed both German rearmament and the violent uprising of any nation against communist Russia. He advocated a "third way" between East and West, in which the church cooperates with the state without endorsing the state. Finally, Froehlich talked about his decision to come to the United States, one that Oscar Cullmann supported but Barth opposed. Cullmann told him that the future of theology was in America, and for this reason, "Cullmann was the better prophet." Froehlich concluded by stating that the future of Barth studies is in the United States, and particularly at Princeton Seminary.

The final paper was given on Wednesday morning by Paul Nimmo (University of Edinburgh), who spoke on "Barth and the Christian as Ethical Agent." In this paper, Nimmo explored what John Webster calls "moral ontology" in relation to the triune being of God. The essay's architectonic began with the election of the Christian, moved "up" to the election of Jesus Christ in relation to the immanent Trinity (Christ's deity), moved "down" to the election of Jesus Christ in relation to humanity via the analogia relationis, and then reconsidered the election of the Christian. According to Nimmo, Barth grounds the ethical agency of the Christian in God's eternal being-in-act as the God who elects humiliation in the history of Jesus Christ. The triune being of God is determined precisely by God's primal decision to become obedient unto death. In this divine self-determination, God determines the history of Jesus Christ and, by virtue of an analogia relationis between Jesus and all humanity, the shape of the Christian life that follows Christ in humble obedience. In his actualization of divine obedience, Jesus Christ is the pattern of human obedience to which our lives must correspond. This correspondence will take the form of a "radical downward trend" of mortification, humiliation, and the taking up of one's cross. We are summoned to freely choose humility in correspondence to God's election of humility in Jesus Christ. The telos of this ethical action is a "double glorification": a glorification of God by the human being, and a glorification of the human being by God.

The third annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary officially concluded with a panel discussion directly following Nimmo's paper. Each speaker was invited to add anything to their original papers in light of the other presentations. There were disagreements regarding the place of the doctrine of the immanent Trinity: Biggar questioned the utility of the doctrine, since it yields no new information; in contrast, Nimmo and Gorringe both emphasized that ethics must be grounded in the immanent Trinity. There were also discussions about the relation between Thomistic and Barthian ethics, public or apologetic ethics, natural law, and ecclesiology. In addition to this final Q&A session, conference participants met in small groups on Monday and Tuesday to discuss the papers in more detail.

Besides the plenary presentations, worship services were held before lunch in Princeton Theological Seminary's Miller Chapel. Katherine Sonderegger (Virginia Theological Seminary) led worship on Monday, Darrell Guder (Princeton Theological Seminary) led on Tuesday, and Nancy Duff (Princeton Theological Seminary) on Wednesday.

The conference organizers plan to publish a volume comprised of papers from the conference's plenary sessions. The fourth annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Seminary, entitled "Barth, Religion, and the Religions," will be held on June 21-4, 2009. Check the Center for Barth Studies website (http://libweb.ptsem.edu/collections/barth) for more information as it becomes available, as well as for a growing collection of book reviews that deal with the latest in Barth scholarship.