Rose, Matthew, Ethics with Barth: God, Metaphysics and Morals (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010), vi + 234pp. $99.95 / £50.00

Reviewed by Paul Nimmo (April 26, 2013)

This book is a creative attempt to read the theological ethics of Karl Barth from a Roman Catholic perspective and to show that a broad congeniality exists between Barth’s understanding of ethics and a Catholic conception of morality. The author, Matthew Rose, is currently the Arthur J. Ennis Fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, and this work is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation from the University of Chicago. The book is a bold work, and one with which future scholars interested in Barth’s ethics will profitably engage. Yet while Rose’s interpretation of Barth’s work certainly bears affinities with the spirit of Catholic moral teaching, it is less clear that it remains true to the spirit of the Church Dogmatics.Cover


It is important at the outset to articulate how Rose conceives the purpose and plan of the book in his Introduction. The author begins by describing the book as an attempt “to interpret a theologian commonly considered an act-deontologist as being more in line than previously understood with certain forms of eudaimonistic thinking” (1). Rose considers that the book thus contributes to the ongoing conversation between Thomists and Barthians which “has emerged today as one of the most important ecumenical discussions in English language theology” (2). More precisely, then, Rose conceives the project as “a ‘Balthasarian’ reading of Barth’s ethics” (5), one which seeks to read Barth’s ethics “in a way congenial to a Catholic conception of morality” (6).

Rose sets out to oppose what he refers to as the most firmly anchored idea and most deeply set impression of Barth’s ethics: that “the Christian life requires a radical break with human nature” (8). In contrast to the absolutism, alienation, anarchism, and voluntarism alleged of Barth’s ethics by an earlier generation of commentators, Rose offers a more positive reading of Barth’s ethics, building explicitly on the recent scholarship of figures such as John Webster, Nigel Biggar, and William Werpehowski. Rose seeks to make a distinct contribution to such scholarship with his central thesis:

for Barth what human beings ought to do is importantly determined by what sort of creatures they are and the conditions of their natural existence. . . . I understand (Barth) as endorsing a version of the Augustinian and Thomistic view that right living is in accord with created nature. To be good is to live in the truth about ourselves, to live in conformity with God’s intentions for created order. . . . God requires no more, no less and no other than for us to fulfil our true being. We should be fully human and not God. (10)

Rose is keenly aware that human activity is “unintelligible” without “an understanding of the interrelations between God, the world and human nature” (10). Thus, correspondingly, his work engages deeply not only with the ethical sections of Barth’s work in particular but also with the wider systematic material of which they are an integral part.

Before considering further how Rose’s proposal is unfolded in the chapters that follow, it is worth mentioning his own account of the limitations of his work. First, Rose recognises that “there are other ways of interpreting Barth, and quite possibly better ways” (6). There is no pretence here, then, of offering the definitive interpretation of Barth’s ethics. Second, he observes that while Barth’s theological ethics as a whole is tripartite, reflecting the relationship of humanity to God as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, his work is “concerned mostly with the first of these relations – between Creator and creature” (7). The ethics of reconciliation and of redemption are thus not in view, and Rose recognises that this means that “Barth’s encompassing vision will not be apprehended from (this) limited viewpoint” (7). And third, Rose restricts his vision to “how things are in Barth’s ethics and not how they ought to be” (11). Neither a holistic critique of the underlying moral ontology advanced by Barth nor a detailed critique of the individual ethical positions delineated by Barth nor—Rose’s example—a thorough investigation of the relationship between ethics and Scripture or ethics and church is in view here.

Let us now turn to the content of the work in detail.

In Part One, Rose elucidates the broad theological background of Barth’s ethics, offering a chapter devoted to each of the themes of God, creation, and anthropology.

Chapter 1, titled “The Humanity of God,” offers an exposition of Barth’s doctrine of God, recognising explicitly that it is God’s being for us, and not our being for God, which is the primary truth about our ethical existence. The chapter considers the corresponding way in which ethics is rooted in doctrine, and recognises clearly that both are grounded in the self-revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ (27). Rose thus recognises the centrality of the “humanity of God”—that we cannot think of the Christian God without thinking of God’s eternal covenant to be for humanity in Jesus Christ—for the doctrine of God, though he ultimately leaves his own conclusions “purposefully vague” (32) with respect to the vexed issue of interpreting Barth’s doctrine of election.

In Chapter 2, “What There Is,” Rose turns his attention to creation in an effort to address, explain, and redress the way in which the doctrine of creation has often been neglected in previous work on Barth’s ethics (41). The author recognises that in Barth’s view creation exists for the purposes of salvation, and that grace is thus the hidden meaning of nature (50), and attends to the way creation and covenant are internally and externally related. In terms of ethics, Rose recognises clearly Barth’s denial that “creation defined in abstraction from its relationship with God can infallibly instruct us” (61).

Much in this chapter offers an excellent exposition of Barth’s doctrines of God and creation. However, and already at this early stage in the book, the interpretation of Barth’s work that is offered by Rose takes on some distinctive contours that seem to sit uncomfortably alongside other interpretations. Rose contends in Chapter 1, for example, that for Barth “God’s command is identical . . . with the eternal law of his own being” (18), and that Barth has an “unwavering conviction that certain moral truths follow directly from the gospel itself’’ (18). Yet both statements seem to be true for Barth only with significant qualifications, risking as they do in their current form a monolithic, dehistoricised and depersonalised construal of the divine command which seems to be rather at odds with what Barth actually posits. This risk seems to be heightened in Chapter 2, where Rose offers a characterisation of this “eternal law” and its “certain moral truths.” He writes that for Barth “Christian living involves conforming to God’s intentions for the created order and that his command is made known in the rerum natura” (42), and that for Barth “our moral lives are woven into the fabric of created being and our acting in attunement with it is part of living well” (42). Correspondingly, Rose writes of “a created moral order” (59) and an “‘objective criterion’ which the believer will be able to ‘read [ablesen]’” (60), and claims that Barth does not deny that “the good life conforms to objective reality” (61). Concerns might be raised again about the interpretation of the divine command advanced here. But there is also a deeper issue of interpretation that emerges—the relationship between nature and grace. For Rose, Barth contends that grace straightforwardly transforms and perfects and fulfils nature (58). But for other commentators such as George Hunsinger, as Rose acknowledges, this sort of statement fails to account adequately for the grave radicality and divine judgement of human sin. This is a further significant issue of interpretation.

Chapter 3 is entitled “The Measure of All Things,” and it explores Barth’s theological anthropology. Rose indicates clearly that Barth’s theological view of humanity is derived from Christology, which procedure comprises “one of his most noteworthy departures from Christian moral tradition” (74). The author also interacts carefully with scholarly criticism concerning the lack of clarity in how Barth intends this theological view to relate to the views of other disciplines. Finally, he explores how Christology and anthropology are to be related, engaging with Barth’s use of the analogia relationis. Rose concludes in terms of ethics that “action in accordance with our natures will be . . . to act in ways that correspond to the relations which constitute our very identities” (84).

Rose evidences in this chapter a deep understanding of some of the central moves which Barth makes in his theological anthropology, and certainly seems justified in questioning the extrinsic way in which Barth seems to relate the creature to God (83). Nevertheless, there are a series of concerns to be raised about his handling of some of the material in this chapter. Talk of humanity as “self-transcending” (75, 78) and of human relations as “relations of creaturely coinherence or of mutual, inner participation” (84) seems potentially misleading, and the conflation of “the humanity of Jesus” and “the humanity of God” (76) seems rather misguided. On both counts, little evidence for this sort of language seems to be available in Barth. Moreover, the exposition of the analogia relationis (77) is at points slightly opaque, especially without any reference to the freedom and love which Barth offers explicitly as its material content.

In Part Two of the work, Rose moves from this moral ontology to an exploration of the Christian ethics this implies. Rose acknowledges at the outset of this section that his reading is “close and possibly idiosyncratic” (92). The first two chapters deal with the divine command, while the following two chapters turn to the ethics of creation in Church Dogmatics 3.4. A final substantive chapter considers matters of evil and sin.

In Chapter 4, “The Sovereign Good,” Rose turns to the Christian life. He first explores the nature of the divine command, positing that it is “nothing other than the divine nature itself interpreted with reference to human action . . . the unchangeable, eternal law of God understood in its bearing on free human activity” (93). Rose clearly recognises the connection and order of Gospel and Law, and carefully reviews Barth’s critique of “ethics” and Barth’s view of heteronomy and autonomy in respect of the divine command. He observes that for Barth the form of the command is in fact permission (107), and that its aim is to call us to be who we truly are—covenant partners of God (109). For this reason, the command of God and human freedom are not antithetical and, as Rose concludes, “God is the cause, ground, basis and goal of moral freedom” (111).

Chapter 5 is entitled “The Will to Joy,” and it tackles the view that the command represents the “best thing possible” for humanity. Rose argues that in encounter with Christ, our “human self-knowledge can be renewed” (116). The human action which results is related to the divine action through Barth’s concept of correspondence, as Rose notes, although Rose observes that the notion is heavily qualified by Barth (122). The author proceeds to indicate the way in which he believes Barth’s ethics to be eudaimonistic, as well as how this eudaimonism differs from classical conceptions of the position.

In these chapters on the doctrine of creation, Rose’s explication of Barth’s views is often illuminating and insightful. Indeed, Rose’s investigation and explication of the relationship between Barth’s position and classic eudaimonism is of the highest quality and merits careful attention by all scholars of Barth’s ethics. Yet there are a number issues that might be raised with the reading of Barth provided here. First, Rose claims that Barth “interprets Christian teachings as providing a path to a happy and well-ordered life” (91). This seems to be a bold conclusion to draw on the basis of just one portion of Barth’s ethics, and it will be discussed further below. But this conclusion also indicates a third major issue of interpretation – this time, a methodological one. Second, Rose claims again that “the moral law is consonant with human nature” (92). This seems to be anther bold conclusion to draw in light of the reservations concerning the radicality of sin expressed above. And third, the conception of the divine command offered here (and cited above) seems rather incomplete. Absent from Rose’s account seems to be any sense of the command of God representing the specific, concrete, personal encounter with God which seems fundamental to Barth’s theological ethics from start to finish. The reason is that Rose seeks to move away from what he calls “situationalist” or “act-deontologist” readings of Barth’s ethics (120–21), and hence prefers to interpret the command of God not as referring to concrete, specific commands of God (albeit within a covenant history of grace) but as referring to “the divine law, imitation of Christ and authentic self-expression” (122). However, given not only Barth’s insistence on the particularity of the divine command but also his exposition of the dangers of the imitatio Christi and his hesitation about our capacity for true self-determination, this preference seems surprising. While the aim of the divine command may be eternally the same, as Rose observes (106), Barth is explicit in the Church Dogmatics that the same thing is not always commanded, and thus to speak of an unchanging “moral law” seems problematic. Such a particularity of the command is not arbitrary, but simply reflects the fact that God is a living God who relates in a living way to humanity.

Rose turns in Chapter 6, entitled “The Imperative of Reality,” to the ethics of creation itself. For Rose, Barth’s ethics of creation is “a call to embrace human life and activity” (135). In this way, according to Rose, the “revealed moral law” relates to “our natural moral knowledge” by way of “clarifying, confirming and even amplifying it” (136). Rose explores at this juncture Barth’s portrayal of creaturely freedom, indicating its fundamentally classic provenance (141). He also considers at this point Barth’s account of moral reasoning, before concluding the chapter with an outline of how Barth’s ethics of creation relates to liturgy and worship in the Christian community.

Chapter 7 is entitled “A Christian Sociology,” and delves deeper into Barth’s ethics of creation. Rose considers that the way Barth presents “a well-rounded depiction of the good life” yields “an ethics that could be described as a form of Christian naturalism” (151). This chapter is dominated by a careful investigation of the content of the fourfold structure of Barth’s ethics of creation—freedom before God, freedom in fellowship, freedom for life, and freedom in limitation. Rose recognises that in each domain, Barth is interested not so much in rule prescription as in theological description (161). He considers that in each case to act responsibly is to act “in conformity to the created moral order” (161), and concludes that “God commands that it is always an advantage, a good and worthwhile thing to be alive” (169).

Throughout this presentation of the ethics of creation, Rose offers helpful insights, particularly in respect of what he calls “the liturgical consummation of humanity” (145), as well as with regard to the various freedoms of the creature. Nevertheless, there are a number of points at which his interpretation of Barth sits uneasily with other readings of Barth. First, although it is important to recognise with Rose the threefold form of Barth’s ethics (as reflecting our relationship to God as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer), it seems inaccurate to suggest that this reflects our relationships with Father, Son, and Spirit (134). This apparently inappropriate use of the doctrine of appropriations seems to find no endorsement in the Church Dogmatics. Second, the “formed reference” for thinking about morality of which Barth writes in the Church Dogmatics does not seem in any meaningful way to be identical simply with “the human being” (139). Far more it seems to refer to the whole history of the covenant relationship between God and humanity. Third, it is not clear in itself that Barth’s ethics is designed “to account for the central features of moral agency” (153) or “to provide a theological basis for criticism of existing relationships and to supply a set of evaluative standards by which to judge our present lives” (153). Such a characterisation of Barth’s purpose seems at once too abstract and too removed from both the command of the Creator and the covenant relationship in which that command is heard. Beyond these points, a number of the interpretive issues previously mentioned recur again. Fourth, then, it seems awkward to suggest that “the way of Christian living involves being completely immersed in and reconciled to our creaturehood” (136). Again, this seems to represent something of an incomplete circumscription of the material of theological ethics. Fifth, it is clear again that Rose contemplates nature and grace as operating in terms of continuity rather than disruption. This is clear when he contends, for example, that “divine instruction allows us to know more perfectly what was previously known only imperfectly” (136). And finally, it is not clear that to say that “God the Creator commands through creation itself” (137) and that “created order is a mode of promulgation of the divine lawgiver” (138) is to say the same thing. In fact, it seems clear on the grounds of Barth’s doctrine of revelation that it is not: the living God addresses the command of God in a concrete way to a particular creature at a specific time. This interpretation evidences Rose’s hesitation about construing the divine command as event. Indeed, precisely where one might expect the concreteness of the divine command in Barth to be addressed—in the section on moral reasoning (142–45)—Rose seems to neglect it. One consequence of this strategy comes when Rose deals with the material of the ethics of creation, where he prioritises once again the language of “the moral law” (159) and “the created moral order” (161), as well as of “Barth’s ethical laws” (170). This construal leads to major difficulties where Barth describes boundary cases and exceptional cases. At this point, Rose is left with the language of “exceptions” to the “norm” of the moral law (158), and his statement that one can discern such “exceptional cases” (170) seems simply to undermine the whole conception of an unchanging moral law.

The last major chapter is Chapter 8, “Humanity Against Itself,” which deals with the issues of evil and sin. In Rose’s words, Barth “needs to account for the fact that humanity deviates from the plan” (174), and there follows an exposition of Barth on nothingness. In light of its power, Rose observes that he has “provided too benign an account of the moral life” (184), and proceeds to exposit Barth’s construal of nothingness as leaving one “with the sense that sin eludes every attempt at comprehension” (190). Although there is much in this exposition of sin and evil that is of merit, one minor query might be mentioned. It seems incorrect to suggest that the devil, sin, and evil belong to the dark side of creation (181). Barth certainly refutes this notion explicitly. For him, nothingness is definitively not part of creation at all.

In the Conclusion, Rose returns to the relationship between ethics and revelation. He repeats his desire to defend Barth against the charge “that he regards the good as the product of a divine will lacking an intrinsic connection to created human nature” (198). To this end, Rose considers Barth’s view of moral philosophy, contending that in Barth’s work there are a number of “nods made toward natural moral knowledge” (206) and that “there are indeed certain moral truths known and knowable to all human beings” (207).

Rose is certainly right in this concluding chapter to probe the meaning of Barth’s views on the possibility of Christian philosophy and natural moral truths. He does so helpfully and thereby opens up space to consider further the extent to which the former continues to depend directly on some form of revelation (201) and the extent to which the latter involve truly theological or Christian knowledge (206).


It is unquestionable that Rose’s work is both innovative and ambitious. In seeking to engage Karl Barth’s theological ethics from a Roman Catholic perspective, he opens up a new field of dialogue between Barth scholars and scholars of Roman Catholic moral theology while boldly and lucidly setting forth his own positions on a range of issues. His work is deeply perceptive and highly insightful, drawing out themes and aspects of Barth’s ethics that have escaped the attention of previous scholars. Moreover, it is carefully written, elegantly structured, and a pleasure to read. The author’s voice is thus a welcome addition to the field of Barth’s ethics.

At times, one might have wished for greater attention to sources, and this in two respects. First, although the author professes explicitly that he will be concerned almost exclusively with Barth’s mature thought, and thus “next to nothing will be said about its genesis and development” (6), yet he cites texts from Romans II, Ethics, and the early volumes of the Church Dogmatics with indiscriminate confidence. Second, though the author professes to be engaging explicitly with the ethics of creation and its exposition and analysis (7), he regularly invokes texts from later in the Church Dogmatics, texts which on occasion seem to serve as the sole justification for a point. On both counts, a little more awareness and discrimination would have been welcome.

The central feature of this work, however, is the creative reading of Barth offered, one which—as the author explicitly acknowledges—is rather idiosyncratic. The analysis above has repeatedly expressed hesitation about the interpretation offered in respect of three major issues. To reprise:

1. It is not clear that conclusions can adequately be drawn about how Christians should live on the basis of the ethics of creation alone. Rose recognises explicitly that he is only providing “only one panel of the triptych that would be necessary” (7), yet nevertheless feels justified in making large claims about “the way of Christian living” (136, 161). The trouble for the Barth scholar lies in trying to square this eudaimonistic ethics of human flourishing and creaturely well-being that Rose portrays with the picture in the doctrine of reconciliation of the ethical agent as standing under the cross as a matter of ontology, and of Christian ethics as exhibiting a radical downward trend. This is not to suggest that the two pictures are necessarily in contradiction, but it is to suggest that treating the former in isolation does not in any way offer a representative picture of the ethical life. For Barth, the ethics of creation cannot be separated from the ethics of reconciliation any more than the covenant-partner can be separated from the creature.

2. It is not clear that Rose is right in his optimism about the continuity of nature and grace in the work of Karl Barth. This interpretation may simply reflect the greater optimism which has generally pervaded the Roman Catholic tradition with respect to its construal of the abilities and capacities of the human being after the Fall. And it is certainly an interpretive assumption of which Rose is explicitly aware (58). But to what extent and in what way, for Barth, “created nature” exists after the Fall is a major question. In light of his treatment of Barth’s view of sin and evil in the final chapter, Rose suggests significantly that his whole account of the ethical life in the preceding chapters has been “too benign” (184). This is surely to beg the question, however, as to whether it is right in the first place, and whether in dealing with Barth’s theology one can ever minimise the radicality of the distinction between nature and grace. On this point, it seems that George Hunsinger’s interpretation—cited by Rose (58)—may be truer to Barth’s intentions.

3. It is not clear that Rose is right to refer so confidently to “the moral law” on so many occasions and to neglect so conspicuously the idea of the command of God as event in the ethics of Barth. On the one hand, Rose contends that “at no point is the existence of natural law denied” (60). Now, assuredly Barth would wish to speak about the order of creation as exhibiting certain prominent lines of ethical continuity in the course of the history of the covenant between God and humanity (this is the important “formed reference”). But in truth Barth regularly and clearly rejects the validity of natural law—on the basis that it has no capacity to reveal the divine command and thus no bearing on the real ethical question of obedience to God. On the other hand, Rose does not seem to reckon seriously with Barth’s actualistic construal of the command of God in its particularity and specificity, in its living engagement with the people of God in different times and places and circumstances. The command of God—the Law—is the form of the Word of God—the Gospel—and it must be heard ever and ever again in each new situation.

In light of these reservations, to read Rose’s work as representing in any way a straightforward exposition of Barth’s ethics would seem to be inappropriate, and hence to read it as succeeding in indicating the congeniality of Barth’s ethics and Roman Catholic thought would seem to be over-optimistic. By contrast, the work might perhaps better be read as a constructive contribution to the study of Barth’s ethics, pushing a reading of Barth’s ethics which seeks to think after rather than with Barth into wider ethical conversation with Roman Catholic perspectives and thereby to shed illumination on and pose questions to some overlooked aspects of his thought. Along these lines, the book can only be judged an unequivocal success.

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.