Posts Tagged ‘grace’

Barth on Christian Ethics: “You have been told, O man, what is good”

August 24, 2009

“I admire the ethics of Christianity, and try to live by the moral teaching of Jesus, but I don’t believe he was the Son of God.” A common enough position, perhaps even still the default one for the English middle classes, but according to Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, such a position doesn’t even make sense. Christian ethics are not detachable from the gospel, and from the history of God’s relation to humanity in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most concise statement of Barth’s position on Christian ethics (from a theologian not known for his brevity!) is his 1946 essay Christliche Ethik, republished and translated in God Here and Now (Abingdon, Oxon / New York: Routledge, 2003). First of all, Barth says that Christian ethics derive from God, not a human philosophy or world-view:

Christian ethics is the attempt to repeat what has been said to man, to repeat in human words and with human concepts the divine commandment. Christian ethics rests upon the attentiveness and openness of man for God’s commandment, for God’s own answer to the question about the good… Christian ethics begins, therefore, not with what might be called reflection. It begins with hearing.”

Such a position, Barth admits, does make Christian ethics confusing to non-Christians,

“It must always be the case, therefore, that Christian ethics takes its point of departure from what must be a puzzle to him who is not yet or perhaps no longer prepared to listen to God. Such a one must always be baffled by the question of whence Christian ethics derives its concepts, how it uses them, and how the same concepts have such a different meaning and effect here from their meaning and effect elsewhere.”

but Christians should not try and “evade” grounding their ethics in the gospel, and in God’s revelation. In seeking to evade this, they make their ethics sub-Christian, and they themselves become no longer willing to listen to God. If this is true, then the final grounding for Christian ethics will not be accepted by non-Christians. The answer to the question about if and why divorce is wrong must ultimately be “God forbids it” (c.f. Matthew 5:31-32) and not that it damages families and societal fabric. But is this all that can be said on Christian ethics? Has Barth set up a position vulnerable to that A-Level philosophy standby, the Euthyphro dilemma? Although Barth doesn’t explicitly interact with this objection, I think he circumvents it by his situating of Christian ethics with reference to God’s action in history – i.e., the gospel:

“Christian ethics is connected with a history between God and man which has taken place, still takes place, and will take place in the future… To say it with the simplest words possible: God became, was, and is a man. And it happened that God as this man was not a success, but had to suffer and died as a condemned criminal on the gallows [i.e. the cross]. And it happened, further, that this man who was God was raised from the dead. But thereby it happened that every man in him and all men by Him were exalted to the glory of God. I anticipate. The conclusion of this history consists in this: that it will happen, it will be revealed for all and to all [i.e. finally and publicly], that our guilt and need is taken away by the person of this man, and that we are called in the person of this man to the glory of God.”

I can’t agree with the “all men by him” in a salvific sense, but, that aside, this is the history to which Christian ethics must relate. Ethics is, as Barth says, “the fruit that grows upon this tree” and cannot be understood if this history is omitted or mis-interpreted. It is from this vantage point that we can begin to define what “good” and “evil” are – and we find that they are not at all abstract, free-standing notions as Plato (and indeed, the Enlightenment!) thought they were.

“Good, in the Christian sense, is that conduct and action of man’s which corresponds to the conduct and action of God in this history. That human work is good, therefore, in which man accepts- and not only accepts but affirms- that God humbled Himself for him in order that man might live and rejoice. That activity of man is good, in the Christian sense, in which man acknowledges that he stands in need of this divine mercy; yet that he is not only in need of it, but also shares in it … That human conduct and act of man’s is good, therefore, which corresponds to the grace of God.
What then is evil, in the Christian sense of the word? Evil is that conduct and act of man’s in which he contradicts the content and the action of God’s history, in which he hurries or sneaks past the suffering and the joy of Jesus Christ. That deed of man’s is evil in which man, openly or in secret, because of anxiety or pride, is unthankful.”

It seems odd to define good and evil in Christian ethics without reference to love, but that is not really the case here. Ultimately defining the good as doing what is “loving” is unclear – what or who are we to love? All sorts of evil acts can be presented as loving by shifting the goalposts of who they are loving towards. The Scriptures specify the “what” and the “who” of love. We are to love God and our neighbour, according to the Bible; but… we know this by grace and are able to do it only by grace. Finally, thankfulness for grace produces love – knowing the gospel of salvation by grace leads us to perform the good. It is, incidentally, exactly the logic of Titus 1:2-4:

 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and which now at his appointed season he has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Saviour…

The gospel is the truth that leads to godliness. Paul, too, relates this to the “greatest drama ever played” of God’s plans for the world – giving good biblical warrant for Barth to proceed as he does.

Barth’s way of setting up Christian ethics seems to have a number of attractions. It seems to be biblical; it avoids the vagueness of unqualified reference to “love” and at the same time does not make God vulnerable to a caricature of an arbitrary dictator – God’s character revealed in the gospel, his plans for his creation revealed in the gospel, and his grace to us revealed in the gospel all underpin the idea of listening to, repeating, and obeying God’s commandment. The Bible is not a law-book, but rather tells us the gospel which produces the fruit of Christian ethics in the lives it transforms.

What, then, of the fact that Barth makes Christian ethics unintelligible to those outside the Church? How now will the Church persuade those outside to behave morally? The answer is – she can’t; at least, not so far as those outside remain outside. If the gospel is the tree on which Christian ethics grows as fruit, we cannot expect to find it growing on different trees. Instead of urging non-Christians to behave as if they were Christians, perhaps it would be better to urge them to become Christians – for only then, if Barth is correct here, can they understand, affirm and practise Christian ethics.

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How does God feel about you?

June 13, 2009

Today Rico Tice came to Beeston Free Church to talk to us (and other East Mids church people!) about the “Passion For Life” mission initiative and posed a great question to us to illustrate the gospel:

“Write down one word which sums up how God feels about you this week”

What do you think people might have written? Rico didn’t get us to read them out, but instead told us what we should have written in response to it. If we really believe the gospel, we would know that the word that sums up how God feels about us is delighted – because he delights in his Son, Jesus Christ, and because we are united to him we relate to God on the basis of Jesus’ merits and righteousness, not on the basis of our good works.

This is great news – in the gospel we have the promise of Christ’s own righteousness given to us, so that God genuinely delights in us. If you know Christ as your saviour, God is not disappointed or angry with the idolatrous and  half-hearted life you’ve lived this week: he looks at you and sees Christ’s merits. This is bold stuff to say; and easily forgotten, but it is what it means to be saved by grace alone.

Really great stuff to be reminded of as we try and get the church behind the mission, and share this amazing, life-giving message with those around us.

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As an update to this, I found myself at the NUCU Grill-a-Christian event last night after the Ropewalk quiz was “rained off” (not sure how that works, either!) and somebody (I think a non-Christian student) asked the question: “If God can forgive all our sins, why don’t you just do whatever you want and enjoy yourself, then ask for forgiveness?”. I have to say that I think this is exactly the question you ask when you have begun to understand the gospel – forgiveness really is free and salvation really is by grace alone, through faith alone. This kind of question should be met, at least initially, with commendation for having understood what the gospel’s offer of grace really means.

Of course, it is more than that – and I’m glad that the Christians who were being “grilled” pointed out both the moral perversity of such an approach, and that, in the words of one of them, “I can’t think of a single sin from which I would gain a lasting benefit.” Obedience and Christlikeness are essential to the Christian life, and so there is more to Christianity than what I’ve posted above. But there is more than, not less than that. I think if we preach the biblical gospel, the “but that means you can do anything you want and then be forgiven” objection is one we will hear a lot.