Skip to main content

McKenny on Barth (2): Answering a primordial ethical question

I'm continuing my reading of Gerald McKenny's The Analogy of Grace: Karl Barth's Moral Theology (2010), and as I do I continue to be impressed by the quality of this book. I said in my first post that the fact that McKenny is not an avowed Barthian is refreshing - it also adds a particular depth to this study of the central theme of Barth's moral theology that I suspect would not be so noticeable elsewhere. This depth comes from the sense of wrestling with Barth that McKenny's constant and penetrating questioning of the 'old man of Basel' suggests, and the even handedness with which McKenny deals with Barth's critics. One presumes McKenny is an evangelical of sorts (he took his BA at Wheaton, Illinois, USA), but the engagement with Barth's theological concerns and knowledge of the Barth-corpus here far outranks anything offered in recent evaneglical publications on Barth (most especially, e.g., Gibson and Strange (eds) Engaging with Barth (2008)). McKenny is currently engaged in research on the problem of the relation of grace to morality in Kant and beyond, so presumably this publication comes out of his research in that field. I reiterate - go and read this book!

The primordial question with which McKenny suggests Barth is self consciously wrestling concerns the relationship between the doctrine of God's grace (inclusing justification) and  human sanctification. McKenny asks the question, 'What does the righteousness that comes to us through God's grace have to do with our conduct in the world?' (p.27). The question is articulated through the book in several different ways, but the presenting issue - of the relationship between grace, justification, and sanctification - remains the same. Even when, in chapter 2, Mckenny pushes Barth on the legitimacy of the question at all (whether the question of grace in sanctification only arises because of the modern preoccupation with human self assertion, p.74), McKenny contends that Barth uses the modernist paradigm to articulate most potently the 'primordial ambiguity' (p.80) of ethics as human action and the ethics of grace.

If nothing else, the way McKenny articulates the issue is helpful for systematic theologians and ethicisits alike. How does divine grace impact and form our human agency? I mean by that much more than merely our sense of the ethical/moral - i.e. that which is good. Put negatively, Barth and McKenny are asking why when we talk about righteousness and justification we (Protestants in this case) happily talk about God's grace to us, but when we talk about sanctification/ethics we do not. Then we talk about our part, what we should do, and not what God has done for us. The question opens up a much more fundamental issue about the relationship between systematic theology and ethics which is about more than then way these disciplines relate. Instead it is a fundamental questioning of them as they now stand - their methods, their content, and their points of reference. It is not enough to say theologians must consider the practicalities of what they write, nor that the ethicists must ground their statements with some theological reflection. What McKenny articulates in Barth is a fundamental shift in the present disciplines of theology and ethics. I found this quite compelling, and also mindblowing.

Comments

Unknown said…
"Put negatively, Barth and McKenny are asking why when we talk about righteousness and justification we (Protestants in this case) happily talk about God's grace to us, but when we talk about sanctification/ethics we do not. Then we talk about our part, what we should do, and not what God has done for us."

Just noticed this Michael, me and Suse had pancakes with him and his wife when we went to Notre Dame, a really nice guy and incredibly personable too. Interestingly enough as I continue to trawl through ethics I ask the same question, much of what I have read seems to be about my effort and what I should do...something which Bonhoeffer I think also explores though I have only touched the surface only another 333 pages to go!

Popular posts from this blog

What Do You Call a Group of Theologians?

I think the answer should be "an argument", but perhaps that's unfair. I can test my theory this next week, which sees the start of the annual Society for the Study of Theology (UK) conference on the theme of Holy Writ? (The question mark is very suggestive). It looks really good, and the list of plenary speakers is great: Alex Samely (Manchester); Morwenna Ludlow (Exeter); Henk van den Belt (Amsterdam); Walter Moberly (Durham); Anthony Thiselton (Nottingham); Hugh Pyper (Sheffield). The conference lasts several days and is convening this year at York University. I hope to be able to blog a few thoughts from the conference and some info about the plenary sessions, but I shall be presenting a paper at one of the themed seminars on Wednesday afternoon on the interpretation of Barth's ethics of responsibility so may be a bit distracted until then. So watch this space for more info...

Barth on defining the authority of scripture, and issues in the Anglican communion

Barth is notorious, particularly amongst evangelical scholars, for his view of the authority of scripture. He is right, I think, to argue that scripture's 'authority' is relative to the authority of Christ. This is precisely why his threefold definition of the Word does not privilege scripture, but acknowledges its principal witness to the 'wordiness' of Jesus (John 1 - a passage of which Barth was very fond). Where I think his approach to scripture becomes more complicated, and difficult to understand, is in passages relating to moral authority, such as this one: All biblical imperatives - and we do not say this to impugn the authority of the Bible but to define it - are addressed to others, and not to us, and they are addressed to others who differ greatly among themselves, to the people of Israel in different situations, to the disciples of Jesus, to the first Christian churches of Jews and Gentiles. Their concreteness is that of a specific then and there...This

My new book! Faithful Living: Discipleship, Creed, and Ethics

I’m a little late flagging this up here, but my book Faithful Living: Discipleship, Creed, and Ethics was released by SCM Press in December 2019 — a little bit earlier than expected (and hopefully in time for a few last-minute Christmas presents!). The basic premise of the book is a bit of a thought-experiment: I am interested in the kinds of decisions and actions that may be inferred or implied for those who believe and regularly recite the Nicene Creed. I don’t pretend this is an exhaustive moral commentary, nor that the basic approach isn’t without some qualification, but I do try and join the dots between the confessional substance of the Christian faith (with which many worshipers are familiar because of liturgical confession) and the every-day choices that most Christians are required to make. It comes from the conviction that doctrinal commitments implicate our moral lives. The blurb summarises it as follows: How can the things we do and say in Church impact our lives and s