Sunday, 28 November 2010

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.

1 comment:

  1. "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!

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