Monday, 24 January 2011

Barth's charismatic ethics?

I've been working on Church Dogmatics III/4 recently, on Barth's special ethics in his doctrine of creation. Although it is widely known that Barth has real hang-ups about natural theology, and its ethical manifestation as systematic casuistry, it is here in the introductory paragraphs of this volume that he tackles the issue head on in the most comprehensive way. He outlines his basic understanding, and critique, of systematic casuistry and its ultimate failure to take seriously the liveliness of the Living Word addressed to humanity in Christ. However, Barth does allow for a certain kind of casuistry - what he calls 'practical casuistry' - which concerns itself not with the application of static and abstract universal moral principles but with the momentary reflection and decision regarding that same Living Word as it encounters human beings in particular concrete instances. It is this notion of encounter and response that grows out of a pneumatology that takes seriously the active work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.

Barth describes his approach in negative terms. He outlines the history of casuistry in the Christian tradition as having come through Rabbinical Judaism's expository approach to moral questions. Barth traces the influence of this to end of the first century - with the establishment of the proper place of the OT canon and the beginning of a recognized NT witness as a 'text of ethical law'. He also suggests that the Church borrowed from the Stoic moralists to supplement its approach. Whether the history is accurate or not, and there are several questions to be answered in this regard, the brief description serves to set up Barth's main point which is that the development of systematic casuistry as an approach to the Christian life represents 'a lack of confidence in the Spirit (who is the Lord) as the Guide, Lawgiver, and Judge in respect of Christian action' (CD III/4:7). Such a lack of confidence and faith in the work of the Holy Spirit leads, in Barth's view, the Christian out of freedom and into the bondage of deciding our own path and striving to unearth the way forward through the application of universal moral laws - no matter how well sourced (scripture, tradition, doctrine) those moral laws may be.

In the evangelical Anglican tradition in which I am (partly) rooted, the use of scripture as a kind of text book that informs our ethical practice and moral deliberation is quite normal. After all, it 'is' the Word of God. It is normal therefore to be encouraged to seek moral guidance from the text of scripture, to do sound exegesis of the text and apply it to my current situation. In one sense, I don't think Barth is wholly opposed to this. Scripture has a formative role for us as it is often the means by which the Word of God does come to us (see some earlier posts on this). These texts are those which God has chosen to witness to the particular history of his dealings with humanity. But there are two issues at stake here. The first concerns whether when handling scripture we absent ourselves from the school of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, we consider ourselves free and able to 'handle' the Word of God - aided, of course, by an appropriate doctrine or tradition - but essentially fully capable as long as certain provisions are made. This, for Barth, would be arrogance. On the other hand, the second concerns the lack of confidence in the active work of the Holy Spirit. This, it seems Barth is suggesting, betrays our lack of faith in the thrid person of the Trinity.

The critique sounds convincing at first sounding to someone like me - an evangelical skeptical of an absolutist approach to exegesis of scripture, concerned not to privilege the written Word above the Living Word, and fearful that the Holy Spirit might get relegated from the trinity in favour of the Holy Bible. It sounds good to say that we need to be confident in the Holy Spirit. However, my question for Barth would be this: what does the Work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian look like? It sits a bit uncomfotably with my desire for norms and to understand my own actions. I suspect Barth would like this. So far, my reading of the Dogmatics leads me to think it is not simply conscience, or supernatural signs and wonders, that makes up the Spirit's influence but the momentary and overwhelming conviction one experiences in the soul in what can only be described as encounter with God. To hold this view is brave. It means that Christian ethics is subject to no other norm than the active Work of the Holy Spirit - who, as Lord, is gracious, and consistently so - and thus means that the work of Christian ethicists can never be presciptive but instructional, preparing us for those moments of encouter with God's Spirit. I want to live this, but I fear it. It does make sense of practical casuistry however, and I suppose lends Barth's view a certain theological consistency, if an apparent ethical inadequacy.

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