Karl Barth and Christian Ethics: Living in Truth by William Werpehowski

Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 37 (2):212-213 (2017)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:Karl Barth and Christian Ethics: Living in Truth by William WerpehowskiJames W. SkillenKarl Barth and Christian Ethics: Living in Truth William Werpehowski BURLINGTON, VT: ASHGATE, 2014. 172 PP. $54.95 (PAPERBACK), $153.00 (CLOTH)In this two-part volume, William Werpehowski aims in part 1 to elucidate Karl Barth's "approach to the nature and source of the good, the divine command in its relation to the personal history of a moral agent, and the place of narrative in Christian ethics" (xii). The author does this both by exposition of Barth's writings and by engaging with the arguments of other students of Barth, including James Gustafson, Stanley Hauerwas, John Webster, Matthew Rose, and Gerald McKenny. The titles of the chapters of part 1 indicate the ground being covered: "Divine Commands and Philosophical Dilemmas," "Command and History," "Narrative and Ethics," and "Realism and Discernment." In part 2 the author presents diverse essays on "virtue, moral practices, and discernment," most of which deal with the rearing and education of children, which shows the author's sympathy with Barth even as he draws on other traditions of Christian ethics.Werpehowski's exposition is generally clear and detailed as he seeks to explain and defend Barth's identification of the norm for human ethics with the subject, Jesus Christ. According to Barth, "humanity's obedience to God … must always be obedience to and conformity with Jesus Christ. He is the criterion by which is measured all demands on our behavior" (6). Furthermore, "God's eternal will is for humanity in Jesus Christ; the normative criterion is identical to God's will and the history it accomplishes" (7). Although the response to God's electing love in Christ should be willing obedience, Barth (with Werpehowski) does not deal substantively with the accountability of those who do not so respond. In the end, for Barth, God's "Yes" in Christ always trumps God's "No" to sin (see 65–69).At times the author's defense of Barth appears to be more a deflection of, than an engagement with, the criticism. One example: the author offers a brief summary of Nigel Biggar's sympathetic criticism of Barth at the point where he believes Barth deals inadequately with human responsibility and accountability. Werpehowski acknowledges the legitimacy of Biggar's point—"that the temporal world of eternal grace may be depicted as our one common world only if creaturely rationality and non-arbitrary moral justification are prominently affirmed" (63); he states that Biggar is trying to save Barth "at his best" from a weakness in his position. Yet Werpehowski's next step is to say that Biggar's correction "is in danger of being an overcorrection" because his [End Page 212] moral justification requirement "belongs more to the periphery of the ethics of [Barth's] divine command" (64). That requirement, says Werpehowski, "must be governed by the central significance of the gracious God who commands in the reality of the ethical event" (64).Werpehowski's book is worthy of careful study, especially by those who want to understand Barth in relation to other ethicists. A criticism I have concerns the limits of Barth's ethics with respect to human institutions and social practices for which humans bear communal responsibility. Werpehowski acknowledges that those limits are due to Barth's focus on the relation of Christ to the individual person in the "ethical event." By contrast, at a few points in part 2, Werpehowski draws in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who insists that it is in "friendships, families, work, citizenship, and life in the church" where Christ is present preserving and reconciling the world to God (141). Despite all the attention in recent decades to Christian social and political ethics, the author does little with that subject in either his assessment of Barth or in the chapters of part 2.James W. SkillenPresident (retired), Center for Public JusticeCopyright © 2017 Society of Christian Ethics...

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