Daniel L. Migliore, ed. Commanding Grace: Studies in Karl Barth’s Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), x + 255pp. $30.00 (paperback)


Reviewed by Matthew Puffer (November 6, 2012)


James McCord introduced Karl Barth to Daniel Migliore, the newest member of the Princeton Theological Seminary faculty, in April of 1962 in the Princeton University Chapel narthex. Half a century later, thousands of seminarians, pastors, and laypersons can thank Migliore for their own introductions to the theology, ethics, and hilaritas of Barth. In April of 2009 Migliore delivered a final lecture for his course on the theology and ethics of Karl Barth. It was titled “God is Beautiful” and made for a fitting consummation. Stuart 6, a lecture hall familiar to generations of Princeton Theological Seminary Students, was transformed into something out of Mark 2 as it overflowed with a motley crew of grateful students, tearful colleagues, and some who were both. Some of those present sat in chairs, some sat on the floor, and others listened from outside of the open doors. In Commanding Grace: Studies in Karl Barth’s Ethics Migliore continues to nurture our understanding of what theology in service of the Church might mean for future generations. The volume collects the plenary papers and responses from the 2008 Annual Karl Barth Conference on “Karl Barth and Theological Ethics,” which Migliore organized, and includes four additional manuscripts not part of the original event.

CoverMigliore’s introductory essay approaches Barth’s ethics through four thematic investigations, each of which offers a distinct vantage that might frame Barth’s ethical thought as a whole. First, Migliore reminds readers of and cautions them against those (mis)interpretations which do not properly attend to “the christocentric and Trinitarian history of the covenant of God with humanity that provides for Barth the essential context, norm, and direction of all Christian ethical reflection and action” (9). Second, Migliore notes that Barth’s “divine command” is neither an arbitrarily voluntarist nor deontological in the sense of a Kantian categorical imperative, but is a command consistent with God’s gracious election by which he exists in covenant relation with humanity: “God’s grace is a gracious command and God’s grace is a commanding grace” (11). Third, Migliore emphasizes the importance of understanding Barth’s distinct notion freedom. This is not a freedom to choose among options or for good and against evil, but a freedom to do the one thing that God wills and which corresponds to God’s way of relating to humanity as revealed in the history of Jesus Christ. Fourth, in discussing the legitimate use of the state’s power in and for political activity, a framed reference of christocentric and Trinitarian understanding of God’s being shows the protection of life, upholding of justice, and securing of peace to be the proper purposes for such power, all of which contribute to human flourishing. Collectively Migliore’s four investigations offer not only complimentary vantages but a distillation of learning from one whose career has taken up these questions time and again. With erudite concision Migliore gets to the heart of the matter in each instance, thereby setting the table for the contributions of the subsequent chapters. In doing so, the essay can be read both as an introduction and a response to the volume’s collected contributions.

Nigel Biggar’s essay revisits Barth’s ethics with the benefit of a decade-and-a-half of reflection upon the appreciative and critical responses to his seminal work, The Hastening that Waits. Looking back, he views his earlier work as a “reconstruction [that] was more expressive of where I thought Barth should have gone than of where he actually went” (26). Biggar considers Barth’s ethics as a whole through an examination of three distinct movements, each of which receives its own heading: “spiritual focus,” “basic terms,” and “Trinitarian information” (27). Under the heading of “spiritual focus” Biggar makes an analytic distinction between Barth’s construal of the relationship of human creatures to God, as opposed to relationships to other human creatures or the rest of creation. In the discussion of “basic terms” Biggar laments Barth’s failure to disaggregate military from legislative commands. And, regarding “Trinitarian information,” he suggests that Barth is overly dependent upon his conception of the imminent Trinity and would have done better to attend to God’s economic missions.

Noting several significant agreements with Biggar, Eric Gregory nevertheless wonders whether Biggar’s criticisms of Barth may import “a substantive account of basic goods” (55) along the lines of the Finnis-Grisez school that ought to have given Biggar himself some pause. Gregory asks whether the specific conception of natural law through which Biggar seeks to reform Barth can be conceived of as both an autonomous source of moral knowledge and also “formed by specifically Christian presuppositions” (55) as Biggar claims. Gregory thinks not. He proposes instead the “Protestant Thomism” of John Bowlin as an alternative to incorporating the “basic goods” notion from the “new natural law” tradition to which Biggar (on other grounds) is in opposition. Such a Protestant-Thomist natural law wedded to a Barthian divine command, Gregory suggests, might resolve the difficulties in Biggar’s proposal and could be nomized a new “Barthian Thomism” (59).

Bill Werphowski and John Bowlin engage Barth’s infamously problematic ethics of war in the volume’s second exchange. Their interaction develops contemporary debates regarding pacifism and just war’s presuppositions and aims, including the perennial question of whether pacifism, just war, and Barth himself share a presumption against war. Werpehowski notes the multiple readings of Barth’s ethics of war and the various ways that interpreters take issue with Barth. Biggar, David Clough, Oliver O’Donovan, and Rowan Williams are on record with diverse reservations, and Werpehowski shares many of their concerns. Acknowledging these worries, he mines Barth’s discussion of war both for ways in which it anticipates elements of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ The Challenge of Peace and for insights where Barth provides reminders and corrections to supplement tendencies in the bishops’ proposal. John Bowlin is less than optimistic that Barth’s ethics of war lend themselves to rehabilitation in the manner Werpehowski would like to take them. As Bowlin sees it, Barth’s presentation of the exceptional case might be read in one of two ways, either of which are problematic for Barth’s ethics as a whole. Rescuing Barth from such a bind, suggests Bowlin, will require far more than minor adjustments. Reforming Barth’s ethics along the lines Werpheowski suggests entails rejecting some of Barth’s basic intuitions about the deployment of rules and cases in generating ethical norms.

David Haddorff’s essay explicates Barth’s political theology as an alternative to contemporary political discourse, conceiving of the Christian’s task primarily in terms of the practice of witness. Haddorff observes Barth’s political theology in descriptive, comparative, and evaluative modes, developing Barth’s ad hoc discussion of the Jeffersonian Preamble—“We hold these truths . . .”—as a red thread running through the essay. Drawing appositely from Barth’s corpus, Haddorff deploys divine ontology and theological anthropology in explicating Barth’s thought as an alternative to dominant and emergent traditions of Christian political theology. Barth’s potestas / potentia distinction figures prominently, indexing just and unjust uses of power in political arrangements. Like the “dominant” traditions of political theology—including liberation and feminist approaches—Barth sees state and society as the agents of political change. And, like the “emergent” view of Yoder, Hauerwas, O’Donovan, and Milbank, Barth affirms a political church. For Barth, however, the roles of the church and the state in effecting justice are not primary, precisely because they do not constitute God’s kingdom but bear witness to that kingdom indirectly to the extent that they proclaim and enact what a just state is and does. Todd Cioffi’s response lends specificity to Haddorff’s observations that Barth’s political theology affirms constitutional democracy as the best means of securing a just human relations under the rule of law. Cioffi points to Barth’s developing thought on politics in CD 2.1 and 2.2 in arguing that Barth was more interested in a particular kind of democracy than democracy per se. He notes, “Barth acknowledges that democracy without socialism is nothing more than ‘dust thrown in the eyes of the people,’ for it lacks a redistribution of economic and social power” (134)—a claim further developed by Tanner in her essay for this volume.

Timothy Gorringe and Katherine Sonderegger consider how Barth’s doctrine of the atonement might help us reimagine and reform contemporary penal systems. Whereas Gorringe criticizes the concept of punishment and the forensic notion of expiation in Barth’s discussion, Sonderegger worries that extracting expiation results in an insufficient, exemplarist Christology. Gorringe observes that a legal criminal (not to be confused with the distinct concept of “sinner”) may be thought to be in need of redemption, therapy, or disincentives. How one envisions the criminal informs what response is deemed appropriate: protection, retributive punishment, or rehabilitation through restorative justice. He faults Barth’s “The Judge Judged in Our Place” (CD 4.1 §59.2) for maintaining a doctrine of the atonement that reinforces violent responses to criminality, yet noting that Barth himself did not evidence such a conclusion either in his dogmatics or in his personal dealings with criminals. Still, he challenges the comportment of Barth’s forensic elements, on the one hand, with his rejection of the retribution-based friend-foe relationship and affirmation a love-for-enemies ethic that funds solidarity and an active restoration of a just peace on the other. Like Gorringe, Sonderegger notes that Barth’s doctrine of the atonement is not merely forensic. But she holds the forensic elements to be essential. Whereas Gorringe recognizes military and cultic aspects of atonement in 4.2 and 4.3, he seeks to remove every hint of expiation as punishment. Although he understands Barth’s rejection of the “satisfaction of God’s wrath” as a rejection of satisfaction in se, Sonderegger emphasizes the need to affirm punishment and expiation as essential for understanding atonement as satisfying God’s love. God’s love is satisfied in taking the experience of human suffering and death into Godself once and for all. It “crowds us out” (172) qua sinners and puts an end to us as such. It is because this transaction is “finished” that subsequent justice can no longer understand punishment in terms of satisfaction and expiation but only in terms of restoration and reconciliation.

Kathryn Tanner’s essay develops the noncompetitive divine economy presented in her Economy of Grace. Tanner laments the formalism of Barth’s criticisms of capitalism, from 1911 to CD 4.4, and offers material proposals for how capitalism’s competitive relations would be challenged on christocentric grounds if this “lordless power par excellence” were to “fall under the Lordship of Christ” (183). Not uti and frui, but “owning” and “enjoyment” are re-presented such that goods have multiple owners and one’s enjoyment of goods is not predicated upon ownership. Physical, personal, moral, and legal analogies lead to a trinitarian explication of noncompetitive relations expressed in Luke 15:31: “Son, you are always with me and [therefore] all that is mine is yours” (188). Both private possession and common ownership are supplanted by the priority of equal access to enjoyment, a notion illustrated by the common good of light disseminated by a lighthouse—all parties benefit from the same good at the same time. Drawing from CD §49.3, Christopher J. Holmes takes issue with Tanner’s intention to add a material third-way to Barth’s formal criticisms aimed at both capitalism and socialism. He suggests that Tanner’s contributions amount to the sort of independent principles that Barth was right to oppose. “The ethical heart of Barth’s dogmatic work . . . does not need to be developed along the line of principles, simply because socioeconomic implications are already ingredient in it” (207). Holmes wants to refocus our attention upon “witness” in agreement with Barth’s affirmation that “what we ought to do” is “follow attentively what is done by God” (215).

Paul Nimmo anchored the conference with his plenary address relating Barth’s divine ontology in his doctrines of election and atonement to the implications for moral anthropology and ethical action. Beginning with the ethical agent always already encountered by God’s gracious command, Nimmo procees to develop a third dimension of the analogia relationis, placing obedience alongside the freedom and love that characterize the active relations through which human beings image God. The “downward directionality” (235) involved in taking up one’s cross corresponds to the humble obedience determined by and for the eternal Son revealed and fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. Election has a directionality and its telos is the liberative obedience and therefore exalting humility established by God in Christ for humanity. It is a directionality which gives to human action its own ethical determination as human beings are called to correspond in their existence to the free, loving, obedient creatures that the gospel proclaims and God’s law commands them to be. Jesse Couenhoven’s response centers on the question of an analogy between divine and human freedom. He asks, first, whether Barth’s notion of human freedom is different in kind or degree to that of divine freedom, and second, whether that freedom is of an incompatibilist variety (which would include a divine freedom to determine God’s own being) or compatibilist (in which freedom is understood as action in agreement with God’s goodness). Couenhoven answers first that Barth’s analogia relationis holds if only if divine and human freedom differ in degree and not in kind. He resolves the second distinction by showing that Barth understands human freedom as God moving our wills such that we choose the good. Thus Couenhoven opposes interpretations that understand God to be free to determine God’s own being and situates Barth in agreement with recent compatibilist readings of Augustine (his own), Thomas (Bowlin and Pasnau), and Calvin (Helm).

Of course no volume could address all of the questions that might be put to Barth’s ethics—male / female relations and environmental concerns are not mentioned, for example—and the absence of some of the usual suspects (e.g. Clough, McKenny, O’Donovan, and Webster) means that their contributions enter the fray mediated by other conversation partners. Webster’s “blurb” from the book’s back cover offers as concise a summation of the essays as any: “This authoritative collection is a notable addition to the rediscovery of Barth’s ethical thought.” It is a rediscovery for which much is owed to the teaching and research of Dan Migliore and to which this volume contributes in exemplary fashion.

What Commanding Grace achieves in impressive fashion is an uncommon collection of fresh research, theological acumen, and practical import. Its pairings of articles will be of interest to those well-acquainted with Barth’s moral theology and particularly for those seeking multiple perspectives on the various issues addressed. With the recent surge of articles and book-length publications from theologians and ethicists, the manifold of informative and suggestive readings for entering into Barth’s ethical thought can be both overwhelming and disorienting. This volume of essays collected under Migliore’s careful editorship serve as a timely introduction, catalyst, reorientation, and exhortation.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.