Church as Moral Community – First Review!

Church as Moral CommunityThe first review of my book has been published in the April 2014 edition of Nexus, the journal for the Australian College of Theology’s research community. Written by David Griffin of Morling College in Sydney, it is almost embarrassingly positive – I could only wish that all my reviews will be this enthusiastic. Thank you David! (By the way, if you like what you read here, buy the book!)

Here it is…

The weapons we fight with … have power to demolish strongholds. (2 Cor. 10:5)

The authority the Lord gave me [is] for building you up. (2 Cor. 13:10)

In a single impressive statement, Michael O’Neil captures the whole theological and ethical drive of the early Barth: “Not only must the old be torn down, but the new must arise” (p. 157).

In this extraordinary piece of research, O’Neil presents Barth at his iconoclastic best, demolishing in order to build, and like Luther’s God, killing to make alive. It is this demolishing and killing, this via negativa, that led previous critics to accuse Barth of evacuating all possibilities for moral existence in both the church and the individual. O’Neil argues otherwise: “Barth deliberately develops his theology with an intention to form moral community” (p. 221).

While most who read Barth focus on his magnum opus, O’Neil take us back to the early years of his theological development. He carefully lays out the results of his meticulous archaeological dig into Barth’s two Romans, as well as his sermons, letters and lecturers. Here we see Barth’s early twists and turns and delights and disenchantments – all the while struggling to create a theology in response to the moral and political crises engulfing him. O’Neil has sought to chronologically uncover the “development, structure, content, parameters, trajectories and logic of [Barth’s] thought” on the subject of ecclesial and moral existence, covering the years from his break with liberalism to the second edition of Der Römerbrief. As such the book is not only a work of theological ethics, but also to a lesser degree, history, and biography.

The primary thesis O’Neil successfully prosecutes is that from his earliest days Barth was vitally concerned with ethics, the church and Christian social engagement with the world. After all, Barth’s search for a new theology was due to his liberal theological teachers’ support for a war: their failed ethics indicated a failed theology, which sent him urgently back to the Bible. Here O’Neil sides with John Webster against the older view that asserted that Barth was ecclesially and ethically thin, which was no doubt aided by his strident rhetoric, such as his description of ethics as sin, and the church as one of many human idolatries. O’Neil argues rather that such rhetoric serves to demolish the liberal, pietistic, religious and idealist views of his day in order to rebuild the church and human moral action on the proper basis of God’s act in Jesus Christ, for with “Jesus the good actually began already, the good to which mankind and nature alike are called, which towers right into our own time and goes forward toward a revelation and consummation” [Barth, ‘Action in Waiting,’ 1915, cited on p. 67f].

After an introductory chapter surveying how Barth’s ethics has been received, chapter two traces Barth’s early struggles and disputes with both liberalism and socialism from 1914 to 1917. This trenchant criticism of the church was in the service of an ethically faithful church and demonstrates that from the very start Barth possessed a pronounced ethical and ecclesial commitment.

Chapter three covers the year of Barth’s first Romans commentary (1919). Because Der Römerbrief I emerged out of his pastoral and homiletical struggles, it is necessarily concerned with concrete moral and ecclesial existence. Barth’s rejection of both pietistic withdrawal and Christian and political movements that bypass Christ is grounded in the argument that proper human and historical moral action is a response to God’s prior action in Christ where he broke through into this world. This divine action is an organic process, like a seed growing to maturity, and will finally lead to certain victory.

Chapter four covers the interval between Romans I and Romans II (1919-1922). Barth’s indebtedness to the consistent positive eschatology of Christoph Blumhardt and to the negative philosophy of Christian history of the enfant terrible Overbeck, is clearly argued. These influences sharpened Barth’s axe in preparation for the great assault of Romans II. The Tambach lecture also receives detailed exegesis at O’Neil’s deft hand, where Barth’s use of crisis, although used in Romans I, finds greater concentration, presaging its central place in Romans II. Barth’s lecture Biblical Questions, Insights and Vistas (1920) paints true human existence as oriented in an “ec-centric” way to the wholly other God in Christ, who alone brings life out of the crisis of death, noted in Grünewald’s famous painting.

And so to Der Römerbrief II, where the previous organic view of the coming kingdom of God fades away and the crisis of being caught in the pincers of the transcendent God’s tangential contact with our world, and our death, takes hold. As a consequence, true human ethical action arises only out of worship and repentance, but arise it does in concrete acts. But these moral acts are temporal moments of responsive action, enabled and informed only by God’s eternal moment of gracious action. This momentary act is pre-eminently neighbour love, the secondary overflow of our primary love for God, to be repeated anew moment by moment as our concrete situation is touched by God’s revelation.

Sound unworkable? O’Neil agrees: as Barth sharpened his iconoclastic eschatology and theological transcendence, ethical existence, if not altogether obliterated, becomes extremely precarious. So can Barth be considered to be a moral theologian? Yes, says O’Neil, because Barth is finally saved through his own internal inconsistency, where his theology finally cracks under the weight of his struggle to develop a meta-ethic, a new moral field, upon which he can build a positive account of human and ecclesial existence clear of the debris of the bourgeois theology he has laid waste about him. God’s momentary touch of the world (the theory, Romans 1-11) does indeed perdure for more than a moment (the praxis, Romans 12-13).

O’Neil thus argues that it is Barth’s concern for a meta-ethic which has given rise to the criticism that he is too occasionalist and under-specific to be of any help in developing an ethic of character and moral agency. With many citations, O’Neil rehabilitates Barth here: the radical temporality of the ethical moment is a parable of the eternal Moment, where every moral action of the moment must correspond to the reality of God’s eternity, if it is to be considered moral at all. In John’s language, we love because God first loved us.

Is the criticism that Barth is ethically thin really a reflection of Kant’s assertion that moral agency must be autonomous to be real? While not exploring this issue, O’Neil paints a convincing picture that in Barth, action that is properly ethical is action that is determined theologically because the untheological self is an impossible reality. Human existence is only truly human when it acknowledges its divine determination, for God wills our existence into existence for the purpose of doing his good will. Thus Barth’s fundamental moral question, “What shall we do?”, highlighted by O’Neil, is lifted from Acts 2:37, thereby setting ethics as a response to the Gospel.

Michael O’Neil builds his case thoroughly, exegeting Barth with careful attention to details and history. It is a delight to read his translations of parts of Romans I, as yet unavailable in English. If you are a Barth scholar, an historian of twentieth century theology, or an ethicist, this book will appeal. That Barth’s vision is eminently concrete, practical and active is evident: it was Barth who authored the Barmen Declaration.

Dr David Griffin, Vincentia,  Australia