Jesse Couenhoven: "Karl Barth’s Eschatological (rejection of) Natural Law"

“Theological ethics is eschatological or it is nothing.” Thielicke, Theol Eth, vol 1, 47

My paper begins with a brief consideration of the widespread criticism / appreciation of Barth’s negative attitude toward “natural theology”, what Barth is supposed to have said about that topic, and what makes any of that discussion interesting (basically, people think either that Barth worries that we cannot know what is natural given our sinful and weak minds, or that talk of natural law is an attempt to tie God down; some consider these concerns insightful, others do not).

I will then suggest that Barth may have more complex reasons for worrying about natural law than has been supposed: typical readings are misguided in that they miss Barth’s deepest concern about, but also unexpected affirmation of, natural law. Received readings of Barth ignore the possibility that the theological problematic of natural law is not simply that of the relation between creation, sin, and revelation but also and perhaps more significantly a question of the relation between creation and eschatology. Thus, Barth worries about the idea of orders of creation because he thinks that new creation supersedes that old order (in ways we can know only in Christ). For Barth, ethics is ontologically grounded in the divine life, in our being brought into Christ—we are resurrected not into the old Adam, but the new one; heaven is not merely the garden of Eden, but a well tended City. Looking backward to creation for illumination when it comes to the shape of the Christian life therefore gets things backward, because God is not simply doing the same thing in reconciling and redeeming that was done in creation; new creation is not re-pristinization. And because God does something new and unique in Christ, we cannot simply look around ourselves in order to “read” ethical norms off the common features of the world around us—if the goodness of humanity in the garden is not the same as its heavenly perfection after the fall, the natural law of the messianic kingdom may not be entirely the same as that of the garden. Barth’s Christological approach to ethics turns him against natural law ethics, then, because as the latter is commonly understood it is not properly eschatological. His primary worry about natural law theory is ontological, and that concern results in an epistemic concern as well, but the latter is not his deepest concern. On a more ontologically driven conception of natural law, however, we might speak of Barth as having an eschatological natural law theory, because for Barth what is good for us depends on facts of nature: who we are in Christ. For Barth, then, what is good and right for us supervenes on who we are--and I take that to be or at least make possible a kind of natural law metaethic, if an unusual one.

I close my discussion by briefly considering the implications of this reading of Barth for the common view of Barth on natural law, and for moral theology and natural law approaches to ethics more generally.