Friday, June 29, 2012

Barth in Meta-ethical Terms, part V: Divine Command Theory

In the last post, I tried to give an overview basic and broad enough to cover the spectrum of anti-realisms. And one that does a bit more justice than usual to why Barth's dogmatic ethics are an anti-realism as a plausible ethics of divine command by analogy with ethics of human command. (This is an essential part of the differentiation in the Church Dogmatics II.2, as to the nature of the command of this Commander in difference from every other command and authority.)

But it could also be said that I played fast and loose with how divine command theory fits into moral anti-realism, so let's back up a step. Any "divine command theory" (DCT)—also known as "theological voluntarism" for its reliance on the will (voluntas) of a god (theos) (and yes, I know, that's quite bad because one's Latin and the other's Greek; I didn't invent it)—is at rock bottom a claim that moral truth is dependent on the divine will. In Philip Quinn's formulation of the basic idea, what God commands is obligatory, what God forbids is prohibited, and what God does not forbid is permissible. Good is what God wants, bad is what God doesn't want, and there's a plausible gray area depending on the particular theory, but God (or a god, or multiple gods; any god will do) is the decisive moral subject.

Since I'm basically going to be filling out the rest of this series with divine command theory, and there's quite a bit of material, it's going to be broken into manageable chunks. So today is a basic overview of the nature of DCTs, tomorrow is going to handle Euthyphro as the first hurdle to any DCT, and we'll move on from there into specific relevant versions to get closer to Barth.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Barth in Meta-ethical Terms, part IV: Anti-realism

So far, we've basically determined that Barth isn't a moral realist. Which, it's important to remember, isn't the same as metaphysical realism—Barth is certainly an epistemological realist, which is quite a different thing. That was, in fact, why I started with moral realism, and the whole attractiveness of the concept as far as I'm concerned. So: God is real, but Barth does not hold to any set of naturally or ideally available objects in the world to which our moral concepts might correspond. God, as our Object, is irreducibly an agentic Subject.

If Barth is not a moral realist, we're left to take the other horn, which has been creatively named "moral anti-realism." Trust me, it sounds worse than it is. Anti-realism generally has to do with disbelief in reified constructs. Disbelief that the rational is necessarily real. Like when we say that our concept of goodness has an objectively real counterpart independent of theory. It isn't necessary to believe this to have a concept of goodness. It doesn't make moral theory more or less plausible.

So, if Barth is a moral anti-realist, are we out of the woods? Not quite yet. This clearing has more woods on the other side.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Barth in Meta-ethical Terms, part III: Problems with Non-naturalism

In the last post in sequence, we set up the non-naturalist approach to moral realism. (And then we did it a bit more justice in its own right, as well.) Now, there are problems with this approach when it comes to Barth! So, before we move to the discussion of moral anti-realism, and to smooth the transition in that direction, I want to note an interesting feature of Barth, made possible by the restricted scope of his ethical concern.

Barth is not setting up a system that claims to compete with these various theories of moral norms in an absolute sense. He doesn't deny that people do ethics on these various bases. He doesn't attempt to deny that there are moral values that functionally supervene upon natural states. He doesn't deny that there are intuitive moral values that may be determined by observation. He does not deny that a wide variety of moral theories produce arguable and even useful moral values. What he denies is that any of these are relevantly normative moral values for Christian communities. These are not considerations in the fact that there is always time for the people of God to act like it. They are, in fact, distractions. It is simply the case that, for the Christian, to do ethics on any normative basis other than the relationship with God is sin.

Given that, here is the question that makes non-naturalist moral realism problematic: what do we mean by moral values? What kinds of things are these in our various practices of ethics?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Touching Moral Non-naturalism Again

There's a trick I missed in the last post about moral non-naturalism, which is that I went straight to mind. And I did so without really getting to the meat of non-naturalism before giving you my evaluation of it. Sure, a modern basically has no choice but to go the way of "mind" for moral abstractions—but it wasn't always that way. Moral non-naturalism was a live option for a very long time.

If there are in fact non-natural objective moral facts, upon which we must base our moral values in order to have a valid ethos, there is a question about what is and is not natural. Which I raised poorly and didn't put to bed properly. So, to make amends, and because perhaps it's useful to have examples of Christian morality that corresponds to the examples from meta-ethics, let's talk Platonism a bit.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Barth in Meta-ethical Terms, part II: Non-naturalist Realism

In the first post, we suggested that Barth might be a moral realist, as God is an external real, but that unlike Thomas, he is not a moral naturalist. This suggests that, if Barth is in fact a moral realist, he is a moral non-naturalist. This puts us in the neighborhood of G. E. Moore. Now, Barth is certainly not Moore's kind of non-naturalist. But if he is a non-naturalist, he may still be one of several other sorts.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Barth in Meta-ethical Terms, part I

The Barth conference has come around again, and gone by now, but I've gotten a goodly number of hits on an older article about general and special ethics in Barth. Which isn't a great statement of the case, and I really ought to update it, but every time I go to do so, I find I don't know enough. (Basically, the Hans Dieter Betz problem. It leads to an endless research cycle.) But today, I'm going to make a start—and I'm also going to try to do something I've never successfully done before, which is to make a multi-entry promise to my audience and keep it. A series on Barth's ethics in meta-ethical perspective.

What is Barth doing, in terms of ethical/moral theory? I've attempted to answer this question before, largely on the basis of problematic analyses of Barth's own ethical position. If you begin by insisting that Barth's ethics must belong to some comprehensible option in ethics, you will inevitably go about understanding him in terms of what kind of a theory he's got. And especially among ethicists who do not do dogmatics, this will lead you readily astray. It really does take a theologian and Bible scholar.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Judaism of the Opening of Hebrews

If you sat through my rambling about manuscripts and text critical issues, you had as well taste some of the fruit of the process. Here's Hebrews 1:1-4 as I have it, with translation, notes on the text, and a little commentary.

(If the Greek doesn't come across, find the menu in your browser for changing the view settings, go to text encodings, and select Unicode (UTF-8). Or set it to auto-detect Unicode. No special fonts should be necessary.)

Sourcing Hebrews and the "Pauline" Canon

So I ran into an obstacle reading Barth. I can deal with him readily enough from the gospels and the Pauline letters from my own work, but when he goes to Hebrews, I'm woefully illiterate. Fortunately, this is a reparable defect! So I'm translating Hebrews, and updating my methodology as I go. You see, each time I do this whole-book-translation thing, I get better at some aspects of it.

With Galatians, I made a start on text critical issues, and began to learn rhetoric. When I set out to tackle Justin, my grasp of grammar and syntax grew by leaps and bounds. With Romans, I did a ton of work on Paul's situation, and brought along solid linguistics and rhetorical analysis. In learning Romans, I finally had enough tools to get a hold of oral performance criticism, which complemented the socio-rhetorical work. All that was dragged into an analysis of the text, its language, its development, and its performative aspects as diatribe.

Now I'm diving into Hebrews, which deserves all that treatment in spades. Its Greek is very high, very well-composed, and very oral. While we still think of Paul's addresses as correspondence, by and large we acknowledge Hebrews as a "sermon". But I'm lacking the lower text-critical chops to match. Manuscript issues weren't my forte. I took the Alands' word for Galatians; while I played groups of manuscripts against one another, I did it on their terms. In dealing with Romans, I began to have "favorite" manuscripts that seemed more trustworthy than others, but even that was built out of the basic search for an "Alexandrian" ideal text. Largely literary criteria, with preferences based on a set of global assumptions about probability in scribal habits. This isn't enough, and I'm no longer convinced that the Alands' have the right approach. Don't get me wrong, I'm not jumping ship to the Byzantine Authority school—the question is still what the best critical approach is.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


A friend and I were talking just the other day about why we're so drawn to conversations outside of Lutheranism. He's ordained, and leans toward a certain spectrum of Evangelical conversations; I'm lay, and lean toward a certain spectrum of Reformed conversations. He's starting doctoral studies in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical; I'm preparing to be ABD so I can write on Barth. And we were discussing why that is, when we're both Lutheran. What's missing in Lutheran theology?

And what's missing, by and large, seems to be the discussions. Not, to be sure, the social issues. And we could always be doing more and better scriptural interpretation but I wouldn't exactly say that's lacking. But "they" are doing dogmatics, and we're not. While that may not be strictly true, and there are a goodly number doing Lutheran theology, when we do ethics, it doesn't drive us to rethink dogma.

And having said that, I have to say that it's a patently false statement. For one example, the work done in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, if we could get off of our improper biblicism and the fact that it's a new position on sex and sexuality, is some of the most novel and faithful self-examination of church proclamation in light of the Word of God that I have ever seen from us. But the statement still feels true in my gut. Why does it feel true in my gut? I realize I study Barth, but why can't I throw a stone without hitting Reformed systematic theology and re-evaluation of dogma in light of ethical questions? Why do I have to look so hard for Lutherans doing this work?