Ethics and the Holy Spirit as Creator

[Updated 5/10/19]

This is part 1 in a 3-part review of Karl Barth's 1929 lecture reproduced in the book The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life, The Theological Basis of Ethics. For part 2, click here. For part 3, click here.

Descent of the Holy Spirit (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In the lecture, Barth grounded Christian ethics (the Christian life) not in human reasoning concerning what is right or wrong (even when that reasoning references Scripture), but in the life and love of the tri-personal God, and specifically in what the Holy Spirit is doing to unite us to the life of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Thus, for Barth, ethics is first and foremost about who God is and what he is doing. Then, and only then, is it about our understanding of the human situation.

Barth divided his lecture into three parts coinciding with the Holy Spirit's three ministry emphases: as Creator, as Reconciler and as Redeemer. Concerning this division, Robin Lovin, in the book's forward, notes that it "is more than a convenient organizational device." He continues:
We cannot know God's Spirit with us as a source of hope and promise (the Holy Spirit as Redeemer), except as we also grasp the divine initiative that sets the terms for our lives apart from what we choose and know (the Holy Spirit as Creator) and at the same time overcomes our hostility and resistance to this power which undoes all our attempts to control our lives and to justify ourselves (the Holy Spirit as Reconciler). (p. xv)
Barth began his lecture with this important observation:
Man's being in the image of God only becomes actual fact when the Holy Spirit comes on the spot on man's behalf. This likeness to God is therefore not, and will not be, a property of the human spirit created, but it is and remains the free work of the Creator upon his creature: a work only to be understood as grace and never to be comprehended by man. (p. 1)
Thus for Barth, Christian ethics (when it reflects our humanity in the image of God), comes not from us, but is God's gift given through his indwelling Holy Spirit. Our justification and our sanctification, like the gift of salvation, is thus entirely of grace--it is God's good work in us and upon us.

That being so, a principal work of the Holy Spirit in us is to strive against our innate hostility toward grace--our propensity to try to justify and sanctify ourselves through our own works. Though such self-effort might appear to be ethical (and thus laudable), in the end it is devoid of any real, lasting ethical content. In short, and quite ironically, our own effort to justify and sanctify ourselves is the ultimate unethical behavior. Why? Because the Christian life is not about our human effort, but about the life of Christ through the Holy Spirit--a life that becomes our own as we yield to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer. In this post, we'll focus on the first aspect.

The Holy Spirit as Creator

As our Creator (the source of our being), God established a relationship with us. We do not reach up to him to achieve it. It is undeserved and unearned--not grounded in our efforts (no matter how laudable). 

The relationship that God created for us, was, of course, broken by our rebellion. But that did not change God's creative intention for us--and so he continued to come to us, to restore us to the fullness of relationship which we lost in the Fall. That coming has to do with God bringing to us, out of the future, a fullness of humanity found in glorification. And it comes to us not as a concept, or an ethical structure, but as a person--the incarnate Son of God, Jesus. He is God (the Creator) with us, in us, and fully for us. He alone is the fullness of God's image in a human person. And he shares that human perfection (including ethical perfection) with us through his Spirit.

And so we understand that Christian life is created life--the life of man given us by God, and being re-made in the image of God in such a way that it is made fit for sharing in the eternal life of God. That life is creative and free, and thus not reducible to an ethical formula or law code (even when that code is found in the Bible). Rather, the work of the Spirit is to mold and shape us for a calling that is specific to our life--a life in communion with God and with other people. 

But how do we discover what that calling is? Barth answers:
Living as God's creature, I do not know what is good, especially "good" as God views it. For this reason it has to be told me through...God's revelation. It is the function of the Word though which this is being said to us continually in the most concrete way.... It is purely and simply the office of the Holy Spirit to be continually opening our ears to enable us to receive the Creator's word. (p.8)
Barth offers two cautionary notes concerning how we understand this revelatory word from God:
  1. It must not be equated with our "external or internal 'urges'" (p. 9). As humans, we are not in possession of this revelation, and thus we will not find it within ourselves (or from any other human). What is ethical is thus not what feels right to us (as a person or a group of persons)! 
  2. Also, it must not be equated with God's pronouncements in Scripture. On this point we must be careful not to misunderstand Barth--he is not saying that Scripture is unimportant with respect to Christian ethics. He explains:
The scriptural announcements of God's revelation is no datum, no sum of views ready-made and existing at our disposal [as though Scripture were to be understood as] a list of moral counsels.... [Rather] the scriptural announcements of God's revelation must be ever increasingly becoming the voice of the living God to us, seeing that God is continually saying to us what he said by the mouth of prophets and apostles once for all, so too the outer and inner constraints of our existence must be ever acquiring the character of divine indications, duties, and promises through the divine speech to us. 
The upshot of all of this is that theological ethics should not in any way try to say directly what God's command is. It should not make appeal to the truths supposed to lie in nature as creation of God, nor appeal to this, that, or the other text in the Bible. Such ethics has to serve the Word of God.... It must not anticipate that Word, nor may it obstruct that Word by setting up a human law. The particular thing incumbent upon such ethics is to take the Word of God as being God's Word, and to point out the way whereby the relative necessities of our existence as creatures can become the Word of God's revelation to us. This duty must be discharged by ethics in the light of what scripture proclaims. But it is not called upon to determine to what extent they are his, for this is solely the business of God's Word. An ethics that thinks it can know and set forth the command of God, the Creator, plants itself upon the throne of God: it stops and poisons the wells and is more fraught with peril to the Christian life than all cinemas and dancing-saloons piled together.
Having said this, we have said the next thing, namely, that the hearing of the Word of God the Creator, which makes human life to become Christian life, is not man's work but God's: The Holy Spirit's work. Just as our spirit cannot produce the Word of God, so too it cannot receive it. Of course, our spirit is able to hear Bible texts, or some biblical theology, whether homemade or a foreign import, or the voice of its own or a stranger's experience of life. But it is incapable, unassisted, or hearing God's Word. (pp. 9-10)
This assistance, of course, is the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who brings to us the revelation of God's Word. It is thus in the Holy Spirit that we hear God's Word. This divine-human communication is far above any ethical reflection on a mere human level. And thus in our consideration of Christian ethics we come to the vital importance of prayer--indeed we are only able to hear this Word of revelation from God as we seek after it in prayer (see p. 11).

And so we end this post with a prayer of our own:
Come Creator Holy Spirit and reveal to us the living Word of God; allow us to hear clearly, and give us a heart that yields to it fully. For Jesus' sake. Amen.
Next time we will look at what Barth says about the role in ethics of the Holy Spirit as Reconciler.