Skip to main content
Sermon on the Mount
Copenhagen Church Alter Painting

John Hare’s God’s Command, 5.3, “Barth and Our Access to the Commands”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the last section of chapter 5, Hare explores Barth’s view of our access to divine commands. In order to get a clear picture of how Barth thought about access, Hare thinks it will be helpful to use Kant’s view of conscience as a foil. To this end, Hare first discusses Barth’s view of Kant, then Kant’s view of conscience, and finally Hare lays out Barth’s view.

Barth is a careful interpreter of Kant, but his analysis does not always hit the target. Hare proposes that Barth has missed the mark in a couple of ways. First, Barth understands Kant as saying that God is a merely regulative idea and not a constitutive one. By Barth’s lights, Kant thought of God as just a useful (regulative) idea—it doesn’t matter if God actually exists. But a right reading of Kant will show that though Kant did not think we could have knowledge of God by pure rationality, through practical reason God becomes a constitutive idea. Kant needs God to exist in actuality for his moral theory to work.

Hare further thinks that Barth has misunderstood Kant’s view of divine revelation and grace. Contrary to many of his interpreters, Kant did think that divine revelation was possible, but that it must be justified from pure reason. Further, Kant held that divine grace was necessary for moral transformation. These misunderstandings of Kant are major reasons for Barth’s rejection of Kant. Barth did appreciate Kant’s recognition of radical evil, but Barth thought Kant’s acknowledgement of human depravity resulted in a contradiction and the complete failure of Kant’s system. Hare again thinks Barth has misunderstood. Kant begins with the reality of radical evil and works out from that point and so his system, when read charitably, is consistent with this reality. Hare works as a peacemaker, suggesting that many of Barth’s objections are mistaken and that the real difference between Kant and Barth is epistemological. Barth inverts Kant’s “concentric circles,” where pure reason lies inside the circle of revelation to reason. In this way, Barth takes up Kant’s role of “biblical theologian.” Where Kant thinks that divine revelation must be justified by pure reason, Barth thinks that revelation is fundamental and undergirds human reason.

Despite Barth’s criticism of Kant, both Barth and Hare agree that Kant’s account isn’t intended to be reductive; Kant wants to retain a “vertical” or theistic element. This non-reductive element can be seen in Kant’s view of conscience. In Kant’s discussion of the conscience, he argues that to make moral judgments, we must imagine that there is a third party (or parties) who serves legislative, executive, and judicial roles. These figures serve as our inner voice or conscience, prescribing the moral law, enforcing it, and omnisciently judging the heart. However, Kant held that these roles cannot be fulfilled by a mere human. As judge, he must scrutinize all hearts. As legislator, he must legislate all obligation, and as executive, he must enforce the moral law. These are not human capacities. Thus, Kant thinks we must imagine that this person speaking to us about morality is God, who is uniquely qualified to serve in all three roles. This imagining of an actual God who serves these roles is God as a regulative concept and makes morality accessible to us by reason. Phenomenologically, Kant holds that this view of morality is necessary to explain the weighty feeling of our moral duty. But Kant thinks that we must conclude that God actually exists in order for there to be the possibility of the highest moral good, which is the union of happiness and virtue. Reason requires God to exist as a constitutive principle.

hare god's commandFor Hare, the key difference between Kant and Barth with respect to our access to divine command is that Kant thinks our knowledge of the commands is discerned by pure reason and Barth thinks that they are given by revelation. Hare carefully nuances Kant’s view on this point. Kant did not think God could not give commands by way of revelation, only that we would never be justified in believing that these commands, if they are so given, were from God. The problem for Barth is to answer how we know when God has commanded us. People claim to be commanded by God when they are not and some divine commands, like the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, would be difficult to recognize as a divine command. To solve this dilemma, Hare argues that Barth provides phenomenological features of genuine divine commands.

First, the command will have a “certain kind of clarity or distinctness.” By this, Barth means that the command will have specific content. This does not mean we will always be able to discern the content easily. But the command will be persistent and will resist our effort to ignore it. Genuine commands, in a sense, pursue us and direct us in specific ways.

Second, the command will present itself as “having an external origin, either immediately or mediately.” Here Hare finds resonance between Barth and Kant. The command imposed on us must come to us from the outside; it is revealed and not invented.

Third, the command comes “in a familiar voice.” Barth’s central idea here is that we learn the “voice” of God through the practice of instruction, where instruction is grounded in both the individual meditation upon the Word of God and communally thinking together about God and his Word as is done in the church. The entire Christian tradition and one’s own history with God provide a knowledge of what God is like and shapes our expectations about what God will command and when he might do so.

Fourth, the command comes with “a sense of conviction or authority.” Barth thinks that genuine divine commands will carry a certain kind of weight. They make claims on us. Barth says that the divine command “must lay upon me the obligation of unconditional truth—truth which is not conditioned by myself. Its authority and power to do so must be intrinsic and objective, and not something which I lend to it.” Divine commands have the sense of obligation to a Person of immense authority. They are substantial, heavy things.

The fifth and most important phenomenological feature is that “the commands appear to be from a loving or merciful source.” For Barth, the chief exemplar of goodness and mercy is Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, God has both acted rightly for us and to us. Jesus demonstrates God’s grace and mercy, and in the teaching of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Golden Rule, God has clearly articulated the shape of the good. All of God’s commands should be ultimately consistent with the revelation of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, argues Hare, these phenomenological features of the divine command do not show that God has so commanded us. If one imagines he is commanded by a good God, her imagination may generate all the relevant phenomenology. However, on the assumption that God commands us, Barth’s five features of phenomenology can help us discern whether and when God has commanded us.

Leave a Reply