I want to retrieve Karl Barth’s use of Song of Songs to develop a pastorally sensitive and Christ-centered approach to sexual ethics. Barth believed that the Song played an important role in theological anthropology, “The second Magna Carta” after Gen 1-2, because it epitomizes each gender’s happy reception of the other as the obedient response to the covenantal orientation in which God created humanity when he constituted them as male and female. But the Song points ultimately to the eschaton because this “happy reception” occurs with almost no reference to the “disturbance and corruption” of marriage by sin or to the utility of marriage for bearing children to overcome the effects of death. Thus the Song reveals marriage as it was intended: as witness to the consummation of the relationship between Christ and the church. Thus, Barth says, “the most spiritual way of understanding the Song is in the literal way.”
Barth’s eschatological starting point for marriage contrasts with the starting point of Nazified Germanic romanticism, which idealized Aryan marriages and viewed them as serving the Volk. This was salvation by marriage insofar as bearing children built the people in power. In response, Barth refused start with natural history in his understanding of marriage, insisting that without Christ marriage in Gen 2 has no paradigmatic significance. While we need not follow Barth’s rejection of natural history, Barth does reveal the limited usefulness of approaches to marriage that look exclusively at creation. Insofar as the theology and ethics of marriage are determined form a non-eschatologically-oriented creation, the covenantal apex of the man-woman relationship in “free and fully fellowship” is muted because marriage is valued for it’s benefits on earth. Moreover this creation-only approach lacks pastoral usefulness for people locked in broken marriages or with sexual desires that make the full and free fellowship of the Song difficult at best. In contrast, Barth’s reading of the Song allows us to celebrate God’s intention for marriage without discouraging those who will never experience its fullness on earth, because they will experience the fullness of what earthly marriage points to in heaven. Barth’s view also sanctifies the vocation of singleness as not being anti-marriage, but a legitimate way in which the values of marriage can be resized through the renunciation of marriage.
While Barth’s view of gender and the image of God has been explored and rightly critiqued, his treatment of Gen 2 and the Song has received little scholarly attention. For instance, Richard Davidson makes use of Barth on Gen 1 but says nothing of him in reference to Gen 2 or the Song. Christopher Robert’s Creation and Covenant is a notable exception. Robert explores Barth’s treatment on the Song to show his agreement with Augustine on the theological and ethical significance of gender. I want to build on Robert’s work showing how the logic for this theological significance is remarkably useful for developing sexual ethics for the church.