While I’m away Dan is guest blogging through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (part of the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer Series which I recently reviewed). Dan has served with Wycliffe in Papua New Guinea and is currently spending some time with us in The Crowded House.
Christ, Reality and Good (47-75)
Bonhoeffer argues that true reality is to be found only in Christ. Rather than seeking an answer to the question, ‘How can I be, or do, good?’ (central to most discussions of ethics), Christians are to ask the question, ‘What is the will of God?’ The next step is to realise that, ‘Of ultimate importance, then, is not that I become good or that the condition of the world be improved by my efforts, but that the reality of God show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality. Where God is known by faith to be the ultimate reality, the source of my ethical concern will be that God be known as good, even at the risk that I and the world are revealed as not good, but as bad through and through. All things appear as in a distorted mirror if they are not seen and recognized in God.’ (48)
More specifically, ‘The source of a Christian ethic is not the reality of one’s own self, nor the reality of the world, nor is it the reality of norms and values. It is the reality of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ … It places us before the ultimate and decisive question: With what reality will we reckon in our life? With the reality of God’s revelatory word or with the so-called realities of life?’ With divine grace or with earthly inadequacies? With the resurrection of with death?’ (49) In summary, ‘The subject matter of a Christian ethic is God’s reality revealed in Christ becoming real among God’s creatures…’ (49).
We can know the reality of God because, ‘In Jesus Christ the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world.’ (54) ‘From now on we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ. All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions.’ (54) In which case, ‘the question is how the reality in Christ … works here and now or, in other words, how life is to be lived in it. What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today, and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world, nor the reality of the world without the reality of God.’ (55)
Bonhoeffer argues against the division of the world into the sacred and profane (55-62). There are ‘not two realms, but only the one realm of the Christ-reality, in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united.’ (58) Additionally, ‘A world existing on its own, withdrawn from the law of Christ, falls prey to the severing of all bonds and to arbitrariness. A Christianity that withdraws from the world falls prey to unnaturalness, irrationality, triumphalism, and arbitrariness.’ (61)
So if the church is not a realm separate from the profane, what is its role? ‘The space of the church is not there in order to fight with the world for a piece of its territory, but precisely to testify to the world that it is still the world, namely, the world that is loved and reconciled by God.’ (63) ‘Where that witness [to the world] has become silent it is a sign of inner decay in the church-community, just as failure to bear fruit is a sign that a tree is dying.’ (64) ‘The church-community is separated from the world only by this: it believes in the reality of being accepted by God—a reality that belongs to the whole world—and in affirming this as valid for itself it witnesses that it is valid for the entire world. The body of Jesus Christ, especially as it is presented to us on the cross, makes visible to faith both the world in its sin and in its being loved by God, and the church-community as the company of those who recognize their sin and gratefully submit to the love of God.’ (67-68)
Bonhoeffer sees in Scripture four mandates that help make the relation of Christ to the world ‘more concrete’: work, marriage, government and church (68). ‘In the world God wills work, marriage, government, and church, and God wills all these, each in its own way, through Christ, toward Christ, and in Christ. God has placed human beings under all these mandates, not only each individual under one or the other, but all people under all four. There can be no retreat, therefore, from a “worldly” into a “spiritual” “realm”. The practice of the Christian life can be learned only under these four mandates of God … It is a matter of “divine” mandates in the midst of the world, whether they concern work, marriage, government, or church. These mandates are divine, however, only because of their original and final relation to Christ.’ (69) In pages 69-78 Bonhoeffer give Biblical support for the four mandates and relates them back to Christ.
This manuscript concludes with a reminder that, ‘Since the appearance of Christ, ethics can be concerned with only one thing: to participate in the reality of the fulfilled will of God’ which is possible only because we have been included in the fulfilled will of God, i.e. the reconciliation of humanity to God through Christ (74). ‘Faith in this Jesus Christ is the single source of all good.’ (75)