Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 4: Heritage and Decay

While I’m away Dan is guest blogging through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US (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.

‘Antiquity becomes historical heritage in the true sense only through Christ.  Where Christ’s becoming human is more strongly in the foreground of Christian awareness, there one seeks reconciliation between Christianity and antiquity.  Where the cross of Christ governs Christian proclamation, there the strong emphasis is on the break between Christ and antiquity.  But because Christ is both the incarnate and the crucified, and wills to be recognized as both equally, the proper reception of the historical heritage of antiquity is still an open task for the West.  The Germans and Western peoples will be brought closer together by the search for a common solution to this problem.’ (107)

In considering the impact of the French Revolution, Bonhoeffer suggests that, ‘The French Revolution has created the new intellectual unity of the West .  It consists in the liberation of humanity as ratio, as the mass, and as a people [Volk].  In the struggle for liberation all three go together; after freedom is achieved they become deadly enemies.  This new unity carries the seeds of its own destruction.  It is further evident—and here a basic law of history becomes clear—that the desire of absolute freedom leads people into deepest servitude.  The master of the machine becomes its slave; the machine becomes an enemy of the human being.  What is created turns against its creator—a strange repetition of the biblical fall!  The liberation of the masses ends in the horrible reign of the guillotine.  Nationalism leads directly to war.  Human liberation as an absolute ideal leads to the self-destruction of human beings.  At the end of the road travelled by the French Revolution lies nihilism.  The new unity that the French Revolution brought about in Europe, and whose crisis we experience today, is Western godlessness.’ (122)

He considers the foundation of American democracy, ‘by men who knew about original sin and about evil in the human heart.’ (126) Then Bonhoeffer goes on to consider the historical heritage of his time (128-133).

‘The West is about to repudiate its historical heritage.  It is becoming hostile to Christ  This is the unique situation of our time, and it is actual decay.  The Christian churches stand in the middle of the dissolution of all that exists, as protectors of the heritage of the Middle Ages and the Reformation, but above all as witnesses to the miracle of God in Jesus Christ “yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  Next to the churches, however, stands “the restraining power” [das Aufhaltende] [2 Thess. 2:7], the remnant of ordering power, that still effectively resists decay.  The church has a unique task.  The corpus christianum has broken apart.  The corpus Christi stands over against a hostile world.  The church must bear witness to Jesus Christ as living lord, and it must do so in a world that has turned away from Christ after knowing him.’ (132)

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