Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 6: Ultimate and Penultimate Things

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.

Bonhoeffer examines the significance of ultimate and penultimate things, and their relationship with each other.  The ultimate is justification of a sinner by grace alone.  The penultimate is all that precedes the ultimate and all that is addressed as penultimate after finding the ultimate.

God’s mercy to a sinner is God’s final word.  Bonhoeffer explains how the ultimacy of this word has a double sense.  First, ‘Through its content it is a qualitatively ultimate word.  There is no word of God that goes beyond God’s grace.  There is nothing greater than a life that is justified by God.’ (149)  Second, ‘The justifying word of God is also, however, the temporally ultimate word.  Something penultimate always precedes it, some action, suffering, movement, intention, defeat, recovery, pleading, hoping—in short, quite literally a span of time at whose end it stands. … There is a time of God’s permission, waiting, and preparation; and there is an ultimate time that judges and breaks off the penultimate.  In order to hear the ultimate word, Luther had to go through the monastery; Paul had to go through his piety toward the law; even the thief “had to” go through conviction and the cross.’ (150-151)

What about the penultimate in the life of a Christian?  How do penultimate things relate to the ultimate.  ‘To make this quite clear: why, precisely in completely serious situations—for instance, when facing someone grieving deeply over a death—do I often decide on a “penultimate” response, such as a kind of helpless solidarity in the face of so terrible an event, expressed through silence, instead of speaking the words of biblical comfort familiar to me, which are at my disposal…even with Christians?’ (152)  ‘This question embraces not just a single case but basically the entire range of Christian common life, especially the broad area of Christian pastoral care.’ (153)

Bonhoeffer gives two extreme solutions: the radical and the compromise.  In the radical solution, ‘Everything penultimate in human behaviour is sin and denial.  Faced with the coming end there is for Christians only the ultimate word and ultimate behaviour.’ (153)  In the radical solution, ‘The penultimate retains its inherent rights, but it is not threatened or endangered by the ultimate. … The ultimate stays completely beyond daily life…’  Both solutions are extreme because ‘they make the penultimate and the ultimate mutually exclusive… One absolutizes the end, the other absolutizes what exists.’ (154)  The true solution is to be found in the unity of the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection.  ‘Concerning the relationship to the penultimate, it can be concluded that Christian life neither destroys nor sanctions the penultimate.  In Christ the reality of God encounters the reality of the world and calls us to take part in this real encounter.’ (159)

The penultimate is all that is not ultimate (justification of the sinner).  ‘The penultimate does not determine the ultimate; the ultimate determines the penultimate. … From the perspective of the ultimate there are two things that are penultimate: ‘being human [Menschsein] and being good [Gutsein].’ (159)  ‘From this follows now something of decisive importance, that the penultimate must be preserved for the sake of the ultimate.  Arbitrary destruction of the penultimate seriously harms the ultimate.  When, for example, a human life is deprived of the conditions that are part of being human, the justification of such a life by grace and faith is at least seriously hindered, if not made impossible.’ (160)

Bonhoeffer argues that Christians must do all they can to create the right penultimate conditions for justification of sinners.  ‘What concerns us in all that has been said about penultimate things is this: preparing the way for the word.’ (161)  Although there is no right ‘formula’ that God requires for him to work, Christians can prepare.  ‘Only a spiritual preparation of the way will be followed by the gracious coming of the Lord.  This means that visible deeds, which must be done to make people ready to receive Jesus Christ, must be deeds of humility before the coming Lord, which means deeds of repentance.  Preparation of the way means repentance (Matt. 3:1 ff.).  But repentance means concrete changing of one’s ways.’ (164-165)

Finally, Bonhoeffer makes the point that questioning the ultimate affects the penultimate (168-169).
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