Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 7: Natural Life

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 argues that the concept of the natural has been lost and must be recovered from the gospel itself.  So what is the natural?  ‘The natural is that which after the fall, is directed toward the coming of Jesus Christ.  The unnatural is that which, after the fall, closes itself off from the coming of Jesus Christ.  The natural does not compel the coming of Christ, nor does the unnatural make it impossible; in both cases the real coming is an act of grace.  Only through the coming of Christ is the natural confirmed in its character as penultimate and the unnatural definitely exposed as the destruction of the penultimate.’ (173)  The natural life is ‘at the same time life as an end in itself and as a means to an end.  In Jesus Christ life as an end in itself expresses its createdness, and life as a means to an end expresses its participation in the kingdom of God [Gottesreich].’ (179)  There are rights and duties that are given with life as a gift from God and he is honoured when these rights are respected (180).

Bonhoeffer discusses the role of the natural in the right to bodily life, self-murder, reproduction and developing life, and the freedom of bodily life.

The right to bodily life

Bonhoeffer argues that the body is intrinsically valuable as it is God’s will that life on earth, and for eternity, exists in bodies (185-186).  An outworking of this is bodily joys.  The joys of the body are a picture of promised eternal joy and should therefore be enjoyed in and of themselves (186-187).  ‘Perhaps the clearest evidence that bodily life is meant for joy lies in the way that the body, even when it is rightly made to serve a necessary end with vigorous effort, finds joy in such service.’ (188)

Bonhoeffer considers euthanasia.  He takes the case of ‘an incurably ill person who with a clear mind consents to, even yearns for, the ending of his or her life’ (191).  There is a big difference between allowing someone to die and actively killing them (192) and so Bonhoeffer concludes that consideration for the ill person ‘cannot be adequate grounds for killing human life’ (192).  But what about consideration for the healthy?  Strong people are willing to sacrifice themselves for the weak, therefore, ‘The idea of destroying the life of one who has lost social utility [Nutzwert] comes from weakness, not from strength.’ (193)  And the value of life is not derived from social utility.  ‘Where, other than in God, should the measure for the ultimate worth of life lie?’ (193)

The only borderline cases are those such as where killing a group of sick people on a ship would save the lives of those that are well.  ‘In this case the decision would have to remain open.’ (195)


Bonhoeffer calls self-murder ‘reprehensible: the sin of unbelief. … Unbelief does not reckon, in good things or bad, with the living God.  That is its sin.  Unbelief is the ground from which human beings reach out for their own justification and its ultimate possibility, self-murder, because they do not believe in a divine justification.  Unbelief does not recognize, beyond the gift of bodily life, the Creator and Lord who alone has the right to dispose over creation.  Here we come up against the fact that natural life has its right not in itself but in God. …  God alone wishes to be the one who justifies or rejects life.’ (198)

The single case, however, is not so easy to judge.  Bonhoeffer lists a number of hypothetical cases where taking one’s own life may be more acceptable, for example ‘If a prisoner takes his life because he fears that under torture he would betray his people, his family, or a friend.’ (201)  Here, he aligns himself with the early church fathers  who held that self-inflicted death by Christians was permissible under certain circumstances (201), when the issue wasn’t about rescuing oneself from trouble, but sacrificing your life for someone else’s betterment.

Reproduction and developing life

Here Bonhoeffer addresses abortion, birth control and sterilisation.  Bonhoeffer calls abortion ‘murder’ and says that marriage ‘involves acknowledging the right of life that will come into being…by the free, creative power of God.’ (206)  The historical context of what Bonhoeffer means by abortion is discussed in pages 24-25.  In his discussion of birth control, Bonhoeffer critiques Catholic moral theology.  His view is that one should accept that children are a part of married life but that contraception can have its uses (207-211).  Likewise with sterilisation, he stresses ‘the seriousness of this intrusion into personal life’ (especially where it is forced, like in the third Reich) and points out that manipulating the body can be a slippery slope, but acknowledges that in certain cases it could be useful (211-213).

The freedom of bodily life

‘Protection against arbitrary encroachment on the freedom of the body is essential to the preservation of bodily life. … rape, exploitation, torture, and the arbitrary deprivation of physical freedom are all serious invasions of the right conferred on human beings at creation.’ (214)  Bonhoeffer briefly explains why all of the above are inappropriate, shameful and dishonouring.  He also shows how ‘the violation of human bodily freedom destroys the foundations of community’ (217).
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