Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 8: History and Good

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.

History and Good [2] (246-298)

I’ve summarised the second draft of  ‘History and Good’ first, however I’ve also included something on the first draft below.

The  theme of this chapter is how to live ‘responsibly’.  Primarily we are responsible for giving a response to the questions people ask about Jesus (255).  In doing this we do not take responsibility for ourselves, justifying ourselves, but for Christ, answering for Him (255-256).

The structure of responsible life

In this section Bonhoeffer describes the structure of responsible life with the concepts of vicarious representative action, accordance with reality, taking on guilt, and freedom.  I have focused on the latter two.

‘The structure of responsible life is determined in a twofold manner, namely by life’s bond to human beings and to God, and by the freedom of one’s own life  it is this bond of life to human beings and to God that constitutes the freedom of our own life. ‘ (257)

Responsible action ‘involves both willingness to become guilty [Bereitschaft zur Schuldubernahme] and freedom.’ (275)  So, for example, there will be extraordinary circumstances that dictate that one cannot strictly observe laws of state.  This is acceptable because Christians have ‘free responsibility’ before God (274).  Jesus is the ultimate picture of one who acted responsibly and broke laws, becoming guilty, ‘for love’ (275, 278-279).  ‘Those who act out of free responsibility are justified before others by dire necessity [Not]; before themselves they are acquitted by their conscience, but before God they hope only for grace.’ (282-283)

Christians should not act against their conscience but our natural consciences should be ‘set free in Jesus Christ’ so that He becomes our conscience, not laws (278).  Likewise we are not to be guided by principles.  Bonhoeffer criticises Kant’s ‘grotesque conclusion’ that one should always tell the truth, even when that means telling a murderer where someone is hiding in your house (279).  Things are not that simple.  ‘Responsible action must decide not simply between right and wrong, good and evil, but between right and right, wrong and wrong.’ (284)  Humans do their best in Christ and God ‘looks upon the heart, weighs the deeds, and guides history’ (284).

The place of responsibility

Here Bonhoeffer considers what we are responsible for.  Where do the limits of our responsibility lie?  Central to the answer is the concept of vocation.

Life in Christ is the Christian’s vocation, his responsibility.  ‘This rules our two disastrous misunderstandings, that of cultural Protestantism and that of monasticism.’ (290)  I.e. we are not to simply perform our earthly vocations faithfully (as workers, parents, etc.), and we are not to escape from the world.  Also, as vocation is not restricted to certain aspects of our lives, our call to life in Christ as a vocation should affect all areas of our life.  ‘Vocation is responsibility, and responsibility is the whole response of the whole person to reality as a whole.’ (293)

Finally, Bonhoeffer speaks out against not only legalism but also ‘enthusiastic transgressions‘ of the law (294).  Any transgression of a law should aim to ultimately reinforce it.  ‘The suspension of the law must only serve its true fulfilment.  In war, for example, there is killing, lying, and seizing of property solely in order to reinstate the validity of life, truth and property.’ (297)

History and Good [1] (219-245)

Bonhoeffer includes a section on the Sermon on the Mount that didn’t make it into the second draft.

‘…the problem is not how to apply a so-called ethic of Jesus to history.  Instead, the question of good has to do with the claim of the one who, in his own person, fulfilled the essence of history—the claim of Jesus Christ, the one in whom God became human, upon history, whose ultimate reality is none other than himself.  The sayings of Jesus, for example, those in the Sermon on the Mount, can then only be understood as words of the one who lies in concrete responsibility for all human beings, really standing in their place and acting on their behalf (and not by confronting them with ideals that they cannot fulfil), as words of the one whose responsibility consists in freely given love for the real human being (and not the in the realization of some kind of idea of the human), as words of the one whose pure love manifests itself by entering into the guilt of human beings (and not by isolating itself from this guilt).’ (235)

What about the validity of the Sermon on the Mount for human action in history?  Two errors are common.  ‘One error grows out of the assumption that a principle defines what is Christian, the other that a principle defines what is worldly.’ (236)  ‘Sectarianism [Schwarmerei] and secularism are the two forms these errors have taken throught Christendom.  In spite of seeming to be mutually exclusive, both of these positions have in common that they understand the Christian and the worldly as principles, which means independently of the fact of God’s becoming human.’ (237)  The statements in the New Testament regarding Christian action, as well as the Sermon on the Mount, do not grow out of bitter resignation over the irreconcilable rift between the Christian and the worldly, but from the joy over the already accomplished reconciliation of the world with God, from the peace of the already accomplished work of salvation in Jesus Christ.  Just as in Jesus Christ God and humanity become one, so through Christ what is Christian and what is worldly become one in the action of the Christian.  They no longer battle like eternally hostile principles.’ (238)  Bonhoeffer counters the view that it is ‘utopian’ to regard the Sermon on the Mount as a basis for historical-political action by pointing out that, for example, when ruthless force alone, not self-sacrificial love, is the basis for action there are consequences down the line that will prove that action unsuccessful (240).

In conclusion, ‘The sermon on the Mount is either valid as the word of God’s world-reconciling love everywhere and at all times, or it is not really relevant for us at all.’ (243)

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One thought on “Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 8: History and Good

  1. This book, Bonhoeffer Ethics, was an amazing discovery. I have read a wide range of books on spirituality, psychotherapy, Christianity, mysticism, popular self-help books, etc. I can see why Bonhoeffer realized why Ethics was his monumental work. He peels away the fallacy that following a synthetic system of thought can lead to righteousness. In of God as revealed through Jesus the Christ, Bonhoeffer gives us a clarity of how the historical event of God’s action in the world broke revealed a way to be in the world but not overcome by it. The proof is in the pudding. He did not soften while the entire Confessing Church buckled in the face of Nazi fascism in spite of his being virtually the only one of the last resisters standing. History and Good has the insights for such radical and righteous action.

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