Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 12: The Concrete Commandment and the Divine Mandates

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.

This manuscript continues the argument of the previous one, expanding on the nature of the commandment of God and its relationship to the mandates.  In previous German and English editions it was printed as if the two were one.

God’s commandment is to be found in the divine mandates: in the church, marriage and family, in culture, and in government.  ‘By “mandate” we understand the concrete divine commission grounded in the revelation of Christ and the testimony of scripture; it is the authorization and legitimization to declare a particular divine commandment, the conferring of divine authority on an earthly institution.  A mandate is to be understood simultaneously as the laying claim to, commandeering of, and formation of a certain earthly domain by the divine command.’ (389)  The mandates can only be understood ‘from above,’ from God, not from the perspective of earthly powers.  The bearers of the mandates (humans) are ‘in a strict and unalterable sense God’s commissioners, vicarious representatives, and stand-ins.’ (390-391)

The commandment of God in the church

Bonhoeffer explores how the commandment of God encounters us.  He describes the role of the church and critiques the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.

‘In the church the commandment of God encounters us in two different ways: in the sermon and in private confession [Beichte] or church discipline, that is, publicly and secretly, addressed to the gathered hearers of the sermon and to the individual human being.’ (394-395) They are both a proclamation of divine revelation.  The Protestant church lost its concrete ethics when it did away with the confessional.  The Catholic priest is in danger of ‘a legalistic and school-masterly distortion’ of the divine commandment through guiding so much confession (395).  This can be averted through ‘a rediscovery of the Christian office of preaching’ (396).

Bonhoeffer clarifies that the church proclaims the commandment of God by giving witness to Jesus: Jesus the eternal Son in eternity, the incarnate, the crucified redeemer, the risen and exalted Lord (399-402).  In proclaiming Christ, the church is to view itself as an instrument, merely a means to an end.  However, in doing this the goal of proclamation and the beginning of its fulfillment has already been reached and thus the church ‘has in fact become the goal and center of all that God is doing with the world.’ (404)
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