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. Continue reading

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Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 11: The “Ethical” and the “Christian” as a Topic

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.

What is ethical should normally be self-evident and should not be a topic of constant debate. Humans should not be constantly wondering what they ‘ought’ to do; most moments of our lives don’t require a conscious decision between right and wrong.  Many moments of our lives are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; some moments have no ‘higher purpose’ and we should not always be seeking a higher meaning or duty in life’s day-to-day events.  Limiting ‘the ethical phenomenon’ to its time and place ‘does not imply its rejection but, on the contrary, its validation.  One does not use canons to shoot sparrows.’ (366)  ‘Viewed sociologically, the persistent effort to hold on to the ethical as a topic beyond its appropriate time springs from the frustrated desire for continued prestige by those who have excellent attitudes but who are ineffectual in life.’ (369)  There will, however, be occasional times when what is ethical is not clear but after those needed times of debate, one should return to a time where what is moral is, again, self-evident (269).

Ethics is not about creating a rule book for life ‘that guarantees flawless moral behaviour’ (370) and it’s not about judging every human action.  Rather than constantly meddling in life, describing being good, the ethicist is to ‘help people learn to live with others’.  ‘Living with others means living within the boundaries of the ought—though not motivated at all by the ought—in the midst of the abundance of the concrete tasks and processes of life with their infinite variety of motives.’ (370)

Also, the validity/authorisation of an ethic depends on who says it.  Youth, for example, have less authority than those who have experienced life (371).  This authorisation is bestowed on people, rather than claimed by them.  Bonhoeffer calls this ‘the orientation from above to below’ where certain people (e.g. the old person, the parent, the teacher) have authorisation for ethical discourse and others don’t (the young, the child, the student) (372-377).  Again, ethics is not about cold principles removed from reality, but certain times, places, people and events. Continue reading

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 10: Church and World

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.

Church and World I (339-351)

This manuscript explores how suffering results in the recognition of the origin of things.  Values like reason and humanity ‘come back home’ (to be recognised as originating in Christ), as do those people who Christ calls to himself.

Reason, culture, humanity, tolerance and autonomy used to be used against the church but now (in the Nazi era) these ‘children of the church who had become independent and had run away now returned to their mother.’  They ‘found new meaning and new strength in their origin [Jesus Christ]’. (341)

Bonhoeffer explores the two verses, ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’ (Mk 9:40) and ‘Whoever is not for me is against me’ (Mt 12:30) and explains how he has experienced both to be true.  ‘When the exclusive demand for an unequivocal confession of Christ caused the band of confessing Christians to become smaller and smaller, then the saying, “whoever is not for me is against me,” became a concrete experience for the Christian community.’ (343) On the other hand, ‘Wounded justice, oppressed truth, humiliated humanity, violated freedom—all these now sought the Christian community, or rather its Lord, Jesus Christ.  And thus it came to know the other saying of Jesus as a living experience; “Whoever is not against us is with us.   Both sayings necessarily belong together, one as the exclusive claim, and the other as the all-encompassing claim of Jesus Christ. … The more exclusively we recognize and confess Christ as our Lord, the more will be disclosed to us the breadth of Christ’s lordship.” (343-344)

Going back to the origins of values awakened through suffering, ‘It is not Christ who has to justify himself before the world by acknowledging the values of justice, truth and freedom.  Instead, it is these values that find themselves in need of justification, and their justification is in Christ Jesus alone.  It is not a “Christian culture” that still has to make the name of Jesus Christ acceptable to the world; instead, the crucified Christ has become the refuge, justification, protection, and claim for these higher values and their defenders who have been made to suffer.’ (345-346)

On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World (352-362)

The German editors call this manuscript a rough draft.  The paragraphs are numbered, with sub points.  Bonhoeffer explores the issue of the Christian message to the world: What do Christians have to say to the world, to its problems, its questions?

Although it isn’t the task of the church to answer all social and political questions, Christianity does have something specific to say about worldly things (353-356).  Bonhoeffer has four points: Continue reading

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 9: God’s Love and the Disintegration of the World

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.

Here Bonhoeffer comes back to the first issue raised in the first manuscript: that ethics is not about knowing right from wrong, but discerning and living by the will of God.

Bonhoeffer traces the origin of the knowledge of good and evil.  Whereas humans had previously known only God as their origin, in the fall they gained knowledge of good and evil.  ‘In knowing about god and evil, human beings understand themselves not within the reality of being defined by the origin, but from their own possibilities, namely, to be either good or evil.  They now know themselves beside and outside of God, which means they now know nothing but themselves, and God not at all.  For they can only know God by knowing God alone.  They knowledge of good and evil is thus disunion with God.  Human beings can know about good and evil only in opposition to God.’ (300)

The Pharisees are a good example of this.  ‘Pharisees are those human beings, admirable to the highest degree, who subject their entire lives to the knowledge of good and evil and who judge themselves as sternly as their neighbours—and all to the glory of God, whom they humbly thank for this knowledge.’ (310) They are the epitome of the contrast between the old disunity and the new unity in Christ.  ‘Just as the question and the temptation of the Pharisees arise out of the disunion of the knowledge of good and evil, so Jesus’ answer springs from unity with God, with the origin, from a place where the disunion of human beings from God has been overcome.  The Pharisees and Jesus speak on completely different planes.’ (311)  The Pharisees’ questions to Jesus are not unlike many of ours’, ‘questions with which we call on him for a decision in cases of conflict’, either-or questions on vital life decisions. Continue reading

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) Continue reading

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) Continue reading

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) Continue reading

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) Continue reading

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 3: Ethics as Formation

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.

In good Bonhoeffer style, this manuscript relates two issues to the main topic being discussed (here, formation): the need for an active stance against Hitler’s Nazism and the centrality of Christ.  Christ is the new humanity and therefore a Christian ethic needs to ask the question, ‘How can Christ take form among us today?’

First Bonhoeffer lays out the problem of his day, that ‘Seldom has a generation been as uninterested as ours in any kind of ethical theory or program. … This does not come from any ethical indifference in our times, but rather the reverse, from the pressure of a reality filled with concrete, ethical problems such as we have never had before in the history of the West.’ (76)

Bonhoeffer describes six ethical orientations and their failures.  Reasonable people cannot discern between evil and holiness, so wanting to be fair to both sides they (mistakenly) ‘believe that that, with a little reason, they can pull back together a structure that has come apart at the joints.’ (78)  Ethical fanatics lose sight of the whole and so ‘sooner or later they are caught in small and insignificant things and fall into the net of their more clever opponent.’ (78).  Men of conscience fail because, ‘The countless respectable and seductive disguises and masks in which evil approaches them make their conscience anxious and unsure until they finally content themselves with an assuaged conscience instead of a good conscience…’ (79).  Those who fall back on duty ‘will never venture a free action that rests solely on their own responsibility, the only sort of action that can meet evil at its heart and overcome it.’ (79)  Those who value their very own freedom (or ‘free responsibility’) value necessary action more highly than conscience.  They are ‘prepared to sacrifice a barren principle to a fruitful compromise…[but] should take heed lest precisely their presumed freedom ultimately cause them to fall.  They will easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to prevent the worse, and no longer be able to recognize that precisely the worse choice they wish to avoid may be the better one.  Here lies the raw material of tragedy.’ (79-80)  And some retreat into a sanctuary of a private virtuousness, not stealing, murdering, committing adultery, etc, but doing good.  However, ‘They must close their eyes and ears to the injustice around them.  Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep their private blamelessness clean from the stains of responsible action in the world.’ (80) Continue reading

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 2: Christ-Centred Ethics

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.

Christ, Reality and Good (47-75)

Bonhoeffer argues that true reality is to be found only in Christ.  Rather than seeking an answer to the question, ‘How can I be, or do, good?’ (central to most discussions of ethics), Christians are to ask the question, ‘What is the will of God?’  The next step is to realise that, ‘Of ultimate importance, then, is not that I become good or that the condition of the world be improved by my efforts, but that the reality of God show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality.  Where God is known by faith to be the ultimate reality, the source of my ethical concern will be that God be known as good, even at the risk that I and the world are revealed as not good, but as bad through and through.  All things appear as in a distorted mirror if they are not seen and recognized in God.’ (48)

More specifically, ‘The source of a Christian ethic is not the reality of one’s own self, nor the reality of the world, nor is it the reality of norms and values.  It is the reality of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ … It places us before the ultimate and decisive question: With what reality will we reckon in our life?  With the reality of God’s revelatory word or with the so-called realities of life?’  With divine grace or with earthly inadequacies?  With the resurrection of with death?’  (49)  In summary, ‘The subject matter of a Christian ethic is God’s reality revealed in Christ becoming real among God’s creatures…’ (49).

Continue reading