Bonhoeffer – Ethics (Part I)

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In my post on the first half of Bonheoffer’s Ethics, I’m going to concentrate my focus on his first chapter, titled appropriately “Christ, Reality and Good.” [I should also mention that we are using the newest English language edition of Bonhoeffer’s works, Ethics being volume six].

Bonheoffer begins startlingly with this abrupt statement:

Those who even wish to focus on the problem of a Christian ethics are faced with an outrageous demand – from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem:  ‘How can I be good ?’ and ‘How can I do something good.’ Instead they must ask themselves the wholly other, completely different question: ‘what is the will of God?’ (47).

In this, the first sentence of his Ethics, Bonheoffer’s intimates his intention that he seeks to overturn to entire project of conventional philosophical ethics. For Bonheoffer, theological ethicists are not to attempt to adjudicate what is good and bad in abstracto or even in relation to the world, through its values and conventions; they are to find out what the will of God is, a wholly different and more radical question, because “it presupposes a decision about ultimate reality, that is, a decision of faith” (Ibid).

While the oft-used ‘Christocentricism’ risks becoming passé from continual misuse, Bonheoffer can hardly be described as anything else. His is a powerful discussion of Christian ethics, one that I’ am in overwhelming sympathy with (this book, it should be mentioned,  is read profitable with his Discipleship). Bonheoffer ethics are really an expansion of Luther’s theologia crucis. For Bonheoffer, a Christian ethics is not something that can be thought generally or abstractly, apart from God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Bonheoffer offers  an ethica crucis, if you like. One cannot simply adjudicate difficult ethical questions through general philosophical principles which one may presuppose and ratiocinate. Being good, moreover, is not some correspondingly abstractive orientation that one only simply ‘is’ or ‘is not.’  Instead, good is only known through knowledge of Christ. “Faith in this Jesus Christ,” Bonheoffer says, “is the source of all good” (75).

Of all the theologians I have read, only Bonheoffer truly grasps the fullest expression of the disjunction between being in the world and being in God. Bonheoffer fully affirms the world in all its profane vicissitudes. The only way to be truly for Christ is to be truly in the world. There is no escaping or avoidance. The church is not a community that separates itself from the world, offering a crass “Platonism for the people” (Nietzsche) that despises the world, longing only for an ethereal or otherworldly heaven. It is a body that recognizes the unity of the world and God affected by Christ. “It is a denial of God revelation wish to be ‘Christian’ without being ‘Worldly,’ or to wish to be worldly without seeing and recognizing the world in Christ (58).” The monk and the cultural bourgeois Protestant are thus two sides of this same coin: the former ignoring the world, and the later ignoring Christ. As Bonheoffer argues, there are not two realities battling over each other for supremacy. The reconciliation between the two has been affected by Christ. The only way to be truly in Christ is to be fully in the world. Reality is made one in Christ.

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2 Responses to “Bonhoeffer – Ethics (Part I)”

  1. Rod of Alexandria Says:

    Excellent post, and right on target.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    The comment on Luther is dead on. I really appreciate this post, and agree with you about the importance of encountering Christ by fully entering the world.

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