Bonhoeffer – Ethics (Part II)


Let’s face it: Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is quite foreign for the first-time reader, especially for one who studied philosophy and ethics as an undergraduate.  As Adam noted last week, the first sentence of the book overturns the traditional ethical paradigm by disregarding the concern with the possible prior to the actual.  By the time the reader turns to the second page, Bonhoeffer has already asserted that one can only ask the ethical question by coming to terms with the actual; this would be the ultimate reality located in God Himself as the world’s Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer.

The latter half of Bonhoeffer’s magnum opus contains a plethora of life-altering statements and insights into the reality of God and how this defines humanity.  As such, I am unable to offer any type of satisfactory account of this work in one short blog post.  I decided, therefore, to probe a bit deeper into this work beyond offering a description of Ethics.

One might be tempted to read Bonhoeffer’s radical ethical reorientation and assume that these thoughts were simply occasional.  I am not trying to argue that Bonhoeffer’s writings in Ethics can be taken out of his historical context.  But I also want to suggest that his ethics are not detached from his broader theological commitments.  In short, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics stems directly from his christology and soteriology.  It is only because of Bonhoeffer’s views concerning Jesus Christ and salvation that he can proceed to offer his particular ethical framework.

Let me explain.  As I made my way through Ethics, I found this one particular line to be rather intriguing.  After dismissing the possibility of humanity possessing the ability to discern absolute good or absolute evil, Bonhoeffer boldly declares that such inability “throws the freedom of those who act responsibly into the sharpest relief: it is freedom from servitude even to an ‘absolute good'” (222).  In short, it is the freedom of the Christian that makes such absolutes unnecessary.  This very freedom from absolute standards of good and evil is dependent upon Bonhoeffer’s belief that “human beings cannot justify themselves by doing good since it is God alone who does the good.  The power of the divine guidance of history leaves human beings dependent upon God’s grace” (227).  Since humanity can do nothing to save itself, all are redeemed by the unmitigated grace of God.  The notion that one must (and can) possess absolute certainty that they are carrying out an absolute good action against an absolute evil negates any commitment to sola gratia.  Therefore, the Christian reality of freedom thrusts one upon a level of ambiguity when discerning the ethical task, for only in God’s action is there certainty of good.

At this point, it is necessary to discuss Bonhoeffer’s christology.  Bonhoeffer’s entire posture toward the theological task is one of complete humility, dependence, and ultimately freedom.  He writes over and over again that there is nothing inherent in humanity that is valuable, worthy, or good.  God did not choose to love humanity in Christ because humanity possessed intrinsic worth.  Rather, humanity is valuable because God took the “No” of judgment upon Himself in Jesus Christ.  By doing so, God reconciled us to the world.  As a side note: I found it fascinating that Bonhoeffer puts the love of God before His judgment.  If the undeserved “Yes” did not precede the justified “No”, there would be no incarnation and no reconciliation through the Son.  In this way, Bonhoeffer presents the best that the Reformers had to offer.   To repeat what I’ve said thus far: the belief that humanity is justified solely by God’s grace offers genuine freedom for the Christian from the bondage of ethical absolutes.  But such freedom brings ambiguity.  So how is the Christian to proceed?  Well, the only way to discern the ethical is through the concrete historical standard found within the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this way, Jesus Christ not only makes the doctrine of sola gratia possible, but He also provides the very possibility for discerning good and evil within the world.  One must start with the actual reality found within Jesus Christ in order to find any hope for ethical decisions in life.  But there is one small caveat: such christocentrism still doesn’t provide certainty.  Humility always remains for Bonhoeffer since the Christian makes all ethical decisions through a risk of faith.  This is the only way that one can ensure their dependence upon the grace of God.


3 Responses to “Bonhoeffer – Ethics (Part II)”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    I suppose my question is this: which Christ? I realize Bonhoeffer wants the believer to be ready at all points to accept responsibility for the other, which is grounded in a christological perspective. In fact, many of the post-Barthians seem quite convinced that christology is where the money’s at, so to speak. What I found concerning is that they assume we all know what they are referring to when they speak of Jesus Christ. One thing that becomes quite clear from studying the historical Jesus or the various christologies out there, is that there are a multiplicity of christological perspectives. It seems to me somewhat indisputable that theology must begin and end with christology, but we must discern to which Christ are referring. Are we referring to the apocalyptic Christ, the legalistic Christ, the Christ of the poor, the other-worldly Christ, the liberal Christ, the feminist Christ(a), the black Christ, the queer Christ, the Jesus Seminar Christ, the existential Christ?

    • A.J. Smith Says:

      A appeal to Christ is a difficult antinomy for a theologia crucis. We can only know God through Christ, but we can’t (at least fully) know Christ.

      Obviously, everyone wants to appeal to the actually existing Christ, the sought-after historical Jesus. But given the nature of historiography is seems unlikely that a reconstruction of Jesus could be made that wasn’t at least partly provisional or fundamentally controversial. We can only know so much about Jesus with historical certainty.

      On the other hand, does Christ have to be dichotomized so severely? When we appeal to Christ, are we not appealing, basically, to the incarnated God in solidarity with the poor and oppressed? And aren’t some of these ‘other’ Christ’s (existential et al) simply second-order interpretational rubrics? Why must they be mutually exclusive?

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I’m not pretending that these different christologies are mutually exclusive, but I suppose I am asking for more specificity when having this conversation. If one reads Tertullian’s Christ, one gets the sense that Christ came to just make the law that much more difficult. Everyone wants to be Christ-centered (except for those worried about Christofascism), but I suspect we mean quite different things when we evoke the name Jesus Christ.

    Perhaps Barth was reacting over and against his liberal counterparts who were obsessed with the quest for the historical Jesus. I’m not suggesting we should not be skeptical, but we do run the risk of discarding Jesus for Christ. Tillich does say that Jesus of Nazareth must be sacrificed to the Christ. I think he is quite guilty of the dichotomization.

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