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Comments on Bonhoeffer, Ethics: Christ, Church, and World

Bonhoeffer’s first chapter in the text of this edition of Ethics explores the fundamental nature of Christian ethics. He begins by arguing that the fundamental ethical questions, “‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do something good?’” (p. 47) are fundamentally wrongheaded. Rather the question for Christian ethics, must be “What is the will of God” (p. 47). To ask the normal ethical questions of how I become or act good already presupposes that myself and the world are ultimate. Ethics in that light ultimately enthrones my own quest to become good. However, for Bonhoeffer, the whole question of the self and the world and the nature of the good is set within the revelation of the reality of God. Thus, Christian ethics must begin, not with reflections on what is or is not good, but rather by attending to the reality of God. If the reality of God is not seen as the primal reality in which the self, other and the world cohere and on whom they depend for their being, then all questions of ethics (or metaphysics or any other philosophical pursuit) become disintegrated and distorted. Thus, Bonhoeffer states,


The source of a Christian ethic is not the reality of one’s own self, not the reality of the world, not is it the reality of norms and values. It is the reality of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the demand before all others, that must honestly be made of anyone who wishes to be concerned with the problem of a Christian ethic. (p. 49)


That ultimate question for ethics for Bonhoeffer is, “With what reality will we reckon in our life?” (p. 49). Thus, “The subject matter of a Christian ethic is God’s reality revealed in Christ becoming real among God’s creatures” (p. 49). This is important because it underscores what is key for Bonhoeffer, namely that Christian ethics essentially is the reality of Christ becoming real in us by the Spirit (see p. 50). Who Christ reveals God to be is the ultimate reality which we are called to follow and conform ourselves to. All reality is seen within the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Thus, the Christian ethical life, for Bonhoeffer is “participating in God’s reality revealed in Christ” (p. 50). The theology of participation in the reality of God through Christ is the fundamental ground of Bonhoeffer’s ethic. By understanding ethics in this way, Bonhoeffer is able to show the shortcomings of ethical systems based either on motives or consequences. Since the good is nothing other than the reality of God revealed in Christ in which all created reality has its being, the good life cannot be split into such dichotomies. Motives, action, consequences, principles – the essence of ethics cannot be localized in any one of these things, for all aspects of human life and actions are called to participate in the good, namely the reality of God revealed in Christ. For Bonhoeffer, “Human beings are indivisible wholes, not only s individuals in both their person and work, but also as members of the human and created community to which they belong” (p. 53). Thus there can neither be an ethic of consequences or an ethic of motivations since an ethic circumscribed in such a way does not reckon with the fact that humans are holistic persons who, precisely as whole persons in community are called to participate in the good, which is the reality of God revealed in Christ.

With this foundation of the reality of God in Christ as the essence of the good, Bonhoeffer addresses the question of the relation between God and the world. Much of medieval and post-reformation theology, wittingly or not, dichotomized the order of grace and the order of nature. As such, ethics was often reduced to choosing to either follow God and thereby abandon the world, or to live in the world and thereby fail to serve God. Bonhoeffer explodes this notion through Christology. Christ is the place where God and the world meet and where they find perfect harmony. As we participate in the reality of Christ, we participate in the reality of the world and the reality of God at the same time. Thus, “the Christian ethic asks, then, how this reality of God and of the world that is given in Christ becomes real in our world” (p. 55). What this understanding of all reality as centered and cohering in Christ means is that the ides of ‘social ethics’ needs to be radically rethought. In the medieval synthesis, post-reformation scholasticism and modernity, the world is seen as a neutral, secular reality, an autonomous realm that exists alongside or in opposition to the church. Thus, ethics has often been concerned with issues of ‘spheres.’ For example as a Christian, in the ‘sphere of the church’ a person is forbidden to take vengeance. But, that same person, operating as a magistrate in the ‘sphere of the state’ (or nature, society, etc) is free to implement vengeance, coercion and all manner of violence. This of course, came to full expression in Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms as it was expounded in confessional Lutheranism (whatever Luther meant by this doctrine is not as important as the disastrous use to which it was put, as Bonhoeffer maintains on p. 60). Christians as members of the church should never engage in violence, but as members of the state or government, they are free to use such measures. Bonhoeffer shatters any such portioning of reality into different spheres wherein commands of Christian discipleship are rescinded. For Bonhoeffer, all social life is located inside the reality of Christ. Thus there cannot be two orders (nature and grace, church and world, spirtual and earthly, etc.) alongside one another, competing with one another. The self, the world and all created things exist and cohere inside of “Christ-reality”. Thus, for Bonhoeffer, “there are not two realms, but on the one realm of Christ-reality, in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united” (p. 58). Christian ethics is not concerned with how the Christian negotiates living in different social spheres, but rather how the reality of Christ is made real in the world and how all other social formations are reordered in light of Christ and the demands that attend following him.

What Bonhoeffer is able to helpfully do through this Christological undergirding, is to show how Christianity can never withdraw from the world and neither can the world exist apart from the church’s witness to Christ. In his own words,

A world existing on its own, withdrawn from the law of Christ, falls prey to the severing of all bonds and to arbitrariness. A Christianity that withdraws from the world falls prey to unnaturalness, irrationality, triumphalism and arbitrariness. (p. 61).

Thus, Bonhoeffer makes the insightful observation that “Every attempt to evade the world will have to be paid for sooner or later with a sinful surrender to the world” (p. 61). Since all reality is one in Christ, the Christian always lives in light of what it means to participate in “Christ-reality” which is the definition of Christian ethics. Bonhoeffer offers a Christocentric cosmology which grounds an ethic that takes with utmost seriousness the demands of Christian discipleship (as he unpacked in Discipleship), while at the same time showing how that ethic is the only thing that truly embraces the world rather than withdrawing from it.
Bonhoeffer then goes on to discuss the church-community’s relation to the world in light of this Christological cosmology. Bonhoeffer argues that “The church-community’s relation to the world is completely determined by God’s relation to the world” (p. 66). The church is separate from the world only in that it is the place where the word of Christ is believed and the truth of Christ is witnessed to in word and deed. Thus the distinctiveness of the church as a visible community distinct from the rebellious world is essential, but the separation is not ultimate. What is ultimate is that all reality has been redeemed in Christ, though Christ is not yet all and in all. Thus, Bonhoeffer speaks of what has been acomplised in Christ “becoming real” in the church through the work of the Holy Spirit (p. 50). The church’s posture over against the world is ultimately penultimate and bears witness to the future unification of all created reality in Christ wherein the world will participate in the reality of God.

Bonhoeffer spends the rest of this chapter deconstructing the doctrine of the orders of creation (p. 68-75). In place of these, Bonhoeffer argues for a doctrine of “mandates.” These mandates are identified as “work, marriage, government and church” (p. 68). What is striking about this section is how Bonhoeffer recasts human social formations as “mandates” rather than as “orders”. Since they are mandates, they are not given realities bearing authority in themselves, but vocations to which humanity is called. Thus, the divine mandate for work and economic life does not serve to legitimize whatever economic order happens to obtain in the way that a doctrine of the “orders of creation” does. It was such doctrines of creation orders that led German people, including most of the Christians under the Nazi regime to give theological legitimacy to race (volk), land and government and all the national ideologies that undergirded these concepts. Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of mandates cuts against this by rooting all concepts of economic, familial and social life in the revelation of God in Christ. Thus Bonhoeffer’s account radically calls into question any and all instantiations of economic, familial, governmental and ecclesial forms of life in light of the reality of Christ. For it is in Christ and Christ alone that we are able to exist in any and all of these various social formations. Thus they all muse be reordered to conform to and participate in the reality of Christ.

The only real question I have about Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of mandates is how the church fits into it and whether such an account gives enough place to eschatology. He acknowledges that the church is in a significant way different from all the other mandates (see p. 73-74). However, I still don’t quite see how the church could be just one of the four mandates that Bonhoeffer seems to see as essential forms of social life. The church is ultimately a non-necessary social formation that exists solely by the work of Christ and the Spirit and is a distinctly eschatological reality. It is the advent of the church as the body of Christ, as a non-necessary social formation that exists in continuity with the way of Christ which disrupts and re-orders all the other social formations. This is of course, only true when the church is faithfully participating in the reality of Christ, who is truly the one who disrupts and reorders all social relationships. Thus, I certainly see great benefit in how Bonhoeffer has formulated his doctrine of the mandates. Nevertheless, I do think a bit more clarity would help on seeing how the church is related to the other social formations. On this point I have been helped much by D. Stephen Long’s book The Goodness of God: Theology, the Church and Social Order. Long is really engaging some the same questions as Bonhoeffer is here, and I think provides a good account of how the church fragments and reorders different social formations.

Ultimately, I am amazed by the work that is done by Bonhoeffer in this chapter. His Christocentric cosmology that grounds his ethics of participation is brilliant. It clearly is linked to Barth’s theology of creation, but I think that Bonhoeffer has an even stronger sense of how all reality coheres in Christ and how that shapes our vision of the world, the self and the other. Also, Bonhoeffer’s recognition of ethics as participation in the reality of God revealed in Christ is profound and extremely helpful. Ideas for a “participatory ontology” are much in vogue of late in contemporary theology (especially John Milbank and the Radical Orthodox” movement). However, none that I know of have appropriated Bonhoeffer’s account of participation as articulated here. What really commends Bonhoeffer’s approach is its firm Christological grounding and vibrant theology of creation. This is one of the things that distinguishes Bonhoeffer’s account of participation from many contemporary ones which veer into abstraction. Bonhoeffer’s account is grounded firmly in his Christology, a theology of creation and the biblical narrative. Ultimately this account of theological ethics is extremely rich and insightful.


  1. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    “Who Christ reveals God to be is the ultimate reality which we are called to follow and conform ourselves to.”

    Hmm. Should we rather say, “to whom we are conformed”? It should be passive, not active. As Schwoebel says in Persons, Divine and Human, we must speak of conformitas Christi — conformity to Christ by God, not by ourselves. I assume Bonhoeffer as a Lutheran would wholeheartedly agree.

    Sunday, June 25, 2006 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  2. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    The charge Bonhoeffer is most liable to is christomonism. He may indeed be christocentric, but when you emphasize Christ’s reality to the exclusion of ontological distinctions, we enter the realm of christomonism. I think Bonhoeffer is probably smart enough to avoid this problem, but it appears that he may have come to close to crossing the line — if he hasn’t actually crossed it.

    I like his emphasis on Christ as the basis for reality and the norm for all that we do without the separation of life into “spheres.” I fully agree with this aspect. But we cannot throw out all distinctions. You mentioned the distinction between church and world, or between church and other mandates. But other distinctions are important, too, especially for Lutheran theology. Distinctions like law and gospel, active and passive, inner and outer (a controversial one, but read my paper), old and new, God and humanity, et al. Does Bonhoeffer have a way of maintaining these kinds of theological distinctions while breaking down social ones? That’s an important question, it seems to me.

    Sunday, June 25, 2006 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    On conformitas Christi, yes God is the agent of the conformation to Christ. I should have worded that differently. I guess what I was trying to capture is that while God is the agent of all such transformation, it involves, at least subjectively, our participation. Hence the imperative “be transformed…” But yes, God is the agent of all transformation into the image of Christ. In the next chapter, “Ethics as Formation” Bonhoeffer expounds on that point at length.

    I think Bonhoeffer avoids Christomonism through his understanding of the relation between Christ and the Spirit first of all (see the reference to the Spirit in the quote). Also, while Christ is the ground for the unity of reality which overcomes thinking in spheres, I don’t think that such thinking removes distinction within the overarching category of “Christ-Reality”. I think the Calcedonian, “without confusion, division or seperation” is the essence of what Bonhoeffer is driving at. So the mandates of created life remain distinct and particular, though ordered to their proper end and form through Christ.

    As for some of the other distinctions you mention, Bnohoeffer does specifically get into the issue of passivity in the next chapter and revisits it a couple more times in Ethics, so stay tuned. Bonhoeffer does question certain other of those distinctions though, albeit polemically at points I think. Particularly the law/gospel and the inner/outer distinctions. However, this is largely due to his polemics against pietism and the accomodation of the state church in Germany under Hitler. However, Discipleship I think put major emphasis on the question of the gospel and law and the importance of the inner transformation of the person. What Bonhoeffer seeks to do is integrate these various distinctions in a way that they cannot be put to ideological use, which is what has so often happened with such distinctions. However, I don’t think he abolishes them.

    Monday, June 26, 2006 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  4. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    I look forward to reading the future posts. Preventing “ideological use” is of great importance.

    Tuesday, June 27, 2006 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

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