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Bonhoffer on the Nature of Ethics "Without God, a…

“Without God, all seeing and percieving of things and laws become abstraction, a separation from both origin and goal. All questions of our own goodness, as well as the goodnes of the world, are impossible unless we have first posed the question of the goodness of God. For what meaning would the goodness of human beings and the world have without God? Since God, however, as ultimate reality is no other than the self-announcing, self-witnessing, self-revealing God in Jesus Christ, the question of good can only find its answer in Christ.

The source of a Christian ethic is not the reality of one’s own self, not the reality of the world, not 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 be honestly made of anyone who wishes to be concerned with the problem of a Christian ethic. 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 resurrection or with death? This question itself, which none can answer by their own choice without answering it falsely, already presupposes a given answer: that God, however we decide, has already spoken the revelatory word and that we, even in our false reality, can live no other way than from the true reality of the word of God. The question about ultimate reality already places us in such an embrace by its answer that there is no way we can escape from it. The answer carries us into the reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ from which it comes.

The subject matter of a Christian ethic is God’s reality revealed in Christ becoming real among God’s creatures, just as the subject matter of doctrinal theology is the truth of God’s reality revealed in Christ. The place that in all other ethics is marked by the antithesis between ought and is, idea and realization, motive and work, is occupied in Christian ethics by the relation of reality and becoming real, between past and present, between history and event (faith) or, to replace the many concepts with the simple name of the thing itself, the relation between Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The question of the good becomes the question of participating in God’s reality revealed in Christ. Good is no longer an evaluation of what exists, for instance my essence, my moral orientation, my actions, or a state of affairs in the world. It is not longer a predicate that one can apply to something that exists of itself. Good is the real itself, that is, not the abstractly real that is separated from the reality of God, but the real that has its reality only in God. Good is never without this reality. It is no general formula. And this reality is never without the good. The will to be good exists only as desire for the reality that is real in God. A desire to be good for its own sake, as some sort of personal goal or life vocation, falls pray to an ironic unreality; honest striving for good turns into the ambition striving of the paragon of virtue. Good as such is no independent theme for life. To take it as such would be the craziest Don Quixotry. Only by participating in reality do we also share in the good.”

(Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 49-51)


  1. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    Excellent! In other words, we do not actively do the good, but we are passively brought into the Good that was revealed and made true in Jesus Christ. That’s fantastic. I might have to incorporate this into future work on Jüngel.

    Sunday, June 25, 2006 at 11:18 pm | Permalink
  2. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    If how I characterized Bonhoeffer above is correct, then my main fear about his ethics would be assuaged. My fear is/was that by making all reality the realm of our ethical action — i.e., our active participation in the reality of God — Bonhoeffer was placing human activity above human passivity. However if the Good is something already accomplished in Jesus, then we cannot realize the Good but only become a part of it as we are re-constituted in the image of Christ, in conformity to Christ.

    Sunday, June 25, 2006 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yes, as I said in my other response Bonhoeffer does get into the issue of passivity. Here’s what he says later, I think you’ll love this:

    “Free action, as it determines history, recognizes itself ultimately as being God’s action, the purest activity as passivity. Only in this perspective is it possible to speak now of good in history…Only where freedom understands its origin, essence, and goal to be grounded in God’s own action, which means only where it is God who appears on the scene as an acting subject, can we speak about good in history. Nothing but God makes human action in history good.” (p. 226)

    Monday, June 26, 2006 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  4. D.W. Congdon wrote:


    Tuesday, June 27, 2006 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  5. daniel greeson wrote:

    I read the quote from Jenson above and was like. Damn. and started tearing up. Ive read some Jenson, but now I better jump on it.

    Then I noticed your name, and I was like Ive seen that name..
    Your comments on Amazon I appreciate a lot.

    (I havent read this blog entry yet, I just had to respond)


    Friday, June 30, 2006 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Daniel. Yes, Jenson is pretty amazing. Right now I’m working my way through the second volume of his Systematic Theology which is remarkable. Volume 1 is excellent as well.

    Friday, June 30, 2006 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

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