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Bonhoeffer on the Ultimate and the Penultimate

I’ll be returning to my comments on the chapters of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in the next couple days. But, to get things rolling I thought I’d share an excellent quote from Bonhoeffer’s chapter, “Ultimate and Penultimate Things”.


Compromise always arises from hatred of the ultimate. The Christian spirit of compromise comes from this animosity against the justification of the sinner by grace alone. The world, and life in it, must be protected from this invasion into its domain. One must manage the world only by worldly means. The ultimate is to have no say in the formation of life in the world. Even to ask about the ultimate, is regarded as radicalism, as a lack of love toward the given orders of the world and toward those who are dependent on them. Freedom from the world, which is Christ’s gift to Christians, and renunciation of the world (1 John 2:17) are accused of being unnatural and opposed to creation, and estrangement from, or even hostility toward, the world and humanity. Instead, accommodation to the point of resignation, or to a trite worldly wisdom, is passed off as genuine Christian openness to the world and love.


Radicalism hates time. Compromise hates eternity.
Radicalism hates patience. Compromise hates decision.
Radicalism hates wisdom. Compromise hates simplicity.
Radicalism hates measure. Compromise hates the immeasurable.
Radicalism hates the real. Compromise hates the word.

To contrast radicalism and compromise like this makes clear enough that both attitudes are equally opposed to Christ; for the concepts that are here set up against each other are one in Jesus Christ. The question about the Christian life, therefore, will be answered neither by radicalism nor by compromise; Jesus Christ himself decides and answers it. The relationship between the ultimate and the penultimate is resolved only in Christ.

6 Comments

  1. Jeff Barrett wrote:

    Bonhoeffer in this quote makes the two terms radical and compromise out to be the opposite ends of the committal scale when in fact they only frame an undefined, positive portion. One might contend that the negative remainder of the scale is also represented because to be wholly against something is to be just as radical as to be wholly for that same thing. Indeed, many use this tact to avoid ever becoming involved in an actual debate to reveal what is truth and what is lie. When focusing on any practical topic, however, both sides of the scale become apparent. For this reason it is only harmful in every way to muse about these type of philosophical hypotheses without any focus on a practical topic and grounding in a moral base.

    Let’s focus for the sake of clarity on the topic of eating buffalo wings. There are two prototypes needed to clearly represent the committal scale in this instance. First is the positive end where someone radically believes buffalo wings to be helpful in every instance all the time. Second is the negative end where someone believes that buffalo wings are always harmful in every instance all the time. Bonhoeffer’s prototype of the compromiser could appear anywhere in between these two extremes, and who is to say where when any amount of distance from either extreme is by definition compromise?

    What we need to see now is that being either radically pro-something or radically con-something is neither right nor wrong in and of itself. (My moral basis for this statement is the Bible, so unless it can be shown to me with plain reason from the scripture, I will immovably hold to the above truth.) Therefore, next time we are at our favorite neighborhood hotwing restaurant and see a four hundred pound customer waddle in for a bottomless bucket of wings, don’t go tell that person to stop being radical. Tell that person that he has sold himself short by spending his radical energy on gluttony rather than on exalting the name above all names, Jesus Christ.

    The problem with mainstream, American evangelism is not radicalism, which is merely the wholesale commitment of one’s self to a cause, but the utter lack of any commitment to the cause of Christ. Every other object of radicalism besides the one true God transforms our God-given capacity for passion into idolatry.

    Wednesday, August 30, 2006 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    If I understand you rightly, you’re basically saying that what’s important isn’t to situate moral issues on a continuum of radicalism vs. compromise, correct? Rather we need to know what commitment to Christ entails and be devoted to that rather than trying to balance that with other “obligations” or values that we could either be radical about or compromise over.

    I don’t think Bonhoeffer would disagree with that. What he’s addressing is how Christians often approach ethical issues either by radically commiting themselves to some kind of cause (such peace activists or medieval crusaders) or by compromising with different causes and powers in the world (like Christians who didn’t speak out against slavery or who capitulated to the Nazis).

    Radicalism and compromise are different ways in which many people approach ethics and politics. You can be a radical anarchist or you can be a conservative who tries to maintain a balance of power through using coercion when necessary.

    Bonhoeffer’s whole point is that contrasting radicalism with compromise “makes clear enough that both attitudes are equally opposed to Christ”. Bonhoeffer claims that radicalism or compromise can never be the answer for Christians, only Christ himself and his call of discipleship.

    Wednesday, August 30, 2006 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  3. Jeff Barrett wrote:

    “Both [radicalism and compromise] are equally opposed to Christ,” is indeed the key phrase to which I am responding. Bonhoeffer speaks as if the measure of passion one radiates toward an object is unchristlike if it is either purely radical (ultimate) or purely compromising (penultimate). I guess the marriage of the two in Christ that he describes might be called a compromised compromise or less radical radicalism. My point is that extreme passion for a cause is never a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that it is always a good thing and the lack of it (compromise) is always a bad thing.

    In order to train a new generation of young men to build, lead and protect the church, we must fight to regain military language. Swords, wrath, judgement and killing are radical terms, and they are all exercised by Jesus Christ himself! Though we bless when we are cursed and overcome evil with good in this present age, it is in hope of a final, literal military victory. We, therefore, do it radically, knowing that our longsuffering is heaping burning coals of judgement onto the heads of those who sin against us. But back to the main point…

    “The question about the Christian life, therefore, will be answered neither by radicalism nor by compromise; Jesus Christ himself decides and answers it.”

    In this quote again Bonhoeffer makes radicalism in and of itself out to be antichrist. I would agree if he said this of compromise alone because compromise is by definition the going against one’s own conscience, which is always sin for it cannot be done in faith. However, radicalism is, I maintain, the emotion of strong conviction. Though Bonhoeffer says that we will find the answer to living the christian life in Christ himself rather than radicalism, I retort that one must become radically Christ-centered before any benefits will be gained from Christ. Relationship with Christ cannot exist without radical passion for Christ.

    Wednesday, August 30, 2006 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    When Bonhoeffer speaks of radicalism he’s speaking of a political strategy, not a passionate committment. All throughout The Cost of Discipleship he speaks in exactly such terms about how radical is the nature of committment to Christ.

    However, while I would agree that compromise is always wrong by defnition, I don’t think radicalism is inherently good. If one radically supports some cause or value, the moral quality of that committment depends on the nature of the cause or value supported. Radical allegiance to Christ and commitment to him is always a good. Radical commitment to some other object of loyalty, such as the family, the nation or some other social group is idolatrous whenever it comes to compete with Christ. That is precisely what I see Bonhoeffer saying.

    Wednesday, August 30, 2006 at 10:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Andy wrote:

    I believe that the eating of buffalo wings is both always good and always harmful.

    But more to the point, Bonhoeffer wasn’t writing in a vacuum. The compromise he has in mind must be heavily colored by the actual compromise of his times, namely the capitulation of the Lutheran state church to Nazism. Here there is no question of being radically for or radically against this. But he complains that when he introduces Christ to the decision making process he is called a radical.

    The charge beings brought against him is that he is abandoning “worldly wisdom” in favor of other-worldliness. And this is would be against Christ, who unites the worldly and the other-worldly, the ultimate and the penultimate, in himself.

    Wednesday, August 30, 2006 at 11:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    The two kingdoms doctrine of buffalo wing eating, Andy? Perhaps I could be a Lutheran. :)

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about what Bonhoeffer is getting at here.

    Thursday, August 31, 2006 at 1:02 am | Permalink

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