Monday, August 15, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (13)

The final manuscript in Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled The Concrete Commandment and the Divine Mandates.  It is unfinished - to be honest, it feels barely started at the point where it breaks off.  The initial presupposition springs from all that has gone before.  "The commandment of God revealed in Jesus Christ embraces in its unity all of human life" (388).  Bonhoeffer sees four divine mandates grounded in this one commandment: family, culture, church, state.  All four are legitimate because they have their source in the revelation of God in Christ.  Through the divine commandment, revealed in Christ through Scripture, we see "the conferring of divine authority on an earthly institution" (389).

There are two major implications, as far as I can see, from this arrangement and understanding.  One is that the four mandates exist in relationship.  They are to be with-one-another, for-one-another, and over-against-one-another (hyphenated, because these are all single words in German; see 393).  To enlarge on this, we might say that as divine mandates each has its own sphere, within which God's commandment gives a certain autonomy from but also a certain relationship to the other spheres.  The family, for example, exists independently of state, culture, and church - by virtue of the divine commandment which creates it.  However, family also exists for state, culture, and church, in creative tension but also mutual reinforcement.  It cannot claim precedence over the other mandates, and it must resist any attempt by state, culture, or church to claim precedence in or over its own sphere, but it does not exist in splendid isolation.  Mutatis mutandis, the same could be said for any of the mandates.  Their unity is grounded only in Christ, and the divine command in him.

The second implication is that in each sphere there really is divine authorisation, and therefore an above and below.  "God's commandment therefore always seeks to encounter human beings within an earthly relationship of authority, within an order that is clearly determined by above and below" (391).  Because of this divine authorisation, those 'below' are genuinely subjected to those 'above', whether that is parents in the sphere of family, or governing authorities in the sphere of the state, or ministers in the church.  But because it is divine authorisation, those who are 'above' must be aware of their own responsibility to God.

This is only partially developed in the manuscript in the sphere of the church, and that development is fascinating in and of itself (but not to be explored here, alas).  But this seems to me to be a potentially fruitful framework for understanding the concrete duties of the Christian man and woman in relation to the divine commandment and authorisation given and received in the gospel.

Now, what shall I read next?

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