Thursday, January 30, 2020

Two crucial concepts from Bonhoeffer

I've long been convinced that Bonhoeffer's Ethics ought to be required reading for all Christian leaders, and perhaps all Christians.  It astonishes me that in this unfinished work I find the most profound reflections on what it means to be a Christian in the modern world.  Two particular concepts have been on my mind lately.

Firstly, the concept of the natural.  For Bonhoeffer, the natural is not identical with the created; in fact, it contains within it the concept of fallenness.  (It is perhaps significant that both Barth and Bonhoeffer are fairly tentative about the original created state; I tend to think that contemporary evangelicals [in the anglophone sense] make rather stronger statements about the original creational design than can be sustained from Scripture).  The natural means the form of reality which persists after the fall.  It cannot be regarded, on the hand, as the original design, because of the fall.  But on the other hand it cannot be regarded as utterly fallen, because of creation.  It is, if you like, the order of preservation, the way God has ordained that things should be.  Crucially, for Bonhoeffer, it is the form of life.  The natural is ordained for life, and as such it is relatively open to the coming of Christ, because Christ comes to give life.  The natural is not yet Christian life, nor does it depend on revelation; but it is in a sense ordered towards revelation and towards Christ.

Because the natural form of things is given by God, it is not dependent on any human authority.  In fact, it is the unnatural which requires organisation, propaganda, force; the natural is simply given, simply there.  Bonhoeffer gives the example of children: they may, by the force of propaganda, be organised against their parents (he has, of course, the Third Reich in view); but if the propaganda and organisation subsides, a more natural filial relation will assert itself again.  I think this explains the constant propaganda around abortion, or around sexuality and gender, at the moment; the proponents of the new moral consensus understand very well that they must constantly buttress their position, lest nature creep back in.  It is also a source for optimism, as Bonhoeffer points out.  Not ultimate optimism - we ought to have that because of Christ! - but the relative optimism that there is a good chance that natural form will reassert itself.

Second concept is vicarious representation.  For Bonhoeffer, amidst the collapse of his society into evil, the crucial temptation to be resisted is ethics as keeping one's own hands clean.  Withdrawal, separation, an attempt to fence out evil from the church, an attempt to separate an individual life into an outward compelled evil and an inner purity...  All this has to be resisted.  An ethic that derives from the gospel recognises that Jesus does not separate himself (in that sense) from sinners, but (in his total separation) becomes a brother to the wicked, taking on himself responsibility for their actions and their waywardness.  Of course this is a movement which cannot be, and need not be, repeated; Christ uniquely bears sin and guilt, is uniquely the vicarious representative of all human beings.  But those who are in Christ must not shy away from accepting solidarity with sinners, must not shy away from accepting guilt.  There is no 'us and them'; just us, sinners.  Because Christ has borne our guilt away, we can take this stance without fear of judgement; because Christ has given us an example, we must take this stance.

The combination of the two concepts seems to me to give us the possibility of a calm, a serenity, in the face of moral collapse in our society.  We are not to be frantically lecturing those around us, as if the natural order of things ordained by God required our defence.  We need not be frantically barricading ourselves and our church communities against the evils of the world, as if Christ needed to fear contamination.  Cheerfully, we speak the truth; tearfully, we confess our complicity in guilt.  And then cheerfully again we remember Jesus.


  1. Great as ever, Dan - lots to ponder here. I'm interested in what examples you'd give of "contemporary evangelicals [in the anglophone sense] mak(ing) rather stronger statements about the original creational design than can be sustained from Scripture"?

    1. What a terrible sentence that was. Definitely need an editor.

      I don't want to make too much of it, but I think sometimes we treat Gen 1-2 as if they contained a lot more information about gender, or work, or human nature than is actually there. I guess I just want us to be a bit restrained; we know there was an original design, and we can say something about it, but so much of the whole picture is shrouded from us. Just a plea (to myself as much as anyone) to tread carefully.

  2. That's a good caution - thanks for clarifying!