Posts tagged with: bonhoeffer

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

I saw a post on the Web somewhere in the last few days (I can’t recall where), about the trend toward worshiping human life itself as the highest principle…detached from recognition of any higher theological realities. Then I ran across this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that struck me as especially relevant, and so I wanted to pass it along:

Vitalism ends inevitably in nihilism, in the destruction of all that is natural. In the strict sense, life as such is a nothing, an abyss, a ruin. It is movement without end, without goal, movement into nothingness. It does not rest until it has drawn everything into this annihilating movement. This vitalism is found in both individual and communal life. It arises from the false absolutizing of an insight that is essentially correct, that life, both individual and communal, is not only a means to an end but also and end in itself. God wills life and gives life a form in which it can live, because left to its own resources it can only destoy itself.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Natural Life,” Ethics, p. 178.

The latest issue of the Scottish Journal of Theology is out, and includes my article, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935.”

Here’s the abstract:

In this article I argue that the essential relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth stands in need of reassessment. This argument is based on a survey of literature dealing with Bonhoeffer and Barth in three basic areas between the critically important years of 1933 and 1935. These three areas come into sharp relief given the political background of the German Christian victory in the church elections of 1933. Their respective positions, both theological and political, on the Aryan clause differ greatly. For Bonhoeffer, the imposition of the Aryan clause on the German churches represented a clear status confessionis, and Bonhoeffer favoured a very public schism. For Barth, while the Aryan clause was certainly troublesome, it was deemed better to wait for a ‘more central’ point, namely, that of the question of natural theology. Barth’s emphasis on the importance of the question of natural theology carries over in his position regarding the significance and role of both the Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement. We see that Bonhoeffer explicitly questions the validity of Barth’s emphasis on natural theology with respect to the Confessing Church and to the ecumenical movement. While many scholars have argued for the basic agreement between Barth and Bonhoeffer, especially on the question of natural theology, a closer examination of the two in the period 1933–35 calls such conclusions into question.

Full reference: Jordan J. Ballor, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59, no 3. (August 2006): 263-80.

For more on Bonhoeffer, see also: Jordan J. Ballor, “Christ in Creation: Bonhoeffer’s Orders of Preservation and Natural Theology,” Journal of Religion 86, no. 1 (January 2006): 1-22.

BRYN MAWR, July 12, 2006 – Yesterday I outlined in brief a biblical case for the legitimate and even divine institution of civil government. Having established that the State is a valid social institution, the next step in what is broadly called social ethics is to outline the scope of the State’s authority and its relations to other social institutions.

A valuable place to start might be in defining what the role of the State ought to be, rather than simply cataloguing the specific tasks of the State one by one, starting with the punishment of the wrongdoer, and so on (in this sort of endeavor, I think Aquinas’ maxim regarding when to make law is invaluable). Gaudium et spes gives a valuable starting point for a discussion of the common good: “The sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” Leo XIII says that “Civil society exists for the common good.”

In some sense, too, the State exists for the common good, although its role is clearly defined and sharply delimited: to ensure some of the necessary preconditions for the realization of the common good.

Recall what Lord Acton writes of liberty, the highest political end, that it is necessary “for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” These highest objects of civil society could be summed up in the concept of the common good. Thus Acton writes that beyond the core and proper center of the scope of governmental authority, the State “can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.”

In discussing the relationship between the Church and State, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the State’s responsibility with regard to the first table of the Decalogue in a similar way. He argues that the State effectively meets its responsibility in promoting and protecting the Church by carving out space for the existence of the Church, ensuring its ability to exist and vigorously thrive in freedom.

In our American context, I think we can understand the establishment clause of the First Amendment to effectively accomplish this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Bill of Rights therefore protects and even promotes the right of the Church to exist

Simply put: the government exists to promote and protect liberty, a necessary but not sufficient condition for the attainment of human virtue and flourishing, also called the common good.

In Part 2, we saw that modern Protestant skepticism toward reason is one of the most significant factors in the rejection of natural law. Divine command ethics, particularly of the variety espoused by Karl Barth, quickly came to dominate the field of Protestant theological ethics in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Karl Barth rejected every form of natural theology and, simultaneously, pulled the rug out from under natural law. But among neoorthodox theologians of the 1930s, only Barth and his close friend Edward Thurneysen remained consistent in their repudiation of natural law. Others, such as Emil Brunner, Friedrich Gogarten, and Rudolf Bultmann, opened the door to some new version of natural theology by incorporating philosophical insights into their dogmatic and exegetical work. Brunner took the lead in calling for a return to natural theology and natural law, but was angrily attacked and shot down in an exchange with Barth, his former friend and cohort.

However, the controversy between Barth and Brunner did not settle anything. Some followed Barth in holding that Christian ethics has no use for natural law, since it is concerned with reason and universal principles inscribed in human nature. Barth’s prefered idea based ethics directly on the command of the living God, which as he said “is always an individual command for the conduct of this man, at this moment and in this situation; a prescription for this case of his; a prescription for the choice of a definite possibility of human intention, decision, and action.” Herein lies the root of Protestant situation ethics, popularized in the 1960s by Joseph Fletcher, and criticized by Paul Ramsey as a “wasteland of utility.”

Although Barth never gave a systematic treatment of natural law, throughout his long career he fought against every appeal to it. A theological ethic that bases itself on the Word of God alone, he said, “will not, then, make the disastrous, traitorous use of ‘natural’ theology, which is the only use that can be made of it.” Barth viewed natural law as the self-assertion of autonomous humanity. For this reason, he felt he had to speak an irreconcilable “no” to every attempt to derive ethical norms from the orders of creation, as Emil Brunner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, or from nature, as Roman Catholicism and Protestant Orthodoxy did. “If you really reject natural theology,” he said in response to Brunner, “you don’t stare at the serpent, with the result that it stares back at you, hypnotizes you, and is ultimately certain to bite you, but you hit it and kill it as soon as you see it!”

Of course, Barth recognized that there is such a thing as natural law in the same sense as he recognized that there is human religion. At best, in his view, natural law is the quest for order on the part of the state and of non-Christians, who have no other source of moral knowledge, inasmuch as they do not derive such knowledge from divine revelation in Christ and the Bible. Barth’s refusal to find a point of contact on which Christians and non-Christians could meet would ultimately relegate theology to the backwaters and encourage faith to become the province of the private, individual soul. How, then, can Christians go public with their ethic in a pluralistic world where the majority does not accept the Christian source of revelation? Some contemporary Protestant theologians did actually cross paths with natural law, but as Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten describes, they did so “. . . with something of a bad conscience on account of Barth’s strictures.”

In Part 4, we’ll take up the question of why the natural-law tradition fell on hard times in modern Protestant theology.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In his fragmentary and incomplete Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer examines the reality of the will of God, which he contends come to us from Scripture in the form of four mandates: work, marriage, government, and church. Here’s a great summary of Bonhoeffer’s view of the mandate of the government or state, from his essay, “Christ, Reality, and Good,” pages 72-73:

The divine mandate of government already presupposes the mandates of work and marriage. In the world that it rules, government finds already existing these two mandates through which God the Creator exercises creative power and upon which government must rely. Government itself cannot produce life or values. It is not creative. Government maintains what is created in the order that was given to the creation by God’s commission. Government protects what is created by establishing justice in acknowledgment of the divine mandates and by enforcing this justice with the power of the sword. Thus, marriage is not made by the government, but is affirmed by the government. The great spheres of work are not themselves undertaken by the government, but they are subject to its supervision within certain limits—later to be described—to governmental direction. Government should never seek to become the agent of these areas of work, for this would seriously endanger their divine mandate along with its own. By establishing justice, and by the power of the sword, government preserves the world for the reality of Jesus Christ. Everyone owes obedience to this government—according to the will of Christ.

“There is a time for everything, / and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to tear and a time to mend, / a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7 NIV).

On April 19, 1963, writing from the jail in Birmingham, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the following words:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

King was responding to what he called the “white moderate” who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.'” King concluded that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

This reminds me of an exchange that took place in 1933 between theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. Earlier in the year, the Nazis had passed the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums), which contained the so-called Aryan clauses.

This section of the law required that any civil servant of non-Aryan descent be “retired” or “dismissed.” That summer, the German Christian (or Deutsche Christen [DC]) party of the state church would go on to win a huge victory in the church elections. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Earlier this month, we marked the 100th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birth on February 4, in what is now Wroclaw, Poland. In a message before the International Bonhoeffer Conference on February 3, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man immersed in a specific cultural heritage, and untroubled by the fact; he was a person of profound and rigorous (and very traditional) personal spirituality; he was someone committed to the ecumenical perspective from very early on in his adult life. But his witness involved him in raising some very stark questions about the value of a culture when it became part of a tyrannous and racist ideology; in challenging the ways in which traditional piety could be allowed to become a protected and private territory, absolving us from the need to act, or rather to let God to act in us; and in insisting that the search for visible unity as an ideal independent of truth and integrity could only produce a pseudo-church.

Discussing Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Acton director of research Samuel Gregg said that the theme of love stood in stark contrast to the ideology of the Nazis. “The idea of hate was actually elevated into a kind of principle, in the sense that the German people were the master race, which meant treating non-Germans as if they were subhuman,” he said. “The idea that all people deserved to be loved was completely foreign to this ideology.”

For those who are interested in learning more about Bonhoeffer’s theology, the true basis for his Christian life, you can check out my article in the current issue of the Journal of Religion, “Christ in Creation: Bonhoeffer’s Orders of Preservation and Natural Theology.” I compare and contrast the approaches of Bonhoeffer with Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, and find that Bonhoeffer has his own unique attitude toward natural theology (rightly understood), specifically finding a basis for ethics in his doctrine of preservation orders. I look primarily at two of Bonhoeffer’s early lectures delivered at the University of Berlin: Creation and Fall and Christ the Center.