Posts tagged with: bonhoeffer

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.

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
posted by on 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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 30, 2006

PBS stations across the country will be airing Bonhoeffer, “an acclaimed dramatic documentary about theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The documentary “tells the story of the young German pastor who offered one of the first clear voices of resistance to Adolf Hitler and the rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

The shows will air on Monday, February 6, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s birth on February 4, 1906. You can check your local listings here for dates and times when the documentary will be showing. Unfortunately, my area station WGVU doesn’t look like it will be airing the documentary (at least in the next two weeks).

One of the first episodes which raised Bonhoeffer’s anti-Nazi profile publicly was his talk, “The Leader and the Individual in the Younger Generation,” (the German for “the leader” is der Führer) given first as a radio broadcast in 1933, two days after Hitler came to power. The talk was interrupted in the middle of the broadcast, but he used the text publicly again in lectures in days following.

Here are a few items from the text:

The Leader must lead his followers towards a responsibility to the orders of life, a responsibility to father, teacher, judge, state. He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads…

the Leader must know that he is most deeply committed to his followers, most heavily laden with responsibility towards the orders of life, in fact quite simply a servant…

Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish. Only the Leader who himself serves the penultimate and the ultimate authority can find faithfulness…

(Quotes taken from No Rusty Swords, pp. 202-204).