From Bonhoeffer to the Evangelicals, with Love

Edit: I edited this paper, the final paper for my Christian Ethics class that started this whole blogging and Bonhoeffer adventure.  It’s now one page longer, but I hope you find that it is more complete.  Be challenged, as I am.

To the Evangelicals,

I am writing to you about, and I am sure you will agree on this, a matter of great concern to the Christian faith: the matter of judgment.  This issue is not unknown to you, but I feel that some review and examination may be edifying; bear with me, and with one another, as we examine ourselves in relation to it.

In the Garden of Eden, humankind was in right standing and relationship to God in all respects, including their knowledge of the world and all that is in it.  In the garden, creation was known intimately as the created things of God; humankind’s knowledge of creation was only in relation to God, and through God.  We knew nothing but God, and through him, all things.  This is important, because we must understand that the eating of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did not grant us new knowledge, but only shifted our source of knowledge: where once we knew all things only through God, we now know all things only in relation to ourselves.  In eating that fruit, we have claimed divine knowledge, the very role and status of creator, and therefore it is upon us (or so we think) to judge whether the created things are good or evil.  Where once we looked to God and saw that he declared creation to be good, now we must decide this for ourselves.  “The knowledge of good and evil is thus disunion with God.”[1] Because we are in disunion with God, we are not only able to judge but obligated to do so: because God is no longer our frame of reference, we measure creation by the “good”; because we are in disunion with the True Good (God), we must judge what is good by our own reckoning.  Whenever we do this we testify to the disunion between God and humankind: our judgment proves that we are fallen.

It is of some concern, then, that the Evangelical tradition, so named for your focus on the proclamation of the gospel, has garnered a reputation for the proclamation of judgment.  Morality has become a driving force of the Evangelical ethic.  This seems on the surface to be quite logical: God is good, and therefore when one is moral one is more like God.  Morality is seen as the standard of godliness, and to some extent, even the measure or evidence of one’s salvation.  This understanding is of course flawed, because it is founded upon a human judgment of the good, which we have already identified as being the very evidence of the fall of humanity.

When this moral standard is applied within the Church, its results can be quite harmful.  The Church, charged with proclaiming the reconciliation of the world with Christ, continues to judge one another and thus exposes their actual disunity with God; the gospel message is compromised by those who most seek to proclaim it.  Equally disastrous to the Body of Christ is that such judgment within the Church creates a false guilt, which is based on the judgment of the community rather than on being confronted by the majesty of Christ.  When the one is confronted by Christ, one’s sin is made evident by the very perfection of Christ, and one understands their complicit guilt in all sin; such guilt leaves no room for looking at others, no room for comparison or self-justification.  “Why does it concern me if others are also guilty?  Every sin of another I can excuse; only my own sin, of which I remain guilty, I can never excuse.”[2] The fruit of such guilt is repentance and reconciliation, the essence of the gospel.  Morality, on the other hand, is not based on Christ at all but only on ourselves, and is therefore based on comparison with others.  Guilt is not brought about by confrontation with Christ, but by social forces; it leads sometimes to repentance and reconciliation, but more often to outward shows of conformity and secret sin.

When this moral standard is applied outside the Church, the results are no less disastrous.  First of all, because the moral standard is based upon human judgment of the good it has no constant foundation or application: one church’s moral standard may differ from another’s, and once again our practice of judgment has served to reveal disunity; not only with God but now with each other.  The hearing we receive from the world is brief as it is, and such disunity among us shortens that hearing even further.  We must ask ourselves what message (in the short hearing the world will give us) we want to deliver: a message of moral judgment based on the human judgment of our community, or the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  The world judged Christ in our worldly sense, and hung him on a cross; but the very action of the innocent Christ dying on the cross affected divine judgment upon the world.  We gave a human “no” to Christ, revealing the very depth of our disunion with God and eliciting a divine “no” from God; the gospel message is precisely that on the cross Christ not only pronounced judgment on humanity (the divine “no”), but also took that judgment upon himself and paid it for all of humanity, thus declaring a divine “YES!” to humanity and reconciling all creation to himself.  This is the nature of Christ’s judgment: it redeems, rather than condemns.  If Christ, while experiencing our human “no” which demanded a divine “no”, has overshadowed that divine “no” with a divine “YES!”, then why do we who proclaim Christ continue to proclaim a human “no” upon one another?  We have obscured the radiance of God’s mercy with less than a shadow of God’s judgment (i.e. our own judgment), and done so in God’s name.

Some of you have become known for not only preaching a message of judgment, but of heaping condemnation upon sinners and even claiming God’s hatred for them.  This is not the gospel: it is decidedly anti-Christ, as those who preach it preach against Christ.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” that Son being Jesus Christ, whom we preach.  Taking on human flesh, Christ showed his love for us by becoming not just one of us, but our ultimate representative; if one is to judge or condemn a human being, one judges and condemns Christ – and thus calls judgment on himself.  “Judge not, lest you be judged” and “let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Even among Jews, Christ spoke in this way; how much more so should we, being among Gentiles who were not given the Law, do likewise?  But as we have already noted, we cannot stop judging: this is a sign of our disunity with God.  Because of this disunity, we remain the judges of the world.

But we are not without hope, dear fellows!  Just as the disunity between God and humanity has resulted in our unceasing judgment of all things, so too the reconciliation of all things to Christ has allowed us to stop judging in this human sense.  We are united in Christ whether we recognize it or not; this means that we are able to stop judging and return to our pre-fall knowledge of the world only through God, though we have failed to recognize it.  Like the freed slave who knows no life but slavery and returns to it over and over again, so too we return to judging the world as good or evil in spite of the reality that we can recognize all creation in relation to its creator, who has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ.  We were once the judges of the world, but now we can and must acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the one and only judge of the world; the only judge who redeems and reconciles us by his very judgment of us.

If we return to knowing the world only through knowing Jesus Christ, not only do we not need to judge, but we are unable to.  In recognizing Christ as the creator and judge of the world, we recognize him as the creator and judge of ourselves; being so confronted by the lordship of Christ elicits confession; and having received grace from him, we are unable to point to others.  “Looking on this grace of Christ frees us completely from looking at the guilt of others and brings all people to fall on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”[3]

If we return to knowing all things only through Christ, and recognizing him as the creator and judge of all things, then we must re-evaluate our understanding of the “good”.  If Christ is creator and judge, and we know all things only through him, then we must only recognize him as the source of the “good”.  In different terms, the true good is only what Christ is doing, and we can only be good or do good by participating in that true good.  If we no longer judge the world by our standard of good but rather look to Christ for the good, then our morality loses its very foundation and is exposed as being based on nothing of any account – that is, it is exposed as being based only on human judgment.  Just as we are no longer able to judge others when we recognize Christ as judge, so too do we lose any basis upon which to justify ourselves; where once we could call ourselves good based on our actions, now we must look to Christ for such a judgment, and in so doing become aware of our own sin.  Our only hope for goodness is to participate in the good that Christ is doing, something about which we may never be sure in the moment.  After all, who can say how Christ will use or arrange human actions, as he uses even the worst evil at times to accomplish his good works?  By what human standards can we call the betrayal by Judas “good”?  Yet we recognize that Christ used such an evil for the greatest good the world has ever known, and thus that we can never know how our own actions will relate to the good work that Christ is doing.  Such a statement may seem hopeless, unless one remembers that it is not on the basis of our goodness that we are saved, but based entirely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  We often seek justification by our own actions, because we judge our actions to be good; if we cannot be assured whether or not our actions are good, we must recognize that justification comes only as a gift from God through Jesus Christ, and all of our actions – even those we would formerly call “good” – are good only in relation to Christ.  This was good news for Judas, and it is good news for sinners such as you and I; for we need not seek assurance that our actions are good, but only assurance that Christ is good, of which we are much assured!

If Christ is the creator and judge of creation, we must recall that he declared creation to be good.  We recite the rhetoric that God loves the sinner but hates the sin, which affirms God’s judgment on creation: what God has made is good, but human actions can be evil, and cause evil.  This brings up a crucial point: action.  Action and judgment are mutually exclusive.  We recognize that the true good is to participate in what Jesus is doing – acting along with and in accordance with his good action.  “The good that Jesus speaks of consists entirely in doing, not in judging.  Judging another always entails an impediment to my own activity.”[4] Jesus criticized the Pharisees not because they were not doing good things, but because their judgments and their actions were mutually exclusive.  Jesus, on the other hand, refused to judge in human ways, insisting instead on acting – insisting on actually doing good, rather than judging evil.  Christ’s good action is itself a judgment: the true judgment, by which he judges the world and in which we can take part.

This is the judgment by which we can and must judge the world: participating in the judgment of Christ on the world, which is to participate in the good by actually doing it.  Our judgment of evil divides, and gives evidence of division; our good actions reconcile and restore, giving evidence of the unity and reconciliation of all creation with Christ – the gospel message.  In his good action, Christ brought true judgment upon those who judge and do not act; so too our good actions can expose the evil in the world, not to bring condemnation upon it but to act in accordance with the judgment of Christ which brings repentance and reconciliation with Christ to the world!

Therefore I urge you dear fellows, in view of God’s mercy, to return to a knowledge of only Christ, and all things through him, recognizing him as creator and judge of all things.  When we judge, we testify to disunion with Christ, even as we preach union with him.  We must recognize that Christianity is basically amoral, since it is not at all concerned with morality but only with Christ and what Christ is doing.  He has created, judged, and reconciled all things to himself; and this without our help.  We must give testimony only to what Christ is doing, and that by doing it along with him, so that in seeing our good deeds others might be drawn to Christ, be judged, and repent and be reconciled.  Put away your old habits of judging from disunion, and with Christ participate in the judgment that brings reunion.  Take action, knowing only Christ, for his glory’s sake; this is the call of your namesake as Evangelicals.

Grace and peace,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

[1] Bonhoeffer, “God’s Love and the Disintegration of the World”, in Ethics (Fortress Press, 2005), 300.

[2] Bonhoeffer, “Guilt, Justification, Renewal”, in Ethics (Fortress Press, 2005), 137.

[3] Bonhoeffer, “Guilt, Justification, Renewal”, in Ethics (Fortress Press, 2005), 136.

[4] Bonhoeffer, “God’s Love and the Disintegration of the World”, in Ethics (Fortress Press, 2005), 314.


4 thoughts on “From Bonhoeffer to the Evangelicals, with Love

  1. Hmmm, it always comes back to the critique of natural theology for me. The big question always is: can we know good apart from knowing God? Or, quite rightly, can we know The Good by a knowledge and understanding of our human nature and nature in general.

    “Morality is seen as the standard of godliness, and to some extent, even the measure or evidence of one’s salvation. This understanding is of course flawed, because it is founded upon a human judgment of the good, which we have already identified as being the very evidence of the fall of humanity.”

    It’s clear that B claims that a belief in Natural Theology–finding “the good” in nature, or conscience, or by self-reflection/understanding is evidence of the fall, for “human judgment of the good” is “the very evidence.” It seems B is almost claiming that any human attempt to understand good is a priori wrong. Compete depravity. But there is a big difference between being wrong because you are the opposite of good and being wrong because you aren’t the fullness of good. Dante at least had room in purgatory for the virtuous pagans who didn’t know Christ yet.

    What do you think B would make of Lewis’ portrayal of God dispensing the Law to the Jews and “songs” or “divine-mind-revealing stories” to the pagans? (Lewis obviously places more weight on the Law part, stating that the Jews got to cut through the mystery and allegory and get right to the foot of the cloudy mountain. But he didn’t leave the pagans out in the cold. They at least got a bunch of stories to set the table for the introduction of the myth-made-history in Christ).

    I understand what B is doing, but I think his reaction (rightly) against the liberal theology of his day has some unintended consequences.

    Good post Wheels!

    • The trouble with writing a paper “as Bonhoeffer” is that I can’t be sure that I’m actually saying what he would say. So please don’t take my take on Bonhoeffer as the real deal; perhaps his real theology is lost in translation: him to me to you.

      I’m hesitant to say that we can’t know the Good by observing nature, because God is present and active in creation, and creation to some extent reflects its creator. What Bonhoeffer does say, however, is that the human conscience is certainly fallen – in fact that we have a conscience precisely because we are fallen, as before the fall we knew God and thus had no need for a conscience. He claims that in the fall our very definition of “good” was changed: while it used to reflect something’s relation to God, it now reflects something’s relation to us. It’s futile for us to try to pursue the “good”, because our very definition of it only reflects our disunion with God.

      I’m not sure what B. would say about a limited revelation to the pagans, but I find the concept interesting. After this course is over, perhaps I’ll dig into some Lewis for a while 🙂

  2. Nah, you’re doing a good job of channeling the theological spirit of Bonhoeffer.

    “while it used to reflect something’s relation to God, it now reflects something’s relation to us.” This is why the school of Plantonism and Stoicism was seen by early Christians as “as close as pagans could get to getting it” because both schools of thought rely so heavily on the concept of the great thing outside of ourselves (Plato: The Form of the Good. Stoics: abandoning of self for the greater good etc)

    You say B. says that it is “futile for us to pursue the good because our very definition of it only reflects our disunion with God.” But surely B would say there is a difference between going PART way (like Stoics and Platonists) and going the complete WRONG way (like Epicureans, or Cartesians). Do you think his response would be “why bother parsing out differences. All have fallen short of the glory of God?” Which is a fair response and ultimately true. But why throw out ALL natural theology?

    • I think that B. probably would say that, but I’m not sure he would throw out all natural theology. I think that, to him, natural theology is not very relevant simply because we have God’s revelation, which is much higher and more complete than any natural theology. He would reject an incomplete theology (i.e. the Platonism or Stoicism you mentioned) altogether as much as he would reject the Epicureans or Cartesians simply because he would never want to give the impression that such knowledge is efficacious or important to salvation. Perhaps the Platonists are not 100% wrong, but you cannot be even 1% more justified by having knowledge that is closer to God’s revelation yet is not God’s revelation – because for Bonhoeffer (and I don’t think it can be overstated), everything comes down to and hinges upon Christ. It is through Christ that we know our world, not through our world that we know Christ.

      This does not mean that our observations of the world do not inform our knowledge of God, but only that we must presuppose Christ when investigating the world, which in turn points us back to Christ. Christ is the beginning of our knowledge and the end of it; the source of it and the realization of it. It is right to use reason and logic to point us to Christ, but we must always recognize that it is only in relation to Christ that reason is reasonable and logic is logical – without Christ they are subject to fallen human thought processes with all of their fallacies. Only logic and reason redeemed by Christ can show us the world as it truly is, and thus can it then point us to Christ once again.

      Perhaps an example is in order: today our attempts to take care of the environment are very human-centric, or else they are earth-centric (Gaia or some form thereof) which sees humanity as expendable. These models either try to manage OUR environment (as if it’s all for us) in order to produce best for us, or else they would limit or even sacrifice humanity for the sake of the ecosystem. This is the wisdom of this world, the stage that our reason has brought us to – but this is reason without Christ. When we recognize Christ as the source of all things, and thus our brotherhood with all things created, our logic and reason brings us to much different conclusions about the way we ought to act within creation.

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