Interviewed by Alastair

My friend Alastair Roberts graciously invited me to discuss my recent article for First Things on his podcast, and he published the interview yesterday afternoon. You can listen to it here. I apologize for my long pauses and verbal tics–this was my first time ever on a podcast, and I confess I was more than a little nervous!

As I mentioned a couple of times throughout the interview, Alastair’s writing has been very important for me; as a college student, he helped me to see that Protestantism could be philosophically sophisticated and theologically compelling, not only or even primarily as an alternative to Catholicism, but simply as a means understanding, critiquing, and making one’s way in the world. If you do not already, I would highly recommend following his blog, Alastair’s Adversaria.



Catholicism Made Me Protestant (First Things)

I’ve recently had an essay published in the October edition of First Things. It concerns my near-conversion to and abiding affection for Catholicism, details why I eventually decided to remain Protestant, and reflects upon my discovery of the Protestant understanding of justification. It’s entitled “Catholicism Made Me Protestant.” I’ve posted an excerpt of the piece, but you can read the full piece either in the print edition (my first time in print!) or here.

Like all accounts of God’s faithfulness, mine begins with a genealogy. In the late seventeenth century, my mother’s Congregationalist ancestors journeyed to the New World to escape what they saw as England’s deadly compromise with Romanism. Centuries later, ­American Presbyterians converted my father’s great-­grandmother from Coptic ­Orthodoxy to ­Protestantism. Her son became a Presbyterian minister in the Evangelical Coptic Church. By the time my parents were ­living in ­twenty-first-century Illinois, their families’ historic Reformed commitments had been replaced by non-denominational, ­Baptistic ­evangelicalism.

This form of Christianity dominated my Midwestern hometown. My parents taught me to love God, revere the Scriptures, and seek truth through reason. In middle school, my father introduced me to theology, and as a present for my sixteenth birthday he arranged a meeting between me and a Catholic philosopher, Dr. B—. From high school into college, Dr. B— introduced me to Catholic thought and graciously helped me work through my doubts about Christianity. How could a just and loving God not reveal himself equally to everyone? What are we to make of the Bible’s creation stories and flood narrative? Did Calvinism make God the author of evil? My acquaintance with Dr. B— set my intellectual trajectory for several years…

For those interested, here are some citations of the works/theologians I quoted in the piece.

  • First, and perhaps most importantly to the piece, Luther’s Explanations of the 95 Theses can be found either in Luther’s Works or easily in a pdf if searched for online.
  • Ambrose’s doctrine of justification: There are numerous places to look for Ambrose’s doctrine of justification, but this letter to one Irenaeus provides a good summary (Epistle 73). Another instance of Ambrose anticipating Luther can be found in his On Jacob and the Happy Life. There, Ambrose provides an allegorical reading of Jacob’s deception of Isaac which implies imputation as a model for understanding justification. Just as Isaac smelled not Jacob himself, but Esau’s garment, so also, when the Father looks upon us, He perceives the “fragrance” of Christ, not our own. “Perhaps this means that we are not justified by works but by faith, because…the brightness of faith…merits for him the forgiveness of sins.”
  • “Mourn and you annul the sin.” -St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and AlmsgivingThis is a theme throughout the work, so it’s not hard to find instances of it. It is also worth noting that Calvin, like Chrysostom, heavily emphasizes corporate repentance in the Church, as part of the liturgy, as a primary means of absolution. (See this post for more on Calvin’s articulation of repentance and absolution).
  • St. Thomas and Dordt on predestination: I suspect this was one of my more controversial claims, but it shouldn’t be. First, let me say that, while I know Dordt asserts positions on the doctrines of perseverance and assurance of salvation that Thomas would not countenance, my claim was about their doctrines of predestination. And on this point, the evidence is clear.
    • To put it simply, Thomas holds that God causes predestination in the predestined and permits reprobation in the reprobate. In ST I.23.1, Thomas writes, “It is fitting that God should predestine men. For all things are subject to His providence.” He elaborates in the succeeding article that predestination is not a function of God’s foreknowledge of anything in the predestined (faith, merits, etc.), but rather “in the one who predestines,” that is, God Himself. Thus, “Predestination is a kind of type of the ordering of some persons towards eternal salvation, existing in the divine mind.” In article three, Thomas argues that “God does reprobate some. For it was said that predestination is a part of providence. To providence, however, it belongs to permit certain defects in those things which are subject to providence.” In sum, in God, while predestination “includes the will to confer grace and glory; so also reprobation includes the will to permit a person to fall into sin, and to impose the punishment of damnation on account of that sin.”
    • The Synod of Dordt’s teaching is essentially the same. Article 7, on election, reads: “And so God decreed to give to Christ those chosen for salvation, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through the Word and Spirit. In other words, God decreed to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of the Son, to glorify them.” Article 15, on reprobation, asserts that “Holy Scripture…bears witness that not all people have been chosen but that some have not been chosen or have been passed by in God’s eternal election.” So again, God causes the predestination of the elect, and he permits the damnation of the reprobate.
  • The relevant passage from Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (which actually includes a substantial citation from John Jewel’s Apologia, or Answer in Defense of the Church of England) can be found in Book II, Ch. 6.3-6.4.
  • As for the texts of the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, I am confident that anyone who has read this far can simply search them online and find the relevant quotations for themselves.


“Are You Alone Wise?”

It’s been some time since I posted in this space, but that does not mean I haven’t been working. When I started this blog, I wrote that I aimed to work for the betterment of the Church–neither futilely attempting to recapture bygone eras nor doggedly trying to realize utopian dreams. Rather, I wanted to “rebuild our cities, not dream of Islands.” This, my first-ever published essay, is a modest step as I begin pursuing this goal, or so I hope.

In it, I detail Martin Luther’s hermeneutical commitments, as well as how these worked themselves out in practice by looking at his treatment of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. We have, as I have argued before in this space, much yet to learn from Luther, and much to appropriate for the good of the Church.

I’ve provided an excerpt below, but you can read the full thing over at Mere Orthodoxy:

A decade after he began advocating for reform, Martin Luther had become highly attuned to the fundamental issues at stake in the debates with his adversaries. Having made Sola Scriptura his rallying cry, he was forced to face the chaos that ensued. Claiming his reform but rejecting his theology, radical sects had fomented violent revolution in the Holy Roman Empire.

Several of Luther’s disciples had been executed as heretics. To the south from Zurich, Huldrych Zwingli promoted a doctrine of the Lord’s Supper antithetical to Luther’s; to the West, the great Catholic humanist and former Reformation-sympathizer Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote against Luther’s articulation of human enslavement to sin. All the while, Luther’s Catholic opponents piled on: numerous biting rhetorical questions were leveled against Luther by the likes of Johann Eck, Thomas More, and Andreas Karlstadt, no mean assemblage of opponents. “Are you alone wise?” they asked.

Human in all Respects? The (Commendable) Christology of Thomas Joseph White

In good Thomistic fashion, Thomas Joseph White’s The Incarnate Lord is orthodox, precise, and deep. One of White’s key strengths is the analytical precision of his Christological arguments; one of White’s chief concerns appears to be upholding the council of Chalcedon Thomistically, maintaining the purity of God’s nature and cutting away the dangerous imprecision of much recent Christological thought. White therefore seeks to reclaim Jesus as the incarnate God-man who atones for humanity by living and substituting an obedient and meritorious life of love before the Father. This paper will proceed by first examining White’s account of Christ’s person, then by explicating his theory of the atonement, and finally by articulating the important convergences with and divergences from 20th Century Reformed theology, particularly that of T.F. Torrance.

Following St. Thomas Aquinas, and therefore Chalcedon, White believes that Christ is God incarnate. Jesus is fully God and fully man; he possesses two natures, but he is one subject. White ascribes “all properties and actions of both the divine and human natures of Christ to their one and only concrete subject, who is the incarnate Son of God” (White, 283). Thus, everything predicated of either the divine nature or the human nature is predicated of the person Jesus Christ. The natures are distinct, but they do not divide Christ in two: “The concrete subject is that one who is truly God, who is this obedient man, etc.” (283).

Crucially, however, although the human and divine natures coexist equally within the single person of Jesus, in practice White holds that Jesus’s divine nature conditions his human nature in important ways. A particularly instructive example of this occurs when White examines whether Jesus’s final cry in Mark’s gospel—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”—indicates that Jesus experienced the alienation from the Father which properly belongs to the damned. White argues against Calvin, who wrote that Jesus “‘experienced the dread of damnation’” which was humanity’s due (308).  In other words, Calvin argues that Jesus took on the subjective state of the damned–he experienced what it is to be damned.  White argues, by contrast, that Jesus neither experienced alienation from God on the cross nor the wrath of God against human sin (313, 318).

For White, such an experience is simply impossible for two reasons. First, Jesus’s divine nature conditions his humanity such that, because he “in his human intellect possessed direct, intuitive knowledge of his own divine identity and will at all times,” Jesus could not undergo any alienation from the divine wisdom and will (310). This would also appear to preclude the possibility of Jesus experiencing a host of other human states—uncertainty, for example, or the full subjective experience of temptation. The question which challenges White’s position, and which will become important later when engaging Torrance’s position, is this: in what sense can Jesus be said to be fully human, indeed, one who “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin,” if his divine nature so conditions his human (Hebrews 4:15)?

Second, Jesus cannot have been said to experience alienation from God on the cross because damnation entails the pain of “definitive privation of the grace, knowledge and vision of God” arising from “a personal aversion to the will of God” (313). Because Jesus is God, he could not have been averse to the will of God (i.e. his own will) and so could not have experienced damnation, even in a purely subjective manner. At all times, he was in perfect harmony with the Father, and at all times he felt himself to be in perfect harmony. Thus, the divine nature of Jesus qualifies and circumscribes the possibilities open to Jesus’s human nature. Unrelated, but of note, is the fact that White simply defines damnation such that it precludes the possibility of Christ experiencing it; White makes no argument for said definition, and one wonders whether there might be more merit to Calvin’s case than White allows if a different definition of damnation were employed.

Having examined White’s vision of the person of Christ, and the possible problems attending it, attention should be focused on his conception of the atonement. Perhaps surprisingly, White conceives of the atonement in substitutionary terms, only, for White, Jesus substitutes his merits for human merits rather than his life for the life of all humans. Jesus saves humanity by “substituting his obedience and love for our injustice, lovelessness and disobedience, so as to render us just” (349). In other words, Christ’s merits are substituted for human lack of merits. This substitution is possible precisely because Jesus is God and man: “only because [Jesus] is a man like us” can his merits justly be substituted for other humans, and these merits are only of infinite worth—i.e. able to cover all humanity—because Jesus is God (349). Both the human and the divine nature, therefore, operate in distinct but complementary ways to save humans. White does not articulate precisely how the fact that the merits are God’s makes them of infinite worth (simply because God is infinite?), but he asserts that this is the case.

White differs from 20th Century Reformed thinkers, and T.F. Torrance implicitly, in a couple of important ways. First, as was hinted at above, because Jesus’s divine nature conditions the human, White does not think it possible or even desirable for God to “introduce” into his deity “suffering, death, non-being, and separation from God” (351). For White, such an introduction would not cleanse humanity; it would merely taint God. Indeed, a God possessing such characteristics would not be able to save humanity from them precisely because they now existed as fixed features within the divine nature. This would appear to rule out, for White, the possibility of Torrance’s claim that Jesus “made his own that estranged and disobedient condition of our human being” (Torrance 79). For White, Jesus made pristine (or “pure”) human nature his own, but he could not make fallen nature his own without introducing into the single subject of the incarnate God characteristics which are definitively excluded by God’s nature (White 167).

On White’s model, Torrance’s claims about how Jesus achieves redemption are ruled out. Where Torrance claims that Jesus “really took upon himself our sin and guilt,” White counters that redemption occurs by the substitution of merits (Torrance 63). Torrance does not precisely define in what sense he means his claim that God took fallen humanity into himself in the person of Christ, leaving himself open to the claims of incoherence White levels at 20th Century Christological reflection. Did God really take sin into Himself? Surely not. But if not, what does Torrance mean?

Against the Reformed tradition, White explicitly rejects penal substitution as an accurate model of how atonement is accomplished. Citing Aquinas positively, White writes that the penal substitutionary model does not make sense: “It is impossible for an innocent man to submit to a penal substitution for the guilt due another, as if he were to assume the sins of another” (318). White does not consider the possibility of a cultic model of substitution. This is unfortunate, but also particularly striking given that Thomas himself argues that Christ “assumes” sin. Such assumption of sins occurs precisely in the cultic ritual of scapegoating detailed in the Leviticus 16, in which a goat was burdened with (i.e. in which a goat assumed) Israel’s sins and was sent into the wilderness, effectively separating the people from their sins. White does not consider that Christ’s atonement should or could be understood on the substitutionary model of Yom Kippur.

For White, then, in sum, Jesus is the incarnate God who effects salvation by substituting his infinite merits for humanity’s utter lack of merit. Jesus is able to do this because he is both man, and so his work may stand in for man’s, and also because he is God, granting his merits infinite value. It is the work of Christ which is substituted on behalf of humanity, not Christ’s person. This contrasts sharply with Torrance’s vision of atonement, in which Jesus as God substitutes himself for sinners, takes into himself human wickedness and sin, and destroys it. Furthermore, White’s healthy and important desire safeguard divine perfection leads him to condition the possibilities of Jesus’s humanity in crucial ways, to the effect that White’s Jesus is not, in the final analysis, like us. His is a superhuman nature, untouched by feelings of alienation from God or by the possibility of real temptation. Still, if it is hard to see how White’s Jesus could be “like his brethren in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17), it is hard to see how Torrance’s view that Jesus assumed fallen humanity does not do violence to the nature of God.

The World of Persons

I’ve recently been reading a curious and delightful work of phenomenology, The World of Persons. Originally written as a dissertation, I believe, The World of Persons advances a deeply suggestive argument from its first pages. Charles Winckelmans de Cléty, S.J. begins by noting that we generally see and understand objects as both hermetically sealed individual units and as bearing meaning independent of the objects around them. A house bears its meaning apart from the yard upon which it sits, a window apart from its shutters, a nob apart from its door, and so forth. This way of viewing things, de Cléty contends, is entirely wrongheaded.

De Cléty begins with the number 6 on a clock, arguing that its meaning is not independent of the clock. The meaning of 6 on an alarm clock differs from the meaning of 6 in a sequence of even numbers on a number-line. Of course, the number 6 in the context of the clock “means something of its own,” for “its meaning is not identical with the meaning of the figure 3” (3). But does this mean the 6 bears meaning independently of the 3, or of the clock? Assuredly not. For if each element of the alarm clock—numbers, arms, the frame, screws, and so forth—bears its meaning independently, then the unity of the alarm clock, the fact that it bears meaning as a singular entity, becomes very difficult to make sense of.

De Cléty thus proposes that we ought “to look at the whole clock in order to understand the meaning of this figure 6: the whole clock gives it the precise meaning it has in the place which it occupies” (3). From this, he deduces that each part of the alarm clock’s meaning is determined by “communication with the other elements, its insertion in the whole” (3). The clock’s constituent members bear its totality within themselves, and the totality of the clock’s meaning includes the constituent members. “Each element of my alarm-clock has its individuality because it expresses the whole clock according to its particular modalities” (4, emphasis original).

Thus, meaning becomes reciprocal: the clock means what it does only because of its parts, and the parts mean what they do only in relation to the totality of the clock. Indeed, they bear within themselves the meaning of this totality, expressing it according to their own modalities. The meaning of the whole clock is in the screw, but in a “screw-y” way; the meaning of the whole clock is in the figure 6, but expressed differently than in the screw. “There is no such thing as an isolated object” (7).

Two Kingdoms, Two Men

“We set forth two worlds, as it were, one of them heavenly and the other earthly. Into these we place two kinds of righteousness, which are distinct and separated from each other.”

-Martin Luther

Luther’s doctrines of the two kingdoms and simul justus et peccator are two sides of the same coin. These arise, for Luther, from two kinds of righteousness, active and passive. Active righteousness is the righteousness one can and should attain in ordinary human affairs; it includes “ceremonial righteousness”, which comes from human religious traditions, “legal righteousness,” which is found in obedience to the law of God, and “political righteousness.” None of these forms of righteousness is bad, but all belong to this world, and all “consist in our works and can be achieved by us with ‘purely natural endowments’ or from a gift of God” (Commentary on Galatians, 4).

Active righteousness ought to be performed; it is a good of worldly life. The problem with active righteousness, for Luther, is not that it is bad; nor does Luther take issue with anything intrinsic to active righteousness. The problem, rather, is that fallen humans naturally believe these forms of righteousness count as meritorious before God: “human reason cannot refrain from looking at active righteousness” as grounds for its justification (5).

What humans need, however, is “heavenly righteousness,” which falls to us from God like rain falls to the earth (6). But in what does this “passive righteousness,” coming to us from outside ourselves, consist? It is “the righteousness of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, which we do not perform but receive, which we do not have but accept, when God the Father grants it to us through Jesus Christ” (6). Thus, Luther teaches a “precise distinction between these two kinds of righteousness, the active and the passive, so that morality and faith, works and grace, secular society and religion may not be confused.  Both are necessary, but both must be kept within their limits” (7).

The imputation of passive righteousness to us creates, Luther argued, what St. Paul called the “new man.” This new man “is joined to the promise and to grace” (7). As Paul writes, he is “not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14, cited by Luther). The old man, the man “of flesh and blood,” is still rightly constrained by the active righteousness enjoined by the Law; the new man, by contrast, “bears the image of the heavenly man,” who has “been made for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption from God” (1 Cor. 15:49, and Luther paraphrasing 1 Cor. 1:30, respectively).

The old man belongs to the kingdom of the world, the new to the kingdom of heaven. Thus, crucially, for Luther, the two kingdoms separate not, or, not primarily, believers and unbelievers, but the old man and the new man. These two kingdoms cut through every believer. The Law rightly has dominion over the old man, but the new man, the spiritual man, has “come forth into another kingdom,” ruled by Christ alone (11). In the worldly kingdom, good works make men righteous; in the heavenly kingdom, good works flow from man’s righteousness.

The Christian belongs to both worlds. Eventually, he will belong only to the heavenly. But until that day, he must navigate his dual citizenship, discerning what is right and proper in his life in the earthly world, and learning to live before God in the heavenly world by faith alone. This does not mean, of course, that the heavenly kingdom does not dictate the terms of the Christian’s life in the earthly kingdom. It certainly does. The Christian performs good works and acts of loving obedience to earthly authority precisely because “God wants this and…this obedience pleases Him” (12).

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, all depends upon a righteousness given by God and merely received by men.  “As the earth itself does not produce rain and is unable to acquire it by its own strength, worship, and power but receives it only by a heavenly gift from above, so this heavenly righteousness is given to us by God without our work or merit” (6).

Review: The Year of Our Lord 1943

Yesterday, my review of Alan Jacobs’ The Year of Our Lord 1943 was published on  the Scala Foundation blog

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis is a peculiar little book. It centers around the responses of five notable, 20th-Century intellectuals—Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis, and Simone Weil—to the crises of European and American society stemming from the cultural, political, and material carnage of the second World War. Jacobs focuses upon these intellectuals, none of whom knew the others especially well, because they responded to societal crisis by theorizing about how to fix the relationship between Christianity and society. This focus is precisely what makes The Year of Our Lord 1943 peculiar: the “main character” of the book is not a person or a set of people, but variations on an idea.

What was this idea? The authors Jacobs highlights all “thought it possible—and necessary—to restore Christianity to a central, if not the dominant, role in shaping Western societies.” Each author had certain distinctive ideas about why and how to go about accomplishing this task, but there is, as Jacobs demonstrates, a core thesis in common: this task had to involve concerted efforts to Christianize Western education…

Read the rest here.

Partially Formed Thoughts on Human Self-Understanding

It seems one’s self-understanding is primarily a function of one’s potentialities and the relationship of these potentialities to others and the world around oneself.  That is, who I am and who I understand myself to be cannot be properly articulated in merely metaphysical terms.  I must also make use of terms of relation based on the sorts of possibilities and relationships open to me on account of who and what I am. My conception of myself as a rational animal does not exhaust my self-understanding. I am a father, or a potential father, a son, a daughter, a brother, etc.

It is true that these relations are a function of who and what I am–a rational animal, a biological male, and so forth. In other words, these relations exist by virtue of my nature considered metaphysically.  But these relations, grounded in and entailed by who and what I am, in turn shape how I understand my nature. What does being rational mean to me if it does not entail, for example, the possibility of pursuing and finding truth?  What does being an animal mean if it does not necessitate pursuit of food and water? What does being male mean to me severed from the possibility of being a husband, a father, a brother? What does being a creature (already a term of relation) mean to me if the possibility of communion with the Creator is cut off?

Understanding oneself as a human, therefore, is not simply a question of understanding what this means metaphysically; it is also, and perhaps primarily, a question of understanding the relations and the potentialities which make possible those relations.  Metaphysics is necessary for this task, since nature sets the terms of the possible, but its role is preliminary. In this case, metaphysical knowledge exists to be transcended.

Tradition, Catholicity, and Luther

In his 1528 treatise opposing the Anabaptist practices of adult baptism and the rebaptism of those baptized as infants, Luther makes a striking argument for infant baptism: tradition.  In “Concerning Rebaptism,” Luther writes that, “since baptizing has been thus from the beginning of Christianity and the custom has been to baptize children…we should not make changes” (LW 40, 241).  One is only permitted to abandon a tradition, Luther continues, if it runs counter to the Word of God. Short of that, Christians should maintain traditions.  Far from holding, as his opponents have sometimes alleged, that he wished to abandon tradition or interpret Scripture apart from it, here Luther expressly defers to tradition in absence of clear Scriptural contradiction of it.

But why does Luther place such confidence in tradition?  Why is tradition a reliable guide?  In short, Luther takes seriously God’s providential rule of His Church.  “Were child baptism wrong, God would certainly not have permitted it to continue so long, nor let it become universally and thoroughly established in all Christendom” (255). God has not permitted heresies to perpetually torment the Church–they subsist for a season before falling away. Neither has God upheld the papacy, which “has never been accepted by all Christians of the world” (255).

With this sentence, Luther has just added another ground of authority in passing: catholicity.  God so guides His Church that He will permit her to fall into neither long-lived (considered according to millennia) nor universal error.  His guidance is so sure that, clear contrary teachings from Scripture excepted, the Christian ought to retain the traditions handed down to him.  For Luther, in short, reverence for tradition arises out of confidence in God’s providence over his Church. “For where we see the work of God we should yield and believe in the same way as when we hear his Word, unless the plain Scripture tells us otherwise” (256).

Where Am I? On Law, Lying, and Context in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

This was originally written in Fall 2018.

As this paper will endeavor to demonstrate, in Bonhoeffer’s early ethical thought, moral principles are, as such, rejected in favor of contextual decision-making; in his mature thought, however, Bonhoeffer assumes both that divine law is binding and that to know what it requires demands contextual awareness.  Where in his early thought Bonhoeffer rejected ethical principles in favor of contextual immediacy and obedience to God’s will as revealed in a given moment, in his mature thought he builds relationality and context into his definitions of acts, thereby freeing him to both consider the law binding and to account for the moment-by-moment responsibility of the Christian before God.  To demonstrate this shift, I will first investigate Bonhoeffer’s early ethical thought in “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic” and then turn attention to his late essay, “What Does it Mean to Tell the Truth?”

In his “Basic Question of a Christian Ethic,” Bonhoeffer immediately rejects the possibility of an ethic of fixed moral laws which must be applied to a variety of situations.  “There are not and cannot be Christian norms and principles of a given nature.”[1]  He provides a couple of reasons why he believes this to be the case.  First, ethics is a firmly this-worldly affair— “a matter of blood and a matter of history…its face changes with history.”[2]  As a result, ethical norms will vary from nation to nation and generation to generation.  “There is a German ethic as well as a French ethic and an American ethic,” and social developments in the past twenty years of German life “produced four spiritual or intellectual generations” with distinctive ethical sensibilities.[3]  It is important briefly to note that Bonhoeffer wrote this essay early in his career, prior to the rise of National Socialism in Germany; his appeals to “blood” and “nation” as ethically relevant categories will disappear subsequently.

Second, Bonhoeffer contends—channeling, he no doubt thought, Luther—that, at heart, ethics attempts to speak “of the path from [man] to God.”[4]  This, Bonhoeffer believed, opposes the heart of Christianity, for Christianity “speaks of grace while ethics speaks of righteousness.”[5]  For Bonhoeffer, then, ethics is a kind of category error from a Christian perspective.  It seeks to achieve by human strength what Christianity holds to be impossible: human merit in God’s sight.  Thus, Christian ethics is an absurd undertaking—a kind of square circle.

Bonhoeffer’s contention that Christianity and ethics are incompatible seems, as Bonhoeffer himself was well aware, decidedly awkward in light of the ubiquity of principles and commands in the New Testament.  He argues, however, that “the significance of all Jesus’ ethical commandments is rather to say to people: You stand before the face of God, God’s grace rules over you.”[6]  Ethical commandments are to impress upon the Christian, in the words of Bernd Wannenwetsch, that he is responsible “at the very place in which he finds himself placed.”[7]  One cannot fall back upon the Law; “God has a certain will and wants to see that will done,” and He will, presumably, “reveal the nature of that will” at the appropriate time.[8]

Indeed, the Christian can expect no consistency in this will of God.  The Christian must rather always “establish anew [his] relationship with God’s will.”[9]  As Kaiser writes, Bonhoeffer contended that, “for those in unity with God, there is no need to rely on a supposed understanding of good and evil to make moral decisions because one enjoys a direct relationship of obedience with God.”[10]  This, Bonhoeffer takes to be the New Testament’s “law of freedom.”  Furthermore, Bonhoeffer writes that “The Holy Spirit is found only in the present…not in fixed moral regulations or in an ethical principle.”[11]

In light of the apparent mutability of the divine will, the most striking, and perhaps disturbing, consequence of Bonhoeffer’s contextualism is hardly surprising.  Because the individual must listen for God’s will, and because God’s will in the situation at hand may not be the same as His will in the prior situation, “There are no acts that are bad in and of themselves; even murder can be sanctified.”[12]  As an aside, although Burtness, for instance, argues that Bonhoeffer belongs among the teleological ethicists rather than the situational ethicists, Bonhoeffer’s “The Basic Question of a Christian Ethic” seems firmly situational.[13]  His primary concern is not “the consequences of actions” but the “decisions appropriate to changing conditions and situations.”[14]

After making the provocative claim about murder, however, Bonhoeffer appears to temper his position.  While there may not be detailed ethical regulations given by God, there ought to be a general orientation to the Christian’s ethical decisions, and it is cruciform.  “In every instance the idea of the cross, as the example of God’s love…determines our actions, since it places divine love above all other characteristics of God.”[15]  In sum, then, in Bonhoeffer’s early ethical thought, fixed law and regulation is rejected in favor of an individual who is understood as responsible to the immediacy of God’s will in a given situation.  This will, the Christian can be confident, will have a generally cruciform contour, but this loving will of God may sanctify even murder, given the right circumstances.

Bonhoeffer’s mature ethical thought, as articulated in “What Does it Mean to Tell the Truth?” shares a remarkable similarity to his early thought insofar as it maintains a crucial role for responsible, contextual analysis of a situation.  But here, Bonhoeffer appears to have a more positive vision of ethical principles. Bonhoeffer claims both that the mandate to tell the truth is binding and that the truth can only be ascertained and spoken when one has analyzed one’s context and determined what speech best articulates reality.

Bonhoeffer begins his essay by noting the asymmetry in the relationship between parents and children.  Parents demand absolute truthfulness from the child and have every right to it, but the child does not have the same kind of right over the parents.[16]  Bonhoeffer takes as a consequence of this that truth-telling “means different things, depending on where one finds oneself.”[17]  He further contends that the relevant difference, which changes what it means to tell the truth in a given situation, is “whether and in what way a person is justified in demanding truthful speech from another.”[18]

At this point, Bonhoeffer’s definition of truth-telling becomes relevant.  He writes, “What is real is to be expressed in words.”[19]  This definition allows Bonhoeffer to build context into his definition of “truth,” for, as shall be shown, what is “real” includes not only that the words correspond to a given reality (“formal truth”) but also the relationship between the speaker and the person demanding truth.  Thus, he writes, “Quite apart from the truthfulness of its content, the relationship [a word] expresses between me and another person is already true or untrue.”[20]  Not only must the relationship be properly understood, but the words one speaks must also be understood as carrying a particular meaning within that relationship.  Speech to one’s family is not speech to one’s co-workers, etc.[21]  These various “orders of society” (family, state, other institutions, and so on) must respect one another, only demanding from the other orders information to which they have rights.

To illustrate this, Bonhoeffer provides a crucial illustrative example.  Suppose a teacher publicly asks a student whether his father is an alcoholic.  The student “perceives that this question is an unjustified invasion into the order of the family and must be warded off.”[22]  In other words, the student recognizes that the teacher has no right to the family’s business, let alone a right to make such business public.  Crucially, the teacher has “[disregarded] the reality of this order.”[23]  This puts the child in a bind: to answer the teacher “truthfully” would be to tell a lie about the relationship between the teacher and the order of the family, to falsely affirm that the teacher has some right to know the inner-workings of this order.  But if the child does not tell the teacher what his father does, he has spoken an untruth.  In effect, the student lies either way. Thus, as this example illustrates, lying should not be simply equated with “a formally untrue statement.”[24] Lying is not “the contradiction between thought and speech.”[25] Lying is, instead, the expression of unreality, including a wrong construal of the relationship between the speaker and the person to whom he speaks.

At this juncture, it is important to point out that Bonhoeffer does not mean to justify lying.  On the contrary, he writes that lying is “something downright reprehensible.”[26]  It is “a contradiction of the word of God as it was spoken in Christ and in which creation rests.”[27]  As if such language were not strong enough, he concludes that it is “the negation, denial, and deliberate and willful destruction of reality as it is created by God.”[28]  Precisely because Bonhoeffer defines truth-telling as speaking rightly about and in the context of reality, lying must be wrong speech which attacks reality, i.e. creation, itself.  This sheds light on Bonhoeffer’s comment in Ethics, for example, that Kant’s claim that he would give up a friend’s whereabouts to an intruder is “grotesque.”[29]  Although not articulated in these terms in the Ethics, for Bonhoeffer, Kant is not telling the truth about the way reality is constituted.  He misconstrues the proper relationship between the intruder, who has no right to know the friend’s whereabouts, and himself.  In sum, then, Bonhoeffer does not defend lying.  He argues instead that formal untruths may actually be truer than formal truths in particular circumstances; they may better express reality than a formal truth in a given situation.   We will return to this point below.

How, though, does one speak truthfully, on Bonhoeffer’s model?  Bonhoeffer gives three criteria by which the truthfulness of one’s speech may be judged.  First, it must recognize “who calls on me to speak and who authorizes me to speak.”[30]  Second, one must take account of one’s context, “the place in which [one stands],” and third, a statement must faithfully articulate the subject of one’s speech accurately in “this context.”[31]  There is, then, an obligation upon the individual to faithfully understand the context of a situation and to make a judgment about what kind of speech would constitute true speech in said context.  “Concrete responsibility, for Bonhoeffer, means to never lose sight of ‘the whole’, to which response is required.”[32]

Bonhoeffer defines truth in such a way that one’s context, and therefore one’s contextual obligations, becomes a constitutive element.  One cannot properly ascertain the truth without contextual awareness, and yet one is still obligated to tell the truth, to faithfully represent the created reality to the best of one’s ability.  The ethical obligation remains fixed as a general principle, but the principle demands responsible contextual assessment and decision-making.  It is, in fact, always and ever an offense against God to lie, but to know what constitutes a lie changes from situation to situation.  This stands in stark contrast with Bonhoeffer’s earlier thought, as explicated in “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic,” in which all ethical principles are abandoned in favor of contextual decision-making.  What Bonhoeffer has shifted fundamentally is the location of contextual consideration—the place in ethical decision-making at which context takes up its importance—from a replacement of principle to a necessary element in the definition of terms.  In so doing, Bonhoeffer is able to preserve ethical demands while simultaneously allowing for the responsibility that the Christian bears before God at every moment.

Above, this paper has examined Bonhoeffer’s “Basic Question of a Christian Ethic,” in which Bonhoeffer argued that Christianity and ethical principles are fundamentally incompatible because the former speaks of grace while the other speaks of righteousness.  It then analyzed Bonhoeffer’s “What Does it Mean to Tell the Truth?”, in which he argues that certain kinds of principles (in this instance, the commandment not to lie) are given by God and submitted to in obedience to God.  Finally, it argued that there is a development in Bonhoeffer’s thought between the two essays: in the former, context’s rightful place is in the moment of decision, as a substitute for applying a fixed command from God (or any other form of ethical principle).  In the latter, context’s rightful place is in assessing the situation so as to understand what the commandment means.  In the latter, Bonhoeffer does not argue for simply applying laws in different ways to different contexts; rather, he argues that we cannot understand the requirement of the law without context.  This way of articulating the relationship between principles and context leaves the burden of responsibility upon the Christian in the sight of God.  He cannot simply appeal to abstract laws or regulations.  Indeed, perhaps this responsibility is precisely what Bonhoeffer wished to save, for “responsibility is the entire response, in accord with reality, to the claim of God and my neighbor.”[33]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, eds. Clifford J. Green & Michael P. DeJonge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 75.

[2] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 75.

[3] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 75.

[4] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 77.

[5] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 77.

[6] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 79.

[7] Wannenwetsch, Bernd, “‘Responsible Living’ or ‘Responsible Self’? Bonhoefferian Reflections on a Vexed Moral Notion.” Studies in Christian Ethics 18, no. 3 (December 2005): 125–40. doi:10.1177/0953946805058804, 131.

[8] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 80.

[9] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 80.

[10] Joshua A. Kaiser, Becoming Simple and Wise: Moral Discernment in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Vision of Christian Ethics (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015), 28.

[11] Bonhoeffer,  The Bonhoeffer Reader,82.

[12] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 81.

[13] James H. Burtness, Shaping the Future: The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Fortress Press, 2009), 16.

[14] Burtness, Shaping the Future, 16.

[15] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 83.

[16] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 750.

[17] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 750.

[18] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 750.

[19] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 751.

[20] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 752.

[21] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 753.

[22] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 753.

[23] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 753.

[24] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 754.

[25] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 754.

[26] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 754.

[27] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 755.

[28] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 755.

[29] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Fortress Press, 2015), 197.

[30] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 755.

[31] Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 755.

[32] Bernd, “‘Responsible Living’ or ‘Responsible Self’?”, 131.

[33] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 197.