Ethics

By Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Ilse Tödt et al. | Go to book overview

NATURAL LIFE[1]

163 THE CONCEPT OF THE natural has fallen into disrepute in Protestant ethics.[2] For some theologians it was completely lost in the darkness of general sinfulness, whereas for others it took on the brightness of the primal creation.[3] Both were grave misuses that led to the complete

[1.] This title, which is also the title of Ethics working notes Nos. 50 and 21 (ZE 55 and 35), appears a second time below, page 178. In a letter of December 10, 1940, Bonhoeffer wrote: “I am now beginning the section on ‘natural life’” (DBW 16 [l/45]:92). The letter is written on paper with the watermark “F.S.G. 1940.” Such paper is used for the first time at the beginning of this chapter in this manuscript, which was written in Ettal. It alternates in the manuscript with light double sheets, such as are used for “Ultimate and Penultimate Things.”

[2.] For Bonhoeffer’s earlier uses of the concept of the natural see, for example, D (DBWE 4): 143 and CF (DBWE 3):126f. [These usages are different from that in Ethics; the usage in Creation and Fall is very similar to the first view rejected here. For usage that anticipates Ethics, see Green, Bonhoeffer, 197ff, on the human being as spirit and nature, and 217ff., on the correlation of sacrament and nature in the 1933 Christology lectures.] [CG]

[3.] Concerning the position described as “for some,” see Bonhoeffer’s warning against the argument, “we remain sinners ‘even in the best life’” (D [DBWE 4]:43–44); “even in the best life” is a phrase in verse 2 of the German original of Luther’s hymn, “Out of the depths I have cried to you,” Lutheran Book of Worship, No. 295. [In verse 2 of the English rendition the closest words to this phrase are “all our good works are done in vain.”] [CG] After the rediscovery by Johannes Weiss and others of the thoroughly eschatological character of the message of Jesus and the apostles, there was a tendency in Protestant theology, consistent with this two-age schema, to see the contemporary world only as sinful and to pay no theological attention to the natural. Advocates of the opposite position—the position described as “for others”—conceived of the natural as that part of the creation not lost in the fall. Here the ethical orientation was determined not by the reconciliation of fallen humanity through Christ, but by reaching back behind Christ to creation, which then might be understood as corresponding to an original revelation. Paul Althaus, for example, writes that Lutheranism recognizes “norms for the concrete form of orders, in the reality of creation itself as God’s word expounds it, and in natural law, about which we know somewhat even though our knowledge is darkened by sin” (Der

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