Theological Ethics

The Ultimate And The Penultimate – Bonhoeffer’s Twofold Contextualism In Adjudicating Competing Ethical Claims, Part 1 (W. Travis McMaken)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

The life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer quickly captured the imagination of theologians, clergy, and lay Christians in the years following the Second World War. His brave and theologically reflective involvement in the Abwehr plot to overthrow Hitler, and the untimely end he met as a result of that involvement, commended him to any Christian interested in bringing their Sunday faith with them to work and public service on Monday.

Furthermore, his Discipleship offered a fresh perspective on communal spirituality attractive to many clergy and laypeople, and his Letters and Papers from Prison became important – perhaps wrongly – for theologians interested in the death of God.[1] The Ethics, however, languished until the early 1980s, when a resurgence of Bonhoeffer research focused on determining the proper chronological arrangement of the Ethics fragments.[2] 

Given this background, it is interesting that one of the earliest substantial treatments of Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought would finally be critical of it. Larry Rasmussen argued already in the early 1970s that Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought is inadequate insofar as it provides no framework for adjudicating between “different claims to Christian ethics, all of which assert that they bring to expression the will of God.”[3] Furthermore, Rasmussen attributes this lack of framework not to the fragmentary, incomplete nature of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, but to its central motifs or, as Rasmussen puts it, “the most fundamental and most continuous elements.”[4]

The present essay contests Rasmussen’s claim. The twofold contextualism of Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought provides a robust framework for adjudication between competing ethical claims while also preserving the ethical freedom of the individual Christian before God. What follows will unpack this claim by providing an account of the central themes and logic of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, illustrated by his engagement with the ethical question of self-inflicted death. 

Parsing the Logic of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

The Ethics is not a unified treatise, nor even disparate chapters from what would be a unified treatise were it completed. Rather, it encompasses various exploratory beginnings and angles of attack for the work that Bonhoeffer intended to write.[5] This makes it difficult to get at the logic of Bonhoeffer’s thought in the Ethics, but it is not impossible. While each essay in the Ethics deserves careful scrutiny in its own right, it is also necessary to develop a more comprehensive and synthetic vision by analyzing the text in a primarily thematic rather than chronological manner.

One of Bonhoeffer’s pivotal aims in Ethics is the reclamation of Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine from what he considers improper use and interpretation. In this regard, “Bonhoeffer styles himself the true Lutheran.”[6] This concern arises in Bonhoeffer’s first essay, “Christ, Reality, and God.” Instead of viewing the “church” and the “world” as distinct and separate realms, Bonhoeffer argues that these two realms are inextricably united in Christ.

Treating them as distinct and separate would grant the world a sort of independence from God’s presence and action in the church that Bonhoeffer, thinking in christological categories, rejects. For Bonhoeffer, “the world has no reality of its own independent of God’s revelation in Christ…there are not two realms, but only the one realm of the Christ-reality [Christuswirklichkeit], in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united.”[7] The context for Bonhoeffer’s ethics is this vision of the world grounded in and interpreted by Christ. That is what he means by “reality.”

Furthermore, the unity of God and the world in a single Christ-reality is not a static condition established in the past. Rather, this intimate relation between God and the world is a dynamic unity that “established in Christ (repeats itself, or, more exactly) realizes itself again and again in human beings.”[8] The dynamic character of this continuing realization of the unity between God and world that is Christ-reality underscores that this unity must be the primary frame of reference for Christian existence. One betrays Christian existence by treating this unity as a stale reality, separable or distinct from the world in practice.

True Christian existence means, rather, that “belonging completely to Christ, one stands at the same time completely in the world” because “there is no real Christian existence outside the reality of the world. … For the Christian there is nowhere to retreat from the world, neither externally nor into the inner life.”[9] As James Woelfel helpfully summarizes, “God is to be found in the midst of the world and nowhere else.”[10]

Bonhoeffer’s fifth essay, “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” provides further conceptual specificity to the relationship between God and the world. The world’s reality as established and revealed in Christ is the ultimate. The penultimate is the world as conceived apart from Christ, either as temporally preceding Christ’s advent or as persisting in the stage of already-but-not-yet after that advent and until the parousia. The central question here is this: What is the relationship between the ultimate and the penultimate? There are two inadequate ways of conceptualizing this relation.

The first, “radical solution” conceives “only the complete demolition of the penultimate” where “Christ is the destroyer and enemy of everything penultimate and everything penultimate is the enemy of Christ.” This approach to the relation between ultimate and penultimate highlights Christ’s judgment, and Bonhoeffer rightly recognizes that such an emphasis on the ultimate can lead to a lack of concern for the penultimate. If Christ is all, the logic might go, then all else is nothing. Or, as Bonhoeffer puts it in more evocative language, “The world has to burn.”[11]

Second, there is the compromise solution: the ultimate makes no claim upon the penultimate so that the penultimate “retains its inherent rights…[and] is not threatened or endangered by the ultimate.” This approach to the relation between ultimate and penultimate highlights Christ’s mercy, and Bonhoeffer rightly recognizes that such maintenance of the penultimate against the ultimate can result in their separation. This is the state of affairs that Bonhoeffer protested against in his reclamation of Luther’s two-kingdom doctrine described previously, namely, the sort of Christian existence that fails to engage with the world. Worse still, it could be that the ultimate would finally serve—as it did in German Christianity—“as an eternal justification of all that exists.”[12] 

These two inadequate conceptions of the relation between ultimate and penultimate do not result from failing to think about that relation out of a center in Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus Christ is the keystone in both these conceptions. Neither of them violate Bonhoeffer’s dictum that “the relationship between the ultimate and the penultimate is resolved only in Christ.”[13] It is the reductive understandings of Christ at work in these conceptions that make them inadequate.

They do not hold together Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection in their proper unity.  Instead, they absolutize one of these aspects and neglect the others. Bonhoeffer spells this out clearly: “A Christian ethic built only on the incarnation would lead easily to the compromise solution; an ethic built only on the crucifixion or only on the resurrection of Jesus Christ would fall into radicalism and enthusiasm. The conflict is resolved in their unity.”[14]

Only by considering Christ in the unity of incarnation, cross, and resurrection is it possible to discern the proper relation of ultimate to penultimate. Bonhoeffer frequently returns to this trifold elucidation of Christ’s work. He elaborates it briefly in “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” but it receives more fulsome treatment in “Ethics as Formation” through an elaboration of the Latin translation of Pilate’s exhortation in John 19:5, Ecco homo – “behold the man.” First, we behold Jesus Christ as God incarnate, the embodiment of God’s love for the world. God unites Godself not to ideal humanity in the incarnation but “takes on human nature as it is” in its sinfulness.[15]

This underscores God’s love for humanity in all its sin and weakness, rather than humanity as ideally conceived. Second, we behold in the cross of Jesus Christ the reconciling judgment of God. Peace between God and humanity, and among humanity, is possible only “by executing God’s judgment on God,” which is accomplished because of “the love of God for the world, for human beings.”[16] The judgment and reconciliation with God that occurred in Jesus Christ obtains for all human beings insofar as they are in Christ. This is a scandal to worldly eyes, in that it is only by death (judgment) that there can be life (reconciliation). Third, we behold in Jesus Christ the one who has arisen. There is not only death, but also resurrection. New life has arrived. While the penultimate persists, Jesus Christ takes humanity beyond it.

As Bonhoeffer writes: “In Jesus Christ, the one who became human was crucified and is risen; humanity has become new…The new human being has been created.”[17] The pattern here is that God affirms God’s love for the penultimate (humanity and the world as it is separated from God in sin) in the incarnation, God judges the penultimate in the crucifixion, and God inaugurates a new mode of existence that moves beyond the penultimate without destroying it in the resurrection.

It is only in light of the ultimate that the penultimate becomes penultimate, and vice-versa. As Bonhoeffer argues, the penultimate is and “must be preserved for the sake of the ultimate.”[18] The penultimate, sinful world must exist if human beings are going to come to faith in the ultimate, Jesus Christ. Christians must contribute to this work of preservation or, as Bonhoeffer consistently calls it with allusion to Isaiah 40 and Matthew 3, “preparing the way.”

This preparatory task does not in any sense make grace a human possibly. Bonhoeffer insists that “grace must finally clear and smooth its own way; it alone must again and again make the impossible possible.”[19] Christians can, however—Bonhoeffer insists—remove penultimate obstacles to the event of grace. Ján Liguš rightly explains that circumstances of “desolation, poverty, exploitation, oppression, and hunger…make it nearly impossible to believe in God’s justice and might.”[20]

The goal, then, is not to bring about the ultimate through all too human and penultimate activity, but to—in whatever halting and imperfect ways possible—establish conditions in the penultimate realm that minimize the obstacles that oppose encounter with the ultimate. This work is, to be sure, a relative measure: the penultimate remains sinful and estranged from God apart from the presence and activity of Christ.

Still, it is not a matter of no concern that the penultimate correspond relatively more than less to the ultimate. Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “To give the hungry bread is not yet to proclaim to them the grace of God and justification, and to have received bread does not yet mean to stand in faith. But for the one who does something penultimate for the sake of the ultimate, this penultimate thing is related to the ultimate. It is the pen-ultimate.”[21]

This account of the relationship between ultimate and penultimate calls church and Christian to an existence characterized by freedom and responsibility. Bonhoeffer discusses this in his second essay on “History and Good.” It is important to correctly identify the whence and whither of this freedom and responsibility, however. “Responsibility [Verantwortung]” is a life “lived in response [Antwort] to the life of Jesus Christ.”[22] It comes from and returns to the ultimate, Jesus Christ, but it does so by way of the penultimate.

Christians are responsible before Christ for those aspects of the penultimate that have been entrusted to their care. This undergirds Bonhoeffer’s claim that “the attention of responsible people is directed to concrete neighbors in their concrete reality.”[23] Christ calls people of faith to exercise responsible care for those aspects of the penultimate within their purview. 

Lest this responsibility seem overwhelming, Bonhoeffer’s treatment of freedom provides balance. As with responsibility, freedom comes from and returns to the ultimate by way of the penultimate. Because of the reconciliation wrought by Jesus Christ, Christians are freed from all else that would claim the right to judge their actions. Not even the conscience retains such a position: “Jesus Christ is the one who sets the conscience free for the service of God and neighbor.”[24] The consequence of Christ’s reconciling work is that it is only Christ who ultimately judges human action.

Christians are freed from the necessity of self-justification by means of any penultimate authority, freed to carry on with living in accordance to their responsibility for those aspects of the penultimate entrusted to their care. It is in this way that “responsibility and freedom are mutually corresponding concepts.”[25] Christ frees human beings from the need to seek justification in the penultimate for the actions that they undertake in caring responsibility for the penultimate. 

The result of this coupling of freedom and responsibility is a movement in Christian ethics beyond “an ultimately dependable knowledge of good and evil.”[26] Because the Christian stands reconciled with God, the question that arises when faced with the need to act with free responsibility toward the penultimate is not whether a proposed course of action is morally good or evil, but whether that proposed course of action is better or worse for those it intends to serve. With one’s justification before God settled in Christ, the only pertinent question that remains is this: Which course of action is better for my neighbor, on whose behalf I propose to act? One who acts in freedom and responsibility, Bonhoeffer writes, “dares to act and leaves the judgment about good and evil up to God.”[27]

Bonhoeffer does not descend into antinomianism, however. He reflects on the extent to which the law of God revealed in the Decalogue and in the divine mandates might establish a “boundary for any responsible action.”[28] This is a serious consideration, but one that Bonhoeffer ultimately subordinates to Jesus Christ, who is “the ultimate reality to whom [responsible activity] is responsible.”[29] Law finally gives way to gospel; or, better, Bonhoeffer refuses to separate the law from its giver.

While the law is invaluable for establishing general guidelines for exercising responsible care of the penultimate, situations may arise where violation of the law becomes a necessity for such care. However, violation of the law in those cases does not constitute a rejection of the law; rather, what occurs in those situations is an “act of breaking the law to sanctify it,” or a “suspension of the law” that “serve[s] its true fulfillment.”[30]

How, then, do Christians become the sort of people who act in this freely responsible way? It is largely to answer such a question that Bonhoeffer writes his essay on “Ethics as Formation.” The core idea here is that Christians are to assume the form of Jesus Christ or, better, that Christ takes form in Christians and the church. As Bonhoeffer says in no uncertain terms, “‘Formation’ means…Jesus Christ taking form in Christ’s church.”[31] This taking form of Jesus Christ in the church does not mean that Christians become repetitions or exact imitations of Christ. Even less does it mean that humans become ontologically divine. Rather, it means that church and Christians develop patterns of free and responsible activity in relation to the world that reflect—in their own capacity and context—the trifold form of Jesus Christ as incarnate, crucified, and resurrected. 

It is here that the divine mandates, which Bonhoeffer introduces in the essay “Christ, Reality, and Good” but which appear throughout the Ethics, have a significant role to play. The divine mandates are work, marriage or family, government, and church. Bonhoeffer insists that these mandates do not exist independent of Jesus Christ, and thus do not provide the basis for some sort of naturally derived ethics. Indeed, they “are divine…only because of their original and final relation to Christ.”[32] Still, their rather traditionalist appearance justify questions as to whether Bonhoeffer successfully avoids the spectre of natural theology here.

Two points are especially relevant in this connection. First, Bonhoeffer grounds his mandates in Scripture rather than an empirical or generalizing study of nature. Bonhoeffer is clear about this when he introduces the mandates, noting that “scripture names four…mandates.”[33] There is more to say about Bonhoeffer’s implicit hermeneutics here, especially in conversation with the concept of Sachkritik.[34] But it is clear that Bonhoeffer intends to ground the mandates on special rather than general revelation, so to speak. Second, no less an authority on the avoidance of natural theology than Karl Barth finds no reason to reject Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the mandates as revealed. The mandates “do not emerge from reality,” Barth says, “they descend into it.”[35]

Rasmussen is correct when he describes the mandates in Bonhoeffer’s thought as “the media of conformation.”[36] They are conceptual designations for webs of relationship wherein Christians conform to Christ by crafting lives of free responsibility. Furthermore, each of these webs of relationship presents a specific set of responsibilities.

For instance, the mandate of marriage or family presents the responsibilities of parent to child, child to parent, and of spouse to spouse, while the mandate of government presents the responsibility of governor to citizen, officer of the law to criminal, etc. Key here is Bonhoeffer’s commitment to understanding responsibility as a product of relationship. As webs of relationship that presents specific responsibilities, the mandates provides a concrete context for asking the question of “how Christ may take form among us today and here.”[37]

W. Travis McMaken is Associate Professor of Religion, Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies, and Assistant Dean in the School of Humanities at Lindenwood University. He is the author of Our God Loves Justice (Fortress Press, 2017) and The Sign of the Gospel (Fortress Press, 2013).


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed., Geffrey Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barabara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001); Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Nancy Lukens, Lisa E. Dahill, and Isabel Best, vol. 8, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010).

[2] Ilse Tödt, “Preparing the German Edition of Ethics,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Richard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 467. 

[3] Larry L. Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance, Studies in Christian Ethics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1972), 151. 

[4] Rasmussen, Reality and Resistance, 150. 

[5] For a helpful discussion of these “fresh starts,” see Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage, ed. Edwin Robertson, trans. Eric Mosbacher, et al. (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 622-26.

[6] Craig J. Slane, Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), 186. For information on the targets of Bonhoeffer’s intra-Lutheran criticism with reference to the two-kingdoms doctrine, see Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 56n36. For a valuable overview of Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine, see Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986), 186–93.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethik, eds., Ilse Tödt, Heinz Eduard Tödt, Ernst Feil, and Clifford Green, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (Munic: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1992), 43–4 ; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Richard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 58. Or, as Rasmussen puts it, “Reality is the world as accepted by God in Jesus Christ.”  Larry L. Rasmussen, “The Ethics of Responsible Action,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 216.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 44–45; Ethics, 59.

[9] Ibid., Ethik, 47–48; Ethics, 61–62. Perhaps we encounter here the theological seed whose logic would later bear fruit in Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the need for a “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 363.

[10] James. W. Woelfel, Bonhoeffer’s Theology: Classical and Revolutionary (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1970), 154.

[11] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 144–45; Ethics, 153 (rev.).

[12] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 145; Ethics, 154.

[13] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 148; Ethics, 157.

[14] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 149; Ethics, 157.

[15] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 71; Ethics, 85.

[16] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 75; Ethics, 88.

[17] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 78; Ethics, 91.

[18] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 152; Ethics, 160

[19] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 154; Ethics, 162.

[20] Ján Liguš, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Ultimate, Penultimate and Their Impact,” in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics: Old Europe and New Frontiers, ed. Guy Carter, et al. (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1991), 64.

[21] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 154; Ethics, 163 (rev.). The English translation transposes Bonhoeffer’s emphasis. The German text gives “Vor-Letztes,” or “pen-ultimate” (as above), rather than “Vor-Letztes,” which one would expect from the Ethics translation, “pen-ultimate.”   

[22] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 254; Ethics, 254 (rev.).

[23] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 260; Ethics, 261 (rev.).

[24] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 279; Ethics, 279.

[25] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 283; Ethics, 283.

[26] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 285; Ethics, 284. As Bonhoeffer says in his exposition of Genesis 3, to raise the abstract question of good and evil—even in an pstensibly pious way—“requires humankind to sit in judgment on God’s word instead of simply listening to it and doing it.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax, vol. 3, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004),

[27] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 288; Ethics, 287–88. As Wannenwetsch describes Bonhoeffer’s thought in this regard, “Trusting in the grace and justification that they have received, Christians can leave the judgment about their individual deeds to God.” Bernd Wannenwetsch, “‘Responsible Living’ or ‘Responsible Self’? Bonhoefferian Reflections on a Vexed Moral Notion,” Studies in Christian Ethics 18, no. 3 (2005): 140.

[28] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 297; Ethics, 296.

[29] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 298; Ethics, 297.

[30] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 298–99; Ethics, 297.

[31] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 84; Ethics, 96.

[32] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 55–56; Ethics, 69.

[33] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 54; Ethics, 68. Going beyond this, Brian Brock ties Bonhoeffer’s thinking about the mandates to his contemporaneous engagement with Psalm 119. He concludes that the mandates are ways of conceptualizing strands of Scripture for the purpose of discernment. See, Brian Brock, “Bonhoeffer and the Bible in Christian Ethics: Psalm 119, the Mandates, and Ethics as a ‘Way’,” Studies in Christian Ethics 18, no. 3 (2005): 27.

[34] For more on Sachkritik, see David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 714–37, and especially his discussion of the debate between Bultmann and Karl Barth on this subject on pp. 723–737.

[35] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, 4 volumes in 13 part vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956-75), III/4, 22. Holbrook argues that Bonhoeffer’s account is not as dependent on revelation as Bonhoeffer and others have claimed. He bases this contention on a consideration of christology, arguing that God’s becoming incarnate presupposes that there is such a thing as humanity existing independently of Christ. See, Clyde A. Holbrook, “The Problem of Authority in Christian Ethics,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 37, no. 1 (1969): 40. Holbrook’s charge ultimately fails for two reasons. First, he has failed to distinguish between logical presupposition and temporal presupposition. It is, of course, the case that human beings existed chronologically prior to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But, the Augustinian tradition—of which Bonhoeffer and his Lutheranism are a part—understands the particular humanity of Jesus Christ to be the logical presupposition even of God’s creative work. Second, Holbrook seems unaware of the anhypostatic christological point, namely, that the incarnation does not mean that the divine Son assumes an already existing human identity. Rather, the human identity of Jesus of Nazareth exists only in conjunction with and as a result of the Son’s assumption of it. To claim otherwise would be to lapse into a sophisticated adoptionism. 

Regardless of all this, it is certainly possible and necessary to subject both Bonhoeffer and Barth’s thought to searching criticism to elucidate how their social situation as privileged men in patriarchal European society shaped what they thought was “natural” about humanity and the world.

[36] Rasmussen, Reality and Resistance, 29.

[37] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 87; Ethics, 99.

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