Theological Ethics

The Ultimate And The Penultimate – Bonhoeffer’s Twofold Contextualism In Adjudicating Competing Ethical Claims, Part 2 (W. Travis McMaken)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

Self-Inflicted Death: Bonhoeffer’s Ethic in Action

Reflecting on the development of Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought, Rasmussen notes that, in the portions of the Ethics that deal with particular ethical questions, “the method of deciding, still done contextually, takes the form of something approaching casuistic reasoning.”[1] If by “casuistic reasoning” Rasmussen means a general process of deliberation and discernment concerned with ascertaining what the best response might be to a particular situation, then he would be correct.

But, this is highly unlikely given the technical nature of the term and the conceptual distinction that Rasmussen himself implies between a more mundane “method of deciding” and casuistry, which generally denotes a way of negotiating the conflict of abstract moral principles as they apply in a particular situation.[2] The following consideration of Bonhoeffer’s treatment of self-inflicted death shows that application of abstract moral principles is far from Bonhoeffer’s mind as he turns from his more theoretical material to the consideration of particular ethical issues. 

Bonhoeffer most extensively engages in reflection on particular ethical questions in his essay entitled, “Natural Life.” Three features of this essay lend themselves to misinterpretation by those who are inclined to find casuistry in Bonhoeffer. First, while the term “natural” has negative connotations for many due to the castigation of natural theology by Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer speaks of the natural as the state of creation after the Fall insofar as it is “directed toward the coming of Jesus Christ.”[3] That is, the natural is that condition of creation after the Fall whereby God preserves its being in the face of sin for the sake of God’s saving will. Bonhoeffer treats the natural in relation to Christ much as he does the relation between ultimate and penultimate.

Indeed, he makes this connection explicit: “Only in Christ’s becoming human does natural life become the penultimate that is directed toward the ultimate.”[4] It is because of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ that creaturely existence is preserved in the wake of sin and, as it is preserved, it serves that saving work. 

The second aspect of Bonhoeffer’s essay that might seem to imply casuistry is the place that he assigns to reason in the knowledge of the natural. Reason is the organ by which one knows the natural. Two caveats must be made to understand this rightly, however. To begin, Bonhoeffer is perfectly clear that reason is both creaturely and fallen. It is “completely embedded in the natural” and “is not a divine principle of cognition and order in human beings, superior to the natural.”[5]

Furthermore, that which reason knows—the natural—is nothing more (or less) than the created order as it is preserved in the face of sin. What reason knows, as such, is the existence of the world and that which supports the continuation of this existence. What reason knows in light of Christ is that God wills the continuation of this existence for the sake of God’s salvific work. 

Finally, the third point that might seem to imply casuistry is the emphasis Bonhoeffer places on the right to bodily life. This right guides Bonhoeffer’s thinking through the particular ethical questions he addresses. But, importantly, this right to bodily life is not an abstract principle of the sort that could generate casuistry. Though reason knows bodily life as integral to the existence of the world, it is only in light of Christ that one can speak of a right to bodily life: “Since by God’s will human life on earth exists only as bodily life, the body has a right to be preserved for the sake of the whole person.”[6] The right to bodily life is not an abstract principle, then, but a commitment based in the relation of the penultimate to the ultimate as demonstrated in Jesus Christ. 

Rather than providing a foundation for casuistic reasoning, Bonheoffer grounds all three of these aspects of his thought firmly in Christ. Examining Bonhoeffer’s treatment of particular ethical questions, and especially his treatment of self-inflicted death, further underscores this conclusion. Bonhoeffer begins with a point ascertained from reason, namely, that humans are distinct from other non-human animals in that they are capable of “voluntarily bring[ing] death upon themselves.”[7] It is this freedom with relation to bodily life that makes human life what it is. Without this freedom, there could be no freedom for God in the sacrifice of life. Thus, it is on the basis of a penultimate, ascertained from reason, that Bonhoeffer considers the ultimate in providing a theological interpretation of self-inflicted death. 

Bonhoeffer makes a fundamental distinction between self-inflicted death as sacrifice—such as in giving up space in the lifeboat of a sinking ship, or in using “one’s own body to shield the body of a friend from a bullet”—and self-inflicted death as self-murder.[8] Bonhoeffer concludes that the former is an acceptable actualization of the Christian’s free responsibility before God to serve others. This conclusion is consistent with the weight of Christian tradition on the subject. But Bonhoeffer’s own logic pushes him in this direction because Christ’s entire life, and especially in his crucifixion, provides the quintessential example of such self-sacrifice. As such, it is part of what it can mean for Christians to conform to Christ. 

Bonhoeffer defines self-murder as self-inflicted death where “a person acts exclusively and consciously out of personal self-interest.”[9] Whereas self-sacrifice occurs when one’s life of free responsibility before God and in service of neighbor necessitates laying down that life for the benefit of others, Bonhoeffer understands self-murder as an attempt to usurp God’s right over the end of human life. As such, it is “the ultimate and extreme self-justification of the human being as human,” which is to say, it is “the sin of unbelief.”[10]

Importantly, however, Bonhoeffer admits that he can only make this claim from the perspective of the ultimate. There is no compelling reason to condemn self-murder from the vantage of the penultimate alone. If the right to bodily life is not grounded in God, if it is only a penultimate consideration, then that right is grounded only in the individual human person as one who possesses that life. But who is to say that the individual cannot surrender this possession? 

There is a further important nuance in Bonhoeffer’s treatment that shows his deep engagement with the penultimate concerns surrounding self-inflicted death. As soon as he defines self-murder as self-inflicted death arising from exclusive and conscious self-interest, he hastens to add: “But who would dare to speak with certainty about this exclusivity and this consciousness?”[11] Bonhoeffer is sensitive to the ambiguities and complexities of penultimate life and, while he is clear that selfishly motivated self-inflicted death falls outside the bounds of human action taken in free responsibility with reference to the ultimate, he nonetheless refuses to pass judgment on those who succumb to what recognizes can be a very real temptation to this terrifyingly final act. “Who would say,” he asks, “that under this most severe temptation [Anfechtung] the grace of God cannot embrace and bear even failure?”[12]

Bonhoeffer is not engaged in casuistry when it comes to addressing particular ethical questions. Rather, both his answers to these questions and the framework within which he answers them are directly related to his more theoretical—and, fundamentally, theological—considerations. He consistently explicates penultimate as penultimate, that is, in light of the ultimate found in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, he undertakes at every point to discern how a Christian might act within a particular context with free responsibility before God and for neighbor in a manner that conforms to Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s Twofold Contextualism

Having now spent considerable time with Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, it will be helpful to pause briefly and consider what type of ethics—broadly conceived—best fits Bonhoeffer. Palmer divides the field of normative ethics into two camps, the deontological and the teleological.[13] The former is concerned with an act as such and how it succeeds or fails in corresponding to a universal standard of the morally right or good, while the latter considers an action in terms of its consequences.

Bonhoeffer consistently rejects both of these approaches, doing so programmatically early in the Ethics’ first essay, “Christ, Reality, and Good.” He argues that both approaches are ultimately reductive: “The question of good must not be narrowed to investigating the relation of actions to their motives, or to their consequences, measuring them by a ready-made ethical standard. An ethic of disposition or intention is just as superficial as an ethic of consequences.”[14] The reference to consequentialism is clear while that to deontology is veiled behind the language of motive.

This language is an allusion to Immanuel Kant, who made much of the importance of a will that is good “not because of what it performs or effects,” that is, in terms of consequences resulting from the will’s activity, but “is good in itself.”[15] Further, it is wrong to characterize Bonhoeffer as a natural lawyer since his mandates are not given by nature. Nor does his work finally fit within the realm of virtue ethics, despite his discussion of conformation, because the acquisition and possession of virtue is not his goal. 

H. Richard Niebuhr’s typological analysis comes closer to properly characterizing Bonhoeffer. Conceptually re-describing teleological ethics as “man-as-maker” and deontological ethics as “man-the-citizen,” he highlights the importance of responsibility in thinking about “man-the-answerer.” Understanding the moral life in terms of responsibility means thinking about “an agent’s action as response to an action upon him in accordance with his interpretation of the latter action and with his expectation of response to his response; and all of this is in a continuing community of agents.”[16]

Niebuhr here provides a way of thinking about a contextual ethic, that is, an ethic concerned with the concrete context in which one encounters a demand for action, with the resources that one has for choosing and pursuing a course of action, and with the community to which one is accountable. Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought is closest to this contextual line.

If Bonhoeffer’s is a contextual ethic, however, what sort of contextual ethic is it? Answering this question will highlight the resources at Bonhoeffer’s disposal for adjudicating between different ethical proposals. The contextuality that characterizes Bonhoeffer’s ethics is twofold. First, there is a contextualism of the ultimate. Bonhoeffer brings his particular theological imagination to bear on his context. This particularity constitutes the contextualism of the ultimate in his ethics.

Bonhoeffer’s conceptual tools—such as the divine mandates, the life of free responsibility before God and for neighbor, and the trifold form of Christ that takes form in the lives of church and Christian—are all aspects of this contextuality. Consequently, theological argumentation surrounding these and other aspects of Bonhoeffer’s contextualism of the ultimate provide tools for adjudicating between competing ethical proposals. For instance, it means something if Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the trifold form of Christ is correct insofar as it is a theological argument that has direct relevance for ethical thinking. In Bonhoeffer’s ethics, the entire scope of theological inquiry has become a field of contest for adjudicating between competing ethical claims. 

Second, there is a contextualism of the penultimate. Bonhoeffer’s ethical approach is not interested in questions of good and evil absolutely conceived. Asking—and, especially, trying to answer!—those questions become improper forms of self-justification because of the reconciliation between God and humanity achieved in Jesus Christ. The question that matters as church and Christian prepare to act in free responsibility is whether or not a proposed action will serve the preservation of the penultimate and its preparation for the ultimate, that is, whether a proposed action “helps my neighbor to be a human being before God.”[17] Sensitivity to the penultimate context is vitally important here, for one must ascertain whether an action will have the desired effect.

Thus, engagement with the whole of penultimate sociological, political, economic, psychological, and any otherwise characterized inquiry is required. This inquiry presents an expansive field for adjudication between ethical proposals as the potential effects of these competing proposals are ascertained and weighed.

Has Bonhoeffer reintroduced consequentialism in this contextualism of the penultimate? His rejection of consequential analysis as a mode of determining the moral quality of an act still holds. No amount of penultimate analysis will determine whether an act is good or evil. Attempting such a determination is a sinful act of self-justification, as discussed previously.

Furthermore, Bonhoeffer notes that such analysis is infinite in scope, which means that it is an entirely arbitrary exercise to halt that inquiry at any given point and make a judgment about an act’s moral quality.[18] Rather than attempting to determine an act’s moral quality, penultimate analysis on Bonhoeffer’s model merely attempts to determine what is a more or less responsible act in its particular penultimate context. After suitable penultimate analysis, one must finally leave the final judgment of moral quality to God and act in free responsibility. 

Rasmussen contends that these contextual considerations do not “have any necessary methodological connection to [Bonhoeffer’s] christological ethics.”[19] In other words, they are attempts to plug practical holes that his more theoretical approach—grounded theologically in Christ—is unable to address.

This is incorrect. It is precisely Bonhoeffer’s christology that leads him to engagement with the world, and it is again this ultimate in Jesus Christ that frees him for such engagement. As Ziegler rightly discerns on this point, Bonhoeffer affirms that “there is freedom to be about the penultimate and worldly things of human life, not in spite of what is ultimate, but because of it and for its sake.”[20]


In the volume wherein he charges that the core commitments of Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought provide no framework for adjudicating between various Christian ethical proposals, Rasmussen’s focus is on Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the Abwehrresistance to Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s resistance work was only one of two primary motivations that lay behind his work in the Ethics, however. Bonhoeffer’s other motivation was the “desire to contribute to the reconstruction of life in Germany and the West in the peace that would follow the war.”[21] The present essays provides a reading that honors this motivation.

The ethical paradigm that emerges from such a reading allows and compels the Christian to act in free responsibility before God and in service of the neighbor, within the context of the relationships conceptually organized by the divine mandates, for the preservation of the penultimate and its preparation for the ultimate, and in correspondence with the trifold form of Christ. It involves a twofold contextualism provides a robust framework for adjudication between competing ethical claims insofar as it brings a particular understanding of the ultimate to bear on a particular situation within penultimate existence with the goal of preserving and promoting what is good about that existence. The whole scope of theological inquiry and the whole scope of inquiry about the penultimate world—including sociological, political, economic, psychological, or any otherwise characterized inquiry—provide the fields of contest for such adjudication. 

It is certainly true that Bonhoeffer envisages “extraordinary situation[s]” and “borderline cases [Grenzfälle]” where one must risk actions that contradict the usual guidelines within both ultimate (i.e., the Decalogue) and penultimate (i.e., civil law) contexts.[22] The existence of such cases, and the necessity of such action, results from a disorder in the penultimate situation and not from a disorder in the ultimate.

Such actions truly are a last resort, required when the penultimate threatens its own preservation. In such a situation, church and Christian may find that they are called to act against the penultimate for the sake of the penultimate. But, even here, they undertake that action in free responsibility before God and in service of the neighbor, within the context of the relationships conceptually organized by the divine mandates, for the preservation of the penultimate and its preparation for the ultimate, and in correspondence with the trifold form of Christ.[23]

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] Larry L. Rasmussen, “A Question of Method,” in New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, ed. William J. Peck, Toronto Studies in Theology (Lewison, NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1987), 111. 

[2] This definition of ‘casuistry’ is based on that given by The Oxford English Dictionary, ed. J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[3] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 165; Ethics, 173. 

[4] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 166; Ethics, 174.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 167; Ethics, 174.

[6] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 179; Ethics, 185.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 192; Ethics, 196. Concerning Bonhoeffer’s treatment of suicide in general, Roark comments that Bonhoeffer “is weaker in dealing with suicide” than he is with reference to some of the other ethical problems he addresses. Dallas M. Roark, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Makers of the Modern Theological Mind (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1972), 100.  Roark does not, however, offer an argument for why this is the case. 

[8] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 198; Ethics, 201–202. It makes sense for Bonhoeffer to draw on examples of self-sacrifice from the context of military life given that he wrote this material during World War 2. Many of his family members, friends, and associates were involved in the war effort. It is less clear for contemporary readers why suicide might pose such a pressing issue. However, suicide levels were elevated in Germany during this period. For a thorough sociopolitical analysis of this phenomenon, see Chrsitian Goeschel, Suicide in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Eva Bildt’s life and death provides a particularly poignant example that occurred within Bonhoeffer’s orbit, although at the edges. She was engaged to Helmut Gollwitzer, one of Karl Barth’s students and an acquaintance of Bonhoeffer’s. Eva and her father, Paul, attempted suicide together as the Soviet army occupied Berlin in April 1945. She succeeded. See W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 39–40.

[9] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 197; Ethics, 200.

[10] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 193–94; Ethics, 197–98.

[11] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 197; Ethics, 200–201.

[12] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 193–94; Ethics, 203. Bonhoeffer’s choice of the word Anfechtung in this statement is suggestive, given that it is a highly technical term in Luther studies. Martin Lohrmann explaions the difficulties of translating it into English. He explains: “Another choice facing a translator is what to do with the German word Anfechtung (plural: Anfechtungen), a term that has major significance for Luther’s theology. . . . Anfechtung can mean doubt, distress, assault, affliction, trials, or temptations. Since it has no clear single equivalent in English and is such an important term for understanding Luther, I have left it untranslated so that it can mean all those complicated things at once.” Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, trans. Martin J. Lohrmann (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), xii–xiv. This terms many connotations highlight the ambiguity and complexity that Bonhoeffer identifies in the act of self-murder.

It is also interesting to note, as Rothuizen has done, how Barth draws on Bonhoeffer while developing his own account of suicide in Church Dogmatics III/4. Barth self-consciously borrowed from Bonhoeffer while also going further than even Bonhoeffer did “to advocate the granting of forgiveness for the act.” Gerard Rothuizen, “Who Am I?  Bonhoeffer and Suicide,” in New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, ed. William J. Peck, Toronto Studies in Theology (Lewison, NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1987), 173.

[13] Michael Palmer, Moral Problems: A Coursebook for Schools and Colleges, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2005), 13.

[14] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 36–37; Ethics, 52.

[15] Immanuel Kant, “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals,” in Basic Writings of Kant, ed. Allen W. Wood, The Modern Library (New York: Random House, Inc., 2001), 152.

[16] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 65.

[17] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 86; Ethics, 99.

[18] See Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 37; Ethics, 52.

[19] Rasmussen, Reality and Resistance, 162.

[20] Philip G. Ziegler, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Ethics of God’s Apocalypse?,” Modern Theology 23, no. 4 (2007): 588.

[21] Clifford J. Green, “Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition,” in Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 1.

[22] Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 272–73; Ethics, 273. Bonhoeffer certainly understood the Abwehr resistance to Hitler as such an action within such a context. History has validated this assessment. For a thorough treatment of these cases, see Matthew Puffer, “The >>Borderline Case<< in Bonhoeffer’s Political Theology,” in Kirsten Busch Nielsen, Ralf Wüstenberg, and Jens Zimmermann (eds.), A Spoke in the Wheel: The Political in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Gütersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2013), 257–69.

[23] This essaay began its life in Dr. Nancy J. Duff’s doctoral seminar on ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2008. Thanks to Kaitlyn Centini and J. Scott Jackson for their comments on earlier drafts.

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