Loving People to Death: A Short Essay on Assisted Dying

“For the creation was subjected to futility, writes the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:20), and this frustration resonates with the current politico-moral climate that is increasingly hesitant to attribute significance to human life. Ethical thought previously concerned itself with the question of the ‘good life,’ of life lived virtuously, fruitfully, and freely. By contrast, the prevailing zeitgeist applies itself to justifying the most moral life as one that leaves the smallest ‘burden’ on the created world.[1] In fact, contemporary ethics has become so uncomfortable with the exercise of human life that it tends to discuss human existence in relation to its impact on the environment, the economy, or upon relationships rather than as something potentially fruitful and a basic good in and of itself. Such a view, certainly, is not consistent with the holistic view of human life found in the concern shown by Jesus for the restoration of physical, mental, and spiritual maladies (Luke 7:18-23; 11:14-20; cf. Isaiah 65:13-23). The Bible points us to a holistic, dynamic concept of life adamantly grounded in relationship (in covenant) with God,[2] and perhaps maximally defined in שָׁלוֹם (Jeremiah 8:15; Isaiah 53:5; cf. Luke 10:5-9; Hebrews 12:13-14; Luke 4:18). Jesus is, in no insignificant sense, the ultimate bringer and redeemer of שָׁלוֹם (or semantically, the concept is better conveyed through the Greek, σωτηρία) through His ministry.[3]

For Christians, inasmuch as death might abruptly and tragically neutralise vivacity, it itself is neutralised by the Christian hope of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:50-58; cf. Isaiah 25:8; Hosea 13:14). In one respect, death is wholly natural (cf. Joshua 23:14; 1 Kings 2:2; Ecclesiastes 3:2); equally attached to death however, is an evil and unnatural element. God’s sobering warning to Adam, ‘When you eat of it, you will surely die’ predicates death as divine judgment on human sinfulness,[4] and so Karl Barth writes, “it is very much to be feared.” [5] Death is a reality because sin is a reality; sin begets death. Thus, although humankind at the outset of the biblical narrative is “blessed” (Genesis 5:2), endowing fruitfulness, vitality, and productivity[6], each generation is stonewalled by the statement, “and then he died” (vv. 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31). Thus it is a “deterioration of [mankind’s] original, wonderful vitality, a deterioration corresponding to his increasing distance from his starting point at creation.”[7]

But inasmuch as death indiscriminately claims those under its thrall, the Christian faith views death as somewhat morally ambiguous. Thus, for Paul, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23) but those in Christ are ‘free from the law of sin and death’ (8:23), and ultimately the Apostle “exults in the triumph Christ has won over death itself.”[8] In Christian belief, death may frustrate, certainly, but it will never thwart. Death, and its corollary, life, should never be trivialised since in Christ “there is a fundamental continuity of identity”[9] both in the present and into eternal life. Thus, as Morris notes[10], Pauline theology strongly emphasises to “ἐνδύω, put on” Christ (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27), the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:52a), immortality (15:52b), our heavenly dwelling (2 Corinthians 5:2), our new selves (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10), the whole armour of God (6:1), and a myriad of other Christian virtues (cf. Colossians 3:12-14).

The (Renewed) Crisis of Euthanasia in Australian Ethical Debate

But contemporary ethical debate is presented with an enormous crisis on life and death, best reflected in Australia’s renewed interest in the euthanasia – or as it is now called, ‘assisted suicide.’

Consequentialist thought supposes that all actions undertaken must serve to produce the best possible future state.[11] Moral utilitarianism in the eyes of Christian ethic however, is deficient (cf. John 11:50; 18:1; “better that one man should die for the people”). The Socratic view (with which there are striking Christian parallels; cf. Matthew 5:39) that one would be better to suffer wrong than to commit it, cannot be conceived in consequentialist terms.[12] In fact, civil authorities that make it their position to legislate or licence the killing of innocent people loses the character and legitimacy of its authority.[13] The Christian Prophets reference in numerous instances the gravity of the crime to shed innocent blood (Isaiah 59:7; Jeremiah 22:3; Ezekiel 22:4 et paribus), and this is coupled with Judas’ conviction that he “betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4; cf. Romans 3:15). And yet, even in Christian circles, the only circumstance where the killing of innocent people seems to escape these arguments is assisted dying. It largely appears the drive is in the direction of killing people whose lives are judged as “dangerous, destructive, or just plain pointless.”[14] This judgment is readily made of people whose mental capacity is gone or much diminished,[15] and is reflected tragically in the case of Tony Bland[16] and others in similar circumstances.

Moral autonomy is the preeminent value championed by supporters of assisted dying. “The story of modernity fashions a will to die,” writes Carole Stoneking, “a means of escaping the anguish of death …we are given to imagine that we can control our destiny.”[17] It is an intellectual logic which compels people to die, and is disingenuous insofar as it possesses the inexorable effect of polluting the exercise of moral autonomy by the very ill and/or very infirm. Some take the view that, “where concern for welfare and concern for respect for wishes are incompatible with one another, concern for welfare must give way to respect for autonomy”[18]. To this, we must respond however that the argument for unfettered patient autonomy quickly leads unto reductio ad absurdum. Moreover, once a human life has begun, there is an innate and natural disposition that that life should go well, and that the investments and aspirations attached to that life represent ideals to be realised rather than frustrated.[19] This is not to advocate blindly for the preservation of a person’s last vestiges of life, but I commend highly the policy of only caring for the dying proffered by American ethicist, Paul Ramsey in “The Patient as Person.”[20] A sharp distinction ought to be made between terminal illnesses and ‘dying.’ The latter unambiguously means that nothing can be done to arrest the progress of imminent death; the former does not. A balanced Christian ethic does not call for a stubborn narrow kind of vitalism, and it is right that medical objectives[21] change from saving life to providing the best quality of care in the face of irreversible, aggressive terminal illnesses. Certainly, death itself is not the tragedy; rather, it is dying for the wrong reasons[22], or the blight of sin-marred creation. For many, death is a merciful release, the natural close to a narrative well written, and as Christians believe, the path unto glory.[23]

Christians however, also believe that, irrespective of what may be deemed a ‘worthwhile quality of life’, all persons remain in God’s image[24], and this theology informs the grounds for the sanctity of human life. Indeed, the primacy of human life has owed much to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (cf. Genesis 1:27; 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9).[25] Nevertheless, with or without theological underpinnings, a prohibition on killing is central to both pre-Christian[26] and post-Christian[27] Western medical ethics. Such sentiments are predicated on the assertion that human life is a basic good, the foundations for human flourishing (Genesis 1:22, 28; 8:17; 9:1). Moreover, the reason for life begins with an appreciation that the life endowed us is a gift, [28] and that Jesus came that His followers might have life abundantly (John 10:10). Christ’s assertion that it is impossible for man to “live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4) suggests a character of life lived in relationship with God and His will.[29] For as long as God makes provision for life then, there is a prerogative upon Christians to choose life. This position is reflected foundationally in Jesus’ desires directed towards God’s will, and His committal into His Father’s hands, both in life and in death[30]: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Closing Thoughts on Life & Death in Biblical Perspective

Limited by brevity, I have outlined only some matters pertaining to the concerns of life and death in Christian ethical thought. There are, no doubt, many other problems attached to the question of assisted dying which I have no space to explore here. Nevertheless, I will posit one question that I believe will agitate fruitful discussion for Christian ethics: how ought Christians interpret the plea of patients or bystanders for assisted dying? I am not convinced that the plea for escape from this world is a plea for death inasmuch as it might be a plea for better palliative care, support, comfort, and love in a world so vacuous of such things. It is with this thought that I close:

“I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that He gives us the gift of suffering. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.”[31]



[1] Kevin Yuill, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) at xii.

[2] David J. Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, eds David J. Atkinson et al. (IVP Academic, 1995) at 89.

[3] I particularly recommend David Atkinson’s excellent little tome on the concept of shalom, and of how Jesus is the Messianic incarnate shalom of God, the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Cf. David J. Atkinson, The Church’s Healing Ministry: Pastoral and Practical Reflections (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2011).

[4] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. H. Knight et al. (3; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001) at 598.

[6] Dan Lioy, The Search for Ultimate Reality: Intertextuality between the Genesis and Johannine Prologues (Peter Lang, 2005) at 48.

[7] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John Marks (Revised Edition edn., Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1973) at 69.

[8] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: IVP Academic, 2008) at 227.

[9] Victor Paul Furnish, The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians (New Testament Theology: Cambridge University Press, 1999) at 116.

[10] Morris, 1 Corinthians at 229.

[11] G. E. M. Anscombe, Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe (St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs: Imprint Academic, 2006) at 274.

[12] Cf. A. Müller, ‘Radical Subjectivity: Morality Versus Utilitarianism’, Ratio, 19/2 (1977), 115-32.

[13] Anscombe, Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe at 269.

[14] Yuill, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization at xii.

[15] Anscombe, Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe at 272.

[16] Airedale National Health Service Trust v Bland [1993] All English Law Reporter 1 HL 821.

Airedale NHS Trust v Bland, Anonymous, ‘Airedale National Health Service Trust V Bland’, All English Law Reporter (1: House of Lords, 1993), 821.

[17] Carole Bailey Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, in Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (1st edn.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006) at 379.

[18]John Harris, ‘Euthanasia and the Value of Life’, in John Keown (ed.), Euthanasia Examined: Ethical, Clinical and Legal Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1997). In Harris’ defence, I am only quoting a particular section of his outline on the topic of euthanasia, and this is not indicative of his complete structure. In fact, he goes on to defeat this logic later on in his chapter.

[19] Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (Vintage, 1994) at 215.

[20] Cf. Paul Ramsey, Margaret Farley, and Albert R. Jonsen, The Patient as Person: Exploration in Medical Ethics (The Institution for Social and Policy Studies: Yale University Press, 2002).

[21] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics at 95.

[22] Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, at 380.

[23] Anthony Colin Fisher, ‘Theological Aspects of Euthanasia’, in John Keown (ed.), Euthanasia Examined: Ethical, Clinical and Legal Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1997) at 323.

[24] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics at 88.

[25] John Keown, Euthanasia, Ethics and Public Policy: An Argument against Legislation (1st edn.: Cambridge University Press, 2002) at 40.

[26] cf. The Hippocratic Oath: “To please no-one will I prescribe a deadly drug, nor give advice which many cause his death. Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion.” Quoted in J. K. Mason & R. A. McCall Smith, Law and Medical Ethics (5th edn.: Butterworths, 1999), at p. 551.

[27] “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from its beginning even under threat, and I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.” Quoted ibid. at p. 552.

[28] Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, at 379.

[29] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics at 88.

[30] Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, at 379.

[31] Attributed to C.S. Lewis; Shadowlands (Paramount Pictures, 1993), Richard Attenborough (dir.).

Bridging the Gap: The Rubbish of “Doing What You Love”

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” has become something of a cheap aphorism for vocational decisions. In particular, my demographic of 18 to 25 year-olds has become particularly susceptible to such convenient one-liners. For many, simply doing what you want has become the categorical litmus test for how to live life. Any repudiation to the philosophy of this base egocentrism is enough to warrant trepidations in the hearts of my contemporaries, and even greater palpitations in their minds.

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Most millennials when you tell them there’s a world outside their bubble.

It is, however, brilliant rhetoric: it inspires, kindles reflection, and prompts a response. It is the kind of emotive language that is desperately lacking in better arguments that I have read, both in Christian and secular circles. But it is a specious, intellectually vacuous ethic whose hedonistic principles eventually turn in on itself and are more prohibitive rather than profitable. So John Calvin once wrote, “Zeal without knowledge is like a sword in the hands of a madman” (cf. Proverbs 19:2). True liberty only comes by understanding that (to quote wise, old Uncle Ben Parker) with great power comes great responsibility (cf. Matthew 20:28; 22:36-38; John 13:34). For Christians, this means that if all people are lovingly, mindfully created in God’s image, then the axiomatic conclusion is that all people are equal in worth, yet different in purpose.

I am not surprised however, that such thought is quite prevalent even among the Church (and in particular, my fellow millennial Christians). For the past fifty years, we been embroiled in a moral revolution that the Church has invariably lagged behind in developing a response. Actually, a better description would be that we have been swept up and along this revolution – sometimes without even knowing it! For fear of being perceived unloving, some Christians have presented themselves unfaithful to the Gospel. Whereas the Christian witness of our predecessors were primed and polished by engaging with culture, others have, in the wake of this moral revolution, conceded and relinquished the moral high ground. It is no small coincidence that Christianity’s decline in the West follows the Church’s moral authority in the public square. The question of vocational decisions is no exception to this paradigm.

So then, why is “do what you love” and “pursue your passions” such rubbish counsel? Here are seven reasons:

  • Your passions are fickle and temporary.
    Normally, anecdotes and personal experiences come part and parcel with these articles, but I can probably go without in this instance because I am certain that we all have rather fond memories of jumping headlong into passions that we ceased to be “passionate” about in the due course of time.

    Think of these instances as a kind of moral education: both ‘wrong’ decisions (generally characterised by a lack of prudence, discretion, and caution) and ‘right’ decisions (generally characterised by shrewdness and foresight) bear with them proportionate consequences. There are greater or lesser punishments for greater or less errors, and greater or lesser benefits for greater or lesser for correct decisions. This is the kind of basic message that the likes of Proverbs 21:5 and 2 Timothy 2:22 are trying to convey. Doing what you love may quickly degenerate to doing what you loathe, particularly if it doesn’t match exactly with what we expect.
  • It staves off responsibility and promotes laxity.
    Colossians 3:23-24 is a brilliant passage, but the first three words probably don’t receive as much recognition as they’re due. I am certainly liable of viewing the Protestant work ethic of post-World War II through rose-coloured lenses, but in those (good ol’) days, all work and all pursuits of education were not only vital, but virtuous. By contrast today, unless you have impracticable levels of enthusiasm for a particular pursuit, it’s entirely commonplace to fail subjects at university, to “pull a sickie” at work for the hell of it, or to mindlessly scroll through social media during ministry meetings.

    So millennial Christians are left with one of two options: (a) relentlessly pursue “good feelings” in the hopes that passion will carry us through the task ahead; or (b) shove off the task ahead altogether since it doesn’t conform to our self-centred work culture. Colossians 3:23-24 is intrinsically linked with that of v. 17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” The Christian response is not to approach each task as drudgery or inconsequential (or worse still, to neglect doing it altogether), but to “give thanks to God the Father” since “all things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16) and therefore, principally redeemed through Christ also. Ralph Martin writes on this verse, “Christians can do all that they do, whether it be manual work, political activity, raising a family, writing a book, playing tennis, or whatever, in his name and gratitude.” And should our conduct be in all things – big or small, important or unimportant, passion or no passion.
Yaaaaaas, Good Feelings.gif
Yaaaaaaas, good feelings.
  • Doing what you love can’t prepare you for latent failure and quells satisfaction.
    There is also a sizeable lacuna afforded by this kind of brassy vocational thinking in terms of how we deal with failure. One of the pertinent results of The Fall is that our work is frustrated by “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18) – the perennial threat of various circumstances effectively scotching all our hard work and long-prepared plans. Too often however, do we attribute these abortive attempts to external factors: unsympathetic, ignorant management; broken systems; self-serving, double-dealing colleagues; terrible educators; and the list goes on and on. But the narrative of Genesis 3 also points us to our inherent nature to deflect responsibility and attribute our failures to others – even when we are unambiguously participants in our own failures (Genesis 3:12-13).

    In similar fashion, when our vocations become more about self-expression and self-actualisation rather than faithfulness to God, searching for “the perfect job” becomes a convenient replacement for perseverance, qualification, and character. When Abraham and Lot separate ways in Genesis 13, from the very outset the biblical narrator makes a point: “Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (v. 2). To boot, Abram had a wife not only “beautiful in appearance” to him (Genesis 12:11b), but even the Egyptians saw that Sarai was “very beautiful” (v. 14b); sufficiently beautiful for her to be lauded to the Egyptian Pharaoh (v. 15). By modern standards, Abram was living the good life; as for God’s purposes for him however – they were unfinished. But Abram proved wiser than his nephew who failed, Lot, seeing a worthy future in the promises of God for a land, a people, and a blessing of His own, thereby receiving his due reward and satisfaction (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Corinthians 15, esp. v. 58).
  • Working purposefully is more valuable than doing purposeful work.
    Righteous and ethical living is infinitely better realised when the consequences of actions are rationally and experientially understood, than when they are simply believed. As the maxim goes, “Good theology leads to much doxology” and doxology is shambolic and incomplete at best if it is not practiced (Romans 6:13; 12:1).

    There will be countless instances in life where doing what is right may not necessarily be doing what we love – in fact, they may be diametrically opposed to one another because we our passions are often maligned and ultimately not glorifying to God (Jeremiah 17:9). God’s emphasis is not necessarily on those who are ‘passionate’, but on those who are ‘good,’‘faithful,’ and ‘wise.’ The parables that Jesus teaches on the unexpected parousia of the Son of Man are particularly illustrative of this (cf. Matthew 24:45; 25: 2-4, 21-23), and I will focus here especially on the failure of the ‘wicked and slothful servant’ of Matthew 25:24-28. Even with the servant’s travesty of the master as a kind of avaricious capitalist (for the record, “Enter into the joy of your master” (v. 22, 23) is hardly commercial language), the servant’s undertakings are irresponsible at best: a kind of cheap, safe-side stewardship that achieves nothing, and so is worthless.

    We are called to be good stewards of our faith, not good enthusiasts, and the counsel of Proverbs 16:3 is to just do something and allow God to work through us as He wills.
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The face you pull when someone actually tells you that you just need to do something about your life.
  • God’s priority is not in our happiness, but in our greatest good.
    Philippians 2:1-11 is arguably one of the most beautiful passages (another solid contender is the doxology in Jude 24-25, which is simply marvellous) in the New Testament, synthesising doxology and exhortation together in one brilliant sweep. This hymn to Christ particularly focuses on His obedience, and this is the theme that is picked up in Philippians 2:12-13 as if Paul were to say, “just as Christ obeyed, so should you.” This is not a kind of cold, impassive encouragement, but one in line with the promises of God that “for those who love God all things together for our good” (Romans 8:28a) … “for those who are called according to His purpose” (v. 28b) – not only called to embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also to renew our wills not to labour for vainglorious self, but for the glory of God in the highest. There is no mention of God’s securing our happiness (though the important element of joy in the Lord is certainly not lost).

This is the kind of mentality shift that the Psalter is all about:

“Let your work be shown to your servants,
And your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the LORD our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands upon us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands!”
Psalm 90:16-17

It is not only the glory of God’s creative and redemptive work that will abide, but even the labours of a transient people in a transient world will leave a lasting legacy through God’s blessing. The message is not of securing our happiness in the perfect vocation, but in a perfect God, and striving for His perennially good purposes for His world and His people.

In the next article on “Bridging the Gap” we will flesh out some biblical paradigms for understanding our work in the light of the Gospel, and establish some practical guidelines for Christians to engage with questions of vocation.

Resistance Fighter, Pastor, Martyr: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The plaque above reads:
“[Here] in this church preached and was confirmed
in 1932, the resistance fighter, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Born 4th February 1906, and died in Flossenbürg on the 9th April, 1945.”
[my translation]

As with all historical figures, Bonhoeffer’s worldview was coloured by the socio-political circumstances in which he lived. The careful historian however, is cautious to guard against sweeping generalisations of Bonhoeffer’s influence, but nevertheless retain a sense of proportion as to the impetus afforded by Bonhoeffer to the Nazi resistance. Germany’s defeat in the Second World War – and therefore, the toppling of the Nazi regime – are largely attributed to the combined effects of Hitler’s military overreach on both fronts, and the persistent efforts and good fortune of the Allied Forces. Bonhoeffer’s role, from this point of view, is relatively minor. Nevertheless, the incentive for biographical interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and justifiably so – stems as much (if not more) from his theological and ethical profundity as from his political actions. For the sake of brevity, this essay will not discuss in detail Bonhoeffer’s theological hermeneutic of foundational reality and responsibility. Rather, this essay will seek to explain the significance of Bonhoeffer’s opposition during the Third Reich by way of (1) the unique characteristics and circumstances available to Bonhoeffer, and (2) the principles that underpinned Bonhoeffer’s motivations to step into the sphere of public resistance where many of his co-religionists did not.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not only a man of vision, but also a man of theological thought, of moral rigour, and of sufficient intestinal fortitude to vocalise this vision against overwhelming Nazi despotism. Of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also an anomaly of his time. The notoriously absent opposition, particularly with respect to the German Church, has arguably remained one of the greatest tragedies and failures of the German people in history. Barring but a few exceptions, Germany was plagued by a contagion of the worst kind: the silent majority, unable (or unwilling?) to denounce the evils of the Nazi regime; let alone take a stand in civil insurrection. Bonhoeffer’s life was exceptional precisely because so few around him possessed the same moral courage to oppose an essentially evil manifestation of the German spirit.

The plight of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany began in April 1933 with the introduction of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (The Civil Service Restoration Act), which would later become the foundation for the Nürnberger Gesetze of 1935. Bonhoeffer, among the first Christian theologians to recognise the incompatibility of Nazi anti-Semitism with the Christian faith, responded swiftly, penning “Die Kirche vor der Judenfrage” on the 15th April 1933[1], though his arguments in a post-Holocaust politico-theological paradigm are unconvincing, prompting some such as Franklin Littell to judge that Bonhoeffer’s “inadequate understanding of the nature of the church was the most tragic element in his eventual martyrdom.” [2] Although this is not an altogether untruthful statement, it is nevertheless one that deserves careful examination. Bonhoeffer was reared on the theological heritage of Martin Luther and German realpolitik; a product of hegemonic thought in the Wilhemine era[3] whose lineage could be traced back in turn to Machiavellianism.[4] Eberherd Bethge writes,

“[Bonhoeffer] grew up in a family that derived its real education … from a deeply-rooted sense of being guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition … this meant learning to understand and respect the ideas and actions of earlier generations.”[5]

In this respect, it is almost an unfair representation of Bonhoeffer on Littell’s account – in the same way that one would hardly blame a dog for barking, so too should we respect the fact that individuals will be flawed inasmuch as their context defines them so.

Needless to say however, Bonhoeffer’s motivation in his role against the Nazi regime was significantly different in principle from the majority of his contemporaries. Bonhoeffer’s resistance, contrary to those whose prime concern was the salvaging of a defeated dishonoured Germany, largely (though I will argue, not completely) stemmed from a theological conviction that institutionalised racial discrimination and ideas of ethnic superiority were utterly incompatible with a Christian worldview:

“Civil courage … depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.”[6]

Moreover, Bonhoeffer’s uniqueness also stemmed from his being exclusively equipped to critique the Hitler regime in ways largely impossible for other Christian Germans. For one, Bonhoeffer’s Staatsgedanken was inimitable insofar as his understanding of the state was shaped by his experiences of the Christian faith in other countries, with particular respect to his participation in the New York Harlem community. Besides this, Bonhoeffer’s involvement as one of the theological doyens of the expanding ecumenical movement elicited a kind of magnetism to Bonhoeffer’s banner that could not be replicated by others. Lastly, the unique influences of his friend and mentor, Karl Barth, and that of his grandmother, Julia Bonhoeffer, ought not to be taken lightly. Whereas Barth’s influence fed into an initiative to practice theological opposition at a time when legal opposition was not a viable solution[7], Julia Bonhoeffer’s own ethos had a profound impact upon the formative years of Dietrich’s life[8] – an investment would pay its dividends in full in due course.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer changed the world, and I’m here like …

Of course, no biography of Bonhoeffer is complete apart from an analysis into the theological and ethical motivations for resistance. Although there is undoubtedly an element of compassion for the Jewish people that prompted Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and deeds, we must also ask to what extent Bonhoeffer viewed Hitler’s anti-Semitism as a primer to the final de-Christianisation of Germany as a whole? Perhaps these sentiments are synthesised in Bonhoeffer’s statement, “Wenn heute die Synagogen brennen, dann werden morgen die Kirchen angezündet werden.”[9] This coincides neatly with Bethge’s remark that, for Bonhoeffer, information “was for him the first act – so he could maintain independence of judgment.”[10] Such a mentality accounts for Bonhoeffer’s involvement and later departure from the Bekennende Kirche, and the role its (in)action played in the development of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Nazism. The Confessing Church was conceived upon good and necessary principles: “[those] who could and would not accept the religious ideas … and policies of the Nazi rulers, and who sought to reserve the purity of the gospel.”[11] To this end, the Confessing Church established a number of seminaries supported wholly by free-will offerings to ensure independence from the state. Despite these efforts, Bonhoeffer’s criticism against the Confessing Church’s moral laxity against Nazism was warranted: they had made the decisive first theological step, but had refused to apply that theology into a legitimate social hermeneutic.[12] Bonhoeffer was convinced that despite its best and honest intentions, an “irresponsible”[13] church could not, as a matter of principle, represent the essential substance of the people of God. [14] Whereas Bonhoeffer was discontented to bunker down in the safety of the Church and ignore the injustices committed against the Jews, the vast majority of his peers in the Confessing Church were sadly compliant to the Nazi government. As Jewish persecution rose exorbitantly with the close of the 1930s and culminated in the atrocities of the Kristallnacht, Bonhoeffer became increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with the Confessing Church.

In Bonhoeffer’s Christian ethic, the Church could not surrender their responsibilities, nor await a definitive action from God as a kind of deus ex machine – rather, all things hinged upon the Christian’s “conformation to Christ … in accordance with reality”[15]“Christian ethics enquires about the realisation in our world of the divine and cosmic reality which is given in Christ.”[16] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s political resistance was not concerned with yielding desired outcomes inasmuch as he believed there was an overwhelming moral incentive to do so. In fact, Bonhoeffer, shortly before his incarceration, began to question the real utility of Nazi resistance: “Sind wir noch brauchbar?[17] His answer to this pathetic question is equally melancholic: “Wird unsere innere Widerstandskraft gegen das uns Aufgezwungene stark genug … daß wir den Weg zur Schlichtheit und Geradheit wiederfinden?”[18] Resistance to Nazism, with or without any prospect of success, was warranted by virtue of the fact that it was the responsible thing to do, before both men and before God. For Bonhoeffer, the theologian and practical ethicist of the Christian faith, there was no foreseeable future for him apart from a radically exclusive allegiance to God. A total loss of civil liberties in the present opened the door for Bonhoeffer to a pure, inner freedom compatible with his Christian faith. [19] Thus, motivated by both political and religious beliefs, Bonhoeffer, alongside many others, perceived that the testimony of Germany before history (and at the least for Bonhoeffer, before God) was at stake. This mentality is best exemplified in the solidarity of those of the Schwarz Kapelle, with one commentator going so far as to identify Claus von Stauffenberg (who despite his devout Roman Catholic upbringing is described by his military contemporaries as a man driven wholly by reason[20]) as the political symbol, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the theological figurehead. [21] Thus, although this does not exhaust Bonhoeffer’s impulses to oppose the Nazi regime, there was nevertheless a very real sense in which Bonhoeffer was compelled to resistance for the express purposes of preserving Christian orthodoxy and his nation’s legacy:

“Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilisation.”[22]

In summary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not per se instrumental in the abolition of the Nazi regime. Rather, he wrote rich and interesting theology, synthesised ideas and tensions between the Church and state, developed a Christian socio-political ethic that stood in stark contrast to political zeitgeist, and vocalised opposition when all his contemporaries remained silent. The fact that Bonhoeffer achieved all these despite the extreme and trying circumstances of his day is remarkable, and biographical interest in Bonhoeffer is accordingly justified among the Christian Church today.

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If reading 3,000 words of my thoughts on Dietrich Bonhoeffer made you feel grateful, then imagine reading multiple biographies on this great man.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, from the Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Abingdon Press, 1977) at 221-29.

[2] Franklin Littell, ‘The Churches and the Body Politic’, Daedalus, 96/1 (1967) at 23.

[3] Cf. Leopold Von Ranke, ‘Die Großen Mächten’, (ed. Friedrich Meinecke edn.: Insel-Verlag zu Leipzig, 1916).

[4] Ruth Zerner, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Views on the State and History’, in A. J. Klassen (ed.), A Bonhoeffer Legacy: Essays in Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981) at 131-57.

[5] Eberherd Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary (London: Collins, 1970) at 4.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘After Ten Years’, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1972) at 6.

[7] Raymond Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, The Journal of Modern History, 64/Supplement: Resistance Against the Third Reich (1992) at 138.

[8] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften: Auslegungen – Predigten, 1931-1944 (München: Kaiser, 1958) at 459.

[9] Eberherd Bethge, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer Und Die Juden’, Konsequenzen: Dietriech Bonhoeffers Kirchenverständnis heute, (Munich 1980) (1980) at 198.
“If today the synagogues burn, then tomorrow the churches will be lit.” (my translation)

[10] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary at 701-02.

[11] Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979) at 156.

[12] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 141.

[13] That is, for Bonhoeffer, “irresponsibility” was characterised by a failure to live up to a standard of moral maturity, and of inaction with the powers and influence available to them.

[14] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Die Mündige Welt V: Dokumente Zur Bonhoefferforschung, 1928-1945 (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1969) at 104.

[15] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1965) at 113-14.

[16] Zerner, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Views on the State and History’, at 147-50.

[17] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand Und Ergebung: Briefe Und Aufzeichnungen Aus Der Haft (Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 2005).
“Are we still needed?” (my translation)

[18] Ibid.
“Will our inner resistance against the (the pressures/persecutions) forced upon us be strong enough … that we will find again the road to simplicity and righteousness?” (my translation)

[19] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 146.

[20] cf. Hans Bernd Gisevius, Bis Zum Bitteren Ende (Droemer Knaur, 1987) at 503-14.

[21] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 140.

[22] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary at 559.

Bridging the Gap: The Six Days of Creation

In my last article (which you can read here), I ended by asking the question: Where do we fit in among the grand scheme of God’s redemptive plan for His creation?” This is just one of many questions that I find Christians seem to struggle to find clarity on. To that end, publishing content to address (and in some cases, redress) these theological and ethical shortfalls is an important part of all that The Reformation of Manners stands for. “Bridging the Gap” is just one of the ways that we try to provide a biblical framework from which we can better engage with God’s world and His people. It is a way of connecting Christian convictions into matters of practical substance.

So what sense should we make of the seven days of creation? Genesis 1:2 is the immediate vantage point: God is concerned with the world as the focus of His attention. As previously mentioned, the idea of God intimately ‘hovering’ over His embryonic creation is pictorially akin to that of a mother bird stirring her young to flight. It is a compelling and provocative expression of God’s deep care and devotion to His created world.

The first chapter (and to a greater extent, chapter two) of Genesis presents God as the loving Maker who delights in His creation, but equally reveals God as the majestic and supreme Creator over all. The world at this point is “without form and void”, but God is about to give His world shape and meaning. Although the earth right now is empty, God is about to fill it with life (although the doctrine of ex nihilo is not mentioned explicitly here, it is strongly implied elsewhere in the biblical corpus cf. Psalm 33:9; 148:5; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 11:3; Revelation 4:11). Indeed, God matches the dual negatives of formlessness and emptiness with their positive counterparts: form and fullness.

It is here we must address the days of creation themselves. The chronology of creation (of which there has been extensive debate), I think, is only important insofar as the order belongs to the poetic form of the passage and should not be interpreted literally. It is a shame that the creation narrative has so often been pitted as a ‘religious’ explanation against the many ‘scientific’ explanations – they cannot be competitors if only for the fact that the biblical author’s concern is to display theologically the visible world as God’s handiwork, and not to present a chronological record. The fulfilment of form (that is, separation and the creation of space) and fullness are God’s concern, and it is only after these are satisfied does God pronounce His work as ‘good.’



The Pillars of Creation
‘The Pillars of Creation’ is a marvellous example of God’s handiwork, but Mankind sits higher on the hierarchy of creation.

But God’s work in creation reaches its pinnacle in Genesis 1:26-31 with the creation of human beings in the “image” and “likeness” of God, and it is here our attention will rest. It is undeniable that the birth of Man is the pinnacle of God’s creative work (cf. P. J. Gentry, “Kingdom through Covenant: Humanity as Divine Image”, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 12.1 (2008): 16-42 does a brilliant job of developing Genesis 1:26-28 as the climax of God’s creation). The wider created world is reflective of God’s glory (v. Psalm 19), but mankind operates within a special sphere of favour, and Genesis 1:26-31 presents this brilliantly in three ways:

Firstly, God begins to speak in a new way, switching from a third personal singular (‘God made … let there be etc.’) to a first person plural (‘Let us …’). Although it is difficult to be completely certain with respect to this new form of speech, I think it is safe to assume that it is a combination of grammatical (plural of self-deliberation or self-encouragement) and theological (reference to the plurality of the Trinity) rhetoric.

Moreover, God declares that He will make humankind in his image, and according to His likeness, and the language here is definitely that of sonship (cf. Genesis 5:1-3; God creates Adam in the likeness of God … Adam begets Seth who is in his own likeness, after his image). Meredith Kline, on the topic, writes, “To be the image of God is to be the son of God” and this is true in two respects:

  • Relationally, we are sons and daughters dependent on God through covenant. Adam’s role as ‘son’ is taken up in the biblical narrative by Israel (Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1), David (2 Samuel 7:13-14), ultimately in Jesus, the true Adam, Israel, and David, and the true Son of God. Christians are partakers in sonship through adoption as God’s children (1 John 3:1-3; Romans 8:29), and also partakers in covenant. The terms of the covenant are symbolically represented in the two trees in the Garden: life in dependence and obedience unto God on the one hand; and on the other, death by turning from God and seeking but a shadow of true life apart from Him (cf. Jeremiah 2:12-13).
  • Vocationally, as God’s children, we are also charged to rule the world as His representatives within a limited measure of independence, just as Adam was. At the very least, Adam was both a king and a priest (in addition, Adam may be have occupied a prophetic office, but I am undecided). God commands Adam to ‘have dominion’ over the earth, and Adam is called to work and to keep the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15; cf. 2:8 where God plants the Garden – Adam is now called to continue in God’s role) – a kind of pictorial epithet for monarchs in biblical antiquity. David Clines writes, “human beings represent God in a way analogous to kings. “Adam is almost certainly described as God’s vice-regent and therefore, the archetypal human king.

    But Adam also holds a priestly office in the sense that Adam’s work is priestly work – Adam is commissioned to “to work” and “to keep” (Genesis 2:15) the Garden. The Hebrew verb, “to work, עָבַד is not only used in the cultivation of agriculture, but also for the service of God (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:2, 12), and in particular, the sacred duties of the Levites and the tabernacle (cf. Numbers 3:7-8; 4:23-26). Similarly, “to keep, “שָׁמַרnot carries both the simple idea of protection, but is more commonly used in relation to religious duties (cf. Genesis 17:9; Leviticus 18:5). Adam then, is not only appointed to rule over God’s creation, but jointly to serve the Creator in creation.

All work is meaningful before God – not just the ‘spiritual’ matters.

What does this mean for Christians today?

Firstly, it means to give serious thought to the nature of Man and our purpose here on earth. Although creation was ‘good’ and even ‘very good’, it was not yet perfect, complete, and thus did God call His people to emulate him: ‘be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ (Genesis 1:28). We are given the enormous privilege of continuing God’s work in creation, and Hermann Bavinck writes beautifully, “the first man, however highly placed, did not yet possess the highest humanity … [Adam] stood at the beginning of his “career” not at the end.” Friends, we must never think of our vocations as dreary, mundane, or meaningless – we are God’s people, and in Him, our work is an act of service (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:16-17, 23-24), using our gifts, skills and opportunities in ways to bless both His name and His creation (1 Corinthians 12:7; 1 Peter 4:10; Romans 12:1-8).