Original Sin and Reconciliation in Bonhoeffer’s “Act and Being”

I recently decided to buzz through Bonhoeffer’s Habilitationsschrift. It has been sitting on my shelf for a few years now, staring at me reproachfully. So I took it down and read with what turned out to be rapt attention. It is simply amazing that he wrote this at the age of 24 . . . But, all jealousies aside, it is well worth reading. It is unfortunately neglected because it is (shall we say) a bit more intellectually demanding than (shall we say) some of his other writings. The first half is especially compelling, although the answer that he proposes to the problem he identifies there is less attractive to me than (shall we say) other possible answers.

How’s that for being vague?

Anyway, the bit that I want to share with you deals with the subject of original sin and reconciliation and, more specifically, how the two fit together. Bonhoeffer further develops his thinking on the original sin side especially in his Creation and Fall, which I also highly recommend.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, 146. As always, bold is mine.
In the judgment brought upon me by the death of Christ, I see myself dying in my entirety, for I myself, as a whole, am guilty as the actor of my life, the decisions of which turned out to be self-seeking ever and again. I made false decisions and, therefore, Christ is my death; and because I alone sought to be the master, I am alone in my death as well. But the death of Christ kills my entire being human, as humanity in me, for I am I and humanity in one. In my fall from God, humanity fell. Thus, before the cross, the debt of the I grows to monstrous size; it is itself Adam, itself the first to have done, and to do again and again, that incomprehensible deed––sin as act. But in this act, for which I hold myself utterly responsible on every occasion, I find myself already in the humanity of Adam. I see humanity in me necessarily committing this, my own free deed. As human being, the I is banished into this old humanity, which fell on my account. The I ‘is’ not as an individual, but always in humanity. And just because the deed of the individual is at the same time that of humanity, human beings must hold themselves individually responsible for the whole guilt of humankind. The interrelation of individual and humanity is not to be thought of in terms of causality–otherwise the mode of being of the entity would once again come into play; rather, it is a knowledge given the individual in God’s judgment–given in such a way that it cannot be used, in detachment from that judgment and in theoretical abstraction, for purposes of exoneration. On the contrary, because everyone, as human being, stands within the humanity of Adam, no one can withdraw from the sinful act to a sinless being; no, the whole of one’s being a person is in sin. Thus, in Adam act is as constitutive for being as being is for act; both act and being enter into judgment as guilty. The structure of Adam’s humanity should not be conceived in terms of theories of psychological-historical interpretation; no, I myself am Adam–am I and humanity in one. In me humanity falls. As I am Adam, so is every individual; but in all individuals the one person of humanity, Adam, is active. This expresses both the contingency of the deed and the continuity of being in sin. Because sin is envisaged through the concept of ‘Adam’, in the mode of being of ‘person’, the contingency of conduct is preserved, as is the continuity of the person of humanity, which attests itself in action–the person that I also am.

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