The “Ultimate” and the “Penultimate”: An Important Distinction in Christian Ethics

The “Ultimate” and the “Penultimate”: An Important Distinction in Christian Ethics March 28, 2020

The “Ultimate” and the “Penultimate”: An Important Distinction in Christian Ethics

Lately I’ve been re-reading Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. It’s a collection of essays edited by Bonhoeffer’s good friend and protégé Eberhard Bethge. Many of the essays were found after Bonhoeffer’s death. Some of them were hidden in his parents’ attic and others were buried in their backyard. Bethge collected them and put them some kind of order, although, as many commentators and reviewers have mentioned, the order seems odd. But my point here is not about the architecture of the book; it is only about one major contribution of Bonhoeffer to Christian ethics—the clear distinction between the “ultimate” and the “penultimate.”

However, I’m not even going to spend time here quoting Bonhoeffer or sticking closely to his own words about the subject. If you don’t believe me about Bonhoeffer, check it out for yourself. This is not really about Bonhoeffer, per se. It is about my adoption and adaptation of his distinction between the “ultimate” and the “penultimate” and its relevance to Christian ethics.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.* 

Basically, the ultimate is what ought to be the case in a perfect world—a world we hope for, look forward to based on God’s promises, and strive to actualize now, in this world, as much as possible. The penultimate is what is actually possible and sometimes must be the case in this world that is not yet that future perfect world. “Must be the case” here only means what theologian John Stackhouse means in his excellent book Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World. It means (for me) the best that we can do, given the limitations of this “not yet perfect” world.

It seems clear to me that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist and believed that in a perfect world with no bloody dictators or genocides or other evils preying on innocent people we Christians should be absolutely and always non-violent. On the other hand, as I have argued here before, I know from reading Bethge’s magisterial biography of Bonhoeffer that, when presented with the opportunity and (he believed) necessity of participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler, he chose the penultimate—that which is less than perfect but necessary given reality as we know and live in it now.

The ultimate, then, is what God calls us to. But sometimes God calls us to what is impossible—for now, given reality as it is before the great liberation of the creation from bondage to decay (Romans 8).

This means, for example, that I can be a pacifist with regard to the ultimate while acknowledging the necessity of violence penultimately. That does not endorse violence; it only reluctantly acknowledges that violence sometimes cannot be avoided. I have often referred to the movie The Machine Gun Preacher as an illustration of this distinction. This newly minted Christian, recently converted, went on a mission trip to a part of Africa dominated by a guerilla militia that was killing women and children and kidnapping children into their ranks to commit horrible acts of violence. He, the so-called “Machine Gun Preacher,” was thrust into a situation where he felt he had to participate in a violent reaction against that militia—to save children’s lives.

Bethge says that Bonhoeffer asked what is the duty of a Christian who sees a madman driving a vehicle into a crowd of people, killing many of them? According to Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s response to his own question was that the Christian’s duty in that situation is to get the madman out from behind the wheel of the vehicle by whatever means necessary. Looking back on Bonhoeffer’s life during World War 2 it’s difficult to resist the thought that this parable was meant to explain his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime.

Sidebar: I have already used Bethge’s biography to contradict those pacifists who recently have argued that Bonhoeffer did not participate in an assassination plot. There is no doubt that he did. He even told Bethge that he would shoot Hitler himself if he could. His co-conspirators turned down his offer. Read Bethge’s magisterial biography of Bonhoeffer and then you will have no need to read any later one.

Back to the “ultimate” versus the “penultimate” in Christian ethics. The word “versus” is not quite right. In Christian ethics the two are interdependent. We do not play them off against each other. The penultimate is judged and purified and driven by the ultimate. The ultimate is always kept in mind as the goal, the perhaps impossible possibility to strive for anyway. I would even say that the penultimate, when it clashes with the ultimate (and there’s no other reason for the distinction), is sin. Violence is always sin. But God is gracious and merciful and knows our weakness and the “not-yetness” of the reality in which we live. God does not expect us to live always and only in the ultimate yet because that is impossible.

A question that naturally arises is how do we know when the penultimate is forgivable? The only answer can be—when the ultimate demands it. What is the ultimate? Love. Not sentimental, romantic love as a feeling but benevolence toward being (Jonathan Edwards).

Yes, this means we, Christians, are caught in an existential crisis situation—between the commands of perfection and the demands of the messy reality around us. We cannot wiggle out of it. We cannot live our lives as if only the ultimate is real and we cannot live our lives as if only the penultimate is real. Both are real. In this live, before death, before the resurrection and restoration of all things in the eschaton, we live in the penultimate, not the ultimate, but we keep our “eyes” on the ultimate and constantly judge “what is good and necessary” by the ultimate and the sad reality of the penultimate.

There is no perfection in this world, but there can be penultimate acts that push toward the ultimate even as they fall short and even sometimes contradict the perfection of the ultimate.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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