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Bonhoeffer's Eighth Day: The Orders of Preservation and a Theology of Natural Ability

  • Lisa Nichols Hickman (a1)


The award-winning Belgian film Le huitième jour, about a young man with Down syndrome, begins with static on a television screen. This reflects the current state of disability study: much has been accomplished through the work of Nancy Eiesland, Amos Yong, and John Swinton, but there still is static in the conversation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer rejected the theological discourse of his day regarding the orders of creation and argued instead for the orders of preservation. This turn, in the area of theology and disability, means a move away from questions about God's creating (or not) of disability, and instead moves toward the preservation of life in Christ. In so doing, Bonhoeffer takes a surprising stance as a Protestant by drawing on natural law theology and points to our high calling in life on “the eighth day.”



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1 I am grateful to Bernd Wannenwetsch for first introducing Bonhoeffer's work into the study of disability and theology. See Wannenwetsch, Bernd‘My Strength Is Made Perfect in Weakness’: Bonhoeffer and the War over Disabled Life,” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, ed. Brock, Brian and Swinton, John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 353–69.

2 Le huitième jour, written and directed by Jaco Van Dormael, 1996. These are the opening words of the film; they scroll across the bottom of the screen as static buzzes on a television screen.

3 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Ethics, trans. Smith, Neville Horton (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 143.

4 Ibid., 104–5.

5 Ibid., 108.

6 Ibid., 118.

7 Ibid., 111.

8 Chopp, Rebecca, foreword to The Disabled God, by Eiesland, Nancy (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 12.

9 Eiesland, The Disabled God, 70.

10 Ibid., 74.

11 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 98.

12 Ibid., 121.

13 Ibid., 143.

14 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, trans. Bax, Douglas Stephen, ed. de Gruchy, John W. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 140.

15 Wannenwetsch, “My Strength Is Made Perfect in Weakness,” 355. Here, Wannenwetsch describes the reaction Bonhoeffer had to the community at Bethel, where the “disabled” were provided care. Here, Bonhoeffer realized it was not the disabled who were “insane” but rather those who thought they could pass judgment.

16 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 1.

17 Ibid., 3.

18 Letter from Finkenwalde, January 27, 1936, in Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935–1937 Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 14, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2013), 113.

19 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 69.

20 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928–1936, The Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, vol. 1, ed. Robertson, Edwin H., trans. Robertson, Edwin H. and Bowden, John (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 161.

21 Ibid., 161–62.

22 Ibid., 162

23 Eiesland, The Disabled God, 70.

24 Ibid.

25 Wilder, Thornton, The Eighth Day (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 16.

26 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 115.

27 Ibid., 126.

28 Ibid., 120.

29 Ibid., 139.

30 Ibid., 140.

31 David Rooney, review of The Eighth Day, Variety, May 16, 1996,

32 Ballor, Jordan J., “Christ in Creation: Bonhoeffer's Orders of Preservation and Natural Theology,” Journal of Religion 86 (2006): 122, at 3.

33 Ibid., 6, citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Theological Basis for the World Alliance?”, in No Rusty Swords, 157–73, at 162.

34 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 139.

35 Ballor, “Christ in Creation,” 7.

36 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Christ the Center, trans. Robertson, Edwin (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 47.

38 Reynolds, Thomas E., Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 202.

39 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 125.

40 Ibid., 148.

41 Ibid., 179.

42 Ibid., 193.

43 Ibid., 194.

44 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Life Together, trans. Doberstein, John W. (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 20.

45 Plant, Stephen, “The Sacrament of Ethical Reality: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Ethics for Christian Citizens,” Studies in Christian Ethics 18, no. 3 (2005): 7187.

46 John de Gruchy, afterword to Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 149.

47 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 146.

48 Burtness, James, Shaping the Future: The Ethics of Bonhoeffer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 43.

49 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Communion of Saints (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 146.

50 Burtness, Shaping the Future, 43.

51 Hall, Amy Laura, “Making Prenatal Choices,” The Christian Century, June 28, 2003, 3236.

52 Wannenwetsch, “My Strength Is Made Perfect in Weakness,” 361.



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