Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 1: Introduction

I’m away for a few days visiting a couple sent by our church to the Middle-East. So I leave you in the hands of Dan who is going to guest blog through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US (part of the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer Series which I recently reviewed). Dan has served with Wycliffe in Papua New Guinea and is currently spending some time with us in The Crowded House.

This is an interesting and thought provoking book, if slightly verbose in places. The footnotes in the new translation are especially helpful. They explain many issues that would otherwise be difficult for a modern-day reader to understand.  The editor’s introduction was similarly helpful, clarifying, for example, Bonhoeffer’s context when he discusses abortion and euthanasia.  So although he is against both, it’s good to understand what exactly they were in his time (which may be different to what we understand abortion and euthanasia to be).

Editor’s Introduction  and Afterword

The English editor, Clifford Green, gives a helpful introduction to Ethics, especially for people like me who are unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s work.  Green addresses, ‘some ethical themes in Bonhoeffer’s theological development [3-5] and the Christology at the heart of Ethics [6-9]; twin concerns for Christian ethics in a time of peace and reconstruction [10-11] and the ethics of tyrannicide and coup d’état [11-14], as well as the question of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism [14-16]; Bonhoeffer’s expectations for postwar society [16-17], and his proposal to reconstruct Lutheran thinking about church and society with his doctrine of mandates [17-22].’ (2) Finally, he highlights some distinctive characteristics of this edition of Ethics [28-40].

Bonhoeffer actually spent more time studying dogmatics than ethics as a student.  It was while he was serving a curacy in Barcelona that he delivered a lecture on ethics as a result of concern for the congregation there.  Even at this time themes were present in Bonhoeffer’s teaching that were to remain there until his death, such as the need for a concrete ethic rather than universally valid standards that transcend time and situation.  Referring to the need to articulate God’s command for the present time he wrote, ‘our church today is unable to speak the concrete command …  Such invisibility is wearing us out.’ (412)

Bonhoeffer had two main impulses for Ethics.  First, ‘the renewal of Christian life in Germany and Europe after the war.’ (10)  One title Bonhoeffer considered but discarded is, ‘Foundations and Structure of a (Future) World Reconciled with God’ (10).  The second impulse ‘arose from his position as a theologian and pastor in the conspiracy to get rid of Hitler and National Socialism.’ (11)  This is especially evident in ‘The Structure of Responsible Life’.

Bonhoeffer’s ethics of peace, informed by the Sermon on the Mount, became apparent during his time in New York at Union Theological Seminary (1930-31).  Green claims that ‘”Pacifism” for Bonhoeffer did not mean adopting nonviolence as an absolute principle in all circumstances.  His ethic was not an ethic of principles … [and so] preparing for a coup and supporting the killing of Hitler did not mean that Bonhoeffer abandoned his consistent advocacy of peace.  Indeed, the removal of Hitler and the Nazi regime was the necessary precondition of peace and a means to peace.’ (15-16)

Green explains Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of mandates, the four key social structures: marriage and family, work (or ‘culture’), church, and state.  He argues that ‘Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of mandates grew from grappling with several ideas in traditional Lutheran theology as they were found wanting in his historical experience.  One was the doctrine of orders of creation, another the doctrine of the “three estates,” and a third the doctrine of “two kingdoms.” (18)

This edition of Ethics includes both versions of the ‘History and Good’ manuscripts and it includes ‘On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World’ (whereas before it had been in an appendix).  However, the most striking difference from previous editions,’is the way manuscripts are identified and the sequence in which they are ordered.  Rather than being arranged in chapters, the DBW edition of the Ethik is arranged as a series of thirteen manuscripts.  This is to emphasise the fact that the Ethik is a work in progress, not the finished book arranged as Bonhoeffer would have published it.’ (29)