Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 2: Christ-Centred Ethics

While I’m away Dan is guest blogging 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.

Christ, Reality and Good (47-75)

Bonhoeffer argues that true reality is to be found only in Christ.  Rather than seeking an answer to the question, ‘How can I be, or do, good?’ (central to most discussions of ethics), Christians are to ask the question, ‘What is the will of God?’  The next step is to realise that, ‘Of ultimate importance, then, is not that I become good or that the condition of the world be improved by my efforts, but that the reality of God show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality.  Where God is known by faith to be the ultimate reality, the source of my ethical concern will be that God be known as good, even at the risk that I and the world are revealed as not good, but as bad through and through.  All things appear as in a distorted mirror if they are not seen and recognized in God.’ (48)

More specifically, ‘The source of a Christian ethic is not the reality of one’s own self, nor the reality of the world, nor is it the reality of norms and values.  It is the reality of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ … It places us before the ultimate and decisive question: With what reality will we reckon in our life?  With the reality of God’s revelatory word or with the so-called realities of life?’  With divine grace or with earthly inadequacies?  With the resurrection of with death?’  (49)  In summary, ‘The subject matter of a Christian ethic is God’s reality revealed in Christ becoming real among God’s creatures…’ (49).

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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)

Thursday Review: Bonhoeffer’s Works

A review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Fortress/Alban Books. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

Over the coming few days I’ll be posting a series of posts on the new edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics by Dan Richardson, a student who has been doing some research for me. But first I want to review the new English edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German theologian, a leading light in the confessing church that opposed the rise of Nazism and ultimately a martyr at the hand of the Nazis. His martyrdom was the climax of a life of faithful witness, but has also sometimes obscured his contribution to theology. One problem is that many of Bonhoeffer’s writings were either constructed from his lectures or written in fragmentary form during his time in prison. This has led to him being claimed by various – and often contradictory – theological schools as their own. (My own perspective, for what it’s worth, is that Bonhoeffer was thoroughly Lutheran and we should read his talk of ‘religion-less Christianity’ not as the advent of some form of secular Christianity, but as a contemporary reworking of Luther’s theology of the cross in the Heidelberg Disputation.)

In 1986 Christian Kaiser Verleg published the first sixteen volumes to coincide with the eightieth anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s birth. The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series is making the German edition available in English with the translation project now based on the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

The result is everything you could want from a collected Works. They are superbly annotated with translation notes, sources of allusions and historical background. The page numbers of the German edition are in the margins. There are introductions to the English edition of each work together with an afterword translated from the German edition. There are full indexes and bibliographies. For those works pieced together from notes or lectures there is (in the volumes I’ve seen) a commentary on the process, variations and chronology.

The books themselves are beautifully produced (though sadly the hardbacks are glued rather than stitched). Underneath the dust jacket, the hardback editions have Bonhoeffer’s signature embossed in gold on the front with the title embossed on the spine.

The fragmentary nature of many of Bonhoeffer’s works also means that books like Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison have been published over the years with varying contents and orders. So Bonhoeffer, more than most theologians, has needed a definitive edition and this is what we now have.

If you’re new to Dietrich Bonhoeffer …

If you’re new to Bonhoeffer then I would start with The Cost of Discipleship purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US (a work on discipleship which includes his famous warning against cheap grace and his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount) and Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US (reflections on Christian community written for the students at the seminary of the confessing church). I would then move on to Letters and Papers from Prison purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US (written as the title suggests in fragmentary form prison and which includes his discussion on religion-less Christianity). I also love his short work on the Psalms, Prayerbook of the Bible, which happily is included together with Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US in the new Works.

All the volumes in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series are available from, and Alban Books.

Here’s a sample of the new translation. Here’s the opening paragraph of Bonhoeffer’s Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible followed by the opening paragraph in the old edition. Continue reading