Skip to content

Comments on Dietrich Bonohoeffer, Ethics: Introduction

These comments and page reference pertain to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, edited by Clifford J. Green and translated by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Scott (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 593 pages.  

Editors’ Introduction

In the introduction to the English edition of Ethics, the editors make a number of helpful comments that will help guide the reader through this supremely important book of Bonhoeffer’s. The first observation that they make is that Ethics is primarily motivated by two issues for Bonhoeffer, namely the conspiracy against Hitler and the issue of how Christians should contribute to the reconstruction in post-war Germany. These two overriding concerns frame what takes place in Ethics and should be kept in mind throughout (p. 1-2).

Secondly, they chart Bonhoeffer’s development leading up to the writing of Ethics. The first traces of what Bonhoeffer explicates in Ethics are found in his early book, Sanctorum Communio. Herein, Bonhoeffer develops a theological account of the concept of the person which is essentially theology of relationality or sociality (p.3). This is further developed in his lectures on Genesis 1-3 later published as Creation and Fall. Here Bonhoeffer articulates a theology of the imago dei as imago relationis – an image of relationship. Bonhoeffer denies that an individual person is technically the bearer of the image of God. Rather it is in their mutual interrelationships that humanity is the image of God (p. 4). The editors also note the relationship between Discipleship and Ethics, a relationship that has often been misunderstood badly. The key difference that they note is that Discipleship is more explicitly concerned with the church’s resistance against the accommodated Lutheran church in Germany and the growing Nazi movement while Ethics looks beyond the war toward the tasks of peace and reconstruction and the question of how Christians should participate in those things (p. 5).

Thirdly, the editors note carefully the centrality of Christology in Ethics. Ethics is no less Christocentric than Discipleship or any of Bonhoeffer’s other works. However, what is key in Ethics is the concept of ‘humanization.’ Unlike the language of many patristic fathers who speak of Christ becoming human so that we may become divine, Bonhoeffer speaks of Christ becoming human so that we may become truly human (p. 6-7). This introduces a key element in Ethics, namely the relation between the ‘ontological’ and the ‘existential’ or in ethical terms, between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ (see p. 49-50). Ethics, for Bonhoeffer concerns the making real, or the formation of that which is true in Christ. Thus in Christian ethics, Christians are formed and transformed in their concrete situation (existentially) into who they have been constituted as (ontologically) in Christ. The agent of this transformation is, of course the Spirit (see p. 50).

In keeping with the Christological center of Ethics, the editors note how central it is to Bonhoeffer’s project that Christ is the center in which all reality coheres. Apart from his person (taken concretely, looking at the whole of his human career in all its historic reality) all things collapse into disintegration.

Fourthly, the editors helpfully point out what Ethics does not do, namely attempt to offer a justification for Bonhoeffer’s own participation in the conspiracy against Hitler. Rather, they point out how Bonhoeffer clearly viewed his participation as incurring guilt and requiring repentance, despite being the only form of responsible living in his current context. This is commensurate with the fact that Bonhoeffer’s pacifism was never a pacifism based on absolute principles but rather the word of Christ as it addresses his followers in their particular historical situation. Thus Bonhoeffer recognizes and does not attempt to hide that the plot against Hitler was contrary to the Decalouge and the Sermon on the Mount (p. 13). Rather he viewed it as his only option for responsible action for peace, despite the fact that he clearly understood it as being a sinful act which required his repentance. Whatever we think of Bonhoeffer’s reasoning on this point, it is at least striking and convicting to examine how Bonhoeffer did not engage in self-deception about attempting to justify his action. This is precisely what separates Bonhoeffer forever from any sort of just-war position, namely that he refuses to attempt to justify violence and maintains the necessity of repentance from any violent act. Such honest it indeed the mark of the true disciple, no matter how we evaluate the course of action he chose in this matter.

Finally, the editors note how Bonhoeffer critiques and revises traditional Lutheran doctrines such as the “two kingdoms” and the “orders of creation”, both of which had been used to legitimate the Nazi project. Bonhoeffer dismantles the notion of two kingdoms, arguing instead for an integrated view of reality in which all things are seen as centered in Christ. Bonhoeffer also rejects the idea of orders of creation, instead articulating a doctrine of “divine mandates” which are seen as marriage and family, work, government and church. Whatever difficulties may attend such a doctrine, I think it is striking how Bonhoeffer’s articulation of these social realities as “mandates” rather than “orders” delegitimates different concrete instantiations of family, government, etc. They are mandates, callings or vocations that God issues to humankind, not normative realities that are simply given. The mandates that God gives for what family, government, work and church are to be can never legitimate the status quo, because they constantly call contemporary social realities into question in light of the revelation of Christ. This I think is very insightful.

There follows a plethora of other sections in the introduction detailing the history of the translations of Ethics, the rationale for the ordering and translation of the current edition and guidelines for its use. All in all, the editors have done an excellent job of introducing Ethics and preparing the reader to engage Bonhoeffer’s work therein.



  1. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    Very nice, Halden. I look forward to reading the rest. I am surprised by how much I agree with Bonhoeffer. I knew I liked him, but I didn’t realize how much. Perhaps it’s the Lutheranism. What I like best is the insistence that new humanity is not divinized humanity but true humanity. I cannot agree with this more.

    At some point I hope you bring up the Two Kingdoms doctrine again. I’d like to put Bonhoeffer in dialogue with Gerhard Ebeling and Eberhard Jüngel, who defend the doctrine.

    Thursday, June 22, 2006 at 1:59 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yes, there’s more on the two kingdoms doctrine in the chapter I’ll be posting on next, “Christ, Reality, and Good”. Which should interest you.

    Also on the contrast between divinization and humanization you may want to check out the Westminster Theological Journal (I think the issue is 2002 or 2003). There’s a series of articles on Union with Christ by Paul Metzger, Carl Trueman and one other fellow who’s name I can’t recal. Robert Jenson responds to all thier articles and the issue of the Lutheran v. Reformed Christology and divinization v. humanization come up quite a bit.

    What I like about Bonhoeffer’s use of humanization is that it’s not divorced from a theology of particiation in God, but rather he grounds that particiation in the humanity of Christ, thus the church truly participates in the divine life without becoming divine. This will come out in later chapters where Bonhoeffer builds his Christological cosmology that undergirds his account of humanization and participation of the new humanity in the reality of God.

    Thursday, June 22, 2006 at 3:20 am | Permalink
  3. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    he grounds that particiation in the humanity of Christ, thus the church truly participates in the divine life without becoming divine

    Yes, this is good. Jüngel says the same thing, most notably in his essay, “Humanity in Correspondence to God” from Theological Essays I (one of his best essays I might add). What Jüngel also uses to really make the case is his doctrine of analogy, which I think is of great importance here. I would say it is the pursuit of an analogy of being which forces Gunton and Zizioulas to go astray. At some point, this kind of analogy leads to serious problems. More on that at another time.

    Sunday, June 25, 2006 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] God. I should also point you to Halden’s very helpful comments on Bonhoeffer’s Ethics here and [...]

Switch to our mobile site