(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized very early in his career that his life would not be spent in academic pursuit. Instead, his would be a life of action on behalf of the Church, the oppressed, and his country. To be sure, this sense of vocation had its impact on his theological efforts—on the questions that he believed were important and on how he answered them. This relationship between historical context and theological contribution is marked in his Ethics.

A theme that runs throughout this work is that ethics is not a matter of abstract reasoning about good and evil or even the attempt to apply ethical principles, as a system of rules established from the outset, to particular situations. His own generation, Bonhoeffer notes, cared little for theoretical ethics because more than ever before in the history of the West his period was “oppressed by a superabounding reality of concrete ethical problems [in which] there are once more villains and saints. . . .” Christian ethics, therefore, must be a matter of submission to the will of God in the unique context of each historical situation. Moreover, God’s will is found only in the reality revealed in Jesus Christ. Any other approach assumes the self or the world as realities over against God. Thus, Bonhoeffer seeks to move the individual and the Church away from the questions “How can I be or do good?” or “What is good once and for all?” toward the concrete question “How is Christ seeking to take form among us here and now?”

This rejection of philosophical principles or rules as a foundation for ethics frees Bonhoeffer to build upon more distinctively theological assumptions. Beyond this general qualification, however, one must acknowledge the specifically christological character of Bonhoeffer’s ethics. The alternative to abstract and formal ethical ideas is the living person of Jesus Christ, and “the Good” is to participate in the reality of God which has entered the world in Him. To try to know good and evil from ourselves is a sign of the disunion caused by sin, but Christ heals the disunion. Knowledge of the Good is knowledge of Christ as the one who reconciles all things. Ethical formation is understood as conformity to Him, and encounter with the world is a matter of the deputyship which mediates (like Christ) between God and the world.

Nowhere is the concentration on Jesus Christ as important to Bonhoeffer’s Ethics as in the relationship and responsibility which Christ creates between the...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)