Like other theologians influenced by Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer broke with past attempts to form normative ethics from philosophical starting points and ethical systems based on motives or other subjective criteria. (If he appropriated any source besides the Bible, the most influential was the “personalist” emphasis on man as a social being or “I-Thou” reality.) Actually, in the shadow of early Barth, it was considered presumptuous by many even to attempt to formulate an ethic, but what made Bonhoeffer’s effort possible within this context was his desire to develop an ethic from a strongly revelational perspective and with a christocentric focus. Thus he was one of the first in the “Neo-Protestant” (sometimes referred to as “Neo-Orthodox”) movement to claim that ethical duty is discovered by a contextual as opposed to a normative approach. After World War II, this path was taken up and developed by many others.
The difficult historical context in which Bonhoeffer lived and wrote his Ethics naturally imbued this work with a special urgency. While in prison at only thirty-seven years of age, he said, “I sometimes feel as if my life were more or less over, and as if all I had to do now were to finish my Ethics.” His early theology contains the rudiments of many of the ethical themes he was developing but particularly the fundamental principle of Jesus Christ taking concrete form in the world. Although lines of continuity can be traced from the beginning to the end of his theological journey, it is generally recognized that Ethics represents a conceptually bold step in the direction of the best-known and most provocative thoughts found in his prison writings. Ethics, then, reveals the maturing ideas in his theological journey between The Cost of Discipleship and Widerstand und Ergebung (1951; Letters and Papers from Prison, 1953).