Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in 1945 for conspiring against the Nazi Third Reich, his best friend and future biographer Eberhard Bethge was left with a difficult task. Using a number of manuscripts (even scraps of paper) written by Bonhoeffer at different times and left in various places, Bethge pieced together the unfinished work under the title Ethik. This first editorial attempt had little to direct it other than a tentative outline sketched by Bonhoeffer. Trying to read the book as a whole resulted in confusion until 1963, when Bethge prepared a new German edition. (English editions since then are based on it.) This rearranged edition attempts to put the material into historical sequence and follows four distinct approaches made by Bonhoeffer toward the subject between 1939 and 1942. Each approach is a fresh start at introducing and laying the foundations for his Christian Ethics. As a result of his conspiratorial activity during those years, however, his efforts were often broken off and fragmentary. Nevertheless, each attempt reveals a distinct emphasis, and combined they evidence a process of reasoning with a clear direction. Ethics is divided into two parts. The first, at almost three hundred pages, amounts to eighty percent of the total work and covers these four approaches.

The first approach (1939-1940) is treated in chapters 1 and 2. Here the focus is on the lordship of Jesus Christ over the world and the unity which this lordship entails for God and the world in Christ. As in his earlier work Nachfolge (1937; The Cost of Discipleship, 1959), Bonhoeffer speaks of the exclusiveness of Christ’s lordship, but in a new way he brings out the importance of the wide-ranging totality of that dominion. Chapter 1, “The Love of God and the Decay of the World,” shows that Christian ethics begins not from an abstract and philosophical point of view but from the standpoint of sinful humanity governed by conflict, shame, and guilt. The will of God is discovered and performed only from within the “world of recovered unity” brought about by the reconciling work of Jesus Christ—the one in whom the old world of decay and the new world of unity are contrasted. Chapter 2, “The Church and the World,” hints at a new and cooperative relationship between these previously separated spheres. Because Jesus is lord of all the world, suffering for a good cause in or outside the church is righteous. Here some of...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)