The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard (Part 4)

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This is Part 4 of a 4 Part series comparing the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard. In Part 1 we looked at the evidence that Bonhoeffer knew Kierkegaard’s work on ethics. In Part 2, we looked at Bonhoeffer’s ethics. Last time in Part 3, we looked at Kierkegaard’s ethics. Finally, here in Part 4, we will compare their approaches to ethics and draw our conclusions.

THE ETHICS OF BONHOEFFER AND KIERKEGAARD

Last time in Part 3, we examined Soren Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics. In sum, his ethics were (1) Existential and (2) had three progressive stages, namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, the last of which he defines as a “teleological suspension of the ethical” which means that the ethical thing to do is to obey the will of God even if the action is unethical (e.g. Abraham sacrificing Isaac). In short, ethics for Kierkegaard was about the will of God. Now in Part 4, we will compare and contrast Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics making our final conclusions.

COMPARISON AND CONTRAST

With regard to their similarities, Bonhoeffer’s foundational question, “What is the will of God?” in Ethics is quite similar to Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical in Fear and Trembling. The preoccupation with obedience to God’s will in both approaches is inestimably noteworthy. This is by far the most important point of contact between their two approaches. Second, they both critique the traditional approaches to ethics; Bonhoeffer in explicitly naming and calling out the bankruptcy of these approaches and Kierkegaard in suspending them for the sake of the end goal.

With regard to their differences, Bonhoeffer’s approach is very communal – particularly seen in his for-othersness – whereas Kierkegaard’s is almost wholly individual – seen in his focus on Abraham the knight [singular] of faith. Second, their historical contexts are totally different. Bonhoeffer is reacting to one of the most extreme ethical dilemmas known to human history – Hitler and Nazism – while Kierkegaard is somewhat safe and sound in Denmark during a time void of world-wide war and calamity. Thirdly, Kierkegaard’s ethics are notably existential, whereas Bonhoeffer’s are Christocentric, ontological, and situational.

Overall, while there may be more differences between Bonhoeffer’s and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics, the two similarities carry far more weight than the differences. Thus, for this reason, we deduce that there is a strong similarity between the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sǿren Kierkegaard approach ethics, particularly in relation to their preoccupation with obeying the will of God.

CONCLUSIONS

In conclusion, we have explored three questions concerning the points of contact between Bonhoeffer’s and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics. First, we asked “To what degree did Bonhoeffer interact with and know Kierkegaard’s works and in particular, are there any places where he speaks about Kierkegaard’s ethics?” To that we have answered definitively that Bonhoeffer did know and interact with Kierkegaard’s works and there is one place in particular where he even critiques Kierkegaard’s ethics.

Our second question followed as such: “What were Bonhoeffer’s and Kierkegaard’s approached to ethics?” To that we have answered that Bonhoeffer approached ethics Christologically, ontologically, situationally, perhaps apocalyptically, vicariously, and non-traditionally, whereas Kierkegaard did so existentially, progressively, non-traditionally, and teleologically.

Lastly, we asked the question: “What similarities and differences exist between their approaches?” To that we have answered and demonstrated that there are two robust similarities between their approaches and several minor points of dissimilarity.

But the question still remains, “Did Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics influence Bonhoeffer’s approach?” In light of this study, I think that it is safe to conclude that Kierkegaard did in fact influence Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics, though the degree of influence seems somewhat indeterminate and ambiguous. The stark similarity of their emphasis upon obedience to the will of God seems to be the strongest indicator of influence. Moreover, the similarity of disregarding traditional approaches to ethics could be due to Kierkegaard’s influence upon Bonhoeffer; however it seems more probable that Bonhoeffer’s own situation is what sparked an intrigue to devise a new approach. In addition, the fact that Bonhoeffer so clearly critiques Kierkegaard’s stages in his letter to the Bethge’s may suggest that he in fact did not hold to Kierkegaardian ethics. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer does not mention Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical there and thus we do not have enough evidence to say that he did not hold to the ethical suspension. That would be an argument from silence. In light of this somewhat conflicting evidence, we can therefore conclude that to some degree Kierkegaard probably influenced Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics, particularly regarding obedience to the will of God, though this influence was not without evaluation, critique, and contextualization to Bonhoeffer’s own needs in his own historical situation.


Bibliography

Backhouse, Stephen. Kierkegaard’s Critique of Christian Nationalism. New York: Oxford, 2011.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953.

de Gruchy, John W. The Cambridge Companion to the Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Dooley, Mark. The Politics of Exodus: Kierkegaard’s Ethics of Responsibility. New York: Fordham, 2001.

Gordis, Robert. “The Faith of Abraham: A Note on Kierkegaard’s ‘Teleological Suspension of the Ethical.’” Judaism 25:4 (1976): 414-419.

Green, Clifford J. Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Hoffman, Kevin. “Facing Threats to Earthly Felicity: A Reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.” Journal of Religious Ethics 34:3 (2006): 439-459.

Hough, Sheridan. “Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension is Not a Bride in Madison County.” Journal of Social Philosophy 31:2 (2000): 146-152.

Jolivet, Regis. Introduction to Kierkegaard. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co: 1946.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Edited by  C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh. Translated by Sylvia Walsh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Muggeridge, Malcolm. A Third Testament: A Modern Pilgrim Explores the Spiritual Wanderings of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004.

Rose, Tim. Kierkegaard’s Christocentric Theology. Burlington: Ashgate, 2001.

Stack, George J. Kierkegaard’s Existential Ethics. University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1977.

Wand, J. W. C. The Minds behind the New Theology: Kierkegaard, Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer. London: Mowbray, 1963.

Ziegler, Philip. “Christ For Us Today – Promeity in the Christologies of Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 15:1 (2013): 25-41.

Ziegler, Philip. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer – An Ethics of God’s Apocalypse?” Modern Theology 23:4 (2007): 579-594.

Sola Exegesis: Why Sola Scriptura Is Not Enough

Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens, Greece

Sola Exegesis: Why Sola Scriptura Is Not Enough

At the time of the Reformation, there were two major battle cries among Protestants: Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) and Semper Reformanda (“Always reforming”). It is the former that I am concerned with here. Within Protestant circles today, clergy and laity alike claim to uphold the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, however in practice they have all but forgotten that the claim Sola Scriptura means Scripture alone rightly understood. It is my contention then that the only method by which we can rightly understand Scripture is through the method of Exegesis. For those that are unfamiliar with the term Exegesis, this is a method of biblical interpretation that draws out meaning from the text of Scripture instead of reads into the text what’s not there. Exegesis, then, seeks to understand the Bible within its original contexts – namely, the historical, literary, social, cultural, rhetorical, and linguistic contexts of the Bible in the ancient worlds of the Ancient Near East (OT) and the Greco-Roman world (NT) – in order to draw out its meaning. So in order to do Exegesis well, one must use a variety of critical approaches to interpretation such as the historical-critical method, literary criticism, rhetorical criticism, social-scientific criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, linguistics, etc.

I am, therefore, suggesting that Sola Scriptura is not enough, because the Bible needs interpreting and interpretation requires method. So I am proposing a new motto: Sola Exegesis – Exegesis alone! Only the method of Exegesis will help us rightly understand the Bible in it’s original contexts, and once rightly understood in it’s original contexts, then we can rightly appropriate it for us today in our 21st century context.

Another facet of Sola Exegesis is that the method of Exegesis should be the foundation for developing and understanding Biblical Theology, both Old and New Testament theology. So then, Exegesis is not for Exegesis’ sake, rather it leads us forward to theology; a movement from Exegesis to Theology. And this is not simply for Theology’s sake, rather biblical theology moves us to ministry and Christian living; from Exegesis to Theology to Ministry. This is the process, I believe, that guides the second cry of the Protestant Reformation, Semper Reformanda (“Always reforming”). So then, we do Exegesis…which forms our Theology…which shapes our Ministry…and then we do it over again. And again. And again. This is the ongoing process of Christian living and always reforming. But Sola Scriptura is not enough, because a method of biblical interpretation must be chosen; and I am choosing Exegesis. Will you join me in the journey, in this ongoing process of Christian living?

Together we can discover what the Old and New Testament emphasizes via Biblical Theology, and then we ourselves can emphasize what OT Jews and NT Christians emphasized in our lives and ministry as the body of Christ. Together, therefore, we can discover how Biblical Theology founded upon Biblical Exegesis should shape Christian preaching, teaching, evangelism, and ministry in our 21st century world. Will you join me?

Resources for Exegesis

Michael Gorman’s “Elements of Biblical Exegesis.” David Bauer’s “Inductive Bible Study.”

Resources for Biblical Theology

Ben Witherington’s “The Indelible Image” volumes 1 and 2

These resources can be found on www.amazon.com

The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard (Part 3)

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This is Part 3 of a 4 Part series comparing the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard. In Part 1 we looked at the evidence that Bonhoeffer knew Kierkegaard’s work on ethics. Last time in Part 2, we looked at Bonhoeffer’s ethics. Here in Part 3, we will look at Kierkegaard’s ethics. Finally, in Part 4, we will compare their approaches to ethics and draw our conclusions.

THE ETHICS OF BONHOEFFER AND KIERKEGAARD

Last time in Part 2, we examined Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics. In sum, Bonhoeffer’s ethics were (1) Christocentric, (2) Virtue-Based, (3) Situational/Contextual, (4) Apocalyptic, (5) “for-others”, and (6) distinctly different from the traditional approaches to ethics, asking the question, “What is the will of God?” instead of “What is good?” Now in Part 3, we will move to exploring Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics.

KIERKEGAARD’S APPROACH TO ETHICS

First and foremost, Kierkegaard approached ethics as an existentialist and thus his ethics are classified as existential ethics.[1]

Secondly, Kierkegaard speaks of progressive stages of human morality and growth: (1) the aesthetic, (2) the ethical, and (3) the religious.

The first aesthetic stage is characterized by a love for pleasure and the sensuous, and is therefore the lowest of the three.[2]

The second ethical stage for Kierkegaard is better than the aesthetic stage, though is still somewhat disparaging in comparison to the religious stage. Here the person does their duty to what they know to be right or wrong.[3] This Kierkegaard says is good but falls short of the ultimate.

The third and ultimate stage then for him is the religious.[4] This is the stage that we find at work when we turn to his classic book called Fear and Trembling. In this religious stage, Kierkegaard addresses the issue of Abraham’s faith and God commanding him to offer his son Isaac on the altar. For Kierkegaard, Abraham in this OT story is “either at every moment a murderer or we are at the paradox that is higher than all mediations” (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 58). Thus, he fervently seeks to present a positive account for the morality of Abraham. In doing so, Kierkegaard concludes that there is a “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Fear and Trembling 49) [5]. This means that what would normally be classified by traditional approaches to ethics as murder – and thus unethical – is not the case with Abraham from Kierkegaard’s perspective. For starters, Abraham was commanded by God to do this. Thus, in this situation he says that Abraham is faced with a temptation to disobey God’s command. He says Abraham’s temptation here “is the ethical itself, which would keep him from doing God’s will” (Fear and Trembling 52). Further, he says, “what then is the duty? Well, the duty is precisely the expression for God’s will” (Fear and Trembling 52). Thus, Kierkegaard asserts that the ethical thing for Abraham to do is to obey God’s will in sacrificing his son even though traditional ethics condemn such an act. In this way, “the ethical” is suspended or momentarily set aside for the sake of the end goal, namely, to obey God.[6]

Thus, Kierkegaard denigrates the traditional approach to ethics, at least in regard to the issue of Abraham. To Kierkegaard, Abraham is the individual “knight of faith” who is a true hero of life and ethics, a model for humans to follow, one who obeys the will of God at all costs.

Next time in Part 4, we will compare and contrast Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics and draw our conclusions.

End Notes

[1] See George J. Stack, Kierkegaard’s Existential Ethics (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1977) for a monograph on the assessment of Kierkegaard’s existential ethics.

[2] See Regis Jolivet, Introduction to Kierkegaard (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co: 1946), 124-133 for a chapter on the aesthetic stage.

[3] See Jolivet, Introduction, 134-142 for a chapter on the ethical stage.

[4] See Jolivet, Introduction, 143-201 for two chapters on the religious stage.

[5] He clearly states this at the telos of the discussion: “The story of Abraham contains, then, a teleological suspension of the ethical” (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 58).

[6] Some scholars critique Kierkegaard’s use of the biblical Abraham saying that his view is anachronistic. See Robert Gordis, “The Faith of Abraham: A Note on Kierkegaard’s ‘Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,’” Judaism 25:4 (1976): 414-419 for a short and unique article which does this very thing.

The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard (Part 2)

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This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series comparing the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard. Last time in Part 1 we looked at the evidence that Bonhoeffer knew Kierkegaard’s work on ethics. Here in Part 2, we will look at Bonhoeffer’s ethics. Next in Part 3, we will look at Kierkegaard’s ethics. Finally, in Part 4, we will compare their approaches to ethics and draw our conclusions.

THE ETHICS OF BONHOEFFER AND KIERKEGAARD

Last time in Part 1, we examined the occurrences in Letters & Papers from Prison where Dietrich Bonhoeffer mentions Kierkegaard and his works. From this, we concluded that Bonhoeffer not only knew of Kierkegaard’s work, but indeed knew his work on ethics. Here in Part 2, we will now move to explore the details concerning Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics.

BONHOEFFER’S APPROACH TO ETHICS

First and foremost, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethics were Christocentric as was his theology and sociality. His Christocentric ethics then are worked out in three theological caveats of being conformed to Christ (German: Gestalt Christi): (1) the Incarnate Christ, (2) the Crucified Christ, and (3) the Risen Christ [Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 82-83].

Second, Bonhoeffer’s ethics are essentially ontological or virtue-based ethics. In Ethics, he says,

What is worse than doing evil is being evil. It is worse for a liar to tell the truth than of a lover of truth to lie. It is worse when a misanthropist practices brotherly love than when a philanthropist gives way to hatred. Better than truth in the mouth of the liar is the lie. Better than the act of brotherly love on the part of the misanthrope is hatred. One sin, then, is not like another. They do not all have the same weight. There are heavier sins and lighter sins. A falling away is of infinitely greater weight than a falling down. The most shining virtues of him who has fallen away are as black as night in comparison with the darkest lapses of the steadfast.”[Ethics 67]

Thus, he believes that who a person is on the inside is more important than what one does on the outside.

Third, Bonhoeffer approached ethics from situation to situation – often called situational ethics. For him, an ethical decision had to be determined based upon each given circumstance and changing situation. Every situation is different and thus demands different decisions. His extreme situation with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany can surely account for why he would opt to take this approach. Some would summarize this in saying desperate times call for desperate measures. This situational approach is also characterized as being relational.[1]

Fourth, a currently controversial and “unsettled” topic regarding Bonhoeffer’s ethics is whether or not they are apocalyptic [2]. I think that there is some warrant to this, though others may dissent.

Fifth, a focus of Bonhoeffer’s ethics is that they are “for-others.” A large part of his others-focused ethics comes from his sociality and the I-Thou relationship which he develops in Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of the Saints). Furthermore, some think that Bonhoeffer largely had in mind the Jews specifically and the world in general when he speaks of being “for-others.”

Sixth, Bonhoeffer critiques and dispenses with the six major approaches of ethicists throughout history to ethics: (1) reason, (2) moral fanaticism, (3) conscience, (4) duty, (5) free responsibility, and (6) silent virtue (Ethics 67-69). All of them, he says, are inadequate to deal with “the present struggle” [3] which most assuredly is a reference to him working out ethics of coup d’état and tyrannicide.

BONHOEFFER’S NEW WAY OF ETHICS

In dispensing with the primary approaches to ethics throughout history, he therefore must present a new approach and this is precisely what he does. The question of ethics he says is not, “How can I be good?” or “How can I do good?” (Ethics 186). Rather, he says, “instead of these he must ask the utterly and totally different question: ‘What is the will of God?’” (Ethics 186). Thus, in this way, Bonhoeffer approaches ethics in a totally unique way that had never been done before. For him, ethics therefore is about obeying God and living out his will. Moreover, this was not something for the individual alone to do, but rather obeying God’s will as a definition for the ethical life is something for the community and the people of God.

Next time in Part 3, we will take a look at Soren Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics which is quite similar to Bonhoeffer.

End Notes

[1] Larry Rasmussen calls this “his relational, contextual ethic.” See John W. de Gruchy, The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 221.

[2] See Philip Ziegler, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer – An Ethics of God’s Apocalypse?” MT 23:4 (2007): 579-594 for a detailed discussion.

[3] Clifford J. Green, Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 306.

The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard (Part 1)

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This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series comparing the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard. Here in Part 1 we will look at the evidence that Bonhoeffer knew Kierkegaard’s work on ethics. In Part 2, we will look at Bonhoeffer’s ethics. In Part 3, we will look at Kierkegaard’s ethics. Finally, in Part 4, we will compare their approaches to ethics and draw our conclusions.

THE ETHICS OF BONHOEFFER AND KIERKEGAARD

Many points of contact exist between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sǿren Kierkegaard.[1] One of these, I believe, happens to be their approach to ethics. In surveying the secondary literature, little ground seems to have been broken comparing their ethical approaches.[2] Thus, in this paper, I will venture to pioneer such a study by comparing Bonhoeffer’s and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics. In doing so, I will first ask the question, “To what degree did Bonhoeffer interact with and know Kierkegaard’s works and in particular, are there any places where he speaks about Kierkegaard’s ethics?” After answering this question, I will subsequently seek to answer the question, “What were their approaches to ethics?” Lastly, I will conclude by comparing and contrasting their approaches and determine whether there are points of agreement or disagreement in their approaches. Overall, I will argue (1) that Bonhoeffer knew of Kierkegaard’s ethics and (2) that Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics influenced Bonhoeffer’s approach to a limited extent.

METHOD AND PURVIEW

With regard to my methods and approach to this study, I will default to using primary sources, particularly English translations of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison and Ethics and an English translation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. In light of this, with regard to my purview, I will limit my scope of interacting with secondary sources in this study for two reasons. First, very little literature has been written upon this topic. Secondly, I have limited space and time in this study and thus must raze this paper down to the bare minimum.[3]

BONHOEFFER’S INTERACTION WITH KIERKEGAARD

To begin, I will first examine to what degree Bonhoeffer interacted with and knew Kierkegaard’s works and in particular his ethics. To do so, I will explore all the occurrences where Bonhoeffer cites Kierkegaard in his prison works and attempt to assess whether he hints at knowledge of Kierkegaard’s ethics.[4] These occurrences all happen to be in the later time of Bonhoeffer’s life when he was incarcerated by the Nazis.

1. A Letter to His Parents

On October 31, 1943, Dietrich sent a letter to his parents from the prison at Tegel. Within this letter, he thanks his aged parents for coming and visiting him and for providing him with a parcel of bread. Furthermore, he mentions that it is “Reformation Day” and proceeds to expound upon what Martin Luther wanted to happen and how the public’s reaction to his action resulted in the opposite of what he wanted, that is, “insurrection, the Peasant’s War, and soon afterwards the gradual dissolution of all real cohesion and order in society.”[Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison (LPP), 123] Then, he talks about a debate he knew of among Lutheran scholars named Holl and Harnack concerning this issue. With pertinence for our study, he then mentions Sǿren Kierkegaard and his take on this subject. Bonhoeffer says,

As long as a hundred years ago Kierkegaard said that today Luther would say the opposite of what he said then. I think he was right with some reservations.” [Bonhoeffer, LPP, 123.]

Here, we see the first mention of Kierkegaard among Bonhoeffer’s prison writings. We can glean from this first of all that Bonhoeffer did know of Kierkegaard. However, this statement is so brief and lacks a context which speaks to ethics. Thus, from this letter to his parents, we cannot conclude that Bonhoeffer knew of Kierkegaard’s ethics.

2. A Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge

Next, on January 23, 1944, Bonhoeffer sends a letter to his beloved relatives, Renate and Eberhard Bethge. Within this letter he writes about many things at length. However, pertinent to this study is that he again refers to Kierkegaard. In discussing the recovery of the four mandates of art, education, friendship, and play in the church, he says of Kierkegaard,

I wonder whether it is possible (it almost seems so today) to regain the idea of the church as providing an understanding of the area of freedom (art, education, friendship, play), so that Kierkegaard’s ‘aesthetic existence’ would not be banished from the church’s sphere, but would be re-established within it?”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 193]

This seems to be somewhat of a critique of Kierkegaard and his base stage of human ethics, namely, the aesthetic. Bonhoeffer goes on further to critique even Kierkegaard’s second level of ethics, namely, the ethical stage. He says,

Who is there, for instance, in our times, who can devote himself with an easy mind to music, friendship, games, or happiness? Surely not the ‘ethical’ man, but only the Christian.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 193]

This seems to be a further critique of Kierkegaard’s stages. Bonhoeffer seems to be saying that Kierkegaard’s final and highest stage – the religious stage – is the only place where freedom and the four mandates can find their place in church and society again, whereas Kierkegaard would have disparaged the mandates in ranking them at the aesthetic stage. In other words, Bonhoeffer is saying that only Christians (i.e. the religious) can experience the freedom of art, education, friendship, and play contra Kierkegaard who would disparage them altogether.

Thus, again we conclude that Bonhoeffer knew Kierkegaard’s work. However, in this letter, we see Bonhoeffer interacting with Kierkegaard’s ethics, not only that, but even critiquing them and purposing an alternative view. This indicates that Bonhoeffer did in fact know Kierkegaard’s ethics, but whether or not they influenced Bonhoeffer is another point entirely. Determining this from this particular letter is cannot be achieved since he combats his view rather than embraces it.

3. A Letter to Eberhard Bethge

Then, on March 9, 1944, Bonhoeffer writes a letter to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison. In the letter, he speaks of many things, yet fixates upon answering a remark from Bethge concerning “Michelangelo, Burckhardt, and hilaritas.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 229] He focuses upon the meaning of the Latin word hilaritas and says that it means more than “serenity, in the classical sense,” but is also a “high-spirited self-confidence.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 229] Within this discussion, he makes reference to Kierkegaard. Bonhoeffer says,

I admit that Michelangelo, Rembrandt and, at a considerable remove, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, are in quite a different category from those that I’ve mentioned. There is something less assertive, evident, and final in their works, less conviction, detachment, and humor. All the same, I think some of them are characterized by hilaritas in the sense that I’ve described, as a necessary attribute of greatness.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 229]

Thus, again we observe that Bonhoeffer did in fact know and interact with Kierkegaard. However, from this passage in LPP, there is no trace as to whether he is interacting with Kierkegaard’s ethics, let alone whether they influence his own.

4. A Letter to Eberhard Bethge

Lastly, on July 28, 1944, Dietrich composes another though rather short letter to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel. Here, he again addresses a theological issue that Bethge brought up. The issue concerns health and fortune in the Old and New Testaments as relates to suffering and the cross. Within his brief response, Bonhoeffer mentions Kierkegaard and how he thinks that the Old Testament view of blessing is mutually exclusive to the cross. He says,

Now is it right to set the Old Testament blessing against the cross? That is what Kierkegaard did. That makes the cross, or at least suffering, an abstract principle; and this is just what gives rise to an unhealthy Methodism, which deprives suffering of its element of contingency as a divine ordinance. It’s true that in the Old Testament the person who receives the blessing has to endure a great deal of suffering…but this never leads to the idea that fortune and suffering, blessing and cross are mutually exclusive and contradictory – nor does it in the New Testament. Indeed, the only difference between the Old and New Testaments in this respect is that in the Old the blessing includes the cross, and in the New the cross includes the blessing.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 374]

Thus, again Bonhoeffer clearly knows Kierkegaard’s works. However, there is no trace in this letter that Bonhoeffer is interacting with Kierkegaard’s ethics. Moreover, like the second letter we examined, Bonhoeffer again critiques Kierkegaard’s position on the topic at hand and presents his own view.

CONCLUSIONS

Overall, in assessing these four letters from his time in Tegel prison, we can conclude that Bonhoeffer indeed knew of Kierkegaard and was versed enough in his writings to interact with his thought by memory without his books at hand. What is more, we can conclude that Bonhoeffer had some knowledge of Kierkegaard’s ethics, at least his three stages of the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious as we see in his letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge. However, in this letter, we see Bonhoeffer critiquing Kierkegaard’s three stages and he sees some major problems with them, the effects of which were stretching all the way to the church and society of Bonhoeffer’s day. Thus, with this little though vital evidence, at this point, we can tentatively conclude that Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics did not influence Bonhoeffer’s. However, as we proceed and discuss the specifics of their approaches, this conclusion may or may not be warranted.

Next time in Part 2, we will look at the ethics of Bonhoeffer.


End Notes

[1] First, they were both Lutherans. Secondly, their theologies are Christocentric. See Tim Rose, Kierkegaard’s Christocentric Theology (Burlington: Ashgate, 2001) for a work on Kierkegaard’s Christocentric theology. Third, they both critiqued nationalism in their own times. See Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard’s Critique of Christian Nationalism (New York: Oxford, 2011) for a study on his critique of nationalism. Also, they both speak on ethics of responsibility. See Mark Dooley, The Politics of Exodus: Kierkegaard’s Ethics of Responsibility (New York: Fordham, 2001) for a book on Kierkegaard’s ethics of responsibility. Lastly, Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer were used and abused in a similar way as founders of the secular theology of the 1960’s. See Bishop J. W. C. Wand, The Minds behind the New Theology: Kierkegaard, Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1963) for a brief study on Kierkegaard’s and Bonhoeffer’s “influence” on this new theology.

All of this goes to show that a massive amount of work has yet to be done in comparing Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer. I believe that such a study would be profitable and would return abundant dividends, though such study has yet to be done.

[2] However, other similarities in their life and thought have been thoroughly explored. One is promeity within their Christology. See Philip Ziegler, “Christ For Us Today – Promeity in the Christologies of Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard,” IJST 15:1 (2013): 25-41 for a great article comparing their thought on Christ being for us.

[3] At some point, I hope to expand this paper into several chapters interacting with “commentaries” on Kierkegaard’s and Bonhoeffer’s ethics and produce an advanced and in depth study on their approaches to ethics. This however unfortunate cannot be done here.

[4] Note that Bonhoeffer mentions Kierkegaard in Christ the Center and in some of his sermons, but these are in his early years before Bonhoeffer undertakes the task of writing upon ethics. Thus, I will limit my scope here to his references to Kierkegaard during and after he writes ethics.