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.

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