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Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Vol. 6: Ethics.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Vol. 6: Ethics. By Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edited by Clifford J. Green. Translated by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005. xiii and 593 pages. Cloth. $55.00.

This edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics finally presents this collection of manuscripts--central to understanding Bonhoeffer's thought--in a form that is fully accessible to English-speaking readers. The volume is based on the German critical edition (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, vol. 6, Ethik [Munchen: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1992]) (DBW).

Bonhoeffer's Ethics is resolutely christological in method, and he distinguishes this method sharply from all ethics grounded on abstract human ideas about the right or the good. This is particularly seen in his development of the themes of the Christian's formation by Christ into the form of Christ, and the free responsibility of the human being who has been liberated and made fully human by grace. Yet Bonhoeffer's Christocentrism does not confine his thought within the bounds of Evangelical church dogma, as can be seen in his innovative treatment of the penultimate good of human natural life and his understanding of the command of God and the divine mandates.

Bonhoeffer's responsibility ethic is a particularly important and original ethic for the Christian in society. It demands selfless participation in the world in response to the concrete situation for the sake of the concrete other person. It therefore contrasts with the theologically bankrupt alternatives--still found within contemporary churches--of quietistic acquiescence to political and social injustice, narcissistic retreat into private virtue, or a dualistic religious sanction for violent revolution. Bonhoeffer's responsibility ethic is particularly relevant today precisely because we live in a world in which the visibly immoral use of power regularly undermines the legitimacy of all kinds of authority--parents, bosses, politicians, and church leaders--and thus separates the question of what is ethical from obedience to human authority.

Bonhoeffer never completed his planned volume of theological ethics due to his arrest and execution by the German National Socialist government. The draft manuscripts in Ethics date from September 1940 to April 1943, during which time Bonhoeffer's criticism of the Nazi regime led to the curtailment of his speaking and publishing and during which he participated in a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

This compositional history accounts for the practical impetus of Bonhoeffer's thinking and for the difficulty in interpreting the Ethics manuscripts without assistance. Bonhoeffer's manuscripts make no explicit references to other thinkers with whom his writing was concerned, and his frequent references to the historical situation of wartime Germany, the Nazi regime and its horrors are oblique, given the repercussions he would have incurred from direct speech. The first two German editions and the English translations based on them provided little introduction or notes to help the reader interpret the references in Bonhoeffer's thought. The earlier English editions also contain misleading translations of certain theological terms, further obscuring Bonhoeffer's thought for English-speaking readers.

The Fortress translation pays careful attention to the theological significance of technical terms in Bonhoeffer's manuscripts. For example, responsibility has the character of Stellvertretung, which is translated as "vicarious representative action" in the Fortress edition, where previous English editions translated it "deputyship." Thus, this term now carries its proper connotation of representative agency rather than subordination, and it recognizes the link that Bonhoeffer intends between his ethical use of Stellvertretung in Ethics and his christological use of the term in Sanctorum Communio.

A second example is Bonhoeffer's use of the terms Oben and Unten to describe the relationships of human authority established by God's command. The Fortress edition translates these terms as "above" and "below," where the previous English editions translated them as "superiority" and "inferiority." The new translation rightly reflects the purely relational meaning that Bonhoeffer intends rather than suggesting that God establishes essential inequalities between human beings.

The historical context and references in Ethics are explained in the Fortress edition's introduction by Clifford Green, the Afterword by the DBW editors, and extensive interpretive notes by both the German and English editors. These illustrate, for example, how Bonhoeffer's development of the concept of free responsible action--a venture that is free even to incur guilt before God and trust in God's grace when faced with human necessity--enabled him to act toward ending Hitler's rule rather than be paralyzed or co-opted through strict adherence to abstract moral principle. They show how Bonhoeffer reworked the dangerously quietistic interpretations of the two kingdoms and orders of creation doctrines that dominated early twentieth-century neo-Lutheran ethics into a doctrine of divine mandates for marriage and family, work, government, and church. As divine mandates rather than natural orders, these remain the command of God for ordering human freedom and thus remain accountable to the will of God revealed in Christ rather than to the form of any particular historical institution. Finally, the interpretive resources in this volume show how Bonhoeffer's concrete ethical judgments--such as his condemnation of Nazi programs of forced "euthanasia," sterilization, and abortion for populations deemed "worthless" or "genetically unfit"--can be understood as a guide for contemporary Christian ethics only when they are interpreted analogically as responses to Bonhoeffer's historical situation and not as immutable abstract principles.

Bruce P. Rittenhouse

University of Chicago Divinity School
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Author:Rittenhouse, Bruce P.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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