Bonhoeffer (8): Ethics

Two of Bonhoeffer’s most loved writings are The Cost of Discipleship and his Life Together, but his magnum opus was his Ethics.  As I was reading Metaxas’ summary of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics on pp. 468-472, it occurred to me that one way to categorize Bonhoeffer is as an ethicist, and in particular as an ethicist with a post-liberal, Barthian emphasis. His shrewd psychological insight, his compassion, and his life context all make him perfect for a focus on ethics, and his thought on ethics is dominated by Barthian categories of the “wholly otherness” of God.  He argued against “normal” and “religious” approaches to ethics, in which reason and conscience and principles and rules prevail.  According to Bonhoeffer, we cannot discern and do good by staying within conventional abstract concepts of “right” and “wrong.” Rather, the basis of ethics can only be located in a distinctly theological context.  Only in vital relationship with the living God – only in beholding the face of Jesus Christ – only in going beyond mere principles and rules into the realm of personal encounter can ethics be properly grounded.  After all, German culture had been bathed in traditional “Christian” morality for generations, yet had failed to oppose the greatest evil it had ever faced. Something more was needed. Something “wholly other.”

I like how Bonhoeffer opens his Ethics: “those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand – from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: ‘how can I be good?’ and ‘how can I do something good?’ Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: ‘what is the will of God?’

My paraphrase: we find goodness not when goodness is our ultimate goal, but when God is our ultimate goal.

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