Ethical Ambiguities in Bonhoeffer’s Theology and How to Solve Them

Bonhoeffer’s theology is multifaceted. It can be approached from many different sides and applied for different purposes. In part, this is because Bonhoeffer developed such a rich theological narrative, in part, because his theology addressed people in their context, in part, it is because his theology stands under the influence of many, often opposing voices. It is no wonder that there are many interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s theology that often conflict with each other. There is even a [book] out that addresses the problem of the many different Bonhoeffer’s that are paraded as the original in support of this or that theological or ethical stance.

My own dissertation research was intended, in part, to address this issue and to figure out which Bonhoeffer was true. Now, we all know that we understand the world through interpretation only and that, as such, the true Bonhoeffer will always be true in the eyes of the beholder. Yet, it seemed that in order to contribute to Bonhoeffer research, it was useful and necessary to dig deeper. Instead of approaching Bonhoeffer’s theology with the intent of finding an application for some relevant issue or discussion, I realized that studying Bonhoeffer’s sources by way of examining his intellectual development during his academic years would be key to understanding his theology better and come to more faithful applications of his theology today.

So I went to Bonhoeffer’s most challenging text, Act and Being, in order to understand what makes him tick, so to speak. Initial readings produced aporias but eventually, I began to understand that book inside out. I discovered a few things that are either not (or not sufficiently) known in Bonhoeffer research. For instance, I began to better see how Bonhoeffer’s dialogues with the philosophers of his time, esp. his interaction with Heidegger, was carried out for the sake of formulating a theology that reinterpreted Luther for today. Secondly, though initially excited about Barth’s theology, Bonhoeffer eventually constructed his own theology as a critical counterproposal. He doesn’t say so with many words, but once you learn to read between the lines his intentions are clear. Thirdly, while Bonhoeffer is often seen as a pastoral, public, or ethical theologian, all these adjectives are founded upon the systematic Bonhoeffer. It is simply the case that his systematic reworking of theological method and the doctrine of revelation was constructed in such a way that the method only became clear in the praxis of the Christian life and that his doctrine of revelation consisted of a reformulation of the participatory nature of the church in which one at once discovers revelation and takes part in it.

It is particularly on this last point of the participatory nature of revelation that I encountered the beginnings of Bonhoeffer’s intriguing and challenging ethics. And, as I was writing up a piece on Bonhoeffer’s ethics regarding a postdoc fellowship, it dawned on me that there are at least three moments of ambiguity in Bonhoeffer’s ethics that lead to necessary aporias that invite us to go deeper beyond the standard questions of ethics and morality that we often hear around us: What is right? What is wrong? How should we live? How do we make the right decision in this or that particular situation?

A Non-ethical Ethics

As I focused on the structure of Bonhoeffer’s core theological method, particularly where he discusses revelation in Act and Being, I had to trace some of his thoughts back to his dissertation Sanctorum Communio. Since Bonhoeffer discusses the Church as “the being of revelation” in Act and Being, I was interested in what Bonhoeffer had already said about that “being” before in his previous work. It brought me to his concept of Stellvertretung, or, in English, vicarious representation. If Christ vicariously represents us before God in more classical or conservative theologies, Bonhoeffer uses the term to denote the absolute dependence of believers upon the centrality of Christ as the one in whom they—the ones whose heart is curved into itself—find true community. Christ is what they are not and it is in and through him that they become Christians, Christian community. In Christ, believers become Christ existing as community. As participants in Christ as community, they become themselves, what they could never be, Stellvertreter, i.e. vicarious representers, in whom the world is present to God and God present to the world.

However, since God’s revelation in Christ is, as Luther already asserted, under the opposite of what we expect of God, namely in suffering, sickness, and death, Stellvertretung too takes the shape of that opposite. Stellvertretung stands in for the world but does so in the manner of God’s presence in Christ: suffering and death. This means that being a believer and being a participant of the Christ-community implies living the life and potentially suffering the death of Christ in service of the world out of love for that world.

This is startling enough, but it gets stranger. A superficial acquaintance with this concept of Stellvertretung gives us enough to conclude that there is a strong ethical aspect involved. In order to be willing to participate in Christ in such a way that the kind of being that is characteristic of Christ become one’s own mode of being in the world such that one is willing to live and die on behalf of the wellbeing of others clearly requires an ethical decision of us. But Bonhoeffer says No. He is not willing to accept that becoming Stellvertreter is an ethical decision or ethical possibility. He is emphatic that such being in the world has nothing to do with ethics.

It is of course highly ambiguous to make such a claim. How is it possible that the most ethical form of existence in the world is denied to be ethical. What is it then? A gross mistake? An expression of selfishness? An act of meaninglessness? This is aporia 1: to live your life for others is not an ethical option; rather, it is a gift. That others would characterize such a mode of living as ethical when they see it expressed in you is an unintended byproduct of something that is borne to fruition in us not as a result of our own ethical formation but as the surprising miracle and manifestation of divine life.

The non-existence of Absolute Ethical Norms

A second ambiguity manifests itself later in Bonhoeffer’s refusal to accept absolute ethics. To be sure, already in Sanctorum Communio Bonhoeffer talks about the absolute demand of ethics. What he means, however, is not a timeless principle that is abstracted from reality and context and then applicable to any context, time, or situation. Rather, ethics is absolute in the sense that when we live our lives in time, in history, in the now, we enter the moment of decision for which no abstract or absolute principles are available. The moment of decision has, all in itself, a kind of absoluteness to it. If you want to live you have to enter life. There is no way you can avoid the ethical dimension as an absolute condition of your existence. In that sense, ethics is absolute but without the availability of absolute ethical principles.

Bonhoeffer claims to “have abandoned the abstract notion, largely dominant in ethical thought, of an isolated individual who has available an absolute criterion by which to choose continually and exclusively between a clearly recognized good and a clearly recognized evil. Such an isolated individual does not exist; nor do we have such an absolute criterion of the good simply at our disposal” (Ethics, 219). Oddly, Bonhoeffer thinks that a set of absolute ethical principles lack an ethical dimension.

Isn’t that weird, though? Isn’t Bonhoeffer the prime example of an ethical theologian? Is he not the thinker whose thought many Christians gather around for inspiration in spiritually uncertain times in search of a new foundation for renewed theological thinking today? Do Christian everywhere not turn to Bonhoeffer for an answer to their ethical questions? Yes and yes. Yet, this theologian who first refused to acknowledge Christian existence in the manner of Christ as a form of ethical existence now also simply rejects ethical principles as a proper way to guide us in this life. Mind you, he held this conviction as the terrors of the Second World War unfolded.

Applying Non-ethics to a World in Turmoil

A third ambiguity shows itself in how Bonhoeffer applies his non-ethics with its lack of absolute rules and determinable values to a world that is in trouble. The ambiguity consists of the fact that Bonhoeffer not only rejects absolute ethical principles but instead seeks to identify a form of existence the nature of which discloses itself only to those who participate it. For Bonhoeffer, the only way of being in the world that he was willing to engage and discuss was that which concentrated upon the person of Christ in whom the non-ethical self-giving on behalf of the world manifested itself. This self-giving similarly manifests itself in believers who participate in the community that names itself after Christ. In other words, Bonhoeffer talks about the Church. Any discussion of ethics outside of that realm, or rather, rooted in something else than this Christ-reality, is more or less pointless as far as he is concerned.

And yet, as World War II grinds its way into history, we find Bonhoeffer addressing with increasing insistence, lucidity, and perhaps desperation, this crazy chaotic world as well as the unavoidable secularity he envisioned to come in the wake of the Second World War. In his Ethics, Bonhoeffer talks about many different questions that relate to society, medical ethics, government, etc. His interest is precisely in how Christians should live out their earthly existence in this world and contribute to the preservation of its identity.

This is not something you would expect from someone whose main theological focus was on the centrality of Christ for theology and Christian living. Yet, in his letter from prison, we see him think deeply about how one is to be a Christian in a post-Christian society. So apparently, there is a form of social ethics that is being expressed with reference, not to the Church but the world. It is a social ethics that traces its origin to the world-affirming presence of God in Christ. This is a third ambiguity, because, how will you address a non-Christian world if your ethics is a non-ethics without absolute moral principles? And how do you do this when all you’ve got to show for yourself is—sorry to put it so bluntly—Christ? How does Bonhoeffer achieve an outward focus through a concentration on the center of the Christian faith, namely, Christ?

Solving the Ambiguities

Of course, this is not the place to address these ambiguities and to solve the riddle of Bonhoeffer’s non-ethical unprincipled ethics. But I can give a few hints. By properly understanding Bonhoeffer’s theology as a theology of the cross, deeply and organically rooted in the theology of Luther, we gain insight into how Bonhoeffer’s ethics is structured and how it operates. Bonhoeffer managed to rediscover and then rework Luther’s theology into a modern theology conversant with the thinkers of his own time without losing the specific revolutionary traits of Luther’s theology.

Bonhoeffer realized what was at stake when we allow for ethical principles to be discovered apart from God’s revelation in Christ. What we can be in this world is entirely a gift; like grace, it is neither earned nor owned. Ethics is not an epistemological project that we can engage in apart from praxis or participation in life. It can only be discovered within the realm of the divine gift, Christ, in which believers discover both who they are in Christ and how they are to be in the world. After all, human beings encounter Christ only in the world and not on some extra-dimensional disembodied plane of existence. Ethical formation, then, is a hermeneutical process that plays itself out in the context of life, not in the abstract realm of thought. Only by getting our hands dirty such as we see happening in the incarnation when the Word became flesh, can we become persons living out of grace and into graceful and grace-giving existence.

All three ethical ambivalences in Bonhoeffer’s ethics, that of the non-ethical ethics, the non-absolute ethics, and the Christ-centered approach to social ethics, reveal us a Bonhoeffer who has very important things to say that are relevant for our secular West. I am convinced that uncovering this important message in Bonhoeffer can only be done right by referring his ethics back to its rootedness in the theology of the cross.


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