The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

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Prior to Christmas, a copy of Jennifer Moberly’s book The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics arrived in the mail. In the first chapter, Moberly makes a claim that will inform her study of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and, in doing so, set her apart from many others who have endeavored to do the same. Moberly states in her study she “shall not attempt to give a detailed exegesis and interpretation of the manuscripts of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” which up to this point, given her examination of Bonhoeffer’s work with regard to the specific understanding of “virtue ethics,” is to be expected. She continues her statement by saying, “nor will I seek to demonstrate my interpretation by appeals to his biography.” It is this second part of the sentence on which I wish to focus.

Upon first reading, I found myself nodding along in agreement as I read her justification for such a stance, as such an appeal to a biography “must rely on a degree of speculation that is dangerous if not unwarranted.” How many times have Bonhoeffer’s various claims, ranging from his earlier works to those written in Ethics, been brought into question due to Bonhoeffer’s practical response to particular situations? In addition, how many have sought to explain what they perceive to be contradictions in Bonhoeffer’s works by citing, not his works themselves, but various biographies?

Granted, the ease by which one may bring Bonhoeffer into one’s camp on a specific issue by appeal to his life eliminates the need for thorough examination of his writings or the perceived contradictions or changes over time. This in turn allows for nearly any ideology to claim the theological authority of having Bonhoeffer on one’s side. Of course, this will not necessarily offer the world a true glimpse of Bonhoeffer or his theology, but rather a caricature that, by virtue of the false claims made in his name, negates the authority originally desired.

Having read for myself several accounts where just such a claim has been made, I express my admiration for Moberly and her ability to avoid the temptation to let Bonhoeffer’s life and the specific time in which he lived dictate her interpretation of his work. How many individuals have argued for their own stance (e.g. regarding pacifism or retributive violence), citing a section in Ethics (e.g. “Natural Life” (p171-218)) in which Bonhoeffer appears to claim an opposing position, only to justify the reader’s interpretation by recalling Bonhoeffer’s biography? Rather than letting Bonhoeffer’s work speak in conversation with his biography, the side that agrees with the reader is victorious, especially where Bonhoeffer apparently behaved, to some extent, to the contrary of his writings. The insights and the challenges of being faithful in a fallen world are lost when Bonhoeffer is used to support one’s preconceived arguments, bordering on “hero-worship” rather than recognizing the struggle he endured wrestling with Scripture, theology, and the world around him.

For those outside the academy, the appeal of Bonhoeffer is that he was a man who acted according to his faith. I would argue that Bonhoeffer’s biography brings more people to know him than his theology (which, if this is where one stops, is a shame). If this is the case—especially if Bonhoeffer’s biography does not truly represent the man—how might this influence those who later read his writing? Do the man’s actions negate or compromise the ethic espoused? Does one bear more weight than the other, thus enabling the reader to draw conclusions on Bonhoeffer’s character contrary to what he himself may have written? In short, Moberly seeks to avoid the problematic slippery slope that has led some in the past decades to claim Bonhoeffer’s name and authority belong to their interpretation of a given situation or espoused ideology.

It is, however, upon greater reflection I arrived at the rub. With regard to ethics in general, is an author above his or her own prescribed ethic? I yield to Jennifer Moberly’s expertise in virtue ethics, and her argument for reading Bonhoeffer’s ethic as virtue ethics versus situational ethics appears solid. Yet, as Moberly points out, Bonhoeffer’s is not a universal ethic so much as a Christ-centered ethic. Thus, there is a call to action for those who take not only Bonhoeffer’s writing seriously and not as mere theoretical pondering, but also the teachings of Scripture. In addition, I ask, how can one take seriously the espoused ethic if the author himself is unable to live up to that which he asks of others?

This is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of ethics, that one must adhere to that which is prescribed. Yet, it is this very prescribed behavior that emerges from ethics that is of such great importance. This is why so many philosophers and theologians have sought to address the practical aspects of humanity via ethics. How fitting that Bonhoeffer’s Ethics be built upon a similar foundation. In essence, Bonhoeffer’s entire life, not simply his writing, become the extended finger of John the Baptist in Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, pointing toward the crucified Christ. If this is the case, how much more important is it for Bonhoeffer scholars to ensure that the ethic represented is one based not simply on Bonhoeffer’s writing alone, but his embodiment of said ethic as well as its adherence to Scripture? Similarly, if those outside the academy are primarily exposed to Bonhoeffer’s biography, the importance of incorporating his writings and offering a true representation of the theologian and pastor—opposed to a spokesman for particular ideals—becomes paramount.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed, detail of Crucifixion)
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed, detail of Crucifixion)

I admire Moberly’s attempt to convey a study of Bonhoeffer’s ethic void of the misinterpretations of Bonhoeffer’s activities that might compromise the true message of his writings. The near “hero-worship” of some who wish to elevate particular events in Bonhoeffer’s life cannot outweigh these important ethical teachings directed toward believers. I do, however, wonder if this approach neglects an important aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ethical writings, which is his own ability to adhere to behavioral expectations he addresses—those rooted in Scripture and a world at war. Is there a way to bring both together and convey a true representation of that which Bonhoeffer wrote? Surely Bonhoeffer’s biography plays a part in our understanding of how practical his ethical writings appear. Bonhoeffer’s writing read in the context of his life allows a reader a greater understanding of his theology—as long as the Bonhoeffer being represented is true to the source.

2 thoughts on “The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

  1. Diane

    Matthew,
    Thank you for this. As you note, I think there is a place for studies of Bonhoeffer’s theology divorced from issues of biography, and I appreciate an impulse not to want to ground our appreciation of his theology in our admiration for his life. At the same time, having completed a soon-to-be-released biography of Bonhoeffer and women, I find it difficult to separate biography and theology in a man who so wholly breathed and lived the personal as the theological and the theological as the personal. Having not read Moberley’s book, I am at a disadvantage, and I want to support a universal reading of Bonhoeffer’s theology. At the same time, the theological was the lived for Bonhoeffer. Perhaps the best place to land is to appreciate the need for multiple voices and perspectives.

    1. Matthew Post author

      Thank you for your comment Diane. I appreciate your insight on the tension of reading Bonhoeffer’s theology in conversation with is life. I look forward to reading your soon-to-be-released biography of Bonhoeffer and add to my growing understanding of his life and theology.

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