Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? [Feature Review]

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Page 2: Bonhoeffer the Assassin?

 
 
Shortly after two assassination attempts in March 1943, Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer were arrested for currency violations while attempting to help fourteen Jews disguised as Abwehr agents flee Germany. Bonhoeffer was then indicted in September of the same year for “subverting military power,” which referred to his avoidance of military service by joining Abwehr. The authors then proceed to examine his writings to understand Bonhoeffer’s “ethics for resistance” (95).
 
Those who argue Bonhoeffer shifted from the pacifism to a “realist” position do so through a certain reading of his unfinished work Ethics. The authors argue, “Whatever continuities there are between Discipleship and Ethics, they must be placed within the context of the greater continuity that exists between the two” (103). To demonstrate this, the authors trace Bonhoeffer’s thought from his early writing on ethics in Barcelona in 1929 to his last writings in prison.
 
Bonhoeffer demonstrates in his 1929 Barcelona lectures, especially “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic,” that New Testament texts like the Sermon on the Mount are not totally binding for contemporary Christian ethics. He instead centers Christian ethics on the freedom of God to give commands based on circumstances. In these lectures, Bonhoeffer defends Christian participation in war.
 
While some continuity exists between the 1929 lectures and his later writings, Bonhoeffer’s experiences in the US and interactions with Lasserre led to shifts in his thinking. The shift not only included a move to pacifism, but a new theological outlook in general. Parts of the shift can be seen in Bonhoeffer’s critical appropriation of Barth’s early theology in Act in Being. Bonhoeffer came to focus on revelation as a necessary condition for human knowledge of God. Within that, “Bonhoeffer focuses on the person of God—act and being united in the God-man, Jesus Christ” (135).


Bonhoeffer’s shift in ethical perspective carries over into Discipleship. Bonhoeffer roots Christian discipleship and simple obedience in Christ’s authority. Within this, Bonhoeffer takes Jesus’s commands, such as those to love enemies, seriously, which demonstrates “a positive construal of New Testament law” (153). He sees the commands of Christ as not only pertaining to the “heart,” but to “the entirety of one’s embodies existence” (148). Bonhoeffer thusly “takes issue with the traditional Lutheran distinction between ‘person’ and ‘office,’ especially as that has been used to limit the application of Jesus’s commandments to the realm of ‘personal ethics’” (156).
 
The last two chapters demonstrate that in Ethics, Bonhoeffer continued and further developed the issues addressed in Discipleship. “Just as Discipleship and the opening chapter of Ethics share the same model of divine freedom, they also share the same essential moral anthropology” (171). Bonhoeffer also criticizes interpretations of the Lutheran theory of “two kingdoms” and advocates the holistic nature of reality and calls for Christians to ethical formation in the form of Jesus “incarnate, crucified, and transfigured” (185).
 
 

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