Book Review: ‘The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics: A Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Ethics’ in Relation to Virtue Ethics’, by Jennifer Moberly

The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics: A Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Ethics’ in Relation to Virtue Ethics‘, by Jennifer Moberly

Pickwick Publicaitons, 270 pp. $30.00

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has long been one of my favourite theologians. Actually, thinking back on it, he was probably one of the first serious theologians I became interested in, and after reading The Cost of Discipleship, I dove into his Ethics. That book was a paradigm shift for me, and since then I’ve read a good deal of Bonhoeffer’s writing, but always come back to Ethics.

Jennifer Moberly, in this study, seeks to draw out aspects of Bonhoeffer’s ethical vision that fit together with virtue ethics. In between the introduction and the conclusion are five chapters, having to do with whether or not Bonhoeffer thought of himself as a virtue ethicist, a survey of virtue ethics in Christian thought, Bonhoeffer’s ethics as virtue ethics, Bonhoeffer’s modes of ethical discourse, and divine command and/or virtue ethics.

After the introduction, Moberly turns to the question of just how Bonhoeffer thought of his own ethical system in the second chapter. She first looks at the evidence from Bonhoeffer’s writing itself, where she notes that Bonhoeffer’s tendency to refuse thinking of anything, especially ethics, apart from Christ leads to an initial difficulty, since virtue ethics starting point is generally such things as ‘the good’ and the relation of the moral agent in relation to the good. However, as Moberly also notes, Bonhoeffer was wont to also reject any kind of ‘abstract’ ethical thinking and embraced a more historical, narrative way of thinking about ethical action, which she sees as a point of possible contact with virtue ethics. Most interesting in this chapter is her survey of various commentator’s on Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought – few of these names were familiar to me, so I learned a great deal here – and whether any of them offered plausible readings of Bonhoeffer’s ethics (situationist, non-virtue, non-metaphysical, Kingdom-of-God and other approaches are all glossed here). Moberly ends the chapter with a list of questions that need to be addressed if the relation between Bonhoeffer and virtue ethics is going to be properly conceived, with some of them being: is virtue ethics necessarily based on natural law? Is virtue ethics an example of humans trying to ‘reach God’? Is virtue ethics actually an abstract system?

The third chapter is look at virtue ethics in the Christian tradition, focusing on Augustine, Aquinas and Alasdair MacIntyre. These approaches are fairly well known – Augustine’s eudaimonistic/love/teleological oriented ethic, Aquinas’s more classical virtue ethic, and MacIntyre’s practices and traditions -and so I won’t go into detail  here (since there’s no real new ground broken here) but in any event are worth reading as solid summaries of the three thinkers listed above, and Moberly takes the main features of each thinker to be more or less necessary for virtue ethics to make sense as virtue ethics. The end of this chapter is devoted to answering the questions Moberly raised at the end of the previous chapter, and while I won’t give away the details, but the connections that are made here between Bonhoeffer and classical virtue ethics set the tone for the rest of the book.

The fourth chapter is the meat of the book: Bonhoeffer’s Ethics as virtue ethical. This is what you’ve been waiting for, and it does not disappoint. Moberly covers all the major themes that made Bonhoeffer’s Ethics so good: justification/sanctification/ ultimate/penultimate, natural law, christology, conformation, and more. Again, I won’t give too much away, but there is some serious gold here, and for my money, Moberly’s analysis of conformation, ultimate/penultimate, the communal/historical nature of human beings and justification/sanctification are the highlights. Each of these themes is handled masterfully and close attention is payed to the actual text of the Ethics. After detailed analysis, Moberly concludes that all of these various themes comport quite well with virtue ethics (you’ll have to read the book for the juicy details).

The next chapter deals with Bonhoeffer’s modes of ethical discourse, which Moberly defines simply as ‘Bonhoeffer’s way of arguing when he addresses specific issues’ (p. 141). Moberly looks at a few different issues – the natural as the setting for concrete issues, the right to bodily life, arbitrary killing, suicide – Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison as well as the fact that Bonhoeffer did some of his ethical writing in a Roman Catholic monastary and determines, interestingly enough, that Bonhoeffer’s mode of ethical discourse is more philosophical than theological and substantially influenced by Roman Catholic moral theology. Moberly concludes that Bonhoeffer intended his ethic to persuade a wide range of people and that Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the concrete and the moral character of the agent places him closer to virtue ethics than any other system.

The sixth and final chapter (before the conclusion) focuses on the prominence of divine command ethics in Bonhoeffer in relation to the various virtue ethical themes already identified. Moberly here covers obedience, the will of God, divine mandates (which Bonhoeffer identifies as work, marriage, authority, and church), responsibility, communion with Christ, and other topics. Moberly sees something of a tension in Bonhoeffer’s vision of the virtuous person in his writings – on the one hand, the virtuous person is characterized in terms of obedience and dependence on God’s command, and on the other hand the virtuous agent is characterized in more classical virtue ethical terms. A dialectic is thus seen to be at play, where Bonhoeffer is synthesizing more classical virtue ethical themes together with his divine command approach.The final chapter contains a good summary of the various themes and arguments, as well the relevance of Bonhoeffer for virtue ethics today.

The strengths of this study are many: it is clearly written, engages closely with the texts under investigation, and is enjoyable to read. I do have a few quibbles, however. The tension Moberly identifies between divine command and virtue ethics is somewhat unclear to me, because it’s never made explicit just why these two themes stand in tension, other than textually – Moberly notes that Ethics is unfinished, and so there may very well be a tension in that sense, but I simply don’t really see the problem she seems to see. The notion of divine command ethics itself here is rather narrow, and takes its cues more from Karl Barth than contemporary divine command ethics. Here and there some of Moberly’s conclusions feel a bit thin – several times, the conclusion cashes out to a variation of ‘Bonhoeffer’s ethics here aren’t in opposition to virtue ethics’, or ‘there is space here for virtue ethics’, and while these may or may not be true, they are a bit weak as far as conclusions go. I understand that with an unfinished manuscript such as Ethics there will be a degree of tenative-ness built in, but at the same time I feel there would have been more constructive payoff had the conclusions advanced beyond (for the most part) general compatibility.

Quibbles aside, this is an excellent study of Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought. Readers and students of Bonhoeffer, theological ethics and virtue ethics in general will find much to learn from here.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review


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