Life Together (1938)
In Life Together (Harper & Row, 1954), written the following year, Bonhoeffer theologically interprets the daily life of the seminary he directed. “The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes,” he writes “the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.”
Ethics, on which Bonhoeffer worked from 1940 to 1943, was intended to be a magnum opus. But it was never finished.
Bonhoeffer composed its manuscripts during the time of his political resistance activity. Portions were even temporarily confiscated by the Gestapo when he was arrested and imprisoned in April 1943. Thus, questions remain about how the manuscripts are to be ordered. The second English edition (Macmillan, 1965) rearranges the order of the manuscripts; the new German edition will present yet a third arrangement. But such technical problems are for scholars to worry about. The reader looking for insights on living the Christian life will find plenty.
To begin with, Bonhoeffer repudiates the idea that Christian ethics is concerned with the knowledge of good and evil. One must reject the questions “How can I be good?” and “How can I do good?” and instead ask “the utterly and totally different question, ‘What is the will of God?’ ” The God who is incarnate, crucified, and resurrected in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality. Thus, Bonhoeffer argues, Christian ethics is about the formation of human life into the form of Christ.
For Bonhoeffer, Christians do not live in a separate divine, holy, and supernatural sphere. Rather, they must seek and do God’s will in the natural, historical, public world—in work, marriage, government, and church. As a theologian involved in political resistance against tyranny, Bonhoeffer asked, What does it mean to act responsibly for nation and church? A free and responsible life, he concluded, means acting on behalf of others, in accordance with reality, and being willing to accept guilt. In other words, doing the will of God is finally rooted only in the grace of God.
Fiction from Prison (1944)
In his first year in prison, Bonhoeffer tried to take stock of his life with attempts at a play and a novel. These were published as Fiction from Prison (Fortress, 1981).
This highly autobiographical book gives an intimate glimpse into the Bonhoeffer family. It expresses through characters and conversation some of Bonhoeffer’s most distinctive theological ideas.
Letters and Papers from Prison (1944)
Anyone who has not read Letters and Papers from Prison (Macmillan, 1972) has an intellectual feast in store. The book electrified theological debate in this century.
These letters ask the provocative question: Who is Jesus Christ for modern people who have “come of age” and outgrown religion? What may sound like the much-dreaded “secular humanism” is, on the contrary, a profoundly Christocentric theology of the cross.
If that sounds paradoxical, begin with the letter of July 21, 1944, the day following the failed assassination attempt on Hitler. Bonhoeffer wrote that “the church is the church only when it exists for others.… The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.” In a letter of August 21, he wrote, “If we are to learn what God promises, and what he fulfills, we must persevere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus.”