Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s unfinished and posthumously published Ethics was intended to be his magnum opus. However, its incomplete structure and the distinct ethical approaches evident in its unfinished essays have allowed for considerable debate about its overall coherence and contours, as well as the hermeneutics appropriate to the text. This essay reconsiders prior interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics through close readings that disclose three rival versions of moral reasoning operative in three manuscripts from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. Retracing his reasoning regarding the ethics of lying, the place of guilt, and the relation between the law of God and God’s will, I argue that Bonhoeffer’s detractors and defenders alike have misconstrued the controversial ethic of “actively embracing guilt” (Schuldübernahme). Far from the paradigmatic expression of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, its organizing theme, or the basis for his participation in the tyrannicide plot against Hitler, Bonhoeffer’s reflection on Schuldübernahme is properly understood as an outlier—a short-lived thought experiment that he critiques and reconceives in two alternative versions of moral reasoning in later chapters.
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