Reading Bonhoeffer: The Necessity of Ethics

Ethics is how I was introduced to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which means that I’ve been working backwards, as he intended it to be his ultimate book. Since I started this blog by working through the unfinished manuscripts that make up what Bonhoeffer was able to write before he was imprisoned and executed, I won’t go into any particular chapter here. What I will do is, following chapter 11 of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sketch out the milieu in which Ethics was inspired and written.

Fantastic book. Go read it, right now.

The Failure of Western Ethics

In 1935, Bonhoeffer was almost ready to head out to India in order to learn from Ghandi. This is not only because Ghandi was a major figure of non-violent resistance at that time, but also because the Western world was ethically bankrupt. Bonhoeffer had been aware of this for a long time, and for a shorter time he had lived admist the unmistakable evidence of this sorry state. We can see how it failed by looking at Bonhoeffer’s critiques of his own situation, but also from examining Bonhoeffer’s theological and practical writings, because everything that Bonhoeffer wrote was written in and for his context.

Traditional Western ethics had no foundation in the Church. When Bonhoeffer was a child, his parents didn’t take him to church. It was a club in which all Germans were members by default, but attendance wasn’t considered necessary. Christianity was to some extent assumed, but it was rarely vital for most Germans. The German church was increasingly tied up in the State in Bonhoeffer’s time, which became the basis for all ethical action: ethics became defined as unquestioned obedience to the Fuhrer, as even pastors were required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler.

Even aside from institutional or structural issues, Christianity in that context had no firm foundation for ethics either. The academy was largely liberal in theology, and modernism was at its height, with all of its individualism or atomism. In this context, the notion of relationship with Jesus Christ was a strange one. Theology was used largely to justify the powers and policies of the State, which was theological ethics…of a sort (!). Even theological language had been co-opted by Hitler, making it very difficult to critique the Nazis theologically. Aside from this, Christianity in that context suffered from many of the issues it still does in our context today: Christianity was expressed largely as inward pietism with little outward action, and many Christians were concerned more with the issue of their own otherworldly salvation than with the plight of their neighbour in the world today.

Christianity also had plenty of competition as a source for ethics: not only was theology being used to support nationalism, but it was being used as such by two opposing and equally radical groups: the far-right, fascist Nazi party, and the far-left communists. It was this intense polarization in Germany that helped Hitler to gain power in the first place, as part of a coalition of right-wing parties that was made in an attempt to overcome the rising socialist and communist leanings in Germany.

But even aside from having no Christian foundation for ethics due to the weakness of the German church, its being co-opted by the State, and the competing interests of the Nazis and communists, Western ethics were based on faulty assumptions.

Bonhoeffer’s Answers

All of Bonhoeffer’s writings address these issues. I should also note that Bonhoeffer’s thought did not run in a straight line from Sanctorum Communio through to Ethics, but was more of a spiral, as the same themes appear over and over again throughout his writings. Let’s take a look at how they all lead to Ethics.

Early Works

Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer’s first doctoral dissertation, established foundational issues: what is a person, and what is the Church? Both can only exist in relationship: I am only a person when I exist-for-others, and the Church is defined as Christ existing in community (for-and-with-others). With this more robust notion of humanity and Church, Bonhoeffer was able to set the stage for later Christian ethics by defining the context of ethics: in relationship with the Other, the neighbour – the Jew.

Act and Being, his second doctoral dissertation, deals extensively with sin, guilt, and conscience. Conscience was largely thought of as being God’s voice; Bonhoeffer corrected this, noting that a conscience can lead us astray (as we saw in the Holocaust and the trials which followed, in which Nazi officers defended themselves by saying “I was just following orders”).

In Creation & Fall, Bonhoeffer critiqued the notion of “orders of creation”, states of affairs that were natural, and therefore ordained by God, and therefore good and assumed. The primary order of creation in Germany at that time was loyalty and obedience to the State, to nation, and to race. Bonhoeffer instead said that these were “orders of preservation”, which, rather than being part of the created order and therefore eternal, were part of Christ’s intervention in the fallen world and therefore must be done away with as soon as they in any way interfere with the proclamation of Christ. (This book was also controversial for the time because in it Bonhoeffer dared to exegete Genesis, a Jewish holy book, in a time when Jewish books had already been banned).

Bonhoeffer’s lectures were only published much later, but his 1933 lectures on Christology were radically different from the historical Jesus or mythical figure described by the liberal theology of his time. Liberal theology was entirely anthropocentric, or focused on human beings, but this created a paradox: the anthropocentrism of liberal theology was largely focused on Jesus as a human being only (without deity), and thus only a moral teacher or an ideal; and once he was only a moral ideal, Jesus himself became redundant, since one only needed to remember the ideal. Thus anthropocentric Christian theology excluded Jesus almost altogether, and placed human values at the centre instead. Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures remind us that Christ is the centre, a position which did not allow for radical manipulation of theology to suit Nazi ideology. As was pointed out in class a few times this week already, Bonhoeffer’s own views were in many ways quite radical, but his consistent and incredibly robustly orthodox Christology allowed him to get away with a lot of other radical thoughts. I would add that if our picture of Jesus is correct, it necessarily leads to radical thoughts!

Later Works

Now, having established a more robust concept of the Church and human personhood, and having developed in alignment with that a less corrupted notion of guilt and conscience, and having demolished the theological underpinning of radical devotion to race and nation (or “blood and soil”, as it was referred to at the time) and established a Christology so robust that it could not be manipulated, Bonhoeffer returned to the notion of Christian community, but more than that, to Christianity itself as it is practically lived. His years living and teaching at the seminaries at Finkenwalde and Pomerania had given him an opportunity to apply the theology he had already written, and when the seminary was shut down by the Gestapo, he wrote about it in Discipleship and Life Together and The Prayerbook of the Bible.

In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer develops a more robust notion of Christianity. Rather than being concerned with whether or not one was going to heaven when they died, he applied the gritty reality of Christ in the world today (existing as community for the world, from Sanctorum Communio) and the call that Christ puts on us all to follow him in this radical way of living. At this time he was already considering that following Christ might mean dying, in a context in which it might occur at any time. The discipleship that Christ calls us to has nothing to do with inward pietism, and everything to do with being-for-and-with-others, to the death.

In regard to pietism, Bonhoeffer was not against piety itself; in Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, he explores the forms of worship and righteous living in community that occurred at the seminary. He famously said at one point that “only he who cries out for the Jews can sing Gregorian chant!” And he did sing (though he was more prone to negro spirituals than Gregorian chant!), and was an excellent musician, and practised spiritual disciplines with a Moravian leaning (proto-Pentecostals of a sort!). Empty pietism had been a weakness in the German church, just as empty Christology and Ecclesiology had been. But the answer to bad theology is not no theology, but good theology; and the answer to weak and empty pietism is not a cold intellectual faith, but rather a faith expressed in devotion that spills over from good theology and practice.


So Bonhoeffer had broken down the theological assumptions in which the Nazis had found footholds, and replaced them with more robust theology that was not so easily manipulated; and he had brought pietistic devotion back into a fuller alignment with theology and ethics. Orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopathy (right motivations, or piety) had been re-established; all that was left was orthopraxis (right actions), which of course he had been dealing with piecemeal as he went, but still needed a full and concentrated treatment.

He began by pointing out the fundamental flaw of traditional Western ethics, which usually ended up being lists of values and priorities for hypothetical situations: they consisted entirely of asking “what is good and evil”, which is entirely the wrong question (remember, that was the question that Adam and Eve were asking when they started this mess!). The right question is, “What is Jesus Christ doing in the world today” and “how can I participate in that?” He also talks about fundamental issues such as the difference between the “penultimate” (what is before the ultimate, i.e., right now) and the “ultimate” (the fullness of God’s plan for the earth coming to fruition), and how that relates to ethics today. He was one of the first theologians to talk about universal human rights. An throughout, he critiques his own context through the lens of cultural critics such as Nietzsche, Barth, and Dostoevsky. He wrote about his context, but used it as a way to bring out foundational issues. Because ultimately, foundational issues are all that we can draw from the ethic of another context; our own ethical application depends upon hearing Christ in our own context, acting in obedience to and participation with him, and hoping for his mercy when we do so erroneously, or when doing so causes us to bring guilt upon ourselves. It’s beautiful, and challenging, and hard to hear, and oh so necessary.

Bonhoeffer wrote his Ethics manuscripts while he was awaiting missions for military intelligence (i.e. meetings with fellow conspirators and supporters abroad), so he was interrupted often, and had not finished when he was arrested. Rather than continuing to work on it in prison (which was probably too risky), he tried his hand at a novel and a play, not finishing either. In his letters to Eberhard Bethge, smuggled out of the prison by guards who had become his friends, he began to develop the idea of “religionless Christianity.” The time for religious words is past, he said; the religion of the future will be about action. In this we can see that he was still thinking in terms of Ethics, but at the same time, it seems to me, we can see a type of resignation in this. I don’t think that Bonhoeffer was nostalgic for the religious language that had been stolen by the Nazis, or for the inward pietism of Church life before, and he certainly had long been saying that the Church had failed; but the way he talks about the end of religion speaks, finally, that the Church has failed.

But Christ has not!


5 thoughts on “Reading Bonhoeffer: The Necessity of Ethics

  1. That is a terrific summary of his major works Jeff. Thanks for spending the time to think this through and write it out to share with others.

    • Hi Jeff. First of all, thank you so much for these posts! You’ve made the pain of missing out on this class a little less intense 🙂
      I have a question about your last few thoughts on this post…
      Now I have not yet waded through Letters and Papers from Prison, so I am not that familiar with Bonhoeffer’s final writings, but I have often heard about his ideas of ‘religionless Christianity’, and I’m still a little hazy on what he had in mind.
      Given his strong connection between ecclesiology and Christology, (the Church as Christ-existing-in-community), do you think Bonhoeffer had given up on the Church, or was he longing for a more radical commitment to Christ through the Church in a world that no longer had room for it?
      Once again Jeff, thank you for all your work.
      All the best!

      • Well, I just started reading your next post, where you answer my question… that’s what I get for not reading ahead 😉

      • Rob, it’s always a pleasure to hear from you 🙂

        He definitely had a stronger notion of church in mind, using “religion” in a somewhat derogatory sense to refer to empty proclamation, piety, and ritual. He said things like “words have failed” (due to empty or co-opted proclamation) and “only he who cries out for the Jews can sing Gregorian chant” (due to empty ritual), and ridiculed piety as the last remaining function of clergy who’d been pushed out of public life as irrelevant and thus spent their days digging up other people’s sins so that they could convict them of something in order to make the gospel relevant again. His answer to all of this is a robust Christianity that is primarily expressed ethically.

        Definitely inspiring and prophetic!

  2. Pingback: Reading Bonhoeffer with Jeff Wheeldon « I Heart Barth

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