Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was active in the resistance movement against Nazism in Germany during the 1930’s and 1940’s. He was imprisoned and eventually executed in a concentration camp. He was a very heroic and inspiring figure of self-sacrifice and moral commitment, and he became one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century.1
Bonhoeffer’s ethics are religious and Christian ethics. They are also Christological and Christ-centered ethics. He says, “We began by saying that, instead of asking how one can be good and do good, one must ask what is the will of God. But the will of God is nothing other than the becoming real of the reality of Christ with us and in our world. The will of God, therefore, is not an idea, still demanding to become real; it is itself a reality already in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.”2
The reality of Christ and the reality of the world are one and the same, says Bonhoeffer. The world has no reality of its own, beyond its reality as God’s revelation in Christ. The world is only real insofar as God reveals Himself to us in it.3
Christian ethics can therefore have only one purpose: participation in the reality of the fulfilled will of God. If we are reconciled with God, then we will be included in the fulfillment of God’s will in Christ.4
What then does Bonhoeffer have to offer to those who are interested in a non-religious or secular ethics? Not much. He seems to say that we must realize that our world is relative to Christ, whether we want to admit it or not. “There can be no retreating from a ‘secular’ into a ‘spiritual’ sphere,” he says. “There can only be the practice, the learning, of the Christian life under (the)…mandates of God.”5 He also says, “The world, like all created things, is created through Christ and with Christ as its end, and consists in Christ alone (John 1:10; Col. 1:16). To speak of the world without speaking of Christ is empty and abstract. The world is relative to Christ, no matter whether it knows it or not.”6
Bonhoeffer says that only if we believe (in Christ) are we (or can we be) obedient (to the call to discipleship, and to the call to life in the fellowship of Christ), and only if we are obedient do we (or can we) believe. Faith makes obedience possible, but faith is only real when there is obedience.7 Obedience is therefore not merely a consequence of faith; it’s also a presupposition of faith. “Faith is the condition of obedience,” and “obedience is the condition of faith.”8 Only the obedient believe, and only believers are obedient. Believers obey the call to discipleship. The call to discipleship is a call to submission, a call to take up the cross. If we take up the cross, then we prove that suffering love can vanquish evil.9 Discipleship grants us participation in the cross.
We’re justified by faith alone, but we’re also justified by God’s grace alone. Faith is only possible with God’s grace. But faith is never alone; it’s always accompanied by love and hope.10
What is love? The answer is clearly “God is love” (1 John 4:16). But Bonhoeffer says that the emphasis should be placed on the word “God,” even though we’ve fallen into the habit of emphasizing the word “love.” God is love.11 Only by knowing God can we know love, rather than the other way around. To know God is to know love, but we can only know God through God’s self-revelation. Love is the (self-)revelation of God, and God’s (self-)revelation in Christ is the revelation of His love for us. 12 Love is also our reconciliation with God in (and through) Christ.13
Our moral responsibility for our actions depends on our freedom to make responsible choices. Where there is no freedom, there is no responsibility. Responsibility therefore presupposes freedom, and freedom can only consist in responsibility.14 However, obedience and responsibility are also interlinked in such a way that obedience is rendered in responsibility.15 Obedience without freedom is bondage, but freedom without obedience becomes arbitrary self-will.16 In responsibility, both freedom and obedience are realized.17
Christian ethics, according to Bonhoeffer, are not a matter of our merely applying Christ’s teachings to the world, but rather of our being shaped in the form, or conforming to the likeness, of Christ. We are shaped in the form, or conform to the likeness, of Christ not by our own efforts, but by Christ who shapes us in conformity with Himself.18 Thus, we take the form that God has given us as members of Christ’s body, the Church.19
Christian ethics are also based on the unity of the incarnation, cross, and resurrection. Christian life, according to Bonhoeffer, is “life with the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ, whose word confronts us…in the message of the justification of the sinner by grace alone.”20 Christian life also means that we become human through the efficacy of the incarnation, we are sentenced and pardoned through the efficacy of the cross, and we lead new lives through the efficacy of the resurrection.21 All three forms or efficacy are interconnected and interdependent.
Regarding the right to life, Bonhoeffer says that “In the sight of God, there is no life that is not worth living: for life itself is valued by God.”22 Thus, he argues that suicide and euthanasia are wrong, because “God maintains the right of life,” even against those who have grown tired of living.23 Bonhoeffer sees suicide as an attempt at self-justification, motivated by lack of faith in divine justification. He says, “God has reserved to Himself the right to determine the end of life, because He alone knows the goal to which it is His will to lead it. It is for Him alone to justify a life or to cast it away. Before God, self-justification is quite simply sin, and suicide is therefore also sin.”24 Bonhoeffer also argues that contraception and abortion are wrong, and that they violate the right to life. He also argues that sterilization is wrong, unless it is performed for health reasons.
Regarding the relation between Church and State, Bonhoeffer says that the State should be designed to serve God. “Jesus submitted to government, but He reminded government that its power is not arbitrary human will, but a ‘gift from above’ (John 19:10).”25 Government institutions should serve God by establishing and maintaining justice. Christians have a duty to obey government, unless government forfeits its claim on them by violating its mission to promote justice. The aim of the Church should be not for the government to enact laws and pursue policies that favor Christians, but for the government to fulfill its mission of justice.
1Eric Pace, “Eberhard Bethge, 90, Theologian and Biographer,” in The New York Times, April 18, 2000, online at http://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/18/world/eberhard-bethge-90-writer-theologian-and-biographer.html.
2Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, translated by Neville Horton Smith from the German Ethik, Chr. Kaiser Verlag, Munich, 1949 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955), p. 77.
3Ibid., p. 195.
4Ibid., p. 209.
5Ibid., p. 204.
6Ibid., p. 204.
7Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, translated by R.H. Fuller, with some revision by Irmgard Booth, from the German Nachfolge, first published 1937 by Chr. Kaiser Verlag München (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1959), p. 54.
8Ibid., p. 54.
9Ibid., p. 130.
10Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 121.
11Ibid., p. 53.
12Ibid., p. 53.
13Ibid., p. 55.
14Ibid., p. 244.
15Ibid., p. 248.
16Ibid., p. 248.
17Ibid., p. 249.
18Ibid., p. 82.
19Ibid., p. 84.
20Ibid., p. 132.
21Ibid., p. 132.
22Ibid., p. 162.
23Ibid., p. 168.
24Ibid., p. 167.
25Ibid., p. 333.