Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, EthicsDietrich Bonhoeffer. 1976. Ethics (Orig pub 1955) Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York: MacMillan Publishers Company, Inc.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Vietnam created tension between my desire to become a career military pilot and my Christian faith. What is a just war? Why was the war in Vietnam unjust? Before I even graduated high school, I developed a passion for ethics.

The problem of war and peace also motivated Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interest in ethics. In the editor’s preface to his book, Ethics, Eberhard Bethge writes:

“The manuscripts which are now before were written between 1940 and 1943 in Berlin, at the monastery of Ettal and at Kieckhow.”(7)

Because Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics was written during the Second World War at the time of Adolf Hitler’s greatest battlefield successes (Metaxas 2010, 363). Although Bonhoeffer never gives a name to his successful man, the context is clear:

“When a successful figure becomes especially prominent and conspicuous, the majority give way to the idolization of success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and untruth, fair play and foul play. They have eyes only for the deed, for the successful result.”(76)

Bonhoeffer’s characterization of Hitler as the “successful man” makes him an archetype whose appeal—even today—would not be limited to fanatics, making Hitler a much scarier figure than villainous caricature usually assigned him.

Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from an aristocratic family and was himself extraordinarily talented. His father was the leading psychiatrist in Germany at the time and his own brother was a noted physicist. Neither were professing Christians and the family did not attend church on a regular basis. His mother was his most significant religious influence. Dietrich declared his intention to become a theologian at age 14 before he had even been confirmed; he received his doctorate at age 21. Metaxas pictures Dietrich becoming a committed Christian, much like John Wesley, only after he was already working as a theologian. After Bonhoeffer had made a visit to New York in 1936, Metaxas asks:  What had happened that Bonhoeffer [the brilliant young theologian] should suddenly take attending church so seriously? (Metaxas 2010, 124)


Bonhoeffer is the author of a number of influential books, especially the Cost of Discipleship, and, along with Swiss theologian Karl Barth (one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration[1]), is credited with starting the neo-orthodox school of thought.  Bonhoeffer laid out important principles of his thinking already in 1928 (age 22) in Barcelona in three points:

  1. …Christianity is not a religion at all, but about the person of Christ…religion was a dead, man-made thing, and at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely—God himself, alive.
  2. He differentiated between Christianity…which attempt but failed to make an ethical way for man to climb to heaven…and following Christ, who demands everything. and
  3. He identified ‘the Greek spirit’ or ‘humanism’ as ‘the most severe enemy that Christianity ever had…dualism, the idea that the body is at war with the soul (Metaxas 2010, 83-85).

In other words, Christians must only follow Christ; we cannot approach God, only God can reveal Himself to us; in our faith heart and mind cannot be separated.

Military Intelligence

Bonhoeffer, the seminary professor and spy, worked with military intelligence (Abwehr). Weeks before the war is over (April 1945), Bonhoeffer is hung for treason, having assisted in the smuggling of Jews out of Germany and assisting those who conspired to assassinate Hitler and bring the war to an end (Metaxas 2010, 423-431). Because Bonhoeffer did not survive the war, his student and confidant, Eberhard Bethge, assembled, edited, and published his notes after the war.

Organization of the Book

Eberhard Bethge organized Bonhoeffer’s Ethicsin two parts composed of twelve chapters:


  1. The Love of God and the Decay of the World
  2. The Church and the World
  3. Ethics as Formation
  4. The Last Things and the Things Before the Last
  5. Christ, Reality and God (Christ, the Church and the World
  6. History and Good
  7. The Ethical and the Christian as a Theme


  1. The Doctrine of the Primus Usus Legis According to the Lutheran Symbolic Writings
  2. Personal and Real Ethos
  3. State and Church
  4. On the Possibility of the Word of the Church to the World
  5. What is Meant by Telling the Truth(3-6)

These chapters are preceded by two prefaces and are followed by a series of indexes. The second preface summarizes where the parts originated and the reasoning behind the current organization of the book.

 Origin of the Ethical Problem

Bonhoeffer begins his study of ethics with a most enigmatic statement:

“The know of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.”(17)

If only God knows good and evil, then ethical knowledge shows separation from God (17-19). Thus, this knowledge is the source of human shame (20). Conscience is no help, being more a measure of the gap among people (24-25).

In the New Testament, the Pharisee becomes an archetype of the man of conscience, which is of no help with the ethical problem—knowing good and evil, but not from God’s perspective—judgment. In reconciling us with God, Jesus allows us to return to know God and God alone. Jesus’ problem with judging (and with Pharisees) is precisely a consequence of original sin—knowledge of good and evil—the original apostacy from God (30-33).


In part one of this review, I have introduced Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the organization of his book, and the opening of the book. In part two of this review, I will look in more depth at Bonhoeffer’s ethical concepts.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics provides a series of essays on ethical topics that he wrote during the last days of his life in Germany during the Second World War. The book is surprisingly well written for a book rendered only in a series of drafts. Ethicsoffers a foundation for Christian ethics and is a must read for pastors and seminary professors.




 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book

Metaxas, Eric. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1

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