Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 2

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

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, writing, and death during the era of National Socialism (Nazi) in Germany gave him a uncanny ability to speak to our own postmodern, increasingly tribal, era. 

Why? Nazi Germany is sometimes described as the first postmodern state for two reasons. First, both the Nazis and post-moderns are heavily influenced by the writings of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s “will to power”ideology directly informed the Nazi leadership model (Der Führer) and also informs the deconstructionism (also called the politics of suspicion) recently so prevalent in public discourse. 

Second, with the collapse of faith, people have to believe in something and they frequently turn to “barbaric brotherhoods” like the Nazis and other tribal affiliations to rob non-brothers, something predicted by Nietzsche himself (McGrath 2004, 262). Those that classify Nazism as a modern phenomenon focus on the German obsession with efficiency or technological preeminence rather than its philosophical underpinnings (Roseman).

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

God’s Will

Bonhoeffer has a high view of God’s sovereignty and the special role of Jesus Christ. He (1976, 38) writes:

“The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for that reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.”

Depending on your Christology, this statement is either terribly obvious or comes as criticism. After the attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life failed, Hitler ironically felt a special calling from God in his work.


Bonhoeffer’s (1976, 32) focus on God’s will directly impacts his ethics, writing: “the only appropriate conduct of men before God is the doing of His will.” The problem with the Pharisees, from his perspective, was that they knew the will of God (or at least knew how to figure it out), but failed to act on it. Complicating the matter, the Pharisees did the opposite of acting—judging.


Bonhoeffer would have been critical of the current tendency to define God as love, but then to offer a licentious definition of love. He writes (1976, 50-51):

“No one knows God unless he reveals Himself to him. And so no one knows what love is except in the self-revelation of God. Love, then, is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ.”

This definition of love as revelation through Jesus Christ is neither alone a licentious interpretation of love or any other revelation not based on Christology. Obviously, the only way to get a licentious interpretation is through a licentious Christology.

Ethics as Formation

Bonhoeffer’s special understanding of Jesus Christ is again made obvious in his discussion of discipling/formation. He (1976, 84) writes:

“The only formation is formation by and into the form of Jesus Christ. The point of departure for Christian ethics is the body of Christ [the church], the form of Christ in the form of the church, and formation of the Church in conformity with the form of Christ.”

Obviously, Bonhoeffer sees no possibility of seeing “Lone Ranger” Christians, as some envision today

Peril of the Void

When Bono and U2 sing about being stuck in a moment,[1]they could have been citing Bonhoeffer, where he talks about the peril of the void and relating it to the coming last days. He writes (1997, 105-107):

“With the loss of past and future, life fluctuates between the most bestial enjoyment of the moment and an adventurous game of chance. An abrupt end is put to any kind of inner self-development and to any gradual attainment of personal or vocational maturity. There is no personal destiny, and consequently there is no personal dignity.” 

Again, Bonhoeffer was writing from Nazi Germany, which some have referred to as the first postmodern society.


Bonhoeffer (1997, 125) observes that God’s grace is the ultimate word that we receive as believers. Grace is a gift but it is never cheap; faith is required. He describes the path that we come to faith as critique and entirely unique to each individual. He calls this process of coming to faith as the penultimate. Bonhoeffer (1997, 127) writes:

“Everything must go to the judgment. There are only two categories: for Christ and against him. He that is not with me is against me (Matt 12:30). Everything penultimate in human behavior is sin and denial.”

What is interesting about this concept of penultimate is that it only has meaning in view of the ultimate and no one is prepared to make a faith commitment—faith is a gift. Bonhoeffer (1997, 143) therefore concludes:

“But it will be more Christian to claim precisely that man as a Christian who would himself no longer dare to call himself a Christian, and then with much patience to help him to the profession of faith.”

In other words, being a Christian is an identity that we must live into; something that we cannot do on our own.

A similar concept in economics is called a full-employment budget. In order for the economy to grow at full potential, the government must budget as if we have full-employment, even if it is currently demonstrating weakness. To budget for the weakness would invariably make it impossible to obtain full-employment. Consequently, a full-employment budget is almost always aspirational.

And so it is with us before we come to faith.

Innocent Life

Bonhoeffer understands the intrinsic value of life that God gives us in creating us in the divine image (Gen 1:27) and loving us as his children. The value of life does not go up and down with circumstance. Bonhoeffer (1997, 163) writes:

“The right to live is a matter of the essence and not of any values. In the sight of God there is no life that is not worth living; for life itself is valued by God.”

The fact that we are weak, ill, or unborn does not hinder our intrinsic value as human beings in God’s eyes, which is the basis of all human rights as we know them.


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. Ethics offers 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

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay.

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

Roseman, Mark. 2011. “National Socialism and the End of Modernity”

American Historical Review Vol. 116, No. 3 (June), pp. 688-701.


[1] Adam Clayton / Dave Evans / Larry Mullen / Paul Hewson. Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 2

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