Christian moral action: Bonhoeffer


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Introduction: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and ethics

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906. He lectured in theology in the 1930s and also served as a Lutheran pastor. Being raised a Lutheran meant that he, like Luther, had a tendency to criticise the Church if it diverged from the Bible. He joined the Pastors Emergency League in 1934 which evolved into the Confessing Church, made to oppose the state Church controlled by the Nazis. The Confessing Church was outlawed by the Nazis in 1937. Bonhoeffer was invited into the resistance to Nazism in 1940. There was a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler which included Hans Oster who had recruited Bonhoeffer. After the assassination plot failed, they were all executed. Bonhoeffer’s role in the plot was to enable communication between the British government and the resistance. He wrote his book on Ethics during his trips, from 1940 until his arrest 1943. His book was about how Christianity needs to focus more on action in the service of God’s will.

The Confessing Church was founded by Bonhoeffer in opposition to Hitler’s founding of the German Evangelical Church in 1934. Hitler removed all non-Aryan clergy. The Confessing Church then made the Barmen declaration, mostly written by Karl Barth, where they rejected governmental interference in the Church and affirmed the bible as the source of revelation.

Finkenwalde was where Bonhoeffer held an illegal secret seminary. This was a form of civil disobedience. He introduced seminarians to his method of daily meditating on the Bible.

Bonhoeffer introduced the seminarians to the African-American church music he had experienced. Clifford Green remarked on the significance of this that for the first time the young men trained in rigorous systematic theology ‘encountered for the first time the Social Gospel, the need for moral responsibility in the world’.

Solidarity for Bonhoeffer refers to the purpose of Christian life being about relationship to God by living with and for other people. This is what convinced him to return to Germany and get involved in the resistance to Hitler even though he had escaped to America. Bonhoeffer thought he would have ‘no right’ to help restoring Christianity in Germany after the war unless he shared ‘the trials of this time with my people’.

Knowing and acting on God’s will

Bonhoeffer thought that the fall corrupted our ability to have knowledge of good and evil. Living in a fallen world means that we cannot ourselves nor through any system of ethics, not even the Bible, figure out for certain what God’s will is for us to do. Bonhoeffer said that his generation had the least ‘ground under its feet’ in history. It was a time of spiritual and political chaos. Bonhoeffer posed the question ‘who stands their ground’ against evil like Nazism? He thought traditional human methods of ethics, including reason, conscience, virtue and duty, had all failed.

Our goal should be to become a ‘responsible person’ – someone who acts to stand their ground against evil, ready to put aside human ethics, but with faith that they are doing God’s will.

‘Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless … Not to act is to act.’ – Bonhoeffer.

Responsible action is highly risky and difficult, but when faced with evil we must act. Bonhoeffer became involved in the plot to kill Hitler. Even though killing is wrong and could destabilize the country, Bonhoeffer had faith it was God’s will. However, he was never certain that killing Hitler was right. He said that if he survived the war, his role in the conspiracy meant he would step down as a preacher.

The best we can do is meditate on the bible and pray, hoping to get a sense of God’s will, even though we can’t be sure of it. We must risk a “bold venture of faith” and have faith that God will forgive us if we become a sinner in the process.

“[responsibility] depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture” – Bonhoeffer.

Taking part in violence goes against pacifism & the will of God. Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy against Hitler seems to amount to an abandonment of pacifism. This raises the question of whether that conflicts with Jesus’ teachings which seem to recommend pacifism. In the Beatitudes, Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39).

Bonhoeffer did not turn the other cheek to Hitler. Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t ever use violence, let alone kill anyone. He allowed himself to be arrested, telling his disciples not to defend him. Jesus’ call to discipleship was for us to pick up our cross and follow him. His teachings and example suggest suffering from evil, not fighting against it. Arguably Bonhoeffer is placing the wrong sort of emphasis on suffering and going against Jesus’ teachings. 

Furthermore, in Romans 13 Paul says that ‘it is necessary’ that Christians should obey their rulers since the rulers are ‘God’s servant for your good’. This suggests that all civil disobedience, let alone violent resistance to rulers, is unbiblical.

However: Barth & Bonhoeffer’s Neo-Orthodox view of the Bible. If the Bible were the perfect word of God then knowing God’s will would be a simple matter of following what the Bible says. Much of the Bible does seem to go against Bonhoeffer’s theology. However, Bonhoeffer doesn’t think the Bible is the perfect word of God. He followed Karl Barth’s view called Neo-Orthodox, that approaching the Bible with humility and meditating on it in a community of believers can create an encounter with Jesus. The Bible’s effect on us can be the word of God. This approach makes Bonhoeffer immune to the criticism that his theology goes against the Bible. He thinks legalism is the wrong approach. The will of God is not the stale set of ancient ethical rules written in the Bible. It is alive in a Christian church community. Each new day and situation need a renewed attempt to understand the will of God.

Finkenwalde was an example of an attempt to create such a community. Bonhoeffer told his students to meditate daily on the bible, not in original translations, not reading theological commentaries, not even focused on its literal meaning, but just trying to hear God speaking through it.

“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 this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. The heart, the understanding, observation and experience must all collaborate in this task.”

“The knowledge of Jesus Christ … is something that is alive and not something given once for all … each new day brings the question how–today and here and in this situation–I will remain with God, with Jesus Christ, and be preserved in this new life. This very question, however, is the meaning of the testing of what the will of God is.” – Bonhoeffer.

The consequence is that Bonhoeffer thought the bible contained no universal nor eternal ethical truths.

“[The bible] contains no ethical precept which we may or even can adopt literally” – Bonhoeffer.

The only purpose of the bible is to inspire people to follow Jesus. That does not mean following the moral teachings of Jesus, since discipleship with Jesus in itself has no ‘content’. Principles are only a tool in the hand of God which we should throw away when they become useless. Even the sermon on the mount is not relevant today. Bonhoeffer called principles from previous times as ‘rusty swords’, meaning obsolete and ineffective tools for fighting evil today.

Subjectivity issue. The Neo-Orthodox idea that a person could hear God’s voice through the Bible or by it be brought into a direct encounter with God seems far too subjective a basis for deciding what to take from the Bible. It is close to the idea of a religious experience and thus subject to the same issues facing religious experience.

Bonhoeffer on Church, state & civil disobedience

Bonhoeffer’s views on Church, state & civil disobedience. Bonhoeffer agreed with Luther that Christians should obey the state’s laws because order is useful for sinful creatures like us. However, human law is fallible and governments can become corrupted by their power into thinking they are justice itself, which only God has a right to think. It is therefore God to which a Christian’s primary allegiance is owed. The Church should therefore have the important political role of keep the government in check due to the state’s authoritarian tendencies. So, part of a Christian’s responsibility to the state is not only to obey its laws that encourage law and order but also to disobey their leaders if they act against the interests of the state and God’s will. This is called civil disobedience; when a states laws are ignored because they are thought to be immoral.

Bonhoeffer engaged in civil disobedience by taking part in the confessing Church and the illegal seminary at Finkenwalde. His eventual part in the plot to kill Hitler was also arguably civil disobedience, though an extreme form of it that might be argued to go beyond ‘civil’ action.

A moral system which justifies evil acts as God’s will is dangerous. Throughout history people have done terrible things because they thought God’s will was on their side. Even the Nazis soldiers had the slogan ‘God on our side’ on their belt buckles. Bonhoeffer is essentially justifying the assassination of politicians, couldn’t that justify religious terrorism? Paul Hill murdered an abortion doctor and claimed to have been inspired by Bonhoeffer. George Bush cited Bonhoeffer to justify his war on terror.

Bonhoeffer would respond: acting according to God’s will for Bonhoeffer requires not just that we put aside human ethics but also our own desires in order that it be a truly selfless act. Bonhoeffer thought Jesus’ injunction to love your neighbour as yourself required selflessness of us. Arguably those conditions make his recommendation less susceptible to justifying terrible things. The Nazis certainly did not put aside human ethics or their personal desires. Arguably neither did Bush.

“[our] own will must be surrendered if God’s will is to be realised”

However: arguably it is impossible to truly put aside your own mind. Your personal desires shape your perspective on the world in a deep and unescapable way. Harvey Cox claims that Bonhoeffer’s theology is like a Rorschach test. It reveals the theological presuppositions of the reader. The fact that such an inconsistent variety of people have drawn inspiration from Bonhoeffer suggests that he is just providing people an excuse to do what they want, rather than enabling them to follow God’s will.

Bonhoeffer vs secularism

Secularists would argue against Bonhoeffer for a complete separation between Church and state. They would reject the idea that the church should have the power to act as a check on the state. They might argue that the church is even more corruptible than the state because at least the state is voted for in elections in a democracy. Another argument refers to ‘the long peace’, the significant level of peace after the second world war to the present day. Secularists argue that this is due to the rise of secular liberal democracy and further demonstrates how unnecessary religion is for maintaining social order. This suggests Bonhoeffer’s view that the Church should act as a check on state power is unnecessary today and thus no longer relevant.

However, Stanley Hauerwas defends Bonhoeffer. He argues that the Church does protect against authoritarian dictatorship. He was influenced by Bonhoeffer and argued that western democracies only practice tolerance of religion for pragmatic reasons without any concern for the truth of religion. Pragmatism without truth leads to indifference which leads to cynicism. Liberal secular western societies have undermined theological and religious truth which creates a void vulnerable to being filled by totalitarian powers.

Hauerwas is making a classic argument that many theologians have made, that without God we lack meaning, purpose and moral guidance. The loss of God results in a void of purpose which can be exploited by authoritarians to gain power by tempting people with grand visions of utopia. In their purpose-starved state, people will be more gullible and less likely to notice their freedoms being taken away, until it is too late. Arguably Bonhoeffer has a point that the Church can act as a useful moral compass for society to protect against this possibility.

Cheap vs costly grace

Bonhoeffer argued that the Church preaches ‘cheap grace’ as they suggest believers don’t really have to do anything particularly difficult to receive grace. E.g the Catholic Church merely says you have to confess your sins to a priest and then you’ll be forgiven and receive salvation.

“Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ” – Bonhoeffer.

However, Bonhoeffer argued that ‘costly grace’ was the true grace and it requires us to truly suffer and sacrifice like Jesus did. Mark 8:34-35 ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. This suggests that costly action is required for true discipleship.

The parable of the good Samaritan also backs up Bonhoeffer’s view. Jesus was asked by a lawyer (probably a Pharisee) who was their neighbour. Pharisees tended to only view those in agreement with them as their neighbour. Samaritans were looked down on by most Jews at that time. Jesus told the story of the good samaritan who stopped to help an injured Jew, indicating that was the neighbourly thing to do. The good Samaritan performed the good action of helping. Even though the Levite or Pharisee would technically brake no law for not helping, the cheap grace of their legalistic approach to the bible and inner corruption caused them to fail to act according to God’s will which was the costly grace of putting aside cultural barriers and having faith in loving their neighbour.

The sacrifice of discipleship is irrelevant today. Arguably Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on suffering made more sense in his time where he was resisting Nazi rule. We live in times of relative peace and security and thus suffering isn’t as required.

Sacrifice is still relevant. Jesus called on us to sacrifice like he did and arguably that was the primary meaning of discipleship. Our cross might be different from his. Arguably there are still sacrifices we can and should make today to prevent evil. There are still cultural issues like racism/sexism and global issues involving war and climate change.

Non-violent resistance can be successful

There are examples of successful resistance to tyranny using non-violent resistance, such as Ghandi’s liberation of India from English colonial rule. Martin Luther King was a Christian who seemed to have a different view to Bonhoeffer about the effectiveness and morality of violence in civil disobedience. Arguably King and Ghandi’s method is morally superior and more true to Christian ethics compared to Bonhoeffer’s which allows violence.

Jesus’ pacifism ‘worked’ because he was raised from the dead and thereby saved us from our sins. King’s pacifism ‘worked’ (stood its ground against evil) against the evil of racism in America, so Bonhoeffer would probably have approved of it. However, it would not have ‘worked’ against Hitler, which is why Bonhoeffer thought that fulfilling God’s will required taking part in violent action in his time/situation.

Non-violent resistance only works if the tyrant has a problem with killing peaceful protestors, which Hitler did not. Arguably Bonhoeffer’s taking part in a plot to kill Hitler was justified since killing Hitler was the only way to stop him.

It looks like Bonhoeffer’s theology is relevant today because it’s essentially saying to figure out how to resist the evil in your time/situation and have faith that it is God’s will to act on that and that God will forgive you if you were mistaken and become a sinner in the process because in this fallen world this is the best moral approach a Christian can hope for and it is what God wants of us – he wants us to act. That’s what Bonhoeffer thought he was doing.

Bonhoeffer vs Aquinas on knowing God’s will, natural law ethics, civil disobedience & duty to the state

Aquinas would have disagreed with Bonhoeffer’s theology for failing to take the natural law into account. Aquinas thinks that we can know God’s will is for us to follow the primary precepts of natural law. He also thinks Natural law ethics is the best approach for dealing with the issue of civil disobedience & duty to the state.

Aquinas accepted that human reason could never know or understand God’s infinite divine nature. However, he argued that human reason can gain lesser knowledge of God, including God’s moral law through natural law theory. Thus, Aquinas is a proponent of natural theology through reason, which he claimed could support faith in God. This approach of viewing reason as a valid basis for supporting faith and discerning morals is typically a Catholic view:

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” – Pope John Paul II.

Aquinas on civil disobedience & duty to the state vs God. If a law goes against the ‘human good’ then civil disobedience might be justified, unless the disorder created by disobeying the law would be worse than the badness of the law itself.

If a law goes is opposed to the ‘divine good’, such as inducing idolatry or anything else contrary to the ‘divine law’ then Christians must not follow those laws. Aquinas references Acts 5:29 as justification for this, which says “we ought to obey God rather than man”.

Aquinas clearly thinks civil disobedience is justified but has a much clearer view than Bonhoeffer about when it is justified. Bonhoeffer’s approach is simply to meditate on the Bible and hope to hear God guiding you towards the right action. This makes Aquinas’ approach much safer than Bonhoeffer’s. There is much less risk of it justifying evil acts, being misinterpreted or misapplied.

Defence of Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer for the most part agreed with Karl Barth’s reasoning for rejecting Aquinas-influenced Catholic natural law ethics. Since human reason is corrupted by original sin, its ability to know the primary precepts of natural law cannot be relied on.

“we regard reason as having been entirely involved in the Fall, while according to Catholic dogmatics reason still retained a certain essential integrity” – Bonhoeffer.

“Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call. – Bonhoeffer.

The rejection of reason as an ultimate standard for ethics also reflects Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Aquinas’ natural law ethics. Aquinas’ thought it is God’s will for us to follow the natural law. Reason, conscience, virtue, and duty are all essential parts of Aquinas’ natural law theory.

Karl Barth was influenced by Augustine, who claimed that after the Fall our ability to reason become corrupted by original sin. This is a problem for natural theology which wants to make use of reason.

Barth’s argument is that is therefore dangerous to rely on human reason to know anything of God, including God’s morality. He said “the finite has no capacity for the infinite”, meaning our finite minds cannot grasp God’s infinite being. Whatever humans discover through reason is not divine, so to think it is divine is idolatry – putting earthly things on the level of God. Idolatry can lead to worship of nations and even to movements like the Nazis. After the corruption of the fall, human reason cannot reach God or God’s morality. Only faith in God’s revelation in the bible works.

Aquinas defends his natural theology from original sin. Only rational beings can sin. It makes no sense to say animals sin, for example. The doctrine of original sin claims that post-lapsarian humans are sinners, so, we can sin. It follows that we must still be rational beings to some degree. Our reason therefore still inclines us, through synderesis, towards goodness.

Arguably Aquinas has a balanced and realistic view, that our nature contains both good and bad and it is up to us to choose rightly.

However, Barth still seems correct that being corrupted by original sin makes our reasoning about God’s existence and morality also corrupted. Even if there is a natural law, we are unable to discover it reliably. The bad in our nature unfortunately means we cannot rely on the good. Whatever a weak and misled conscience discovers is too unreliable.

Extra credit:

Bonhoeffer vs Nietzsche: the void & the death of God

Nietzsche was a secular critic of Christianity, claiming that it had a toxic influence on humanity so we should try to get past it. Bonhoeffer was influenced by Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, but obviously disagreed with Nietzsche that we should try to get past religion. In many ways Bonhoeffer agreed with Nietzsche that Christianity had become a negative force, but Bonhoeffer hoped to reform Christianity to make it relevant to modern secular society and be a force for good.

Nietzsche famously said that “God is dead”, by which he meant to show us that God had once been ‘alive’ in our culture in the sense of being the source of our purpose and guidance. The rise of secularism therefore would essentially kill our ultimate source of purpose, resulting in a nihilistic void in our culture. Nietzsche’s said this ‘tremendous event’ was like the earth becoming unchained from the sun and plunging into cold darkness. He hoped that humanity would one day find confidence to assert our own purpose and values without Christianity. Although Christianity had been our source of meaning, Nietzsche thought its influence was to infect us with the idea of ‘sin’ and ‘otherworldliness’; that we could only have purpose through something supernatural which we could never live up to, thereby undermining our confidence in asserting our own purpose. This makes us dependent on religion as the cure for the ‘sin’ it infected us with in the first place, Nietzsche likening Christianity to a bloodsucking parasite. The nihilistic void will linger until we became fully free of Christianity’s influence on us, telling us that we need a cosmic purpose in order to have purpose or moral guidance.

Bonhoeffer on the western void & ‘Religionless Christianity’. Bonhoeffer thought he could reform Christianity to get around Nietzsche’s critique, in part creating the ideas of ‘this-worldliness’ and ‘religionless Christianity’ to address Nietzsche. Bonhoeffer wanted to reform Christianity and make it relevant to the modern secularised world.

This-worldliness is a concept Bonhoeffer uses to describe the way in which he thinks Christianity should be less about the personal pursuit of salvation and more about ‘sharing God’s sufferings in the world’. Bonhoeffer thought initially, as traditional Christianity holds, that living a holy life would help him acquire faith but came to think instead that ‘only by living completely in this world’ enables one to have faith. This-worldliness focuses Christians on the concrete actions and sacrifices they would have to make in this world to stand their ground against evil in the service of God’s will.

Religionless Christianity. Bonhoeffer also wanted to rise to the challenge of making religion work in the new secular age. Born 62 years after Nietzsche, He lived in the situation Nietzsche predicted, where secularism had replaced a Christian understanding of reality with science and was also continuing to replace Christianity in all areas of life, including ethics. Bonhoeffer remarked: “As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.” Bonhoeffer regarded this as the consequence of the “world come of age”, meaning that humanity has reached a level of maturity such that it no longer depended on the traditional legalistic form of religion of the past. Bonhoeffer thought this could be a good opportunity for a new kind of Christianity to assert itself, because it makes irrelevant the theological baggage, rusty swords and cheap grace of traditional religion and enables us to focus on what it means to live like a disciple of Jesus and trying to follow God’s will. This is a concept Bonhoeffer called ‘religionless Christianity’. The success of this defence of a version of Christianity which works in the secular age is vital to the validity and relevance of Bonhoeffer’s theology.

Some Christians would argue that to make Christianity relevant to modern secular times, Bonhoeffer has gone too far in stripping Christianity of its doctrinal content in appeasement of secularism.

Possible exam questions for Christian moral action

Does Bonhoeffer put too much emphasis on suffering?
Assess Bonhoeffer’s teaching on the relationship of Church and State
‘Bonhoeffer’s views on the cost of discipleship are too extreme’ – How far do you agree?

Is it possible always to know God’s will?
How relevant is Bonhoeffer’s theology today?
Should Christians practise civil disobedience?
“Bonhoeffer was overall not a good role model for Christians” – Discuss.
To what degree does Christian ethics require sacrifice and suffering?
Critically assess the implications of Bonhoeffer’s role in the Confessing Church and Finkenwalde.

Assess Bonhoeffer’s views on the role of the Church.
How should a Christian think about the relation between duty of God and duty to the state?
“Christians should follow Bonhoeffer’s teachings on solidarity” – Discuss.
Assess Bonhoeffer’s teaching on ethics as action.
What are the implications of the Church as community and source of spiritual discipline?

Quick links

Year 12 Christianity topics:
Augustine. Death & afterlife.
Knowledge of God’s existence. Person of Jesus.
Christian moral principles. Christian moral action.

Year 13 Christianity topics:
Pluralism & theology. Pluralism & society.

Gender & society. Gender & theology.
Secularism. Liberation theology. 

OCR Ethics
OCR Philosophy
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions