Christian moral action: Bonhoeffer C/B grade summary notes


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Knowing and acting on God’s will

  • Bonhoeffer thought that because we live in a fallen world we can never be completely sure what the right thing to do is – we can’t be sure of God’s will. 
  • However, God still demands that we do something – that we act – Jesus said to pick up your cross. It’s risky to act because we can’t be sure what to do, but we must do something and have faith that God will forgive us if we become a sinner by mistake. 
  • Bonhoeffer was never sure that killing Hitler was the right thing – he said if he survived he would step down as a priest for example. 
  • Bonhoeffer thinks that all we can do is meditate on the Bible and hope to hear the word of God through it, guiding us.


  • Taking part in violence goes against the will of God as stated in the Bible, and Jesus’ teachings and actions. 
  • Jesus never hurt anyone – he said turn the other cheek – but Bonhoeffer is not doing that! Jesus said ‘do not resist an evil person’. 
  • In Romans, 13 St Paul says we should obey the rulers. Bonhoeffer is going against that teaching too.

Optional: defence of Bonhoeffer: 

  • Bonhoeffer had an unusual view of the Bible – that it was not the word of God, but by meditating on it with humility you might be able to hear the word of God ‘through’ it like a religious experience (also Karl Barth’s view)

Cheap vs costly grace

  • Bonhoeffer criticised mainstream Christianity for preaching ‘cheap grace’ – just believing and saying the right things without actually doing what’s needed – will save you. 
  • Bonhoeffer: true grace is costly – Jesus said to be his disciple you should pick up your cross and follow him. 
  • The cost of discipleship is sacrifice, solidarity and sometimes suffering – this is God’s will according to Bonhoeffer. 
  • If civil disobedience is required as costly grace (As in Bonhoeffer’s case), then Christians should do it.


  • However arguably his idea of costly grace is irrelevant today – we aren’t in Nazi germany. – we’re not going to need to suffer or do civil disobedience like that to achieve grace.

Defence of Bonhoeffer

  • Sacrifice is still relevant – there are still problems like sexism, racism, war and climate change that all require sacrifice and suffering to combat.

Bonhoeffer’s views on Church & state & civil disobedience

  • Confessing church (Church Bonhoeffer was in with Karl Barth which resisted Nazi control), Finkenwalde (Bonhoeffer’s illegal secret seminary) & the plot to kill hitler were civil disobedience. 
  • Bonhoeffer thought we should generally obey the rulers because order is useful for sinful creatures (as Luther argued) – however if a ruler acts against God’s will – Christianity should act as a check on state power and Christians should engage in civil disobedience even if it causes them suffering (Bonhoeffer was executed) since that solidarity is the cost of discipleship.


  • A moral system which justifies evil acts (like killing) as God’s will is dangerous – Bonhoeffer recommended civil disobedience against rulers who acted against God. 
  • He took part in the plot to kill Hitler because of this theology. However, that principle is suggesting that if a Christian thinks that the ruler of a state is acting against God then it’s ok to kill them.
  • So, Bonhoeffer is saying that if you think your ruler is going against God then it’s fine to kill them.
  • Bonhoeffer is essentially justifying the assassination of politicians!
  • Nazis thought God was on their side! Bonhoeffer’s approach might have made sense in his situation – but it’s not relevant today. Especially since society is more secular and the church has less power.