Chapter 7: The Church Confronting the World

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by Dallas M. Roark

Chapter 7: The Church Confronting the World

Bonhoeffer’s last book was his Ethics. Intended as lectures for Edinburgh, it was considered by Bonhoeffer as his lifework, his real contribution to theology, and was composed between 1940 and 1943. The work was uncompleted and some of the chapters break off abruptly. However, it is a work of great significance, termed by some as his most significant.1 The book has been arranged in its present order by Eberhard Bethge.


The first chapter is foundational. It poses a chasm between Christian ethics and other ethical systems. Other ethical systems aim at coming to a knowledge of good and evil but say nothing about why this should be a particular emphasis in ethics. Christian ethics has a knowledge of why other ethical systems concentrate on the knowledge of good and evil, but rejects this goal as being a false one. The goal of Christian ethics is the new man, the restored man, the reconciled man, the man in God. When other ethical systems set up the goal of a knowledge of good and evil, man immediately becomes the arbiter of that knowledge and assumes the role of God who alone has this knowledge. "Instead of knowing only the God who is good to him and instead of knowing all things in Him, he now knows himself as the origin of good and evil."2

The man’s rebellion brings disunion with God, with man, and within himself. The disunion is manifest in shame. Shame is man’s ineffaceable recollection of his estrangement from the origin.3 Because of it he needs a mask. It reflects man’s disunion with God and with others, whereas conscience is the sign of man’s disunion with himself."4 Although conscience may pretend to be many things, even the voice of God, it is limited in its functional relationship of judging what has been done in the way of wrong. It holds no positive command.

Bonhoeffer treats the Pharisee as the example of disunited man interested in the knowledge of right and wrong, often in a legalistic sense, but who, because of this question, never saw the real issue at hand: unity with God. Passing judgment on the actions of others became the Pharisee’s favorite pastime, and brought disunion. Thus the demand of Jesus is to overcome the knowledge of good and evil for the union with God that brings union within man and among men. "No longer knowing good and evil, but knowing Christ as origin and as reconciliation, man will know all."5 The teachings of Jesus forbid man to "know" or approve of his own actions, or his own goodness. Although this is psychologically impossible as far as knowledge or epistemology6 goes, it is religiously possible in knowing one’s reconciliation with God. Thus the religious life is not a matter of rules, "but solely of the living will of God."7 Man’s chief concern in all situations is to discern what God’s will is. This must continue through life. Bonhoeffer does not imply direct inspiration of God’s will, but he indicates that "if a man asks God humbly God will give him certain knowledge of His will."8

Accepting the given of the known will of God, what shall be the response? Intellectual acceptance? Reflective evaluation? No, the will of God is for doing. In the power of Jesus Christ man is to do the will of God. Bonhoeffer warns against a false doing of the will of God as well as a false hearing. This occurs when one does the law and his motive springs from his knowledge of good and evil rather than his union with God.

Man in union with God is marked by the stamp of love. Love takes its definition from the person Jesus Christ. "Love is the reconciliation of man with God in Jesus Christ."9 In the act of reconciliation man is brought to unity, to union with God, and his relation to his neighbor is transformed. In unity his splitness is overcome.

The development of Bonhoeffer’s thought at this point is cut off by an unfinished chapter. Thus we turn to the next which is also unfinished.

In "The Church and the World" Bonhoeffer got no further than eight pages, but two important and related ideas are set forth. The first concerns the non-Christian defense of an appeal to human values — such as reason, justice, culture — by those who share these values with the Christian but are not related to Christ. Bonhoeffer maintains that these values are homeless orphans who, in the hour of real danger, return to their real father. Jesus Christ is the origin of these values and "it is only under His protection" that they can survive.10 The justification of these values is related to him alone. The second concern is that of Christ and good people. Too little has been said about the good man in Christianity. Much has been preached about the bad. Bonhoeffer declares that Christ belongs to both. Bonhoeffer felt that a theology of the good man should be further developed. A note showing the incompleteness of the chapter indicated something of his feeling: "‘I feel about it more or less like this: the good citizen, too, is humble before God, but the vicious man really lives only by grace.’"11 It is regrettable that this thought was not developed further.

The third essay is on ethics as formation. Bonhoeffer assesses the various theoretical possibilities for solving the ethical dilemmas: reason (it fails to see "the depths of evil or the depths of the holy"); fanaticism (it loses sight of the totality of evil in concentrating upon a particular evil); conscience (it becomes timid and uncertain because of the disguises of evil and degenerates to a soothed conscience to avoid despair); duty (commanded duty does not have the free responsibility of the doer back of it); freedom (it often involves one in doing bad to ward off a worse event); private virtuousness (one must remain blind to evils around him and be self-deceived) .12

These options may have been useful in past days, but new weapons are needed today. The answer Bonhoeffer proposes is the will of God. The will of God is completely exposed in Jesus Christ; it becomes near and personal in him. The wise man is one who sees beyond principles, rules, and other screens to the reality of God. In Jesus Christ the world is reconciled, not overthrown. In the Incarnation where God becomes man, God wishes for man to become true man, for Jesus is not merely a man, but is man.

The fact of reconciliation poses problems for the world especially when it views life from the standpoint of success. Success covers the multitude of sins and guilt. Bonhoeffer poses three attitudes toward success: (1) it is identified with good; (2) "only good is successful"; (3) "all success comes of wickedness."13 Jesus Christ stands as a rejection of success as the standard. Success or failure mean nothing in place of "willing acceptance of God’s judgment."14

The concern of the Christian is with conformation — the forming of Christ in the believer — not with programs, plans, and the practical as opposed to doctrinal concerns. Conformation is achieved by Christ, not by "efforts ‘to become like Jesus.’"15 Bonhoeffer’s perennial theme of the church being Christ incarnate is renewed here. The church is where Christ takes form. This keeps the church from being merely a religious organization, although the church may be tempted to lapse in this direction.

Thus, the beginning point of Christian ethics is not rules but the form of Christ and "formation of the Church in conformity with the form of Christ."16 Thus there is no abstract ethic for all practices, but rather the question of whether "my action is at this moment helping my neighbour to become a man before God."17 In this Christ affirms reality. Christian ethics becomes concerned with the concrete rather than the abstract, the universal principle. Christ becomes man, not a universal principle. Ethics is also beyond casuistry which becomes unmanageable. Reconciliation makes possible the existence of man as real man. Christian ethics begins with this departure point: how can Christ be formed in our world?

To give a background of the problem of forming Christ in the world, Bonhoeffer analyzes the historical antecedents of present secular trends. The breakup of Christian unity in the Reformation paved the way for the emancipation of reason and its deification. Science, once subservient, now assumes mastery over nature. Technology must be acknowledged as a heritage of Western history, and modern man has the problem of coming to grips with it rather than turning backwards to pretechnical times. Following the emancipation of reason came "the discovery of the Rights of Man."18 Attention is focused on the masses who have "now come of age."19 This in turn is related to nationalism. Bonhoeffer sees in the French Revolution the results of these movements. The machine becomes man’s enemy, freedom and the rights of the masses lead to the guillotine, and nationalism engenders war. Nihilism stands at the end. Two things stand against the "plunge into the void": (1) a renewal of faith and (2) the "restrainer" (see 2 Thess. 2:7), which is the state’s order and power.20 The church’s work is to prove to its worldly witnesses that its Lord is living.

Bonhoeffer’s solution involves a turning back. For technology, nationalism, and reason, there is no turning back to a prestate of things. But there is a turning back by recognizing "the guilt incurred towards Christ."21 Only in turning to Christ will man turn to his true self. The church is the place where the recognition of guilt takes place. Unlike the moralist, however, there is no searching for the guilty party, but only receiving forgiveness for the guilt. Bonhoeffer’s list of confessed faults touches upon the problems of our age and all ages.22

If the church would be transformed and have Christ formed in her, she must confess or lose her nature as the church of Christ. The renewal of the church is linked with the renewal of the Western world. Forgiveness, not the law of retribution, must be at work among the nations. The church holds the key to this in its confession of guilt.

Essay four is entitled, "The Last Things and the Things Before the Last," or put more briefly, the ultimate and the penultimate. The ultimate word, or last word, is that of justification by faith alone. Man stands before God in Christ on this basis, and only on this basis. Therefore religious methods, ethical rightness, and civic achievement are rejected as the foundation of right-standing in God’s presence. If justification by faith is the last word, does this mean that we must flee the world and radically reject it? Are we to live only by the ultimate? What is the place of the penultimate? What of our existence in the world as it stands before God? The seeming alternative to radical rejection of the w9rld is acceptance of it as a compromise position implying rejection of the ultimate. The two positions stand in opposition to one another.

Bonhoeffer finds the solution in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation shows God’s love for his work, the crucifixion shows his judgment upon the creature, and the resurrection indicates a new world to come. God’s becoming man means that man is called to be man, to. be himself, a penultimate in the light of the ultimate. The cross shows the penultimate nature of the world, meaning that man is not to be deified but to live before the judgment of the final. The resurrection does not annul life but makes it greater in the ultimate. Thus, "Christian life is participation in the encounter of Christ with the world." 23

The penultimate is functional, the ultimate is the goal. The ultimate justifies the penultimate in its existence, but not as something independent of the ultimate. The penultimate prepares the way for coming to Christ. Without the ultimate the penultimate will shatter. Bonhoeffer analyzes Western Christendom from this perspective. In the last two centuries the ultimate has been called into question and the penultimate — peace, order, justice, humanness — breaks down. If the penultimate is to be fortified and strengthened, then there "must be a more emphatic proclamation of the ultimate." 24

The penultimate concerns the natural as opposed to the supernatural. Bonhoeffer laments that the "natural" has been deleted from Protestantism because it has been opposed to grace, which is magnified. The natural is not the opposite of grace but of the unnatural. He argues that the gospel gives the basis for a recovery in Protestantism of the concept of the natural.25 The natural, after the Fall, directs man toward Christ; the unnatural directs him away from Christ. The natural is unorganized; it is simply there; the unnatural consists of organization and therefore perverts the natural. The natural is recognized by reason. Its content is the preservation of life. Although one might rebel against the natural, the natural will endure in the long run for it preserves life.

Bonhoeffer rejects natural life as an end in itself (vitalism) and life as a means to an end (mechanization) for a composite view of life as both an end and a means. In the first there is content for creaturehood, and in the second, participation in the kingdom of God. Related to life are rights and duties in that order. "God gives before He demands." The general formulation of rights is found in the principle "suum cuique, to each his own."26 Both the multiplicity and unity of rights are expressed in this principle. Bonhoeffer sees God as the defender of natural rights.


In application Bonhoeffer considers certain issues in the framework of natural rights. The first is bodily life which is innate; that is, we exist without a choice or will. Since there is life, and since at death all rights cease, the conclusion is reached that natural life should be free of "intentional injury, violation and killing."27 Because bodiliness is an end in itself, bodily joys can be justified; but being also a means, the body must not be content with pleasures alone.

In this section Bonhoeffer declares that because man’s life exists, he has a natural right to live. No one then has the right to take life arbitrarily. Euthanasia is morally wrong because it involves the arbitrary killing of innocent life. On the other hand, war is defended by Bonhoeffer because it is not arbitrary killing. War is more complex, because the soldier may be personally innocent but collectively guilty in a military attack upon a country.

Bonhoeffer argues for these and other positions below on the basis of a natural-life motif intermingled with Scripture proof. One might question why both are used. Why not divine revelation alone? Or, natural law alone? Both are used because he holds that God stands back of the natural and gives it meaning, while at the same time revelation is necessary for a precise understanding of God’s will.

He is weaker in dealing with suicide. Man differs from other creatures in that he can freely take his life. In suicide he attempts "to give a final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless." 28 Bonhoeffer’s ground for declaring it wrong is not so much natural law as the fact of incurring God’s judgment of guilt. Suicide shows a lack of faith in God and in life’s possibilities.

Leading up to the issues of birth control and abortion he declares that marriage is a natural right of man rather than a religious or civil institution. It existed from the beginning of man before the development of these institutions. Marriage naturally includes the right of life to come into being. When conception has taken place, an abortive act is simply murder.29 Likewise birth control practiced perpetually as excluding life is a serious violation of man’s natural existence. Bonhoeffer hedges on sterilization when either intense passion is involved or disease, in which cases it might be medically necessary.

The last issue is bodily freedom which prohibits rape, slavery, and torture. Bonhoeffer began a section on the natural rights of the life of the mind, but this was left unfinished. A note left something of the outline to be followed which included a section on culture. It is regretted that we are bereft of this material.


The next essay, "Christ, Reality, and Good," is a further treatment in depth of the view that Christian ethics is not concerned with the knowledge of good and evil. He declares that the questions "How can I be good?" and "How can I do good?" are supplanted by a different question: "What is the will of God?" 30 The first two questions reduce the idea of good to an abstraction. Bonhoeffer’s question concerns ultimate reality, and although he presupposes faith, it makes ethics concrete and specific. The ultimate reality is seen in none other than Jesus Christ who is not an idea of good, or an abstraction. Consequently that aspect of ethical discourses given over to the question of motives and consequences not only divides man up in an arbitrary way but does not reflect the real, or God’s self-revelation. The real purpose of ethics is to participate in reality. In Christ this becomes actual.

If there is one ultimate reality, why do we think in terms of two spheres of nature and grace, sacred and profane, and other opposites? Bonhoeffer rejects the two antinomies because there is only one reality, God, who has become manifest in Christ and in the world.31 These antinomies that are reflected in Roman Catholic as well as post-Reformation thought are nonbiblical. There is no possibility of being a Christian outside of the world or outside of Christ. Even the kingdom of the devil does not support the two spheres, for "he must serve Christ even against his will."32 The world has been reconciled in Christ. To accept the two spheres is to neglect or reject this reconciliation.

Although the world may not recognize or acknowledge it, the world is related to Christ in the mandates of God: labor, marriage, government, and the church.33 The "word mandate refers more clearly, to a divinely imposed task rather than to a determination of being."34 The mandates are divine because of origin rather than in their nature as such. The realm of government attracts attention because Bonhoeffer was struggling with the Nazi encroachment in all areas of life. Government is not creative, but preserves and protects what is already created — that is, labor and marriage.

Obedience is owed the government because of Christ’s command. This is an implication of the mandate. But is there an exception to this command? How does Bonhoeffer harmonize obedience to the government with his involvement in an assassination plot? The exceptional situation of tyranny calling for an assassination attempt is not dealt with in a theoretical way by Bonhoeffer. The mandates provide normative rather than exceptional or extraordinary directions for the will of God, the base of the Christian ethic. In fulfilling all the mandates, one participates in reality.

The next essay, "History and Good," builds the concept of responsibility around the biblical self-assertion of Christ: "I am the Life." Life is a Who, not a What. True responsibility is the pledge of one’s life in a life and death way. Responsibility is "to and for God, to men and for men . . . for the sake of Jesus Christ."35 Responsibility rests both upon freedom and upon being bound to man and to God. Responsibility is also defined as "deputyship," acting in behalf of others. In Jesus, deputyship is assumed for the whole of humanity. For man, deputyship involves "surrender of one’s own life to the other man."36 Thus "only the selfless man lives."37

Responsibility is limited by the other man, who is also a responsible creature. Responsibility cannot be used to coerce another person to action. It is also limited in application. It does not lead to revolutionary action but to doing "what is necessary at the given place and with a due consideration of reality." 38 The direction that responsibility dictates depends upon the situation. Bonhoeffer gives us a situation ethic bound to reality (which is Christ); i.e., act in accordance with Christ.39 He rejects an absolute rule or law which must be imposed upon every situation. The so-called absolute good may be the very worst action possible. Action can be directed by the word of Jesus which is the interpretation of his life. Since Christ is no stranger to human reality, there is no arbitrary division between secular and Christian principles. Reality has been reconciled in Christ. To follow him is to have a meaningful word concerning actions in reality.

Although responsibility is a relation between persons, Bonhoeffer speaks of pertinence, the relation that man has with the world of things.40 First, one must keep in mind the divine origin of things. Things are for use. Second, each thing has "its own law of being." 41 Man must learn these laws, and responsible action means that he abides by the inherent laws of things, whether it be the state, the corporation, or human growth. The exception to the rule, the situation, is granted in the case of the necessita, the action required which cannot be made on the basis of the law of the being. War, for instance, would be the exception in the political area, or the necessity. But whether one abides by the law of the being or in freedom does the expedient, both actions stand before God who judges them. Guilt may be accepted in the knowledge that it can be forgiven.

If there is guilt, what of the conscience? Conscience will not permit one to take blame for the sake of another. The reason is that conscience seeks a unity with itself. With a loss of unity conscience indicts the self. The unity, in part, arises out of the ego’s desire to justify its action before God. Bonhoeffer’s answer to the divided conscience is self-denial and commitment to Jesus Christ who becomes "my conscience."42 In the surrender of the ego to God, conscience is set free from the law for a greater foundation — mercy in Jesus Christ. Thus Bonhoeffer could justify telling a lie to a murderer who asks if a pursued man is in his house. Reality and responsibility demand such. But the guilt of conscience will be found innocent in Christ in this action. In Christ, the conscience finds that the law is not the last word.

To offend the conscience and to have responsibility, there must be freedom. The freedom that one has may seem questionable in light of environment, law, culture, routine, and other factors, but Bonhoeffer insists that freedom and responsibility prevail "in the encounter with other people."43 Freedom and responsibility are not isolated from but are related to obedience. "Obedience without freedom is slavery; freedom without obedience is arbitrary self-will. Obedience restrains freedom; and freedom ennobles obedience."44

Where is the place of responsibility, freedom, and obedience? Rejecting the pseudo-Lutheran view which attempted to justify existence in this world as only being on a pilgrimage, Bonhoeffer now declares that a man "takes up his position against the world in the world; the calling is the place at which the call of Christ is answered, the place at which a man lives responsibly."45 "Vocation is responsibility and responsibility is a total response of the whole man to the whole of reality."46 Thus he declares that a pastor must be concerned for the whole church rather than merely for his own isolated flock. When a minister refused to raise his voice in the church struggle against the Nazis to defend other congregations, or to protest persecutions outside his congregation, his own flock was eventually lost.

Bonhoeffer is putting forth, a form of situationalism. One may have to break the law in order that the law be meaningfully fulfilled. War involves many subterfuges that peace, honesty, and integrity might prevail. But it is not an extreme form of situationalism that glosses over the means to achieving a worthy end. Even the means must be repented of, given the situation. This section was to be continued and an outline was preserved, but Bonhoeffer was never able to return to it.


The seventh essay, "The ‘Ethical’ and the ‘Christian, as a Theme," touches on the matter of authority for decision-making. Can one construct an ethical system applicable to all times and places? Are our decisions always of a moral nature, demanding a decision between right and wrong? Bonhoeffer answers that the ethic is not a book, a universal reference for all actions without exception. Neither can there be an ethicist who performs the same function. Indeed, ethical discourse is related to the concrete, the specific, the event in time and place. By the same token, one cannot take a positivistic view of ethical discourse and admit only that reality furnishes nothing beyond itself. The parallel situation is the position of a teaching church which demands submission to its precepts. This Bonhoeffer regards as substituting a religious positivism for an empirical positivism.

To avoid these opposites he proposes the "Commandment of God," which is "the total and concrete claim laid to man by the merciful and holy God in Jesus Christ."47 Embracing all of life it sets free as well as binds, but it is not a summary of all ethical principles to be applied by the individual. If the interpretation or application of the commandment is left to the individual it is no longer God’s commandment.

A commandment must be as concrete as life and as up-to-date as man’s life. Does God give specific directions by new revelations for each occasion? No, but God does confront man in the present historical situation by his command. In a concrete way God’s commandment in Christ comes to us "in the church, in the family, in labour and in government."48

The mandates embrace the whole of life. In them God has already commanded styles of living wherein there is freedom "from the anxiety and the uncertainty of decision."49 Mandates are different from ethical precepts, for the latter concentrate upon what is not permitted while mandates give positive instruction for the content of life. He asserts that in the mandates "life flows freely. It lets man eat, drink, sleep, work, rest and play. It does not interrupt him. It does not continually ask whether he ought to be sleeping, eating, working, or playing, or whether he has some more urgent duties." 50

Mandate is defined as "the concrete divine commission which has its foundation in the revelation of Christ and which is evidenced by Scripture; it is the legitimation and warrant for the execution of ,a definite divine commandment."51 He rejects the use of the terms "institution" (which implies divine sanction for any status quo), "estate" (too many new connotations which distort the original Reformation usage), and "office" (it is now secularized and associated with bureaucracy). He prefers the term "mandate" to express some of the original meanings of the rejected words. The commandment of God in Christ serves as the basis for the mandates. They are not the result of historical development, but are imposed from above. As a further line of explanation the mandates are "conjoined" with one another. No mandate has independence over the others.

Although the chapter is incomplete there is some treatment of the commandment of God in the church with reference to the other spheres, or mandates. Preaching and confession both express the commandment of God in the church. To stress one of these without the other is to deprive the church of a concrete ethic. The Protestant Church stresses preaching while the Roman Church stresses confession, or church worship. The Reformed Church is poverty-stricken in worship, liturgy, spiritual exercises, and discipline, while the Roman Church has neglected the proclamation of the Scripture.52

The church has a word for all of society, a single word of proclamation for both believer and unbeliever alike. This word is summed up in three phrases: (1) "Jesus Christ, the eternal Son with the Father for all eternity." This means that nothing exists apart from God, and that no created thing can be understood apart from Christ. The Incarnation means that God can now be found in human form, and therefore man is free to be man before God. Thus a "genuine worldliness" now becomes a possibility. (2) "Jesus Christ, the Crucified Reconciler." The cross sets us’ free from trying to deify the world, and calls us to believe that the world is already reconciled to God. Therefore it is possible to live a life in genuine worldliness, by allowing the world to be what it is before God.

(3) "Jesus Christ, the risen and ascended Lord." This means that Jesus Christ is Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer. A Christonomy, a rule of Christ, replaces heteronomy and autonomy. Although Christ rules the church, the church does not rule the world. She never ceases being the church, but she cannot be more.53


Part Two of Ethics contains an assortment of essays. The first has the formidable title, "The Doctrine of the Primus Usus Legis According to the Lutheran Symbolic Writings." Two basic issues are brought up: what is the relation of the law to the gospel, and what is the relation of the decalogue to natural law. Lutheran usage suggested that the primary use of the law relates to works, the secondary to the knowledge of sin, and the third to the fulfillment of the law and forgiveness. Bonhoeffer maintains that all three are included in proclamation. He identifies the decalogue with natural law known by reason. There cannot be a dichotomy between the decalogue and natural law. Similarly, there cannot be an arbitrary division between the law and the gospel.54 He notes, "There can be no Christian preaching of works without the preaching of the acknowledgment of sin and of the fulfilment of the law. And the law cannot be preached without the gospel."55

The second essay is on "Personal" and "Real" ethos. Bonhoeffer protests against the ethic of Dilschneider, Troeltsch, and Naumann, who regarded the Christian ethic as having little or nothing to say about the world’s institutional structures, i.e., state, economics, and science. For them the religious ethic was reduced to the practice of love within the world’s structures without having a mission of correction, improvement, and criticism of them. If their view is correct, Christian ethics would affect only about 10 percent of life. Bonhoeffer rejects these views because Christ created all things (including man, state, economy, nature, etc.), has reconciled all things, and the church is placed in the midst of the world where this message may be heard.

The rule of Christ makes it now possible for a genuine world order in these spheres to come about. True worldliness means that these institutions should become what they were meant to be in obedience to God. The state should actually be the state; it is not to rule over the church or be subject to the church or to any other alien law.

Bonhoeffer rejects the three estates of Lutheran doctrine (economic, political, and ecclesiastical) for the biblical mandates which have a heavenly archetype: marriage (Christ and the church), labor (the creative work of God in the world), government (the dominion of Christ in. eternity), and the state (the city of God). He defends his position against the charge that the secular institutions are able to survive without knowing Christ. Limitations are placed on this claim, for "genuine worldliness is achieved only through emancipation by Christ," and yet they exist only because of Christ whether this is known or not.56

The third essay is entitled "State and Church." Bonhoeffer avers that the concept of the state is pagan in origin and is alien to the New Testament. Government is the New Testament idea which does not imply any particular form of state or society. Government is ordained by God. Bonhoeffer rejects those bases for government which project the state arising out of the character of man: i.e., Aristotle, medieval Catholicism, Hegelianism; as well as those theories based in man’s sin and need of government for restraint in a chaotic world: i.e., the Reformation tradition. The second view is more biblical, affirming that government is "from above" rather than organized "from below." But in opposition to this Bonhoeffer affirms Christ as the basis for government because he is the mediator of creation, the goal of government, its Lord, and its source of authority and power.57

Government has a divine character in its being. This refers not to its origin, but to its nature. Its task reflects its divine character in its mission whereby it serves Christ by the sword for punishment and justice and along with education for goodness.58 A further divine implication is the claim of government on conscience, or obedience "for the Lord’s sake" (1 Pet. 2:13). The believer is bound to obedience until the government exceeds its commission, whereupon one must obey God rather than man. This disobedience in a single area must not be generalized to all areas of government. Only an apocalyptic event in which all obedience to government involved denial of Christ (see Rev. 13:7) would require total disobedience.59

Government has a relation to the other mandates. It serves to protect and sanction these areas, but in itself government is not creative. Marriage, labor, and the church stand independently of government, but always in the presence of government and subject to its supervision for the sake of order.

Government has a claim on the church in obedience. Obedience to government is obedience to Christ. Likewise, the church lays a claim on government. She reminds government of their common Master. She calls government to fulfill its "worldly calling," its special task, and at the same time claims protection from the government. The government also has a claim on the church. Government must maintain neutrality with reference to exalting one religion over another. It cannot originate new religions. Similarly, the church has a political responsibility. The church must warn of sin and call for righteousness which exalts a nation.

Bonhoeffer does not opt for any particular form of government. Any form that best fulfills the nature of government would be accepted. This means that government must recognize its being from above. It means also that the government s power will rest on a strict execution of justice, on the rights of the family and of labor, and on the proclamation of the gospel.60 Essay four, "On the Possibility of the Word of the Church to the World," is unfinished but it poses the issue of the church’s responsibility for answering particular problems in the world. Does the church have an answer for all the ills of mankind? Bonhoeffer remarks that Jesus hardly discussed such solutions, but stressed the redemption of man. Therefore, he suggests, "perhaps the unsolved state of these problems is of more importance to God than their solution, for it may serve to call attention to the fall of man and to the divine redemption."61 The solution of human problems is not the task of the church. The church does have a responsibility in removing hindrances to man’s coming to faith in Christ. This is a negative responsibility in which she declares the wrongness of an economic theory, for example, if it obstructs belief in Christ. Positively, she can give advice by drawing upon specialists. This latter task is a service, not part of her divine office.

Essay five, "What Is Meant by ‘Telling the Truth?’" concludes the Ethics. Truthfulness, Bonhoeffer says, does not mean blurting out everything one knows to anybody one meets. Telling the truth depends on the occasion, who is addressing me, and on the subject under discussion. It must involve the total reality of the situation. A true word spoken hypocritically is really untrue. Man is not entitled to speak his mind on any subject apart from the need or demand for his thoughts. On the other hand, "the right to speak always lies within the confines of the particular office which I discharge" 62 — as parent or teacher, for instance. Of interest is the editor’s footnote quoting Bonhoeffer’s letter of December 1943. He speaks of the need for concealment — e.g., God made clothes for man in a fallen state — in which, although evil cannot be eradicated, "it is at least to be kept hidden."63 If there is to be confession, let it be before God. This may serve as a needed corrective to the bent toward spiritual stripteases that occur in sensitivity groups and related psychologically oriented movements in evangelical Christianity.

Trying to evaluate an unfinished work and being fair in doing it is impossible. What one might criticize would conceivably have no basis had Bonhoeffer finished the work, polished and revised it. Yet in spite of the unfinished nature of the work we add the following comments and questions. First, the title, Ethics, is perhaps a misnomer. Suggested titles could be Christian Ethics, Theological Ethics, or The Church and the World. These would indicate the direction the work takes more than Ethics, because traditional approaches of philosophical ethics are rejected as unreal from the beginning.

Second, Bonhoeffer insists that ethics must be defined concretely. God’s will must be seen in a definite way as it is declared in the mandates of labor, marriage, government, and the church. Bonhoeffer saw the mandates as giving man freedom to live without having constantly to reflect on issues to be decided and thereby being kept in a state of indecision. But the mandates do not go far enough. Even with the mandates many Christians may still be troubled. They want to know the specific answer to concrete questions: Whom shall I marry? How can I do God’s will in this particular choice? How many children shall I have? Under the mandate of labor, what specific calling shall I follow? To my knowledge Bonhoeffer leaves us without answers. But these are serious questions facing young Christians, and all discerning people who contemplate their future.

Third, there appears to be an antinomy between the church’s role in prohibiting tyranny and the church’s inability to give "Christian answers" to secular problems. Bonhoeffer advocated reshaping society to prevent tyranny even if it meant assassination. (Admittedly, he wanted to dissociate himself from the Confessing Church had the assassination attempt on Hitler been successful, but this is not the usual advice given as the content of Christian ethics.) On the other hand, in admitting that the world’s problems may be insoluble Bonhoeffer sides with inaction and the status quo. The word that God has for man, he says, is redemption, not solution.

This antinomy exists and has existed in the church for a long time. What would Bonhoeffer have said about the civil rights movement? Should the church be involved in helping a depressed people? How would Bonhoeffer express himself on the Vietnam issue, or the threat of Communism as a form of tyranny? What areas in the world are open for "reshaping," or what areas are "insoluble"? These and similar questions would no doubt have’ received creative answers had Bonhoeffer lived to face them in their exact form.

Fourth, Bonhoeffer’s situational ethic is better than some contemporary writers, but there are still questions to be asked. His is better in that it is dictated by the "form of Christ, and its taking form amidst a band of men."64 Some contemporary writers speak of the end sanctifying the means, giving considerable laxity to ethical application. Bonhoeffer does not do this, but the difference may be little more than verbal. He declares that "Christ teaches no abstract ethics such as must at all cost be put into practice."65 But what is the "form of Christ"? How is it to be known except through the gospel’s declaring redemption and the development of a life style centered around the teaching of the New Testament? Can ethics be built upon the unusual, the extraordinary, the purely situational, or the so-called "hard cases" of life? Must not the form of Christ begin with the specific and add an addenda for the unusual only when necessary, and even then only in repentance?

In summary, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics was written for a crisis situation. He was concerned that tyranny not arise again. He was disturbed over the silence and apathy of the church during Hitler’s rise. His situationalism is in part to be understood in this context. One must not tell the truth to a tyrant when harm will come to good people. While situationalism appears attractive, it is not easy. The situations change, the issues are not always the same, and human judgment falters. While Christ "affirms reality,"66 the moral instruction in the New Testament gives content to that reality.

Ethics will rank as one of Bonhoeffer’s greatest works, although it will not hold the fascination of the last volume, which contains his letters from prison. To that we now turn.



1. William Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Garden City: Doubleday, Image Books, 1969), p. 130.

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1965), p. 19.

3. Ibid., p. 20.

4. Ibid., p. 24.

5. Ibid., p. 33.

6. Epistemology is the area of philosophy dealing with knowledge, how we know, sources of knowledge, and ways of knowing.

7. Ibid., p. 38.

8. Ibid., p. 40.

9. Ibid., p. 52.

10. Ibid., p. 56.

11. Ibid., p. 63, footnote.

12. Ibid., pp. 65-67.

13. Ibid., pp. 76-77.

14. Ibid., p. 77.

15. Ibid., p. 80.

16. ibid., p. 84.

17. Ibid., p. 85.

18. Ibid., p. 99.

19. Ibid., p. 100.

20. Ibid., p. 108.

21. Ibid., p. 110.

22. Ibid., pp. 112-16.

23. Ibid., p. 133. 24. Ibid., p. 142.

25. Ibid., p. 144.

26. Ibid., p. 151.

27. Ibid., p. 156.

28. Ibid., p. 167.

29. Ibid., p. 176.

30. Ibid., p. 188.

31. Ibid., p. 197.

32. Ibid., p. 204.

33. Ibid., p. 207.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid., p. 223.

36. Ibid., p. 225.

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid., p. 233.

39. Ibid., p. 229.

40. Ibid., p. 235.

41. Ibid., p. 236.

42. Ibid., p. 244.

43. Ibid., p. 251.

44. Ibid., p. 252.

45. Ibid., pp. 255-56.

46. Ibid., p. 258.

47. Ibid., p. 277.

48. Ibid., p. 278.

49. Ibid., p. 281.

50. Ibid., p. 283.

51. Ibid., p. 287.

52. Ibid., pp. 292-93, 301-2.

53. Ibid., pp. 296-302.

54. Ibid., p. 313.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid., pp. 330-31.

57. Ibid., pp. 333-39.

58. Ibid., p. 340.

59. Ibid., pp. 342-44.

60. Ibid., pp. 358-53.

61. Ibid., pp. 355-56.

62. Ibid., p. 371.

63. Ibid., p. 372.

64. Ibid., p. 84.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid., p. 85.