Bonhoeffer’s Appeal for Ethical Humility

[1] In 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer made his fateful decision to return to Germany from the United States. Within a year of his return, he became involved in the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler.

[2] His involvement in the conspiracy led to his imprisonment and finally to his execution by the Nazis. Today Bonhoeffer is often celebrated as an example of a modern Christian martyr, and his conspiratorial activity tends to be looked upon with favor.

[3] It is striking, however, that Bonhoeffer deliberately sought to avoid justifying his actions. From his standpoint any attempt to justify his involvement in the conspiracy would have been the height of ethical arrogance. In fact, according to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer “would have accepted the charge that what he had done was not a ‘good response’ to the challenge of the age, but, rather, a very tardy one.”[1] It was one thing to give an account of his actions in the conspiracy; it was another thing to try to justify his actions. As Bethge explains, for Bonhoeffer “the responsible attitude was not to take his justification, before, during and after what he did, into his own hands.”[2] Only God could ultimately judge his actions. In the extraordinary situation Bonhoeffer found himself in, he felt compelled to act as he did, but only with a profound sense of ethical humility.

[4] This sense of ethical humility permeates Bonhoeffer’s Ethics[3], which he worked on while he was engaged in the conspiracy. The purpose of this essay is to look more closely at Bonhoeffer’s appeal for ethical humility, an appeal which applies not only to extraordinary situations, but also to more ordinary situations in life. This appeal is thoroughly grounded in the reality of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. An awareness of this grounding ought to instill in us a deep sense of ethical humility as we engage in ethical reflection and decision-making.

Invalidating the Knowledge of Good and Evil

[5] In Bonhoeffer’s view, common approaches to the ethics are oblivious to the revelational reality of God in Jesus Christ. Instead, the typical ethical approach embarks on a misguided attempt to secure the knowledge of good and evil.[4] For Bonhoeffer, this attempt is the height of ethical hubris. Ethical reflection tends to focus on two main tasks: one, an effort to identify a fundamental moral principle; and two, the application of that principle to various issues in life in order to determine what is good and evil, right and wrong, or moral and immoral. For example, Kant sought to identify a “categorical imperative”-that is, a universal law that would determine the way a person ought to act in any given situation. Kant’s concern for universal consistency of action led him to declare that no one in any circumstances should ever utter a falsehood. As Bonhoeffer points out, Kant “carried this principle ad absurdum by saying that he would feel obligated to give truthful information even to a criminal looking for a friend of his [Kant’s] who had concealed himself in his house.”[5]

[6] In doing Christian ethics, asserts Bonhoeffer, our first task is to divorce ourselves from these misguided attempts to determine good and evil.[6] Our desire for moral certainty leads us astray. In seeking the knowledge of good and evil human beings fall away from their origin. Bonhoeffer affirms that at their origin human beings know” only one thing: God.”[7] The Bible depicts this falling away in terms of the eating of the forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve ate the apple so that they might gain the knowledge of good and evil. They were not satisfied with being created in the image of God. They were not satisfied with being chosen and loved by God. They were not satisfied with knowing that God is the origin of good and evil. They wanted to know good and evil itself. They wanted to be like God. Inasmuch as ethics is the effort to gain knowledge of good and evil, it separates us from God.[8] Thus, without stating it explicitly, Bonhoeffer implies that ethics, as it is typically engaged in, is sin.[9]

The Theological Grounding of Christian Ethics

[7] The heart of Bonhoeffer’s appeal for ethical humility is his claim that ethics is grounded in the revelational reality of God in Jesus Christ. In the new German critical edition of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, the section on “Christ, Reality, and the Good” has been moved to the beginning.[10] This section lays out the theological grounding of Christian ethics. According to Bonhoeffer, this theological grounding implies that we must radically alter our common approaches to the ethical problem. In particular, we need to abandon two typical forms of the ethical question: “How can I be good?” and “How can I do good?” The key ethical question is: “What is the will of God?”[11] When we ask the first two questions, our focus is on the self and the world as the ultimate ethical realities. Focusing on the will of God makes clear that the reality of the self and the reality of the world are rooted in the reality of God.

[8] Bonhoeffer identifies the starting point of Christian ethics not as the reality of the self, of the world, or of standards and values but as the reality of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[12] The reality of God revealed in Jesus Christ defines the good. Apart from this reality, there can be no human goodness or goodness of the world. Apart from this reality, all standards and values are mere abstractions. Christian ethics, therefore, has a theological foundation. The theological problem is “the truth of the revelational reality of God in Christ.” The ethical problem is “the realization among God’s creatures of the revelational reality of God in Christ.” The question of the good “becomes the question of participation in the divine reality which is revealed in Christ.”[13] Human beings participate in this divine reality both as individuals in their person and work and as members of the community of human beings and all God’s creatures.[14]

Ethics as Formation

[9] In Bonhoeffer’s theologically grounded ethics, the method as well as the content reflects his concern for ethical humility. Ethics as formation is his primary methodological motif.[15] Bonhoeffer claims he is not using ‘formation’ in the customary sense. From his perspective, formation does not focus on how we form individuals or the world by means of plans and programs. Formation is a process of being drawn into the form of Jesus Christ, of conformation with the unique form of the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected one. [16]

[10] Bonhoeffer’s key methodological insight is that we do not form ourselves or the world. We are not striving to become like Jesus. We are not simply being instructed on living a good and pious life. We ought not impose a Christian lifestyle or agenda on our neighbor or the world. God does the forming. The form of Jesus Christ is the will of God in the world. In ethics as formation the question concerning the will of God becomes a matter of discerning how Christ is taking form in the world. The good is “action conforming to the reality of Jesus Christ; action conforming to Christ is action conforming to reality.”[17]

[11] According to Bonhoeffer, formation is both individual and corporate. Individual formation is a process of becoming a person before God. One becomes a person before God by being conformed to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Jesus Christ. To be conformed to the incarnate Jesus Christ is to be free to be a real human being. To be conformed to the crucified Jesus Christ is to be a human being sentenced by God. We humbly acknowledge our own sinfulness and our dependence on God’s grace. We do not present ourselves in any way as a model of goodness or the godly life. We willingly suffer for others, as Christ first suffered for us. To be conformed to the resurrected Jesus Christ is to be a new human being before God. New human beings do not elevate themselves above others, but willingly live in the midst of sin and death. Being conformed to Jesus Christ does not entail becoming like God. We are formed by God into real human beings–that is our proper form. God became a human being in Jesus Christ so that we might become real human beings.[18]

[12] Corporate formation refers to the process of Jesus Christ taking form in the church. As the body of Christ, the church is the corporate form of Jesus Christ in the world. Bonhoeffer insists that the church ought never be considered a separate form alongside of the form of Jesus Christ. The church is the “section of humanity in which Christ has really taken form.” [19]

Responsible Action

[13] Bonhoeffer’s concern for ethical humility pervades the central concepts he employs to develop his ethics. Responsible action is one of those central concepts. In Bonhoeffer’s view, ethical humility is built into the structure of the responsible life. Responsible persons are free to live and make decisions, but that freedom is always conditioned by our obligation to God and to our neighbor.[20] Our obligation to God and neighbor is fulfilled by `responsible action’–that is, action on behalf of or in the place of others. Thus, we never engage in responsible action or make ethical decisions in isolation. The community of God is built upon the actions of responsible persons on behalf of or in the place of others.

[14] Bonhoeffer depicts Jesus as the responsible person par excellence.[21] He gave himself completely on behalf of others. He demonstrates the ultimate ethical humility by taking upon himself the guilt of all human beings and dying on the cross. Those who act responsibly will not shun the guilt of other human beings. Trying to maintain our personal innocence cuts us off from Jesus Christ. Real innocence is a willingness to enter into the community of guilt.[22]

[15] Responsible action comes in two forms: everyday and extraordinary. Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy against Hitler was an extraordinary “venture of responsibility.” He had to consider the people involved, the given circumstances, the relevant questions of principle, his own motives, the chances for success, and the purpose of the action. He was responsible to weigh all these factors, to make a decision, and to act. He could not, however, as a responsible person, use any of these factors to justify his action. Such responsible action is “performed wholly within the domain of relativity, wholly in the twilight which the historical situation spreads over good and evil; it is performed in the midst of the innumerable perspectives in which every given phenomenon appears. It has not to decide simply between right and wrong and between good and evil, but between right and right and between wrong and wrong.” For this reason, “responsible action is a free venture; it is not justified by any law; it is performed without any claim to a valid self- justification, and therefore also without any claim to an ultimate valid knowledge of good and evil.”[23] Only God, who directs the course of history, can ultimately judge our actions.

[16] We need to resist the temptation to turn extraordinary responsible action into the measure of all action, for not all responsible action is exercised in extraordinary situations. We do not live our whole lives as “Hercules at the crossroads.”[24] God does not want us to wear ourselves out in a constant conflict of obligations and decisions. God does not intend for each moment in life to be a great crisis. Responsible action also takes a more common, ordinary form. Everyday responsible action focuses on the four mandates: marriage/family, labor, church, and government. Bonhoeffer defines a mandate as a divinely imposed task.[25] Parents, for example, are called to act on behalf of or in the place of their children. Their responsible action includes providing, caring, interceding, and suffering for them. The work of a responsible teacher is to act on behalf of his or her students. A responsible police officer acts on behalf of the citizens of a community. Everyday responsible action is also exercised in the domain of relativity. But in order to fulfill their tasks, responsible persons must be free of the constant torment of ethical conflict and decision.

[17] In Ethics Bonhoeffer moves toward a concept of the church as the responsible community, the corporate form of Jesus Christ in the world. The mandate of the church is to proclaim the reality of God revealed in Jesus Christ.[26] This mandate includes responsible action on behalf of and in the place of others. The political responsibility of the church entails holding government accountable to its God-given task . The church must call sin by its rightful name and warn against sin without insisting on its own innocence.[27] As the responsible community, it willingly bears its own guilt and the world’s guilt toward Jesus Christ. The church is not called to co-opt the task of government. In exercising political responsibility, the church must not lose sight of its main task of proclaiming Jesus Christ.

Prophetic Boldness or Ethical Arrogance?

[18] The theological grounding of Christian ethics is often overlooked or neglected in ethical reflection and decision-making in contemporary church circles. In my own Evangelical Lutheran tradition this lack of theological grounding can become painfully obvious on the floor of synod assemblies, when we rush to pass resolutions on the latest controversial ethical or political issue. We are quick to pronounce ethical judgments or to baptize our personal political views as God’s will. Often we do not have enough time for debate, or the resolutions are not written carefully. The most serious flaw, however, is a lack of attention to the theological basis for the position. It is not clear why the church is compelled to take a public stand on the given issue. On the one hand, we do not want to tarry too long in taking a stand. On the other hand, in our eagerness to take a stand, we need to remember that prophetic boldness can easily become ethical arrogance. We need to be careful not to neglect the daily theological and ethical homework that lays the groundwork for responsible action and decision-making.

[19] In May 1993 the Oregon Synod Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) passed Resolution 6[28] reaffirming our denunciation of the political activities of the Oregon Citizens’ Alliance (OCA) against gay and lesbian people. The OCA sponsored Ballot Measure 9 in the November 1992 Oregon General Election. The OCA wanted to make it illegal to grant any sort of minority status to gays and lesbians or to promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. Opponents of Measure 9 viewed it as an attempt to compromise the civil rights of gays and lesbians. Measure 9 was defeated. But the narrow margin of defeat encouraged the OCA to continue its efforts to get some sort of legislation passed. In May of 1993, shortly before the Oregon Synod Assembly, a local initiative sponsored by the OCA passed by a substantial margin in a Portland suburb.

[20] From my point of view, Oregon Synod Resolution 6 betrayed a lack of ethical humility. The tone of the resolution gave the impression that we were too sure of the goodness of our position over against the evilness of the OCA’s position. Some of the rhetoric bordered on being inflammatory. It struck me that opponents of OCA measures needed to examine how our own rhetoric had thwarted fruitful dialogue and contributed to the polarization of our communities.

[21] The lack of a clear statement of the theological basis for Resolution 6 concerned me most. The only explicit theological reference was contained in the fifth and final `WHEREAS’: “the ELCA is committed to an inclusive ministry recognizing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for all.” No one in my congregation would argue that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not for all. But a number continue to struggle with the issue of whether a homosexual lifestyle is consistent with the Gospel. These members are not card-carrying OCA extremists. They are faithful Christians who need “education, understanding, and compassion on issues of human sexuality.”[29] Being devoted Lutherans they want this education, understanding, and compassion to be biblically and theologically grounded.

[22] My contention was that we had a solid biblical and theological argument against the OCA position. According to Lon Mabon, the director of the OCA, their overall agenda was to reestablish biblically-based moral absolutes in society. Ballot Measure 9 was the first step in fulfilling this agenda. This agenda lacked the very ethical humility Bonhoeffer so forcefully appeals for on biblical and theological grounds. We needed a straightforward warning to voters of the pitfalls of presuming moral certainty. My hunch was that such a warning would have carried a great deal of weight even with those inside and outside of our churches who have strong objections to homosexuality as a lifestyle. Our own lack of humility in our rhetoric may have contributed to the strength of the vote in favor of the OCA sponsored measure. We may have upped the ante too quickly and fancied ourselves to be in an extraordinary situation, when more ordinary measures were called for to expose the folly of the OCA. The force of our rhetoric gave the OCA position more credibility than it warranted. In our eagerness to be prophetic it appears that we fell into the trap of ethical arrogance. We seemed to lose sight of the fact that in this particular situation the way to stop the OCA was to make sure they did not win the vote. An important part of ethical humility is perceiving what is needed in a given situation.


[23] Bonhoeffer’s appeal for ethical humility is, in effect, a call for us to remove the log of ethical arrogance from our own eye so that we can see clearly the ethical pitfalls into which we and others are falling. In particular, Bonhoeffer alerts us to the danger of the quest for moral certainty and to the limitations of one principle or one theme ethical approaches, whether philosophical or theological. A proper understanding of the theological grounding of ethics in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, the responsible person par excellence, ought to instill a strong measure of ethical humility in us. The point is not to discourage us from engaging, if necessary, in bold ventures of responsibility, such as Bonhoeffer did in the conspiracy against Hitler, but to lead us to acknowledge our ethical limitations and to recognize that the ultimate judgment and fulfillment of our ethical ventures are in the hands of God. In the final analysis Bonhoeffer’s ethical courage, for which he is so admired, grew out of his profound sense of ethical humility; for he was confident that he and his co-conspirators were not acting on their own but in the presence of the God of history who can transform even our mistakes and shortcomings into good.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1970), 734.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 734

[3] First Touchstone Edition (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995). The order followed in this edition is based on the sixth German edition, 1949. Work has been completed on the new German critical edition of Ethik, edited by Ilse Tödt, Heinz Eduard Tödt, Ernst Feil, and Clifford Green (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1992). Both the order and the content have been revised, and a wealth of editorial information has been added. This new edition is being translated into English as part of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Translation Project. The new English edition will be published by Fortress Press.

[4] Ethics, 21.

[5] Ethics, 363n. 1.

[6] Ethics, 21.

[7] Ethics, 21.

[8] Ethics, 22.

[9] In Church Dogmatics II/2 Karl Barth is more explicit. Critiquing the general conception of ethics he writes: “Strange as it may seem, that general conception of ethics coincides exactly with the conception of sin” (518). Human beings want to be like God. They want to know, as God knows, what is good and evil. Thus, asserts Barth, “as a result and in prolongation of the fall, we have `ethics,’ or, rather, the multifarious ethical systems, the attempted human answers to the ethical question” (517).

[10] Ethik, 31-61.

[11] Ethics, 186.

[12] Ethics, 187-188.

[13] Ethics, 188.

[14] Cf. Larry Rasmussen’s essay on Bonhoeffer’s “Method” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer-His Significance for North Americans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 89-110.

[15] Cf. Larry Rasmussen’s essay on Bonhoeffer’s “Method” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer-His Significance for North Americans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 89-110.

[16] Ethics, 220-221. Bonhoeffer is building on Paul’s understanding of freedom in Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. but through loves become slaves to one another” (NRSV).

[17] Ethics, 220-221. Bonhoeffer is building on Paul’s understanding of freedom in Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. but through loves become slaves to one another” (NRSV).

[18] Ethics, 220-221. Bonhoeffer is building on Paul’s understanding of freedom in Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. but through loves become slaves to one another” (NRSV).

[19] Ethics, 220-221. Bonhoeffer is building on Paul’s understanding of freedom in Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. but through loves become slaves to one another” (NRSV).

[20] Ethics, 220-221. Bonhoeffer is building on Paul’s understanding of freedom in Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. but through loves become slaves to one another” (NRSV).

[21] Ethics, 222.

[22] Ethics, 245.

[23] Ethics, 245.

[24] Ethics, 279.

[25] Ethics, 204. For more on the mandates, see Ethics, 204-210, 281-297.

[26] Ethics, 294.

[27] Ethics, 345.

[28] The vote was as follows: Yes-216; No-77; Abstain-14.

[29] This phrase comes from the text of Resolution 6. At its best, Resolution 6 tried to provide education, understanding, and compassion on issues of human sexuality. Unfortunately, this purpose tended to get lost in the rhetoric attacking the OCA. My suspicion is that Ballot Measure 9 would have been more soundly defeated if its opponents had resisted the temptation to fight the OCA’s inflammatory rhetoric with their own inflammatory rhetoric. It was a revelation for some members of my congregation that even if they considered homosexuality a sin, it did not necessarily mean that they had to support OCA measures.