Bonhoeffer and ethical principles

I just finished reading Eric Metaxas’s excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Two weeks ago I wrote about how Bonhoeffer’s upbringing led to his unique ability to combine reason and faith in his theology and his life. This week I would like to reflect on his understanding of ethical principles.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was raised to believe and live by strong moral principles, as were many in German society. Early in Hitler’s ascent to power Bonhoeffer recognized that Hitler’s desire to exclude those of Jewish heritage from participation in German society was a serious violation of the principles of justice and the universal value of human beings long before Hitler began his mass murder of the Jewish population. As Hitler sought to limit the participation of Christians with Jewish heritage in the German national church, Bonhoeffer saw that as a violation of the principle of the unity of the church that was foundational to the gospel. That violation of principle was sufficient reason for him to be a founder of the confessing church in Germany that claimed that such a foundational violation of Christian principles meant that the national church was no longer a valid church and that true Christians could no longer be a part of it.

However, Bonhoeffer also saw that there were limitations to ethical principles. Many of the leaders in the church in Germany and many of the military leaders in Germany who were devout Christians had as one of their basic moral principles that they should be subject to the government of their nation and not violate its laws or disobey military orders. When they found themselves serving a government and national leader who were doing things that violated their moral principles of justice they had a moral dilemma that they had much difficulty resolving. Hitler was able to use the principles of his opponents who sought to be law-abiding citizens and obedient soldiers for his advantage.

Bonhoeffer himself faced an even greater ethical dilemma. After years of standing up for the moral principles of biblical Christianity and those churches who were willing to hold to the truth of scripture against those who sought to destroy those things, he learned that there was a group of military leaders that included his brother-in-law who were plotting to assassinate Hitler and bring down the Nazi government. They desired for him to be a part of their conspiracy and he had to choose whether he should be a part of killing a ruthless and evil dictator. By that time Bonhoeffer was aware of the mass murders of the mentally disabled and Jews that many in Germany and the rest of the world did not know about. He understood how evil Hitler and his followers were, and yet he also understood how wrong it is both to kill another human being and to assassinate the leader of one’s own country.

Bonhoeffer’s answer to this dilemma was found in his theology and his personal faith in Christ. He understood that to be a Christian was to be obedient to the call of Christ. He understood that moral principles were grounded in the goodness of God, but that there are times when moral principles can fall short of being able to guide us. At those times obedience to God is more important than anything else. He was clear that God had called him to do all he could to put an end to the evil of Hitler’s reign, so he joined with the conspirators and was hanged just before the end of the war for his part in their failed attempts to kill Hitler. Although I would hope that none of us ever face anything like what Bonhoeffer faced, we can learn from him. As we face the bioethical issues of our day we rely on ethical principles based on our understanding of God’s revealed truth to know what is right. That is good. However, it is not the principles, but God himself who is good and who is the foundation of all we believe and the guide for how we live.

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Dave B.

Bonhoeffer was not as great a participant in the plot to assassinate Hitler as Metaxas lets on. While he knew of at least five attempts, he never actually out of the forty-two documented by historians – he himself was never an active participant in any of them; there is not a shred of evidence that Bonhoeffer was linked in any way to these attempts on Hitler’s life. Just because Bonhoeffer engaged in sensitive conversations with the would-be assassins, they argue, it does not follow that he personally participated in their plans. Since Bonhoeffer’s arrest occurred shortly after the discovery of… Read more »