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Three Rival Versions of Moral Reasoning: Interpreting Bonhoeffer’s Ethics of Lying, Guilt, and Responsibility

  • Matthew Puffer (a1)


Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s unfinished and posthumously published Ethics was intended to be his magnum opus. However, its incomplete structure and the distinct ethical approaches evident in its unfinished essays have allowed for considerable debate about its overall coherence and contours, as well as the hermeneutics appropriate to the text. This essay reconsiders prior interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics through close readings that disclose three rival versions of moral reasoning operative in three manuscripts from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. Retracing his reasoning regarding the ethics of lying, the place of guilt, and the relation between the law of God and God’s will, I argue that Bonhoeffer’s detractors and defenders alike have misconstrued the controversial ethic of “actively embracing guilt” (Schuldübernahme). Far from the paradigmatic expression of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, its organizing theme, or the basis for his participation in the tyrannicide plot against Hitler, Bonhoeffer’s reflection on Schuldübernahme is properly understood as an outlier—a short-lived thought experiment that he critiques and reconceives in two alternative versions of moral reasoning in later chapters.


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I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers, Rick Elgendy, and those who commented on previous versions presented at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, the German-American Bonhoeffer Research Network, the Fellowship for Protestant Ethics, and the Society of Christian Ethics.



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1 Bethge, Eberhard, “Editor’s Preface to the Sixth German Edition,” in Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Ethics (trans. Smith, Neville Horton; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) 1518, at 15, 17.

2 Rasmussen, Larry L., “A Question of Method,” in New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (ed. Peck, William J.; Toronto Studies in Theology 30; Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1987) 103–40, at 105.

3 Green, Clifford, “Pacifism and Tyrannicide: Bonhoeffer’s Christian Peace Ethic,” Studies in Christian Ethics 18 (2005) 3147; Green, Clifford, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance, by Larry L. Rasmussen,” Conversations in Religion and Theology 6 (2008) 155–65, at 163. See also Green, Clifford, “Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition,” in Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Ethics (ed. Green, Clifford J.; trans. Krauss, Reinhard, West, Charles C., and Stott, Douglas W.; Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Works 6; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) 144.

4 Green, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance,” 159.

5 Ibid., 163.

6 Originally published in 1972, Green’s comments respond to the 2005 re-publication.

7 Green, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance,” 165.

8 Rasmussen, “A Question of Method,” 103.

9 Ibid., 105.

10 Rasmussen, Larry L., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005) 54.

11 Rasmussen, Larry L., “Response to Clifford Green,” Conversations in Religion and Theology 6 (2008) 165173, at 166 and 168 [italics in original].

12 Rasmussen, “Response to Clifford Green,” 177.

13 Pfeifer, Hans, “Ethics for the Renewal of Life: A Reconstruction of Its Concept,” in Bonhoeffer for a New Day: Theology in a Time of Transition (ed. de Gruchy, John W.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997) 137–54, at 138.

14 Lovin, Robin, “Biographical Context,” in New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (ed. Peck, William J.; Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1987) 67101, at 68; Pfeifer, “Ethics for the Renewal of Life,” 139.

15 Pfeifer, “Ethics for the Renewal of Life,” 139.

16 Ibid., 139, 145.

17 Ibid., 139.

18 Green conveys the consensus of the critical edition’s editors: “Without minimizing changes throughout his life, a high degree of continuity and coherence characterizes his thought as a whole and specifically his writing for Ethics” (Green, “Editor’s Introduction,” 32).

19 Green, “Editor’s Introduction,” 12.

20 See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 257–89.

21 Ibid., 287.

22 Ibid., 284. Importantly, Karl Barth’s later, similar framing would omit a decision between wrong and wrong: “Living history poses questions in which right is not merely opposed to wrong, or wrong to right, but right to right” (Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Creation [ed. Bromiley, G. W. and Torrance, T. F.; trans. Mackay, A. T. et al.; vol. 3.4 of Church Dogmatics; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961] 457).

23 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 274.

24 Further into the discussion of the problem of law and freedom, Bonhoeffer again contrasts obedience/law with freedom/God’s will, associating obedience with “blindly following the law” and freedom with those who “affirm God’s will with open eyes” (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 287–88).

25 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 274.

26 Ibid., 268; see also 274–75, 282–85.

27 Ibid., 282.

28 Ibid., 275.

29 Ibid., 276.

30 Ibid., 279.

31 Ibid., 280. Bonhoeffer penned these exhortations to lie at the same time he was producing fictitious travel diaries for his intelligence reports, burdened by the responsibility of his own lies as part of the Abwehr, even as he was learning of the Nazi “Final Solution.” For an account of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activities while writing his Ethics, see Dramm, Sabine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance (trans. Kohl, Margaret; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009).

32 “As the one who loved without sin, [Jesus] became guilty, seeking to stand within the community of human guilt. So Jesus is the one who sets the conscience free for the service of God and neighbor The conscience that has been set free from the law will not shy away from entering into another’s guilt for that person’s sake” (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 279).

33 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 296–97.

34 For example, Bonhoeffer reaffirms that God establishes the intrinsic laws of the divine mandates (see Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 271, 296); that extraordinary situations of ultimate emergency arise in which responsible action must transgress such laws (272–73, 297); that these transgressions incur guilt (275–83, 297); that free, responsible action transgresses the law in order to affirm it (274, 297); that killing, lying, and seizing property in war provide examples of such responsible action (273, 297); that an appeal to freedom is the basis for responsible action that transgresses the law (274, 282, 297); that the basic “question” or “problem” is whether “law” or “freedom” is ultimate (274, 297); that the agent is ultimately responsible to God as revealed in Jesus Christ (275–76, 297); that the guilt of breaking the law must be “recognized” (erkennt) and “borne” (getragen) (275–83, 297); that Jesus Christ reveals that the agent is “freed from the law” to perform responsible action (278–79, 297); that Jesus’s violation of both the Sabbath and the honoring of parents provides examples of responsible action (278–79, 297); that the act of breaking the law is “sanctified” because it is done out of freedom (278, 297); and that responsible action is done for God and neighbor together in Jesus Christ (283–84, 297).

35 See Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 299 n.1, 415, 445–46.

36 Ilse Tödt et al., “Editors’ Afterword to the German Edition,” in Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 409–49, at 415.

37 Ilse Tödt, “Appendix 2: Preparing the German Edition of Ethics,” in Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 467–76, at 476.

38 At this point, Bonhoeffer had not yet read the first half of Church Dogmatics 2.2—Barth’s exposition of the doctrine of election—and is responding to Barth’s ethics of election in the second half of that volume. See Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940–1945 (ed. Brocker, Mark S.; trans. Dahill, Lisa E.; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 16; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006) 359. Bonhoeffer incorporates Barth’s exegetical work in his discussion of “discerning” (prüfen) the will of God in a manner similar to Rasmussen’s observations regarding the “command of God” in Ethics’ later chapters. See Rasmussen, “A Question of Method,” esp. 119–25; Puffer, Matthew, “Election in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics: Discerning a Late Revision,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 14 (2012) 255–76, esp. 266–67.

39 See Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 326–28.

40 Ibid., 324, 327.

41 Ibid., 315.

42 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. John W. de Gruchy; trans. Isabel Best et al.; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 8; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009) 180. Bonhoeffer cites 1 Pet 2:20 and 3:14 here and in “Church and World,” which discusses suffering for a just cause without an explicit confession of faith in Christ (see Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 346).

43 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 181. The sentence describing Ethics as “incomplete” is a marginal insertion.

44 Ibid., 182. See also references to this essay in letters from Dec. 5 and 15 (216, 223).

45 In Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, this prison fragment appears with the other writings from the period of his involvement with the conspiracy and during his imprisonment.

46 Bonhoeffer explored this methodology and these themes previously in one of Ethics’ final manuscripts, “The ‘Ethical’ and the ‘Christian’ as a Topic” (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 363–87).

47 Bonhoeffer, Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 606.

51 Ibid., 606–607.

52 Ibid., 605–606, 607.

53 See Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3 (ed. de Gruchy, John W.; trans. Stephen Bax, Douglas; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 3; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004) 103–10.

54 Bonhoeffer, Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 607.

55 See Schliesser, Christine, Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty: Bonhoeffer’s Concept of Accepting Guilt (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005). Bonhoeffer’s less active embrace of guilt, Schuld tragen, is often translated as “bearing guilt” and involves coming alongside others in their guilt and sharing the burden of that guilt together, with one another. It does not require one to recognize an action as both guilt-laden and willed by God before performing the action.

56 Schliesser, Everyone Who Acts Responsibly, 204.

57 Jüngel, Eberhard, “The Mystery of Substitution: A Dogmatic Conversation with Heinrich Vogel” in Theological Essays 2 (ed. and trans. Webster, John; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995) 145–62, at 155.

58 Jüngel, “The Mystery of Substitution,” 155.

59 Green, “Editor’s Introduction,” 12.

60 Bonhoeffer, Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 606.

61 Drawing primarily on these two essays (and without the benefit of subsequent scholarship that gave a later date to these manuscripts) Norman Coles has argued that Bonhoeffer’s ethics are only improperly understood as a Gesinnungsethik. He sees Bonhoeffer affirming a “principle of truthfulness,” distinct from Kant’s, which expresses action in response and correspondence to Christ’s love for and sharing in humanity (Norman Coles, “Ethics and Politics: A Dispute about Interpreting Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” The Friends Quarterly, October [1970] 608–16). In light of the later dating for these essays we might also ask whether the later Grenzfall discussion entails choosing between God’s will and God’s law, between two inevitably guilt-laden acts.

62 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 181.

63 Ibid., 213–14.

64 See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Register und Ergänzungen (ed. Anzinger, Herbert and Pfeifer, Hans; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke 17; Gütersloh: Christian Kaiser, 1999) 143–46.

65 Bonhoeffer, Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 606–607.

66 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 116.

67 Pfeifer, “Ethics for the Renewal of Life,” 139.

68 Eberhard Bethge, “Editor’s Preface to the First Through the Fifth German Editions,” in Bonhoeffer, Ethics (1995) 11–14, at 11, 13.

* I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers, Rick Elgendy, and those who commented on previous versions presented at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, the German-American Bonhoeffer Research Network, the Fellowship for Protestant Ethics, and the Society of Christian Ethics.

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