Ethics from the Concentration Camp: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Model for Ethics

Towards the end of his life after being sent to prison then concentration camps for having taken part in the plot to assassinate Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer finalized what he called his life work, his Ethics. In this work we can see how he has fit together his Biblical worldview into a holistic ethical system. Being interested in ethics and philosophy as well as Dietrich’s amazing legacy for some time I was excited to get ahold of the work at our local library and it did not disappoint. I think Bonhoeffer provides a framework that we would well consider today as there is such a need for Christians to return to real discipleship and simultaneously stand for the truth in an age that has a quickly diminishing grasp on truth.


The overall philosophy behind Bonhoeffer’s ethics is breaking up life into four institutions and the principle of responsibility.

Responsibility Based Ethics

Responsibility is not dealt with until late in the written work but it is an important central principle for understanding the whole ethics. It is also the most controversial and possible that is why the work deals with it so late. Basically, responsibility-based ethics is a departure from a kind of fundamentalist rendering of Biblical ethics, where situations are all thought to be covered directly by scripture so that behaving ethically is simply a matter of obeying direct commands or laws. The principle of responsibility here though means that ethical decisions are made primarily in consideration of our responsibility to God and others, especially in the four domains. Scriptural mandates reflect these responsibilities and give the sure guide for decision making but decisions must also consider context. For instance, for Bonhoeffer lying to Nazi soldiers to protect Jewish persons hiding in your home is permissible and even the right action since the person doing so has rightly weighed their responsibility to others and God. Now, the common fundamentalist argument against the sort of situationist ethics this leads to is that objective morality is lost and morality just falls into subjectivity. However, to Bonhoeffer thinking in terms to responsibility does not make ethical decision making simply subjective. In fact, Bonhoeffer spends time mid-book to go through specific complex issues like euthanasia for instance, and showing there is a clear right and wrong answer taking the Biblical evidence and logically thinking through the responsibility one has.

The Church

The highest domain in Bonhoeffer’s ethics is the Church. Now, while Bonhoeffer specifically wants to refer to the Reformed Church he is general enough where one can look at the Acts Church and the clear importance of making disciples and easily fit into his overall thought. The Church Bonhoeffer writes follows Jesus in taking responsibility. Jesus took responsibility for the sins of the whole world and properly dealt with all of them. Bonhoeffer then executes what really is his central thesis to his Ethics, that we as the Church are called to take the responsibility for the sins of the generation and place we are in properly seriously and near the upmost responsibility for those sins to the extent that we do not execute our duty as the Church. The church is charged with now operating in a sense outside of the ethical realm as it is typically thought about and proclaiming God’s reconciliation to sinners rather than seeking to fulfill justice. In the realm of the church our responsibility is to proclaim the word, by proclaiming Christ, that He, God, has become human like us and so can relate to us and reach to us, that He is Lord and so demands absolute obedience and loyalty that all would turn to Him. Finally that He has truly reconciled the world to God and this is the only way of reconciliation to God. Bonhoeffer states unequivocally that the evils of our day lie most heavily on the Church not in keeping with uncompromisingly proclaiming this message, and I would add in making disciples according to it. If the Church was acting as it should Bonhoeffer states then the evils we see would not be nearly as prevalent.

The Government

The second level of responsibility is to the Government. Bonhoeffer limits government to where Biblically it does seem properly limited to, to enforcement, to bearing the sword against evil. This means enforcing the good, ensuring good judges, a strong military and police that execute according to what is really right. The government does not create right and wrong, they are subject to it. The government is responsible to God for executing judgments on what is right according to what Bonhoeffer terms normal life. Normal life is pre-gospel life, it is basically being able to live as a just citizen in doing day-to-day activities. Therefore, it involves right behavior of people to each other but does not directly demand one form of worship or another.


Vocation is made up of all the jobs and duties of citizens. It is taking care of the home, business, janitorial services, it is engineering, scientific research, being a doctor or military member etc. This is citizens doing work to promote the good.

The Family

Finally the family. Now this area being the sort of lower of the areas doesn’t make it less important, to Bonhoeffer all four domains represent distinct responsibilities we all have to some degree and that are all needed and ought to be set according to how God has intended them for a society to flourish. The family is the key foundational element that raises children to be good citizens and to enter into life and treat other people well. The family can also be a domain of the Church when real discipleship takes place.

Order Usurped

So, key to understanding Bonhoeffer is what he says about the order of these domains. Bonhoeffer believed that when one domain usurped the domains above it (like Hitler did to the Church in his day) or they fail to properly defend the realms below then they act against the natural order. They can only maintain that reality by oppression and when oppression is removed the order will return.

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