Ethics of Søren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Guest Post by Sam Adams

It was a hunch that led me to propose a course titled, “Ethics of Søren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer” for the new Kilns College MA in Social Justice.  I knew enough about both thinkers to know that it would be interesting to read them together but what I didn’t realize was that the connection between the German theologian and the Danish philosopher is much more organic: Bonhoeffer was deeply influenced by his reading of Kierkegaard, and this especially plays out in his ethics.  What I found fascinating and exciting in this connection is the way that both overcame the grace/works dichotomy by making central the real, living person of Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer is, of course, known for his sharp criticism of what he calls “cheap grace.” Its advocates have taken Luther’s “grace alone” and turned it into an abstract principle that conflicts with the opposite and equally abstract principle, ‘works’ or ‘works righteousness.’  Most of us are well aware of the perceived tension between grace and works, or between faith and deeds.  Western Christianity since the Reformation has rarely been able to resolve this tension.  For Bonhoeffer, grace and works are, indeed, at odds with each other—unless we see them in their concrete basis, in the very real person of Jesus Christ and in his call for us to follow him.  In Jesus—and only in Jesus—do they hold together.

When Jesus called his first disciples to leave their fishing nets and follow him, was that call not grace?  And, is that call somehow distinguishable from works?  For Bonhoeffer, costly grace “is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.”[1]

By contrast, cheap grace was adopted as a means of avoiding the demands of Jesus’s call to discipleship, for to follow him with human action would be to turn again to works.  The significance of this for Bonhoeffer’s day was that the difficult call of Jesus to follow him contradicted the intensifying nationalist claim on the German believer—and if one followed Bonhoeffer’s reasoning this meant that one could not hide behind the slogan “grace alone” while joining with the Third Reich.

In Copenhagen nearly a hundred years earlier, Kierkegaard confronted his own Danish church with a similar (and scathing) critique.  Instead of facing the totalizing influence of fascism as Bonhoeffer would later face in Germany, there the church faced rapid industrialization, a newly emerging middle-class, and a growing secularism that was being embraced according to the logic of “grace alone.”  The Lutheran doctrine, abstracted, became an easy justification to join the cultural movement and avoid the radical call of discipleship.  And so Kierkegaard’s critique was radical and total in the opposite direction, rejecting the distortion of the Lutheran doctrine and blasting the compliance of the church.

Kierkegaard argued that in the realm of human teaching, authority is never greater than the doctrine—a philosopher is only as good as his teaching.  But, in Christianity, authority is all-important.  This is because the authority is Jesus Christ—a person, not a doctrine, and one who has real, legitimate authority in a way that no other person has.[2]

This is the precursor to Bonhoeffer’s critique of cheap grace, a critique focused on the abstraction of grace away from the very real person of Jesus Christ.  For both Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, that which holds together grace and works is not a thing, but a person—a person who calls us to follow him.

In a wonderful passage in Discipleship, Bonhoeffer shows how Martin Luther, the monk, had made withdrawal into the monastery the work by which he hoped to achieve salvation—on his own.  In this way, that work was a worldly activity, an activity not determined by the gospel, but by the prideful piety of the monk.  But Luther’s discovery of grace changed all that.  Bonhoeffer writes:

“It was costly grace, which gave itself to him.  It shattered his whole existence. Once again, he had to leave his nets and follow. The first time, when he entered the monastery, he left everything behind except himself, his pious self. This time even that was taken from him.  He followed, not by his own merit, but by God’s grace. He was not told, yes, you have sinned, but now all that is forgiven. Continue on where you were and comfort yourself with forgiveness! Luther had to leave the monastery and reenter the world, not because the world itself was good and holy, but because even the monastery was nothing else but the world.”[3]

This all boils down to the reality that the call to follow Jesus is a call to the world, for the sake of the world; and this call—even this call to act to change the world—is grace.  Why?  Because it is a person who calls, not an idea or a doctrine.  And it is this particular person, the savior, who calls.

By abstracting grace away from the person—the call—of Jesus Christ, we find that grace can be opposed to works, and discipleship disappears to be replaced by mere belief.  The tragedy of this sort of thinking is that it would have made the witness that was the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and Søren Kierkegaard) impossible.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green, and Reinhard Krauss, DBWE 4, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 45.
[2] Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. and trans. Alexander Dru (London: Oxford, 1951), 357.
[3] Bonheffer, Discipleship, 48.



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