The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series comparing the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard. Here in Part 1 we will look at the evidence that Bonhoeffer knew Kierkegaard’s work on ethics. In Part 2, we will look at Bonhoeffer’s ethics. In Part 3, we will look at Kierkegaard’s ethics. Finally, in Part 4, we will compare their approaches to ethics and draw our conclusions.


Many points of contact exist between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sǿren Kierkegaard.[1] One of these, I believe, happens to be their approach to ethics. In surveying the secondary literature, little ground seems to have been broken comparing their ethical approaches.[2] Thus, in this paper, I will venture to pioneer such a study by comparing Bonhoeffer’s and Kierkegaard’s approaches to ethics. In doing so, I will first ask the question, “To what degree did Bonhoeffer interact with and know Kierkegaard’s works and in particular, are there any places where he speaks about Kierkegaard’s ethics?” After answering this question, I will subsequently seek to answer the question, “What were their approaches to ethics?” Lastly, I will conclude by comparing and contrasting their approaches and determine whether there are points of agreement or disagreement in their approaches. Overall, I will argue (1) that Bonhoeffer knew of Kierkegaard’s ethics and (2) that Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics influenced Bonhoeffer’s approach to a limited extent.


With regard to my methods and approach to this study, I will default to using primary sources, particularly English translations of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison and Ethics and an English translation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. In light of this, with regard to my purview, I will limit my scope of interacting with secondary sources in this study for two reasons. First, very little literature has been written upon this topic. Secondly, I have limited space and time in this study and thus must raze this paper down to the bare minimum.[3]


To begin, I will first examine to what degree Bonhoeffer interacted with and knew Kierkegaard’s works and in particular his ethics. To do so, I will explore all the occurrences where Bonhoeffer cites Kierkegaard in his prison works and attempt to assess whether he hints at knowledge of Kierkegaard’s ethics.[4] These occurrences all happen to be in the later time of Bonhoeffer’s life when he was incarcerated by the Nazis.

1. A Letter to His Parents

On October 31, 1943, Dietrich sent a letter to his parents from the prison at Tegel. Within this letter, he thanks his aged parents for coming and visiting him and for providing him with a parcel of bread. Furthermore, he mentions that it is “Reformation Day” and proceeds to expound upon what Martin Luther wanted to happen and how the public’s reaction to his action resulted in the opposite of what he wanted, that is, “insurrection, the Peasant’s War, and soon afterwards the gradual dissolution of all real cohesion and order in society.”[Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison (LPP), 123] Then, he talks about a debate he knew of among Lutheran scholars named Holl and Harnack concerning this issue. With pertinence for our study, he then mentions Sǿren Kierkegaard and his take on this subject. Bonhoeffer says,

As long as a hundred years ago Kierkegaard said that today Luther would say the opposite of what he said then. I think he was right with some reservations.” [Bonhoeffer, LPP, 123.]

Here, we see the first mention of Kierkegaard among Bonhoeffer’s prison writings. We can glean from this first of all that Bonhoeffer did know of Kierkegaard. However, this statement is so brief and lacks a context which speaks to ethics. Thus, from this letter to his parents, we cannot conclude that Bonhoeffer knew of Kierkegaard’s ethics.

2. A Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge

Next, on January 23, 1944, Bonhoeffer sends a letter to his beloved relatives, Renate and Eberhard Bethge. Within this letter he writes about many things at length. However, pertinent to this study is that he again refers to Kierkegaard. In discussing the recovery of the four mandates of art, education, friendship, and play in the church, he says of Kierkegaard,

I wonder whether it is possible (it almost seems so today) to regain the idea of the church as providing an understanding of the area of freedom (art, education, friendship, play), so that Kierkegaard’s ‘aesthetic existence’ would not be banished from the church’s sphere, but would be re-established within it?”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 193]

This seems to be somewhat of a critique of Kierkegaard and his base stage of human ethics, namely, the aesthetic. Bonhoeffer goes on further to critique even Kierkegaard’s second level of ethics, namely, the ethical stage. He says,

Who is there, for instance, in our times, who can devote himself with an easy mind to music, friendship, games, or happiness? Surely not the ‘ethical’ man, but only the Christian.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 193]

This seems to be a further critique of Kierkegaard’s stages. Bonhoeffer seems to be saying that Kierkegaard’s final and highest stage – the religious stage – is the only place where freedom and the four mandates can find their place in church and society again, whereas Kierkegaard would have disparaged the mandates in ranking them at the aesthetic stage. In other words, Bonhoeffer is saying that only Christians (i.e. the religious) can experience the freedom of art, education, friendship, and play contra Kierkegaard who would disparage them altogether.

Thus, again we conclude that Bonhoeffer knew Kierkegaard’s work. However, in this letter, we see Bonhoeffer interacting with Kierkegaard’s ethics, not only that, but even critiquing them and purposing an alternative view. This indicates that Bonhoeffer did in fact know Kierkegaard’s ethics, but whether or not they influenced Bonhoeffer is another point entirely. Determining this from this particular letter is cannot be achieved since he combats his view rather than embraces it.

3. A Letter to Eberhard Bethge

Then, on March 9, 1944, Bonhoeffer writes a letter to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison. In the letter, he speaks of many things, yet fixates upon answering a remark from Bethge concerning “Michelangelo, Burckhardt, and hilaritas.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 229] He focuses upon the meaning of the Latin word hilaritas and says that it means more than “serenity, in the classical sense,” but is also a “high-spirited self-confidence.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 229] Within this discussion, he makes reference to Kierkegaard. Bonhoeffer says,

I admit that Michelangelo, Rembrandt and, at a considerable remove, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, are in quite a different category from those that I’ve mentioned. There is something less assertive, evident, and final in their works, less conviction, detachment, and humor. All the same, I think some of them are characterized by hilaritas in the sense that I’ve described, as a necessary attribute of greatness.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 229]

Thus, again we observe that Bonhoeffer did in fact know and interact with Kierkegaard. However, from this passage in LPP, there is no trace as to whether he is interacting with Kierkegaard’s ethics, let alone whether they influence his own.

4. A Letter to Eberhard Bethge

Lastly, on July 28, 1944, Dietrich composes another though rather short letter to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel. Here, he again addresses a theological issue that Bethge brought up. The issue concerns health and fortune in the Old and New Testaments as relates to suffering and the cross. Within his brief response, Bonhoeffer mentions Kierkegaard and how he thinks that the Old Testament view of blessing is mutually exclusive to the cross. He says,

Now is it right to set the Old Testament blessing against the cross? That is what Kierkegaard did. That makes the cross, or at least suffering, an abstract principle; and this is just what gives rise to an unhealthy Methodism, which deprives suffering of its element of contingency as a divine ordinance. It’s true that in the Old Testament the person who receives the blessing has to endure a great deal of suffering…but this never leads to the idea that fortune and suffering, blessing and cross are mutually exclusive and contradictory – nor does it in the New Testament. Indeed, the only difference between the Old and New Testaments in this respect is that in the Old the blessing includes the cross, and in the New the cross includes the blessing.”[Bonhoeffer, LPP, 374]

Thus, again Bonhoeffer clearly knows Kierkegaard’s works. However, there is no trace in this letter that Bonhoeffer is interacting with Kierkegaard’s ethics. Moreover, like the second letter we examined, Bonhoeffer again critiques Kierkegaard’s position on the topic at hand and presents his own view.


Overall, in assessing these four letters from his time in Tegel prison, we can conclude that Bonhoeffer indeed knew of Kierkegaard and was versed enough in his writings to interact with his thought by memory without his books at hand. What is more, we can conclude that Bonhoeffer had some knowledge of Kierkegaard’s ethics, at least his three stages of the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious as we see in his letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge. However, in this letter, we see Bonhoeffer critiquing Kierkegaard’s three stages and he sees some major problems with them, the effects of which were stretching all the way to the church and society of Bonhoeffer’s day. Thus, with this little though vital evidence, at this point, we can tentatively conclude that Kierkegaard’s approach to ethics did not influence Bonhoeffer’s. However, as we proceed and discuss the specifics of their approaches, this conclusion may or may not be warranted.

Next time in Part 2, we will look at the ethics of Bonhoeffer.

End Notes

[1] First, they were both Lutherans. Secondly, their theologies are Christocentric. See Tim Rose, Kierkegaard’s Christocentric Theology (Burlington: Ashgate, 2001) for a work on Kierkegaard’s Christocentric theology. Third, they both critiqued nationalism in their own times. See Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard’s Critique of Christian Nationalism (New York: Oxford, 2011) for a study on his critique of nationalism. Also, they both speak on ethics of responsibility. See Mark Dooley, The Politics of Exodus: Kierkegaard’s Ethics of Responsibility (New York: Fordham, 2001) for a book on Kierkegaard’s ethics of responsibility. Lastly, Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer were used and abused in a similar way as founders of the secular theology of the 1960’s. See Bishop J. W. C. Wand, The Minds behind the New Theology: Kierkegaard, Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1963) for a brief study on Kierkegaard’s and Bonhoeffer’s “influence” on this new theology.

All of this goes to show that a massive amount of work has yet to be done in comparing Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer. I believe that such a study would be profitable and would return abundant dividends, though such study has yet to be done.

[2] However, other similarities in their life and thought have been thoroughly explored. One is promeity within their Christology. See Philip Ziegler, “Christ For Us Today – Promeity in the Christologies of Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard,” IJST 15:1 (2013): 25-41 for a great article comparing their thought on Christ being for us.

[3] At some point, I hope to expand this paper into several chapters interacting with “commentaries” on Kierkegaard’s and Bonhoeffer’s ethics and produce an advanced and in depth study on their approaches to ethics. This however unfortunate cannot be done here.

[4] Note that Bonhoeffer mentions Kierkegaard in Christ the Center and in some of his sermons, but these are in his early years before Bonhoeffer undertakes the task of writing upon ethics. Thus, I will limit my scope here to his references to Kierkegaard during and after he writes ethics.

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