Lying is bothersome. It bothers our consciences, although many of us lie with some regularity anyway, and it bothers those to whom we lie, particularly if the lie is serious and breaches trust. Chiefly, however, lying bothers moral philosophers and theologians, who can’t seem to decide whether or not we should do it. Intuitions diverge.

The Syriac philosopher and theologian Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī (893-974), whose Arabic treatise The Reformation of Morals became a classic of Aristotelian ethics in the medieval Middle East, defined lying as “giving information about something contrary to what is the case,” and said that it “is abhorrent”—as long “as it is not for the sake of repelling harm that cannot be repelled except by this means, or, for reaping an indispensable benefit, which cannot be attained except by this means.”[1] Lying is impermissible, except when it’s not. The French Reformed theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) held the opposite view. In his commentary on Exodus 1:18, in which God Himself blesses the midwives who had just lied to Pharaoh and thereby prevented the slaughter of innocents, Calvin writes against those who think that certain lies are permissible: “whatever is opposed to the nature of God is sinful; and on this ground all dissimulation, whether in word or deed, is condemned.”[2] Lying is impermissible, even when God seems to approve.

How can our intuitions point us in such contradictory directions? How can we think lying is impermissible except when it is necessary, or think that it is absolutely prohibited even when the Bible suggests certain circumstances may permit it? Lying is such a tricky issue for moral philosophers and theologians precisely because our intuitions about whether it is permissible change depending upon the circumstances in which it is deployed. In some cases, it seems to be clearly wrong, but in others, it presents itself as not only permitted but even enjoined. I would like to propose that several thorny moral dilemmas raised by lying were resolved by twentieth-century Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). Bonhoeffer devoted serious attention to the question of lying, and for good reason: he lived in an ethically fraught time and place. Because he lived through the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime which succeeded it, Bonhoeffer was confronted time and again with the question of ethical living and decision-making.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Bonhoeffer’s views shifted as he aged and as Nazism became ascendant in Germany. In Bonhoeffer’s early ethical thought, moral principles are, as such, rejected in favor of contextual decision-making; in his mature thought, however, Bonhoeffer assumes both that divine law is binding and that to know what it requires demands contextual awareness. Put another way, where in his early thought Bonhoeffer rejected ethical principles in favor of contextual immediacy and obedience to God’s will as revealed in a given moment, in his mature thought he builds relationality and context into his definitions of acts, thereby freeing him to both consider the law binding and to account for the moment-by-moment responsibility of the Christian before God. I suspect Bonhoeffer’s mature position can help us to account for our divergent intuitions concerning the permissibility of lying, and tracing his thought from his early “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic” to his late “What Does it Mean to Tell the Truth?” will illuminate just where the relevant moral and situational issues lie.

In his early “Basic Question of a Christian Ethic,” Bonhoeffer immediately rejects the possibility of an ethic of fixed moral laws which must be applied to a variety of situations. “There are not and cannot be Christian norms and principles of a given nature.”[3] He provides a couple of reasons why he believes this to be the case. First, ethics is a firmly this-worldly affair—“a matter of blood and a matter of history…its face changes with history.” As a result, ethical norms will vary from nation to nation and generation to generation: “There is a German ethic as well as a French ethic and an American ethic,” and social developments in the past twenty years of German life “produced four spiritual or intellectual generations” with distinctive ethical sensibilities. It is important briefly to note that Bonhoeffer wrote this essay early in his career in 1929, prior to the rise of Nazism in Germany; his appeals to “blood” and “nation” as ethically relevant categories will disappear later.

Second, Bonhoeffer contends–channeling, he no doubt thought, Luther–that, at heart, ethics attempts to speak “of the path from [man] to God.”[4] This, Bonhoeffer believed, opposes the heart of Christianity, for Christianity “speaks of grace while ethics speaks of righteousness.” For Bonhoeffer, ethics is a kind of category error from a Christian perspective. It seeks to achieve by human strength what Christianity holds to be impossible: human merit in God’s sight. Thus, Christian ethics is an absurd undertaking—a kind of square circle.

The contention that Christianity and ethics are incompatible seems, as Bonhoeffer himself was well aware, decidedly awkward in light of the ubiquity of principles and commands in the New Testament. He argues, however, that “the significance of all Jesus’ ethical commandments is rather to say to people: You stand before the face of God, God’s grace rules over you.”[5] Ethical commandments are to impress upon the Christian, in the words of Bernd Wannenwetsch, that he is responsible “at the very place in which he finds himself placed.”[6] One cannot fall back upon the Law; “God has a certain will and wants to see that will done,” and He will, presumably, “reveal the nature of that will” at the appropriate time.[7]

Indeed, the Christian can expect no consistency in this will of God. The Christian must rather always “establish anew [his] relationship with God’s will.” As Joshua Kaiser writes, Bonhoeffer contended that, “for those in unity with God, there is no need to rely on a supposed understanding of good and evil to make moral decisions because one enjoys a direct relationship of obedience with God.”[8] Bonhoeffer takes this to be the New Testament’s “law of freedom.” Furthermore, Bonhoeffer writes that “The Holy Spirit is found only in the present…not in fixed moral regulations or in an ethical principle.”[9] In light of the apparent mutability of the divine will, the most striking, and perhaps disturbing, consequence of Bonhoeffer’s contextualism is hardly surprising. Because the individual must listen for God’s will, and because God’s will in the situation at hand may not be the same as His will in the prior situation, “There are no acts that are bad in and of themselves; even murder can be sanctified.”[10] As an aside, although James Burtness, for instance, argues that Bonhoeffer belongs among the teleological ethicists rather than the situational ethicists, Bonhoeffer’s “The Basic Question of a Christian Ethic” seems firmly situational.[11] His primary concern is not “the consequences of actions” but the “decisions appropriate to changing conditions and situations.”[12]

After making the provocative claim about murder, however, Bonhoeffer appears to temper his position. While there may not be detailed ethical regulations given by God, there ought to be a general orientation to the Christian’s ethical decisions, and it is cruciform. “In every instance the idea of the cross, as the example of God’s love…determines our actions, since it places divine love above all other characteristics of God.”[13] In sum, then, in Bonhoeffer’s early ethical thought, fixed law and regulation is rejected in favor of an individual who is understood as responsible to the immediacy of God’s will in a given situation. The Christian can be confident that this loving will of God will have a generally cruciform contour, but it may sanctify even murder, given the right circumstances.

Bonhoeffer’s mature ethical thought, as articulated in “What Does it Mean to Tell the Truth?” (written sometime in 1943-44, during his time in prison) shares a remarkable similarity to his early thought insofar as it maintains a crucial role for responsible, contextual analysis of a situation. But here, Bonhoeffer appears to have a more positive vision of ethical principles. Bonhoeffer claims both that the mandate to tell the truth is binding and that the truth can only be ascertained and spoken when one has analyzed one’s context and determined what speech best articulates reality.

Bonhoeffer begins his essay by noting the asymmetry in the relationship between parents and children. Parents demand absolute truthfulness from the child and have every right to it, but the child does not have the same right with respect to the parents.[14] Bonhoeffer takes as a consequence of this that truth-telling “means different things, depending on where one finds oneself.” He further contends that the relevant difference, which changes what it means to tell the truth in a given situation, is “whether and in what way a person is justified in demanding truthful speech from another.”

At this point, Bonhoeffer’s definition of truth-telling becomes relevant. He writes, “What is real is to be expressed in words.”[15] This definition builds context into the very definition of “truth,” for, as shall be shown, what is “real” includes not only that the words correspond to a given reality (“formal truth”) but also the relationship between the speaker and the person demanding truth. Thus, he writes, “Quite apart from the truthfulness of its content, the relationship [a word] expresses between me and another person is already true or untrue.”[16] Not only must the relationship be properly understood, but the words one speaks must also be understood as carrying a particular meaning within that relationship. Speech to one’s family is not speech to one’s coworkers, etc.[17] These various “orders of society” (family, state, other institutions, and so on) must respect one another, only demanding from the other orders information to which they have rights.

To illustrate this, Bonhoeffer provides a justly famous example. Suppose a teacher publicly asks a student whether his father is an alcoholic. The student “perceives that this question is an unjustified invasion into the order of the family and must be warded off.” In other words, the student recognizes that the teacher has no right to the family’s business, let alone a right to make such business public. Crucially, the teacher has “[disregarded] the reality of this order.” This puts the child in a bind: to answer the teacher “truthfully” would be to tell a lie about the relationship between the teacher and the order of the family, to falsely affirm that the teacher has some right to know the inner-workings of this order. But if the child does not tell the teacher what his father does, he has spoken an untruth. In effect, the student lies either way. Thus, as this example illustrates, lying should not be simply equated with “a formally untrue statement,” nor is it “the contradiction between thought and speech.”[18] Lying is, instead, the expression of unreality, including a wrong construal of the relationship between the speaker and the person to whom he speaks.

At this juncture, it is important to point out that Bonhoeffer does not mean to justify lying. On the contrary, he writes that lying is “something downright reprehensible.” It is “a contradiction of the word of God as it was spoken in Christ and in which creation rests.”[19] As if such language were not strong enough, he concludes that it is “the negation, denial, and deliberate and willful destruction of reality as it is created by God.” Precisely because Bonhoeffer defines truth-telling as speaking rightly about and in the context of reality, lying must be wrong speech which attacks reality, i.e. creation, itself. These claims shed light on Bonhoeffer’s comment in his Ethics, for example, that Immaneul Kant’s (1724-1804) claim that he would give up a friend’s whereabouts to an intruder is “grotesque.”[20] Although not articulated in these terms in the Ethics, for Bonhoeffer, Kant is not telling the truth about the way reality is constituted. He misconstrues the proper relationship between the intruder, who has no right to know the friend’s whereabouts, and himself. In sum, then, Bonhoeffer does not defend lying. He argues instead that formal untruths may actually be truer than formal truths in particular circumstances; they may better express reality than formal truth. We will return to this point below.

How, though, does one speak truthfully, in Bonhoeffer’s model? Bonhoeffer gives three criteria by which the truthfulness of one’s speech may be judged. First, it must recognize “who calls on me to speak and who authorizes me to speak.”[21] Second, one must take account of one’s context, “the place in which [one stands],” and third, a statement must faithfully articulate the subject of one’s speech accurately in “this context.” There is, then, an obligation upon the individual to faithfully understand the context of a situation and to make a judgment about what kind of speech would constitute true speech in said context. “Concrete responsibility, for Bonhoeffer, means to never lose sight of ‘the whole,’ to which response is required.”[22]

Bonhoeffer defines truth in such a way that one’s context, and therefore one’s contextual obligations, becomes a constitutive element. One cannot properly ascertain the truth without contextual awareness, and yet one is still obligated to tell the truth, to faithfully represent the created reality to the best of one’s ability. The ethical obligation remains fixed as a general principle, but the principle demands responsible contextual assessment and decision-making. It is, in fact, always and ever an offense against God to lie, but to know what constitutes a lie changes from situation to situation. This stands in stark contrast with Bonhoeffer’s earlier thought, as explicated in “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic,” in which all ethical principles are abandoned in favor of contextual decision-making. What Bonhoeffer has shifted fundamentally is the location of contextual consideration–the place in ethical decision-making at which context takes up its importance–from a replacement of principle to a necessary element in the definition of terms. In so doing, Bonhoeffer is able to preserve ethical demands while simultaneously allowing for the responsibility that the Christian bears before God at every moment.

Between Bonhoeffer’s “Basic Question of a Christian Ethic,” and “What Does it Mean to Tell the Truth?” Bonhoeffer’s thought developed dramatically: in the former, context’s rightful place is in the moment of decision, as a substitute for applying a fixed command from God (or any other form of ethical principle). In the latter, context’s rightful place is in assessing the situation so as to understand what the commandment means. The binary between the moral vision of Ibn ‘Adi and Calvin turns out to be false: it is not the case that we must either permit lying in a variety of circumstances or condemn formal untruths without reservation. Bonhoeffer’s redefinition of lying as bearing false witness to the reality of God’s creation, and his insistence that this demands more than speaking formally true statements, and that this demands honestly witnessing to the character of the relationships to which one is a party, help us to escape the binary. Calvin’s vision of what constitutes truth-telling is too narrow; Ibn ‘Adi permits lying. Both of these, Bonhoeffer suggests, are errors. It is not simply that laws apply differently to different contexts; rather, we cannot understand the requirement of the law–that we tell the truth–without context. This way of articulating the relationship between principles and context leaves the burden of responsibility upon the Christian in the sight of God. This responsibility is precisely what Bonhoeffer wished to preserve, for “responsibility is the entire response, in accord with reality, to the claim of God and my neighbor.”[23] The Christian cannot simply appeal to abstract laws or regulations; nor can he excuse his falsehoods. He must decide.

Onsi Aaron Kamel is a PhD student at Princeton University and Editor-at-Large at Ad Fontes. He holds master’s degrees from both the University of Chicago and Princeton Theological Seminary in theology, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. His academic writing has been published in The Scottish Journal of Theology, and his popular writing has been published in First Things, Mere Orthodoxy, and elsewhere. He lives in Princeton with his wife Elaina, daughter Nora, and son Faheem.

  1. Yah’ya ibn ’Adi, The Reformation of Morals: A Parallel English-Arabic Text, trans. Sidney H. Griffith, 1st edition (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2002), 55.

  2. Jean Calvin, Joseph Haroutunian, and Louise Pettibone Smith, Commentaries, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), Exodus 1:18.

  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, eds. Clifford J. Green & Michael P. DeJonge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 75.

  4. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 77.

  5. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 79.

  6. Bernd Wannenwetsch, “‘Responsible Living’ or ‘Responsible Self’? Bonhoefferian Reflections on a Vexed Moral Notion.” Studies in Christian Ethics 18, no. 3 (December 2005): 125-40. doi:10.1177/0953946805058804, 131.

  7. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 80.

  8. Joshua A. Kaiser, Becoming Simple and Wise: Moral Discernment in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Vision of Christian Ethics (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015), 28.

  9. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader,82.

  10. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 81.

  11. James H. Burtness, Shaping the Future: The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Fortress Press, 2009), 16.

  12. Burtness, Shaping the Future, 16.

  13. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 83.

  14. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 750.

  15. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 751.

  16. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 752.

  17. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 753.

  18. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 754.

  19. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 755.

  20. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Fortress Press, 2015), 197.

  21. Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 755.

  22. Bernd, “‘Responsible Living’ or ‘Responsible Self’?”, 131.

  23. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 197.


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