Bonhoeffer on Telling the Truth

Bonhoeffer.jpgUnder the heat of the Nazis, in Tegel prison, and surely under the cloud of having participated in a conspiracy to wipe out Hitler, and clearly how he responded in interrogations and concealed the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer wrote a short essay, or a fragment, called “What does it mean to tell the truth?” The essay is found in Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945 (DBW 16, pp. 601-608).

Is it ever right to tell a lie? When? Where? Or, what does it mean to tell the truth?

His concrete example opens up the issues:

A child is asked by a teacher if his father is a drunk. The child, if he or she says Yes (which is true), exposes an embarrassing family reality. If the child says No (which is also true and it means it is wrong for a teacher to invade into that territory), the child does not expose the privacy of the family. Relationship matters, Bonhoeffer says, but the deeper reality also matters.

Joseph Fletcher argued that Bonhoeffer provides an exceptional example of “situation ethics,” but most Bonhoeffer scholars think Fletcher got this one dead wrong. There’s much more at work in Bonhoeffer than situational ethics.

For Bonhoeffer, truth was connected to relationships, and even more to reality, and even more to God’s reality, and God’s reality is found in the truthful Word of Jesus Christ. To tell the truth the must mean entering into the reality of God’s Word in Christ in the words we use. “What is real is to be expressed in words” (603). His expression for this is “living truth” (605).

To be sure, Bonhoeffer’s ideas here are not completely developed. But this seems clear:

As lying transcends the contraction of thought and speech, so truth telling transcends words yet searches for the right word at the right time (and he calls the person who tells the truth regardless of the relationship and situation the “cynic”) with an eye to living before the reality of God in Christ.

How does my word become true? 1) By recognizing who calls on me to speak and what authorizes me to speak; 2) by recognizing the place in which I stand; 3) by putting the subject I am speaking about into this context.

"I very much appreciate John Walton’s work. He walks a fine line because he understands, ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)
"To tell the story of the dawn of the age of authenticity is to show ..."

The Age Of Youthfulness
"We are likely in agreement -- language often gets in the way. For example, I ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)
"I worry, a little, we emphasize the literalness of these stories too much. For example, ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Percival

    Love trumps other values and determines how we shape our relationships. If someone is going to use truth against anyone, then we should withhold that truth from them. Do we give them a lie to suck on or mislead them? That’s harder to say. Our Lord once said, “I am not going up to Jerusalem.” Then he went.

    Rahab is put in the Hebrews hall of heroes because she lied to the right people at the right time.

    What about lying for self-preservation? Are you a Christian? Are you meeting with Christians and reading their book? Do you believe Mohammad is a prophet?

  • DRT

    I know that this is going to sound strange, but I have always been a compulsive truth teller. My mother would always ask me if her hair looked good or her meal was good because she knew that I would tell her like it is.

    It is only as I am getting older that I am recognizing that truth is larger than the simple fact of a situation, and truth can encompass,as was said in the post, the value in the relationship. Good wisdom here.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I understand the reality where people may have to lie for the greater good, to save lives or relationships, etc. I just get nervous (and I am not even saying Bonhoeffer is doing this) if we think lying in certain situations are justified and morally right. We live in a fallen world with terrible choices to make at times. We may have to say at the end of the day, God forgive me for what I did but there was no better decision than what I did at the time.

  • Diane

    Bonhoeffer fascinates because he strove to live his faith with fewer rationalizations than most of the rest of us. In his Ethics, he engages in a conversation with Kant and Kant’s categorical imperative about truth-telling: for Kant, the ethical choice is always truth telling. Bonhoeffer said no: the ethical, is, as the post says, situational. He was living within a warped totalitarian state, in which truth telling simply wouldn’t work. He came to the same conclusion as some of the desert fathers: truth telling to save one’s own sense of virtue is a sin, the sin of pride. God asks us to sacrifice our very selves and that includes, at times, our sense of “virtue.” We do protect the Jew even if means “staining” ourselves with a lie. We throw ourselves on God’s mercy when we take on sin to protect another. Bonhoeffer hoped but never assumed God would forgive him for participating in the plot to kill Hitler.
    For Bonhoeffer, responsibility, what he called vicarious representative action, is at the heart of the gospel. He was frustrated because he knew if the German church had shown more backbone, the Nazis would have backed down on some of their atrocities–as they did when the outcry over euthanasia of the “mentally defective” grew too loud. Bonhoeffer was distressed at how many in Germany took cover in an “after life” and/or “two kingdoms” vision of Christianity and closed their eyes to what was going on as the fruits of a “fallen world.” That kind of Christianity he saw as lie and in rightful need of dying. This is what he meant by religionless Christianity–let’s get the cant and the pieties and the trappings out of the way so they don’t become a substitute for the challenge of living the faith. As he writes in prison, God/Christ is at the center of the village, in the here and now. At the same time, being a human being, Bonhoeffer was, I would argue, personally damaged by the life of deception he led after 1940–you can’t live that way without it affecting your personal life. That’s a price he paid.

  • CGC

    Wow Diane,
    Some good thoughts. I can’t help but think of the damage of being a pacifist in a world of Hitlers? Karl Barth left theological liberalism when he saw his professors supporting the third reich. What’s wrong with this picture? And what of the church in Germany? When the box cars of screaming Jews went by churches near railroads, they simply were instructed to sing louder so they would not have to listen to their screams!

  • Tim


    Is it true that the purpose of war against Hitler was to “save the Jews”?

    Is it true that “violence saves people” in a way that assertive-nonviolence cannot?

    Is it true that the opposites are “violence” versus “being passive and doing nothing”? Is there a way in which imaginative, assertive nonviolence might be “effective”?


  • As Christians, the pragmatic approach of what has broadly been termed “situation ethics” is not satisfying. What makes Bonhoeffer so compelling and challenging for us is that he approaches ethical challenges with a firm desire to honor God by doing right yet just as strong of a desire to probe into what it means to do right as the people of God in historical-cultural situations.

    Is it possible that blunt truth telling is not true in certain contexts based on a more probing consideration of factors and implications? This is not the justification of a “do-what-you-want” situation ethics, but a deeper desire to honor God and be His people not just in blunt truth but in a truthful way.

    I highly appreciate Bonhoeffer because he pushes us into consideration of these ethical questions not just by what he wrote but by how he lived.

  • CGC

    Hi Tim,
    You asked three questions so here it goes:

    1. The war against Hitler was to save Jews. Where do you think I said this? I never did. Or to answer the question, no.

    2. Violence may save lives but violence only begets more violence. This is not Jesus way of the cross. Violence may be pragmatic (it may work) but it’s not the telos of God’s kingdom.

    3. Pacifism to people who legitimate violence often view pacifism as “do-nothingism.” It may appear that Jesus did nothing against evil when he died on the cross but in actuality, he was resisting evil and destroying it all through his suffering love. Martin Luther King did not stand by and do nothing in his non-violent stand against violence. They protested, marched, even bowed their heads as policemen beat them. That actually was the day that the civil rights leaders had their greatest victory. America was rightly outraged at this kind of abuse of power and violence. Christian pacifism is about resisting and fighting evil with force if neccesary, but it chooses not to use deadly force.

  • Always “telling the truth” is an abstraction that may have perverse results. Being overmuch righteous will get you dead as quickly being overmuch wicked. None of us are that pure. But I have never been in a situation where I needed to lie to save my life or some others, as Rahab and the Jewish midwives. I believe that if it would be permitted for me to take the life of someone–as in war or self-defense–then I expect that it would be ok for me to lie to that person. There is nothing easier than lying, and people do it every day except when they want to take a pose of superiority over lesser mortals. Solomon understood this: Pr 14:4 “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox.” All the perfectionist sees is the crap.

    The only people who have a clean crib are those who never do anything for God or man. Thank the Lord, He cleans up the crap after us. We must be driven by faith, hope, and charity; but there is none of these that are not tainted by the hypocrisies of men in this world.

  • John Inglis

    Gee, if Jesus had only answered situationally, he could’ve avoided the cross.

  • Paul

    I like what Bonhoeffer is saying here. It seems to me that to follow such an ethic takes a few things:

    – A lot of wisdom
    – A community of believers to work through truth together
    – A willingness to admit error and to work to correct the situation when you live/act/speak poorly

    I would struggle to teach such an ethic to younger folks (I teach middle and high school students) because they often lack in wisdom. It almost seems that early on in life, truth is the correct way to go, and as you get older, you start to learn the reality of something deeper.

  • Tamara Rice

    John Inglis, if I could, I would “like” your comment about a dozen times.

    Truth is a funny thing. Personally, while I’m not going to tell my friend her jeans make her look fat, in most other situations I believe we harm ourselves (and eventually others) when we don’t speak the truth. Truth always comes out eventually. It really does, and if you don’t think it does, maybe you have not lived long enough to see lies that are decades old unravel before your eyes and trample every heart in the wake. Holding back the truth can lead to way more destruction in the end when truth finally appears than telling truth NOW that stings a little or a lot. I really believe this. And I really believe that when we attempt to hide our own truth, we may rise in the eyes of the world temporarily, playing along in the game of having it all together or not rocking the boat, but it’s our souls that pay the price, with compromise, hiding, fear and ultimately self-loathing. There is a reason the “truth will set you free.”

  • ScotT


    You should read Bonhoeffer.

  • Diane


    I would disagree. By behaving situationally, Jesus embraced the cross.

  • John Inglis

    I don’t really see that there is “the reality of something deeper” than truth. It’s just a cover for not liking the results of truth, or wanting to avoid social conflict or embarrasment.

    Truth is something that Christ was willing to sacrifice his life for, and he calls us to do the same. Until the new kingdom there will be always be evil and we are not called nor required to rid the world of all evil. Not even God does that at this time. Not everyone is able to sacrifice their life, but if it came down to telling a lie to save another (and so living) or keeping quiet but dying as a result of silence then the morally appropriate route is the self-sacrifice.

    I don’t see any biblical proposition or narrative that indicates that truth telling can be relative, can be something else other than the deep reality, or can be dropped in favour of some other good.

    I suggest that this was Bonhoeffer’s view as well, and that his above essay needs to be considered in the context of his other works, like “No Rusty Swords” wherein he wrote:

    “Precisely because of our attitude to the state, the conversation here must be completely honest, for the sake of Jesus Christ and the ecumenical cause. We must make it clear–fearful as it is–that the time is very near when we shall have to decide between National Socialism and Christianity. It may be fearfully hard and difficult for us all, but we must get right to the root of things, with open Christian speaking and no diplomacy. And in prayer together we will find the way. I feel that a resolution ought to be framed–all evasion is useless. And if the World Alliance in Germany is then dissolved–well and good, at least we will have borne witness that we were at fault. Better that than to go on vegetating in this untruthful way. Only complete truth and truthfulness will help us now. I know that many of my German friends think otherwise. But I ask you urgently to appreciate my views.”

    Bonhoeffer also believed that “There can only be a community of peace when it does not rest on lies and injustice.”

    In fact, Bonhoeffer argued that there was a way of telling the truth that was itself a lie. He is arguing for a broader understanding of truth, not a narrower one. Bonhoeffer is arguing that truth is not just truth about the physical reality, but also (in addition) truth about our relation to that reality. Telling a “truth” to someone that effectively misleads them is a lie because it does not take into account our relationship to the other, to the one whom we tell that truth. In effect we use the truth to enter into a false relationship with that person. We bear a lie, not the truth, in that relation and so destroy the possibility of real community and therefore of real peace.

    Any other reading of Bonhoeffer just becomes a Fletcher style situation ethics.

    John I.

  • John Inglis

    RE Diane at 9:49:

    We always act in a particular context, so we always act “situationally”. So what is it about Jesus response that somehow makes it different for you and “situational” in some unique way? In ethics discussions “situational” usually connotes something along the lines of Fletcher’s situational ethics where one can lie or do something else that God commands in order to bring about a result that (appears to be) more loving by some other standard or criteria.

    I fail to see that Jesus did anything else other than speak the truth to power and evil and that he suffered and died as a result.

    Jesus could have truthfully told the Sanhedrin that his kingdom was not of this world, and he could have truthfully told them that he was a man born of a woman. But these truths would have effectively been a lie in that circumstance and would not have born the proper truth relation to the members of the Sanhedrin. Jesus knew that he bore a relation of worship on par with God and that his coming kingdom would destroy the current kingdom of the powers of the air in which the Pharisees dwelt. To fail to bear that truth in relation to the Sanhedrin would be to mislead the Sanhedrin and to lie to them.

    The situational and relational understanding of truth is never that a lie can be understood as truth, but that sometimes the truth can be a lie in relation to those outside ourselves, to the other.

    This broadening of the scope of truth and making truth-telling even more demanding is in line with Jesus’ teachings and practices such as his view of marriage and divorce. Jesus made marriage more difficult–so much so that the disciples asked him why anyone would want to get married. Truth telling is the same–it is now (after Christ) so difficult that outside of Christ no one would want to do it.

    John I.

  • Tracy

    I’ve always thought God’s instructions to Samuel, to deceive Saul in order to anoint David, offered an example of how a powerless person might on occasion use deception. (1 Samuel 16:1-5.) If we insist on “truth” in all circumstances– are we prepared to condemn all those Christians who took Jewish children under their wings and claimed them as their own during the Nazi years? Or women who escape abusive husbands with a ruse, or children who escape an abductor or an abuser by lying? How about all those slaves who did what they could to escape to the North –using subterfuge to achieve freedom for themselves and others?

    If you have an absolutist view about lying — I’d assume you have an absolutist view about violence. Not only no war, but no police, no prison guards, no threat of physical harm whatsoever. I believe Bonhoeffer (and Niebuhr, for that matter) had plenty to say about those who would keep their own hands and consciences completely clean — while the innocent are victimized. His own behavior suggests there is some tension between an absolute (Christian pacifism-nonviolence) and action on behalf of others.

  • Steve Schaper

    Deceiving an enemy in wartime is what Bonhoeffer was doing. By Romans 13, the National Socialist government was not a legitimate government, just as Al Capone was not the rightful ruler of Chicago. God commanded deception of enemies in a number of places, if you believe the Bible, and I would hope that you do.

    It is not a sin for soldiers to wear camo. It is not a sin to paint armored vehicles in desert colors.

    The notion of non-violence as an absolute is not a Biblical teaching at all. Do you need numerous citations?

    Jesus died not in order to tell technical truth no matter what, but to atone for our sins and those of all the world. Even children know this.

  • Diane

    What of the crooked steward? What of Rachel’s deception to obtain Jacob the blessing of his father?

    Moving back to Bonhoeffer, the fact is that he lied continually after 1940 to obstruct the Nazi state, which as someone above said, was illegitimate, a tyrannicide, as Bonhoeffer called it. He was a double agent, pretending to spy for the Nazis but instead in contact with friends abroad about a plot to overthrow the Nazis. When he was about to be arrested, he faked diary accounts. He lied in letters from prison about his asthma (he didn’t have asthma). He did this all out of a deep ethical and theological conviction that although he loved Germany, he loved Christ more–and that Germany had to be defeated to ensure Christianity’s survival. (I would argue that even had Nazi Germany, God forbid, had survived, Christ is stronger, but that’s another story.) In Germany in the 1950s, the initial reception to him was cool–he was considered a traitor. As a German said to me, it’s easy for the Americans to love Bonhoeffer. It’s not so easy for the Germans to love a person who worked to bring down their state, evil as the state was. John Inglis, I do think I understand what you are trying to say–and I honor it, and I think in the end we would be on the same page– but Bonhoeffer simply wasn’t honest in the way you describe–you have to put the Rusty Sword quotes in context– Was he a deeply honorable and anguished man? Yes. But that deep, heartfelt, soul felt desire to stand for Christ and to act responsibly led him to lie to thwart evil. He died for that.

  • Margaret

    tough questions. I appreciate this statement: “truth telling transcends words yet searches for the right word at the right time”–a good way to sum it up

  • John Inglis

    Diane, good points. Yes, I agree that Bonhoeffer lied a lot. I would also say that his theology developed over time and never, because of his untimely death, reached a stage of maturity. Moreover, I think that some of this theology was in conflict with itself or with his actions.

    Even in that wider context, however, my point was that the essay quoted cannot be used to push Bonhoeffer toward a situation ethic of the type promoted by Fletcher (who, most agree, misunderstood and misused Bonhoeffer).

    I think that Christ is the supreme power, and that the more important way to defeat the powers of this world is spiritually. That is, to keep the truth is more important than to “save” a life by lying. It is not the truth-teller that bears moral responsibility before God for the death, but the person who pulled the trigger (or the gas chamber lever).

    My own heritage–Mennonite–is consistent with this approach. I have relatives who died in Russia because of their beliefs. So it’s not impossible for someone to live out a consistent life of truth telling.

    I think we too easily discount the value of our spiritual warfare, of our truth-telling, of laying up treasure in heaven, because not only can we not see it but we cannot experience it. Instead we experience the more immediate effects of our truth telling. We see a person hauled off to Auschwitz instead of the victory obtained over the Father of Lies by our truth telling. Also, keep in mind that in these extreme situations it is possible to save the life by not saying anything and dying to preserve both the truth and the life of the other. It never lies in our hands to take or sacrifice the life of another, but it always lays in our hands to sacrifice our own lives. Could I? I won’t know until the time (if ever) comes.


  • Diane

    John I,

    I think the issue might be Fletcher. I have never heard of him. I am in a historic peace church too, so no wonder I sense some affinity.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: If you have an absolutist view about lying — I’d assume you have an absolutist view about violence. Not only no war, but no police, no prison guards, no threat of physical harm whatsoever

    No, that’s not at all true. The traditional Catholic position is not absolutist against violence (war, etc.) but it is absolutist about lying. Though other forms of deception, mental reservation, etc. are permissible, and lying in a good cause is only venially sinful. The issue is that Thomistic philosophy sees lying as intrinsically immoral, whereas violence isn’t. The argument is similar to the argument against artificial contraception: the natural end of speech is to convey what is in our mind, and thus to use speech to express something we don’t believe, is to pervert the faculty of speech, and to use it contrary to its intended purpose. Kant’s argument against lying is spectacularly silly, I think, but Aquinas’ argument is a very different absolutist argument, and is a substantially better one. (Which is not to say that I agree with it). Aquinas, of course, did say that intentionally deceptive speech was not even venially sinful, as long as it wasn’t explicitly a lie.

    In a perfect world, lying would be unnecessary. In the world we live in, it’s sometimes a necessary evil. Whether it’s a venial sin or not sinful at all (i.e. whether it needs to be confessed or not) is an interesting question, but certainly it’s sometimes the best thing to do.

  • Norman Andresen

    What only a few have alluded to is the situation Bonhoeffer found himself in. If he told the truth about his involvement then he would be causing the arrest (at the least) and probable death of a number of other persons. Would it be acceptable for him to knowingly cause the death of others? He was in a totalitarian state and the consequences of the conspiracy were fully understood. How would we view him if he had done that? It is easy to second guess someone and point out his lie and focus on the lie rather on what would be the consequences of a different action i.e. ‘truth telling’. This is not intended to diminish a lie but there may be a time for situational ethics when it is the higher course.

    We live in a fallen world and the consequences of doing so are not alway apparent to us.