Skip to main content

Bonhoeffer and Løgstrup: the Ethics of Disclosure in a State of Exception


Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Knud Ejler Løgstrup were WWII contemporaries: Lutheran theologians and religious figures in their respective German and Danish communities; both active in the anti-Nazi resistance. Being involved in the resistance, Bonhoeffer and Løgstrup were required to rethink what it meant to be ethical, in particular in relation to disclosure and the telling of truth, in a situation of war. In this paper, we consider the grounds on which both Løgstrup and Bonhoeffer acted, their belief in a duty or requirement to resist, in light of the more general problem presented by resistance as action undertaken in a state of exception. We investigate the distinction between the normativity of ordinary or stable time, and action required in a state of exception, using the specific example of truth-telling as a normative demand and its conflict with the exceptional imperative to lie. The example of truth-telling raises important questions about the role of agency and phronetic judgment in a state of exception. In order to determine a foundation for such judgment, we turn to the framework adapted by both Bonhoeffer and Løgstrup to ground their requirement to lie: Luther’s concept of three estates. We consider how their respective concepts of mandates and laws of life/sovereign expressions of life both illuminate and highlight the more general problem of the relation between norm and exceptional action.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. The Evangelical Church of the Old-Prussian Union, the largest regional Protestant Church and part of the German Evangelical Church Confederation (Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchenbund) that would become the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche) in 1934, led by the so-called German Christians who supported National Socialism. Bonhoeffer was a founding member of the Confessing Church in 1934, alongside Karl Barth, which saw itself as the true Church, in contrast to the German Evangelical Church, which for Bonhoeffer and others represented a heretical movement away from Christianity.

  2. When Bonhoeffer joined the resistance, it was as a civilian, ostensibly using his ecumenical contacts as a pastor and theologian to gather information for the German state. In fact, Bonhoeffer was part of the resistance movement within the Abwher, providing information to the Allies. Bonhoeffer undertook a number of official assignments where he was able to use his church contacts to relay information between the resistance and the Allied forces.

  3. Løgstrup was a member of the Ring, one of several groups that made up the Danish resistance movement. Løgstrup’s involvement appears to have consisted of acting as a courier and allowing clandestine radio communications from his house. The Danish resistance more broadly, however, carried out something approaching 400 assassinations, mostly of Danish collaborators and only later of German nationals. Whether these killings were morally justified only became a matter of open discussion in Danish society during the 1990s. Around 850 resistance members were either killed in operations or subsequently executed or died in concentration camps.

  4. While the relation between legal and moral norms is itself contentious, this paper presumes a continuity between the two. See Kant who argued that “Juridical and ethical laws […] share a generic unity as moral laws” for whom both juridical and ethical laws belong under the broader structure of moral law, both are governed by categorical imperatives that provide obligations and attendant duties. Cited in Laurence (2015: 210). This is also in line with pre-modern understandings of law and morality, where the separation between the legislative power of law in regulating human behavior and customary rules of behavior that were considered obligatory was less clear. See Ratnapala (2009). The writing of Schmitt, Bonhoeffer, and to some extent Løgstrup likewise reject a strong distinction between the two domains that govern human life and interaction.

  5. On these laws, see Andersen (2017).

  6. Contrast this with theologian (and Bonhoeffer’s friend) Karl Barth’s response to the failed coup d’etat. Barth thought that the “extreme case” or the Grenzfall, which he defined as murder in obedience to God’s command, was a situation faced by Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators. However, several of the assassination attempts were aborted due to the desire for self-preservation by those involved. Barth therefore concluded that the would-be “assassinators” lacked whole-hearted commitment and probably God did not actually command the action, for had he done so, those involved would have overcome their sense of self-preservation, and they would have had the strength for obedience to the command. See Barth (2006: 449). Barth’s concept of the Grenzfall informed by his theology of a sovereign God provides an interesting contrast with Løgstrup’s explanation for resistance from “below.”

  7. Moreover, scholars remain divided on whether Bonhoeffer’s conspiracy involvement can be justified (in terms of just war theory) and/or whether Bonhoeffer himself would have tried to do so, had he had the opportunity. See for example, Rasmussen (2005), Gides (2011), and Green (2005).

  8. From the same passage: “the point at issue was not people’s right but their duty to resist… Our generation, on the other hand [unlike Luther’s], knows something about people having been driven to active resistance by a sense of responsibility, of the kind we expect to find in the government.” Interestingly, Bonhoeffer also appeals to duty and the responsibility of the individual in such a situation, rather than right.

  9. There is a long and troubled history of Protestant political resistance that can in part be attributed to one of the key theological ideas arising from the Reformation: the diminishing of justice and natural law, as “justification by faith” as an act of God’s revelation took center stage. For reformers, the natural law tradition “failed to take seriously the condition of human sin and … [placed] misguided trust in the powers of human reason, which … [had] been debilitated by the fall” (Charles 2008: 113). Claims to a natural moral law come to be seen as a demonstration of human pride that should properly learn humility under the divine imperative. While Catholic natural law affirmed a continuity of grace between the creation ordinances of law and morality, for Protestants, “justice” only functioned as an indicator of our guilt and our need for “justification.” See McGrath (1998). Gustafson (1978) understands the Protestant separation between natural law and morality as connected to ‘occasionalism’, where moral action emphasises the uniqueness of each moment rather than the continuities of human experience as informing moral order.

  10. See DeJonge (2017).

  11. In reality, Rosemarie Løgstrup nee Pauly (1914–2005), who met Løgstrup in 1933 while both were students of Heidegger’s in Freiburg.

  12. On this passage, see Niekerk (2017: 192).

  13. Stände: Oeconomicus, politicus, and eccelsiasticus or hierachicus. These estates were envisioned by Lutheran as enabling various human goods to flourish in society.

  14. In interwar German theology, das Volk also sometimes came to be regarded as a fourth ordinance. Yet, not only fervent National Socialists reinterpreted Luther in this way. For example, moderate conservative Lutherans, Werner Elert and Paul Althaus, signed the Ansbach Memorandum 1934 that included the statement: “The law, “the unchangeable will of God”…obligates us to the natural orders to which we are subject, such as family, people [Volk], race (that is, blood relationship)” (cited in Bonhoeffer 2009: 56, n 33)

  15. Bonhoeffer outlines what he means by “mandates” in two manuscripts in Ethics: briefly in “Christ, Reality, and Good” and elaborated in the concluding Ethics manuscript, “The concrete commandment and the divine mandates” (concluding manuscript in Ethics).

  16. Bonhoeffer uses the two terms interchangeably.

  17. Only through their interaction do the mandates “communicate the commandment of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ.” (Bonhoeffer 2009: 393)

  18. Bonhoeffer’s dissertation, published as Act & Being (1930) contained extensive references to Heidegger’s Being & Time (1927).

  19. See Lenowitz (2008: 25).

  20. See Niekerk’s introduction to Løgstrup (2007: 21).

  21. On the relation between the ethical demand and the social norms in Løgstrup, see Stokes (2017b).

  22. For an excellent overview of Løgstrup’s theological trajectory and his move away from the theological outlook of the Tidehverv movement, see Rabjerg (2007).

  23. For a response to MacIntyre, see Stokes (2017a).


  • Agamben, G. (2005). State of Exception. Translated by Kevin Attell. Chicago. London: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Andersen, S. (2017). Kierkegaard’s Demand, Transformed by Løgstrup. In H. Fink & R. Stern (Eds.), What is ethically demanded? K.E. Løgstrup's philosophy of moral life (pp. 151–167). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barth, K. (2006). Church Dogmatics Vol iii. Part 4. The doctrine of creation. London: T&T Clark.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bethge, E. (2000). Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Translated by V. J. Barnett. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

  • Bok, S. (1979). Lying: Moral choice in public and private life. New York: Vintage Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bonhoeffer. (2009). Ethics. Translated by R. Krauss, C. C. West, & D. W. In Stott. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bonhoeffer. (2006). Conspiracy and Imprisonment1940-1945. Transalted by J. Glenthøj, U. Kabitz, & W. In Krötke. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brown, P. (2013). Bonhoeffer, Schmitt, and the state of exception. Pacifica: Australasian Theological Studies, 26(3), 246–264.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Charles, J. D. (2008). Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things. Michigan. Eerdmans.

  • DeJonge, M. (2017). Bonhoeffer’s reception of Luther. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Elshtain, J. B. (2001). Bonhoeffer on modernity: Sic et non. Journal of Religious Ethics, 29(3), 345–366.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gides, D. M. (2011) Pacifism, Just War, and Tyrannicide: Bonhoeffer's Church-World Theology and His Changing Forms of Political Thinking and Involvement. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick.

  • Green, C. J. (2005). Pacifism and Tyrannicide: Bonhoeffer's Christian peace ethic. Studies in Christian Ethics, 18, 31–47.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gustafson, J. M. (1978). Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics. Chicago. London: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Huber, C. (1947). Kurt Huber zum Gedächtnis, Bildnis eines Menschen, Denkers und Forschers, dargestellt von seinen Freunden. Regensburg: Josef Habbel.

  • Laurence, B. (2015). Juridical Laws as moral Laws in Kant’s the doctrine of right. In G. Pavlakos & V. Rodriguez-Blanco (Eds.), Reasons and intentions in law and practical agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lenowitz, J. (2008). Obedience at the time of Necessitá: Dietrich Bonhoeffer”s theory of resistance. In Annual Meeting of Western Political Science Association, 1–53, San Diego.

  • Løgstrup, K. E. (1943). Folkeliv og Udenrigspolitik. Copenhagen: Tidehverv.

    Google Scholar 

  • Løgstrup, K. E. (1972). Norm og Spontaneitet: Etik og Politik Mellem Teknokrati og Dilettantokrati. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

    Google Scholar 

  • Løgstrup, K. E. (1982). System og Symbol. Copenhagen: Gylendal.

    Google Scholar 

  • Løgstrup, K. E. (1997). The Ethical Demand. Translated by T. I. Jensen, G. Puckering, & E. Watkins. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Løgstrup, K. E. (2007). Beyond the ethical demand. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Løgstrup, K. E. (2010). Den Etiske Fordring. Aarhus: Klim.

    Google Scholar 

  • Machiavelli. (1988). The Prince. Translated by R. In Price. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • MacIntyre, A. (2007). Human nature and human dependence: What might a Thomist learn from reading Løgstrup? In S. Andersen & K. van Kooten Niekerk (Eds.), Concern for the other: Perspectives on the ethics of K. E. Løgstrup (pp. 147–166). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • MacIntyre, A. (2010). Danish ethical demands and French common goods: Two moral philosophies. European Journal of Philosophy, 18(1), 1–16.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McGrath, A. E. (1998). Iustitia Dei: A history of the Christian doctrine of justification. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Niekerk, K. v. K. (2011). Rettens pris. In B. Rabjerg & R. Dybdal (Eds.), Menneskets Ondskab og Livets Godhed: Løgstrups Filososofi om Tilværelsen (pp. 153–161). Aarhus: University of Aarhus Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Niekerk, K. v. K. (2017). Løgstrup’s conception of the sovereign expressions of life. In H. Fink & R. Stern (Eds.), What is ethically demanded? K.E. Løgstrup’s philosophy of moral life (pp. 186–215). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • O'Gorman, N. (2005). “Telling the truth”: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s rhetorical discourse ethic. Journal of Communication & Religion, 28(2), 224–248.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rabjerg, B. (2007). Løgstrups kritik af Kierkegaard: Den uendelige kvalitative forskel på fortabelse og kærlighed. Res Cogitans, 1(4), 20–58.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rasmussen, L. (2005). Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and resistance. Louisville: Kentucky Westminster John Knox Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ratnapala, S. (2009). Jurisprudence: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Schmitt, C. (2005). Political theology: Four chapters on the concept of sovereignty. Translated by G. Schwab. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Stokes, P. (2017a). Spontaneity and perfection: MacIntyre vs. Løgstrup. In H. Fink & R. Stern (Eds.), What is ethically demanded? K. E. Løgstrup’s philosophy of moral life (pp. 275–299). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Stokes, P. (2017b). Towards a new epistemology of moral progress. European Journal of Philosophy, 25(4), 1824–1843.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Walzer, M. (1973). Political action: The problem of dirty hands. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 2(2), 160–180.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Patrick Stokes.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Brown, P., Stokes, P. Bonhoeffer and Løgstrup: the Ethics of Disclosure in a State of Exception. SOPHIA 59, 229–246 (2020).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: