Bonhoeffer on Church and State, Part 1
Religion & Liberty Online

Bonhoeffer on Church and State, Part 1

The following is the text of a paper presented on November 15, 2006 at the Evangelical Theological Society 58th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, which was themed, “Christians in the Public Square.” Part 1 of 3 follows below (series index).


Ever since his untimely death in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work have gone through a variety of appraisals and reappraisals in the succeeding scholarship. The fragmentary and partial nature of his Ethics manuscripts, as well as the attention paid to other works, such as his Letters and Papers from Prison, combined to leave his mature ethical work relatively ill-treated. This necessarily had effects on the overall reception of Bonhoeffer’s theology, as the pervasively concrete orientation of his dogmatic theology makes understanding his ethical thought indispensable to gaining a comprehensive view of his theological approach.

With the work over the last decade, especially by the International Bonhoeffer Society, to bring authoritative critical translations of his entire corpus into English, we are currently experiencing an increase in the quality and quantity of engagement with Bonhoeffer’s theology in English-speaking countries.[i] It is in this spirit of increasing critical engagement with Bonhoeffer’s thought that I offer this paper.

A brief comment is in order about the treatment of Bonhoeffer’s views on “Church” and “State.” We will note some of the potential for us to be misled by the use of this second term, “State,” in particular later. But at this point, I want to simply observe that while these two realities usually occupy places in what we call “social ethics,” Bonhoeffer himself would have probably resisted such categorization. One overriding emphasis of his life-long ethical thought was unity and wholeness, something which he felt was undermined by an artificial separation between personal and social ethics. Bonhoeffer always contends that institutions or social realities are at their core made up of individual persons who each have their own moral duties. Here’s a representative quote: “Human beings are indivisible wholes, not only as individuals in both their person and work, but also as members of the human and created community to which they belong.”[ii]

My own approach in addressing the topics of Church and State in Bonhoeffer’s thought is justified, not only because of the prominence of these two themes in his thinking, but because they occupy distinct and unique positions within his mature ethical framework. We begin with a brief sketch of this framework.

Overview of Mandates

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought comes to mature expression in his doctrine of the mandates of creation, which represent his attempt at a mediating position between the traditional natural law/divine command options for the grounding of ethics. This is an attempt to retain the best of both: the permanence and normativity of natural law, and the situational sensitivity of divine command. This lively normativity finds its expression in the living person of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the moral law. Understood properly, Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of the mandates is best represented as grounded in a form of Christological natural law, or as describing what might be called a Christotelic order, with Christ as the ultimate end and norm for the mandates.

In this way, the starting point of Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought is Christ himself. He writes, “The subject matter of a Christian ethic is God’s reality revealed in Christ becoming real [Wirklichwerden] among God’s creatures, just as the subject matter of doctrinal theology is the truth of God’s reality revealed in Christ.”[iii] This is a fairly typical definition that remains materially consistent throughout the Ethics manuscripts.

The primary element of “God’s reality revealed in Christ becoming real” is the lordship of Christ manifested over all of creation. Thus he writes, “Christ is the center and power of the Bible, of the church, of theology, but also of humanity, reason, justice, and culture. To Christ everything must return; only under Christ’s protection can it live,” and, “The more exclusively we recognize and confess Christ as our Lord, the more will be disclosed to us the breadth of Christ’s lordship.”[iv] For Bonhoeffer, the distinguishing characteristic of a truly Christian ethic is its origination from and orientation to Christ.

Even so, Bonhoeffer is greatly concerned with rightly valuing the created and fallen world. This means that the so-called “natural” is neither to be absolutized nor marginalized. He writes, “We speak of the natural as distinct from the created, in order to include the fact of the fall into sin. We speak of the natural as distinct from the sinful in order to include the created.”[v] Bonhoeffer defines the natural as “that which after the fall, is directed toward the coming of Jesus Christ. The unnatural is that which, after the fall, closes itself off from the coming of Jesus Christ.”[vi]

Christ’s lordship is exercised over the world through four distinct “mandates,” namely, marriage (or family), work (or culture), government, and church. These are the expressions of God’s “commandment,” which is “the sole authorization for ethical discourse.”[vii] As noted above, however, the commandment is linked to Christ, so that “the commandment of God revealed in Jesus Christ is addressed to us in the church, in the family, in work, and in government.”[viii]

Bonhoeffer relates these mandates on a level plane of authority, so that each has its own particular realm or range but none is related to the others as either higher or lower. We might think here of some affinity with the Kuyperian idea of sphere sovereignty.

The lordship of Christ over all creation cannot allow Christ to be “a partial reality alongside others.” Bonhoeffer writes, “The world belongs to Christ, and only in Christ is the world what it is. It needs, therefore, nothing less than Christ himself. Everything would be spoiled if we were to reserve Christ for the church while granting the world only some law, Christian though it may be. Christ has died for the world, and Christ is Christ only in the midst of the world.”[ix]

Although Bonhoeffer’s use of terminology shifted throughout his career, there is a strong continuity between Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of the orders of preservation, as definitively articulated in his commentary on Genesis in 1933, and his use of the mandates of creation in his Ethics nearly a decade later. He identifies these orders in this way, “All orders of our fallen world are God’s orders of preservation that uphold and preserve us for Christ. They are not orders of creation but orders of preservation.”[x] The key here is the connection of the orders which preserve us “for Christ” and the mandates which have Christ as their “origin, essence, and goal.”[xi]

Clifford Green notes that Bonhoeffer abandoned the use of “orders” language for strategic reasons, because such language was “too susceptible of co-option by sympathizers of National Socialism.” There is, however, overwhelming evidence of the material identity of his earlier doctrine of preservation orders and his later doctrine of mandates of creation.[xii]

With all this in mind, we can explore in more detail how Bonhoeffer view’s Christ’s rule through the mandates of church and government.



[i] Notable volumes include Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Douglas S. Bax, vol. 3, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997). See Stephen R. Haynes, The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) for an overview of how Bonhoeffer has been variously received. See also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles West, and Douglass Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), hereinafter DBWE 6. This work presents the critical text of the Ethics manuscripts in a reconstructed writing sequence (italics have been removed in quotations unless cited along with normal text). An earlier English edition, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Neville Horton Smith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), hereinafter E-E, contains the translation of some contemporaneous texts that were judged by the editors of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works to not be a part of the series of Ethics manuscripts. For more on the documentary history of the various editions of Ethics, see Clifford J. Green, “Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition,” in DBWE6, 25-34.

[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christ, Reality, and Good. Christ Church, and World,” in DBWE 6, 53.

[iii] Bonhoeffer, “Christ, Reality, and Good,” in DBWE 6, 49. Louis C. Midgley argues that Barth’s eventual endorsement of Bonhoeffer’s mandates meant that Barth “adopted a new version of natural law.” See Midgley, “Karl Barth and Natural Law,” Natural Law Forum 13 (1968): 126. Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on Christ echoes the traditional Lutheran accent, and bears strong resemblances to similar prominence in the theologies of Barth and Brunner. See Bonhoeffer’s reference to Luther, “You should look upon the whole man, Jesus, and say, ‘That is God!’,” in Christ the Center, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1978), 78.

[iv] Bonhoeffer, “Church and World I,” in DBWE6, 341, 344.

>[v] Bonhoeffer, “Natural Life,” in DBWE 6, 173.

[vi] Bonhoeffer, “Natural Life,” 173.

[vii] Bonhoeffer, “The ‘Ethical’ and the ‘Christian’ as a Topic,” in DBWE 6, 378.

[viii] Bonhoeffer, “The ‘Ethical’ and the ‘Christian’ as a Topic,” 380.

[ix] Bonhoeffer, “Christ, Reality, and Good,” 67.

[x] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 140.

[xi] Bonhoeffer, “The Concrete Commandment and the Divine Mandates,” in DBWE 6, 402.

[xii] Clifford J. Green, “Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition,” in DBWE 6, 19.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.