Religion & Liberty Online

Bonhoeffer on Church and State, Part 3

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 3 of 3 follows below (series index).

War and Peace

I will conclude with a brief word about Bonhoeffer and pacifism, given the ongoing claims about Bonhoeffer’s ethical commitment to the practice of nonviolence.[i] First, it should be noted, with Clifford J. Green, that it is invalid to talk about Bonhoeffer as advocating a principled pacifism, since “‘Pacifism’ for Bonhoeffer did not mean adopting nonviolence as an absolute principle in all circumstances. His ethic was not an ethic of principles.”[ii]

We have also seen that Bonhoeffer defined the state in terms of its special provision for justice through the use of coercive force. This applies as well to war, so that Bonhoeffer throughout his career consistently viewed war as a potentially valid exercise of governmental authority. In his 1927 dissertation Sanctorum Communio Bonhoeffer writes, “Where a people, submitting in conscience to God’s will, goes to war in order to fulfill its historical purpose and mission in the world–though entering fully into the ambiguity of human sinful action–it knows it has been called upon by God, that history is to be made; here war is no longer murder.”[iii]

In the essay previously mentioned from 1933, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” Bonhoeffer asserts that the church “recognises the absolute necessity of the use of force in this world and also the ‘moral’ injustice of certain concrete acts of the state which are necessarily bound up with the use of force.”[iv] As this applies to war we can see here perhaps a faint recognition of the traditional distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

And in his mature work in the Ethics, Bonhoeffer again reiterates his view of the ethical status of war:

The killing of an enemy in war is not arbitrary; for even if the enemy is not personally guilty, the enemy is still consciously takes part in the attack of another people on the life of my people and therefore must therefore share the consequences of bearing the common guilt. The killing of a criminal who has encroached on another life is, of course, not arbitrary. Nor is the killing of civilians in war arbitrary when it is not directly intended, but is only the unfortunate result of a necessary military action.[v]

Any account of Bonhoeffer as a pacifist will have to account for such consistent and explicit ethical judgments made throughout his theological corpus. We might judge too with Green that, as with Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the Abwehr plot to assassinate Hitler, war when justified is “the necessary precondition of peace and a means to peace.”[vi]

And just what are we to make of Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the assassination plot? Shall we bracket it out as valid historical evidence because as some have said “we cannot know how Bonhoeffer understood his participation in the attempt to kill Hitler”?[vii] I cannot make any definitive answer to these questions here. I do claim that remaining agnostic about Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy ignores a valid and important piece of evidence. I close by offering three items of relevance for interpreting these events.

First, Bonhoeffer’s view of direct political action by the church is of relevance. This is the third and rarest type of action that the church takes toward the state, and it only is valid when the state is in the act of negating itself by creating lawlessness and disorder instead of law and order. In 1933, however, Bonhoeffer offers the additional condition that such a move must be decided by an “Evangelical Council” and “cannot therefore ever be casuistically decided beforehand.”[viii] A modification or removal of this condition could theoretically open the door for individual Christian action. Bonhoeffer may have seen the approval of an ecclesiastical council of less necessity or less desirable after the long decade of the 1930s left the Confessing Church wearied and worn. He writes of the state which has in actuality negated itself: “An apocalyptic view of a particular concrete government would necessarily have total disobedience as its consequence; for in that case every single act of obedience involves a denial of Christ (Rev. 13.17).”[ix]

A second important idea to consider in Bonhoeffer’s thought is the recurring theme of the exceptional season, the times that are “out of joint,” which require responsible action above and beyond the normal guides for ethical judgment. Thus Bonhoeffer writes that “there are occasions when, in the course of historical life, the strict observance of the explicit law of a state, a corporation, a family, but also of a scientific discovery, entails a clash with the basic necessities of human life [Lebensnotwendigkeiten].”[x] On these occasions “appropriate responsible action departs from the domain governed by laws and principles, from the normal and regular, and instead is confronted with the extraordinary situation of ultimate necessities that are beyond any possible regulation by law.”[xi] In these extraordinary times only a living relationship with the Lord of the law can lead to appropriate action. These circumstances “appeal directly to the free responsibility of the one who acts, a responsibility not bound by any law. They create an extraordinary situation, and are in essence borderline cases. They no longer permit human reasoning [ratio] to come up with a variety of exit strategies, but pose the question of the ultima ratio.”[xii]

And finally, Bonhoeffer’s depiction of vicarious representative action as the responsible action of the free ethical agent bears on his decision to freely bear the responsibility for his involvement in the conspiracy. In referring to the ethical bond which first binds us to Christ and then binds us to others, he writes, “The bond has the form of vicarious representative action and accordance with reality [Wirklichkeitsgemäßheit]. Freedom exhibits itself in my accountability [Selbstzurechnung] for my living and acting, and in the venture [Wagnis] of concrete decision.”[xiii] Robin W. Lovin describes Bonhoeffer’s idea of vicarious representative action as “an act based on a sound reading of the facts and a type of civil courage which can be shared with others; and yet, properly understood, the venture involves a risk of personal corruption so great that only one who believes in the power of a Christian grace is likely to undertake it.”[xiv] It is in this way Bonhoeffer lives out Luther’s famous dictum, “Sin boldly!”, ultimately relying only on the vicarious representative atonement of Jesus Christ for salvation, and not on the ethical righteousness of any human works. For as Luther’s dictum begins, “Be a sinner and sin boldly,” so it also concludes, “but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin.”[xiv]



[i] Most recently in Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004).

[ii] Green, “Editor’s Introduction,” 15-16.

[iii] Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens, vol. 1, Dietrich
Bonhoeffer Works
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 119.

[iv] Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” 223.

[v] Bonhoffer, “Natural Life,” 189.

[vi] Green, “Editor’s Introduction,” 16.

[vii] Hauerwas, Performing the Faith, 36.

[viii] Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” 226.

[ix] Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” 338.

[x] Bonhoeffer, “History and Good [2],” 272–73.

[xi] Bonhoeffer, “History and Good [2],” 273.

[xii] Bonhoeffer, “History and Good [2],” 273.

[xiii] Bonhoeffer, “History and Good [2],” 257.

[xiv] Robin W. Lovin, Christian Faith and Public Choices: The Social Ethics of Barth, Brunner, and Bonhoeffer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 139.

[xv] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 48:282.

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.