October 2019 Pulse

One of the most challenging and compelling works on Christian ethics produced during the chaos and confusion of the Second World War is by the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. An anti-Nazi dissident, Bonhoeffer was executed for plotting against the Fürer, Adolf Hitler, on 9 April 1945 just before the collapse of the Nazi regime.

Written between 1940 and 1943 in Berlin, at the monastery of Ettal and at Kieckow, the work was eventually published under the title Ethik in Germany in 1949. Bonhoeffer scholars have often described Ethik as the ‘crown jewel’ of the Lutheran theologian’s entire corpus. S.C.M. Press was the first to publish an English translation of this work in 1955. The latest English translation is by Fortress Press (2008).

Bonhoeffer was unable to complete the manuscript, and what we have is a compilation of extant sections, some of which are complete while others are not. In addition, Bonhoeffer did not write Ethics chapter by chapter, according to a fixed plan. As Clifford Green notes, ‘Each [chapter] grew gradually by the coalescence of numerous separate studies on the subject until it formed a whole’. The final form that the book has taken is the decision of the editors, not that of its author.

Be that as it may, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is a tantalizing work. I will devote four articles to discuss Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the state (or, to be more precise, government) and its relationship with the Church. I believe that Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on this subject, which is grounded in the best intuitions of the 16th century Reformers, are both instructive and relevant for us today. Needless to say, what I offer here is but a superficial sketch of this great chapter in Ethics.

Theology of Government

Bonhoeffer begins by pointing out that the idea of the state, whose origins can be traced to pagan antiquity, is alien to the New Testament, which prefers to speak instead of government. There are, of course, profound differences between the two concepts. State refers to some kind of ‘ordered community’ that encompasses both the rulers and the ruled. Government, however, refers only to the rulers (‘powers’) and is the civil authority that creates and maintains order. However, the two concepts are often used interchangeably even by Bonhoeffer himself.

Bonhoeffer makes it clear from the outset – following the Apostle Paul (Romans 13) – that the authority of the government is not intrinsic but derived: it receives its authority from God. Bonhoeffer writes:

Government is divinely ordained authority to exercise worldly dominion by divine right. Government is deputyship for God on earth. It can only be understood from above. Government does not proceed from society, but it orders society from above. If it is exegetically correct to regard it as an angelic power, this would serve only to define its position between God and the world.

As I have mentioned above, Bonhoeffer develops his understanding of government along the trajectory set by the Apostle Paul and the magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century. This is especially evident in his discussion on the basis of government.

The Roman Catholic Church, following Aristotle, sees the state or government as the natural product of human nature. The magisterial Reformers, however, took a rather different perspective. ‘The Reformation does not represent the state as a community arising from the created nature of man’, writes Bonhoeffer. Rather ‘it places the origin of the state, as government, in the fall. It was sin that made necessary the divine institution of the government’.

The crucial feature in Bonhoeffer’s account of the nature of the government is its relation to Christ. Here, Bonhoeffer unequivocally declares that ‘The true basis of government is … Jesus Christ himself.’ The theo-logic behind this bold assertion is profoundly based on the NT, especially Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

It is through Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ that all things are created (John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2), and in particular ‘thrones, dominions, principalities and powers’ (Col 1:16). It is only in Jesus Christ that all these things consists’ (Col 1:17). And it is He who is ‘the head of the church’ (Col 1.1).

It is not difficult to see why Bonhoeffer took pains to underscore this point. The Reformation view that government is necessitated by the fall may lead some to conclude that it ‘exists … by itself, more or less independently of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.’ To discourage such a conclusion, Bonhoeffer emphatically stressed that it is only in Jesus Christ that government has its ‘essence and being’.

This means that the government always exists in service of Jesus Christ, regardless of whether that fact is acknowledged by those in power or not. Even when the government appears to act in opposition to Christ, it is still serving the divine purpose due to inscrutable will of the sovereign Lord. Thus, Bonhoeffer could provocatively assert that ‘Both in acquitting him of guilt and in delivering him up to be crucified, government was obliged to show that it stands in service of Jesus Christ.’

Bonhoeffer then proceeds to spell out what it means to say that the government came into being because of divine ordination. Firstly, this means that the government is a ‘divine office.’ Secondly, the ‘persons who exercise government are God’s “ministers”, servants and representatives (Romans 13:4).’ So even when the government is responsible for some moral transgressions, it does not cease to be what it is meant to be: an instrument of God. As Bonhoeffer puts it: ‘An ethical failure does not eo ipso deprive it of its divine dignity.’

The duty and task of the government therefore has to do with the kind of institution it has been ordained to be. Here, Bonhoeffer is equally bold when he writes:

The mission of the government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of the worldly power of the sword and of justice. Government serves Christ by establishing and maintaining an outward justice by means of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God.

This is true not just for the ‘Christian’ government, but also for civil authorities that are pagan and even anti-Christian.

The task of the government is not limited only to punishing the wicked. It is also charged with the ‘positive task of praising the good or “them that do well” (1 Peter 2:14).’ The government, writes Bonhoeffer, ‘is therefore endowed, on the one hand, with a judicial authority, and on the other hand, with a right to educate for goodness, i.e., for outward justice or righteousness.’

According to Bonhoeffer, the government promotes the good when it ‘takes the second table as its criterion in its particular historical situations and decisions.’ The ‘second table’, of course, refers to the injunctions in the Decalogue that deals with man’s relationship with his fellow man, which includes the commandments concerning murder, theft, bearing false witness, etc. At this juncture Bonhoeffer deals briefly with the question of natural law, and argues that the latter must be grounded in Jesus Christ, if it is to be properly understood.

Bonhoeffer then reflects on the claim of the government upon the governed, including Christians. Once again, following the Apostle, he stresses the fact that the government has the right to demand obedience: ‘The claim of the government, which is based on its power and its mission, is the claim of God and is binding upon the conscience.’

‘Conscience’ is of course a concept that continues to be a subject of debate among Christian ethicists and moral theologians. True to the Christological emphasis that pervades his Ethics, Bonhoeffer understands conscience as that which directs human beings to conduct themselves for the sake of Christ. Bonhoeffer could thus go so far as to insist that the expression ‘for conscience’ sake’ (Romans 13:5) must be understood to mean ‘for the Lord’s sake’ (1 Peter 2:13).

The obedience demanded by the state, however, is never unconditional. As we have seen, Bonhoeffer insists that Christians are to obey the government, even one with serious moral blemishes. In fact, the Christian’s obligation to obey the government holds even when the latter’s integrity is in doubt.

But Christians can only obey the government up to a point. Bonhoeffer draws a clear line where obedience to the government is no longer required of the Christian. ‘His duty of obedience is binding on him until government directly compels him to offend against the divine commandment, that is to say, until government openly denies its divine commission and thereby forfeits its claim.’

He then provides this example:

… if government violates or exceeds its commission at any point, for example by making itself master over the belief of the congregation, then at this point, indeed, obedience is to be refused, for conscience’ sake, for the Lord’s sake.

But even in this case, the Christian’s civil disobedience must only be in relation to that particular legislation that compels him to ‘offend against the divine commandment.’ It does not mean that the Christian can disavow his obligation to submit to the government altogether. ‘It is not … permissible to generalize from this offence and to conclude that this government now possesses no claim to obedience in some of its other demands, or even in all its demands.’

Much more can be said on every point raised in this brief account of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the government. But it is hoped that what is here delineated will provide sufficient food for thought. In the next article, we shall be looking at what the German theologian has to say about the claims that the government has the Church, and the relationship between the two institutions that God has ordained.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.