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Bonhoeffer and the Two Kingdoms

Dr. Jordan Ballor recently linked to this older article on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It gives a very helpful overview of Bonhoeffer’s career, as well as his explicitly Lutheran theology. I found this section on Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the two kingdoms to be very interesting (and not a little contrary to the typical portrait of Bonhoeffer that one hears):

Martin Luther nicknamed the Antichrist “Beowulf.” When the Beowulf enters a village, he said, the peasants have the obligation to slay him; should they fail to do so, they will incur guilt. This is why Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to kill Hitler. Bethge once related that when his friend became involved in this conspiracy he said, “Of course, Christ’s words that those who draw the sword will die by the sword also apply to us (co-conspirators). But right now, reason dictates that we must do this, and then of course we still have to turn to God for forgiveness in Christ.” Bonhoeffer added, “For the first time I understand what Luther meant when he wrote (to his associate Philipp Melanchthon in 1521), ‘Sin boldly but even more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ.'”

This statement has often been misinterpreted. It can only be understood within the context of the Lutheran Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, which guided all of Bonhoeffer’s thinking. According to this doctrine, every Christian is a citizen of two distinct realms, in which God reigns in different ways. There is the spiritual “right-hand kingdom,” the realm of the Gospel, of grace, faith, forgiveness, and the Church; this is the realm of God revealed in Christ.

But then there still exists the unredeemed “left-hand kingdom,” where God performs a masquerade, reigning in a hidden way. This is the kingdom of the Law; here natural reason is the governing principle – a gift from God enabling man to find his way around this world. In this kingdom, humans can’t help but sin in the sense that their actions are always imperfect in God’s eyes. But this must not prevent them from following the dictates of reason, and then turning to the “right-hand kingdom” for forgiveness in Christ.

In this Lutheran sense of the term, Bonhoeffer was indeed a “strong sinner.” Bonhoeffer, who at age 21 had earned his Ph.D. in theology, did not operate in his role as a clergyman and therefore citizen of Christ’s spiritual realm when he became involved in plans to assassinate a tyrant. Rather he did so as resident of the secular “kingdom,” where he was not a pastor but conspired with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Maj. Gen. Hans Oster of the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence service, to fight the Nazis from within.

It was in this secular vocation that he smuggled Jews out of Germany and traveled to Norway to shore up the invaded country against the pro-Nazi regime of Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling. Indeed, so adamantly was he in making this distinction that he insisted on having his name removed from congregational prayer lists for pastors persecuted for proclaiming the Gospel. As his friend Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann reported, Bonhoeffer did not want to endanger these clergymen by giving the Nazis a pretext to associate them with his conspiratorial goals.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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