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Bonhoeffer and Vicarious Representative Action

Dr. Steve Bezner writes in to respond to my recent post on Bonhoeffer and the two kingdoms. Dr. Bezner explains that there is at least one more important theological aspect to Bonhoeffer’s political protest that must be considered, one which pulls away from the more traditional Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms:

As Bonhoeffer’s theology developed, he become more interested in something he termed “vicarious representative action.” This “vicarious representative action,” or Stellvertretung, is best understood as the action taken on behalf of another when they cannot act. In the Christian story, Jesus’ Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection are vicarious representative action, in that they perform actions on behalf of humanity that cannot be enacted independent from the power of God in Christ. Consequently, Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the “two kingdoms” is incomplete if left in the hands of Luther a la 1517. Instead, Bonhoeffer’s thought develops because he believes that the “responsible Christian” (his words) will consider taking such vicarious representative action on behalf of others, even if that means shouldering the burden of sin. When Bonhoeffer participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler it was not a blind embracing of the second Kingdom, nor was it a refutation of his pacifist claims. It was, instead, a decision to act vicariously on behalf of those who could not act and to shoulder the sin of that action, as Christ did on our behalf. The merits and wisdom and holiness of such a decision can obviously be debated, but, I think this vicarious representative action is a more complete understanding of why Bonhoeffer did what he did.

Is this something that can be squared with the classical doctrine of the two kingdoms? What do you think?

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.