Theological Echoes and Tensions in Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship[1]

Matthew L. Becker

 Matthew L. Becker is an associate professor of theology at Valparaiso University. In addition to teaching courses in modern systematic theology, he also offers courses on the Lutheran Confessions and the history of Protestant theology. He recently wrote an introduction to Christian theology, Fundamental Theology: A Protestant Perspective (Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015), and edited a volume of essays, Nineteenth-Century Lutheran Theologians (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016). He is currently editing and translating the collected works of Edmund Schlink.


According to some scholars, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, which forms the larger first part of Discipleship, marks a break with the interpretation of it by most previous German Lutheran theologians.[2] For example, in the context of Martin Doblmeier’s film, Bonhoeffer, John De Gruchy states that German Lutherans have traditionally interpreted the Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal, whose sole purpose is to make people aware of their sinful condition, and that Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount presented a novel departure from this understanding:

In traditional German Lutheranism the Sermon on the Mount was so impossible for anybody to keep that the way in which it was handled traditionally was to say that the Sermon on the Mount made us aware of how sinful we are because we just can’t do any of that. [Jean] Lasserre helps Bonhoeffer to understand that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply something to make us feel sinful, [but] something to put into practice. Now this stayed with Bonhoeffer from that time onwards, which was quite a fresh thought, that Jesus actually intended us to live like this.[3]

A similar assessment is offered by Friedrich Schlingensiepen, who states that Bonhoeffer interpreted the Sermon on the Mount in a way that was “contrary to the usual Lutheran interpretation.”[4] For Bonhoeffer, “the Sermon on the Mount was intended not only to lead human beings to the conviction that they are sinners who can be saved only through faith in the grace of God; even more, Jesus required consistent obedience from his followers. Anyone who claimed otherwise was preaching ‘cheap grace.’”[5]

According to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer held “the conventional Lutheran harmless understanding” of the Sermon on the Mount at least through 1929.[6] At that time, Bonhoeffer accepted the notion that a literal interpretation of the Sermon “would turn it into a law, and that law had been abolished through Christ.”[7] As evidence for Bonhoeffer’s earlier position, there is his February 1929 address on “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic,” which he delivered to the congregation he was then serving in Barcelona. Here Bonhoeffer taught that the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be applied literally to the present:

Not only is such a transference meaningless because impracticable, it goes against the spirit of Christ, who brought freedom from the law…. The New Testament contains no ethical prescription that we are supposed to adopt literally or even that we could so adopt. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life, as Paul put it in a familiar passage, meaning that the Spirit is found only in the execution of actions, in the present; a fixed Spirit is no Spirit at all. Hence ethics is found only in the execution of a deed, not in the letter, that is, in the law. . . The familiar radical edge that Jesus’ demands have acquired derives from the radical renunciation of one’s own person and one’s own will that is required of Christians in ethical decision before God. But not every one of Jesus’ behavioral rules is valid for us; merely imitating them would be slavish and unfree.[8]

By the early 1930s, however, “Bonhoeffer was entering new ground and an altered intellectual climate in his emphasis on the concreteness of faith in his interpretation of earthly discipleship, and his location of the disciple within the boundaries of historical and local decisions, fraught as they were with visible inconsistencies.”[9] This “emphasis,” according to Bethge, was “in contrast to the Reformation era.”[10] That conclusion seems already to have been made by Bonhoeffer himself when he remarked to his former teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr (in a 1934 letter from London), that the Sermon on the Mount “must be understood differently from the Reformational understanding.”[11] Gerhard Krause interpreted this remark to mean that Bonhoeffer himself “directed” Discipleship “against the students of Luther.”[12] In other words (to cite Bethge again), Bonhoeffer directed the book against his own earlier “conventional harmless Lutheran” understanding of the Sermon.

While Bonhoeffer’s treatment of the Sermon on the Mount in Discipleship differs in tone and content from previous interpretations by Lutheran scholars, to claim that it marks a departure from “the usual Lutheran interpretation” can also be misleading, since it seems to ignore Bonhoeffer’s continuity with exegetical decisions taken by Martin Luther himself. If one compares Luther’s sermons on the Sermon, published as a commentary in 1532, with Bonhoeffer’s use of those sermons four hundred years later, one sees that he sought to apply Luther’s basic insights to his own day.[13] While Bonhoeffer also drew heavily from earlier church critics, especially Kierkegaard, and although he wrote in conversation with more recent works, such as The Mediator by Emil Brunner, his own perspective in Discipleship is closer to Luther’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount than to anyone else’s. Even after 1932, the year Bonhoeffer claimed to have become a Christian (which also entailed his adoption of a form of Christian pacifism), he seems to have underestimated the degree to which he still shared basic exegetical and theological insights of Luther on the Sermon on the Mount. Accordingly, Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon was not really “new for Protestant churches,” as Schlingensiepen claims and as Bonhoeffer’s own remark to Niebuhr suggests.[14] Instead, Bonhoeffer uncovered issues and concerns in the biblical texts that German Lutheran theologians had been ignoring, repressing, forgetting, and distorting—insights that nonetheless are present in Luther’s own exegesis and that of a few other important Lutheran scholars from the century before Bonhoeffer, especially August Tholuck (1799-1877), whose commentary on the Sermon on the Mount was one of Bonhoeffer’s principal resources. Both the American and the German editors of Discipleship are correct to see the book as “a daring attempt to retrieve Luther” (“Editors’ Introduction to the English Edition,” D 8; see also D 10). By returning to the Bible, “in the spirit of the Reformation,” Bonhoeffer “gave new relevance to justification and sanctification, the central tenets of the Reformation” (“Afterword” by the German editors, N 331; D 313).

This essay thus seeks to highlight some of the ways in which Bonhoeffer echoed key exegetical and theological emphases in Luther and Tholuck, particularly regarding the abiding validity and purpose of the commands of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount for the contemporary Christian. Yet the paper also seeks to show how Bonhoeffer was inconsistent in Discipleship with regard to other Lutheran themes, particularly Luther’s teaching about the so-called two kingdoms of God.

1. Echoes of Luther in Bonhoeffer’s Exegesis

Contrary to those who might assert otherwise about “the traditional Lutheran interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount,” Luther himself did not preach or teach that the Sermon on the Mount is merely an impractical ideal that Christians are incapable of heeding and obeying in the world. He rejected interpretations of the Sermon in his day that taught that the only way one could fulfill Jesus’ teaching was to withdraw from the world, for example, by living in a monastic community or by completely avoiding involvement in secular institutions or by radically reforming those institutions to form a Christian theocracy. There is no evidence in these sermons by Luther to conclude that Christ’s teaching is impossible for the baptized Christian to follow in the world or that this teaching was intended merely to reveal the sinful condition of the Christian. Rather, for Luther, the teaching of Jesus is directed to the individual disciple as a real summons to follow Christ concretely in this world (the world of sixteenth-century Saxony). The outcome of such faithful following will be faithful obedience, otherwise called “the fruits of faith, which the Holy Spirit must create in the heart” (WA 32:309; LW 21:15). At the same time, Luther taught that individual Christians cannot leave or forsake the world, but must live responsibly within it. This situation creates the deepest challenges for the individual Christian in the world: he or she is to live faithfully in obedience to Jesus’ statements and commands in the Sermon on the Mount and at the same time live as an individual in the world, taking part in its burdens, joys, complexities, and responsibilities.[15]

So, for example, the statement “blessed are the meek” was interpreted to mean that the individual Christian is to overlook injuries or harms done to the Christian, either accidentally or maliciously, and “to put up with” as much as possible (WA 32:317; LW 21:24). If your neighbor did such harm accidentally, “you do not improve the situation by refusing or being unable to endure anything.” And if it was done maliciously, you do not improve the situation by acting vengefully. You would only “irritate him by your violent scratching and pounding; meanwhile he is laughing at you and enjoying the fact that he is baiting and troubling you, so that you still cannot have any peace or quietly enjoy what is yours” (WA 32:317-18; LW 21:24-25). Either “live in human society with meekness and patience and hold on to what you have with peace and a good conscience,” or boisterously lose what is yours, including such peace.

Similarly, the statement, “Blessed are the peacemakers. . .,” means that the individual Christian is to try to settle “ugly and involved issues,” to endure squabbling, and “to avoid and prevent war and bloodshed,” revenge and violence (WA 32:330; LW 21:39). The Christian is called to be a reconciler, a peacemaker, one who carries the best to both sides in a conflict, one who keeps quiet about the bad or explains it in the best way possible, someone who bears injustice and does not seek to get even.

While every Christian is to heed and obey the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, Luther held that Jesus was here “only talking about how individuals are to live in relation to others, apart from official position and authority” (WA 32:316; LW 21:23). Every Christian “should willingly and patiently suffer whatever is his lot, without seeking revenge or hitting back…” (WA 32:388; LW 21:107), but that teaching and others like it do not apply to governments, “whose property it is not to be meek . . . , but to bear the sword (Rom. 13:4) for the punishment of those who do wrong (1 Pet. 2:14) . . . .” (WA 32:316; LW 21:23). Nevertheless, Jesus’ teaching does not “grant license to a wicked judge, burgomaster, lord, or prince to confuse these two persons [one’s official authority and one’s individual Christian life] and to reach beyond one’s official authority through personal malice or envy or hate or hostility, as commonly happens, under the cloak and cover of one’s office and legal right” (WA 32:317; LW 21:24). Christians who serve in positions of authority are not exempt from Jesus’ teaching. They, too, are “to hold their rule and reign for the sake of peace among lands and people.” Therefore “anyone who claims to be a Christian and a child of God, not only does not start war or unrest; but he also gives help and counsel on the side of peace wherever he can” (WA 32:330-33; LW 21:39-43).

So, for Luther, the commands of Jesus are to be obeyed, not merely “in the heart,” but actually in practice. That is also clear with respect to Jesus’ teaching about taking someone to court:

Now, if someone asks whether a Christian may go to court or defend himself, the answer is simply no. A Christian is the kind of person who has nothing to do with this sort of secular existence and law. He belongs to a kingdom or realm where the only regulation should be prayer (Matt. 6:12)… Here only mutual love and service prevail, even toward people who do not love us, but who hate us, hurt and harm us. It is to these Christians that he says they should not resist evil, that they should not even seek revenge, but that they should turn the other cheek to an assailant. (WA 32:389-90; LW 21:108)

For Luther, the only situations in which the Christian might legitimately not obey this teaching literally would concern the carrying out of one’s responsibilities and duties in one’s “office,” but only then so that social order and justice are upheld and preserved (see WA 32:391ff.; LW 21:111-12). “There is no getting around it; a Christian has to be a secular person of some sort” (WA 32:390; LW 21:109).

While Bonhoeffer rejected Luther’s distinction here between “person” and “office,” he nevertheless stressed, like Luther, that the specific commands of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are to be heeded and obeyed by the contemporary individual Christian. Just as Luther did not “spiritualize” these statements and commands or seek “to explain them away,” neither did Bonhoeffer. In this respect Luther’s “literal” exegesis of the Sermon anticipates Bonhoeffer’s. According to both, Christian disciples are to renounce violence and strife and to follow all of the commands of Jesus, regardless of the century in which they are living—and they will undoubtedly suffer as a result of their faithful obedience: “Christ’s kingdom is a realm of peace. Jesus’ disciples maintain peace by choosing to suffer instead of causing others to suffer. They preserve community when others destroy it. They renounce self-assertion and are silent in the face of hatred and injustice. That is how they overcome evil with good” (N 108; D 108).

Bonhoeffer also echoed Luther’s explicit teaching about Jesus’ command in Mt. 5:39:

With his command [Matt. 5:39] Jesus calls his disciples again into communion with his passion. How will our preaching of the passion of Jesus Christ become visible and credible to the world if the disciples avoid this passion for themselves, if they despise it in their own bodies? Through his cross Jesus himself fulfilled the law he gives us, and in his commandment he graciously keeps his disciples in communion with his cross. In the cross alone is it true and real that suffering love is the retribution for and the overcoming of evil. Participation in the cross is given to the disciples by the call into discipleship. They are blessed in this visible community. (N 139-40; D 136-37)

While every disciple of Jesus is to take all of Jesus’ commands seriously, even deadly seriously, Bonhoeffer taught that only Jesus fulfills them perfectly and that the one who follows him can only fulfill them perfectly by looking to Jesus in faith. For example, Bonhoeffer avoided making a decision about whether or not the commands in Matt. 5:29-30 are to be understood figuratively or literally (“the question itself is wrong and evil”), and instead recognized that every disciple is “trapped” by these commands and “must obey” them (N 127-28; D 126). Yet the only way out of this trap for the disciple is to look in faith upon Christ. He “guides the disciples to look to himself knowing that here the disciples’ view will remain pure, even when they look at a woman. In this way he does not impose on his disciples an unbearable yoke of the law, but mercifully helps them by way of the gospel” (N 128; D 126). Here, too, Bonhoeffer showed his continuity with Luther’s position. Like the Reformer, Bonhoeffer sought in his own way to steer a course between legalism (and literalistic interpretations of the commands that lead to legalism), on the one hand, and libertinism (and figurative interpretations of the commands that lead to libertinism), on the other. In both directions, faith in Christ becomes divorced from obedience to Christ. The goal of steering between these extremes is to avoid disobedience to Christ.

Both Luther and Bonhoeffer, in their respective ways, also stressed that “obedience to Christ” is not necessarily obedience to human “rules” and “commands.” Luther opposed the rules and commands of “the vulgar pigs and asses, the jurists and the sophists, the right hand of that jackass of a pope,” which he thought had “covered up Christ” and his teaching (WA 32:299; LW 21:3). “According to them, Christ does not intend everything he teaches in the fifth chapter of Matthew to be regarded by his Christians as a command for them to observe; but he gave much of it merely as advice to those who want to become perfect, to be kept by anyone who pleases. This is in spite of Christ’s angry threat that no one will enter heaven who abolishes even one of these commandments” (WA 32:299-300; LW 21:4).[16] But Christ did not “come like Moses or a teacher of the law, with demands, threats, and terrors, but in a very friendly way, with enticements, allurements, and pleasant promises” (WA 32:305; LW 21:10). Whereas “[the wicked] cannot have a good conscience or a single joyful hour, and they are their own devils here on earth,” those who believe in Christ “do not need such anxieties and trouble. We can have a joyful heart and conscience in spite of the fact that we are weighed down a little and pinched by the devil. He has to let up, and meanwhile we are refreshed by the Word” (WA 32:504; LW 21:247). As we follow Christ, “our way becomes easy and light, and we go on with good cheer” (WA 32:503; LW 21:246).

Bonhoeffer too emphasized explicitly Luther’s teaching about the freedom of the Christian to follow solely after Christ:

When Holy Scripture speaks of following Jesus, it proclaims that people are free from all human rules, from everything which pressures, burdens, or causes worry and torment of conscience. In following Jesus, people are released from the hard yoke of their own laws to be under the gentle yoke of Jesus Christ. . . In the gentle pressure of this yoke they will receive the strength to walk the right path without becoming weary. . . Jesus demands nothing from us without giving us the strength to comply. Jesus’ commandment [Gebot] never wishes to destroy life, but rather to preserve, strengthen, and heal life… Discipleship is joy. (Preface, N 23; D 39)

This call of Jesus is to follow Jesus and not a law, not even God’s law, apart from Christ (N 48-49; D 60). The law of God obliges the second disciple to first bury his father (Luke 9:57ff.):

He knows what he wants to do and has to do. First, he has to fulfill the law; then he will follow. Here a clear command of the law stands between the one called and Jesus. Jesus’ call forcefully challenges this gap. Under no circumstances is anything permitted to come between Jesus and the one called, even that which is greatest and holiest, even the law. Just at that point, for the sake of Jesus, the law which tries to get in the way has to be broken through, because it no longer had any right to interpose itself between Jesus and the one called. So Jesus here opposes the law and bids the man follow him. Only Christ speaks that way. He has the last word. (N 48-49; D 60)

These words could have come straight from Luther’s 1525 sermon, “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” or his 1531 Commentary on Galatians.[17] Bonhoeffer’s exegesis of Luke 9 is reminiscent of how Luther pitted Christ against the law of God, of how Christ and the law “duel” with one another, of how they are in conflict with one another, of how ultimately Christ subdues the law through his death and resurrection, and of how faith in Christ subdues the law in the life of the Christian disciple. Jesus’ call to discipleship opposes the law. “The law is fulfilled and done away with by Jesus himself for the one who follows him” (N 74; D 81).

2. Bonhoeffer’s Exegesis (Partly) Echoes Tholuck’s

Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount also reflects interpretations of it by the most important German Lutheran exegetes who lived in the century before him, although he disagreed with their specific understandings and applications of some of the commands in the fifth chapter of Matthew (vv. 29, 34, and 39-42). Beyond Tholuck, these scholars included Johannes von Hofmann (1810-77), Franz Delitzsch (1813-90), and Theodore Zahn (1838-1933).[18] Each of these scholars agreed with Luther’s basic position: the disciple of Jesus is called to obey the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in its entirety, to obey it concretely in one’s life, and to do so in and through faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Since Bonhoeffer made frequent use of Tholuck’s commentary, we will briefly highlight a few similarities in their interpretive remarks.[19]

Like Bonhoeffer, Tholuck rejected the view that the baptized individual who lives in Christ and who has received the Holy Spirit is incapable of obeying the Sermon on the Mount. According to Tholuck, faith in Christ is the means by which the perfect righteousness demanded by Christ is to be received as a gift, and through this faith Christ gives the believer the strength to fulfill what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount:

True, the means by which the righteousness was to come, is only alluded to here [in Matt. 5:3ff], but it is alluded to in an unmistakable manner. In those beatitudes which speak of the feeling of spiritual poverty, of hunger and thirst after righteousness, do we not already recognize that Preacher of the Gospel of whom it is said (Matt. 7:20) that he would not break the bruised reed, or quench the smoking flax, and who (Matt. 11:29-30) invites people to himself, because his yoke is easy, his burden light? If now, on the other hand, he requires (Matt. 5:20) a righteousness beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees, how is this to be reconciled with the other? How, but by the knowledge that through faith in him strength is given to fulfill what he requires? (B 41; C 40)

Jesus could not have called his teaching “a good message” had he come only to increase the demands of the law of Moses “without also giving an increased measure of strength. If we must believe that he knew that the Messianic promises were to find their fulfillment in him, then that fulfillment of the law, which he was to accomplish, must have had involved in it a promise also” (B 42; C 41, emphasis original). Bonhoeffer made exactly the same point: “Jesus demands nothing from us without giving us the strength to comply” (N 23; D 39).

Similar to Luther, Tholuck taught that the one who is justified and blessed by God’s grace through faith does good works. These are “the fruits of faith.” Tholuck thus interpreted the Sermon on the Mount as a real summons to the individual disciple of Jesus to heed and obey the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon concretely in the world (the world of nineteenth-century Halle). The Sermon on the Mount, “the Magna Charta of the kingdom of God,” provides “the moral rule of life for the members of that kingdom” (B 178; C 167). Those who are blessed are the ones who live in the kingdom of Christ, “who strive in the right way after the kingdom of God” (B 65; C 63). They accept the teaching of Christ “that only by suffering and obedience” can one receive the crown of righteousness (B 65; C 63). They live in the present in possession of the Spirit’s gifts and fruits, which Tholuck also called “Christian graces” or “Christian virtues” (see B 92, 95 et passim; C 88, 91, et passim). The ones so gifted and graced show pity, they are pure in heart, they are peacemakers, they manifest “characteristic Christian graces, the possession of which presupposes… the possession of salvation” (B 92; C 88). The “righteousness” of which Christ speaks in the Sermon on the Mount is “the righteousness of new obedience” that flows from “the righteousness of faith.” And it is the Spirit of life, which proceeds from Christ and which is received by faith in Christ, which is able to effect what the law and the sinful flesh could not do. It is from this faith, “as an impulsive principle, that good works spring” (B 109; C 104). “As therefore the light is so placed in a house that all may have the benefit of its light, so too must Christ’s disciples be. Accordingly, they must not withdraw themselves from others, but must openly appear among them (B 120-21; C 114).

Tholuck did not devote as much space to explicating the character of the Beatitudes for the individual Christian life as did Luther (this was undoubtedly the result of the difference between a sermon and a critical-historical commentary), but he supported the general direction of Luther’s very specific applications. For example, regarding Matt. 5:9, Tholuck affirmed Luther’s understanding of είρηνοποιοί as “peaceable,” meaning “those who make, further, and preserve peace among one another. And they are more than peaceable” (B 103; C 98). To be sure, Tholuck put the emphasis on an internal disposition (an “inner readiness to make peace” [innere Friedfertigkeit]), but he noted that such an attitude “seeks to spread itself all around,” that is, it constantly seeks “the peace of reconciliation” (B 103-4; C 98-99). The disciples of Jesus “are to work to bring peace to the world” (B 105; C 100). In return, they should expect the world to treat them violently (B 106; C 101).

Unlike Luther, however, Tholuck did “spiritualize” some of the commands of Jesus in a way that Bonhoeffer rejected. For example, contrary to Bonhoeffer’s and Luther’s defense of unconditional obedience to the teaching of Jesus in vv. 39 and 42 of Matt. 5, Tholuck thought the one who actually lived this way would encourage others to “fresh deeds of violence” and endanger those for whom we are responsible (B 176; C 165). If the command “to give to everyone who begs from you” be “in all cases fulfilled, then we strengthen the hands of beggars and the indolent, and support vice” (B 176; C 165). He thus tried to make a distinction between “the letter” of these commands and their “spirit,” which must always fit within the basic commands to love God and to love the neighbor. Tholuck also appealed to other New Testament passages to qualify the absolute character of some of the commands, for example, the command against oaths. (See B 275-76; C 253ff., where he identified some Pauline expressions that he thought came very near the form of an oath: 2 Cor. 1:23, 2:14; Rom. 1:9, 9:1; Phil. 1:8.) The “spirit” of this particular command is to prohibit “irrelevant” and “thoughtless” oaths, not every oath (B 278; C 255).

Bonhoeffer thought otherwise. “It is obvious that Jesus’ command permits no exceptions, regardless of the forum demanding an oath” (N 131; D 130). Bonhoeffer even questioned whether Luther’s exception, namely, when such an oath is required by secular authority, could be made into a general principle. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer granted that in some situations one may need to take an oath “for the sake of truthfulness” (N 131; D 130), but only as long as the content of what is required in the oath is clear and that the oath does not require absolute earthly allegiance to any authority except God.[20]

Bonhoeffer also rejected Tholuck’s teaching about Jesus’ command not to retaliate (Matt. 5:38). According to Tholuck:

In St. John 18:23, we have a case where the Savior had an opportunity of literally fulfilling the command of [Matt. 5:39], and has not done it. It is only the spirit of revenge [Gesinnung der Rachsucht] that our Lord condemns: it is therefore not inconsistent with his command to seek the protection of the law. The person who is capable of literally fulfilling these injunctions, is also morally capacitated to leave them externally unfulfilled; and may, without disobeying the command, seek for the protection of the law. The right view had been fully recognized by Augustine and by Luther. (B 294; C 270; emphasis original)

Bonhoeffer strongly condemned this line of thinking in a key footnote: “It is evil thoughtlessness to state, referring to John 18:23, that Jesus did not literally fulfill his own command and, therefore, we are excused from obedience to it. Jesus calls evil evil, but he suffers without resistance, even to death on the cross” (N 139 [Footnote 7]; D 136). Bonhoeffer could have added that Tholuck misrepresented Luther’s own position as well.

Despite Bonhoeffer’s criticism of Tholuck’s spiritualizing, one needs to note that Bonhoeffer too acknowledged that “we cannot simply identify ourselves directly with those called by Jesus” (N 74; D 82). A gospel-oriented hermeneutic will acknowledge this difference and the temporal and cultural distance that creates it. “Simple obedience would be misunderstood hermeneutically if we were to act and follow as if we were contemporaries of the biblical disciples” (N 75; D 82). So Bonhoeffer too struggled to make sense of the literal meaning of Jesus’ commands for contemporary disciples, as is already clear from his exposition on the prohibition of oath-making. Even Bonhoeffer granted exceptions to this command that are not far removed from Luther’s own exceptions.

3. Discipleship is Inconsistent Regarding Some Lutheran Themes

Bonhoeffer’s agreement with Luther and Tholuck on the necessity of faithful obedience to the commands in the Sermon on the Mount (despite his occasional disagreement with them regarding how the commands are to be obeyed) nevertheless created tensions and inconsistencies in Bonhoeffer’s exposition.[21] These center on aspects of Luther’s thought that Bonhoeffer was engaging in such a way that he had not yet come to a clear position. They have to do mainly with Luther’s teaching about “the two kingdoms,” his distinction between the law and the gospel, and his understanding of the relationship between faith and obedience—all matters that other Lutheran theologians in Germany at this time, especially Werner Elert and Paul Althaus, found problematic in the so-called Barmen Declaration, a confession that Bonhoeffer and other Lutheran theologians (for example, Edmund Schlink) fully supported.[22]

(a) Faith and Obedience. At times Bonhoeffer wrote of “faith” and “obedience” as if they were one and the same, and when he did so he distanced himself from Luther’s normal way of describing their relationship.[23] “The road to faith passes through obedience to Christ’s call” (N 51; D 63). True faith in Jesus is identical to true obedience to his commands and his interpretation of the divine law. That is the major theme of the book, and yet a few pages further along Bonhoeffer acknowledged that the road to obedience begins and ends with faith alone, and that faith is not a human possibility: “faith alone is and remains the goal” (N 57; D 67). The call of Christ alone creates faith and this call leads to faithful obedience. In this context he qualified the principal theme of the book, namely, how faith and obedience are identical, by stating, “of course obedience follows faith” (N 52; D 63).

These statements by Bonhoeffer, as contradictory or paradoxical as they seem to be, must be understood in the situation of the Deutsche Christen (DC), namely, those German Christians who sought to transform Christianity to fit with the racist and nationalist ideals of Nazism. Bonhoeffer opposed tearing apart faith in Christ and obedience to Christ. The DC confessed faith in Christ but, in Bonhoeffer’s judgment, they were not being truly obedient to Jesus’ teaching. In retrospect, the theological issue at stake at that time was not really “cheap grace,” but rather the connection between faith alone in the costly grace of the crucified One and the obedience to Christ that follows from such faith. “The daily death of the old self cannot be achieved by anything other than faith in Jesus” (N 164; D 159). Dying daily in remembrance of his or her baptism and being raised daily to new life in Christ, the disciple follows Christ by faith alone and by living in faithful obedience to him, that is, in loving service to the neighbor. “Faith in Christ” and “love for the neighbor,” though distinct, always belong together. Bonhoeffer, however, was not always so clear on that distinction. The theological danger in such ambiguity is that the gospel of sola fide in the unconditional grace of God can be jeopardized and even lost.

(b) Obedience to the Old Testament Law. Bonhoeffer interpreted Matt. 5:17ff. to mean that “true adherence to Jesus is granted only together with adherence to God’s law” (N 119; D 118). “But if Jesus stands between his disciples and the law, it is not to release them from fulfilling the law. Instead it is to enforce his demand that the law be fulfilled. The disciples’ adherence to him requires the same obedience of them. . . Those who in discipleship follow Jesus, who fulfilled the law, do and teach the law in their following. Only those who do the law can remain in the community of Jesus” (N 119; D 118-19). “The righteousness of Christ should not just be taught, but done” (N 121; D 119 [emphasis original]).

Bonhoeffer’s assertions here are prone to be misunderstood if one thinks he was referring to the law of Moses in isolation from Christ’s authority over that law and his radical interpretation of it for those who follow him. Bonhoeffer elsewhere acknowledged that the call to follow Christ is simultaneously the call to follow the One who also has authority over against the law, who has taught against the law of Moses, and who calls disciples away from that law. Following Jesus also entails the example of the second disciple in Luke 9, who is called away from legal obedience (in this case obedience to the Fourth Commandment) in order to follow Christ alone, the point Bonhoeffer had made earlier in his exegesis of this biblical text (see N 48-49; D 60).[24] That earlier exegesis fits more closely with Luther’s view that a literal interpretation of Matt. 5:17ff. would be inconsistent with Jesus’ own treatment of the law of Moses, let alone the emphasis in Matt. 5:20 (“But I say to you…”), which implies the superiority of Jesus’ teaching to the law of Moses. Thus, for Luther, Matt. 5:17ff. refers to “the law and the prophets” as expounded by Jesus, not to the entire Mosaic law in itself or to the law’s abiding validity in the life of Christian disciples. Christian discipleship has a different basis from the Scriptural law, namely, faith in the righteousness of Christ alone. “The superiority of the disciples’ righteousness is that Jesus stands between them and the law–he, who has completely fulfilled the law, and in whose community they live…” (N 120; D 119). Jesus is the disciples’ righteousness. His righteousness is their righteousness. Nevertheless, the disciples’ faith that receives the righteousness of Christ as a gift is simultaneously a faith that is active in love. Such love is “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2), a passage that is heavily marked in Bonhoeffer’s copy of Luther’s Bible (see the editors’ footnote 80, N 121; D 120). This love has replaced the Old Testament law for the one who follows Christ Jesus. While faith in Christ may certainly make good use of the old written code in service to the neighbor, such use is always in, with, and under Jesus Christ.[25]

(c) The Two Kingdoms. Yet another problematic issue in Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship concerns Luther’s teaching about the “two kingdoms” or “two reigns” by which God works in the world. There are several places in Discipleship where it is clear that Bonhoeffer was wrestling with this issue. Luther’s own exposition of this teaching appears classically in his sermon on Matthew 5:38ff.[26] On the one hand, God works through marriage, the family, civic laws, and government in order to establish social order, to preserve justice and peace, to punish the wicked, and to serve the common good. On the other hand, God works through the preaching of the law and the gospel and the administration of the means of grace in order to offer the righteousness of Christ as a gift that is received only in faith. This latter way in which God works through the gospel is non-coercive (contrary to the generally coercive manner in which law and retributive justice work) and leads to the creation of faith, hope, and love.

Luther freely acknowledged that it was difficult for the individual Christian to live as a Christian in the world while at the same time carrying out whatever responsibilities were necessary for him or her to fulfill in his or her secular “callings” or “vocations” (for example, as spouse, parent, magistrate, lawyer, prince, hangman, soldier, etc.). “Office” and “person” are always mixed, since it is one and the same person who is acting in the office. Luther stressed that the Christian cannot help but be a Christian in one’s office and stations, and he expressly noted how being a Christian would impact how the Christian carried out his or her responsibilities in these secular arenas. For example, Jesus’ command to be a peacemaker applied equally to Christians in government, who held a “secular office,” as well as to Christian citizens. Luther made no exceptions: “Anyone who claims to be a Christian and a child of God, not only does not start war or unrest; but he also gives help and counsel on the side of peace wherever he can. . .” (WA 32:330; LW 21:40 [emphasis added]). This applies to “pious princes, counselors, jurists,” “to people in government,” to those “who help make peace among lands and people,” who “rule and reign for the sake of peace” (WA 32:330; LW 21:40).

Bonhoeffer’s position on the “two kingdoms” in Discipleship is indeed similar to Luther’s, despite Bonhoeffer’s explicit rejection of the latter’s distinction between “person” and “office.” This similarity appears in two places in Discipleship. The first occurs in the section in Part One that addresses Jesus’ command, “Do not resist evil”:

Indeed, what Jesus says to his disciples would all be pure enthusiasm if we were to understand these statements to be a general ethical program, if we were to interpret the statement that evil will only be conquered by good as general secular wisdom for life in the world. That really would be an irresponsible imagining of laws which the world would never obey. Nonresistance as a principle for secular life is godless destruction of the order of the world which God graciously preserves. (N 138-39; D 135-36 [emphasis added])

So Bonhoeffer acknowledged that “the order of the world” is “graciously preserved.” But how? He did not elaborate here, but he did so elsewhere. For example, in a 1932 lecture on “Thy Kingdom Come,” written at the same time that he had completed the main lines of thought for Discipleship, Bonhoeffer described God’s “kingdom of order,” which “affirms and preserves the Earth with its laws, communities, and its history.”[27] “The kingdom of God takes form in the state insofar as the state recognizes and maintains the order of preservation of life and insofar as it accepts responsibility for preserving this world from collapse and for exercising its authority here against the destruction of life. Not the creation of new life, but preservation of existing life is its ministry.”[28] “The kingdom of God takes form in the state, insofar as here the orders of existing communities are maintained with authority and responsibility. So that humanity does not collapse through the will of the individual who wants to go his own way, the state pledges to preserve the order of community, marriage, family, and nation/people [Volk] in the world of the curse.”[29] Bonhoeffer’s use of the phrase “insofar as” is significant, as it qualifies the authority of “the orders of preservation” in a way that was different from how other Lutheran theologians at the time understood “the orders of creation.” These other Lutheran theologians, especially Elert and Althaus, granted unconditional authority to the secular authorities and saw them as distinct from “the kingdom of Christ.”

Bonhoeffer did not reject altogether what these other Lutheran theologians called “the orders of creation,” but his view was different from theirs, and he preferred here to use the expression “orders of preservation” rather than “orders of creation” to make this difference clearer.[30] For Althaus and Elert, “the orders of creation” had their own independent, unconditional, static, and absolute structure and authority for every human being who lived inescapably in them. These orders, the prevailing structures in society, were affirmed and accepted in such a way that their justification, permanence, and general validity were taken for granted.[31] Bonhoeffer rejected this conservative Lutheran understanding of “the orders,” which allowed Elert and Althaus to affirm Hitler as a legitimate authority and to enjoin Christians in Germany to give him unconditional allegiance and obedience (in keeping with their understanding of Luther’s explanation to the Fourth Commandment and the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer). Despite Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Elert’s and Althaus’s understanding of “the orders,” Bonhoeffer did not reject the teaching that there are certain specific “orders of preservation” (marriage, family, civil magistrates, government, the church, the nation) by which God preserves this fallen, cursed world and allows people to live in relative peace and safety.[32] For Bonhoeffer, “the orders of preservation” do not have an independent status or authority and cannot properly be understood as existing independently of the First Commandment or from any limiting contact with Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom.[33] Moreover, Bonhoeffer taught, in a way that both Althaus and Elert did not (at least not before the beginning of World War II), that “the orders of preservation” could become demonic and idolatrous, and that the fallen world in which the orders existed adversely affected them. Much more so than Althaus and Elert, Bonhoeffer recognized how even the “orders of preservation” could become anti-Christ and anti-human.

The 1932 lecture does shed light on what Bonhoeffer meant by God’s “gracious preservation” of “the order of the world” in Discipleship. In the light of that essay it becomes clear that Bonhoeffer agreed with Luther’s basic view, namely, that God acts in the world and preserves it through marriage, the family, civil law, secular government, and the church. Bonhoeffer also agreed with Luther that the manner in which God works through the “kingdom of order” does not occur through the gospel, but by other means. Like Luther, Bonhoeffer did not think the Sermon on the Mount provides a timeless blueprint for how a government is to operate in this fallen world, even a so-called Christian government.[34] Thus, if the principle that evil will only be conquered by the good cannot be interpreted as general “secular wisdom” for government, and yet God “graciously preserves” the secular order of the world, then God must also be working through “secular authorities” who “bear the sword” against evil doers and who act coercively to punish the wicked and to protect and defend the common good.

It is important to stress that Bonhoeffer’s analysis of Jesus’ commands in the Sermon on the Mount does not focus on governments, police, and armies (as understood in AC 16), but on the individual Christian and the community of disciples:

For the community of disciples, which makes no national or legal claims for itself, retribution means patiently bearing the blow, so that evil is not added to evil. . . [T]he followers of Jesus who experience injustice do not cling to their own rights as if they were possessions to be defended at all costs. Instead, they are completely free of such possessions and are bound to Jesus Christ alone. (N 135; D 132-33)

The personal pronoun “we” throughout this section refers to the individual Christian and the visible Christian community. The Christian is to bear witness against the evil, as it is suffered and given up to Christ. All of this is consistent with Luther’s interpretation of the Beatitudes and the prohibition against seeking personal retribution.

But then Bonhoeffer proceeded (N 137ff.; D 134ff.) to frame the issue of retribution by rejecting Luther’s distinction between suffering harm “done to me personally” and acting against harm “done to me as bearer of my office.” Luther’s basic position may be summarized in his own words: “[A] Christian should not resist any evil; but within the limits of his office, a secular person should oppose every evil” (WA 32:393; LW 21:113). Bonhoeffer’s position is different: “This distinction between private person and bearer of an office as normative for my behavior is foreign to Jesus. He does not say a word about it. He addresses his disciples as people who have left everything behind to follow him. ‘Private’ and ‘office’ spheres are completely subject to Jesus’ command” (N 137; D 135).

At this point in his exposition, Bonhoeffer was rubbing against not only his statement about “God’s gracious preservation” of the fallen world, but also against his 1932 analysis of the way in which God works through “the kingdom of order” to preserve and protect human beings in a fallen and corrupt world. His analysis here (N 137-38; D 134-35) does make it difficult for a Christian disciple to live and work in this actual, fallen world, given how God rules “the order of the world” in this other way. How does one follow Christ while simultaneously serving as one who also has the responsibility to serve publicly to protect the weak and the abused within this fallen world? The issue is not about “harm done to me as bearer of my office” (N 137; D 134 [emphasis added]), as Bonhoeffer put it, but about how I am to serve in my office for the sake of stopping harm to others, of loving and protecting others, of establishing, maintaining, and re-establishing justice for others—precisely the goals that Bonhoeffer stated should be pursued within “the kingdom of order.”[35] Moreover, the distinction is not between “private” and “public,” as Bonhoeffer put the matter in Part One, but between “God’s gracious preservation of the world order” (which can also be understood as “the kingdom of this fallen world”), on the one hand, and “the kingdom of Christ” on the other, as he correctly understood later in the book.

The other place where Bonhoeffer came close to Luther’s view on the two kingdoms occurs in a section from Part Two, “The Visible Church-Community” (N 241ff. D 225ff.). There he contrasted the realm of Christ’s Kingdom with the “established world order.” Christ’s kingdom comes into the world through the church as a visible community. That community comes to be what it is through the preaching of the word and the administration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (N 244; D 229). The ordered space in which the church community exists is for the sake of these activities, to elicit and strengthen faithful obedience to Christ, and to assist the baptized in being a disciple of Christ in the world (N 248-50; D 232-34). This entire section from Discipleship fits well with Luther’s understanding of Christ’s kingdom, namely, with how God works in the world through the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the church as the communion of saints.

But those saints are called to live in the world. That call, which occurs through baptism, “changes not only a person’s personal status with regard to salvation, but also his or her relationships throughout all of life” (N 251; D 235). The baptized will have a positive, Christ-like impact on the world because they live in it. At this point Bonhoeffer introduced Paul’s statement from 1 Cor. 7:24. “However,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “’Let each of you remain in the calling [Beruf] in which you were called [berufen]’” (N 253; D 237 [emphasis original]).[36] That is a significant “however.” It pulls the reader back toward Luther’s understanding of how God works through God’s “other kingdom,” through secular “callings” (Berufe) or “vocations” in the world, which Christians cannot avoid fulfilling in the world as well. That “however” points to Bonhoeffer’s earlier discussion about how God “graciously preserves” “the order of the world.” While Bonhoeffer here acknowledged that “the present world order” or “the established order” is a reality that is “ripe to be demolished” and that will soon be abolished (N 255; D 239), themes consistent with Paul’s and Luther’s own eschatological views, it is likewise an “order” that is “graciously preserved.” Thus Bonhoeffer’s “however” also points against social and political revolution and toward Romans 13:1ff.: “For there is no authority except from God.”

This statement is addressed to Christians, not the authorities! Paul wants Christians to know that their place to recognize and do God’s will is precisely that subordinate place down below accorded them by the authorities. They are to take comfort from the fact that God will use the authorities as an instrument through which to work for their welfare, and that their God is Lord over the authorities. (N 256; D 240)[37]

Christians should have no fear of “the authorities,” but should “do what is good.” “Do what is good, fearlessly, unreservedly, and unconditionally” (N 257; D 241).

But what about the Christian who is “an authority” as well? What about the disciple who is simultaneously serving in a “calling” or “position” of “secular authority”? In the military of a Fascist-led country? In the Abwehr of 1941 Germany?  What if that is his or her “Beruf”? It is clear that Paul had no conception that the Roman Empire would eventually be ruled by emperors who were ostensibly “Christian” or that Christians would serve in imperial Berufe. There is no evidence in Paul’s writings that he thought the Empire would collapse in the way that it did or that other kingdoms and principalities and forms of government would emerge, such as liberal, participatory democracies, Communist regimes, and fascist dictatorships—and that Christians would find themselves serving officially within these structures.

On the one hand, Bonhoeffer thought that these later developments were irrelevant, since “the world order” is passing away. But on the other hand, these later developments are important since “the world order” is also being graciously preserved. That “preservation” also involves Christians serving in the “orders of preservation.” So what about the Christian in government? Bonhoeffer’s principal response to that question was to assert that “Christians must not be drawn upward, toward those who hold power and authority. Instead, their calling is to remain below” (N 256; D 240).[38] Nevertheless, if those in authority hear the summons of Christ, they too are called to repent, to follow Christ, and to be his servant (N 258; D 242). It is not clear, though, from Bonhoeffer’s presentation here if that would entail complete separation from every form of government or merely a qualified service. One can imagine how these statements of his were later pondered by his former students who had been conscripted to serve in the German army during the Second World War.

But does not Rom. 13:4 suggest that if a Christian is also in a position of secular “authority”—a thought that Paul did not envision—that person would have “to bear the sword” as an instrument of “God’s wrath on the wrong-doer,” as God’s means for “preserving” the “order of the world”? Or is being a Christian disciple incompatible with serving in a position of secular “authority”? Paul did not address that situation, but Bonhoeffer interpreted Paul to mean that those “in authority hearing this statement could never interpret it as a divine authorization of their conduct in office. Rather they would have to hear it as a call to be a servant of God by working for the good of the whole of Christianity” (N 258; D 242). No human authority is above the First Commandment. Still Bonhoeffer did acknowledge that “in the end it is God who rules, not the authorities, and that any authority is ultimately God’s servant” (N 258; D 242). That statement also fits with Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms, since secular authority is one of the ways in which God works in the world, the means by which God exercises judgment against evil doers and upholds the good, whether the “authority” is a Christian or not. For the Christian, however, who exercises authority in the “orders of preservation,” the call to follow Christ is a total claim. The Christian is never not a Christian. That is true even when he or she is carrying out his or her vocations or callings in the midst of this fallen world. This, too, is an aspect of “God’s gracious preservation” of the world order that Bonhoeffer acknowledged in Part One, but that he had difficulty affirming as an arena wherein a Christian could also act, not in accord with the gospel, but in accord with the manner in which God works through “the orders of preservation.”[39]

Despite Bonhoeffer’s conflicting statements in Discipleship about these two ways of God’s involvement in the world, his presentation, if interpreted in the light of his 1932 essay, sets forth theological emphases that are consistent with ones that Luther himself made.  Discipleship does not mark a “break” with Luther’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount; rather, it is a creative attempt to articulate the teaching of the Sermon, in basic agreement with Luther’s own exegesis, for the unique situation in which Bonhoeffer found himself. Luther himself approached the Sermon on the Mount in a manner similar to Bonhoeffer’s, albeit in relation to the sixteenth-century world in which he lived and moved. Moreover, despite Bonhoeffer’s criticism of several of Tholuck’s specific exegetical conclusions, he nevertheless shared with his nineteenth-century forebear a basic concern to allow the Sermon on the Mount to speak directly and concretely to the life of the contemporary follower of Jesus. For all three of these Lutheran interpreters of the Sermon, Jesus did not teach an impossible ideal or give commands that could not be fulfilled in faith by the baptized follower of Jesus. These Lutheran theologians did not hold that the sole purpose of the Sermon is merely to reveal human beings as sinners before a just and demanding God. While Discipleship marks a break with those who interpreted the Sermon on the Mount merely as an impossible ideal that not even the baptized Christian can fulfill in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, it does not mark a break with Luther himself.


[1] I am grateful to Mark Brocker and Clifford Green for providing me with helpful criticism of an earlier draft of this essay.

[2] The book was first published in 1937 as Nachfolge (Munich: Kaiser, 1937). An abridged English translation appeared in October 1948 as The Cost of Discipleship, trans. Reginald Fuller (New York: Macmillan, 1948). In 1959 SCM Press published a new edition, under the same title, that included the parts that had been omitted from Fuller’s earlier translation. The German critical edition came out in 1989 as the fourth volume in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, 16 vols., ed. Eberhard Bethge et al.: Nachfolge, eds. Martin Kuske and Ilse Tödt (Munich: Kaiser, 1989; 3rd corrected edition, 2000). This was then translated as the fourth volume in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, 16 vols., ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr. et al.: Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 2001). The sixteen-volume English edition of Bonhoeffer’s works will be abbreviated hereafter as DBWE. References to Discipleship will be to the German edition (abbreviated as N) and to the English edition (abbreviated as D).

[3]John De Gruchy, in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister, a documentary film by Martin Doblmeier (Alexandria, VA: Journey Films, 2003). De Gruchy’s comment occurs 20 minutes 35 seconds into the film.

[4] Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, translated by Isabel Best (New York: T & T Clark, 2010), 206.

[5] Schlingensiepen, 206.

[6] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, revised edition, trans. Eric Mosbacher et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 457.

[7] Bethge, 457.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic” (February 8, 1929), DBWE 10:367-68.

[9] Bethge, 454-55.

[10] Bethge, 454.

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Reinhold Niebuhr (July 13, 1934 [from London]), DBWE 13:171.

[12] Gerhard Krause, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Theologische Realenzyklopädie, 36 vols., ed. Gerhard Krause and Gerhard Müller (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1981), 7:60 (cited also in D 312).

[13] Martin Luther, “Wochenpredigten über Matthäus 5-7” (1530/32), WA 32:299-544; LW 21:3-294. Luther’s “weekly sermons” on the Sermon on the Mount, which he preached in place of Johannes Bugenhagen, are not in his own hand, but they do accurately reflect what he thought and spoke on those occasions between October 1530 and April 1532.

[14] Schlingensiepen, 207.

[15] See Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 64.

[16] Cf. Thomas Aquinas’s view that the commands of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are not necessarily demanded by God but are only encouraged. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II/1, question 108, art. 4.

[17] Martin Luther, “How Christians Should Regard Moses” (WA 16:363-93; LW 35:161-74) and idem, “Commentary on Galatians,” [1531] (WA 40/1, 40/2; LW 26:1-461, 27:1-144). “But because they confuse the law with the gospel, it is inevitable that they subvert the gospel. Either Christ must abide, and the law perish; or the law must abide, and Christ perish. It is impossible for Christ and the law to agree and to share the reign over a conscience” (LW 26:54; see also LW 26:164).

[18] See Franz J. Delitzsch, Neue Untersuchungen über Entstehung und Anlage der kanonischen Evangelien, Part One: Das Matthäusevangelium (Leipzig: Dörffling und Franke, 1853); Johannes Christian K. von Hofmann, Der Schriftbeweis, 2 vols. (Nördlingen: Beck, 1852-55), 1:524-26; and Theodore Zahn, Das Evangelium des Matthäus (Leipzig: Deichert, 1903; 4th ed. 1922).

[19] August Tholuck, Die Bergpredigt (Hamburg: Perthes, 1833; 4th ed., 1856; ET of the 4th edition: Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, trans. R. Lundin Brown [Philadelphia: Smith, English, and Co, 1860]). Hereafter the citations refer to the German 4th edition (abbreviated as B) and to Brown’s translation of it (abbreviated as C).

[20] In 1934 Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller tried but failed to demand that all pastors make an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Four years later (April 1938) Friedrich Werner, the director of the Evangelical consistory, was able to order all pastors to make such an oath: “I swear that I will be faithful and obedient to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, that I will conscientiously observe the laws and carry out the duties of my office, so help me God.” Anyone who refused to make the oath was to be dismissed from office. For the problems that this oath created for Bonhoeffer and his students, see Bethge, 599-603.

[21] What follows here is consistent with other scholars who have detected significant inconsistencies and even contradictions in Discipleship. See especially Hanfried Müller, Von der Kirche zur Welt: Ein Beitrag zu der Beziehung des Wort Gottes auf die societas in Dietrich Bonhoeffers theologischer Entwicklung (Leipzig: Reich, 1966), 230ff.

[22] See Matthew Becker, “Werner Elert (1885-1954),” in Twentieth-Century Lutheran Theologians, ed. Mark C. Mattes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2013), 110-16; idem, “Edmund Schlink (1903-1984),” in Twentieth-Century Lutheran Theologians, 203-14. For Paul Althaus’s critique of Barmen, see Gotthard Jasper, Paul Althaus (1888-1966): Professor, Prediger und Patriot in seiner Zeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 242-61.

[23] Brunner had expressed a similar idea: “The first commandment is a promise, and grace consists in this, that we are commanded to believe in this promise. Hence faith is obedience, just as obedience is only genuine when it is faith” (Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, trans. Olive Wyon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1947], 81). See also the editors’ footnote 16 on N 52 (D 63), which indicates Bonhoeffer had marked this section in his own copy of Brunner’s book.

[24] This pericope, as Bonhoeffer interpreted it, may also have significance for Bonhoeffer’s later decision to act over against the “legal order” in Germany by his participation in the conspiracy against Hitler.

[25] The positive words of Bonhoeffer toward the Old Testament must also be understood in the context of the Deutsche Christen, some of whom desired to do away entirely with the Old Testament and treat it no longer as Christian Scripture.

[26] A complete description of Luther’s understanding of the “two kingdoms” is beyond the scope of this essay. Such a description would have to include analysis of Luther’s important essays, “Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved” (LW 46:87-137) and “On Temporal Authority” (LW 45:75-129), among several other important writings.

[27] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Thy Kingdom Come,” DBWE 12:292.

[28] Bonhoeffer, “Thy Kingdom Come,” DBWE 12:293.

[29] Bonhoeffer, “Thy Kingdom Come,” DBWE 12:293.

[30] For Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the “orders of preservation” in 1932 and later, see Bethge, 214. See also Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, DBWE 3:139ff. (“the created world is now the fallen but preserved world…”); and idem, Ethics, DBWE 6:131.

[31] See Becker, “Werner Elert (1885-1954),” 113-14.

[32] While the focus of this paper is restricted to Bonhoeffer’s theological position up to 1937, i.e., only to Discipleship, one needs at least to note, in passing, that what Bonhoeffer had earlier called the “orders of preservation” he later discussed under the expression “divine mandates,” partly to distinguish his ideas still further from a understanding of the orders that held them to be static and even autonomous from Christ. These “mandates” are “divinely imposed tasks” (German: Auftrag), in contrast to “determinate forms of being” (See Ethics, DBWE 6:68-75; 388-408). In “the midst of the world” “God wills work, marriage, government, and church, and God wills these, each in its own way, through Christ, toward Christ, and in Christ” (ibid., 69). The Christocentric character and purpose of the divine mandates is far more explicit in Ethics than in Discipleship.

[33] In several places in his Ethics, Bonhoeffer explored more fully the simultaneous participation of the Christian in “the reality of God” and “the reality of the world” “in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world, nor the reality of the world without the reality of God” (see DBWE 6:55-68). In so doing he came to a more critical position against Elert’s and Althaus’s understanding of “the two kingdoms.” Still, Bonhoeffer did not totally reject “Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms,” properly understood, since the original meaning of this teaching was to keep “God” and “world” united “in Christ” over against a worldliness separated from God and a sacredness separated from the world (ibid., 60).

[34] See also Ethics, DBWE 6:236-37, where Bonhoeffer rejected the attempt to turn the Sermon on the Mount into a “secular” “principle” that would take the place of governmental laws. But here Bonhoeffer also rejected the opposite error, which is to divorce the world from the reality of God’s having become human in Christ (“secularism”).

[35] I cannot here address the interesting and complicated problem of how to reconcile Bonhoeffer’s position on “pacifism” in Discipleship with his subsequent involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. For that, see especially Andreas Pangritz, “Theological Motives in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Decision to Participate in Political Resistance,” in Reflections on Bonhoeffer: Essays in Honor of F. Burton Nelson, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and C. John Weborg (Chicago: Covenant, 1999), 32-49.

[36] The English translators have rendered the German word “Beruf” as “condition” (following the NRSV’s rendering of “ἐν ᾧ ἐκλήθη”). But Luther’s term “Beruf,” based on the Pauline expression, conveys the sense of “calling” (“rufen,” to call) or “vocation.”

[37] In a document intended for the senior military prosecutor who tried Bonhoeffer’s case, Bonhoeffer drew attention to his exegesis here of Romans 13: “Anyone who wishes to become acquainted with my conception of the Christian obligation of duty toward the governing authorities should read my exegesis of Romans 13 in my book Discipleship. The appeal to submit oneself to the will and demands of the governing authorities for the sake of the Christian conscience has probably seldom been expressed more strongly than here. This is my personal convictions on these questions!” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, To Manfred Roeder, DBWE 16:422).

[38] Surely this is one of the lines in the book that Bonhoeffer later acknowledged as problematic. See his letter to Bethge (July 21, 1944), DBWE 8:486.

[39] In the Ethics, Bonhoeffer returned to the Sermon on the Mount in order to stress that it is “the word of the very one who is lord and law of reality” and that as such it is to be “understood and interpreted as the word of God who became human” (DBWE 6:231). “Jesus Christ is the very embodiment of the person who lives responsibly. He is not the individual who seeks to attain his own ethical perfection. Instead, he lives only as the one who in himself has taken on and bears the selves of all human beings. His entire life, action, and suffering is vicarious representative action [Stellvertreutung]” (ibid.). The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount can only then be understood “as words of the one who lives in concrete responsibility for all human beings” (ibid., p. 235). These words of Jesus are “divine commandments for our action in history insofar as they are the reality of history that has been fulfilled in Christ” (ibid., 235-36). The Sermon on the Mount summons Christians to deny themselves, to love their enemies, and to act in love and with responsibility for the sake of all others. This action is grounded in the reality of God’s having become human in Christ and having reconciled all of reality to God in Christ. “The Sermon on the Mount is either valid as the word of God’s world-reconciling love everywhere and at all times, or it is not really relevant for us at all. . . God has loved the entire world, and that is why Jesus dies. So we are called into this same love for the entire world that has been signed and sealed by the cross of Jesus” (ibid., 243-44). This action of the Christian also includes “political action,” which means “taking on responsibility. This cannot happen without power. Power is to serve responsibility” (ibid., 245).

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One thought on “Theological Echoes and Tensions in Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship[1]

  1. Sehr interessiert beitrag, Matt. I can see how Bonhoeffer was conflicted by the concrete ethical situation during his earlier life. Was this distance from the conservative Lutheran interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount his final take on the matter? Seems that his engagement with FC 10 at the seminary in Pommern would have brought him back to at least a more balanced view. Of course this is only my opinion and not based on thorough reading of the published matter. BTW, in A Time for Confessing there is another take on some of these issues referred to here. Take care.

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