All posts by ChrisScruggs

Chris Scruggs is a retired Presbyterian pastor and attorney. Chris is the author of four books on Christian life, wisdom, and discipleship, Most recently, "Crisis of Discipleship," and is working on a fifth on political theology and philosophy. He authors the blog "Path of Life."

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

It is Christmas season, and Advent begins with a meditation what it means to wait for the Messiah. Christ came out of the darkness of a long time during which the Jewish people waited for a savior. For long centuries, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medo-Persians, Greeks and Romans ruled over their land and people. In the end, nearly 1000 years had passed since David created the Kingdom of Israel and ruled. After David, his family and Israel were not loyal to God, nor were they loyal to each other, nor were they wise. In the end, Jeremiah records that, “…because of the anger of the Lordit came to the point in Jerusalem and Judah that he cast them out from his presence” (Jeremiah 52:3). These are tragic words: after a long time of national unfaithfulness and sin by the leaders and the people, it finally came to the point where God had no choice but to let kingdoms far more violent and far worse rule over his people. This began a long period of waiting that lasted hundreds of years. During that time, the Jewish people looked for a national savior. When Jesus came, they were not looking for the savior God was sending them.

This forces us to ask ourselves, “What kind of a Messiah are we looking for?” Are we looking for a Messiah who will judge other people, or the bad people,  or one who is going to judge everyone, including Christians? Are we looking for a Messiah who will be the Messiah of my church, or my social group, or my race, or my political party or a Messiah for the whole world who will even judge us? A good bit of the time, I think we are looking for the former. We think that when Jesus returns, our group will finally “win”—and a good bit of popular Christianity and End-Times theorizing encourages this line of thinking.

On the surface of things, God intends to deal with corruption, greed, pride, violence, wickedness, and the like at the of time. Surely the grosser forms of corruption and unrighteousness will be dealt with by the returning Messiah. Surely as Jesus teaches all the kingdoms of the world will be placed before the court of God and brought to justice (Matthew 25:31-46). Yet, that leaves a question, “What about me?” The first volume of The Nature and Destiny of Mandeals with human nature. The second volume deals with human destiny and about the promised Kingdom of God, which is our Christmas meditation. In this volume he makes a very perceptive comment:

“The final enigma of history is therefore not how the righteous will gain victory over the unrighteous, but how the evil in every good and the unrighteousness of the righteous is to be overcome. [1]

In other words, the final question of history is not, “How God is going to judge other people?” The final question is, “How is God going to judge me?” Now there is a sobering thought.

In Isaiah we read, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:1-4). These verses alert the reader to the fact that the Messiah is not going to be just a king like David or even a king better than David who judges in the same manner and in the same way an earthly king judges but better.

The Savior we look for is completely righteous, completely holy, completely unlike the Kings, Premiers,  Prime Ministers, Presidents, and the like which whom we are familiar. It does not matter what my political party is, Jesus does not belong to it, nor does he judge as my favorite leader judges. Jesus judges with a kind of wisdom that is beyond this world and that has to be the Messiah for whom we are looking.

The first step towards a Merry Christmas and a spiritually enhancing trip to the Manger is getting our minds ready to receive a Messiah who is born in obscurity, lives a short life, is not successful in the way this world counts success, and then dies a terrible death on a cross crying out “Father forgive them for the know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The first step in seeing Christmas clearly is to see ourselves as those who need to be forgiven, for we too have fallen under the judgement of God.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 43.

Niebuhr 7: Christian Realism and the Doctrine of the Fall

I have decided to spend one entire week on one single facet of the The Nature and Destiny of Man—Niebuhr’s view of human fallenness and sin. [1] This may seem like an unusual idea for a Thanksgiving Week post, but I think it is appropriate, for a reminder of human sin and brokenness is also a ground to be thankful for the reality of forgiveness, grace, and renewal individually, in our families and in our nation.

In the 1930’s and during the entire runup to the Second World War, the optimism of the Social Gospel Movement and views of Liberal Protestantism faded. The Russian Revolution, which many Christian intellectuals, including Niebuhr, felt would herald in a new age of social progress ended up in the terrible tyranny and violence of Leninism and Stalinism. In Central Europe, the most advanced nation, Germany, embraced National Socialism and the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Western culture seemed caught between two horrific visions of the future.

In response, Reinhold Niebuhr made what is perhaps his most important contribution to theology and politics: He developed a political theology that reminded intellectuals of the power and reality of human sin and all of its terrible social consequences. His Christian Realism, which emphasized the inevitability of sin in individuals and social institutions alike, provided a welcome and necessary balance to the optimism of Liberal Theology, its easy partnership with Enlightenment liberal political thought, and what Niebuhr felt was the too easy conscience of modern people.

Fundamentally to remember that human beings and human societies are deeply and fundamentally flawed strikes a blow at the very heart of modern optimism and any theory of inevitable progress. Human history is not a story of necessary and inevitable progress. There is no invisible hand or historical imperative that drives human history. History is the story of the results of human activity and human decisions. Ill made decisions and unwise activity can and does destroy a culture and nation, as it did Germany in World War II. This means that human beings need to act with humility prudence, wisdom, and thoughtfulness in addressing personal and social problems.

Humanity as Inevitably Fallen

During the course of his long career, Niebuhr embraced differing theories of human sinfulness, its consequences, and remedies. In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr sets out what I think is his finest and best constructed argument. Niebuhr begins by reviewing the development of the concept of sin with a look at the early church, where under the influence of Greek thought, sin was conceived as a result of the temporal frailty of the material world, of the failure of human reason to rule embodied humans, who are too often ruled by passion and impulse, and the fear of death (and by implication, injury). [2]

Niebuhr appreciates and attempts to incorporate the ancient doctrine of sin, but adds to this doctrine the insights of modernity, all within the scope of his analysis of human nature as characterized by vitality (will to power) and reason (will to order). The human race is frail and insecure, aware of its frailty and finitude. Therefore human beings are by nature tempted to overreach their situation of creatureliness. [3] Unlike Augustine, who was influenced by Platonic mind-matter dualism, Niebuhr does not attribute sin to sensuality or to human passion, sexual or otherwise. Instead, he sees the problem of sensuality under the greater rubric of the difficulty humans have in controlling their vital forces given by nature and its resultant will to power. [4]

Humanity as Inevitably Tempted

Niebuhr accepts the biblical notion of temptation and fall. He sees the story of Genesis 3 as what C.S. Lewis would call “a true myth,” that is a story that illuminates and discloses an essential aspect of human nature. [5] The story of the serpent’s temptation of Eve is the story of human susceptibility to temptation and to the human propensity to step beyond dependence on God and a relationship with God by misguided self-sufficiency and failed attempts to be like God. [6]

Reality of the Serpent

According to Christian temptation, the accuser, Satan, who is represented by the snake in the Garden, is an angel, that is a purely noetic reality. This “angel of light” existed before the human race was created, was originally created good, but fell through the attempt to usurp the place of God, the exact temptation presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden. [7] Humanity, when it cuts itself off from God and dependence on God, is vulnerable to temptation and the demonic potential inherent in human nature:

Man is both strong and weak, both free and bound, both blind and foreseeing. He stands at the juncture of nature and spirit; it is involved in both freedom and necessity. His sin is never the mere ignorance of his ignorance. It is always partly an effort to obscure his blindness by overestimating the degree of his sight and to obscure his insecurity by stretching his power beyond limits. [8]

The fact that human beings are tempted in sin, cannot be excused used by the frailties human nature. The root of sin is in the capacity of human vitalities and the human spirit, to intentionally break the bonds of reason end of nature. The sin in the garden was essentially a sin of the Will to Power—an attempt to become what human beings are not and cannot be.

Anxiety and Sin

Niebuhr’s fundamental insight is that human beings are a unity of matter and material vitalities and spirit and spiritual longings. The spiritual nature of the human person is conscious of its finitude, frailty, and the dangers of life. This means that human beings inevitably take steps to secure themselves from finitude, frailty, meaninglessness, danger, and especially death. [9] The result is that human beings inevitably suffer from anxiety, which is the internal precondition of sinful self-assertion. It is not sin. It is the precondition of sin. [10]

Anxiety is not irrelevant to politics. Those who govern others are not immune from the anxieties of human existence generally.

The stateman is anxious about the order and security of the nation. But he cannot express his anxiety without an admixture of anxiety about his prestige as a ruler and without assuming unduly that only the kind of order and security which he establishes is adequate for the nation’s health. [11]

In fact, this human anxiety has a heightened potential to result in sin where people possess power, just because of the power that rulers possess and the tendency to believe that their particular policy preferences are the only policy alternatives “adequate for the nation’s health. Human beings, including human leaders, are afraid to face the problem of the inevitable limits to human understanding. As a result, motivated by fear of losing power policy makers often embrace a kind of “ideological fanaticism” conscious and unconscious, as the attempt to avoid facing their ultimate ignorance in the face of serious and ongoing problems. [12]

One might see in the recent Russian invasion of the Ukraine the results of Russian anxieties about the potential for a NATO nation on the borders of “Mother Russia” and the desire to protect their access to the Black Sea and the Baltic region for political, defense, and commercial purposes. Putin’s choice of war resulted from this anxiety and the inability or unwillingness to see and seek other alternatives. [13]

Pride and Sin

Throughout the Christian tradition, it has been common to think of pride as the central sin of the human race. Niebuhr distinguishes between three kinds of pride that human beings face:

  • The Pride of Power
  • The Pride of Knowledge
  • The Pride of Virtue

Each of these prides can be reduced to some form of anxiety and fear that sits at the root of pride. The conqueror is proud of the position conquest has brought. The conquered who seeks again to defeat and supplant the conquered is motivated by pride and will-to-power to overcome defeat. The pride of the intellectual is motivated by fear of being proven less than omniscient and brilliant. The pride of the recognized moral elite is driven by the fear of the exposure of their common humanity and sin. [14]

The sins of power, knowledge and virtue are found in all people, in all places, among all religions and political groups. The Marxist, capitalist, Republican, Democrat Independent, and the like are all vulnerable, as are Protestants, Catholics, and adherents to other world religions. The sins of pride are everywhere and everywhere there is no escape short of self-recognition and the resulting humility.

The sins of pride are intimately, bound up with the sin of deceit, for pride must protect itself by dishonesty.[15] At the time he wrote The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr was aware that education alone would not suffice to overcome the deep dishonesty that human pride creates. [16] The materialist explanations of modern Marxism (and its materialist Capitalist opponents) cannot see that the pride of the human race and the dishonesty it creates is made possible by the capacity of human beings for self-transcendence and the fear, anxiety, and foreboding that such a capacity entails. [17]

Egotism and Social Sin

It should come as no surprise that the author of Moral Man and Immoral Society should be able to apply his analysis of personal sin to human societies in their collective capacity. [18] Human beings are moral agents, and as moral agents, their lack of moral capacity impact society as a whole. On the other hand, society itself has power over individuals and impacts and forms their growth and actions. For good, or for ill, human beings are inclined to bow to the pretensions in power of authority, even when their moral scruples would dictate otherwise. [19]

Just as in Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr is of the view that the group is more dangerous than the individual, because it can be more arrogant, more hypocritical, more self-centered, and more ruthless in the pursuit of its goals. [20] Thus, Niebhur describes the power of the modern nation-state as follows:

The egotism of racial, national, and socio-economic groups is most consistently expressed by the nation state because the state gives the collective impulses of the nation such instruments of power and presents the imagination of individuals with such obvious symbols of its discrete collective identity that the nation state is most able to make absolute claims for itself, to enforce those claims by power, and to give them plausibility and credibility by the majesty and panoply of its apparatus. [21]

Thus, the danger of the misuse of political power is most evident in government with its constant exposure to the reality of pride, Will-to-Power, a desire for glory, prestige and honor, and the temptation to contempt, for those who do not follow its leadership. The nation state is thus vulnerable to creating a kind of “national idolatry” that justifies and undergirds its claims on the lives and even the souls of its citizens. This was seen in a very terrible way in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia but can also be seen in Western democracies.


As mentioned, at the beginning of this blog, Niebuhr is a difficult author to understand. He was also subject to changing his mind over time and perhaps misstating his ultimate conclusions. At the end of his life, for example, he was inclined to believe that education could overcome the consequences of sin. Unfortunately, if taken seriously, this commitment would undermine his great point in The Nature and Destiny of Man, for the folly, decadence and dishonesty of the human race, the anxiety, finiteness, and pride evident in human life and government cannot be undone by education alone, because deceit and dishonesty itself is present also in the process of education by finite and fallen people. Something greater than a different form of education is needed. We need salvation from outside of our fallen selves.

As far as politics is concerned, Niebuhr’s analysis stands the test of time.I  will close with one footnote from his discussion of the sin of pride, worry quotes from a writer on the French Revolution and the fanatical politicians it produced:

These profiteers were also doctrinaires and they clung to their doctrines with a greater tenacity because only thus could escape the self-contempt, which otherwise they would have felt in their secret hearts. They were under no illusion as to the life they were leading, the system of government they had established or the persons they employed to maintain it. [22]

These words could have been written about numerous politicians today.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vols. 1 & 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986). All quotations will be cited hereafter “NDM” where necessary and with volume and page number.

[2] Id, vol. 1 page172-77.

[3] Id, vol. 1, page 178.

[4] Id, v0l. 1, page 180.

[5] For a deep analysis of this aspect of Lewis’ thought see, Bruce Young, “Lewis on the Gospels as True Myth” in Inklings Forever, Vol. 4  (Taylor University 2004) at (downloaded November 16, 2022).

[6] Id, vol.1, page 179-180. I want to emphasize that the term “true myth” is meant to say that the biblical rendition is true, that is accurately reflects the reality it is describing—human vulnerability to temptation and sin.

[7] NDM, vol.1, page 179-180.

[8] Id, vol. 1, at 181.

[9] Id, at vol. 1, page 182.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, vol. 1 at 184.

[12] Id. vol. 1 at 185. Niebuhr is speaking of human beings generally and philosophers in particular in this passage, but it is applicable to the worlds of politics and business.

[13] See, Council on Foreign Relations, “Ukraine: Conflict on the Borders of Europe and Russia” (downloaded November 16, 2022). There are many very good analyses of the roots of the conflict that are much more nuanced than press reports.

[14] Id, vol. 1 at 185-203. I cannot here give due credence to the depth and wisdom of Niebuhr’s analysis. It is worthy of study by anyone in government, academia, or the church.

[15] Id, vol. 1 at 203-207

[16] Id, vol. 1 at 205.

[17] Id, vol. 1 at 207.

[18] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001).

[19] NDM, vol. 1, at 208.

[20] Id.

[21] Id, at vol. 1, page 209.

[22] Id, at vol. 1, pages 198-199, quoting from Pierre Gaxotte, The French Revolution (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).

Niebuhr 6: The Too Easy Conscience of Modern Humanity

A remarkable feature of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr is the extent to which he was capable of understanding and communicating both in the world of theology, in which he was trained, and in the world of philosophy and psychology, which he studied in a deep and profound way. The Nature and Destiny of Man reflects his study and understanding of the emergence of the modern world and the personhood it creates—a personhood that can be naive and troubled.

Vitality and Form in Human Nature

Most people understand that deep physical, mental, emotional and spiritual forces are active in any human personality. On the one hand, human beings have a remarkable capacity to act in accordance with reason and understanding. On the other hand, human beings are driven by deep, often unconscious psychological, emotional, and physical forces. In his analysis, Niebuhr refers to the capacity of human beings to act in accordance with reason as “form” and the capacity to live out of deep emotional, spiritual, and psychological forces as “vitality”.

Human beings are rooted in nature, resulting in our being guided by inherited energies, impulses and drives. These drives are embedded in creation and in the way the human person evolved. Nevertheless, human beings unlike the rest of nature, because of our unique consciousness (which Niebuhr refers to as “spirit”) are able to transcend, natural forms and redirect the vital forces of nature in a creative way. However, this very capacity allows human beings to form or deform parts of the fundamental nature with which they are endowed, with the result that human beings are inevitably capable of being sinful and destructive. [1] It is this aspect of human life that Niebuhr believes least understood in the modern world.

Historic Christianity conceives of people, as having both a spiritual nature (the “breath of God”) and a natural being (the “dust of the earth”). As a result, human beings were and are intended to live in fellowship with God, self, and others demonstrating a unity of vitality and form. Unfortunately, because of the existence of finitude, pride, foolishness and sin, human beings are incapable of such a life without grace.

In the modern world, as a result of the mind/body dualism imbedded in its origin, the schism  created in this intended unity has worsened. Human beings are often considered to be either fundamentally controlled by reason (rationalism) or controlled by nature (materialism). Rationalism tends to deprecate the significance of biological impulses as it emphasizes the mind. Materialism tends to deprecate the mind as it focuses on biological impulses. This separation is embedded in the contradictions and controversy between materialism and idealism in modern thought and is at the root of many of the political and ideological problems with modernity.

Separated from a Christian/Classical idea of humanity, there has tended to be either a stultifying order imposed on human life or a romantic revolt against all forms of order. [2] Post-Enlightenment Romanticism appreciates the importance of human vitality, but frequently fails to recognize that, cut off from human rationality and proper form, vitality does not inevitably lead to physical or emotional wholeness. [3] This mistaken view of human nature reached its philosophical high point in the work of Nietzsche, who emphasized human vital impulses and equated the human will to power with the fulfillment of human impulses for domination, creating an inevitable situation of conflict between human beings. This is at the root of the excessive violence, mental, physical, moral, and emotional inherent in contemporary, post-modern culture. [4]

Form and Vitality in Capitalism and Marxism

The rationalizing tendencies of capitalism postulates an economic “invisible hand” of the market will inevitably guide society to a situation of economic equality without the necessity of the human spirit, through law and morality, guiding such development. This leads to the alienated “Economic Man.” Marxism postulates “invisible hand” of history. This movement of history is a rationalistic element in the Marxist critique of society, with its inevitable in its emphasis upon material forces. This also leads to the alienation and desperation of those under the sway of communism.

As Niebuhr notes, despite its materialistic rationalism, there is an inherently romantic element in the Marxist critique. This romantic element is evident in its belief that human beings do act in the face of inevitable historical and economic forces. Human beings seek their own private wills, but these private wills inevitably lead to the Marxist version of the end of history due to the economic forces that the Marxist sees operating in history. [5] In the end, this view results in the elimination of the human spirit and the dreary uniformity of what we might call “Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist” culture. Thus, both Capitalism and Marxism are fundamentally flawed in their approach to politics, economics, and human life in general. They both ignore the human spirit.

The 18th century gave rise to Bourgeoisie Culture and its fundamentally naturalistic view of life. This was essentially a reaction against the Christian/Classical. With the emergence of Marxism in the 19th century, Marxist thinkers fell under the illusion that it was possible to tame the destructiveness of the human race by changing social organization alone. In the end, this failed as it was seen in the social realities of Russia in the 20th century.[6] Thus, modern culture was caught between two completely unintelligible, viewpoints, one of which ended in fascism, and the other that ended in Stalinism. Both in Western Capitalism and Marxism there is a deeply flawed and deficient view of human nature. The result is an inability to deal with the spiritual and moral depths of the human condition. We see the same forces at work in our economic and political life today.

Individuality in Modern Culture

In a Christian view, genuine personhood includes the human capacity for self-transcendence and the uniqueness of individuals. Any philosophy that denies this human capacity for transcendence and uniqueness fails to give credit to the fullness of human nature created in the image of God. In Niebuhr’s view, materialism and idealism, as conceived in the modern world, both fail on this score. The one tries to reduce the human being to material forces and fails to account for the human spirit. The second attempt to reduce everything to human rationality and fails to understand the fullness of the vitality and materiality of the human being, also a part of the human spirit. Any philosophy, that fails to respect individuals, in the end must also fail and end up in some form of totalitarianism, seen in both communism and national socialism.

Christianity was responsible for the heightened sense of individuality that gradually developed through the late Middle-ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation and early Enlightenment. Christianity, like the Classical tradition it incorporated into its thinking, respected the limitations of human capacities as well. [7] Modern culture, beginning with the Renaissance, attempted to create a basis for an individuality beyond the limits set by the Christian Law of Love, and by the sheer creatureliness of the human race. For the reasons stated above, the result has been a decline in both freedom and individuality in both the East and West.

Unfortunately, an unintended result of the Reformation was the emergence of what Niebuhr calls, “the autonomous individual,” whose, right to self-expression is not bounded or restricted by faith, human limitations, or traditional morality. This notion of the autonomous individuality involves a concept of personal autonomy unknown in either the classical or Christian society.[8] This new concept of personhood begins well, unleashing human potential, but leaves individuals alone and isolated. It too has failed.

Nevertheless, a positive byproduct was the development of a theory of liberty that has characterized the modern world. At first, this theory was devoted to political and economic liberty. It was never intended to be liberty from the morality, which the optimism of the Enlightenment felt could be guaranteed by reason alone. Unfortunately, as this the modern world developed, the flaw in the modern ideal resulted in increasing antinomianism (lawlessness) because there was no emergent morality founded on reason, as indeed there could not be given the spiritual nature of human beings. The chaos of life in the West results from this deep flaw in the modern view of human beings.

Destruction of Individualism

Paradoxically, the result of the exultation of human reason and the increasing social, economic, and individual chaos resulting from an adequate view of human nature, has been and continues to be increasing restrictions upon the freedom of individuals so valued by the Enlightenment and the modern world. In the end, both the idealistic and materialistic strands of the Enlightenment, have attempted to build a structure of human existence upon a faulty view of human nature, one degrading the vital forces of the body, and the other, refusing to accept the spiritual nature of the human race. [9]

The romantic revolution of the 19th century was similarly in unable to provide a foundation for human social life. It’s emphasis upon the non-rational forces in human life, separated itself from the classical notion that reason was capable of directing the human will in a positive way. Transposed to social life, under Rousseau, they developed the theory of a “General Will of the People,” a concept further developed by Marxism. Unfortunately, the General Will of the People ignores the particular will and hopes and dreams of individuals.

The final result of this “will based personhood” is Nietzsche with his complete rebellion of the autonomous individual against all social forms and the exaltation of power. On a purely practical level, the ideal of a General Will gave rise to a host of manipulative techniques as practical power-hungry political figures, left and right, tried to manipulate public opinion to create an illusory General Will. Once again, the defects of the Enlightenment lead to a diminution of the human person and a loss of true freedom.

The Easy Conscience of the Modern Human Being

In Niebuhr’s view, a foundational problem with the post-Enlightenment society, has to do with the loss of the notion of original sin, and its substitution were by a naïve notion of essential human goodness. Historic Christianity did believe that human beings were made in the image of God, but that this image was defaced by human pride, self-centeredness, finitude and sin. [10] In the modern world, the Christian drama of salvation, with its notion of creation, fall, atonement, and restoration, was replaced with the notion that human beings are progressively capable of their own improvement and a kind of personal personally crafted salvation. The results have been devastating. In one particularly illuminating passage, Niebuhr relates:

Contemporary history is filled with manifestations of man’s hysteria and fury; with evidences of his demonic, capacity and inclination to break the harmonies of nature, and defy the prudent cannons of rational restraint. Yet no culmination of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself. He considers himself the victim of corrupt institutions, which he is about to destroy or reconstruct, or of the confusions of ignorance, which an adequate education is about to overcome. [11]

This observation, I think, is truer than when it was first made.


This week, we have looked once more at the theoretical roots of Niebuhr’s critique of modern culture and its defects in understanding the human situation. Politically, this results in an inability to act wisely to create a sound society. At the root of problems of the modern world is the schism created both within the soul of a humanity formed on Enlightenment premises and the socio-economic political responses formed on the basis of those inadequate presuppositions, which flaws inevitably either reduced humanity to its material impulses and/or over-estimated the capacity of reason to create a viable social order.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vols. 1 & 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 25-26. All quotations will be cited hereafter with volume and page number.

[2] Id, at volume 1, pages 28-29. Christianity is not the only religion to attempt to find a unity of form and vitality. In fact, it would seem to be present on all religious faiths.

[3] Id, at volume 1, page 40. These blogs have already dealt with Rousseau and Nietzsche, the two outstanding representative figures. As mentioned in the blog on Rousseau, he is in many ways a classicist in his fundamental views, less “romantic” than his followers.

[4] Id, at volume 1, page 41,

[5] Id, at volume 1, pages 43-48.

[6] Id, at volume 1, pages 50-51.

[7] Id, at volume 1, page 57.

[8] Id, at volume 1, page 61.

[9] Id, at volume 1, page69.

[10] The next blog is going to deal with Niebuhr’s view of sin, a view that changed over the years, but which sits at the foundation of his Christian realism.

[11] Id, at volume 1, pages 94-95.

Niebuhr 5: The Nature and Destiny of Man (Part 1)

Between 1938 and 1939, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was entering the final phase of his all-too-short life, Reinhold Niebuhr was in Edinburgh Scotland giving the Gifford Lectures on the nature of and destiny of the human race, the most comprehensive and fundamental account of the theological underpinnings of his Christian realism. In a previous series of blogs, we covered Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), which was a critique of liberal Protestantism as evidenced by the social gospel movement. Moral Man and Immoral Society was deeply impacted by Marxism and the promise of the Russian revolution, but by 1929, a decade before the lectures, Niebuhr had abandoned Marxism and resigned from the Socialist Party.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr advanced the thesis that a just society cannot be constructed on the basis of human altruism, even Christian altruism. The forces of self-interest are too strong. Because society is comprised of social groups with different objectives, justice, positive social change can be achieved only through an equitable use of power. [1] The role of Christian faith is not insignificant, but more or less restricted to critique of society in the light of its ideals. Thus, in Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr was attempting to set out a program for social change on what he perceived to be a more realistic basis than that of the Social Gospel Movement, a program that changed dramatically during his lifetime, but remained guided by the desire to see a more just society evolve.

Foundation of Christian Realism

The philosophical foundation of Niebuhr’s brand of “Christian realism lies in the conviction that both classical Greco-Roman Western ideas and the liberal Protestantism of his day underestimated the depth and pervasiveness of human finitude and sin. Thus, The Nature and Destiny of Man has as its major theme the need for a synthesis of Renaissance (classical) and Reformation (biblical) insights about the possibilities and limits of human existence, in light of Christian understanding of sin, grace and forgiveness.

The setting of the lectures could not have been more dramatic. By the time his Gifford Lectures were completed, the horrors of Lenin and Stalin were evident to wise minds in the West. Germany was in the hands of Adolf Hitler, a dangerous ideologue. The War in Europe had begun. By the time the lectures were complete, Poland had been conquered, France conquered, and the Battle of Britain begun. During some of the lectures, sirens that announced bombing raids were blowing and his audience was caught between the captivating speaker and a desire to run for safety. There could have been no better hour to remind the world of human fallenness.

Humanity as a Problem

Niebuhr began with a statement of the problem he explored in the lectures: the problem of human complexity: “Man has always been his own most vexing problem.” [2] The problem Niebuhr discerns is that the human race is both a result of the operation of nature, and subject to the laws of nature, and also a spiritual being who stands outside of nature, other human beings generally. Human beings are even capable of self-reflection, standing outside of him/herself. Human complexity results in the need to discern how the material and spiritual features of human life relate and interact. [3]

In Western civilization before the Enlightenment, two different worldviews vied for the dominance:

  • The Classical Greco Roman view of humanity; and
  • The Hebraic-Christian view of humanity.

In Niebuhr’s view, although the problem of how to understand the nature of human beings has always existed, in the modern world it is become more serious because of the inadequate solution proposed by the Enlightenment and the way a modern understanding grew up in revolt against the Judeo-Christian view..

The Classical View of Humanity

In the classical view, what made human beings unique was the existence of “Nous,” a term translated as “spirit,” but with the emphasis on the rational basis for spirit in the human race. In Aristotle Nous was seen as purely intellectual. This is not all of the story, however. Nous is the seat of consciousness and reflection in the human psyche. It includes the faculty of understanding, feeling, judging, and determining. This is to be compared with Logos, a term translated as “reason” or “word, in which the emphasis is on reason and (in the early Greeks) on the divine reason or plan imbedded in reality.

Greek philosophy tended to divide humanity into two natures, (i) an intellectual nature that reflected the divine reason and (ii) a physical nature, which was the source of human finitude and incapacity to act reasonably on all occasions. The Hebraic view was not dualistic but monist, in which the mind and the body are unitary. The Stoic view of humanity was also monist, and also pessimistic about the ability of reason to rule the human spirit. The Christian view was an adaptation of the Hebraic view of the human race impacted by its doctrine of the fall and its incorporation of Greek and Stoic ideas into its fundamental philosophy. Thus,

It must be observed that while the classical view of human nature is optimistic when compared with the Christian view (for it finds no defect in the centre of human personality) and while it has perfect confidence in the virtue of the rational person, it does not share the confidence of the moderns in the ability of human beings to be either virtuous or happy. Thus an air of melancholy hangover Greek life which stands in the sharpest contrast to the all-pervasive optimism of the now dying bourgeoisie culture,.….” [4]

The Christian View of Humanity

As indicated above, the Christian view was impacted by its interaction both with its roots in the Old Testament faith of Israel and its contact with Greek and Roman civilization. From its Hebrew origins Christianity took a fundamentally unitary view of human nature: the biblical view human beings are created as a unity of both body and spirit. [5] No account of the human condition, political or otherwise, can ignore this unity.

Nevertheless, as it being made in the image of God, the human person stands outside of itself able to judge itself and the world and to act in accordance with or against both reason and in some cases natural law. [6] Because human beings are created as a unity of nature in spirit, the human spirit enables the human race to break the harmonies of nature and, human pride and fallenness prevent human beings from being able to use the forces of nature properly, resulting in personal and social chaos. [7]

The Modern View of Humanity

With the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Modern World, both the classical and Christian view of human nature was jettisoned in favor of a dualistic view that has turned out to be unsustainable. Descartes began this dualistic move with his distinction between the human mind and physical matter. In addition, with the advent of the Modern World, human beings began to think of themselves as beings independent of God (as creator) and became thus subject to human pride. The romantic side of the Enlightenment began with the view that human beings are basically good, not fallen creatures as Scripture, tradition, and (in my view) human experience indicate. Thus, humanity became subject to unbounded pride and lost the humility inherent in Christian faith. Politically, the errors of Laisse Faire Capitalism and Marxism are founded on the victory of pride and human confidence. Speaking of Capitalism, Niebuhr puts it this way:

Modern capitalism really expresses both attitudes at the same time the spirit of capitalism is the spirit of an irreverent exploitation of nature, conceived as a treasure house of riches which will guarantee everything which might be regarded as the good life the human race will master nature but the social organization of capitalism at least theoretically rest upon the naïve faith that nature masters man and that her preestablished harmonies will prevent the human enterprise from involving itself in any serious catastrophes…. [8]

One could easily rephrase the quotation as, “The spirit of Marxism is the spirit of an irreverent exploitation of nature conceived as a treasure house of riches which under the control of human reason will guarantee everything that might be regarded as the good life. The human race will inevitably master nature as a result of the operation of the invisible hand of economic forces operating in human history. The social organization of Marxism at least theoretically rest upon the naïve faith that these politico-economic forces, in the form of the gradual emergence of the proletariat to power, will by a preestablished harmony prevent any serious catastrophe in human history.” In fact, both of these Enlightenment-born ideologies have resulted in the exploitation of nature and in various human catastrophes.

Niebuhr ends this discussion with a brief review of modern philosophy and the emergence of what he calls the easy consciousness of the modern person. Because human nature is seen as basically good, modernity has been an able to deal with the problem of evil. This inability is an essential part of modern thinking. It results in a doctrine of progress ungrounded in an adequate view of human nature, a view of progress that is doomed to failure. It results in a kind of worship of the human Will (characteristic of Nietzsche) and an oppressive government (characteristic of the thinking of Hobbes). The result of the emergence of a post-Christian optimism and faith in human progress has been a proliferation of interpretations of history all relying upon the gradual emergence through natural processes of a better society. Speaking in the shadow of Nazism, Niebuhr ends this discussion with a sentence with which we should all completely agree, “The fateful consequences in contemporary political life of Hobbes cynicism and Nietzsche’s nihilism are everywhere apparent.” [9] If they are not already apparent, they should be and will be.


This would seem to be a good place to end this weeks discussion. For frequent readers of this blog, the fundamental points being made by neighbor will not be new. For sometime it has been obvious that the optimistic view of the enlightenment concerning many things is not entirely correct. This week we have only begun to touch on Niebuhr’s argument, which will take several weeks to cover. Fundamentally, the history of the past 300 years shows that:

  1. Human reason is not sufficient to solve human problems of faith, morals, and polity. Human beings are not fully reasonable nor can they be made so.
  2. Human beings may be in some way “basically good” (made in the image of God, in Christian terms) but that goodness is marred by sin, anxiety, finitude, and inevitable self-centeredness.
  3. The Enlightenment notion of inevitable progress, even in its materialistic capitalist or communist formulations are false. All attempts to create anything like a perfect society have failed and created great human suffering.

Therefore, what is needed is some kind of synthesis of the Enlightenment and the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian view from which the modern world emerged. This conclusion is at odds, for example, with the solution proposed by the radical members of the Critical School reviewed last week. Instead of revolution, we need a kind of tradition-bound evolution of society. This does not, however, mean that the critique of such groups can or should be ignored, for they too are part of the tradition in which we all (should) operate.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, The Gifford Lectures: Over 100 Years on Natural Theology “The Nature and Destiny of Man” at (Downloaded November 2, 2022).

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vols. 1 & 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 1. All quotations will be cited hereafter as NDM, volume and page number.

[3] Id, at 5.

[4] Id, at 9. I have changed Niebuhr’s use of the word “man” to humanity and rational person for modern readability.

[5] Id, at 12-13.

[6] Id, at 13-17.

[7] Id, at 17.

[8] Id, at 20.

[9] Id, at 25.

Teilhard De Chardin: A Materialist Christian Process Thinker

Of all the figures covered in this series of blogs, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (1881-1955) is perhaps the most difficult to categorize, for he is unique and truly belongs to no particular school of thought. I have included him because he is often considered with Bergson, Peirce, and Whitehead as a founder of process thought, thought. Like Whitehead and Peirce, he is interested in interpreting the implications of modern post-Darwinian thought for philosophy and theology. Unlike the others, he was a Jesuit priest, a devout Christian, but also a Paleontologist familiar not so much with logic and philosophy, as were the others, and post-Einsteinian physics, as was Whitehead, but rather familiar with geology, evolution of various species, and geology.

It is almost impossible to consider Teilhard solely as either a philosopher or a theologian, for his professional pursuits were as a paleontologist. Paleontology involves the scientific study of life of the geological past involving the analysis of plant and plants and animal fossils, including those of microscopic size, preserved in rocks. His philosophical and theological thinking was never published during his lifetime, because the nature of this writings caused the Roman Catholic Church to forbid him to lecture or publish during his lifetime. As one writer observes, this is too bad because he never had the opportunity to face creative criticism of an academic community or to write for publication with the editing and sharpening of thought the publishing process involves. [1] This is a tragedy because it may have deprived philosophy and theology of the results of the prolonged thought of a deep and profound philosopher and theologian.

As a paleontologist, unlike Whitehead who was a mathematical physicist, Teilhard was familiar with the grosser, movement of geologic formations and biological evolution over time. Thus, by trade, he was less likely to appreciate some of the finer implications of modern physics. As a priest, he was a practitioner of the kind of mystical spirituality of Ignatius Loyola which was required of him as a member of the Jesuit order. Although he was forbidden from publishing during his lifetime by the Roman Catholic Church, he remained a loyal and devout catholic to the end of his days. His mystical side is evident in his writing, which gives it an inspirational quality not necessarily useful in philosophical or theological thinking and disputes. He never founded a school of thought, and his influence today is spiritual and indirect, unlike Whitehead whose work spawned schools of theological and philosophical thought. Nevertheless, he is often quoted and acts as a spur to reflection with an influence greater than one might imagine.

Teilhard as a Materialistic and Spiritual Process Thinker

As indicated, Teilhard is often considered among the founders of modern process thought, for his work, like that of others, was motivated by the turn in scientific and philosophical thinking from working out the implications of the metaphor of the world as a machine to working out the implications of seeing the world as fundamentally evolving in a long, slow process of constant change. In the case of Teilhard, with his background in paleontology, this movement included working out the implications inherent in the long, slow evolution of the human race and of the massive geological changes embedded in the geological formations of the world. [2]

Elements of Teilhard’s thought important to political theology and philosophy:

  1. Materialism: Unlike Whitehead and most philosophers impacted by post-modern physics, who believe that energy, disturbances in a universal quantum field, or information are the ultimate reality, Teilhard worked from the assumption that the fundamental units of reality are material in nature. His view of fundamental particles was, I believe, lead astray by the materialistic implication of the word “particles.” Most physicists today would agree with this conclusion, for modern physics does not believe that “fundamental particles” are in any real sense material.
  2. Relationality: Notwithstanding his materialism, Teilhard firmly understood that all of reality is relational, and he considered his fundamental particles to be in a fundamental and universal relationship with one another. In the end, for Teilhard reality is a unity of highly integrated and interdependent parts. In this, Teilhard anticipated modern chaos theory and is not in conflict with the deeper insights of quantum physics.
  3. Socialization: Like Whitehead, Teilhard sees reality as characterized by the emergence of increasing social complexity in nature and in human society. The world and its components are social in nature. Just as the material world tends to evolve socially from fundamental particles to atoms, molecules, physical entities, and organic life, reaching its most complex form in human life, so also human beings are naturally social, and political structures are the external result of the social nature of the human race. Once again, in this ssense Teilhard is an organic thinker as is Whitehead.
  4. Energy: At the same time that Teilhard thinks from a basis in the reality of fundamental particles, he also views energy as fundamental, and sees matter as less fundamental than energy, which is the primal reality of the universe. It should be clear to readers by now that Teilhard was aware of the basic insights of quantum physics but his writings suffer from the lack of an academic environment and the interplay of other minds. In analyzing energy Teilhard speaks of two kinds of energy, physical energy and radial energy. Radial energy represented for him an immaterial, spiritual energy of order and love that is present in all reality, not unlike Peirce’s notion of an agapistic feature in reality. This “radial energy” becomes important in understanding his view of real human progress, which represents not the victory of force, but of persuasion and dialogue, which might be seen as a form of radial energy. In this sense, his views come close to Whitehead. His concept of “radial energy” is similar to the concept of “positive energy” that I speak of with respect to leadership and the principle that good leaders inject positive energy into a social group. [3]
  5. Orthogenesis. Teilhard’s system accepts evolutionary theory, but posits that the evolution of the universe, the human race, and therefore human society requires that there be an internal direction activated by radial energy within the universe and all matter, which drives the universe forward and results in the evolution of increasingly complex forms of matter. This aspect of his thought is highly controversial and debated among evolutionary biologists, with many hold that it is discredited. However, it is not fully unlike the view of Whitehead that actual occasions and enduring objects have a subject drive to emergence into the objective world.
  6. Order: For Teilhard, the order of the universe expressed in the laws of science reflected a fundamental part of the structure of reality. Implicit in the material world science studies is an immaterial world of order. In particular, Teilhard lifts up the first and second laws of thermodynamics (Conservation of Energy and Entropy) and a “Law of Complexity” by which the evolution of reality results in increasing complexity in the universe and as applied to politics, human society. The world and human society are in a gradual process of evolution and increased complexity.
  7. Convergence: Not surprisingly for a system that emphasizes process, relationality, evolution, and the emergence of complexity in the universe, Teilhard sees a principle of “Convergence” or “Centrism” at work both in nature and in society. Thus, he sees the emergence of more centralized social and political structures as reflecting this tendency at work in society. This puts Teilhard at oddes with all romantic notions that somehow human existence can be made better by a “return to nature.”
  8. Collectivism: For Teilhard, the continual emergence of complex orders in the universe results in the emergence of “Collectives.” In the area of political thought, Teilhard speaks of a gradual emerging collectivism:

The more the individual on his side associates himself in an appropriate way with other individuals the more, as an effect of synthesis does he enter deeper into his own being, become conscious of himself, and in consequence personalizes himself. And the more the collectivity on its side concentrates itself, in an appropriate way, upon elements for whose fuller personalization it is itself responsible, the more again, it is personalized and allow the Omega point to be divined. [4]

This last quote is important in understanding his notion of the way in which the world and human societies are moving into some form of collectivity or unity or what might be called “deepened society” as the complexity of human life grows. In the end, Teilhard’s views are eschatological for he sees an endpoint to human evolution at a point in time he calls the Omega Point, which is clearly a kind of eschatological move on his part.

  1. Utopianism: As the quote above indicates, there is an element of utopianism in Teilhard. He believes that the universe is headed somewhere, and that somewhere he calls the “Omega Point” that is when the universe reaches the ultimate state of differentiation, complexity, an event that he believes will be both spiritual and material and involves the ultimate realization of “Christ Consciousness” which one might associate with the complete fulfillment of the potential of the full created potential of the universe.
  2. Omega Point. It is not surprising, then, that there is a utopian element in Teilhard’s thought in which the forces of complexity and unity cause arrival at the “Omega Point” the universe reaches a conclusion. This conclusion is not, however, in universal history but at the boundary of history. This concept of Teilhard is also that point at which “Christ Consciousness” reaches its maximum potential, which is his equivalent to the second coming. His view is not in contradiction to the view often expressed in this series of blogs that the attempt to preemptively bring about an end to human history is mistaken. Nevertheless, Teilhard does believe in an eschatological end point to human history, a time in which the force of love, “the attractive element” has won its victory. This attractive element cannot involve force, and so Teilhard is unquestionably against any attempt to preemptively end history by force. [5]


Teilhard is a very complex thinker and controversial. He has been interpreted in many ways, some of which are far from orthodox Christianity. I, however, think that he needs to interpreted as committed Roman Catholic who is faithful to the church (which he refused to leave despite being deprived of the right to teach and publish) and Jesuit monk, who is trying to interpret a modern worldview in Christian terms and also trying to interpret a Christian world view in modern terms. As one interpreter put it:

Fr. Teilhard de Chardin’s spirituality is thoroughly grounded in God and in the material reality of His universe, in the human body and in all aspects of human existence. He sees all humanity and every dimension and aspect of the universe as infused or divinized with the transforming presence of God and as having an inward, evolutionary movement towards God, its Omega point of fulfilment and complete transformation. [6]

In my view his work is important and to be considered by anyone interested in the intersection of religion, science, and society. As with all advanced thinkers, some of his wording is difficult to penetrate, but his work is fundamentally Christian and his intent is to overcome any division between science and religious faith by interpreting religious truth for a secular age.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] MaCarthy, Teilhard De Chardin in “Makers of Modern Theology” (Waco, Texas: Word Press, 1976. Most of the reflections and biography contained in this blog are from or were inspired by that book.

[2] Teilard received his doctorate in paleontology in 1929, and his most famous paleontological work was in connection with the so called Peking Man and the connected research he did during his years in China.

[3] G. Christopher Scruggs, Letters to Leaders (Bay Village, OH: Privately published for and by Bay Presbyterian Church).

[4]  Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy (New York: Hartcourt Inc: Harvest Books, 1970), 51.

[5] Pierre Teilhad de Chardin, The Future of Man (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1959), 298-299.

[6] Adrian Hart, “A Cosmic Spirituality for a New Theology; Teilhard de Chardin’s Evolutionary Journey to Omega Christ” Following Christ, Changing Church by Association of Catholics in Ireland (Jun 2, 201) 5 (Downloaded August 30, 2022).

The Frankfort School: Brief Introduction to Critical Theory

During the past week, one weekly reader made a suggestion, a suggestion I want to begin responding to in this week’s blog. His suggestion had to do with Critical Theory, which many thoughtful people wish they knew a bit about. Not more than a few weeks earlier, another friend related a very tense small group meeting in which the subject came up. He did not know what to say because he had no background. This week, I hope to provide that background for readers. [1]

These blogs attempt to give a sympathetic reading of even those writers about whom I have significant doubts. Readers will have to decide for themselves how successful or unsuccessful I have been. I was and am saving some of the more controversial blogs for later; however, as I have warned readers in recent months, as we come closer and closer to today, that becomes harder and harder to delay. One day in 2022, it will become no longer possible. Nevertheless, the goal of this blog series remains exploration and understanding.

Most readers have heard the term, “Critical Theory.” As late as five years ago, however, few ordinary church members had heard of the term “Critical Theory” and almost no one outside of academia of the term “Frankfort School.” I barely knew what the term, “Critical Theory” meant. Today, things are different. Interestingly, the Frankfort School and Critical theory are not new. In fact, scholars such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have at least known something of the existence of such a school, and the story of its emergence perhaps helps understand a bit of the cultural situation in which Bonhoeffer lived and died, for critical theory has its roots in Germany after the First World War when he was reaching maturity and preparing for a career in theology.

History of the Frankfurt School

The “Frankfurt School” of social theory, known as “Critical Theory,” is a philosophical and sociological movement that originated in Germany after World War I. Since. World War II, the movement has become influential among intellectuals throughout the world and perhaps especially in the United States. It is called the “Frankfurt School” because it was founded as the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923 by the son of a prosperous Jewish family. The objective of the founder was to develop Marxist studies in Germany.

After the Russian Revolution of 1918, it was the hope of Marxists all over the world that the day of the proletarian revolution foreseen by Marx had come. Germany was devasted by its loss of the war and faith in its essential institutions destroyed. In November 1918, as a consequence of the German defeat there was a naval mutiny. Within a few days, disturbances spread throughout the German Empire. The situation developed into a mass protest against the monarchical system as the working classes joined forces with the troops to create a new order in Germany. Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils were formed and assumed political and military powers, similar to what occurred in Russia. Various social democratic parties unified their efforts and became the key political players in the November revolution. [2]

For a time, it looked as if a Russian-style communist revolution was in the making. However, this was not to be. The various factions that had united to overthrow the Kaisers’ regime eventually fell apart due to political infighting. The military, which had supported the revolutionaries became disenchanted, and fell away from their support. Perhaps most importantly, the German working class did not, as expected, join in supporting revolutionary change. This was devastating to conventional Marxist thinking.

An election for the National Assembly on 19 January 1919 resulted in formation of a parliamentary democracy. Although the following months saw bitter confrontations with the radical left, including local uprisings and wildcat strikes, a Soviet style revolution was not to be. On February 6, 1919, the National Assembly was constituted and elected the first President of the Reich.

Unfortunately, the victors in the First World War did nothing to assist the fragile new democracy in Germany. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, required financial restitution by Germany to the victors of 132 billion gold marks (about $270 billion today). There was no way Germany could repay such a huge sum, and it was plunged into poverty. The average German felt humiliated by the actions of the victorious allies, resented their treatment, and desired a government that would restore the grandeur of the German state as it had been before the War, when Germany was the principal nation of Europe. This was the root cause of Hitler’s ability to gain power.

It was in this social milieu that the Frankfort School was formed. As Germany and the West entered into the Great Depression, there was continuing division in German society and growing anger at the humiliation of the nation. It was in that context that National Socialism, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party emerged. Hitler was violently anti-communist as well as being anti-Jewish. At the time, the leadership of the Frankfurt School was primarily Jewish and in personal danger in Germany. After 1933, when the Nazi party gained complete power, the Nazis forced closure of the Frankfurt Institute. The institute and many of its leadership moved to the United States where it found hospitality at Columbia University in New York City.

Fundamental Tenants of the School

As mentioned above, the roots of the Frankfort School and Critical Theory are found in its interpretation of Marxist thought. It is fundamentally a reaction to the perceived failures of capitalism and the economic injustice that was observed by thinkers, Christian, non-Christian, Marxist and otherwise. What troubled those inclined towards Marxism in the early 20th Century was the failure of the prophesies of Marx to be fulfilled. There was no definite crisis of free market capitalism as predicted. The working class in Western Europe did not join the revolution as expected. Capitalism seemed to many to be providing a gradually (and sometimes rapidly) increase in the standard of living of most people.

Multi-Disciplinary Approach

Originally, the Frankfort School was interested in responding to Marxist thought in the context of German society and the failure of Marxist ideology to succeed in transforming German society. Its original leader was a Marxist thinker. However, as years proceeded, under its second leader Max Horkheimer, this approach was supplemented by an interest in the economic and political implications of the psychoanalytic theory of Freud under the influence of Eric Fromm (1900-1980), who tried to unify Freudian analysis and Marxist thinking.

Critical Theory evolved as a multi-disciplinary interpretation of society and culture grounded in a Marxist philosophy with regards to some of its central economic and political ideas.’ [3] On a broader scale, Critical Theory makes a multifaceted critique of Post-Enlightenment modernity, liberal democracy, and thought emanating from the Enlightenment. As to modern capitalist society it seeks ways to free Western culture from its perceived bondage to what it perceives as inhuman and alienating social structures.


Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) was one of the most important philosophers and social critics in Germany after World War II, though he was educated in pre-World War II Germany and taught there until he left because of the persecution of Nazi regime. He left at the same time that Paul Tillich, who had been one of his academic advisors, left Germany. Adorno, with Horkheimer, wrote one of the earliest critiques of Enlightenment thinking.

In his view, the Enlightenment had attempted to liberate human beings from oppressive regimes but ended up trapping them in a kind of thought that made fascism possible. [4] Fundamental to this way of thinking is the idea that all of Western and traditional thought has been corrupted, Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Muslim, Jewish, Eastern and Western. A complete revolution is needed in thinking to overcome the repression of culture. It is easy to see how this notion has influenced the attempts in modern academia to remove the Western Canon from study, to denigrate the institutions of Western democracy, to reject all religious influences (not just Christian), and to seek revolutionary changes in social roles of all kinds.

Despite their critique of the Enlightenment, Adorno and most of the critical theorists do not finally reject the Enlightenment. They do not seek either a retreat into pre-Enlightenment society nor a kind modified Enlightenment that recognizes the importance of traditional religion, morality and values. What they seek is an “Enlightenment of the Enlightenment.” This strand of Critical Theory seeks ways to expose ideological and destructive tendencies within modern secularization, but without denying that the Enlightenment involved human progress. It might be best to say that Adorno and Horkheimer sought a new stage in human society that involves true post-Enlightenment in which human beings create a new society free of the barriers that caused prior attempts to humanize Western culture to fail.

Marcuse and Critical Theory

One of the best known of the members of the Frankfurt school is Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). Marcuse represents the romantic component of Critical Theory. For Marcuse, Western civilization has been shaped by the political, economic, moral and scientific theories grounded in an exaltation of a particular form of human reason. Beginning with Plato and Aristotle’s (and even before) Western thinkers sought knowledge via a continual progressive rationalization of reality. In such a culture, feelings are repressed and sensual gratification considered an evil to be overcome.

According to Marcuse, the conflict between reason and sensuality expressed in the works of Plato and Aristotle greatly contributed to the development of repressive morality and hierarchical social organization. Such repression also justifies a capitalist mode of economic organization. As a Marxist, Marcuse was dedicated to a social and economic revolution undergirded by Marxist ideas. In his view, a key aspect of overturning capitalism involves the elimination of repressive sexual morality.

Marcuse was opposed to the Viet Nam Ear and became a kind of philosophical guru to the American radical left during the protests against that war. His work became extremely popular on American college campuses during that period. I can remember reading his work in the early 1970’s. His thought has fallen into some disfavor in Europe, but remains an important influence on Critical Theory in the American context.

Paul Tillich and Critical Theory

As mentioned, Theodore Adorno studied under the philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965). After the First World War, Tillich embraced socialism and taught at Frankfurt, where he was involved with the founders of the Frankfurt School. He published a study of Marxism, The Socialist Decision in 1933. [5] The book was later both banned and burned during Nazi demonstration in the streets of Frankfurt. Tillich’s thought analyzed the dialectics of Marxism and the doctrines of Christianity with a view towards finding a common ground and a religious basis for Marxist thought. In The Socialist Decision, Tillich concluded that the mutual hostility between religion and Marxism flows from a misunderstanding of science and the kind of knowledge science produces. Tillich writes:

The attitude of socialism toward religion could never have been as negative as it has become, if socialism had not thought that it had a substitute for religion as its disposal, namely, science.[6] 

The problem is, therefore, two sided: (i) secular socialists substituted science for religion and (ii) religious people became hostile toward Marxism because of Marx’s tendency to make science and religion inevitable enemies.

Tillich undertook to find ways to undo what he viewed as the false opposition of science to religion and religion to science in hopes of finding a way to undo the mutual hostility and open up Christians to Marxist and Socialist ideals. Tillich’s solution was to see in science an explanation of material reality and in religion as the confrontation of the human subject with the ultimate (what he called “Ultimate Concern.” [7]

Habermas and Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas, (born June 18, 1929) is considered the most important German philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. Habermas studied under Adorno and eventually took Horkheimer’s chair at the Frankfurt Institute. Born just before Hitler took over the German government, Habermas’ childhood was spent in Nazi Germany. He was a member of the Hitler Youth in his childhood. At age 15, during the last months of the war he was sent to the Western Front. After Germany’s defeat in May 1945, he completed his education. He studied under Adorno, and was deeply influenced by his work.

This is perhaps a good place to introduce the term, “skeptical generation.” After World War II, as the German intelligentsia came to grips with the evil of Naziism, many became permanently suspicious of the history and tradition of German culture that led to Hitler’s rise to power. Habermas was one of these, as was Adorno. Part of their critique of the Enlightenment had to do with the impact of the German Enlightenment and its inexplicable  powerlessness to criticize and prevent the Nazi rise of power.

Habermas has been critical of thinkers who cooperated with the Nazi regime (Heidegger), supportive of nuclear and other disarmament initiatives, critical of the sometimes-fascist tendencies of the political left, supportive of Israel, and sympathetic with the emergence of the European Union. In all this, we see a consistent attempt to reject the nationalistic, anti-Semitic, and power dominated ideas with which he was bombarded in his early years.


Critical theory was, in its origin another outgrowth of the social upheaval created by the Industrial Revolution. Intellectuals saw the brutality and injustice of much of the emerging capitalistic economic system and the societies most influenced by its emergence—those of Western Europe. Critical Theory evolved as a response to the failure of the Russian Revolution of 1918 to take root in Western Europe and the failure of the “proletariat” to support, the revolution. Its evolution has been as a critique of Western culture in total, and especially since World War II of the primary Western democracy, the United States, where it has gained many adherents.

Critical Theory is clearly Marxist in its inspiration. While it is broader than the work of Karl Marx, it has its roots in Marx’s approach and his critique of capitalism. Nevertheless, Critical Theory recognizes the failures of some of Marx’s predictions and the inadequacy of some of his ideas. Most critical theorists modify Marx to some degree, returning to a reading of Kant and Hegel and what might be called an “idealist application” of Marxist materialism. Over time, the movement has engaged with anthropology, Freudian psychology, sociology, philosophy, political theory, and a variety of sources in its critique of Western and traditional cultures.

At the center of its analysis lies the notion that only by exposing the regimes of oppression that undergird capitalist and traditional societies can the revolution that Marx anticipated finally become real. For this to happen, the supports of traditional societies that impede social progress (in their view), familial, social, economic, moral, philosophical, religious, and political need to be overthrown so that a more human world can be created. Unfortunately, its analysis sits under much of the social tensions of our day, violence, and the misplaced moralities of some contemporary revolutionary movements.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For more than three years, I have written a weekly blog on political philosophy and theology. For most of that time, the blog has proceeded chronologically beginning with the early Greeks. The idea has been to follow the development of political philosophy from its beginning until today. Originally, I intended to finish by January 2023. That goal will not be reached. I hope to be substantially done by May 30 of next year. It is then my hope to write the weekly blog for at least most of the remainder of 2023 reflecting on what has been learned over the years of this series.

[2] Historical Exhibition Presented by the German Bundestag, “November1918-19 Revolution” found at (Downloaded October 17, 2022).

[3] See, “The Frankfort School of Critical Theory” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy October 17, 2022).

[4] See, “Theodore Odorno” in the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia at (downloaded October 17, 2022). One factor that must always be kept in mind in understanding critical theory and some of its current pronouncements is that many of its founders and early proponents had been deeply traumatized by the fact that Germany, the most “enlightened nation in Europe, produced the Nazi Party and its inhumanity.

[5] See, Paul Tillich, The Socialist Decision (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012). This book was originally published in 1933.)

[6] The Socialist Decision , 81.

[7] It is impossible to adequately or fairly describe any of the thinkers covered by this blog. There will be other blogs on each of these thinkers. In particular, the thought of Tillich on political matters needs a broader treatment in the future. As a Christian, he cannot be ignored by Christian thinkers.

Bonhoeffer 6: From Arrest to Martyrdom

Last week, the blog focused on the period between the closure of Finkenwalde and the initial participation of Bonhoeffer in the German resistance against Hitler. He became an agent of the Abwehr with the cover that he was going to use his ecumenical and other religious contacts to benefit the German foreign policy and German intelligence activities. In fact, he was used as a courier by the German opposition plotting to get rid of Hitler and the Nazi regime. He and his contacts were used to transmit messages to the allied governments in hopes that they would cooperate with any attempt to overthrow the regime, or at least not act in ways that would cause harm with public consequences for the German people. None of his diplomatic efforts were terribly successful, though Bishop Bell in England tried very hard to get the British government to take seriously the efforts being made in Germany to end the war.

Arrest and Charges

In March of 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and four specific charges were brought against him:

  1. He facilitated the escape of German Jews to Switzerland, against current German law in the so-called “Operation Z.” (true).
  2. He avoided the military draft by means of a specious position with the Abwehr (true, but probably irrelevant, if he were in fact a German agent in his foreign travels).
  3. He assisted others in the Confessing Church Movement in avoiding military service (true, but explainable).
  4. His long stays in Berlin (contrary to an order against him) and travels abroad to Sweden and Switzerland had no military or diplomatic significance but were motivated by antagonism to the regime (true, but explainable).

Interestingly, the plot against Hitler, for which he was later executed, was not among the initial charges, nor did such charges emerge until after the failed assassination and coup attempt of July 1944, at which time he had been behind bars for over a year.

During the months following his arrest in March of 1943 and his death in early 1945, Bonhoeffer was engaged in a cat and mouse game with the authorities regarding his activities. Since he and others arrested (particularly Dohnanyi) had knowledge of more incriminating matters, matters which if brought to light would certainly result in execution, it was important to keep the focus of the investigations on the charges made in 1943. This was possible until mid-1944. After July 1944, and especially after the discovery of incriminating papers revealing details of the Abwehr plot against Hitler, it became impossible.

Theologically, Bonhoeffer continued to believe that the situation in Germany under Hitler required a different approach than that many of his colleagues adopted, and certainly different than the traditional Lutheran “Two Kingdoms” doctrine, which could be interpreted to grant the state autonomy in its sphere of influence. He even ceased to talk about his prior views of an “Order of Preservation,” though I do not think he failed to see the duty of governments to be the preservation. Bonhoeffer, who knew of the war crimes, corruption, and mistreatment of the Jews through his brother-in-law, Dohnanyi, understood that the situation in Germany had gone beyond what that kind of thinking and acting permitted. The question was not conforming the Nazi regime to Christian principles, but removing a regime that had become demonic.

Letters and Papers from Prison

While held prisoner by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters published after his death as “Letters and Papers from Prison.” [1] In these writings, Bonhoeffer spoke of “Humanity Come of Age” and the need for a “Religionless Christianity.” [2]

Humanity Come of Age. The “Humanity Come of Age” of which Bonhoeffer writes is the fruition of the Western Enlightenment and the end of the Modern World. In the Middle Ages, the church was a kind of “parent” or “tutor” of European society. The church spoke into the lives of people from a position of power and authority. Beginning with the Renaissance and increasing during the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Modern World, humanity entered a period of disengagement from religious authority. Science, technology, and contemporary social and economic ideas provided a non-religious foundation for the life of many people.

So far as Bonhoeffer could see writing from prison in the mid-1940s, the Enlightenment Project had succeeded and the changes in human society it created were irreversible. [3] Humanity had indeed come of age, and Christians needed to learn to live and witness in Western society as if there were no God, because the societies in which Christians live largely function as if there were no God. In particular, the church would have to learn to exist without the kind of secular power it wielded in the Middle Ages. [4]

In this view, for a long time, the perceived success of the modern world pushed God out of the consciousness of people. [5] This feeling was expressed by the mathematician Laplace when, speaking of God’s relationship with the universe, he said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” This cultural attitude is more pronounced today than when Bonhoeffer wrote. Contemporary people feel no need to seek or have a relationship with God, much less consider God in making day-to-day decisions, including political decisions.

On the other hand, thinking today people are much less certain about the successes of the modern world. The societies most impacted by the Enlightenment are nearly all experiencing rapid cultural and institutional decay. It seems as if Western culture is in an irreparable moral, intellectual, aesthetic, political, and cultural decline. Modernity does not appear to have intellectual or practical answers to the decline our culture is experiencing. Remedies that previously seemed likely to succeed, such as social engineering, extensive bureaucracies, technological innovation, corporate power, increased affluence, and the like increasingly seem part of the problem, not part of the solution. The violence and alienation of many in Western societies indicate that the Modern World was perhaps not “Humanity Come of Age,” but instead, “Humanity in its Adolescence.” [6]

While no serious thinker recommends a retreat to the pre-modern world (nor did Bonhoeffer), there is ample evidence that the modern world needs to rediscover and reincorporate the pre-modern world’s wisdom into its worldview and cultural reality. Analytical thinking, scientific understanding, technological progress, and material affluence have proven inadequate to meet the human soul’s deepest needs, and there is little likelihood unaided human reason can halt the cultural decline we are experiencing. This is true in the political as well as in other areas of life.

In this situation, it is important to rediscover the kind of values and transcendental concerns that modernity denigrated or ignored. Philosopher of science Michael Polanyi describes the situation in the West as one on which analytical thinking has burned through the intellectual, spiritual, and moral capital of Christian civilization, ending in a kind of intellectual, spiritual, and moral nihilism. [7] The only way out of the situation is to rebuild the intellectual, moral, and spiritual foundations of society. In this effort, Christians need to be active participants. In my view, Bohoeffer anticipates this situation as he reflected on the destructive Will to Power of the Nazi regime. His critique was equally true of the Communist regimes of his era, a fact he well-understood.

Religionless Christianity. The concept of “Religionless Christianity” is even more challenging to understand than is the notion of “Humanity Come of Age.” It is certain that Bonhoeffer did not mean there was no God, that Christ was not the Son of God, that the Spirit of God was absent from the world, or that there would be no Church. Instead, Bonhoeffer tried to get others to see that our civilization is in a kind of intellectual and cultural “Dark Night of the Soul” as God purifies the world, Christians, and the church from false notions of God, of discipleship, and of the nature and role of the church. In other words, God is not absent, but cultural realities make it seem as if God is absent. Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God, we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way he is with us and helps us. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. [8]

Bonhoeffer ends by noting that the God of the Bible, who rules the creative universe, rules in weakness. In other words, Bonhoeffer continued to believe that there is a God of transcendent wisdom and self-giving love, that Christ is the revelation of that God, and that the Spirit is still at work in the world with the power of cruciform love. However, under modernity conditions with its fascination with human intelligence and power, most people cannot see these realities. In a world in which power is everything, the wisdom and love revealed on the Cross seems to many to be foolish or a mere illusion.


These and his other reflections contained in his last writings confirm the view that Bonhoeffer was struggling at the end of his life to find ways of communicating Christian faith in word and deed to a secular world in which such views are “foolishness to the Greeks” (I Corinthians 1:23). Modern people, and particularly those in power, feel they have “come of age” and can handle the problems of our society with no reference to faith of any kind. This phenomena results in the need for “Religionless Christianity” that can speak into the lives of secular people in words and ways they understand. [9]

There is a facile application of Bonhoeffer’s ideas that was taken up in the 1970’s by the death of God movement. His best friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge spent a good deal of time countering these interpretations. Bonhoeffer continued to be a Christian. He continued to worship, pray, give pastoral care to his fellow prisoners, and worship where possible. He continued to work intermittently on his final theological works. What he saw was that this alone was not enough. The forms of religion without the reality of the love of God speaking into the lives of ordinary people was not a sufficient form of Christianity to combat the darkness of Western culture, symbolized by the Nazi regime.

This final insight is no less important today in our culture than it was when Bonhoeffer wrote of a “World Come of Age” and “Religionless Christianity.” A clue to his most important legacy is given by his death. Those with him near the end were not impressed by his knowledge, by his academic credentials, or by his eloquence. They were impressed by his growing saintliness and the calm with which he faced the end.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

[2] This section of the blog is reliant upon the views of Bonhoeffer expressed G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (College Station, TX: Virtual Bookworm, 2022), 116-118.

[3] In a letter dated 16 July 1944, Bonhoeffer traces the emergence of the modern world from the 13th century forward from Herbert of Canterbury through Montaigne, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Fitch, and Hegel as they directed their attention to the autonomy of man and the world. He concludes that “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion….” Id, at 360

[4] Bonhoeffer’s notion of a “religionless Christianity” is his attempt to articulate a way in which Christian can continue to minister to a society and people who are ideologically unable to respond to traditional Christian ideas as they were articulated prior to the Modern Era.

[5] See, Letters and Papers from Prison, at 341

[6] In many respects, the modern world was adolescent. The fascination with sex, power, strength, technique, disinterest in inherited wisdom, and the contemporary world’s environmental wastefulness all seem immature. In this analysis, what Western society is currently experiencing as “postmodernity” is a bit like “one last drunken hangover of modernity” before growing up

[7] Michael Polanyi, Science Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946).

[8] Letters and Papers from Prison at 361

[9] A significant difference between Bonhoeffer’s day and our own is that we can see that the Enlightenment project has reached a dead end. It cannot provide an absolute position from which one could find Truth. It cannot provide a common morality based on reason alone. It cannot provide for the stability of social institutions. It cannot bring peace or social order or agreement upon faith or morals. While its technological achievements are impressive, its moral and spiritual accomplishments are not. At a later date, when dealing with Rawls’ writings, I will seek to deal with how Christians can speak on social issues from the perspective of a “religionless world” and still remain Christian.

Bonhoeffer 5: Political Resistance 1939-1943

By 1937, the National Socialist government of Germany had come close to completely neutralizing the Confessing Church movement, which was divided and in disarray. The means by which this result was achieved was a combination of a “divide and conquer strategy” and the use of financial and bureaucratic restrictions in such a way as to make it almost impossible for the Confessing Church to operate without violating the law. Nevertheless, the fault at least partially lay in the nature of the Confessing Church movement and divisions between its Lutheran and Reformed members, as well as between those who tried to cooperate as much as possible with the regime and those who, like Bonhoeffer, saw such a course of action as unfaithful to the gospel and doomed to failure and disgrace.

The change was precipitated by the minister for church affairs, who came out in public declaring that the German evangelical church had failed and that the true church in Germany was embodied in the national socialist movement led by Adolf Hitler. Even Superintendent’s Zoellner, chairman of the National Church Committee, saw that there was an irrevocable break between the church and the Nazi party that could not be healed. He resigned. Bonhoeffer, with his adamant resistance to Hitler and the national socialist propaganda has turned out to be correct: any attempt to conciliate with the regime was a foolish attempt to placate evil. Zoellner and those who tried to implement a policy of cooperation as a bid for independence were proven foolish.

These events precipitated the appointment of Dr. Frederick Werner and Dr. Muhs, who adopted a policy of suppressing the evangelical church in Germany. Of course, the Confessing Church was the first target of their opposition. The policy adapted involved both bureaucratic and financial oppression and the arrest and detention of pastors and other church leaders who refused to support and follow the dictates of the Nazi regime.

End of Finkenwalde

In July 1937, Martin Niemöller was arrested by the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer was at the house just a short time later when the Gestapo showed up to make an investigation. He, his companions, and Mrs. Niemöller were held for several hours. This was most distressing to the Bonhoeffer family, knowing as they did that Dietrich was already on the list of persons hostile to the Nazi regime. This event further intensified the oppression of the Confessing Church by the regime.

At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer attempted to carry on as usual, but the end of the seminary was at hand. Several members of the community were arrested and detained. In September 1937, the seminary was closed by the Gestapo and its doors sealed. By Christmas of that year, more than twenty-five of the members of the community had been arrested, some spending Christmas in prison. [1]

The closure of Finkenwalde and the other Confessing Church seminaries did not suddenly end the role of Bonhoeffer as head of theological education for the Confessing Church. Faced with the inability to have formal institutions, the Confessing Church resorted to another strategy. Instead of a formal seminary, the confessing church movement began a series of collectives which were designed to provide informal theological education to their members. In Germany, they had a longer practice of sending a theological student as an apprentice curate to a minister in a parish. This was normal. In order to circumvent the band, the Confessing Church used this device to continue training students for the ministry and supporting those students which had given so much in order to remain faithful to the gospel.

Bonhoeffer did not change his strategy when implementing this new form of theological education. The students still lived by a kind of rule of life which involved daily times of worship, prayer, meditation, and theological training. There were also abundant opportunities for fellowship among the members of the collective. Nevertheless, this stage could not continue for long, for the government was now in full control of the situation and determined to destroy all opposition.

Entrance into Political Resistance

This interlude resulted in Bonhoeffer becoming more familiar with the political resistance to Hitler. Crucial to this development was his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and his unique position in the German government. Dohnanyi worked for the Abwehr in direct contact with Admiral Canaras, head of the Abwehr, the government counterespionage department and his second and some command Major General Hans Oster. In this position he was intimately familiar both with the plans of the regime, which he discussed with Bonhoeffer and with the opposition to Hitler within the military and intelligence apparatus, which was partially led by Admiral Canaris. Dohnanyi was himself a Christian, married to Bonhoeffer’s sister, and a critic of the regime, as were all members of the Bonhoeffer household.

Bonhoeffer was forced to consider his calling to resist the evil of the Nazi regime, even if it meant stepping away from his traditional commitment to pacifism and non-violence. When challenged by a student in one of his final lectures, Bonhoeffer let the student know that he understood the moral demands that were becoming daily more evident in Nazi Germany. [2] He was also aware that the admonition, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword applied to himself and others who opposed Hitler just as much as did Hitler and his Nazi cohorts. [3] This comment is important to understanding Bonhoeffer’s theological and moral rationale for his activities. He understood that, in some deep way, his decisions and activities were morally and theologically ambiguous, though he felt he was acting properly. He was aware that any involvement with the Abwehr and the resistance to the regime was fraught with moral problems and conflict.

American Interlude and Return to Germany

In March 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia after a complex series of negotiations involving British Prime Minister Chamberlain, whose attempts to appease Hitler and avoid war led to the rise of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. Bonhoeffer recognized that war was now inevitable, and that he would face a serious moral quandary concerning whether he should serve in the German army or otherwise support the regime. At the same time, his opposition to Hitler had placed him in a dangerous situation. His implicit pacifism and reluctance to serve in the German army, which required an oath of loyalty to Hitler, would certainly result in his prosecution if he failed to serve when called up, a situation then in process.

Eventually, his friends in Germany, the United States, and Great Britain, including Reinhold Niebuhr, were concerned for his life. Everyone thought it would be a shame if such a talented person where to end up dying in a German concentration camp. As a result, it was arranged for Bonhoeffer to come to the United States, where he might teach theology, and give lectures, and work with German refugees during any war in Europe. [4]

In June 1939, Bonhoeffer left Germany for a lecture tour in the United States. Both on the trip over and once he arrived, Bonhoeffer could not attain peace about his situation. He missed Germany, his family, and his colleagues in ministry in the Confessing Church. The arrangements made by his friends were either temporary or of a kind that would definitely prevent him from returning to Germany under the current regime.

After a period of vacillation and discernment, Bonhoeffer decided to return home and share the suffering of the German people during the war he now foresaw. His friends in the United States, which felt that they had “gone out on a limb” in seeking positions and safety for him in the United States were understandably disturbed by the decision. He attempted to explain his decision to Reinhold Niebuhr as follows:

“I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” [5]

Several things about the note to Niebuhr and his other explanations of his decision to return are important.

  1. First, he took personal responsibility for the decision. He had made a mistake in coming. His friends had not made any mistake in seeking his safety from Hitler and the war that was coming. Bonhoeffer consistently took personal responsibility for what he had done.
  2. Second, his mistake had been in attempting to avoid the suffering of the German people instead of accepting the cross of war and living responsibly through it.
  3. Finally, he had a goal: In order to help in reconstructing Christian life in Germany after the war (and what I believe he understood was the inevitable defeat of Germany), he needed to share the trials of the German people.

He was thinking both of his family and his colleagues in the Confessing Church movement, people like Martin Niemöller, who was in a Nazi prison. He returned not to escape America but to share the suffering of the German people, which meant carrying a cross for the German people, a cross of the very kind he had described to his students at Finkenwalde.

An Embodied Faith

Bonhoeffer was now in a situation where he would not be serving the German Confessing Church but instead engaged in a secular occupation of some kind. Bonhoeffer was a reader of Kierkegaard, and knew of his commentary on the life of Abraham in Fear and Trembling. [6] I think that, in the end, the “movement of faith” that Kierkegaard explicates in Fear and Trembling sits behind Bonhoeffer’s decision that his Christian faith and love for his fellow human beings required an action that would be morally dubious in ordinary times, but necessary under the conditions of Germany under Hitler.

Bonhoeffer understood what was needed was an “embodied faith” freed of “religiosity” but a faith that was still faith in the Christ who he served until his untimely death. He never attempted to defend what he did but rather did what he thought necessary and lived with the consequences. In any case, from his return to Germany to his death, he was no longer only a theologian and teacher serving the Confessing Church; he was primarily an actor in the destruction of the Nazi state and political prisoner.

Service with Military Intelligence

As mentioned earlier, Bonhoeffer was of an age that it was almost certainly that he would be called up for military service, and in so doing would be required to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, something he did not want to do. His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was able to secure for him an appointment with the Abwehr as a liaison with ecumenical groups. His cover was that he was building relationships for German Military Intelligence as well as acting as a courier for Military Intelligence. In fact, Bonhoeffer’s key role was contacting the Western allies through his friends concerning the reaction of the Allies to an attempt to overthrow the Nazi regime. He made trips to Switzerland and Sweden conveying information to those who were in a position to see that the British government was aware of the plot and solicit their aid, which was never forthcoming.

In his capacity as a courier and agent for the Abwehr, he was aware of the various plots against Hitler’s life and participated in meetings in which the conspiracy was discussed. He conveyed information to the Abwehr after his meetings abroad. He also participated in attempts to secure freedom for Jews, by assisting in transporting them to Switzerland.

Dohnanyi in particular relied upon Bonhoeffer’s  listening ear and good counsel, which he valued. By this time, Dohnanyi was at the very center of the opposition to the regime within the Abwehr and the primary actor in coordinating the plots against Hitler on behalf of his superiors.

Conclusion: The Emergence of the Martyr

Next week, I will continue this series on Bonhoeffer looking at this imprisonment and death, as well as his final musing on theology as they pertain to his evolving political theology. It is fair to say that, up to his return from America and employment with the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer was involved theologically in opposing Nazi ideology and Hitler’s attempts to control the German Evangelical Church. His activities were primarily theological and were based upon his confessional Lutheran Faith, especially as it was expressed and clarified by the Barmen Declaration and his theological work with the Ecumenical Movement.

After his return, his activities were less involved with the Ecumenical Movement and the Confessing Church and more directly concerned with his role with Military Intelligence. This aspect of his activities required that he live a double life and distance himself from his former associations, which would have been seriously threatened by the regime if his activities for the Abwehr were discovered, which eventually they were. From his return to Germany until his death, he was set on the course of action that would ultimately result in his imprisonment and death.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 582. I am reliant upon Bethge for the narrative of the last days of Finkenwalde, as well as the narrative of events contained herein.

[2] Mary Bosaquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968), 199-200.

[3] Id, at 205.

[4] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), hereinafter “Bethge.” The story of this American interlude is told in Bethge’s biography pp.648-662.

[5] This letter is often quoted. I am using the quote as recorded by Learn Religious, “Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian and Martyr” at (downloaded August 25, 2022). Bethge gives a much more complete look at Bonhoeffer’s correspondence and conversations leading to his return to Germany.

[6] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling tr. Alister Hanny (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 19850.

Bonhoeffer 4: Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision (Part 2)

Nearly everyone accepts that the current structure of seminary education is not fully adequate to train pastors to build Christian communities in our contemporary society. [1] As a result, there have been many attempts to think about what form preparation for ministry should take. This article focuses on the formation of the Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde, Germany from 1934 until 1939, just after Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned from his second visit the United States, returning to join the sufferings of the German people under Hitler and becoming a part of the resistance to the regime.

The issue of responsible discipleship was of central importance for Bonhoeffer, practically and theologically. It was central to his critique of the church of his own day as he pondered the diminution of faith in mid-20th Century Germany and the totalitarian dictatorships that had formed in Germany, Italy, and Russia. It was also critical to his notion of what constitutes the church as the body of Christ in the world. His emphasis on discipleship led Bonhoeffer to create a unique seminary to train pastors for the Confessing Church. [2]

The End of Christendom

By 1934, Bonhoeffer was deeply concerned about the future of Christianity in Germany and Europe, seeking answers to the question, “What can be done to revitalize faith in Europe?” Writing to his brother Karl Friedrich, he expressed his fears as follows: “…I am becoming more convinced each day that Christianity is approaching its end in the West—at least in its previous form and previous interpretation….” [3] Writing to Mahatma Gandhi he said, “The great need of Europe and of Germany in particular is not the economic and political confusion, but it is a deep spiritual need.” [4] In other words, the fundamental problem in Europe during the pre-war period was not economic or political, but spiritual. The same could be said of our society today.

As one can see, Bonhoeffer’s critique of European Christianity later found in Letters and Papers from Prison was already forming in his mind. [5] After the formation of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer was tasked with creating a seminary, since the Confessing Churches could not use existing institutions controlled by the Nazi’s. Fortunately, he was already thinking through what was needed to face not just the challenges of being a Christian in Hitler’s Germany, but the challenges of being a Christian Western culture generally. Furthermore, the context of Bonhoeffer’s letters indicates that his concern was not merely intellectual and theological, but spiritual and practical, In his view, neither in America nor in Europe did there exist the kind of spiritual formation needed to address the problems of Western society. If this was true in Bonhoeffer’s day, it is even more true in ours.

Background to the Idea of a Seminary like Finkenwalde

In January 1935, Bonhoeffer wrote his brother that “The restoration of the church must surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will surely have only one thing in common with the old, a life lived without compromise according to the Sermon on the Mount in following Jesus. I believe that the time has come to gather people together for this.” [6]  His ideas concerning the way forward to restore Christianity was to take a more concrete form as he created a seminary for the Confessing Church.

By the late 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had long wanted to go to India and study under Gandhi in order to study his notion of community as well as various methods of training. [7] Not long after his letter to Gandhi was written and an invitation received, Bonhoeffer faced the choice as to whether or not to go to India to study under Gandhi or return to Germany to serve the Confessing Church. Writing to a friend, he further revealed his ideas about what was required for theological education to sustain itself against the Nazi Regime, and even the ideology of modernism:

I am hopelessly torn between staying here, going to India and returning to Germany to take charge of a preacher seminary shortly to be open there I no longer believe in the university; and never really have believed in it – to your irritation. The entire education of the younger generation of theologians belongs to the church in cloister-like schools, in which pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount and worship are taken seriously…. [8]

Bonhoeffer chose to go back to Germany. Before leaving England, however, Bonhoeffer took the opportunity to visit several monastic communities in the Anglican tradition located in England. George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, introduced him to various communities in England, and he was able to visit most of them before his return home. His specific interest was the way in which these communities spiritually formed their members and lived in community; characteristics important for the new kind of seminary he had in mind. [9]

As Bonhoeffer prepared to leave England and undertake the theological training of pastors for the Confessing Church, he continued to study the Sermon on the Mount, a study reflected in his lectures at Finkenwalde, which became his book the Cost of Discipleship. [10] In addition, Bonhoeffer was already thinking about the kind of community necessary to form pastors able to build Christian communities in a hostile environment. This thinking ended up with the form of communal life he nurtured at Finkenwalde and is reflected by his book, Life Together, written after the seminary was closed. [11] It is fair to say that Bonhoeffer felt that authentic discipleship required authentic community, and the skills to form an authentic Christian community, the “Body of Christ in the World” were necessary in the Christian formation of pastors for the church. His insight is as true today as it was in the last century.

Bonhoeffer’s Seminary for the Confessing Church [12]

In Germany in Bonhoeffer’s day, there existed “Preachers Seminaries” of approximately one year of specific training after formal theological training at a university. German universities were government schools designed to give intellectual training, similar to the function many seminaries perform today. Some German churches felt additional training was needed to ensure that pastors had specific skills needed to be successful in day-to-day ministry. This led to the formation of what were called “Preachers Seminaries.” When the Confessing Church was faced with the need to provide education for theological students who opposed the Nazi regime, the device of Preachers Seminaries was used to provide theological education leading to ministry. [13]

Structure of Daily Life

The structure of various Confessing Church seminaries differed from what Bonhoeffer created. The seminary at Finkenwalde was unique and created a lot of comment at the time. At Finkenwalde, the days were punctuated by worship services in the morning and evening, not unlike the Anglican practice of morning and evening prayer. In the morning, the service was followed by half-hour of meditation. The services normally took place around the dinner table. The order of worship was something like the following:

  1. A choral psalm and him selected for the day.
  2. A lesson from the Old Testament.
  3. Another set verse from a hymn, sung daily for several weeks,
  4. A New Testament lesson,
  5. A period of its temporary prayer and recital of the Lord’s prayer.
  6. A concluding hymn. [14]

During the day, there were classes at which Bonhoeffer and others would teach the theological content of the course of study. During meals, Bonhoeffer attempted to have readings, similar to the practice in Benedictine monasteries. This provoked opposition, but was sometimes included in the daily routine. There were also times of freedom, exercise, and especially for the making of music, at which Bonhoeffer excelled. One evening each week was devoted to the discussion of current issues, the politics of the day, and other matters. Bonhoeffer was committed to the notion that the seminary students should understand the society in which they were living and the political and other pressures they would face. In all these activities, Bonhoeffer was building the kind of community he hoped to see his students create in the congregations and other organizations they served.

As word of the innovations at Finkenwalde spread, many opposed or made fun of his ideas. Bonhoeffer was accused of introducing Catholic practices into the Protestant Church. In fact, he had a deeper goal: Bonhoeffer wanted to form the character of young theologians to the point where they would be able to form and maintain Christian communities under great opposition and pressure. He knew that his graduates would face opposition and persecution for their faith and wanted them to be able to both resist and to form communities that could endure within a hostile culture. In much of the world, local pastors face a similar situation today.

The Syllabus of Study

On the surface, Bonhoeffer’s seminary outline of study was not extraordinary. As one might expect, the center of the curriculum was the Word of God, Christ revealed in Scripture which students were to preach in the churches and live in their day-to-day lives. The students were trained in the art of preaching, liturgy and orders of worship, the catechisms of the church, pastoral care, and lectures on church, ministry and community, similar to those in other seminaries. [15]The idea was that the preaching and other activities of the pastors he trained would create vital parts of the body of Christ in the world.

The uniqueness of Bonhoeffer’s seminary was found in its emphasis on discipleship and in the lectures Bonhoeffer gave on the subject, lectures that ultimately became his book, Cost of Discipleship. Although there were students who did not like the structure or content of the Finkenwalde experience, most students recognized that Bonhoeffer was preparing them for the life of discipleship in a hostile environment—a life of taking up their crosses and following Christ into the reality of Nazi Germany. As the years went by, many of them realized that their time with Bonhoeffer had been transformational, including some who had been initially hostile.

The Brotherhood of Pastors

During 1935, as Bonhoeffer wrote the beginning chapters of Cost of Discipleship, he had the the opportunity to create as part of the seminary community, a “House of Brethren.” Once again, Bonhoeffer had contemplated communal life for many years and was captivated by the idea of creating a committed community of Christian disciples within the seminary community. He hoped to create a brotherhood of pastors especially trained and equipped for leadership in the church. In order to accomplish this, Bonhoeffer created what is called, “The House of Brethren.” It is best to think of this House of Brethren as a special feature of the training pastors received at Finkenwalde. In fact, the House of Brethren followed the order of life and seminary routine as closely as possible to prevent confusion. [16] The basic outline of the order of life Bonhoeffer created can be summarized as involving:

  1. Daily Meditative Bible reading
  2. Daily Prayer and Meditation
  3. Regular Worship
  4. Confession
  5. Holy Communion
  6. Christian Action [17]

By August 1935, Bonhoeffer was absolutely convinced that pastoral training to disciple people in the Christian life could not be given abstractly but only in a concrete community in which there was a common life and awareness of Christ and of the meaning of Christian discipleship. In addition, in such a community it would be possible to serve the greater community in a more transformational way, which in the case of Finkenwalde included serving the Confessing Church and the surrounding area of Pomerania as well as engaging in wider, ecumenical activities. [18] IN the end, Bonhoeffer’s House of Brethren did engage in pastoral service to the local area and even to the greater German Confessing Church.

End of Finkenwalde and the Collective Pastorates

In September 1937, the Gestapo closed the Finkenwalde seminary and boarded its doors. While attempts were made to overturn this decision, they were of no avail. In addition, the other Confessing Church seminaries were closed as well. This resulted in the creation of yet another system of theological education for the Confessing Church. This involved the use of “collective pastorates” where students were working in small congregations under the supervision of ordained pastors prior to ordination, a practice that predated the Confessing Church. [19] By 1939, the Confessing Church, oppressed from without and lacking internal unity was helpless, and the time had come for a new approach. Nevertheless, from the closure of Finkenwalde to his second trip to America, Bonhoeffer continued to implement his ideas in a somewhat different format.


By the end of his time at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer was prepared for the final phase of his life and ministry. Bonhoeffer saw the grim reality that the modern world embraces a worldview and values that exclude God from the day-to-day reality of politics, government, business, social structures, and everyday life. The kind of Christianity, and the kind of church that developed from the time of Constantine through the Reformation to the present decline of the modern world, was (and is) inadequate for the the culture of the West, increasingly a world-wide culture corroding traditional values and societies wherever it spreads. In response to this new reality, God was and is radically purifying the church so that the church can meet the challenges of contemporary life. The church will for some time not be an honored institution at the core of society, visibly powerful and influential. Instead, the influence of the people of God will be seen in quiet, sometimes unseen prayer and action for the good of others. [20]

Bonhoeffer not only intellectually recognized the need of the church for a different sort of pastoral formation, but also created a model showing what the formation of pastors might look like in response to the cultural changes he saw evident in the West and especially in Germany. Fundamentally, this model flowed from his conviction that the Word of God was present in Scripture and in the Church, as the body of Christ present in the world—a view he already held when he wrote this thesis, Sanctorum Communio. [21]

In the context of World War II Germany, the form of that church Bonhoeffer envisioned was the Confessing Church, which Bonhoeffer believed to be the true form of the church in Germany, free of the heretical elements of the German Christian movement. In our own day, we perhaps see the church wherever “two or more are gathered” in the name of Christ bound together by the love of God (Matthew 18:20; John 13:35). It is for contemporary Christians to build upon what Bonhoeffer achieved as we attempt to adapt to the challenges we face in our own day and time.

Almost certainly, the key element for the growth of discipleship in the church today is the formation of little communities in which Christ is present in the world through word, prayer, witness, and action. Formation of these kind of communities requires a specific kind of apostolic leader, which requires a specific kind of formation for both ordained and lay leadership in the church. Bonhoeffer’s example does not answer all of our questions, but his model is certainly one every Christian leader should study and internalize.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In 2021, I published a blog based upon a book, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision by Paul House, in his book Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2015), hereinafter “BSV”. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, “Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision” (published August 13, 2021).

[2] This is not to underestimate other factors which resulted in the seminaries of the confessing church, of which Bonhoeffer’s work at Finkenwalde was only one.

[3] See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), hereinafter “Bethge,” at 406.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letter to Mahatma Gandhi” dated October 17, 1934, (downloaded September 27, 2022)

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

[6] Letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Klaus Friedrich Bonhoeffer, January 1935, quoted in Mary Bosaquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 150.

[7] George Bell, Letter to Ghandi October 22, 1934, found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (Cleveland, OH: Fount Books, 1958), 291.

[8] Letter to Edwin Sutz, September 11, 1934, found in Bethge, at 411.

[9] Id, at 412.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer , The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together tr. John Doberstein, (New York, NY: Harper One, 1954).

[12] In this section (as well as in the past) I will be referring to “Finkenwalde combining it with the earlier experience at Zinsk on the Baltic Sea, where it was briefly located and his later experience in training pastors after the closure of Finkenwalde

[13] Bethge, at 419-421.

[14] Bethge, at 428.

[15] Id, at 241.

[16] Bethge at 460, 468.

[17] Id, at 466. All of these ideas are found in his little book, Life Together.

[18] Id, at 466-467. The way in which Bonhoeffer created the House of Brethren is reminiscent of the way in which early monasteries were formed and served the communities near them. I cannot describe these wider activities in this paper, but he took students on tours, engaged in ecumenical activities, supported the Confessing Church, and in other aspects of ministry, all of which are outlined in Bethge’s biography. Id, at 468-585.

[19] Id, at 587-596.

[20] This is a near direct quote reprinted from G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making(College Station, TX: Virtual Bookworm, 2022), 119. As the proceeding makes plain, well by the time of Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer was deeply struggling with the nature of modern society, the absence of a felt need for God, and the secularization of intellectual and practical society. Nevertheless, it should be evident from this and prior blogs that have recently been published that this realization by Bonhoeffer had been underway for some time, and his conclusions in his prison letters do not involve a radical break from ideas he had long held.

[21] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), 280.

Bonhoeffer 3: The Confessing Church and the German Resistance

In the late spring and summer of 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself in Bethel in Germany. By this time, the German Evangelical Church, or the “Reich Church” had already endorsed the Nazi Party and had begun the creation of a “unique Aryan form of Christianity.” A minority within the church recognized the dangers of this move and formed what was called, the “Confessing Church,” which Bonhoeffer believed to be the true church in Germany that should be recognized as such by the ecumenical movement. The process by which the Confessing Church became a reality was complicated. Initially, what bound participants together was a common concern about “Aryan Christianity,” the anti-Semitism of the regime, and the activities of the Nazi regime to control the evangelical church in Germany. To some, what was needed as a confession that would bind those who opposed the Nazi Regime together from a sound theological basis, something Bonhoeffer always sought in his work.

Bethel Confession

Bonhoeffer was the driving force behind the Bethel Confession and asked to prepare a draft for the Confessing Churches. In response, Bonhoeffer, with the assistance of Hermann Sasse, drafted what became known as the “Bethel Confession.” His draft was later rewritten by a committee, with a result that angered Bonhoeffer. He refused to sign it. In reviewing the revised draft, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” In the end, the Bethel Confession failed to unite the church in Germany. As a result, the Bethel Confession exists in two strands, the original version authored by Bonhoeffer and Sasse (the August version) and a later version heavily edited by, among others, Martin Niemöller (the November version). The earlier version, reflecting Bonhoeffer’s authorship, is much more direct in criticizing the Nazi-inspired ideas of the German Christians. It is the earlier version that Bonhoeffer circulated, but the later version that reflects the comments of Martin Niemöller.

Despite its failure to unite the Confessing Church, the Bethel Confession was important, for Bonhoeffer continued to circulate it in its original form as a potential statement of what the Confessing Church in fact believed.

The details of the Bethel Confession are not terribly important today. What is important is that Bonhoeffer was the driving force behind it and viewed it as a statement of historic Christian faith against the heresies of the German Christian movement, especially the so-called, “Aryan Clause” and the manifest anti-Semitism of the day. Important among its statements is the denial that the Old and New Testaments can be divorced from one another in such a way that pagan elements can be imported into Christian faith:

We reject the false doctrine that tears apart the unity of Holy Scripture by rejecting the Old Testament or by even replacing it through non-Christian documents from the pagan early history of another nation. Holy Scripture is an indivisible unity because it is in its entirety a testimony of and about Christ. Those who reject the Old Testament and recognize it only as the bible of Jesus and, respectively, primitive Christianity tear this unity apart.[1]

Barmen Declaration

Following the failure of the Bethel Confession to gain traction and unite the Confessing Church, a Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, Germany in May 1934. At Barmen, representatives from all the German Confessional churches approved a common message in response to the temptation of the Church reflected by German Christian movement. This confession was drafted under the influence of Karl Barth. Unlike the Bethel Confession, the Barmen Declaration was not intended as a complete statement of evangelical faith, but as a short document to specifically address heresies in the German Christian movement. The intention was to withstand in faith and unanimity the destruction of the Confession of Faith attempted by the German Christian movement, and thus the destruction of the Evangelical Church in Germany by opposing attempts to establish the unity of the German Evangelical Church due to false doctrine. [2] The Barmen Declaration is by far the best-known confessional document from the period of the Second World War and was the defining document of the Confessing Church.

The Barmen Declaration contains six theses concerning Christian faith, which were meant to contest the claims of the German Christian movement. Briefly, these theses can be summarized as follows:

  1. Jesus Christ is the source of Christian faith, and no secular sources can replace Christ as the sole Word of God to the human race.
  2. The Gospel of Christ is the central Christian message, and therefore all of life is belongs to Christ. including the arena of political life and leadership.
  3. Since the Gospel is central to the Christian message, the church is not free to abandon or change it to meet contemporary ideological or political movements.
  4. The offices of the church (and therefore leadership) are not for domination, but for service and ministry to the congregation.
  5. The state has a divine role in providing for peace and justice, but cannot become a single totalitarian order for human life or intrude into the religious arena.
  6. The church has a divine calling to share the Gospel with the world, and cannot be placed into the service of an ideology or secular purpose or plan.

The Fano Declaration

The Bethel Confession and Barmen Declaration are important for understanding Bonhoeffer’s political activities, for by the end of 1934 they constituted the basis of the positions taken by the Confessing Churches and Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the German Christians that reached its climax in a conference at Fano, Norway, later in the year. As a result of Barmen, Bonhoeffer took the position that the true church in Germany was the Confessing Church, which ought to be represented at international gatherings and recognized as the legitimate Christian church. Many people were against this idea, including some of his traditional allies. In other words, Bonhoeffer did not want the Confessing Church to be recognized as “a” free and independent German evangelical church, but as “the” German Evangelical Church, the legitimate form of the Protestant Church in Germany. [3]

In the end, after a time of intense activity, Bonhoeffer was able to achieve a startling victory in the language that the conference used to condemn the Nazi regime. The conference adopted resolutions that centered the mission of the church in the proclamation of the Word of God and condemned the nationalistic principle of the Reich Church and the use of the Word for purely nationalistic aims calling the church to obey God and not men. [4] As one author puts it:

It (Fano) stated the belief of the Council in “the special task of the ecumenical movement to express and deepen the essence of mutual responsibility in all parts of the Christian Church.” It recognized “the peculiar difficulties of a situation of revolution” but went on to declare autocratic church rule, use of force, and the suppression of free discussion as “incompatible with the true nature of the Christian Church,” and asked “in the name of the Gospel” for proper freedom of teaching and life on the German Evangelical Church. It endorsed the action taken by the bishop of Chichester. And most decisively: “The Council desires to assure its brethren in the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church of its prayers and heartfelt sympathy in their witness to the principles of the Gospel, and of its resolve to maintain close fellowship with them.” This represented a major triumph for the ecumenical support of the Confessing Church…. [5]

Fano and Bonhoeffer’s Pacifism

At Fano, Bonhoeffer preached an important sermon on the subject of peace and the obligation of the ecumenical churches to stand on the side of peace. [6] In this address, Bonhoeffer rejected the secular avenues so often thought to pave the way towards a peaceful international order, based as they are on socio-economic factors and the desire for security:

How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through big banks? Through money? Or through the peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look got guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying down the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes.  Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God.  They are won when the way leads to the cross[7]

This particular speech of Bonhoeffer was much criticized, coming as it did at the time of German rearmament when the nations of the world were beginning to awake to the danger Germany presented to world peace. It has stood the test of time as a call for radical obedience to the Gospel and reflects Bonhoeffer’s inherent pacifism and interest in Gandhi’s form of nonviolence, which in fact he was studying at the time of the Conference.

After the conference at Fano, Bonhoeffer needed to leave Germany and the high-profile position he held for a time. His adamant opposition to Hitler had aroused opposition in both the secular and religious institutions in Germany. His friends did not want him to waste his life and talents as a theologian and pastor in the disputes in Germany, where he might well be arrested. He therefore took a position in London as a pastor of a German congregation there. From that position, he made important friendships in the British Anglican Church and continued to oppose the German Christian movement and its leadership. During this period, Bonhoeffer became convinced that the Christian church in the west was in deep trouble, dying in fact.

As his time in London was coming to an end, Bonhoeffer wrote Gandhi a letter recently discovered among Gandhi’s papers. In the letter, Bonhoeffer asked if he could join Gandhi’s ashram for about six months, not simply to resolve the issue of the efficacy of nonviolence in the German situation but to seek the path by which Western Christianity might be regenerated. [8] Gandhi issued an invitation, but before he could attend, the call to serve the Confessing Church in its need for seminary education interfered. Nevertheless, this part of his journey is illuminating. His study of the Sermon on the Mount, and his interest in Gandhi influenced Bonhoeffer to seriously consider pacifism as an option, and in fact to become a kind of pacifist. Before leaving Britain, and in preparation for his leadership of a Confessing Church seminary, Bonhoeffer visited several Anglican communities in Britain to understand better the kind of community he hoped to create—a community he hoped would model the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.

His continuing study of the Sermon on the Mount influenced him in the direction of pacifism and conscientious objection to military service. While leading the Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde, his pacifism became an issue during a time when it was expected that young Germans would serve in the military and support the German government as had the generation that fought in World War I. [9]


By the time Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to lead the Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde, he was well-known in the ecumenical movement and had many contacts that might be useful in the future. He was respected by the leading theological figures of his day, even if he was felt to be a bit hard-headed and difficult to see compromise. He had begun the line of thought that would produce his two greatest works, “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together,” both of which would be completed in the years to come. He was prepared not just to write about the Christian life but to embody it in a special and unique way that continues to impact Christian faith and practice to our own day.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Bethel Confession (November 1933 version) “On Holy Scripture” (downloaded September 14, 2022)

[2] Arthur C. Cochrane, “The Theological Declaration of Barmen” The Church’s Confessions Under Hitler (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 237–242.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (Cleveland, OH: Fount Books, 1958), at 278. This work is hereinafter referred to as “No Rusty Swords”.

[4] No Rusty Swords, at 289.

[5] Keith Clements, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Quest (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 2015), 139.

[6] No Rusty Swords, “The Church and the Peoples of the World,” at 284.

[7] Id, at 285-286.

[8] Graham Davey, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Journey not Made” The Gandhi Way: Newsletter of the Gandhi Foundation at (Downloaded September 20, 2022).

[9] See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 406-411 for a moving and more complete discussion of the impact of Gandhi on Bonhoeffer as it relates to his concern for the church in Europe and pacifism.

Bonhoeffer 2: Early Resistance

Preparation for Resistance

By the time of the emergence of Hitler and the National Socialist Party, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a well-educated Christian with a good family background, trained as a theologian, ordained as a pastor, active in the Ecumenical Movement, and a member of the Lutheran Church of Germany. Every aspect of his development was important in his development as a leader of the Confessing Church movement that opposed Hitler’s policies regarding the church in Germany and later in opposing Hitler’s regime. In fact, Bonhoeffer seems to have had an instinctive understanding of the dangers that Hitler and the Nazi Party held for Germany.

As a theologian, he was familiar with the Lutheran “Two Orders of Government” doctrine. Luther followed Augustine in holding that secular government was a part of the “Order of Creation,” responsible for temporal affairs, while the Church was part of the “Order of Grace,” responsible for the spiritual life of its members. [1] According to this view, the State is necessary because of the Fall, which resulted in humankind needing coercion in order for law and order to be maintained and human society to flourish. Nevertheless, governments and leaders are themselves always morally ambiguous, since they are corrupted by the sin that infects all human institutions and wield the power of the sword, able to compel obedience by force as opposed to invoking obedience by the power of truth and justice. This Augustinian/Lutheran insight and the problems it entails stand at the basis of Bonhoeffer’s political thought.

Order of Preservation

The emergence of Nazism forced Bonhoeffer to reevaluate Luther’s categories, and early on he preferred to speak of “Order of Preservation” as opposed to “Order of Creation” with respect to governmental authority and responsibility. The term “Order of Preservation” emphasizes the role of government to preserve human life and to make possible peace and human flourishing and implicitly places limitations on government and the use of the power of the sword. In his view, Hitler’s Germany was not properly conducting its role as it was destroying and alienating life, not preserving and protecting it. Thus, the young Bonhoeffer writes:

The broken character of the order of peace is expressed in the fact that the peace is expressed in the fact that the peace commanded by God has two limits, first the truth and secondly justice. There can only be a community of peace when it does not rest on lies and on injustice. Where a community of peace endangers or chokes truth and justice, the community of peace must be broken and battle joined. [2]

From the beginning, Bonhoeffer was aware of the evil potential of the Nazi regime and the need to resist Nazi ideology, wherever the truth was being compromised and injustice instituted as state policy. In this quotation one sees the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr on Bonhoeffer’s thought. If truth, morality, and justice are ignored or subverted by a government the fundamental peace intended by God, and therefore the duty of obedience to the state cannot be legitimately enforced by the state on any theological grounds.

The Aryan Clause

The first example of the evil of the Nazi state involved the introduction of the so-called “Aryan Clauses” that restricted the Jewish population of Germany in particular it restricted those of Jewish blood from church leadership. Bonhoeffer immediately saw the evil in this. In his first work against the Nazi’s he wrote:

Thus even today, in the Jewish question, it cannot address the state directly and demand of it some specific action of a different nature. But that does not mean that it lets political action slip by disinterest; it can and should, precisely because it does not moralize in individual instances constantly ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate actions of the state, i.e. as actions that create law and order, not lawlessness and disorder. [3]

Even at this early stage, Bonhoeffer is both working within the historic “Two Kingdoms” division of Luther, but is also at the same time preserving the right of the Church and its members to hold the state accountable for its stewardship of the divine task it has been given. Finally, Bonhoeffer is struggling his way forward from inherited theological categories that do not fit the current situation.

Fundamentally, Bonhoeffer clearly saw that the German government had a responsibility to work for the good of all of its citizens, Jews and Gentiles, Aryans and Non-Aryans alike. Where the state failed to do this, it was failing as a preserver of life, justice, and social peace. In other words, Bonhoeffer is working from a Judeo-Christian notion that governments should serve the interests of the people. Implicit in this insight is the insight that a government that was acting against the preservation of its citizens, needed to be replaced by one that would.

Social Critique and the German Christians.

From the beginning, Bonhoeffer believed that the primary role of the church was to bring to bear historic Christian theology upon the issues of his day. “The preaching of the church is therefore necessarily “political,” i.e. it is directed at the order of politics in which the human race is engaged.” [4] Early in the Nazi Regime, Hitler and others began a process of subordinating the church to the ideology and control of the Third Reich. This effort began with the creation of the the German Christian Faith Movement (1932), which was anti-Semitic and involved importing into the Christian faith elements of Aryan influenced neo-paganism. Similar to some efforts today, the German Christians downgraded the importance and authority of the Old Testament and of the letters of Paul because of their Jewish authorship. As a participant in the Ecumenical movement and as a member of the Confessing Church community, his primary focus was theological. His initial resistance was purely against the German Christian movement and its theological errors.  [5]

In 1933, the Nazi government succeeded in merging the Protestant churches of the various German federal states and creating the German Evangelical Church. In order to solidify their control, that same year a “German Christian” candidate, Ludwig Müller, was elected to the leadership of the church as Reichsbischof (“Reich Bishop”). The movement acceded to the Nazi definition of a Jew based on the religion of his or her grandparents. Thus, many practicing Christians whose families had converted a generation before were defined as Jews and excluded from the church.

Bonhoeffer saw several theological problems with the German Christian movement. First of all, since the earliest days of the church when confronted with Marcion’s heresy, Christians had accepted the full canonical status of the Old Testament, as part of the witness to Christ. [6] Second, the exclusion of the Old Testament by German Christians as authoritative was not motivated by theological concerns but by anti-Semitism, which Bonhoeffer viewed as immoral and contrary to the Christian ethic of love. Third, the goal of the German Christian theological efforts was political not theological and involved the church supporting a secular ideology antithetical to Christian faith. This led to his final critique, which is that this effort resulted in a heretical, neo-pagan faith. In Bonhoeffer’s view, the German Christian movement and its leadership of the Protestant churches of Germany rendered those churches fundamentally suspect.

Nazi Leadership Principle

Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 20,1933. Bonhoeffer was one of the first to protest and oppose the regime in a broadcast of February 1, 19933—a broadcast that was cut short by the governmental censors. [7]This broadcast was directly opposed to the “Leadership Principle” advocated by the Nazi Party, vesting Hitler with almost unlimited powers and responsibilities to achieve the social good of Germany, even at the expense of the family, the church, and other mediating institutions. In this address, Bonhoeffer began by looking at the generational changes that had taken place in Germany since the First World War, changes that led directly to the emergence of the Nazi party and Hitler with his “Leadership Principle.” In the end, Bonhoeffer believed that the results of the First World War, the reparations demanded of Germany by the victorious allies, the depression and other factors had created a generation that had experienced a complete collapse of the very foundations of the society in which they lived. [8]

The result, Bonhoeffer believed was the emergence of a generation who did not “see reality as it is, they do not even reflect on what it can be, but see it as it should be. They naively regard it as capable of any development and transformation and they see it as the elements of a kingdom of God on earth now in the process of realization.” [9] In other words, the cultural realities of Germany between the two wars had allowed the creation of a generation that naively failed to recognize the limitations of the state or any leader, thus making Hitler possible.

In seeking an illusory “kingdom of God on earth” Bonhoeffer believed that the German people had become seduced by a notion of leadership divorced from the kinds of checks and balances that wisdom and a love of freedom urge upon people”

One thing is above all characteristic of this new form (of leadership): whereas earlier leadership was expressed in the position of the teacher, the statesman, the father, in other words in given orders and offices, now the leader has become an independent figure. The leader is completely divorced from any office; he is essentially and only the leader. What does this signify? Whereas leadership earlier rested on commitment, now it rests on choice. [10]

Bonhoeffer saw that Hitler as Fuehrer, with the Nazi “leadership principle” as its theoretical base cut off leadership from any of the roles, duties, obligations and offices that restrict the actions of a leader. The result was that the nation and its population became the servant of the whims of a leader empowered to govern as he or she chose. Bonhoeffer believed this secular notion of leadership put the state and the leader in the place of God, which is contrary to both common sense and the religious idea that even the greatest secular leader is subject to God. It is almost inevitable that a leader acts unwisely and immorally if cut off from that structure of responsibility and servanthood that a democratic society requires.[11] Bonhoeffer believed that the Nazi Leadership Principle and its embodiment in the Fuehrer abrogated the Order of Creation and Order of Grace and placed the leader in an inhuman, uncontrolled and godlike position that no human being should have or possess.


By the time Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer was in possession of the theological insight necessary to effectively critique the Nazi ideology and its excesses. He was also well positioned as a respected figure in the ecumenical movement to have a voice not just in Germany but also overseas to lead a resistance against the regime. Next week, we shall review his work in creating and giving a theological structure to the Confessing Church movement as it developed a theological opposition to Hitlerism.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Luther divided human institutions into three basic categories: the household [oeconomiam], the government [politiam], and the church [ecclesiam]. See, Oswald Bayer, “Nature and Institution: Luther’s Doctrine of Three Orders” (downloaded, August 19, 2022).

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (Cleveland, OH: Fount Books, 1958), at 154. This work is hereinafter referred to as “No Rusty Swords”.

[3] No Rusty Swords, 219.

[4] No Rusty Swords, “What is the Church” (1932). I have substituted “human race” for “men” in the quote, which is what I believe Bonhoeffer intended.

[5] No Rusty Swords, “A Theological Basis for the World Alliance” (July 1932). In this and other works, Bonhoeffer displays a kind of biblical realism, using the Bible and confessional theology to call the secular state to accountability.

[6] Marcion believed that the Old Testament Scriptures were not authoritative for Christians and denied that the God of the Old Testament was the same God presented in the New Testament.

[7] No Rusty Swords, “The Leader and the Individual in the Younger Generation” (1933), at 187-200. In this, I think that there are similarities between that generation of Germany and that of the United States after the Viet Nam War and other social and political upheavals of the last forty hears of the 20th Century and first twenty years of the 21st Century.

[8] Id, at 189.

[9] Id, at 189.

[10] Id, at 191.

[11] Id, at 195-199. I am summarizing and hopefully clarifying a long argument in which Bonhoeffer critiques the leadership principle as unbounded by the structures of responsibility that are inherent in the view that there are orders of life that give meaning and purpose to human life, and it is the responsibility of government to respect those orders and serve them.

Bonhoeffer 1: A Man Called to “Come, Follow Me”

By April 1945, World War II was nearing its end. East of Berlin, the Russian Army was beginning its final thrust into the capital of the Third Reich. To the West, Allied armies had crossed the Rhine River were barreling towards the Elbe River, their final strategic objective. At Buchenwald Prison, the thunder of artillery could be heard in the distance. The war could not last much longer. If only the prisoners could hold out a little longer, they would live. [1]

Some time that day, it was announced that certain prisoners, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would be leaving the prison camp. Two days later, sixteen people left in a wood-fed van. Smoke filled the back of the van, nearly suffocating those on the journey. In Berlin, the diaries of Admiral Carnaris were discovered on April 4th. These diaries contained information implicating Bonhoeffer and others in the conspiracy of high-ranking German intelligence personnel to kill Hitler and make peace. Hitler was incensed and set in motion the events that resulted in Bonhoeffer’s death.

On April 8th, Bonhoeffer led the little band of prisoners in a worship service from the Isaiah 53, As Bonhoeffer completed the service, a Gestapo officer entered with the words, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.” These words always meant an execution. He said goodbye to his fellow travelers with a final word, “This is the end. For me, the beginning.” He was executed the next day at Flossenburg Prison at the age of thirty-nine. In the years since his death, he has been recognized as a martyr, a theologian of great ability, and a preacher and leader of note.

Preparation for Public Life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) did not grow up in a political family. His father was a prominent psychiatrist and not religious. His mother was from an intellectual and religious family and seems to have been the source of his initial religious education and experience. He was a bright child and received the finest possible education. In his teen years, he declared he wanted to be a theologian, a decision from which he never wavered.

In 1927, Bonhoeffer received his doctorate with the highest honors, and his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio or “Sacred Community” was thought to be brilliant. His growing and early theological reputation brought him to the attention of Karl Barth, with whom he became friends. In 1930, he published his second dissertation, Act and Being, which ensured an academic career and his reputation as an emerging great theologian.

Before his death Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), which has become a Christian classic. In it, he coined the phrases, “Easy Grace” and Costly Grace, and proclaimed, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” In April 1945 that last phrase came true for a young man who had returned to Germany years earlier to share the suffering of the German people and work for the overthrow of the evil regime of Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s life and death are a testimony to the unfortunate truth that the blood of martyrs nurtures the church’s life.

Decision to Suffer

In 1930, Just after writing his dissertation, Bonhoeffer was given the opportunity to study in the United States at Union Seminary in New York City. His first visit to the United States gave him the opportunity to meet prominent American religious figures, including Reinhold Niebuhr. He was able to travel widely and expand his understanding of Christian faith. He often worshiped in Harlem and came to admire the faith of the American Black Church. He wanted to go from the United States to India to meet and learn from Gandhi, but cost and the situation in Germany prevented this meeting. One wonders what difference it would have made had he been able to meet and study under him. In America, Bonhoeffer seems to have had a kind of spiritual awakening.

Returning to Germany. Bonhoeffer immediately visited Karl Barth and became a theological lecturer in Berlin. His theology reflects the influence of Barth, but remains uniquely his. In time, Bonhoeffer became influential church and theological circles of this day, active in the Ecumenical Movement in Europe, and ultimately one of the first churchmen to oppose Hitler. When Hitler was made Chancellor in 1931, Bonhoeffer was immediately in the opposition.

Bonhoeffer was active in the creation of the confessional movement that ultimately produced the Barmen Declaration in 1934. In 1935, he became head of the Confessing Church Seminary, which lead to the publication of his books, Cost of Discipleship and later Life Together (1938). After the seminary was closed by the Nazi regime in 1937, he was given an opportunity to work in churches in England, where he made many contacts with the Ecumenical Movement and leaders in the British Church.

As the persecution of the Confessing Church became more intense, friends of Bonhoeffer made arrangements for him to return to America in 1939, where he would have been safe as a refuge during the war. Shortly after arriving, Bonhoeffer seems to have had a moment of clarity, realizing that be must return to Germany and share the suffering of the German People. He returned. Explaining his decision, he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, who had helped create a place of safety for him:

“I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” [2]

Once in Germany, he was given a position with the Abwehr (2939), where he became a colleague of those within the German military intelligence community who opposed the Hitler’s Nazi regime and were working to change the leadership of Germany. He was well equipped to be a courier for the Abwehr because of his many ecumenical contacts and invitations to travel to neighboring countries. He acted as a kind of double agent, carrying messages to the allies while gathering information for Germany. Ultimately, he became aware of and participated in the plot to kill Hither. He was arrested in 1943 and spent the remainder of his life in prison.

A Preference for Pacifism

Much ink has been spilled in analyzing Bonhoeffer’s “pacifism and attempting to square it with his participation in the plot to kill and replace Hitler as the head of the German government. One helpful essay has been written that describes Bonhoeffer’s view as a Conditional Pacifism. [3] I do not like theological quibbles over words, but it seems to me that the word Conditional and Preference both reflect the underlying reality that Bonhoeffer embraced pacifism and embodied pacifism, but felt that under the circumstances of Nazi Germany, he was required to support every possible means to replace Hitler and the Nazi Regime, The death camps argue that he was right in his decision, though it cost him his life when it was discovered that he was aware of the plot against Hitler and assisted Admiral Canaris and others by acting as courier of information to the West.

Bonhoeffer’s participation was not necessarily in the actual plot itself. Fundamentally, he used his contacts to spread information about the resistance movement. During various trips to Italy, Switzerland, and Scandinavia in 1941 and 1942, he informed them of resistance activities and tried, in turn, to gain foreign support for the German resistance. In addition, he worked with Canaris and Hans Dohnanyi to save the lives of Jews who were subject to Nazi persecution. The effortresulted in moving fourteen Jews out to Switzerland). Once again, Bonhoeffer used his ecumenical contacts to arrange visas and sponsors for the group. The last of these were rescued in 1942. Unfortunately, the Gestapo traced the vast amounts of money that the conspirators had sent abroad for the emigrants. The arrests of Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer followed in April 1943. [4]

In other words, he was essentially a non-violent participation in the work of the resistance as he used his contacts in the Ecumenical Movement, and particularly British Bishop Bell to inform the West of the fact that there were those in Germany who were actively opposing Hitler. I view this as a non-violent act of faith and patriotism to attempt to prevent the kind of suffering the German people were ultimately subjected to by the way the war ended.

Meaning and Message of his Life

His friends knew Bonhoeffer was more than a brilliant theologian. He was a person of exceptional faith and character who returned to Germany from safety in America to share the suffering of the German people, despite the fact that he had been taken from Germany because he was in danger as a known enemy of the Nazi regime. Had Bonhoeffer not returned to Germany, resisted Hitler, been imprisoned, and died, he would today be remembered as a brilliant, little read, German theologian. His courage and willingness to suffer made him a martyr to the Christian faith and a person of international, intergenerational influence among Christians and others.

In The Cost of Discipleship when Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die,” he means that the cross is the place where we die to ourselves, our agendas, our plans, our hopes, our dreams, our needs, our wants, in order that the world in which we live and work may be given new life. We die to ourselves when we begin to live for others. We are crucified when we begin to sacrifice our own plans, programs, ideas, needs, etc. for the plans, programs, ideas, and needs of others. Bonhoeffer died to himself for the survival of Christian faith in Germany.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a choice whether he would return to Germany. He had a choice as to whether he would continue to speak out against Hitler. He had a choice as to whether he would work for German intelligence carrying messages to the West from the German resistance. Each of those choices entailed an increasing risk of the death he eventually suffered. He chose to bear the Cross of Christ in Nazi Germany. God did not force him to do it. Nor will God force us in our own day and time.

In the end, Bonhoeffer’s enduring legacy is as a human being who, in faith, believed that human beings must face the circumstances in which they find themselves and make responsible decisions before God. Moral rules are important, but beyond moral rules there is faith, a relationship with God, and a willingness to live in relationship of loving service with others. It is his willingness to live before God and act responsibly to confront evil that is his great legacy.


In the next two weeks, we will look at the substance of the political theology of Bonhoeffer as it was worked out by him under the pressure of concrete events in Germany during his lifetime. We will look at his early resistance to Hitler’s regime, his work in the ecumenical movement, where he fought against the Nazi coopted “German Christian” movement, his belief that the Confessing church was the true church in Germany and must fight the neo-paganism of the German Christian leadership, and finally his participation in the plot against Hitler, which resulted in his early and tragic death.

[1] The biographical portion of this blog is based on the biography of his friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010) and Mary Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968).

[2] This letter is often quoted. I am using the quote as recorded by Learn Religious, “Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian and Martyr” at (downloaded August 25, 2022)

[3] Clifford J. Green, “Pacifism and Tyrannicide: Bonhoeffer’s Peace Ethic” available at (December 1, 2005). Green’s notion of Conditional Pacifism is helpful. Bonhoeffer wanted to be a pacifist and felt that the Sermon on the Mount recommended and even demanded it, but the life of Grace is also the life of responsible action—the evil of Hitler was simply too great to fail to act to end his rule. This is my interpretation of the place in which Bonhoeffer found himself during and before World War II.

  1. Victoria Barnett, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Resistance and Execution” United States Holocaust Museum (downloaded August 29, 2022).

Kingdom of God 2: The Spiritual Foundation of God’s Kingdom

This week, I am doing a second of what may become a series of Blogs on the spiritual foundations of the notion of the Kingdom of God. Last week we looked at Isaiah. This week we skip to the end and look at end of Revelation. The project of which these blogs are a part is a look at political theology and philosophy. Interestingly, an understanding of the Kingdom of God is essential to a proper political theology and of why it is that “Secular Millenarianism” is deeply mistaken. Scholars have long noted that certain political ideologies have secularized the concept of the “Kingdom of God” and turned it into the ideal of a “Perfect Human Society.” Communism has been the most prominent of those ideologies, but the same can be said of certain right wing attempts to create a perfect world, for example the libertarian idea of eliminating government and its regulation from the lives of people.

In this blog I am looking at the way the New Testament, and in particular Revelation, takes the political ideal of the “Messianic Kingdom” found in the Old Testament and transmutes it into a spiritual ideal, or what I will call a “Transcendental Ideal” for the guidance of the Church, as the people of God who have been called out of the world into a fellowship that anticipates, but does not realize the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

The Heavenly City, the Bride and the Church

In Revelation 21, John has a vision of the people of God as a “Heavenly City,” a New Jerusalem:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:1-4).

In the Heavenly City John envisions, there is no more death, nor morning, nor crying, nor pain (Rev 21:1-6). All those things within human history which result from our sinful human nature and the natural operation of creation, war, greed, poverty, starvation, hunger, lack of water, and the like—all these things pass away. In other words, the Heavenly City is not primarily a physical achievement of God or men in this world, but a spiritual vision of the church as God intends and through which he intends to redeem humankind—a vision which transcends this world.

In the vision, the Heavenly City as the Bride of Christ, comes from Heaven into our world. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem was the Holy City. It was an earthly city, the capital of the Kingdom of David, and thought to be the seat of the Messiah. On the other hand, it was the place where God and the heavens touched the earth in a special way, for God was present in Jerusalem and int the temple.

By the time Revelation was written, the City of God was not seen by John as a physical place. The Heavenly City was no longer the earthly Jerusalem ruled by the Messianic King.  Instead the Heavenly City is “the Bride of Christ,” not a place but a community of people set apart by God in which God rules and the Spirit is alive and active. [1]

This vision underscores a new understanding of the Kingdom of God, an understanding that evolves in the minds of the apostolic writers from the resurrection forward. In John 18:36, Jesus himself declares the true nature of the Kingdom of God when he says:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:36-37).

In this passage, Jesus is communicating that the Kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom, but a kingdom unlike any earthly kingdom. It is a spiritual kingdom established by Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit which will be evident in his resurrection.

In Romans, Paul underscores the nature of God’s new kingdom saying that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” Romans 14:7). Thus, the Kingdom of God is not focused on earthly comforts, on the achievement of material prosperity, and the like, as are earthly kingdoms. It concerns the spiritual truth embodied by Christ received in faith by believers (John 18:37).

At the end of the Acts, we see Paul ending his ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God, as he lives in house arrest in Rome. Dr. Luke records that:

He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance (Acts 28:30-31).

In the New Testament, the Kingdom of God is connected to the presence of the power of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, and the new kind of life and community Jesus inaugurated through his life, death, and resurrection. In the New Testament, the church is the gathering of those called (“ecclesia” or “those called out”) to live under the gracious rule of Christ in which the power of faith, hope and love is to be seen and experienced. This kingdom is not the result of any human wisdom or power, but the result of the power of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 14:20).

In the end perhaps the best way to understand Paul’s message is to understand the Kingdom of God as an ideal toward which the church strives. The notion that the Kingdom of God is a transcendental ideal is indicated by the words of Jesus in Luke 17:20-21:

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

In other words, the Kingdom of God is not the kind of thing that can be seen with merely human eyes. It is perceived in relationships of faith, hope and love by those called into the Kingdom by God. It is seen in the people of God, who have eyes to see its hidden reality in the Church and in the people of God. The church is to embody in some respects the kingdom for the Kingdom of God exists wherever the people of God live in community by the Spirit.

The River of God’s Presence

At the end of Revelation, John records a final vision of the Kingdom of God: [2]

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever. The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.” (Rev 22:1-6)

In this passage, John returns to a theme that runs throughout Scripture from beginning to end. In Genesis, a river flows from the Garden of Eden functioning as the headwaters of natural rivers, and within that Garden is the Tree of Life, a symbol of God’s life-giving and life-sustaining power (Gen. 2:9-10). In Ezekiel, there is a similar vision as the prophet has a vision of a river flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem—a river that produces abundant life and trees which have healing properties (Ezekiel 47:1-12). In John, Jesus identifies himself as the source of Living Water, when he says, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” [3]

In Revelation 21, the author returns to this vision of Christ as the giver of life by the Holy Spirit when he says: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. (Rev 21:6). The vision of Ezekiel has become the spiritual River of the Spirit by which the people of god and the City of God are born, are nourished and reproduce.

By this proclamation, the Risen Christ is reaffirming the promise of the prophet Isaiah:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. (Isaiah 55:1-3).

In the vision of Revelation, many of the important elements of the vision in Ezekiel are present. It is a divine vision given by an angel (Ezek 47, Rev. 21:1). The vision is of a river, this time not flowing from the temple but from the throne of God and of the Lamb of God (Rev 22:2). In Ezekiel, the river has an unusual quality, as the water flows it becomes deeper and deeper until it is so deep that the river is uncrossable (Ezek 47:5). In Ezekiel’s vision the waters of the Dead Sea, where nothing can live become able to support life and fruit trees grow on the banks of the river (Ezek 47:12). In Revelation, there is a unique a single tree with twelve trunks, like an Aspen in Colorado, growing on the side of the river (Rev 22:2).

In both Ezekiel and Revelation, it is nearly impossible to avoid the conclusion that the river is the Spirit of God flowing into the world through the witness of the Apostles and the Church with its mysterious power to create new life. This Spirit of God was often seen as a special spiritual power in the Old Testament. In the New Testament the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Christ present in and through the people of God. It is the power of God shown on the Cross and within the Church for the renewal of the human race and the world through the Gospel of Love. Thus, in Jesus, the images of Isaiah and Ezekiel are spiritualized and expanded to replace any physical implications with spiritual reality. [4]

The River and Tree of Life

In Revelation 22, John’s vision is of a spiritual river, “the river of the water of life” flowing from the throne of God and of Christ, the Lamb of God. It flows down the middle of the Main Street of the Heavenly City (the people of God), those who have been called out of the world to become God’s children and family. These people are called to expand God’s Kingdom by bearing the same fruit as Christ bore, disciples who have felt the grace of God and live in loving community with one another (Rev. 22:1-2). [5]

In Revelation, the River of the Holy Spirit flowing from the Throne of God passes through the Heavenly City out into the world. On each side of that river is the Tree of Life—a tree of Divine Life of the Resurrected Christ, the divine life from which Adam and Eve were separated by sin in the Garden of Eden and from which we are separated by our own sin, selfishness, and finitude. In other words, the tree John sees is the Tree of God’s secret Wisdom and Love and its leaves are the product of the love of God showed through Christ, the Lamb of God. As the River of the Spirit of Love travels through the City of God (the Church), carrying apostolic testimony of the Twelve Apostles, it bears fruit each month—twelve times each year (Revelation 22:2). Furthermore the leaves of Tree of are for the healing of the nations—for the healing of the ancient curse of the Fall and its terrible consequences in human history (Rev.22:2). [6]

In other words, the role of disciples is to act as healing influences in their own day and time. If the river is the spirit, and the twelve trees are the twelve apostles, then the leaves on the tree are all those who come to faith by the hearing and believing of the Word of God because of the apostolic witness of the disciples. The growth and expansion of the Kingdom of God is symbolized by the fruitful leaves of the Tree of Life. [7]

The Light of God’s Guidance

At the end of the vision, Revelation informs us that, in the Heavenly City there will be no more night for the Lord God will give the people of God his True Light (Rev 21: 3-5). One thing the Church learns from its missionary experience is that God will give it the light to do his will if it simply allows God to give us the True Light which comes from Christ through the Holy Spirit. This light of God in Christ is that wisdom and love we can only receive from God by grace, for it transcends any earthly wisdom (I Cor 1:18-25). The Kingdom of God is enlightened by the wisdom and love of Christ which is given to it by the Holy Spirit as it leads the Church of God and people of God into all truth (John 16:12).


This understanding of the Kingdom of God is important, for it leads us to three inescapable conclusions that are important for any political theology:

  1. The Kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom and cannot be established by any earthly means. It is a kingdom created by the Holy Spirit as it works in the lives of human beings.
  2. The Kingdom of God is, therefore, a spiritual kingdom. In its earthly form, as the church, it is provisionally present in the church of God as it lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Any political use of the term Kingdom of God to guide practical activity comes from the attempt by people of faith to achieve a provisional concrete step in the world for the achievement of a transcendental ideal found in Scripture.

Too often Christians follow the lead of secular thinkers, who have made concrete the transcendental ideal of the Heavenly Kingdom in some ideology, right or left. It is famously present in the notion of Marxism that a perfect society will emerge as human beings cooperate with economic forces which will create a classless society of perfect equality.

The excesses of Communist regimes and those in the West who attempt to inaugurate an earthly paradise through  political power and the management of economic forces is doomed to failure. Such attempts inevitably ignoresthe deep moral and spiritual roots of the Kingdom of God and of the “New Heaven and New Earth” as it emerges in Scripture and in the Christian tradition.


[1] In my view, the terms “City of God” and “Kingdom of God” are interchangeable. A city is a polity, or a kingdom, and in the ancient world what we would call nations or empires were referred to as cities, such as the Roman Empire or Athenian Empire or the Babylonian Empire. John and the other writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek and the Greek concept of the “City-State” was a part of their thought-world. What the New Testament writers did was take this common idea of their culture and make it a transcendental ideal for the people of God.

[2] The technical aspects of writing on Revelation are daunting to say the least. I am grateful for the following commentators, William Barclay, “Revelation” in the Daily Study Bible Vol. 2 rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1940, 1967), and Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993).

[3] See, John 4:13-14, Proverbs 18:4 and Isaiah 55:1 for examples of the way in which God’s blessing is associated with water.

[4] The great error of Communism and various other ideologies, such as National Socialism and some modern forms of secular humanistic liberalism is its attempt to attain the transcendental ideal of the Kingdom within history, which is impossible and leads to the kind of mass terror seen in Russia, China, Nazi Germany, Cambodia and other places where there has been an attempt to reach and end of history within history. Human nature being what it is, this is an impossible ideal and leads to violence and oppression.

[5] See, David E. Aune, “Revelation 17-22” in Word Biblical Commentary vol. 52c (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1177.:“The “trees of life” in Paradise are metaphors for the faithful.” This image makes it clear that the twelve crops during the twelve months of every year are the fruit of the apostolic testimony, which includes the expansion of the Kingdom of God through the Gospel (Rev 22:3), which will result in the healing of the nations (v. 2).

[6] William C. Weinrich, ed “Revelation” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament vol. XII (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2005): 387-393. The healing of the nations includes the healing of violence, war death, economic injustice, and all the personal and social results of the Fall of the human race recorded in Genesis.

[7] Thus, in the first instance, the Kingdom of God is a purely Christian, religious ideal. It is not a concrete reality within history; it is a transcendent ideal towards which history moves. When we say, as we do, that the Kigdom is provisionally present in the church, we mean exactly what is being said. Within the imperfections of human history and the church as part of hat history, the Kingdom of God can be partially and imperfectly present as people reach out and live in love with one another.

The Kingdom of the Lion/Lamb

In his book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe [1] the Christian author, C. S. Lewis creates the figure of Aslan. [2] Aslan is a Christ Figure, the “Great Lion,” “Son of the Emperor Beyond the Sea.” Near the beginning as the name “Aslan” is mentioned, Peter, Susan, and Lucy are strangely attracted to the name. But, when they learn that he is a lion, they begin to wonder just what it will be like to meet a great and powerful beast, the Great Lion himself. So, during a conversation in Beaver’s House, Lucy asks the question, “Is he safe?” “Safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about Safe? Course he isn’t. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” [3]

Lewis took his image of Aslan as a Christ figure from texts in Old and New Testaments that speak of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah in Messianic terms. As early as Genesis the Bible prophesies;

Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Genesis 49:9-10).

Over and over in Scripture references are made to the lion-like character of the Messianic King, and often to the lion-like character of Israel’s king. David symbolized the hopes of Israel. It is one of the staples of Old Testament and New Testament prophesy. [4] However, unless we look at all of Scripture, we may be misled concerning the nature of the King and of his kingdom. In looking at the notion of the Messianic King, we will also look at the New Testament for a look at Revelation and the figure of the Messiah it embodies.

What Kind of King Is This/What Kind of Kingdom?

One important continuing theme in political theology is the notion of the “Kingdom of God.” In this blog, we look at the assumptions of Israel concerning the figure of the Messianic King and the Kingdom he was going to institute. We, like the ancient Jews, begin by receiving the revelation of Christ as the Lion of Judah and Son of David, one who saves us and brings us into the Kingdom of God. However, that great revelation blinded Israel (and often blinds Christians today) to another side of the revelation of Christ—the fact that the “Lion of Judah” is also the “Lamb of God” and the kingdom of the Lion/Lamb King is unlike any earthly kingdom we can imagine. As we shall see next week, the vision of the Kingdom of God is a vision that transcends any earthly Kingdom we could possibly create.

Although our focus this week is on the expected King, these passages give us an understanding of the expected Kingdom. Every king has a kingdom. Every leader and every king, has an influence on the kind of kingdom he or she rules, for the laws, customs and expectations of a leader influences the nature of the kingdom. Therefore, unless we properly understand the nature of the Messianic King, we cannot understand the Messianic Kingdom, and when we understand the nature of the Messianic Kingdom, we understand the Messianic King.

The Lion of Judah

One of the most familiar of all Christmas texts comes from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 11 it is recorded:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10).

The first part of Isaiah is filled with descriptions of an anticipated Son of David, who will restore David’s Kingdom and the land of Israel and who will reign over God’s people with unusual, even supernatural wisdom and insight. In one of the most quoted Christmas verses in Isaiah the author writes:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever (Isaiah 9:6-7).

In Isaiah 11, we see an even more dramatic vision of the Messiah and of his kingdom. This king will act like no king or ruler in the history of the world past or present: there will be justice for the poor and needy unlike anything the ancient Jews or modern Americans experience. There will be a time of extraordinary justice, and the wicked, who so often get away with their crimes, will finally be punished. In Isaiah’s vision, even nature will be impacted by the coming of the Messianic King: lions will lie down with lambs and leopards will lie down with goats. Instead of meat, carnivores will eat straw. Little children will be able to hold cobras and play with them, and little boys will be able to hold vipers.  It is like saying that out in West Texas we can stop worrying about Rattlesnakes!

I believe that the author knew exactly what he was saying and was giving us an image of a world of perfect shalom, which we translate “peace”. He was giving us a transcendental vision of a world in which everything is in perfect order, and the struggles, dangers, accidents, and injustice of our world are a thing of the past. In my view, Isaiah is not so much given a concrete, earthly vision of the future as he is given a universal vision to guide Israel and the church as it acts in history.

For example, ancient Israel was familiar with lions and poisonous snakes. David, when he killed Goliath made reference to the fact that he had faced lions, and even today periodically one reads of someone dying of the bit of a snake in Israel. These were realities that the Jews faced. We need not take the vision of Isaiah too literally. Instead, we might understand the writer as informing his readers that the Messianic Kingdom is going to be different, very different, than anything we can imagine. This kingdom can be partially achieved by God’s people know, but will only be fully realized at the end of human history, The vision is a guide to action in a fallen and imperfect world.

A Revelation of Love

I am not sure that any of the great prophets of the Old Testament would have expected Self-Sacrificial Love, Cruciform Love, even the love of a pacifist who endures suffering without response, to be a primary characteristic, even “the characteristic” of the Messiah. [5] Throughout the first part of Isaiah the figure of the Messianic King to come is described in increasingly God-like ways. He is the son of a virgin, a hidden king from the line of David, a child of the Galilee, a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father. The Spirit of God, like a sword, springs from his mouth (See Isaiah 9:1-12; 11:1-5; 31:4; Hosea 5:14; Amos 3:8). But, that image suddenly changes after Isaiah 42.

In the second part of Isaiah, perhaps due to the prophet’s meditation on the years of suffering surrounding the Babylonian Captivity of the people of God, another figure emerges. [6] This is not the figure of a military commander, a king, or a governmental leader. This is the figure of a Suffering Servant. Isaiah portrays this Messianic figure as a person of sorrows, not as a conquering hero. (Isaiah 53:1-12).

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:2b-5).

This is a figure of a sacrificial leader. He is to be gentle person, one who will not even break a damaged, bruised reed (Isaiah 42:1-4). In successive visions, This Messianic figure bears the sufferings of others, and his suffering works a healing of their lives. This isnot the military hero and earthly kingdom builder that the Jews anticipated. Just like us, the Jews preferred a Messiah who was a victorious lion to one who embodied the life of a suffering servant.

The Lion is the Lamb

The disciples, almost immediately after the death and resurrection of Jesus, understood that some of the most obscure prophesies of the Old Testament—and especially those of Isaiah—pointed to and were fulfilled by the Jesus the Christ (See for example, Acts 2). It is as if the Cross and resurrection made sense of a great amount of the Bible and of teaching of Jesus that to which the disciples had misunderstood or barely understood. [7] The most important place where the Crucifixion made sense of the Bible and of life for the Church, then and now, involves the “suffering servant” prophesies of Isaiah.

John, in his gospel, has John the Baptist, having seen the Christ, say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In Revelation, John returns to this image of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (Revelation 5:6-14). The Messiah, the Lion of Judah, the true successor of David, is also a Lamb—a gentle creature who suffers and is sacrificed for others. John is the one who says, “God is Love” for he has seen what love is—love is God taking human form and suffering rejection and even death for his fallen, alienated, human race.

At the very end of C.S. Lewis’, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a scene in which the children are at the end of the world of Narnia. The movie tells the story a bit differently from the book. The children are walking along a great wall of water which marks the end of the world of Narnia. Suddenly, far away, the children see a wide plain and green grass, and a white speck.

But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb. “Come and have breakfast,” said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice. Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it. They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it as the most delicious food that they had ever tasted.

“Please Lamb,” said Lucy, “is this the way to Aslan’s country?”

“Not for you,” said the Lamb, “for you, the door into Aslan’s country is from your own world.”

“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into Aslan’s country from our world too?”

“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said the Lamb; but as he spoke his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane. [8]

Lewis, in this scene, perfectly portrays the deepest insight of the disciples—that Jesus was love incarnate—the Lion of Judah, who is also the Lamb of God who whispers to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, encouraging us to be born anew in his love. In Narnia, we know him by the name of Aslan; here we know him by the name of Christ. The Lion is a Lamb and the Kingdom of the Lion/Lamb is a kingdom of love.

If we are to understand what God’s Kingdom means and the characteristics of that Kingdom and its citizens, we too must go from seeing Jesus as merely a lion but also as the lion that has become a lamb to take away the sins of the world. In Revelation 5, John brings together the two images of the Lion and of the Lamb in order to teach us that the Lion of which the Old Testament spoke is the same as Jesus, the Lamb of God, who came to suffer and die for our sake:

In Revelation John returns to the theme of the Messiah as Lamb/Lamb when he writes:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:1-10, emphasis added).

What does this mean for us? It means that we are children of the Lion/Lamb. It means that we need both the strength and courage of the Lion of Judah as well as the suffering, sacrificial, servant life of the Lamb of God. It means that the entry of the Kingdom of God into the world in our day will be no less painful and difficult for us than it was for Jesus, or for John, or for the countless other Christians who have worked for the Kingdom in ages past. It means that in our homes, families, businesses, communities, churches, and in the sphere of politics, we too must work just as Christ worked for the slow entry of his kingdom into the world.

Many people are concerned about our nation in exactly the same way that the prophets were concerned about Israel. We should be worried. On the other hand, we should have that confident faith that enables us to show love to all and to work for the great values of Truth, Freedom, Justice, and Fairness, just as many others have who, like us, never saw the fulness of the Kingdom. They saw the Kingdom as a vision and a source of hope, for the Lion of Judah will in the end win the battle, and  the Lamb of God is the key to unlocking to our role in history, hidden in the scroll of God’s providence.

Copyright 2022, G Christopher Scruggs, all rights reserved.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Collier ed. (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1950). This blog appeared in a different form as the transcript of a sermon several years ago. I have expended and rewritten that sermon as this blog.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Harper Trophy ed. (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1952):189ff.

[3] Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, at 74.

[4] The kingly character of Judah mentioned in verse 10 is symbolized by the lion, often called the “king of beasts.” This theme is expressed over and over in Scripture, even into the New Testament. Revelation 5:5, for example, describes a scene in the throne room of Heaven in which the lion of the tribe of Judah is the main character.

[5] The Suffering Servant hymns of Isaiah were read by the Jews as reflective of their national experience.

[6] I am not unaware of the fact that some scholars feel that the second part of Isaiah was written by other hands than that of the original prophet, who would have been very old at the time of the return of the captives from Babylon.

[7] There is little question that there is a “progressive” aspect to revelation. Throughout the Old Testament, and then in the revelation of Christ, God gradually reveals more and more of his self to Israel and to us through the Biblical authors. God, of course, has not changed, but the depth of our understanding of God has changed and deepened.

[8] Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 268-270. This scene, which is taken from John 21 is one of those situations in which Lewis specifically adapts a scene from Scripture to his purposes in the novel. This scene is one where Lewis makes explicit his pre-evangelistic motives. He is trying to introduce Christian teaching in formerly Christian context in such a way that contemporary people can understand the message.

Gandhi 3: “Ahimsa” or Non-Violence: a Way of Peace in a World of Violence

The philosophy and practice of political non-violence was Gandhi’s great gift to political philosophy. In the long expanse of human history, Gandhi was the first political leader to embrace non-violence as a principle of statesmanship. The early Christians, for example, practiced non-violence, but in so doing distanced themselves from the Roman state and military. Since the decline of the Roman Empire in the West no political leader ever embraced nonviolence as a state policy. The same is true in the east. Whereas Taoism is generally pacifistic in nature, no Chinese politician embraced pacifism. Gandhi did. In his long struggle for Indian independence, he continued to embrace, defend, and expand upon this practice of “ahimsa” or “no violence.

Definition and Aspects of Nonviolence

In Sanscrit the word “himsa” is the word for violence. “Ahimsa” literally translates “no violence. For Gandhi, the term “ahimsa” implies a commitment to no use of violence of any kind, physical, mental, or emotional. Thus, even passive aggressive behavior is a form of violence to be avoided. In the work of Gandhi, non-violence moved from the arena of the philosophically desirable to the realm of the politically possible.

One analyst of Gandhi sees the following aspects to Gandhi’s notion of “Ahimsa”:

  1. Nonviolence implies the virtues of love, active resistance to injustice, courage in the face of violence, and truthfulness in the face of lies.
  2. Nonviolence implies avoidance of physical, mental, emotional and other forms of violence towards the other in an act of self-giving love.
  3. Nonviolence is not the strategy of the weak but of the strong who have overcome the temptation to violence in every human heart.
  4. Nonviolent persons must hold nonviolence to be of higher importance than their own life. (It is interesting to recall that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both proponents of non-violence were victims of assassination.)
  5. True nonviolence is not limited to the political but is an aspect of the economic sphere of life, which Gandhi connected to his commitment to manual labor as a way of demonstrating his solidarity with the poor.

Nonviolence as an Ultimate Value

For Gandhi, nonviolence is an ultimate value on three for three basic reasons: (i) it is universally applicable (i.e. everyone should be nonviolent in all situations); (ii) it enhances all other values without detracting from any (that is to say that no other virtue is interfered with by nonviolence), and (iii) it is unlimited in its application (that is to say that unlimited nonviolence by all people would not create any moral evil). [1] In other words, there can be no logical or moral contradiction in advancing the cause of nonviolence. For Gandhi, any form of violence had negative consequences, and thus violence is a moral evil in all situations, however justifiable one might think a resort to violence to be under the circumstances. In this, Gandhi follows the reasoning of the Tao, for which any violence, however necessary, is ultimately a bad thing. [2]

The Christian writer Thomas Merton quoted Gandhi describing the dubious nature of using violence to eliminate moral evils as follows:

In the use of force, one simplifies the situation by assuming that the evil to be overcome is clear-cut, definite, and irreversible. Hence there remains but one thing: to eliminate it. Any dialogue with the sinner, any question of the irreversibility of his act, only means faltering and failure. Failure to eliminate evil is itself a defeat. Anything that even remotely risks such defeat is in itself capitulation to evil. The irreversibility of evil then reaches out to contaminate even the tolerant thought of the hesitant crusader who, momentarily, doubts the total evil of the enemy he is about to eliminate. [3]

In this passage, Gandhi is noting that the use of violence is always preceded by cutting of dialogue and therefore a relationship with the one who is attacked. This “cutting off” may be physical (as in war), mental (as in cutting off negotiations and discussions), emotional (as in cutting off a friend or partner), or even spiritual (as in devaluing the other). Gandhi believes that the inevitable result is the descent of the moral crusader into the very evil he or she is attempting to eliminate.

The Necessity of Nonviolence

As Gandhi surveyed the horrors of the Second World War and the obvious evil of both Stalin and Hitler, as well as the tactics of “Total War” employed by the allies, he saw that the nations were moving inexorably towards disaster and continued to urge nonviolence. When he heard of the atomic bomb, he was convinced that the world had reached a point of no return. The only option remaining was some form of nonviolence. He felt, like Einstein that the world was headed towards catastrophe unless the nations of the world in some way embraced nonviolence.

The Rational Practice of Nonviolence

Gandhi was, as he often said, not a theoretician, but a practical person of action. As such, during the course of his lifetime he was able to develop his nonviolence as he adapted himself to political, social and economic conditions. While he never developed a “system” in the philosophical sense, he did develop practical rules that are rational and can be defended. Some of the principles are as follows:

  1. Nonviolence is not an excuse for inaction in any area of life. Thus, nonviolence is active, not passive in its nature. Thus, Gandhi says, “Truth and nonviolence are no cloistered virtues but are applicable as much in the forum and the legislatures as in the market-place.”
  2. Nonviolence is not irrational but rational in the deepest sense. Thus, the person practicing nonviolence is called to act rationally, truthfully, and wisely under the circumstances presented.
  3. Nonviolence is the active interjection of compassion and love into a concrete situation. Thus, it must to be practiced in such a way as to minimize the potential violent reaction even of the opponent, since the opponent’s violence will harm himself and his followers.
  4. Nonviolence is to be practiced with courage and fortitude, including a willingness to suffer for the cause undertaken.
  5. Nonviolence begins with a personal commitment to achieve the virtue of nonviolence in one’s own life through humility, faith in God, truthfulness, willingness to suffer for the truth, and compassion upon all things.
  6. Nonviolence is a virtue, a personal attribute of the virtuous person. Thus, it must be applied in many and constantly changing situations. Gandhi himself indicated that he was still learning truth and nonviolence since he continued to live and adapt to a changing environment.
  7. Nonviolence is not just a strategy; it is a skill to be tested. Thus, it must be tactically applied to specific political and social action, the tools of civil disobedience, noncooperation, nonviolent strike, and constructive action are cherished


As readers will recall, in my first blog I mentioned Niebuhr’s objection that Gandhi was either unaware or unable to sustain awareness of the difference between his principles of Non-Violence and Truth Force and the reality of the battle for independence. [4] Thus, Niebuhr believes that any responsible leader of a political community must be willing to use coercion. In a revealing passage Niebuhr state that, like Mr. Gandhi, “such a leader may make every effort to keep his instruments under the dominion of his spiritual ideal; but he must use it, and it may be necessary at times to sacrifice a degree of moral purity for political effectiveness.” [5]

I am not sure that Gandhi would have disagreed with a part of what Niebuhr is saying, but I also believe that this is the place where Niebuhr most dramatically misunderstands and thus minimizes Gandhi’s contribution to political thought and to Christian political theology. It is a given of practical life that transcendental ideals, and especially moral ideals, will not always be achieved by actors. However, as mentioned, unlike Niebuhr Gandhi would not have thought that the moral ideals he employed were personal to him “his spiritual ideal”. Instead, he would have thought that truth and love are embedded in reality, and any failure to embody that ideal, whatever its pragmatic attraction, is a failure.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Ajay Kumar Attri, “Gandhi and Luther Philosophies of Non-Violence” International Journal of Education for Peace and Development at (Downloaded August 17, 2022). I have taken the liberty of using this summary as the basis of my own somewhat different summary.

[2] See, G. Chrisopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed (Cordova, TN: Permisio Por Favor & Booksurge, 2016), Chapter 68 at 126, Chapter 69 at 138,

[3] Thomas Merton, Gandhi on Nonviolence (New York, NY: New Directions Publishers, 1964, 1865), at 21.

[4] MMIS, at 242,

[5] MMIS, at 244.