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.