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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.

Gandhi No 2: A Deeper Dive into Truth and Non-Violence in Politics

Last week, I introduced the political thought of Gandhi, the Indian activist, statesman, and political figure. As mentioned, Gandhi was not a systematic political philosopher, but he was a philosophically and religiously motivated political actor. In fact, he resisted writing anything philosophical or religious not based upon his own actual experience. [1] Nevertheless, Gandhi was both thoughtful and spiritual in his approach to political action, which makes his views important.

At the basis of Gandhi’s thought is his theory of “Satyagraha” which is often translated “Truth Force” or “Soul Force.” [2] For Gandhi, truth has a spiritual reality and is identified with God (“God is Truth”), a God which can only be known by love, that is by a kind of sacrificial compassion that is similar to what Christians denote as “Agape Love” or “Self-giving Love” or “Cruciform Love”. This kind of love implies a relational approach to political life that is peaceful, focused on truth as opposed to power or success, and willing to sacrifice for the cause of justice. “Truth/Soul/Love Force” was Gandhi’s, basic tool in achieving Indian independence through nonviolent social action.

This week focuses on specific elements of Gandhi’s methodology in hopes that it might flesh out some of the implications of the “Politics of Love. The foundations for any “Gandhian” peaceful social action include:

  1. The action must be founded on a kind of truth that includes operational morality and justice. The means used must accord with the universe as it is (Truth), including morals, equity, ideals of justice, and the principle of nonviolence that Gandhi viewed as fundamental to the universe.
  2. The issue requiring action must be such that the action taken is warranted by the nature of the cause, such as racial equality, freedom from oppression, and the like. Truth/Soul/Love Force cannot be used to justify selfish or self-centered motives.
  3. The activist must have purified his or her own heart from any kind of violence and hatred, that undermine the value and power of Truth/Soul/Love Force.
  4. The activists involved must be willing to suffer physically, mentally or morally in the conflict, showing unconditional love to opponents. (The principle of “non-violence” will be the subject of the next blog.)

The Common Good and Truth Force

What kind of issues justify a Gandhian approach to political life? Here it is necessary to introduce yet another principle that guided Gandhi: the notion of “Sarvodaya”, which connotes something like what Western thought calls, “the Common Good.”  [3] The common good implies a society in which the values of justice, equality, order, peace are achieved or in the process of achievement in a non-violent way.

This leads to the question as to what kind of society would actually serve the common good. As used by Gandhi, Sarvodaya implies that all labor is honorable and deserves its fair reward, which Gandhi felt meant some form of income equality. Because all reality is both interconnected and fundamentally spiritual, the gain of one person is the gain of all and the loss of one person is the loss of all. In such a world, there must be service to the poor and sacrifice for the benefit of the poor. Thus, Gandhi says,

I cannot imagine anything nobler or more national than that for, say, one hour in the day, we should all do the labour that the poor must do, and thus identify ourselves with them and through them with all mankind. I cannot imagine better worship of God than that, in His name, I should labour for the poor even as they do. [4]

Gandhi was, of course, aware of what we might call “the Secular Power of the State,” that is the achievement of a stable and fair social order by the use of force and violence. In Gandhi’s mind, however, the use of violence cannot achieve this kind of social order, only a society characterized by reason (the search for Truth), dialogue (respect for all opinions), societal cooperation (the ability to compromise), and the welfare of all members of society, including the poorest and least powerful, can possibly achieve the kind of “Common Good” that results in true social peace. Thus, the kind of political and military power that colonial powers used to dominate Indian society were bound to fail and ultimately fall under the pressure of “Truth/Soul/Love Force.” I think Gandhi would have agreed with some of the critique of Augustine of the Roman Empire and by analogy of the modern secular state: the reliance on power and force ultimately destroys their possible legitimacy in some ultimate way, whatever their temporary hold on power might be.

The Order of a Just Society

In addition, to Truth/Soul/Love Force having implications for the use of secular power, it also has implications for the ordering of society.  Gandhi’s notion of the Common Good or welfare of a just society also had implications for the ordering of society that are similar to suggestions previously made in this blog. His views are organic, placing emphasis on small units, political, economic, and social. It is strengthening their vitality that societies can find this Common Good or “Sarodaya” for which they long. For Gandhi this implies several concrete attributes of a society that serves the general welfare of its citizens:

  1. The smallest units of society, including social, economic and political units, are to be nurtured in an organic way.
  2. Individual success or achievement cannot be achieved without attention to the common good, for society is an relational organism not simply a grouping of independent units, human, economic, or political.
  3. Economic units should include some significant form of ownership by labor in economic units and the freedom to work and earn a livelihood for all. [5]


The kind of society that Christians seek is unquestionably “Gandhian” in some significant sense. His vision is of a society made up of a harmonious ordering of individuals, families, economic units (large and particularly small), religious and social organizations, political parties, all striving in a non-violent and rational way to achieve a state of Common Good. Gandhi was not, however, naive. He understood that the achievement of such a society was only partially possible under the conditions of modern life. He understood the value of slow, measured change as opposed to violent revolution. It is to the value and character of Gandhian non-violence that I will turn next week.

Like the physicist David Bohm, who also studied Indian philosophy, Gandhi believes that meaning and fundamental morals are embedded in an “implicate” or “implied” order, which included the unbroken wholeness of the order of the universe in some general way. [6] This implicate order is a hidden, “enfolded order” which includes “the all-encompassing background to our experience: physical, psychological, and spiritual.” Gandhi’s notion of the gradual unfolding of Truth (God) and Non-Violence in his consciousness is based upon a similar view that there is a spiritual reality that transcends material reality, and which we can provisionally understand by means of study. [7] Finally, Gandhi was an idealist, but not an idealist of the impatient revolutionary kind, though his ideas are revolutionary. He understood that his ideal of the perfect society was not achievable during his own lifetime and was content to work for the increase in social justice during the term of his life, unfortunately cut short.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This blog is heavily dependent upon the work of Tarun Gogoi, in his “Social-Political Philosophy of M. K. Gandhi: an Analysis” found at (downloaded August 13, 2022). For those who are interested, the entire site of the Mahatma is filled with useful articles, quotations, and ideas of Gandhi. See, It is at the point of Gandhi’s lack of interest in speculation that qualifies his ideas as empirical and pragmatic as opposed to speculative.

[2] The term “Satyagraha” is a Hindu term not easily translated into English, for it connotes a truth that is a spiritual reality as opposed to simply a truth that comports with reality. Satyagraha is a kind of reality and reality making truth, similar in some ways to idea sitting behind John 1 in the Christian New Testament. In the following, I speak of the term using the awkward phrase, “Truth/Soul/Love Force.”

[3] “Sarvodaya is a Sanskrit term which, as used by Gandhi, generally means “universal uplift” or “progress of all”. Sarvodaya includes the notion that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

[4] Quotation found at (Downloaded, August 16, 2022).

[5] Gandhi was not a classic socialist, and I think that he would have approved of worker and consumer owned cooperatives, mixed ownership, significant ownership by employee stock plans and any strategy that creates better economic and social justice for labor. The importance of this notion will be dealt with in a later blog.

[6] See generally, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1980), 163-182. And Diane Elgin, :The Living Universe: A Living Systems Paradigm for Viewing Big History” at (Downloaded August 16, 2022) and “The Bohm Krishnamurti Project: Exploring the Legacy of David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurit “ at (downloaded, August 16, 2022)/

[7] Irene J. Dabrowski “David Bohm’s Theory of the Implicate Order: Implications for Holistic Thought Processes” ISSUES IN INTEGRATVE STUDIES No. 13, pp. 1-23 (1995).

Mahatma Gandhi: The Saint as Political Actor and Philosopher

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was trained as a lawyer and an important figure in South African anti-discrimination activism, the campaign for Indian independence, and the first premier of India after its independence from Britain. In India and around the world, he was known by the honorary title “Mahatma,” which means “Great Soul” in Sanskrit. During his lifetime, Gandhi faced opposition, was imprisoned times, and finally assassinated by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948. His autobiography is one of the most important works by a 20th Century political figure. [1] Gandhi was foremost a political activist and secondarily a thinker. His thought, sometimes contradictory, flowed from his commitments to human betterment, and are, therefore, to be respected as the reflections of a person of action.

One reason for covering Gandhi at this point is that he was referenced by both Alfred North Whitehead and Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom mention his life and work. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom we will next turn, was influenced by Gandhi and wanted to meet him. Finally, Martin Luther King, Jr. and, therefore, the American civil rights movement, was influenced by him.

By the time Whitehead published Adventures of Ideas, Gandhi was known throughout Great Britain, and his work and strategies for eliminating British Colonialism in India were legendary In Whitehead’s view, Gandhi’s work in India, and his influence on British public opinion and political action were evidence of the potential importance of religious and moral factors in political life. In Whitehead’s view writing in 1933, Gandhi’s success is used as an example of the potential for divine persuasion to move in public affairs in which a way as to produce social harmony without destructive, revolutionary conflict. [2] Foreseeing the destructive potential not only in that conflict but in the course of post-World War I European history, Whitehead felt Gandhi’s life and work symbolized and gave hope to the potential for religious and moral action and thought to promote a calm and reasonable approach to political progress. [3]

Niebuhr gives attention to Gandhi’s work in Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1933 around the same time as Whitehead is writing. [4] Niebuhr’s focus was on harmonizing Gandhi’s thought with his own positions on the inevitability of conflict in social progress. Because of Niebuhr’s negative views, I will save an analysis of his thought until after a review of the philosophical basis of Gandhi’s views.

Truth as Central

As is indicated by the title of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, the notion of Truth plays a central role in his thought about political matters. For Gandhi the concept of Truth or “Satya” is at the center of his political theory. For Gandhi truth was a spiritual and intellectual reality central to human spiritual, social and political life. His most famous formulation of his view is “Truth is God.” In a letter to Basil Matthews, Gandhi wrote:

If God who is indefinable can be at all defined, then I should say that God is TRUTH. It is impossible to reach HIM, that is, TRUTH, except through LOVE. LOVE can only be expressed fully when man reduces himself to a cipher. This process of reduction to cipher is the highest effort man or woman is capable of making. It is the only effort worth making, and it is possible only through ever-increasing self-restraint. [5]

This quotation is important to unpack so that we may understand what it means with Gandhi says, “Truth is God.” Gandhi  influenced by the Hindu a notion of God as an absolute impersonal, and so Gandhi does not mean a “Personal God” in the Christian sense of that term. However, Gandhi does also from time to time refer to God as personal. Thus, Gandhi states:

I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever-dying, there is underlying all that change a Living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates. That informing Power or Spirit is God. And since nothing else I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is.[6]

Gandhi speaks of God as a “Living Power,” an “Informing Power,” and a “Spirit.” All these are personal attributes. This personal quality of God is particularly true when he speaks of God as love, an idea we will discuss below. Perhaps most revealing, while not a Christian, Gandhi was an admirer of Christ as a person and revelation of God.

God as Love

In the quote above, Gandhi states that “It is impossible to reach HIM, that is, TRUTH, except through LOVE.” In other words, the only sure path to Truth is through Love. For Gandhi the Love that is God or by which God is known is a deep pervasive relationality, not unlike what can be seen in the Chinese Tao. He speaks of this love as follows:

Scientists tell us that, without the presence of the cohesive force amongst the atoms that comprise this globe of ours, it would crumble to pieces and we would cease to exist; and even as there is cohesive force in blind matter, so must there be in all things animate, and the name for that cohesive force among animate beings is love. We notice it between father and son, between brother and sister, friend and friend. But we have to learn to use that force among all that lives, and in the use of it consists our knowledge of God. Where there is love there is love there is life; hatred leads to destruction. [7]

For Gandhi, God was Truth before all things. However, there is a consciousness in Gandhi that to speak of love is to speak of a personal quality. Only a person with some degree of consciousness can love. This would be especially true of any love that would require a aware self-giving attitude, which Gandhi does recognize on occasion in says such as, “Love can never express itself by imposing sufferings on others. It can only express itself by self-suffering, by self-purification.” [8]


The nature of God as Truth and the importance of Love led Gandhi to a recognition of non-violence or “Ahimsa” as the fundamental principle of political action. [9] Like the Christian virtue of “Agape” or self-giving love, Ahimsa connotes the highest form of love — a universal love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, an unconditional sense of belonging to everyone and everything, and a self-giving restraint for the benefit of the other.

The practical application of Truth to politics is for Gandhi a power that Truth inherently possesses. For Gandhi, the concepts of satyagraha (truth force) and ahimsa (non-violence), were the key to the practical application of Truthto the political realities he faced. Since God is Truth, there is a Truth Force (satyagraha) in the practical application of non-violence to political realities. Truth has a force, a power, that is inherent in its existence.

As one follower of Gandhi’s thought puts it:

The Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha is a natural outcome of the supreme concept of truth. If truth is the ultimate reality, then it is imperative to safeguard the criteria and foundations of truth. A votary of God which is the highest Truth and the highest Reality must be utterly selfless and gentle. He should have an unconquerable determination to fight for the supremacy of spiritual and moral values. Thus alone can he vindicate his sense of ethical devotion. Satyagraha means the exercise of the purest soul-force against all injustice, oppression and exploitation. Suffering and trust are attributes of soul force. The active nonviolent resistance of the ‘heroic meek’ makes an immediate appeal to the heart. It wants not to endanger the opponent but to overwhelm him by the over flooding power of innocence. [10]

These ideas are important if Western democratic society is to undo the damage of the kind of “politics as war” that have characterized the past years. For Christians, who believe that God is Love and Truth, the best way to seek a better social order is through the Truth Force of Non-violent Love. If we believe that God is a kind of transcendent love and wisdom, then we believe that the power of God is found in love.

Niebuhr on Gandhi

It is interesting to compare the difference between Whitehead, an early constructive post-Modernist, and Niebuhr, the  late Modern, in their reaction to Gandhi’s thought and action. Whitehead, whose philosophy is a form of Objective Idealism, recognizing the reality of values, Gandhi is a sign of hope for the future. For Niebuhr, Gandhi is a romantic idealist—whose pragmatic leadership was not always consistent with this ideals.

One of Niebuhr’s students put it this way:

I disagree with Niebuhr on his analysis of Gandhi. I think he didn’t understand Gandhi. He regarded Gandhi as a sentimentalist, the same way he regarded Marx as a sentimentalist: as someone with vaunted expectations about human nature. But Gandhi was more of a realist than Niebuhr assumed, and his method of conflict resolution involves exerting a certain kind of pressure. This is not exactly the coercion Niebuhr accused him of, because Gandhi tried to make a distinction between coercive and non-coercive force. [11]

If my reading of Niebuhr is correct, he receives as a kind of given that the universe is made up of matter and energy, that human beings are fundamentally material, that religious ideals function within the spirit of individuals, but that force and power motivate and control the political sphere of life. Revolution and violence are inevitable and can only be moderated by moral and religious ideals. In Moral Man and Immoral Society we also see the early Niebuhr, who was much less suspicious of Marxian analysis than he became in his later years.

Fundamentally, Niebuhr claims 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. [12] Rather than seeing that Gandhi was constantly under pressure to put his ideals into practice in a complex political situation he feels that Gandhi was unable to recognize what he was doing and subscribe to views similar to his own.

In one revealing passage, Niebuhr writes:

The responsible leader of a political community is forced to use coercion to gain his ends. He may, as Mr. Gandhi, 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. [13]

In other words, spiritual ideals are nice but fundamentally divorced from the exercise of power in politics. It is this view with which I fundamentally disagree and view as destructive.


We will return to Gandhi when we deal with Martin Luther King, Jr and with the American civil rights movement. In the next blog, we will see that Gandhi had an impact on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and shaped a portion of his response to Hitler. In the meantime, it seems to me that Whitehead’s response to Gandhi is the better one.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Mahatma Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1983).

[2] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933), 160.

[3] Id, at 161.

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

[5] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 33, p. 452. See also Judith M. Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 199. I found this at Douglas Allen, “Ghandi, Contemporary Political Thought and Other Relations,” (downloaded August 4, 2022). Dr Allen’s views are important in my understanding of Gandhi and in the preparation of this blog.

[6] See, “My life is My Message,” at (Downloaded August 4, 2022).

[7] Id, attributed to (YI, 5-5-1920, p. 7).

[8] Id, at (Downoaded August 4, 2022)/

[9] Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning “non-violence.” The term is derived from the root word himsa, meaning “to cause pain,” and the prefix – ‘a’ means “not.” Himsa, which connotes physical violence). Thus, Ahimsa is not to employ physical violence.

[10] Ramananda Choudhurie, “Gandhian philosophy of Satyagraha” at (downloaded August 4, 2022).

[11] Nathan Schneider, “Mark Juergensmeyer on Gandhi and Niebuhrin Wgaging NonViolience: People Powered News and Analysis at August 5, 2022).

[12] MMIS, at 242,

[13] MMIS, at 244.

Whitehead No. 2: God, Eternal Objects, and Persuasion

Last week, we began our exploration of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and his importance as a founder of the “process school” of philosophy. This school of philosophy has, in turn, given birth to a theological movement known as “Process Theology.” Whitehead himself grew up the son of a Church of England minister. In the course of his mathematical, logical, scientific, and philosophical careers, he drifted from what might be called “theological orthodoxy”. However, he did have a place for God in his philosophical system, and his works are replete with kind words about Jesus and the role of Christianity in Western civilization.

Before launching into this week’s analysis, I would like to say a few words to my friends in the Evangelical movement, who often find themselves at odds with the views of proponents of Process Theology. Keep an open mind for the following reasons:

  1. One does not have to be a process theologian to appreciate the thought and work of Whitehead. There are orthodox thinkers who find him enlightening.
  2. One does not have to adopt all of the ideas of process thinking to find some of its ideas important and useful.
  3. For whatever it is worth, the writer believes that many of Whitehead’s ideas can be fruitful within an orthodox, Trinitarian theology and political theology.

God and Eternal Objects,

In order to understand Whitehead’s views on the movement from a society based on force to one based on persuasion, it is important to understand his notions of reality, of God, and of universals, or what Whitehead calls, “Eternal Objects.” For Whitehead, the world in which we live and have our day-today existence (what Whitehead sometimes calls, the “Actual World”) is built up of actual occasions. [1] Those things that we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls, “Enduring Objects”) are simply events that have an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [2]

For Whitehead there are, however, two objects which participate in the emergence of the world of Actual Occasions that are not Actual Occasions. These are:

  1. Eternal objects, which are ideal entities which are pure potentials for realization in the actual world and form the conceptual ground for all actual occasions; [3] and
  2. God, who is both an Eternal Object and also the primordial Actual Entity; God is not an actual occasion but is present in all Actual Occasions. [4]

According to Whitehead, Eternal Objects are the qualities and formal structures that define Actual Occasions and related entities. Each Actual Entity is defined by an infinite hierarchy of Eternal Objects. This feature permits each actual entity to be experienced by future entities in important ways.

  1. Eternal Objects participate in the causal connection of individual entities, functioning as private qualities and public structures, characterizing the growth of actuality in its rhythmic advance from private, subjective immediacy to public, extensively structured fact.
  2. Eternal Objects are ideals conceptualized by historical actual entities. As such, they are the potential elements which provide that the process of nature is not deductive succession but organic growth, creative advance. [5]This characteristic is very important for an understanding of such political notions as Justice.

Eternal Objects are primordially realized as pure potentials in the conceptual nature of that one unique actual entity, which we call “God.” As realized in God, Eternal Objects are ideal possibilities or potentialities, ordered according to logical and aesthetic principles, which can be realized in Actual Occasions. As realized in God, Eternal Objects transcend the historical actual entities in which they are realized. [6]

A God of Persuasion Instead of Force

For Whitehead, God is “actual” (an Actual Entity) but non-temporal and the source of all creativity, the source of innovation, who transmits his creativity in freedom and persuasion. [7] Whitehead’s God has two poles of existence, a transcendent pole, which is primordial and a consequential or physical pole. The transcendent pole is the “mental pole” of God wherein one finds the existence of Eternal Objects.  As primordial, God is eternal, having no beginning or ending and is the ultimate reason for the universe, a factor that was important to Whitehead. [8]

As consequential, God is present in the universe and in all actual occasions, which is the physical pole of God’s existence. In this physical pole God experiences the world and the actualization of Eternal Objects in Actual Occasions. Because of God’s physical pole, God can be impacted by and experiences Actuality. Thus, Whitehead’s God   experiences and grows with creation.

It is with respect to this physical pole that Process Philosophy makes its unique contribution to certain theological ideas. For Whitehead, God is not an all-powerful ruler, a cosmic despot. God is intimately involved in the universe of Actual Occasions and impacts the future not by force but by persuasion. [9] Thus he says, “More than two thousand years ago the wisest of men proclaimed that the divine persuasion is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such order as amid the brute force of the world it was possible to accomplish.” [10]

This divine persuasion, the slow working of God in history as love and wisdom is the hope of the world that the constant resort to force and violence in human affairs can be overcome. Writing before the Second World War, before Hiroshima and the wars of the last century, Whitehead saw the important role of Christian faith and of all religious groups as instruments for the evolution of the human race towards a more harmonious world based on persuasion, reason, and love rather than brute force. [11] In a much quoted and beautiful passage, Whitehead writes:

The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as the revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. I need not elaborate. Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act of what Plato taught in theory? [12]

The Victory of Persuasion over Force

Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive relying on reason not coercion to accomplish the creation of the world. Plato also taught that it was a part of the reordering of the human person by virtue to recover the primordial reliance on reason and persuasion by which the world was created, and by which human beings recover an original reasonableness and harmony. This view has obvious implications for political philosophy and political practice.

For Whitehead, “The progress of humanity can be defined as the process of transforming society so as to make the original Christian ideals increasingly practicable for the individual members.[13] The project of human civilization and of every human society and political institution is, therefore, achieving the victory of persuasion over force. [14] Recalling the words of Plato, Whitehead writes:

The creation of the world—said Plato—is the story of persuasion over force. The worth of men consists in their liability to persuasion. They can persuade and can be persuaded by the disclosure of alternatives, the better and the worse. Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however, unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in general society or in a remnant of individuals. [15]

Against Hobbes, Whitehead holds that persuasion has always been a part of human society and denies that force is the defining characteristic of human society. He does not agree that human society is nothing but “a war of everyone against everyone else.” The social and persuasive side of society may even be older than the recourse to force. The love between the sexes, the love of parents for children and families for one another, even the communal love of small groups are all probably older than brute force as a fundamental aspect of human society.

This does not mean, however, that force is not an inevitable characteristic of society, for there is and always will be a need for laws, structures, and their enforcement and defense. Forms of social compulsion are an outgrowth of the need for social coordination, but are (or at least should be) of themselves the outgrowth of reason. [16] Interestingly, Whitehead believes that Commerce is an important component in the movement from force to persuasion, for commerce depends upon private parties reaching agreements without recourse to force, which in itself tends to build the capacities for reason and persuasion that a free society requires. [17]


In the end, Whitehead believes that there are four factors which govern the fate of social groups, including our own society: (1) the existence of some transcendent aim or goal greater than the mere search for pleasure; (2) the limitations on freedom which flows from nature itself and the basic needs of human beings; (3) the tendency of the human race to resort to compulsion instead of reason, which is fatal to social growth and flourishing if extended beyond necessary limits; and (4) the way of persuasion, which relies upon reason and agreement for the resolution of social problems. In the end, it is the way of persuasion that holds the hope for social and human flourishing. [18]

We will return to this aspect of Whitehead in the future, for his insights are related to the development of a more dialogical, reasonable, and sympathetic political culture.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1929, 1957), at 27, 90. Hereinafter, “PR.”

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Free Press, 1925, 1967), hereinafter “SMM”, at 132-133.

[3] PR, 26

[4] PR, 105

[5]. See, Susan Shottliff Mattingly, “Whitehead’s Theory of Eternal Objects” DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy. I am indebted to her for portions of this analysis.

[6] It is beyond the scope of this blog to exhaustively look at Whitehead’s notion of God. He did view God as an essential element of his metaphysical system as the ground of the order and creative potential of the universe.

[7] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York, NY: The McMillian Company, 1936), 88, hereinafter “RM”.

[8] In Whitehead’s system all actual occasions have both a physical and a mental pole. Thus, intelligibility and the potential for the emergence of mind goes all the way down into the smallest actual entities in the universe.

[9] AI, at 166.

[10] Id, 160.

[11] Id, at 161. It is beyond the scope of this blog, but Whitehead believes that it is not the existence of dogmatics and religious theories that are the problem with religion, but the attitude of finality with which these opinions are voiced. In this, Whitehead echo’s Pearce. The theories of theologians are evidence of the importance of reason to Christian faith, and reasonableness is one of the ways in which brute force is overcome.

[12] Id, at 167. Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive relying on reason not coercion to accomplish his goal.

[13] Id, at 17.

[14] Id, At 25.

[15] Id, at 83.

[16] Id, at 69.

[17] Id, at 70-84. This is a most interesting discussion in which Whitehead deals with Malthusian economics, and its limitations.

[18] Id, at 85-86.

Whitehead No. 1: Impact of the “New Physics” on Political Philosophy.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) made important contributions in Mathematics, Logic, Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics and in other areas of thought. He was instrumental in developing a philosophical outlook known as “Process Philosophy” of which he is regarded as the founder, though he follows, among others, C. S. Peirce in this regard. Although he began his academic life at Cambridge (as a mathematician), and then taught in London (as a mathematical physicist and philosopher of education), it was in America at Harvard that he became known as a philosopher and wrote his most famous works.

In 1925, he published his Science and the Modern World (1926), a reworking of his Lowell Lectures at Harvard. [1] In 1929, he published his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh as a metaphysical work, Process and Reality. [2] In 1933 he published Adventures of Ideas, his most accessible work and the source of much of what we would call his “political philosophy”. [3] In 1938, he published Modes of Thought, perhaps the clearest summary of his idea. [4]

A few years ago, I picked up an old copy of Science and the Modern World  and began to read it again after many years. During those years, I had become a bit more familiar with the meaning and emergence of both relativity theory and quantum theory and the immense difference it made. I was struck by the brilliance of the book. Only fifteen or so years earlier, in 1905 (sometimes called his “miracle year”), Albert Einstein published a series of papers that introduced his theory of relativity and made important contributions to the emergence of quantum physics. This is a short time in the history of science. Yet, Whitehead, himself a mathematical physicist, had internalized the new physics of his day and was able to give a philosophical account of its meaning. It is an account that has continuing relevance today.

End of Materialism

From the time of Newton until the early 20th Century, a fundamentally materialistic world view dominated science and philosophy. In this world view what is “real” is matter and material forces acting upon matter. The picture of the universe that emerged with quantum physics was much different. Matter, atoms and subatomic particles of whatever kind, were not matter. Rather, they appeared to be what Whitehead calls “patterns” or “vibrations” in a universal electromagnetic field, an emerging disturbance in an underlying field of potentiality. [5]

Influenced by developments in physics, Whitehead developed a “process” or “organic” view of reality in which events or what he called “actual occasions” are the fundamental realities. Thus, “Whitehead marks an important turning-point in the history of philosophy because he affirms that, in fact, everything is an event. What we perceive as permanent objects are events; or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events” that have taken up a stable form. [6] Therefore, the actual world is “built up of actual occasions”. [7] Those things that we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls, “Enduring Objects”) are simply events that have an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [8] The vision of the world that Whitehead develops is decidedly not materialistic, for fundamental events are much like the waves that constitute fundamental particles—vibrations or patterns which are capable are not material entities but are capable of becoming so.

A Social World

Early in the development of quantum physics it was realized that one of its implications was a degree of interconnectedness among the fields of activity that make it up. As previously noted, Einstein’s Relativity Theory describes a universe that is deeply relational, in which time and space, ultimate attributes of reality in Newtonian physics, are known to be related to one another and make up a “Space/Time Continuum.” At a quantum level of reality, there is a deep interconnectedness that is revealed and symbolized by so-called, “spooky action at a distance,” or what physicists call, “entanglement.” Reality is deeply connected at a subatomic level. Even at the level of everyday reality, there is a deep interconnectedness that is evident in so-called open systems and their tendency toward self-organizing activity—the so-called “butterfly effect.” [9]

One recurrent emphasis of process thought is on relationships as constituting reality. Actual occasions combine to form societies, and these societies are fundamental aspects of reality. The fundamental character of a society is determined by the relationships in which it is located, past, present, and future. [10] A “society” of whatever character exists within a web of relationships from which it emerged and in a process which is leading to a future state of the process. The relatedness of the universe and the societies that make up the physical realities we experience, according to Whitehead, is not merely external but also internal to the society itself. [11] This not only is physical matter secondary, but also physical power.

A World of Mysterious Interconnectedness

Newtonian physics posited the existence of an observer outside the events being observed. In addition, all connections between particles was external. Quantum physics has revealed that the observer is an irreducible part of the reality being observed. Perhaps more importantly, quantum physics and relativity theory imply a universe of deep interconnection.

The relationship of the observer and the observed is illustrated by the so-called “double slit experiment.” If a researcher shines light through two slits a pattern comes out the other side, which should reveal whether light is a wave or a particle. However, the result is, in some sense determined by the observation we make. It is as if human conscious involvement creates the result and determines the character of the photon and the photon somehow “feels” or senses the observer’s presence.

Process thought shares this view. Human beings are not outside of reality but a part of the “World Process” and even our attempts at abstracting ourselves from that which we observe are at best only partially successful. We are inevitably and inextricably connected to and sense at a deep level the social world of which we are a part. This of true of electrons, but also of our families, neighborhoods, communities, nation, and world. What we say and do has an impact, however important or unimportant on the world we inhabit. These connections are not just external but also intertermal.

A World of Experience “All the Way Down”

Back to the “double slot experiment, it was mentioned earlier the very act of observing — of asking the question, “through which slit will each electron pass?” changes the outcome of the experiment. In other words, the results of the experiment seem to indicate that in some way subatomic particles “know” or “sense” or feel the presence of the observer which determines the outcome of the experiment. In writing his system, Whitehead was well aware of this outcome.

According to Whitehead, every actual occasion has a mental as well as a physical pole. That is to say, that experience and intelligibility are present in everything from subatomic particles to human beings. In Whitehead’s view every level of existence possesses mental and physical poles, including quanta, atoms, cells, organisms, the Earth, the solar system, our galaxy, the universe all the way up to God.  For God, the whole physical universe is the physical pole and all of the ideas, the forms, are the mental pole. [12] In other words, there is no ultimate distinction between mind and matter. Mind and matter are two aspects of a single reality. The potential for the kind of consciousness that human beings possess is, thus, an evolutionary possibility within the structure of the kind of universe we inhabit.

There is also no ultimate distinction those societies of actual occasions that are in some sense alive and those (like rocks) that are not, such as between the human race and animals. This can be hard to understand., but refers to the fact that experience and intelligibility go all the way down, and therefore, mind, matter, organic and inorganic matter, humans and animals, for all their differences are also in some sense fundamentally related. This fundamental relatedness and worth has ecological and political implications.


Applied to political philosophy and social theory generally, Whitehead’s process view encourages learners to look at the patterns of relationships that make up the society and polity in which one has an interest—and to look at them as constantly changing events not as an object frozen in time. What we sometimes call the American Experiment in Constitutional democracy is a good example. Our political system is not an object to be dissected and understood solely as the power applied to individuals. Rather, it is an event made up of a complex of constantly changing and evolving relationships. To the extent that our society embraces fundamental values, those values must be continually applied to new and changing realities.

As far as political philosophy is concerned, fundamental “connectedness” implies that our tendency to divide our political world into “us” and “them” is ultimately a false abstraction. We are all part of our families, communities, nation and world, connected in deep ways to those with whom we share all levels of human society. This includes those who disagree with us as well as those who agree, our political allies and our opponents.

Once again, when one combines the process or “event” focus of Whitehead’s thought with its social character, one is led away from any notion of the universe as fundamentally a constituted of matter and force and away from the notion embedded in our culture through Hobbes of society as fundamentally constituted as conglomerations of individuals related to one another by force. Force does exist but it is itself grounded in a deeper reality, which we shall examine next week as we talk about God, Love, and the gradual movement of human societies from force to persuasion.

The existence of a mental pole of reality can be important for political philosophy, as will become more obvious next week. The evolution of the universe and the evolution of human society reflect the propensity of the universe and human society to seek the kind of satisfaction that we call, “Peace” or “Harmony”. Human civilization is the story of the emergence of ideas in the adventure of human knowledge, or the “Adventure of Ideas,” as they impact human knowledge and human society.

Whitehead believed that his metaphysics has practical implications, implications which he outlines in his book, Adventure of Ideas. Next week, we will focus on one idea from Adventure of Ideas—the slow progress of human society from force to persuasion, for from force to love.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Free Press, 1925, 1967), hereinafter “SMM”.

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1929, 1957), at 90. Hereinafter, “PR.”

[3] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933), hereinafter “AI”.

[4] A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York, NY: Free Press, 1938, 1968).

[5] SMM, at 132.

[6] Steven Shaviro, “Deleuze’s Encounter With Whitehead” (Downloaded July 18, 2022).

[7] PR, at 96-98.

[8] SMM, 132-133.

[9] This is not the place for a discussion of these phenomena. For those who would like a deeper discussion, see John Polkinghorne, ed, “The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). I have examined this phenomena before in a blog entitled, “Politics and the Order of the World” at (July 8, 2020).

[10] SM, 152.

[11] AI, at 230.

[12] PR, at 128.

Niebuhr No. 4: Force, Revolution, and Social Change

As we close this series on Reinhold Niebuhr’s early work, it important to position him again within the context of American Christian political thinking, which helps to understand both his early work and why his later work became noticeably more Christian in its outlook. The early members of the Social Gospel movement were deeply influenced by German Enlightenment theological thinking. They were optimistic about the human race’s potential to create a better world, perhaps even a perfect world by the implementation of Enlightenment ideas.

Niebuhr marks the beginning of a new phase in which, like Karl Barth and other of the “Neo-Orthodox” thinkers, attempts were made to find a place for a more Biblical and historically orthodox view of the human situation without abandoning higher criticism of the Bible and important insights of modern theology. In particular, like Barth and others in the movement, Niebuhr led in the recovery of the importance of the Doctrine of the Fall and of the inevitable sinfulness of the human race in understanding the human condition. This, of course, led Niebuhr and others in his “Political Realist” movement towards a sober view of human perfectibility and secular schemes, such as Marxism and Naziism, that purported to have found a secular way to establish a better society.

This view is only partially evident in Moral Man and Immoral Society which is Niebuhr’s earliest work and does not evidence his mature thinking  [1] In MMIS, Niebuhr is still beguiled with the Russian experiment with Communism and a Marxist interpretation of political reality. It is a view he would considerably modify over the years as the full extent of the horrors of Soviet Communism were exposed. His more mature thinking is evidenced in his Gifford Lectures published as, The Nature and Destiny of Man, a work we will look at later. [2]

Force and Social Change

Given Niebuhr’s Marxist analysis of society, he is led to the view that social change inevitably requires the use of force, that is physical, political, and legal power. For the early Marxists, only some kind of “revolutionary struggle” would end injustice. The early Niebuhr follows this analysis with qualification. [3] Once again, it is important to question this foundation for his analysis. While it is true in human history that the elimination of injustice has involved violence, this is not always the case. For example, in the United States, elimination of slavery required the American Civil War. However, in England elimination of the Slave Trade was accomplished without violence, largely because of the efforts of William Wilberforce and his comrades, most of whom were Christian. The elimination of injustice in Russia and China arguably required a violent upheaval, but India received her independence from Great Britain, as did Ghana and other nations, without a violent, revolutionary struggle of the kind that Russia experienced.

Justice through Revolution

Niebuhr begins his chapter on revolution with a discussion of whether revolutionary violence is justified in order to establish a more just society. His basic view is that “the end justifies the means.” In his early view, the Marxist objective of a classless and economically fair society is “identical with the most rational possible social goal, that of equal justice.” [4] This being the case, violence cannot automatically excluded from the possibilities if it is not “intrinsically immoral” to engage in violent behavior.

According to Niebuhr, revolutionary violence is not intrinsically immoral for two reasons.

  1. First, although non-violence is always an expression of good will, it is not true that violence is always an expression of ill-will. All societies use some measure of coercion, to maintain or create a social order. [5]
  2. Second, there is nothing intrinsically immoral about violence, despite traditional moral thought regarding the issue. [6]

In my view, Niebuhr’s analysis stems from his division between public and personal morality. For Niebuhr in this stage, respect for life, the opinions of others and the like are matters of personal but not necessarily public morality. [7]However, according to MMIS, there is still a significant question about the actual possibility of establishing justice through violence. [8]

Notwithstanding this analysis, Niebuhr does not think that the prospects for establishing a just society on revolutionary ideals for two reasons:

  1. First, there are too many different classes in a complex modern society, each with its own distinct interests, at least some of which would resist a proletarian revolution. [9]
  2. Second, there is division within the proletarian class itself regarding the morality of violent social revolution. [10]

An additional question concerns the possibility of maintaining such an ideal society, were it to be established by violence. There are a number of reasons to suspect that it would not.

  1. First, the abolition of economic privileges requires the assertion of strong centralized political force.
  2. Second, while selfish egotism may be curbed, it is unrealistic to believe that it can completely abolished. Thus, according to Niebuhr, the maintenance of the social ideal of the proletarian as a reality also does not seem realistic enough to justify the violence of revolutionary action. [11]

Use of Political Force

As mentioned above, Marx believed that the biggest obstacle to revolution is that proletarian class is divided. This division involves two major groups within the proletariat:

  1. Unskilled workers and those at the bottom of the society tend to support revolutionary action.
  2. Skilled workers who are more favored by the capitalistic system are less likely to seek violent change.

The goal of the second group is not revolution but the acquisition of political power. [12] Niebuhr recognizes that this method for the achievement of greater social equality has been partially successful in Western democracies. However, according to Niebuhr, there are problems with trying to achieve social justice through democratic political means.

  1. Transfer of wealth through taxation is affected by the law of diminishing returns. You cannot tax the rich forever without consequences. [13]
  2. The proletarian class must rely on the cooperation of the middle classes in order to achieve a parliamentary majority. However, the middle class, because of its own comfortable position in the current system, is ill-equipped to really appreciate the plight of the proletarian classes. Education cannot full rectify this situation. [14]
  3. Experts, who are needed to produce change, cannot be counted to identify social inequalities and rectify them due to their own class bias and the power of interest groups. [15]
  4. Peasants and the farmer can be counted on to join with the proletariat to form a parliamentary majority. [16]

These factors militate against achievement of the ideals of the proletarian classes and suggest to some that what is needed is collaboration in order to achieve some of the goals of the proletariat. In the end, there is simply no modern industrial state in which the situation where a revolution is likely to be successful exists, and there is abundant evidence that such a revolution, if it did not fail, would not create an ideal state, which Niebuhr did not believe possible within the limitations of history. Thus Niebuhr finally concludes, “The hope that there will ever be an ideal society, in which everyone cand take without restraint from the common social process ‘according to his need’ completely disregards the limitations of human nature.” [17]

Moral Values in Politics

Finally, Niebuhr returns to consider a problematic feature of his political realism. There are two issues to be considered, first there is the problem of a kind of absolute political realism that dooms humanity to eternal conflict:

A too consistent political realism would seem to consign society perpetual warfare. If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is not possible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict?” [18]

On the other hand, there is a kind of political moralism that too easily values the status quo and social peace over progress: “A too uncritical glorification of co-operation and mutuality therefore results in the acceptance of traditional injustices and the preference for more subtle types of coercion to the more overt types.” [19] . An adequate political morality must do justice to both the practical realities of a society and the moral underpinnings of society. Moralism cannot totally eliminate coercion and injustice, but can help in trying to strike the balance. [20]

In the end, Niebuhr argues for a kind of practical accommodation in which a wise society minimizes the element of coercion and maximizes the element of cooperation reducing to a minimum the element of coercion only in the furtherance of certain important social aims. Where issues of justice and social equality are concerned, it may be that violence and coercion are morally justifiable. [21] The limitations of this approach are encapsulated in the title of Alister MacIntyre’s book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? [22] What seems obviously rational and justifiable to a professor at a theological seminary may not seem either relational or justifiable to a lawyer in San Diego.

In a long and important section of MMIS, Niebuhr analyzes the specific views of Ghandi with his version of non-violent resistance and understanding of its limits, and concludes that, while non-violence may not always be an available tactic, it is the best way forward in the quest for lasting social change. [23] According to Niebuhr, there is no other area of political life two which religion plays a larger role than in developing habits of non-violent resistance: [24]

The discovery of elements of common human frailty in the foe and, concomitantly, the appreciation of all human life as possessing transcendent worth, creates attitudes which transcend social conflict and thus mitigate its cruelties. It binds human beings together by reminding them of the common roots and similar character of both their vices and their virtues. [25]

There is probably no sentence of MMIS that we Americans are more in need of internalizing in the entire of Niebuhr’s work.

The Conflict between Individual and Social Morality

Niebuhr’s view of humanity and of human society results in the view that human society inevitably involves some degree of conflict—a view shared by the author of this blog. There is no possibility of the achievement of a perfect society within human history, and as long as we human beings live together some will discover inequities and injustice that need to be eliminated. The question is not “How do we eliminate conflict” but rather “How do we minimize conflict?” Niebuhr therefore believes that there is an irreconcilable conflict between “the needs of society and the imperatives of a sensitive conscience” between politics and political life and personal morality ethics. [26]

Morality is part of the inner life of individual human persons, whereas political life involves the “necessities of social life”. [27] The highest ideal of society is justice, while the highest ideal of the individual is unselfishness. [28]Once again, we see the implicit acceptance by Niebuhr of the modern distinction between the freedom of the human spirit and the determinism of material reality—a distinction that automatically regulates human moral and ethical concerns to the subjective. What is left for the religious and moral imagination is the perfection of subjective human interiors. “Moral imagination” makes individuals aware of and sympathetic to the needs of others. It may also render more moderate the use of force in a society where many individuals hold common moral views against such behavior. It cannot, however, eliminate the reality of conflict.

According to Niebuhr, religious idealism fails to adequately appreciate the tension between personal ethics and political life. Love is a personal virtue and is effective in smaller social units, but love as a social ideal is inevitably diminished in larger social groups. [29] We are left where the study began—with an inevitable difference between personal morality and the public life of societies where struggle and conflict reign. The selfishness of groups must be regarded as inevitable and can be checked only by an assertion of political, social or physical power. Moral goodwill can reduce the severity of the inevitable conflict, but not eliminate it.

In closing, Niebuhr stresses the importance of social issues for our age. It is no longer feasible for individuals to think that they can focus on their own perfection and cultivation. At the same time it is important not to get carried away into social idealism. Idealism must be tempered by a realism that moderates, but does not destroy its vision.


In my young adulthood Niebuhr was both a hero and strong influence. About two years ago, I picked up MMIS and reread it. It was in that rereading that I saw clearly the flaws in his approach, flaws which to some degree he overcame in later works. Frankly, his work was too often used to justify immoral behavior from the War in Viet Nam to the unethical and probably illegal antics of James Comey, to the deceitfulness and lies that regularly emanate from our political elite in Washington. Finally, the world view in which he lived and tacitly accepted was already, but the time he wrote, undermined by advances in science and especially physics. We will turn to that new world view and its implications in the next blog on Alfred North Whitehead.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Volumes I & II (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 1941, 1996).

[3] Once again, I would be remiss if I did not indicate the value and reliance of this blog on an Article found at Strong Reading “Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A study in Ethics and Politics” (June 10, 2010), at (downloaded June 27, 2022. The entirety of what follows is deeply impacted by and follows this analysis. I gave up counting how many times that Niebuhr uses the word revolution in MMIS.

[4] MMIS, at 170-171

[5] Id, at 171-172.

[6] Id, at 172-173. I think this is one point at which Niebuhr clearly leaves a connection with the Christian tradition in MMIS. From the beginning, Christians have regarded violence, even necessary violence as intrinsically suspect, which is why, for example, in the area of war “Just War Theory” evolved.

[7] Id, at 173. I disagree with this aspect of Niebuhr’s analysis.

[8] Id, at 179. Once again, the experience of the French, Russian, Chinese and other revolutionary movements do not render obvious that this is possible.

[9] Id, at 184.

[10] Id, at 184-185 and ff.

[11] Id, at 191ff.

[12] Id, at 200

[13] Id, at 209.

[14] Id, at 211.

[15] Id, at 212.

[16] Id, at 217.

[17] Id, at 196; see also 191.

[18] Id, at 231.

[19] Id. At 233.

[20] Id.

[21] Id, at 234.

[22] Alister MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). It is my intention to review this important work when we reach that point in this series of blogs.

[23] Id, at 242-248. In the early stages of working on this blog, I read a Ghandi’s autobiography. At some point in the future we will investigate his important example and thought.

[24] Id, at 254.

[25] Id, at 254-255.

[26] Id, at 257.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id, at 262.

Niebuhr No. 3: Classes and Social Revolution

Moral Man and Immoral Society is such a rich and dense book that a series of blogs on its contents could go on for weeks and weeks. [1] The book is complex and defies a short summary. The style of the writer is such that it can be difficult to discern the side of many important issues upon which the author comes down. As mentioned earlier, the book is also early and takes positions from which the later Niebuhr distances himself. It was in rereading this book several years ago that I decided to begin studying and thinking about political theology/philosophy once again. While I do not find myself in sympathy with many of Niebuhr’s positions, the book forces one to think clearly about his ideas whether right or wrong.

Ethical Attitudes of the Social Classes

It goes without saying that the economic location of human beings influences their views on social and political issues. For the Marxist, however. economics is determinative of the social, economic, and political views of members of society. The early Niebuhr more or less accepted the Marxist position concerning the definitive role of economics and class conflict in human society. As a result, he holds that social conflict cannot be avoided.

Just as nations act hypocritically under the influence of self-interest, so do social classes, and especially the privileged classes’ ethical attitudes are colored by self-deception and hypocrisy, in which they elevate their particular class’s interests to the status of general interests and universal ideals. All classes mobilize their intelligence in order to defend the social inequalities that favor them, when in fact the inequality is too great to have any justification. [2]

Before going further, it is important to unpack and analyze Marx and his views of society and social change. In its most generic definition, the word “class” simply means group. A class of numbers is a group of numbers. A class of fish is a group of fish having in common certain characteristics. A class of people is a group of people that are identifiable because of distinguishing characteristics. In the Middle Ages, society was divided by rank and an order developed that we call “feudalism”. In that system, wealth and power flowed with the ownership of land and military achievement. With the industrial revolution, the feudal order deteriorated. In its place, a new kind of social order developed—a social order in which economic achievement was much more important and status was determined by the control of a much larger range of economic assets than merely land. In addition, the role of the military was changed from the province of the nobility to a service profession within the bourgeoisie.

A Problem with Class Distinctions

Marx saw society as divided into two basic groups: the bourgeoisie, which is in control of the elements of production, and the proletariat which owns no property and which is at the mercy of the bourgeoisie. Within the bourgeoise, there are the owners themselves and those, such as lawyers, etc. in the professional classes of bourgeoisie society. Within the proletariat, Marx distinguishes between the working person and those who might be called the “lower middle class” who have positions of responsibility but remain proletarian. This would include, for example, foremen in an industrial plant. According to Niebuhr, one problem with achieving the social revolution that the Marxist desired is the inability to gain traction among that second group of people. This was true in the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries.

Marx’s simplistic distinction is not without its problems. For example, the bourgeoisie is complex. It includes those who actually own the means of production, the professional classes such as doctors and lawyers, the intellectual classes such as college professors and government officials. Among the free nations today, there service industries exist of the size and scope of which would have been unthinkable to Marx. The industries that are the largest source of jobs and growth in the Western free market economies, and include huge companies in the computer and related service industries did not even exist when Marx wrote.

In today’s post-industrial economy, the class system is infinitely more complex than anything that Marx anticipated. While there exists an economic class that owns the means of production, and a large percentage of the ownership of economic units is lodged in a small percentage of people, a large percentage of people through investments, retirement plans, ESOP’s and other vehicles have an ownership stake in our society. In many companies, long time employees can definitely reach the status of upper middle class based upon some of these programs. I have an acquaintance who is a multi-millionaire based upon stock in a high-tech company he received as a relatively low-level salesman. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of small businesses owned by entrepreneurs that make up the single biggest source of employment within the economy. Finally, in addition to the traditional professional classes of doctors, lawyers and teachers, there are hundreds of small consulting firms that give advice on anything from accounting, to management, to marketing and public relations, and on to various leadership practices and beyond.

Within the boundaries of any economic class definition, there exist multiple levels of economic achievement. Some people have achieved great wealth. Others have achieved the kind of wealth that one attains through building a small business. Others have invested wisely and achieved a degree of economic security. In addition, there is a huge difference between people who have billions of dollars, millions of dollars, and thousands of dollars in savings and income from that source. While it is true that there are huge concentrations of wealth and power in modern Free Market economies (a fact that needs constant address by anti-trust and other laws), there are also many people with fortunes that would have been deemed huge in prior eras but are now small by comparison to the wealthiest individuals.

Economics, is not, however, the only source of class distinction. For example, there exists in our society class of people who have technical skills in law, engineering, medicine, computer sciences, and other areas that form a distinct social class giving them a distinct view of society and social institutions. Having spent a number of years in graduate school, I can assure the reader that there exists a considerable class distinction between a tenured professor and the professor hired to teach one or two courses without benefits. Within our academic elite, there exists multiple classes.

There is a distinguishable class of persons who have managerial and bureaucratic skills that allow them to function in federal, state, and local governments. These people often have some degree of educational achievement that qualifies them for their positions in a level of experience gained by years of work in a bureaucratic organization. Once again, these people form a distinct group with its own distinct characteristics, and within these classes of people, there exists multiple subgroups.

There is also a group of people that work for the extremely large nonprofit sector of our economy. This includes churches, synagogues, mosques, other religious groups, social welfare agencies, and the like. This group of people often does not have the economic achievement or security of others but a high level of educational and professional attainment.

The point I am making is that the analysis of Marx adopted by Niebuhr is not sophisticated enough to explain the complexities of our society. This is important because most discouraging aspects of contemporary American society, and one of the sources of its political dysfunction, is the consistent attempt by political units to create a kind of class warfare in America along the model of Marx. It may ultimately be successful, but it will not be in the best interest of the American people. In the end, Niebuhr seems to see the limitations of his analysis when he concludes that no society can do away with privilege and the “inequalities” it creates. [3] I my view, this is not because privilege is something inherently suspect but because it is simply a natural outgrowth of the inherent nature of human society.

Social Class Good and Bad

The word “social class” has gained a negative connotation in our society. In my view, any kind of social progress beyond a Marx-inspired “politics of envy” depends upon regaining the idea that it’s a good thing that there are multiple social and economic classes in our or any society. People with certain abilities that want to work long hours in demanding occupations hours may gain economic advantages that others do not. On the other hand, people that have other goals, gain what those goals provide. Particular, the attainment of moral, ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual achievement requires groups of people who seek those particular achievements to the exclusion of wealth and power. In so doing, they inevitably form a class of persons that enrich all of society.

Classes in any society represent the inevitable grouping of people around certain personal, intellectual, aesthetic, religious, social and economic goals. This past week, I spent a few days in a monastery in central Mexico. Everyone in the monastery has taken a vow of poverty, but there were still representatives of differing social classes, intellectual abilities, national histories and the like. This diversity of personhood was a part of the richness of the experience.

According to Marx, the most common form of hypocrisy is the claim that the special privileges of certain individuals or groups are just compensation for performing especially useful or meritorious functions. Returning to the monastery, of course the leader of the monastery had special privileges. He sat at the head of the table, he led the worship services as he was able, His quarters were slightly larger, and he has an office from which to work. Most of his special privileges were a logical and natural result of his position. Others were required as part of the duties of his position, Sill others were a result of his age and long service to the order. Finally, some, such as an office, are the result of his duties and the necessity for privacy in conducting some of them.(People that hold confidential information and have confidential conversations need offices.)

The Selfishness and Hypocrisy of Social Groups

According to Niebuhr, the most common form of hypocrisy is the claim by privileged classes that their status and privileges are the just payment for their especially useful and meritorious functions, [4] This easily becomes a claim that the underprivileged classes lack the capacity to perform these functions, either because of heredity or lack of education.[5] Niebur appears on first glance to be advocating some kind of “classless society,” at least where economic matters are concerned. Later, he makes it plain he feels that it is impossible.

What is missing in Niebuhr’s analysis is an explanation as to how any society could function without giving special status and emoluments to those who in fact perform fundamental leadership roles and exact how one might go about finding a fair way to create privileges. In places he actually seems to recognize this fact. Human history gives no examples as to how a classless society can work and several examples as to why it is impossible. The “classless societies” of China, Russia, and other Marxist nations rapidly developed a high degree of social inequality and privilege. (Modern leftists often critique the social inequality in America forgetting that is was much worse the the “classless” Soviet Union.)

According to Niebuhr, dominant classes assert their moral superiority in order to buttress their claim to economic, educational and political privilege. It is hard to argue with this obvious truth. On the other hand, the real question is how to distinguish between valid and invalid claims for privilege.

An example is the belief that hard work and thriftiness (the so called “Calvinist Work Ethic”) tends to result in economic and social success. From a Marxist perspective this belief is ideological, but from any sound historical perspective it is just common sense and practical wisdom at work. It has, for example, not escaped scholars that Protestant Northern Europe, with its heritage of hard work and thrift, has been more successful and stable than the Roman Catholic southern Europe. This being the case, one is required to ask, what degree of privilege is simply the outgrowth of someone’s exemplary work?

The Ethical Attitudes of the Proletarian Class

According to Niebuhr, while social injustice has always been present, the particular conditions of the industrial age, combined with modern democratic ideology, allowed the emergence a self-conscious proletarian class. (I have the distinct feeling that, during the Middle Ages, the serfs and freeholders were self-conscious of their class and of social distinctions. It is hard to believe otherwise.) It is almost certain that Marx is not correct that industrialism created class consciousness, not even among the so-called proletariat. The social injustices of our age would not seem to me to be more severe and, in fact, probably less severe than in prior ages. [6]

According to Marx, the proletarian class is marked by conflicting moral attitudes. On the one hand, moral cynicism about the actual morality of men, along with, on the other hand, according to a Marxism analysis there is an “equalitarian deal” present in the proletariat that creates an inevitable movement for equality in society. [7] Moral cynicism is expressed in terms of a Marxist materialistic and deterministic interpretation of history. Society is viewed as solely a realm of conflict between classes; all other cultural, ethical, or religious features of society are seen as mere rationalizing ideologies meant to obscure this fact.

Having been a lawyer and pastor for many years, it is my observation that moral cynicism is as prevalent among the wealthy, the successful, and the well born as it is among the proletariat. In fact, it may even be more prevalent. I can remember many a long lunch in which a fellow lawyer, client, or business executive revealed the very same degree and type of moral cynicism that I have seen in counseling other social classes. Moral cynicism is a human not class phenomenon.


Next week, I will close this series with a look at Niebuhr’s view of the dynamics of social change, revolution, and the power of violence, concluding with a final look at the distinction he draws between personal and public morality. As mentioned in the first week’s blog, MMIS is the product of the early phase of Niebuhr’s career and contains views with which the later Niebuhr might not completely agree.

Ian reviewing this week’s blog, it is my feeling that I drifted away from the sympathetic reading style I have tried to have in this phase of my little project. For this, I apologize.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] I would be remiss if I did not indicate the value and reliance of this blog on an Article found at Strong Reading “Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A study in Ethics and Politics” (June 10, 2010), at (downloaded June 27, 2022.

[3] MMIS, at 128,

[4] MMIS, at 117.

[5] Id, at 118.

[6] I would like to take a moment to alert the reader to a facet of Niebuhr’s thought that is common among disaffected intellectuals. He viscerally dislikes the conditions of physical labor in modern industry, and instinctively finds it demeaning in a way that many laborers do not. According to Niebuhr, the depersonalized nature of industrial labor together with its increasingly mass scale has magnified the distance between classes while modern education has given the proletariat an understanding of its plight. In my earlier years, I was a member of a union and worked in a menial job on a railroad. Interestingly, many of the folks who worked on the railroad enjoyed their jobs, which I sometimes found hard to believe given the physical labor involved.

[7] MMIS, at 160.