We stand, yet again, at the precipice of that grand, glorious and ghastly public spectacle: the American Presidential election. Blogs are buzzing with political rhetoric, pundits and politicians are jockeying for public allegiance, and Christians (at least this one) are struggling with a myriad of well-worn questions concerning the relationship between theology and political theory. As such, I can hardly think of a more appropriate way of wrapping up our series on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics then by engaging ourselves with his thoughts on the intersection of Church and State. Not only are Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the topic important in their own right, but his infamous arrest and subsequent execution at the hands of the Gestapo for political subversion and involvement in assassination plots against Hitler make Bonhoeffer’s political theology a fascinating area of study. In shifting our attention to Bonhoeffer’s political theology, I do not intend to leave behind the trajectory charted in our previous posts. Rather, Bonhoeffer’s assertions on the relationship between faith and politics provide us with a powerful example of the type of ethical reflection so vigorously defended by Bonhoeffer throughout his Ethics. Thus, for Bonhoeffer, the ultimate point of departure for a truly Christian understanding of the State and the corresponding role of government is the reality of God as He reveals Himself in Jesus Christ.
II. The Basis of Government
Bonhoeffer begins his essay on State and Church in the Ethics with a brief reflection on the basis of government. According to Bonhoeffer, there have been two primary theories throughout history regarding the proper basis of government: (i) government based in the nature of man and (ii) government based in sin. The first theory was held by the ancients, especially Aristotle. According to this theory, “the State is the supreme consummation of the rational character of men, and to serve it is the supreme purpose of life.” According to Bonhoeffer, “this theory of the state was taken over in principle by Catholic theology. The State is a product of human nature. Man’s ability to live in society derives from the Creation, as does also the relation of rulers and ruled” (333). Under this theory, the government is thought to derive it’s authority from below, that is, from those citizens by which it is constituted. According to the second theory, “it was sin that made necessary the divine institution of government. The sword which God has given to government is to be used by it in order to protect men against the chaos which is caused by sin… Thus a reason is provided for the existence of government both as coercive power and as the protector of an outward justice” (335). Rather than deriving its authority from below, therefore, the government is seen as receiving its authority from God above. This theory of government is most closely associated with the Reformation.
While Bonhoeffer believed the latter theory to be superior to the first, he ultimately comes to reject both options. According to Bonhoeffer, “the basing of the state on sin or on the nature of man leads to a conception of the state as a self-contained entity, a conception which fails to take account of the relation of the state to Jesus Christ” (336). Thus, rather than considering the nature of the government in isolation (independently, that is, of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ), Bonhoeffer advocates an understanding of the government as finding its basis in Christ. According to Bonhoeffer,
It is through Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ that all things are created (John 1:3; I Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2), and in particular ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers’ (Col. 1:16). It is only in Jesus Christ that all these things ‘consist’ (Col. 1:17). And it is He who is ‘the head of the church’ (Col. 1:18). A theological proposition with regard to government, with regard, that is to say, to the government which is instituted by God and not to some general philosophical idea of government, is therefore in no circumstances possible without reference to Jesus Christ, and to Jesus Christ as the head of His Church; no such proposition is possible without reference to the Church of Jesus Christ. The true basis of government is therefore Jesus Christ Himself” (336-337).
III. The Relationship Between Jesus Christ and Government
For Bonhoeffer, this relation of Jesus Christ to government can be expressed under seven headings:
i. “As the Mediator of Creation, ‘through whom’ government, too, is created, Jesus Christ is the sole and necessary medium between government and the Creator” (337).
ii. “Government, like all created things, ‘consists only in Jesus Christ’; in other words, it is only in Him that it has its essence and being. If Jesus Christ did not exist there would be no created things; all created things would be annihilated in the wrath of God” (ibid).
iii. “Government, like all created things, is designed and directed ‘towards Jesus Christ’. Its goal is Jesus Christ Himself. Its purpose is to serve Him” (ibid).
iv. “Jesus Christ possesses all power in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), and He is, therefore, also the Lord of government” (ibid).
v. “Through the atonement on the cross Jesus Christ has restored the relation between government and God” (ibid).
vi. The history of Jesus Christ stands in special relation with government. Bonhoeffer mentions, for instance, that Jesus was crucified with the permission of the government; that by acknowledging the innocence of Jesus (John 18:38), government gave evidence of its proper character; and that Jesus submitted to the government; etc. (337-338).
vii. “So long as the earth continues, Jesus will always be at the same time Lord of all government and Head of the Church, without government and Church ever becoming one and the same. But at the end there will be a holy city (polis) without temples, for God and the Lamb will Themselves be the Temple (Rev. 21), and the citizens of this city will be the faithful of the congregation of Jesus throughout all the world, and dominion in this city will be exercised by God and the Lamb. In the heavenly polis state and Church will be one” (338).
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With these thoughts in mind, we will turn in our next post (the penultimate!) to Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on the divine character of government. We will then turn at last to the relationship between government and the Church. In the meantime, what do you make of Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the basis of government?