By / Jul 4

Dietrich Bonhoeffer largely derives his fame from his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazi regime. Under immense stress, Bonhoeffer’s religious convictions prompted him to fight for the true good of the German people against genocidal tyranny. Understandably so, less attention has been paid to his theology and his understanding of private Christian faith. However, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings demonstrate a vital nuance to personal, spiritual practices that ought to inform our private faith today.

Before his involvement in the assassination plot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer retreated to relative obscurity and operated an underground seminary in the German town of Finkenwalde. Here, removed from the political activities of his day, Bonhoeffer gives us the best glimpse of his expectations for personal spirituality.

Practicing spiritual disciplines

To prepare his seminarians for ministry, Bonhoeffer mandated disciplines very familiar to us. Bonhoeffer required his students to read Scripture privately, writing, “we are not permitted to neglect this daily encounter with Scripture.”[1] Bonhoeffer intentionally uses the word “encounter” here as he disallowed that this time would be an academic or pastoral pursuit: the ministers-to-be were not allowed to search for sermon material or use a Greek New Testament; rather, Scripture study was meditative, or prayerful, and enabled the Finkenwalde seminarians “to encounter Christ in his own word.”[2] Thus, the “goal [of Scriptural meditation] is Christ’s community, Christ’s help, and Christ’s guidance.”[3]

Bonhoeffer also insisted that his seminarians fasted. Arguing that it reminded them of their “estrangement” from the world, he regarded this practice as nonnegotiable.[4] Just as prayerful Scripture reading ultimately looks to encounter God, Bonhoeffer does not see fasting as an end in itself but rather a response to faith in Christ, a means of orienting one’s life to God.

However, Bonhoeffer appears to speak out of both sides of his mouth, paradoxically railing against retreat from the world. In Ethics, he writes firmly, “for the Christian there is nowhere to retreat from the world, neither externally nor into the inner life.”[5] In After Ten Years, he develops this criticism a little further:

In flight from public discussion and examination, this or that person may well attain the

sanctuary of private virtuousness. But he must close his eyes and mouth to the injustice

around him. He can remain undefiled by the consequences of responsible action only by

deceiving himself . . . He will either perish from that restlessness or turn into a

hypocritical, self-righteous, small-minded human being.[6]

Developing a moral backbone

How then are we to make sense of Bonhoeffer’s actions and commands? While condemning withdrawal from the world, Bonhoeffer appears to do the very thing he hates, retreating to Finkenwalde and exhorting his students toward inward-focused, privatistic practices.

In her essay “Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of Church, State and Civil Society,” Victoria J. Barnett, director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, notes Bonhoeffer’s awareness of this exact contradiction: “The Finkenwalde experiment opened up the risk inherent in any kind of internal exile, which is that it becomes a flight into a privatized kind of discipleship.”[7] Barnett thus indicates that while the Finkenwalde period may appear apolitical, Bonhoeffer understood this apparent contradiction.

However, his other writings—as well as more insight from Barnett—provide a fascinating dimension to Bonhoeffer’s personal spirituality which resolves this tension. Rather than seeing spiritual disciplines as a retreat from the world, Bonhoeffer understands spirituality as the necessary foundation for Christian political action.

Retreating to Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer was not neglecting or refusing the world. Rather, Barnett’s essay highlights how he here sought “the creation of moral backbone and the establishment of the discipline his students would need if they were to stay on the right path” under the attractive Nazi regime.[8] Personally, Bonhoeffer saw his meditation not as retreat but the only way he could take certain steps in public life: encountering God personally provided the necessary foundation for political action.

This moral formation via spiritual discipline does not, however, only apply to ministers. Bonhoeffer extends this political dimension of spirituality to the local church because a church consumed with her own desire and self-interest cannot truly love her neighbor. Only by developing contentment and self-control will the church be able to be selfless, to be the church-for-others, as Bonhoeffer puts it.  

Bonhoeffer thus resolves the apparent contradiction and demonstrates a necessarily political or public understanding of private spirituality. Rather than serving as an end-in-themselves, private spiritual practices function as a means to create genuinely Christian public action. Reading Scripture prayerfully may appear an isolated or individualistic practice, but such meditation forms our desires and builds virtue. Fasting similarly generates self-control, enabling—through God’s grace—the Christian to overcome selfish ambition and promoting generosity. Personal spirituality, though seemingly apolitical, therefore empowers the church to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned.


  1. ^ The Complete Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Series. Volume 14. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Publish Company (2014). 936.
  2. ^ DBWE 14, 932.
  3. ^ DBWE 14, 933.
  4. ^ DBWE 4, 158.
  5. ^ DBWE 6, 62.
  6. ^ DBWE 8, 40, emphasis original.
  7. ^ Victoria J. Barnett. “Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of Church, State and Civil Society.” Found in Dem Rad in die Speichen fallen : das Politische in der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers = A spoke in the wheel : the political in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Kristen Busch Nielsen, Ralf Karolus Wustenberg and Jens Zimmermann. Guetersloh, DE: Gütersloher Publishing House (2014). 361.
  8. ^ Barnett, “Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of Church, State and Civil Society,” 361.
By / Jan 12

Editor’s Note: Canon & Culture is beginning 2015 with a Symposium on Statecraft and political theology featuring six essays from Research Fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute. 

When Christians consider ideal polity we need at the outset to make some distinctions. We need to distinguish polity in the kingdom of God from polity in the kingdom men, to distinguish polity in the present world from polity in the world to come, to distinguish the role of God in governing men from the role men have in governing themselves, and to distinguish the polity of the church from the polity of civil government. We also must consider human nature because governing addresses human needs and problems, and judging what ideal government can or should do is set by the view one has of human nature and the human predicament. Christians know men are creatures made in the image of God, meaning we are capable of greatness but are limited, first by finitude as to knowledge and ability (we are neither omniscient nor omnipotent), and second by fallenness (we are corrupted by sin).

The greatest impediment affecting ideal polity on earth comes from how those addressing social and political needs are able to imagine more than anyone can achieve in a finite fallen world. We can imagine social ideals that can never be realized until human nature is itself perfected. This would be no problem if it merely enhanced longing for Christ’s return and ultimate rule, but pride tempts us to overestimate our virtues and abilities and so to become dissatisfied, not only with wrongs that can be righted, but even with the best anyone can achieve in a finite and fallen world. We are lured into thinking impossibilities are possible if we only reject the best possible but ever imperfect possibility anyone can achieve in the present world. We deceive ourselves into ignoring human finitude and overestimating human virtue, and either we think impossible perfections are be easy to achieve or we redefine vices as virtuous ideals and decide perversions require promotion and defense.

The folly of imagining universal and equal access to the best available healthcare at reduced cost for everyone demonstrates the first, and the folly of redefining marriage to normalize same-sex attractions demonstrates the second. Each reveals idolatrous inclinations, the first by imagining men can exceed their own finitude, and the second by imagining men can deny they are fallen. But the foolishness of these errors is not easily seen without recognizing divine superiority, and neither seems impossible while rejecting the finitude and fallenness of the human condition.

As Christians we know that while a perfect world is coming it is not yet here; and it cannot be made to arrive by human effort, but can and will arrive only when Jesus returns to rule on earth in political as well as spiritual terms. Jesus announced the kingdom of God “has come near” (Matt 4:17; 10:7; Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9) and already “is among you” (Luke 17:21). But its fullness remains future (Matt 6:10; Luke 22:18; 1 Cor 15:25). This sets up an already-and-not-yet tension in the Christian view of polity. We live for now in a tension that cannot be resolved just by desiring perfect conditions and refusing to accept anything less.

Christian standards never change because God never changes (Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17), but those affecting polity do so now in a different manner than will go into effect after “the first heaven and the first earth” pass away (Rev 21:1). Fallen human nature, together with the presence and power of sin, now limits the degree to which social life can be improved, and limits affecting present conditions will not remain when Christ banishes sin and only sinless saints remain on earth (Rev 21:5-8). So, when Christians treat polity in an already-and-not-yet manner, we do not suppose God will replace one ethic with another but rather are looking forward to a time when new circumstances will affect the manner in which we apply the same ethic as governs life now.

During Hitler’s rise to political power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought deeply about the way present limitations affect a Christian understanding of ideal polity, and Bonhoeffer used penultimate to distinguish present possibilities from ultimate perfections. The penultimate, he said, “is everything that precedes the ultimate.” It is what points toward God’s perfect future during the period of time on earth between receiving God’s promise and before it arrives—between inaugurating the kingdom of God internally in individual hearts and its social-political-economic arrival in external fullness—between swearing allegiance to God among sinners in a fallen world and celebrating the rule of God among saints in a sinless world.

For Bonhoeffer, “the Christian life means neither a destruction nor a sanctioning of the penultimate.” The penultimate is not destroyed because it includes the best we can do for now—hungry people need feeding, poor people need assisting, wicked people need punishing, and weak people need defending. But in a perfect world there will be no hungry, poor, wicked, or vulnerable people, and so when the ultimate arrives we will discard penultimate efforts to serve the needy, warn the foolish, and restrain evildoers. This will occur, not because one ethic replaces another, but because a sinless world will replace the fallen world. For now economics can only presume limited resources, but then resources will be unlimited. For now justice requires retribution, but then retribution will become irrelevant. For now security requires a strong defense, but then no defense will be needed at all. For now freedom comes with increased vulnerability, but then freedom will never increase vulnerability.

Reinhold Niebuhr considered another question connected with the already-and-not-yet view Christians now have toward polity on earth. If nothing now can be perfect, how then can the ultimately perfect even matter here and now? Niebuhr argued that social ideals Christians view now as impossible to perfect still are relevant here and now, and he did so without denying fallen human nature and without promising the impossible. Niebuhr said, “There is no problem of history and no point in society from which one may not observe that the same man who touches the fringes of the infinite in his moral life remains imbedded in finiteness, that he increases the evil in his life if he tries to overcome it without regard to his limitations,” and so “it is as important to know what is impossible as what is possible in the moral demands under which all human beings stand.” It is essential, he argued, for sinful men and women to realize they cannot perfect anything here and now no matter how they desire it, and to understand they will only make things worse by supposing they can.

To this point Niebuhr repeated Bonhoeffer, but he went on then to criticize those tempted to use the impossibility of reaching socially perfect conditions to excuse throwing up their hands and making no effort to improve anything at all. He pointed out that, even though ideal social conditions cannot be reached among sinners in a fallen world, we can strive nevertheless to make things better than they are. Socially perfect conditions may be out of reach, but we must not stop trying to better them however imperfectly. Ideal polity can never be realized through human organizing and politics before the time Christ returns. But ideals impossible to reach perfectly can be approach a little more nearly than they have heretofore, and as such indicate the sort of less than perfect changes that can possibly make things better than before.

I believe that for Christians the notion of ideal polity must be planted firmly in the already-and-not-yet tension that anticipates a perfect polity to come while pursuing a best possible but always less than perfect polity in the finite fallen world we live it. Social perfection will come but not by giving government more power or by simply getting sinners to perfect themselves. Until Christ returns, the best we can do is restrain sinful actions and effects (Rom 13:4) while tolerating the presence of sin. Expecting human rulers to assure social perfections demands the impossible, and human rulers who promise social perfections promise the impossible. But not only is expecting or promising socially perfect conditions impossible, it is idolatrous and self-deifying. And not only is it impossible, idolatrous or self-deifying, it is dangerous because those who insist on social perfection or nothing only get nothing. Those who destroy everything less than perfect destroy everything. Those who accept nothing less than present perfection never accept anything at all. Under conditions constrained by finitude and fallenness, the best imaginable polity destroys the best possible polity because the best possible never is perfect and the best imaginable never is possible. We must in humble candor accept the good possessed in imperfect circumstances while striving to improve what we have within real world limits bounded by finitude and fallenness; and we must temper desire for imagined perfections that erode satisfaction with the best anyone can possibly achieve in the world as it is.

Christian thinkers who have influenced me on these matters include: Jesus Christ who respected government while never holding it responsible for solving social needs like poverty, education, or healthcare; Augustine who believed while Christians should resist wickedness also dampened perfectionist expectations by insisting none will be achieved until the City of God replaces the city of men at the last judgment; Karl Barth who denounced the perfectionism of totalitarian political ideology as idolatrous self-deification usurping the role of God and denying the finitude and fallenness of men; Dietrich Bonhoeffer who discussed how the penultimate and ultimate relate to how Christians view of society and politics; Jacques Ellul who discussed how the here-and-not-yet informs a Christian view of polity; Carl F. H. Henry who held the way Christians view polity includes final perfections not expected of civil government; Helmut Thielicke who maintained Christian polity stands in tension between two worlds requiring us to live under the law of “not-yet” while relying on the promise “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:20); H. Richard Niebuhr who distinguished this worldly perfectionism from how historic Christianity sees itself called to resist the effects of sin in a world that will not be perfected before Christ returns; and Reinhold Niebuhr who explained that, while social ideals are impossible before Christ returns, we should try nevertheless to approximate them the best we can within limits of finitude and fallenness.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.