Christ and the World on the Sources of Social Ethics

[1] During the last three decades the discussion on the role of religion in politics has attracted increasing attention. Due to both theoretical and political causes this question has become increasingly pressing – and difficult. The question is a demanding one, due not only to the implications it raises for social ethics but also for the self-understanding of the various religious communities. This discussion on the relation between religion and politics may also be said to be present in the contemporary debate between representatives of a liberal, Kantian social ethics on the one side and a communitarian, neo-Aristotelian social ethics on the other. Despite all the differences, these positions have one problem in common – at least at a first glance – in that they do not maintain a sufficient dialectic between religion and politic. Either they argue for some kind of separation of the two and keep on trying to find space for maintaining some connection or they argue for the inseparableness of religion and politics (i.e. when the communitas is the religious community). Neglecting the importance of a dialectic understanding of this relation leads to serious problems as the necessary identity of unity and difference is not maintained. This means that reality becomes fragmented for both of these theoretical approaches. One possible way out of this problem is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s social ethics. In Bonhoeffer the christological basis of his social ethics maintains such an identity of unity and difference.

[2] In the present article I will try to highlight a christological basis for Bonhoeffer’s social ethics and attempt to argue why this is important for a contemporary Lutheran reflection on the sources of social ethics. Firstly, I will give a short background reference to Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms. Secondly, I turn to Bonhoeffer’s social ethics and explain the consequences of his christological basis of social ethics. Lastly, I point to some consequences for contemporary Lutheran social ethics.

[3] In a Lutheran tradition the distinction between the two kingdoms (or governments) is one of the fundamental notions in social ethics. In a proper Lutheran social ethic this distinction cannot be taken lightly. This may be very true. It may be the case that this distinction holds insights of theological importance, which we should be careful to maintain. When we turn to Luther we find some of the important arguments for maintaining this distinction. In Luther’s work it is important to note that there are two uses of the law, (i) a political and (ii) a theological.1 The notion of the two uses of the law is found in one of the most central writings of Luther – his commentary from 1535 on Paul’s letter to the Galatians.2 Closely related to Luther’s understanding of the double use of the law is Luther’s double concept of justice, (i) the outer, political justice (coram hominibus) and (ii) the inner, spiritual justice (coram Deo).3 Apart from the commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the distinction between the two concepts of justice is also found in De servo arbitrio and – above all – in his Von weltlicher Oberkeit.4

[4] Under the political use of the law (also called the first use of the law) Luther understands the law in its function within the political society. The law is understood as having a political function and use when compelling people to good works (seen from the outside). The law in this function is aims at the outer, civil justice (iustitia externa/civilis). According to Luther’s understanding this first use of the law is a precondition for the political and public coexistence of human beings.5 In addition to the political use of the law, Luther also speaks of the theological use of the law (the second use).6 In this function the law is understood as driving people to justification by faith. Here the law is understood as driving people to Christ. The law in this sense aims at the justice which cannot be gained by outer, good works. The law in its theological use aims at the justification which is given – the passive and alien justice (iustitia aliena). The law does this by demonstrating the insufficiency and incompleteness of the human being’s righteousness before God were it not for justification by grace.

[5] By distinguishing sharply between the two aspects of the double use of the law Luther can also emphasize that the law is good and useful. It is, however, necessary that there is a sharp distinction between its two uses.7 This double use of the law and the corresponding notion of a double concept of justice is closely related to his understanding of the two kingdoms. In his social ethics Luther makes a distinction between the two governments (Regimente)8 or kingdoms (Reiche)9, worldly and spiritual respectively. The difference in terminology in Luther does not appear to be important. For Luther the underlying issue was the more important, the terminology describing two sides of the same thing. As there are two kingdoms, there must also be two forms of governments. The worldly government is instituted by God in order to uphold the world. This government is part of God’s creatio continua, God’s continuous presence and creative work within creation. The worldly government has as its purpose to punish the wicked and protect the pious. The law is here understood as the law of punishment. It is within the worldly government that the law has its political use.10 The spiritual government is upheld by the word. It is the kingdom of mercy and compassion.11 In this kingdom love (and not law) is the ruler. Here the law assumes its theological use. Just as in his explanation on the two uses of the law, Luther also stresses the necessity of a sharp distinction when dealing with the two kingdoms and governments. Both are divine orders even if both are essentially different. They describe two very different ways God work.

The One and Only Christ Reality

[6] Even if the distinction between the two kingdoms is very important it is also important that we do not jump to conclusions. We should not make the two kingdoms doctrine a set hermeneutic for Lutheran social ethics in general, or we may end up with consequences for Luther’s social ethics that were not his own. In his Ethik Bonhoeffer reminds us of this when he makes the point that there is a danger of such a misreading of Luther, if we are led to a dualistic conception of reality. Such a dualism may ultimately deny God as creator and the recreation in Christ. We may, therefore, also follow Bonhoeffer when he criticizes this dichotomy. Bonhoeffer argues that the reconciliation of man and God in Christ implies that there cannot be a separation between two kinds of reality. There is only one reality, i.e. a reality reconciled with God in Christ. In Bonhoeffer all of reality is seen in its relation to God. As God is seen as the last reality (letzte Wirklichkeit), any attempt to ignore this relation would be an empty abstraction. 12 As such, the good in the world (das Gutsein der Welt) cannot be separated from God’s good (das Gutsein Gottes). God’s good is revealed in Jesus Christ, therefore the question of the good can only be determined in Jesus Christ.13 The basis of Christian ethics, therefore, is the revelation of God’s reality in Jesus Christ. The source of Christian ethics is this reality of God. “Der Ursprung der christlichen Ethik ist nicht die Wirklichkeit des eigenen Ich, nicht die Wirklichkeit der Welt, aber auch nicht die Wirklichkeit der Normen und Werte, sondern die Wirklichkeit Gottes in seiner Offenbarung in Jesus Christus.”14

[7] Bonhoeffer’s idea that all of reality is to be seen in relation to God and that this relation is revealed in Jesus Christ also implies for him that there is only one reality, i.e. the one and only Christ reality (Christuswirklichkeit).15 In Jesus Christ, however, the reality of God and the reality of the world are reconciled. Neither can be separated nor understood apart from the other.
In Christus begegnet uns das Angebot, an der Gotteswirklichkeit und an der Weltwirklichkeit zugleich teil zu bekommen, eines nicht ohne das andere. Die Wirklichkeit Gottes erschließt sich nicht anders als indem sie mich ganz in die Weltwirklichkeit hineinstellt, die Weltwirklichkeit aber finde ich immer schon getragen, angenommen, versöhnt in der Wirklichkeit Gottes vor (…) Es geht also darum, an der Wirklichkeit Gottes und der Welt in Jesus Christus heute teilzuhaben und das so, dass ich die Wirklichkeit Gottes nie ohne die Wirklichkeit der Welt und die Wirklichkeit der Welt nie ohne die Wirklichkeit Gottes erfahre.16
[8] The understanding of the reality of God and the reality of the world as reconciled in Christ implies for Bonhoeffer that he rejects the traditional understanding of a separation between two spheres which has been upheld and defined variously throughout Christian tradition.17 For Bonhoeffer there is only one reality.

[9] Even if Bonhoeffer strongly underlines this one reality in Christ, it is, however, important to be aware that this is not understood in exclusively ecclesiological terms. Firstly, this is apparent from the christological affirmation of both the reality of God and the reality of the world at one and the same time. These two realities are united and yet differentiated in Christ. Furthermore, his understanding of these two realities cannot be understood separate from his notion of the distinction between die letzten und die vorletzten Dinge.18 Das letzte in Bonhoeffer is the justification by faith. In das letzte the human being is seen in the light of God and saved by the Word of God. This is an all-embracing act of God which includes a completely new understanding of all aspects of human life.

Was geschieht hier? [i.e. in the jusficiation by grace] ein Letztes, von keinem menschlichen Sein, tun oder Leiden zu Ergreifendes. Der finstere, von innen und außen verriegelte immer tiefer in Abgrund und Ausweglosigkeit sich verlierende Schacht des menschlichen Lebens wird mit Macht aufgerissen, das Wort Gottes bricht herein; der Mensch erkennt zum erstenmal in rettendem Licht Gott und Nächsten. Das Labyrinth seines bisherigen Lebens stürzt zusammen (…) Vergangenheit und Zukunft des ganzen Lebens fließen in der Gegenwart Gottes in eins zusammen. Die ganze Vergangenheit ist umschlossen von dem Wort vergebung, die ganze Zukunft ist aufgehoben in Treue Gottes.19
[10] Das letzte is understood as a qualitative and temporal word. As a qualitative word it precludes any method or content contrary to itself. 20The temporal sense of the word implies that there is always a vorletzte prededing das letzte. This temporal aspect of das letzte implies the inevitable presence of das vorletzte in the Christian.21 The relation between the das vorletzte and das letzte apparently can only be understood in either radical or compromising terms. Both would tend to dichotomise das vorletzte and das letzte. The former would – in defense of das letzte – argue for an antagonistic relation between the two, whereas the latter would endorse the right of das vorletzte to exist in itself. For Bonhoeffer both of these extremes are unsatisfactory because they ignore unity given in Christ. “Weder die Idee eines reinen Christentum an sich noch die Idee des Menschen, wie er an sich ist, ist ernst; ernst ist allein die Wirklichkeit Gottes und die Wirklichkeit des Menschen, die in Jesus Christus eins geworden ist.”22 Bonhoeffer further describes how the unity of these two extremes is seen in the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.23 This leads to an understanding of the relation between das vorletzte and das letzte where the worldly reality is neither destroyed nor sanctioned in the light of the justification by faith. The worldly reality is confirmed in Christ’s meeting with the world.

Für die Frage nach dem Verhältnis zu dem Vorletzten ergibt sich aus dem Bisherigen, daß das christliche Leben weder eine Zerstörung noch eine Sanktionierung des Vorletzten bedeutet, so daß in Christus die Wirklichkeit Gottes der Wirklichkeit der Welt begegnet und uns an dieser wirklichen Begegnung teilnehmen läßt (…) Christliches Leben ist Teilnahme an der Christusbegegnung mit der Welt.24
[11] If we turn to Bonhoeffer’s lecture on Christology,25 some of these ideas become clearer. For Bonhoeffer it is important that the christological question is an ontological question.26 This implies that the risen Christ is the man Jesus Christ in “Raum und Zeit.” Because of his humanity, Christ is present spatially and temporally. Because of his divinity, Christ is present eternally.27 This means that Christ is present as Word,28 sacrament29 and community.30 As community Christ is present as the body of Christ. Bonhoeffer understands this very concretely as the actual body of Christ.

… die Gemeinde ist Leib Christi. Sie ist es wirklich. Der Begriff des Leibes auf die Gemeinde angewandt, ist nicht ein Funktionsbegriff, der sich auf die Glieder bezöge, sondern er ist ein Begriff der Existenzweise des gegenwärtigen, erhöhten und erniedrigten Christus.31
[12] Whereas Bonhoeffer until now has reflected mostly on how Christ is present, he then turns to the question of the place of Christ’s presence. Here Bonhoeffer points to Christ as present at the very center of human existence. This is, however, not to be understood in psychological, but rather in ontological-theological terms. It concerns the being of the human person before God. As such it is not a matter of intensity of faith, but “Dass Christus die Mitte unserer Existenz ist, besagt, dass er das Gericht und Rechtfertigung ist.”32 The presence of Christ as the center of human existence leads Bonhoeffer on to the understanding of Christ as the center of history. Here Bonhoeffer makes explicit the consequences of this christological understanding for the relation between church and state – or religion and politics (stated anachronistically). Bonhoeffer rejects any philosophical attempts to define Christ as the center of history.33 Rather, history must be viewed eschatologically. The fulfilment of history awaits the coming of Messiah.34 As Christ is present in the church, the church is also seen as the center of history, even if this is a hidden center of history.35 As the center of the state, the church is also the boundary of the state. The church does not proclaim another law for the state, but it preaches that the presence of God in history marks the eschatological end and fulfillment of the state.36

[13] For Bonhoeffer it is important that creation, history and the state are all qualified christologically, maintaining one reality in Christ without committing the dualistic fallacy which may be read into Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms. But at the same time he does not make the mistake of making a simple identification. Rather, he argues for a unity of identification and difference.

[14] The unity of identification and difference may bear a resemblance to the two natures of Christ as described in the formula of Chalcedon. This is also clear from Bonhoeffer’s lecture on Christology, where he comments on the formula of Chalcedon.37 Bonhoeffer explains the formula and points to the agreement with the Lutheran reformers.38 If this is true, it would bring this understanding in line with a christological scheme which may be said to underlie Luther’s social ethics. In Kjell Ove Nilsson’s comprehensive thesis – Simul. Das Miteinander von Göttlichem und Menschlichem in Luthers Theologie – Nilsson argues that the relation between the divine and the human is a fundamental theme throughout Luther’s theology. He demonstrates that this notion is inspired by a Chalchedonian Christology and implies a continuous unity and difference between the divine and the human.39 This fundamental theme also holds important implications for Luther’s social ethics. Nilsson employs Luther’s understanding of the communicatio idiomatum and explains how this implies that the Christian at once is part of the church and is engaged in the needs of his or her neighbor.

In Christus sind göttliche und menschliche Natur zu einer unauflöslichen Einheit, ohne Verwandlung oder Vermischung verbunden. Im Verhältnis von Kirche und Welt bedeutet die communicatio idiomatum für den Christen, dass er gleichzeitig in der Kirche lebt, dort die Vergebung der Sünden durch jene Mittel empfängt, die dazu eingerichtet sind, und in der Welt seine Berufsaufgabe ausführt und so gut wie möglich seinem Nächsten zu dienen versucht.40
[15] That the Christian is – at the same time – part of the church and part of the world can be understood as an affirmation of the incarnation of Christ. On the basis of faith and baptism the Christian is part of the body of Christ – i.e. the church – while this very same body is embodied in the world. The body of Christ cannot be conceived of apart from the worldly reality.

[16] This attempt to keep the body of Christ joined to worldly reality is also evident in the work of Bernd Wannenwetsch. Wannenwetsch argues that the idea of the church (i.e. the body of Christ) may serve as the basis of a social ethic – a standpoint where he is inspired by some postliberal contributions to theological ethics, especially Hauerwas. Wannenwetsch argues that there is no fundamental dichotomy between the worship of the church and the political practice. On the contrary, the worship of the church carries with it a social practice, which is fundamentally political in character.41

Die feiernde Gemeinde kann sich weder in den Raum des Privat-Religiösen schicken noch die Autonomie des Politischen anerkennen. Sie kann sich weder der vita activa zugunsten des kontemplativen Lebens enthalten noch wird sie jenes politisieren. Zu zeigen ist vielmehr, wie die gottesdienstliche Versöhnung dieser Handlungsformen und der zugehörigen Lebensbereiche zur Erfahrung kommt. Diese Versöhnung ist nich zu leisten: weder als Herstellung entsprechender Verhältnisse noch theoretisch im Sinn der Konstruktionen politischer Theorie. Die Versöhnung von gegen-gesetzlich erfahrenen Handlungsformen und Lebensbereichen ist nicht theoretisch zu lösen, weil sie nicht trennen läßt von der Versöhnung der Menschen, die sie repräsentieren. Frauen und Männer, Eltern und Kinder, Freie und Unfreie, Bürger und Unpolitische, können aus der Versöhnung leben, die sie im Gottesdienst erfahren.42
[17] For Wannenwetsch there is no dichotomy between the celebrating religious community and the political dimension of this practice. The church as the location of the religious celebration cannot be separated from the political society as the location of public justice.

[18] Even if Luther and Bonhoeffer have quite different agendas due to the obvious differences in time and setting, they seem to have an important common aim in arguing for the unity of identity and difference simultaneously in the understanding of God’s relation to the world. In Bonhoeffer, however, the christological accentuation is stronger. This focus on Christology appears to lead to a fruitful basis for dealing with some of the challenges raised in a contemporary setting. It stresses the necessary qualification of Christian ethics and yet maintains the equally necessary openness of this very same Christian ethics. This qualified openness seems to lead in a direction where a political discourse may be conducted as a having a specific source and yet in recognition of the commonality of humankind. Read as such, Bonhoeffer may be an important contribution to both the theoretical and political debate on the sources of social ethics which is so central today.


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethik Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (DBW) 6. Chr. Kaiser Verlag/Gütersloher Verlagshaus. 1998

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “Vorlesung “Christologie” (Nachschrift). Berlin 1932-1933. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (DBW) 12. Chr. Kaiser Verlag/Gütersloher Verlagshaus. 1997

Luther, Martin. In epistolam S. Pauli ad Galatas Commentarius ex praelectione D. Martini Lutheri (1531) collectus 1535. (WA 40 I, 33-688; WA 40 II, 1-184)

Luther, Martin. Ob Kriegsleute auch in seligem Stande sein können. 1526. (WA 19, 623-662)

Luther, Martin. Von weltlicher Oberkeit, wie weit man ihr Gehorsam schuldig sei. 1523. (WA 11, 245-281)

Nilsson, Kjell Ove. Simul. Das Miteinander von Göttlichem und Menschlichem in Luthers Theologie. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 1966

Wannenwetsch, Bernd. Gottesdienst als Lebensform – Ethik für Christenbürger. Kohlhammer: Stuttgart/Berlin/Köln. 1997

Wannenwetsch, Bernd. “The Political Worship of the Church: A Critical and Empowering Practice”. Modern Theology 12:3. July 1996. 269-299

End Notes

1 WA 40 I, 429f.; 40 I, 479f.; 40 I, 485, 23ff.; 40 I, 528, 6ff.

2 WA 40 I, 33-688; 40 II, 1-184 In the present lecture I only give reference to a few of the places in this commentary, where Luther explains and comments on the two uses of the law.

3 WA 40 I, 40ff; 40 I, 208f; 40 I, 393, 21ff; 40 I, 554, 15ff

4 WA 18, 767f.; 11, 246-261

5 WA 40 I, 487, 30ff; 40 I, 491, 16; 40 I, 491, 27f; 40 I, 528, 6ff; 40 I, 551, 19ff

6 WA 40 I, 480, 32ff; 40 I, 485, 27f; 40 I, 487, 32ff; 40 I, 492, 17ff; 40 I, 528, 14ff; 40 I, 551, 22ff

7 WA 40 I, 485, 23ff.; 40 I, 558, 24ff.

8 WA 11, 251, 15ff.; 19, 629, 17ff.

9 WA 11, 249, 24f.; 18, 389, 14ff.

10 WA 18, 389, 31ff.; 19, 629, 22ff.

11 WA 18, 389, 19ff.; 19, 629, 18ff.

12 DBW 6, 32: Alle Dinge erscheinen ja im Zerrbild, wo sie nicht in Gott gesehen und erkannt werden. Alle sogenannte Gegebenheiten, alle Gesetze und Normen sind Abstraktionen, so lange nicht Gott als die letzte Wirklichkeit geglaubt wird.

13 DBW 6, 33

14 DBW 6, 33

15 DBW 6, 43f. Cf. also DBW 12, 307-311

16 DBW 6, 40f.

17 DBW 6, 41f.

18 DBW 6, 137ff.

19 DBW 6, 135

20 DBW 6, 139ff.

21 DBW 6, 143ff.

22 DBW 6, 146

23 DBW 6, 148ff.

24 DBW 6, 151

25 DBW 12, 277ff.

26 DBW 12, 284.

27 DBW 12, 294.

28 DBW 12, 297ff.

29 DBW 12, 300ff.

30 DBW 12, 305ff.

31 DBW 12, 306

32 DBW 12, 307

33 DBW 12, 307

34 DBW 12, 308

35 DBW 12, 308

36 DBW 12, 309

37 DBW 12, 325ff.

38 DBW 12, 330f.

39 Nilsson, Simul, 28f.: “Zusammenfassend kann gesagt werden dass sich Luther in seiner ganzen Theologie ständig nach zwei Seiten hin abgrenzt, da, wo man entweder eine Aufspaltung zwischen Göttlichem und Menschlichem vornimmt und das Göttliche isoliert und über allem Menschlichen erhöht ansieht, oder wo man die beiden Faktoren vermengt und das Menschliche im Göttlichen aufgehen lässt (…) Grundlegend ist hier ein antispiritualistischer und antimetaphysischer Inkarnations-gedanke, der von Luther gern in Begriffen und Termen ausgedrückt wird, die er sich aus der Chalcedonense-Formel holt (…) Göttliches Handeln und menschliche Werke dürfen niemals vermischt oder identifiziert werden, und doch gehen sie ständig in einander über – ein stetes simul.”

40 Nilsson, Simul, 415

41 , “The Political Worship …”, 279.

42 Wannenwetsch, Gottesdienst als Lebensform, 143f.