Sin, between Law and Gospel

ImageBy Piotr J. Małysz

A fundamental question motivates these historically grounded reflections on sin: How can we talk about sin today? With a view to illuminating the answer, the following will reflect on certain conceptual dilemmas that came to define sixteenth-century Lutheran reflection on sin, and have punctuated it ever since. Our point of departure will be the Reformation’s radicalization of sin and its conceptual implications. In this light, we shall then consider how sin is disclosed. This will show the overarching dilemma in the relationship between law and gospel. When seen through the lens of sin, this relationship, I shall argue, appears to be more complex than the customary linear sequence in which the comfort of the gospel follows the accusation of the law and the conviction of sin. In fact, precisely this view leads to the loss of sin’s radical character, so crucial to Luther’s protest. The argument advanced here will be that, unless the gospel is related to the disclosure of sin, the Reformation’s insight about sin’s radicalness will be compromised, in the end minimizing not only sin but also grace. In the final section the essay addresses this very process by considering the impact which post-Reformation tensions, related to the nature of sin, exerted on the rise of autonomous human agency and being.

In Search of a Category

Philip Melanchthon’s charge in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) is that “the scholastic teachers . . . trivialize original sin.”[i] This should give us pause. For it is hard to overlook the proliferation, in the late Middle Ages, of confessional manuals notorious for giving detailed instructions to priests on how to tease out admission of guilt from unwilling penitents.[ii] Nevertheless, as early as Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518), there is a clear sense that there is more to sin. Sin is not just a transgression of the law, or a failure to keep it. Nobody in his right mind, including both Luther and his opponents, was interested in debating whether a crime was sinful. But Luther was vitally interested in debating whether, in addition to crimes, also those “works of man [which] always seem attractive and good . . . are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.”[iii] Luther readily admitted that the works he had in mind were “not mortal sins . . . as though they were crimes [crimina].” But he still concluded that the good, attractive, even law-abiding works that humans perform could, in fact, be sins meriting eternal damnation.

Seen from this angle, the Reformation began as a controversy over sin and good works, provoked by Luther’s indictment of good works, regardless of whether they were self-devised or perfectly consonant with the law. This is how Luther’s first opponents saw it, forcing him to clarify that he was not, in fact, against doing good works but against the self-righteousness and self-congratulation—in short, against sinful pride—that naturally attend good works.[iv] Already in the Ninety-five Theses (1517) Luther drew attention to the necessity and importance of doing good works, such as providing for one’s family.[v] This did not prevent Luther’s colleague, Nicholas von Amsdorf, from later making the notorious claim that good works were detrimental to salvation. Von Amsdorf’s view is certainly extreme, though not without precedent in Luther’s writings.[vi]

By contrast, today one rarely, if ever, hears Lutheran pastors speak to the good works of their congregants as likewise not immune to the danger of condemnation, perhaps even more in danger of it. After all, nobody wants to own their failures, but everyone wants to claim their successes. Today preaching sin seems to be confined largely to the law’s transgression. This brings us to the Reformation’s fundamental conceptual insight which, I think, ought to inform our consideration of sin today. It will not do simply to equate sins and crimes, sin and lawlessness, hamartiology and morality. But if we are not simply to equate them, how are we to relate them? Here two alternatives present themselves. The first option would be to regard crimes (crimina), as Luther understands them, merely as a subset of sin. Sin is simply a broader category: all crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes. The larger set would then include also good works—those good works that are somehow deficient. With recourse to Kant, for example, we might blame this deficiency on the works being done only in accordance with duty, but not really out of duty.[vii] In that case, the opposite of sin would be virtue, wholehearted obedience to the law, which results not only in apparently or externally good works but in intentionally good works.

The alternative is sharply to distinguish sin and all works, including crimes, as belonging to entirely different categories. Distinction does not, of course, mean separation. To quote Eberhard Jüngel, “the necessity of distinguishing as sharply as possible emerges at the very point at which the things to be distinguished are bound together as tightly as possible.”[viii] But the relation is more complicated than that of larger sets to their subsets. The categorical distinction is, actually, the path taken by Luther and, albeit inconsistently, as we shall see, in the Lutheran Confessions. When one speaks of sin, it is certainly not enough to juxtapose evil deeds and good works—the goodness of good works is not determined ex opere operato, it is not automatic. But neither is it sufficient to place, on one side, evil deeds and only externally good works, and then juxtapose them with works that are truly intentionally law-abiding.[ix] Luther insists we must get at the root of the problem, “the inherited sin (Erbsünde), or the chief sin.”[x] This, for Luther, is unbelief. Although never quite transcending the category of human action and responsibility, unbelief belongs to a different category. Unbelief, the Reformer writes in his Preface to Romans (1522/1546), is “the root and source of all sin . . . unbelief alone commits sin . . . unbelief [is, in fact,] the only sin!”[xi] As early as The Babylonian Captivity (1520), we find Luther insisting that “no sin can condemn . . . save unbelief alone.”[xii]

One profound implication of this categorical shift, as Kierkegaard perceptively noted against the pious moralism of his own day, is that “the opposite of sin is by no means virtue.” “In part,” writes Kierkegaard, “this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, [namely,] that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: ‘whatever does not proceed form faith is sin.’ And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all of Christianity.”[xiii] In this respect, Kierkegaard may be seen as a good student of Luther, who likewise draws attention to the same juxtaposition. In his Sermons on the Gospel of John (1537), Luther contrasts sin and faith by noting that

unbelief retains all sin and cannot obtain forgiveness, just as faith delivers from all sin. Hence without this faith everything, including even the best works and life of which man is capable, is and remains sinful and damnable. Good works may be praiseworthy in themselves and commanded by God; but they are vitiated by unbelief and for this reason cannot please God just as all the works and life which spring from the faith of a Christian are pleasing to God. In brief, without Christ all is damned and lost; in Christ all is good and blessed.[xiv]


Revealing Sin

Locating sin beyond ethical categories raises some dilemmas, two of which I discuss in what follows. In this section we ask whether a rational case can be made for sin. In the ensuing sections we consider sin’s relation to our humanity. To consider whether a rational case can be made for sin, we must begin with the question of how sin is disclosed. The Lutheran commitment to preaching the law rests on the assumption that sin can be rationally brought to light—even if the Formula of Concord adds the caveat that without the Holy Spirit’s alien, convicting work the chances are rather slim![xv] However, in light of what has been said, it is not unreasonable to ask whether preaching the law can get at sin at all, with or without the Holy Spirit. But then why specifically preach the law? Can a jump be made from the knowledge of oneself as an occasional, or even habitual, law-breaker and impurely-motivated doer of the good to the knowledge of sin? Can a jump be made from an empirically established “tendency of man’s heart and nature,” as Jonathan Edwards would have it, to the knowledge of oneself as a sinner?[xvi] It seems the only way this can be done is by invoking some Anselmian assumption of debt that becomes infinite on account of the offended party: then a single offense, however slight in itself, makes one inescapably into a sinner. But even if we were to follow this route, is it at all commensurate with the insight that sin is, fundamentally, unbelief? In short then, what is it that we do when we preach the law? And in what sense does the illumination of legal failure prepare one for the gospel? Does the gospel play any role beyond being that for which the law prepares the way? These are some questions that, I believe, deserve more reflection than they customarily receive (Article V of the Formula of Concord notwithstanding). The “Lutheran” answers, it seems to me, cannot simply be taken for granted.


The entire article appeared in Lutheran Quarterly 28:2 (Summer 2014), 149-178.  DOWNLOAD


[i] Ap II.7: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 113 (hereafter, BC); Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (11th ed., Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 148 (hereafter, BSLK).

[ii] To this end, some of the manuals contained elaborate hierarchies, for example, of sexual sins; see Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 91, 141-2. For Luther’s reaction against excessive sexualization of sin, which obscures its true character, see his Lectures on Genesis (1535-45); in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 82 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955ff), 1:114 (hereafter, LW); D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. J. F. K. Knaake et al., 57 vols. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883ff), 42:86 (hereafter, WA).

[iii] LW 31:39; WA 1:353.

[iv] Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian (1520): “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works” (LW 31:372-3; WA 7:70).

[v] Theses 41-46 (LW 31:12; WA 1:235).

[vi] See the editorial footnote appended by the Kolb/Wengert edition of The Book of Concord to Art. IV of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: BC 574, n. 139.

[vii] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor et al., rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 13.

[viii] Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” Theological Essays II, ed. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 218.

[ix] Rejected are also other views which tend to minimize the seriousness of sin, such as Peter Lombard’s teaching that “original sin is merely a reatus (obligation resulting from a debt incurred by someone else) without any corruption of our nature” (FC, Solid Declaration, I.17; BC 534-5; BSLK 850).

[x] Smalc. Art., III.1.1 (BC 310; BSLK 433).

[xi] LW 35:369; WA DB 7:7-8.

[xii] LW 36:60; WA 6:529.

[xiii] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, ed. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 82 (emphasis added).

[xiv]LW 24:344; WA 46:42.

[xv] FC, Solid Declaration, V.11 (BC 583; BSLK 955).

[xvi]The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758; London: Johnson and Keith, 1766), 32 [Part I, Chapt. I, Sect. III].

A Brief Introduction to Temporal Authority

By Piotr Malysz

Two kingdoms?

The label “doctrine of the two kingdoms,” often applied to Luther’s views on temporal authority, is somewhat of a misnomer.  The reformer’s views are far more complex and, in actual fact, entail several distinctions, such as that between spiritual and worldly modes of governing, and that between spiritual and worldly kingdoms.  Luther also distinguishes between the kingdom of God and kingdom of the devil — a distinction that cuts through the former two.  What follows is a brief sketch of Luther’s conception of temporal authority.  It is an exposition rather than a critical examination.  The sketch is excerpted, with some changes, from my article “Nemo iudex in causa sua as the Basis of Law, Justice, and Justification in Luther’s Thought,” published in Harvard Theological Review 100:3 (2007), pp. 363-386.

Spiritual and worldly governments

In his 1526 treatise, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, written in the wake of the peasants’ revolt, Luther reiterates the distinction between the spiritual and worldly governments (understood as modes of governing), which he first introduced in his 1523 writing, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Can Be Obeyed.[1] The spiritual government (das geistliche Regiment) employs no coercive power, “but it has the [preached] word, by means of which men are to become good and righteous, so that with this righteousness they may attain eternal life.”[2] Because this righteousness is one of faith, which is in the heart – first, all who are under the spiritual government are equal, “whether they be outwardly male or female, prince or peasant, monk or layman,” and, second, “they do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings can demand.”[3] They live out the Golden Rule in all its loving selflessness.  Consequently, “among Christians there shall and can be no authority; rather all are alike subject to one another.”[4] This harks back to Luther’s dialectical adage from his 1520 treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[5]

However, as Luther observes regretfully, not all people are “real Christians.”[6] The worldly government (das weltliche Regiment) must, therefore, seek to “bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds,”[7] and to this end it is entrusted by God with the coercive power of the sword, “so that those who do not want to be good and righteous to eternal life may be forced to become good and righteous in the eyes of the world.”[8] This government finds its expression not in spontaneous service but in responsibility exacted through various relationships of social and vocational dependence: one is father, child, master, servant, judge, citizen, or subject, etc.  One’s role in these relationships – much as one might be tempted to manipulate them to one’s own advantage – is clearly understood by reason, since, aside from the variety of positive laws pertaining to them, these offices (Ämter) are all founded on natural law: do to others as you would have them do to you.[9] Note that as it now takes the form of positive laws to preserve the structures of society, the Golden Rule is transformed into a transactional and retributive principle: the worldly government operates on the basis of reward and, more often than not, punishment: it pays back what is due.[10]

In sum, righteousness arises either out of faith, whereby it becomes the foundation of a person’s whole being before God and before the world, or is maintained externally by means of the sword.  Still, regardless of their differences, “God himself is the founder, lord, master, protector, and rewarder of both kinds of righteousness. There is no human ordinance or authority in either, but each is a divine thing entirely.”[11] The spiritual and worldly governments are both established by God.[12]

It is not simply because the worldly government is a mode of God’s activity that Christians are to participate in its operation after all.  The motivation is deeper.  To begin with, the spiritual regiment benefits from the existence of the worldly regiment[13] – external peace maintained by temporal authority enables the church to carry out its divine mandate: to call people from outward righteousness to the righteousness of faith, from temporal life to eternal life.  Christians’ participation in the structures of temporal authority assures, therefore, that the preservation of those structures, self-contained as they are, will not become an end in itself.  Luther’s scathing criticism of heavy taxes levied by compassionless, un-Christian, princes, or their attempts to rule over their subjects’ souls is a case in point.[14] More importantly, the Christian life is social and vocational existence par excellence – for this reason Christians cannot refrain from submitting to, and supporting, temporal authority.  It is the unbeliever who is the arch-individualist.  To appreciate the weight of this distinction, we must invoke Luther’s understanding of sin and with it his doctrine of the two kingdoms.

The human being in the spiritual and worldly kingdoms

The central issue underlying Luther’s Reformation breakthrough concerns no less than the identity of the human being – as such, and thus also before God.  Am I simply the sum of my works, as Aristotle would have it?[15] Even more pointedly, do I create myself through my works?  Or do I receive my being – am I justified – from the outside and only as such perform works?[16] For Luther identity can either be received by one, or else the person may, and indeed must, attempt to construct his own identity.  In the former case, what one is, as a creature, is determined by the love of God, who provides for all the needs of body and soul.[17] In the latter case, believing himself to be a free and autonomous shaper of his destiny, the person embarks on a pursuit of sources of security which could underwrite his being and provide him with a bargaining position before God.[18] He defines himself through his actions and commitments.  But, according to Luther, a human being can never be the locus of his own identity.  To believe otherwise means, first, to overlook God’s providential care of his creation, which includes the worldly government.  No work is simply one’s own.  Second, this posture is idolatrous, in that it seeks to influence God through his own gifts, which one has deceitfully ascribed to oneself alone.  Worse still, a blind search for sources of security[19] turns humans into slaves of their own self-justificatory activity, for to refrain from it would be tantamount to allowing one’s being to disintegrate.  Luther describes this enslaving pursuit of self-justification as being turned in on oneself (homo incurvatus in se ipsum) – sin.[20]

Instead of trusting in God, sinners trust in themselves.  Consequently, instead of loving the neighbor, they love themselves.  They are inexorably compelled to direct their works not to the neighbor, but ultimately to themselves.  What this means in practice is that the sinner’s works, however good they may appear, are ultimately only a modality of self-interest: works that appear good to fellow humans and would by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as crimes may, in fact, be mortal sins if they are used to serve one’s selfish goals and God’s agency is not explicitly, humbly and prayerfully recognized in them.[21] Regardless of the appearance, the reality is that, if left to themselves, sinners either abuse their socio-vocational roles or, constrained by the law, discharge their duties disgruntledly, selfishly and without much regard for others.  Small wonder then that “[w]here temporal government or law alone prevails, there sheer hypocrisy is inevitable, even though the commandments be God’s very own.”[22] For the reformer, the sinner is the arch-individualist, and that in spite of all his activism.

Works, Luther insists, are by definition social: they are not self-serving but neighbor-serving.  Therefore, it is the Christian, not the self-justifying sinner, who, by allowing God through faith to define his spiritual and worldly identity, is alone free to work for others’ sake – free to love.  Defined by God and open to the neighbor, the Christian exists simultaneously before God (coram deo) and only as such also in the world (coram mundo).  Standing “before God in the Spirit,”[23] with his sins forgiven and his good works forgotten, the “Christian is a person to himself; he believes for himself and for no one else.”[24] All that matters in this kingdom of the Spirit (das geistliche Reich) is the cross of Christ and its re-creative impact upon the justified sinner, who, in turn, boasts only in Christ.  But complementary to this sphere is the kingdom of the world (das weltliche Reich), which is the realm where the Christian serves others, for here he is “not a person to himself, but on behalf of others”[25] – precisely because coram deo he already has God on his behalf.  It is, therefore, on account of their freedom to participate disinterestedly in the kingdom of the world, in the larger human – and not only Christian – community, that believers cannot refrain from involvement with worldly government (note, however, that in principle there is no strict correlation between the kingdom of the world and its actual, temporal, mode of government).  If the Christian were to withdraw from the world and refrain from exercising temporal offices, “he would be acting not as a Christian but even contrary to love; he would also be setting a bad example to others who in like manner would not submit to authority, even though they were not Christians. In this way the gospel would be brought into disrepute, as though it taught insurrection and produced self-willed people unwilling to benefit or serve others, when in fact it makes a Christian the servant of all.”[26] Hence Luther’s admonition that Christians pay taxes and assist the sword by whatever means they can “with body, goods, honor, and soul.”  Though they themselves have no need of temporal authority, its continuance is both beneficial and essential for one’s fellow human beings.[27]

To summarize, Christians’ participation in the socio-vocational structure of society is motivated not only by temporal authority’s divine sanction but, first and foremost, by the law of Christian love.  Freed from debilitating self-justification by the justifying act of God, Christians alone can afford to be selfless and are truly able to love.

[1] A more comprehensive introduction to what has come to be known as Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms and the two governments can be found, e.g., in Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther, 43-82; John R. Stephenson, “The Two Governments and the Two Kingdoms in Luther’s Thought,” Scottish Journal of Theology vol. 34:4 (1981), 321-337; W. D. J. Cargill Thompson, The Political Thought of Martin Luther (Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984), 36-61; Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. and ed. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 151-159, 314-324.

[2] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:99.

[3] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:88 (emphasis added).

[4] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:117.

[5] LW 31:344.

[6] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:88.

[7] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:92.

[8] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:99.

[9] “This also agrees with the natural law that Christ teaches in Matthew 7, ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them’” (“Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:110-111); “For nature teaches—as does love—that I should do as I would be done by” (“Temporal Authority,” LW 45:127).

[10] “The emperor or prince … should not tolerate useless people, who neither feed nor defend, but only consume, are lazy, and live in idleness, and drive them out of the land” (“Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:128); “the kingdom of the world, which is nothing else than the servant of God’s wrath upon the wicked and is a real precursor of hell and everlasting death, should not be merciful, but strict, severe, and wrathful in fulfilling its work and duty. Its tool is … a naked sword; and a sword is a symbol of wrath, severity, and punishment. It is turned only against the wicked, to hold them in check and keep them at peace, and to protect and save the righteous” (“An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants” [1525], LW 46:70).

[11] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:100.  Cf. “the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights. All these are God’s works and judgments” (96).

[12] Antti Raunio notes correctly, contra Althaus, that Luther’s concept of the law involves no dualism, as if there were two Golden Rules, one self-interestedly and coercively reciprocal, applicable to unbelievers, and the other, motivated by love, pertaining to Christians.  Both the spiritual and worldly governments proceed from God’s love and seek nothing but a loving response.  What Raunio seems to overlook, however, is that the Golden Rule, when translated into the worldly government’s legal system, inevitably becomes transactional and prohibitive in character.  With no dualism involved, this transformation shows only that ultimately love cannot be legislated, as evidenced by Christians, who “do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings can demand” (see n. 13).  I shall speak to this in more detail below.  See Antti Raunio, “Natural Law and Faith: The Forgotten Foundations of Ethics in Luther’s Theology,” Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenson (eds.), Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 96-124.

[13] “the temporal power is but a very small matter in the sight of God, and too slightly regarded by him for us to resist, disobey, or become quarrelsome on its account, no matter whether the state does right or wrong. But on the other hand the spiritual power is an exceedingly great blessing and much too precious in his sight for the very least of Christian men to suffer silently when it deviates one hairsbreadth from its proper function” (“Treatise on Good Works” [1520], LW 44:93).

[14] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:104, 105.

[15] Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1103b.

[16] As a Christian, “[a] doer does not get this name on the basis of works that have been performed; he gets it on the basis of works that are to be performed.  For Christians do not become righteous by doing righteous works; but once they have been justified by faith in Christ, they do righteous works.  In civil life the situation is different; here one becomes a doer on the basis of deeds, just as one becomes a lutenist by often playing the lute, as Aristotle says.  But in theology one does not become a doer on the basis of works of the Law; first there must be the doer, and then the deeds follow” (“Lectures on Galatians” [1535], LW 26:256).

[17] Cf. Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” [II.2], The Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 345.

[18] “human nature is so blind that it does not know its own powers, or rather diseases, and so proud as to imagine that it knows and can do everything”; “Scripture … represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive” (“De Servo Arbitrio” [1525], LW 33:121, 130).

[19] Cf. Martin Luther, “Large Catechism” I.2.

[20] Cf. “Lectures on Romans” (1515-16), LW 25:291, 313, 345.

[21] “Heidelberg Disputation” (1518), [esp. Theses 3, 5, 7], LW 31:43ff.

[22] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:92.

[23] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:104.

[24] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:122.

[25] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:122.  In this particular context, Luther is speaking of the princes.

[26] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:94.

[27] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:95.

The Usefulness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Constructive Appraisal (3 of 3)

By Adam Clark

(Go to part 1 of 3)
(Go to part 2 of 3)

Creation and Fall

Creation and Fall makes this point beautifully, I think, in Bonhoeffer’s invocation of God’s Creative Word across the void.  If this Word were withdrawn even for one moment, all Creation would simply cease to be. Lutherans have long acknowledged the power of God’s word, and it seems high time to acknowledge its continual efficaciousness in the work of Creation even in those outside of the Church.  What I think Bonhoeffer in fact suggests to us, though he does not entirely take the suggestion himself, is a way of speaking about this truth without conflating it with God’s work in Redemption-that is, without creating some kind of “anonymous Christianity.”

Consider for instance his work with the imago dei.  Bonhoeffer claims, actually in SC, that the image remains present in every human being because “only through God’s active working does the other become a You to me from whom my I arises…One might then speak here of the human being as the image of God with respect to the effect one person has on another.” Bonhoeffer is still a bit stuck in an idealist mode with his relationality.  What we must in fact affirm is that the relation touches down in the concrete, even if it cannot reside there; it does not simply pass through me to the other person in a “spirit-only” sense.  God’s Word sustains the fullness of our being; He is always sustaining the image ontologically from His side, even as we drop it ontically in specific ways from ours.  Here, I am invoking something like the doctrine of privation: God upholds our being and acting, but we co-opt and warp that principle in the process in particular choices (and through those choices, established dispositions – Augustine) to do evil. We recall that in SC that Bonhoeffer suggests a Christ principle unfolding in all believers.  He also suggests there that “everyone else” belongs to an “Adam principle” that functions in much the same way, except that it unfolds in sin.  Precisely here Bonhoeffer both succeeds and fails.  He succeeds in that he maintains the relationality of humanity and shows the inescapability of ontic sin.  He fails in that he gives Christ and Adam equal status as ontological. Even in Adam, whose ontic-ness we inherit, God’s ontological Word continues its work in the face of the real reality of continual co-opting by sin.

Of course, Bonhoeffer’s emphasis in CF is on the renewal of the imago in Christ, which is a distinct relation from the original imago. He speaks of how this new analogia relationis sustains us ontologically from God’s side.  Poignantly, this relationship makes us free for others, who are grace to us precisely in that their otherness reminds us of our creaturehood.  They reinforce the boundaries of the self that God gives. Again, the horizontal and vertical are bound together tightly in the fundamental establishment of our being (cf. Levinas above), but in the proper order.

The gift of the imago, in either of its forms (created, renewed), is a prime example of what Bonhoeffer means saying that the imperative is the indicative. God commands existence and this command unfolds in a way that indicates to the creature her way of life.  Now, as beautiful as this idea is, it is also dangerous, in that it is an idea Bonhoeffer seems to take over fairly directly from Barth.  Indeed, I think that it presages the development in Barth of the further idea that the Law is the “form” of the Gospel – the imperative is always united with the indicative.  For Bonhoeffer, as well as Barth, this means that the gift of our being always flows ineluctably into the task of our becoming in appropriate action toward God and others.  Now in one sense, I think this is quite true of the originary gift of being.  We have a being that is given as delimited (we are a self, not a confluence of cosmic powers) by its very opening toward others, indicating that communion with those others is the meaning of our being. At the same time, Bonhoeffer does not sufficiently distinguish this idea from his further suggestion that the command given regarding the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in Gen 2:16-17 intends to extend the delimitation of our being. Taken at face value, this depiction could mean that task becomes equal with gift in the meaning of our being.

What we must say instead is that the gift of being opens onto further commands oriented toward our becoming in a concrete historical situation.  Here, I think we find the meaning of the so-called “third use of the law” as an original component of God’s creative plan.  In essence, God always planned to give us a righteousness coram Deo as gift that could be extended coram hominibus as task by specific commands – specific commands that determine nature toward a given history.  Likewise, the original grace we receive of experiencing our creaturely being through the Other as image of God would then naturally open into service to that one according to her historical situation.  There is a foundation of being that is in essence “outside of history” and an extension of it within history – related, and yet distinct.  What went wrong in this process I think Bonhoeffer exposits rightly: disobedience meant that the imperative could no longer seamlessly orient us toward the indicative, bringing the accusation of the law.  What we receive then in Christ is twofold:  first, the gift of new being that brings back the unity of basic gift-openness.  In this new ontological eruption, we have the possibility in some given instance to hear again and enact, even if only partially, the command of God for the concrete.  This command comes to us especially the Face of the Other Person and our vocation to serve her in the concrete historical moment.  At the same time, the failure to always instantiate the indicative for the moment will always drive us back upon our general failure to instantiate the unity of imperative-indicative.  In this way, the law always accuses and we always return to the Law-Gospel movement.  At the same time, we are able to distinguish two different movements: not just our 1) ontic failure, but also 2) the ontological movement from Jesus Christ that enables us to hear the command, even in its specificity, with the joy of Psalm 119.  Both are dynamisms.  Both never come to rest.  We are simultaneously fully saint and fully sinner.

A final point, if the patient reader can stand it.  This unfolding of christological ontology, or the “Christ principle” as SC called it, opens I think a new possibility for application of the Finnish (and perhaps thereby the Orthodox) insight into theosis to the question of “virtue” as an ethical category.  I am not interested here in debating whether we can speak of justification in theotic terms.  What is clear in the Formula of Concord is that we can and should speak of God’s indwelling as flowing from the God’s pronouncement of us as righteous in His justifying word. The Word across the void becomes the new shape of our lives; we are sanctified.  The Finns I think rightly point out in this regard that for Luther, Christ becomes the “form” of faith within us.

Now what does this mean?  Or at least, what could we take it to mean?  Here we must take up and then depart from the Thomistic tradition, in order to vindicate some of its conclusions.  For St. Thomas, grace is something distinct from Christ himself and it comes to be a created “form” in the soul in Aristotle’s sense of that term. The form is that which makes something what it is, as the rational soul is what makes a human a human rather than an animal.  The form is therefore the principle from which a thing acts “according to its nature.”  Grace for Thomas is also the source of the operations of various virtues; virtues are likewise created structures (“habits,” this time) that form the various faculties (intellect, will, passions) so that they are ordered rightly relative to one another, thus producing right acts when they are activated.  Thus, what if take seriously Christ “as the form of faith” as a philosophical concept?  Christ as uncreated grace, rather than created, would thereby take up the position of the “form” of our soul; he would give it his own shape.  Remember however that this is an ontological relationality, not a statically-ontic createdness.  It is Christ-existing-as-church-community, unfolding the principle of his life into the specific historical situations of believers.  In this paradigm, Christ would hold together our intellect, will, passions etc., patterning them according to his own.  Thus we can speak of virtues as the resources of dispositions trained toward a certain kind of action.  These are upheld in us through exposure to the Word in preaching and Sacrament, whereby Christ sustains our being and becoming.  To put it a little crudely, Christ is sort of like the container which shapes the “waters” of our faculties without ever becoming them without remainder.  The relation is of course truly much more intimate, but this image perhaps suggests at least something helpful.


Throughout the above, I have been able only to sketch out in broad outline some of the research interests toward which Bonhoeffer spurs us.   Hopefully, however, I have made one thing clear:  he enables Lutherans to engage in dialogue with both the rest of the Church and the world in a way that allows real interaction with the terms of those traditions while remaining faithful to our own.  This in fact was Bonhoeffer’s vision in the Ethics: a Church and world critically engaged and mutually corrective, with Christians entering this dialectic based on their confidence in God’s sustenance of both sides of the equation.

CF, 40, 45.

SC, 54-5.

CF, 60-7, 94-102.

CF, 40-4.

Here, I think we can see how, as Luther says in the Large Catechism, faith can be the fulfillment of the first commandment.  To receive the revelation of God is to be oriented toward everything that will proceed from that relation, just as faith will then fulfill the rest of the commandments.  The first gift of being oriented toward movement toward the other is the long stressed “spontaneity” of good works at their font.

CF, 80-93.

FC, SD III.54.

Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification, ed. Kirsi Stjerna (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).

See ST I-II q.110.

The Usefulness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Constructive Appraisal (2 of 3)

By Adam Clark

(Go to part 1 of 3)

Act and Being

Act and Being draws out some of these insights and refines them in a helpful way.  Bonhoeffer’s focus in this volume is to show how the major German thinkers including Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger all commit the same basic philosophical mistake:  they all reduce reality to the epistemological quest of the I to ground its own (self-) knowledge, a quest which entraps the I within its own consciousness. They thus fall prey to the basic structural deficiency of sin in which the human being becomes curved inward on itself. Bonhoeffer by contrast develops an account, as suggested above, in which God’s revelatory entry into the human person suspends her being in that act.  Importantly, however, he also gives kudos to both the Kantian and Hegelian strains of philosophy for certain correct insights.  Kant, Bonhoeffer says, was the “Protestant epistemologist par excellence,” in that he sought to delimit the person and especially her reason through the alterity of the Ought.  On the other hand, Hegel accurately recognized that the person can only exist as a mediated relation to God which has a true historical context.  The only One who can fit both bills is of course Christ; in Him, God both sustains (ontologically mediates in history) and defines (epistemologically delimits, granting a self) the human person.

What Bonhoeffer provides here is perhaps a way past a stalemate in ethics today between Kant and Hegel.  For those theologians and philosophers who follow Kant, ethics becomes simply a matter of self-legislation (that is, self-delimitation on the basis of the Ought [Moralität] that constrains based on whether an action could apply to all).  The chief value in this schema of course becomes the ability to self­-legislate, that is, autonomy.  The individual is severed from other persons as the basis of ethical actions.  Simultaneously, this emphasis pretends to a universal reason that demands commonality among all peoples and ignores historical development of various cultures and practices.  Many, finding this paradigm unacceptable, turn to Hegel for a more historically- and communally-grounded approach.  However, here they discover a dual problem: first, Hegel’s communities are all conflicted aspects of a monistic principle driving toward unity.  Therefore, he also has a universalizing tendency that can become violent (rather not the point in ethics).  Second, Hegel’s approach is grounded in nothing more than the ethos [Sittlichkeit] of the culture of the time.  There is nothing transcendent that can offer a corrective to the dominant opinion.  With his emphasis on God’s sustenance of the world especially in Christ, Bonhoeffer can counteract both problems.  He can provide a delimitation and a communal history that are both rooted in something beyond the limited perspectives of individuals or the present times but in a way that works from within the tradition of secular discourse itself.

In a different direction, Act and Being also offers a potential, though difficult, point of connection with Catholic theology.  At one point in the text, Bonhoeffer engages Erich Przywara’s version of the analogia entis as moving in the direction of the relational paradigm (analogia relationis) he is advocating. He also quotes Aquinas’ statement in the Summa Contra Gentiles that “doing follows upon being” [agere sequitur esse] as the “ontological, fundamental thesis of Catholic and orthodox Protestant dogmatics.” While Bonhoeffer probably overreads both Pryzwara and his representativeness for the Thomistic tradition, I think there is something here.  In twentieth century Catholic theology, few questions are as important as that of what God’s “ordering of being”-that is, the natural law-actually is.  A number of Catholic scholars have begun to emphasize the shift marked by Aquinas and his immediate interlocutors from a Stoic emphasis on a kind of “map” of uniform reality (the Logos) to natural law as a kind of dynamism in the human person. In the Summa Theologiae, I-II q.91, Aquinas explicates this dynamism as a kind of participation in God’s “eternal law,” that is, the unfolding providential plan that embraces and orders from the beginning all contingencies of human existence.  The emphasis on contingency is important; this sort of natural law definition has led these scholars to develop a more “underdetermined” notion of nature.  In my opinion, this definition could open toward the usual Protestant emphasis on the normativity of God’s ongoing historical command.  It thus allows for a concept of nature with which we can be more satisfied yet which is also more robust than some of what we have used in the past.  Particularly, I think a close examination of St. Thomas yields the important insight that he really does take sin seriously as blotting out the right operation of this natural dynamism (which includes reason, etc.).  He does not endorse much of the later Catholic optimism that leaves a lot of room for reason to accomplish ordering in the world.  What he emphasizes however is that our sin still is not greater than God’s power of sustenance.  I think this point is one we must work to retain.  If our very being is upheld from God’s side of the equation, then we need to find a way to speak about this ontological reality in anthropological terms, without collapsing it into the ontic reality of our sin as we experience our own consciousness.

(Go to part 3 of 3)

AB, 33, 39, 62.  Not incidentally, Levinas also attacks these same thinkers and in much the same way.

AB, 41,46.  This is the ratio in se ipsam incurva or more generally, the cor curvum in se inherited from Luther, and Augustine before him.

AB, 34.

AB, 45.  The close of AB, pp. 157-61, has a beautiful description of how the child in baptism is the model of this ontological-epistemological reality.

AB, 73ff.

AB, 103.

Particularly, though they are often at odds on other matters, Jean Porter in Nature as Reason and Natural and Divine Law and Martin Rhonheimer in The Perspective of the Acting Person.  The philosophy and theology of John Paul II also enters into this discussion in a vital way.

If we cannot, we risk falling into the Flacian error of equating our nature with sin itself.  Cf. FC I.

The Usefulness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Constructive Appraisal (1 of 3)

By Adam Clark

How Lutheran is Bonhoeffer and in what ways is he useful for theology today? Regarding the first question, Pastor Eric Andrae has offered a fine beginning in a recent article entitled “Pro Deo et Patria.” His focus is on the many ways Bonhoeffer places the theology of the cross at the center of his approach to prayer, public action and discourse, and community.  Particularly helpful is the way in which Andrae reins in a lot of later speculation about Bonhoeffer’s advocacy of “religionless Christianity” in a “world come of age.”  Andrae draws on Bonhoeffer’s close friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge to show rightly that even this emphasis is ultimately an expression of a profound christology.  This christology recognizes that reality impinges on us all prior to our conscious, systematic articulation of it and that God has definitively given shape to this reality in Christ.

What I find less helpful in Andrae is his tendency to draw a line between the very early and the later Bonhoeffer.  In his opening paragraph, in claiming that Bonhoeffer truly became a Christian only in 1932 after the publication of his early works, Andrae implies that his earlier theology is not exactly Christian (and therefore neither truly Lutheran nor useful).  While I agree with Andrae that Bonhoeffer’s Christ as Center is not entirely helpful, I think some of Bonhoeffer’s other works have much more to offer.  These works include his two dissertations, Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, as well as the lectures given right on the breakpoint identified by Andrae, later published as Creation and Fall. While by the latter, Bonhoeffer clearly is moving into a more devoutly Christian phase, one can still see how the thinking of the first two works undergirds this movement and its fruition in the Ethics.  Moreover, I take it as a salutary sign that, as Wolf Krötke notes, Bonhoeffer’s training focused from the beginning on an intense study of Luther, so that by his lecture in 1931-32 on “The History of Systematic Theology,” Bonhoeffer turns its central question – Where do we stand? – into the question Who will show us Luther? Accordingly, the following sketches a few brief reflections on themes from these three works that I think offer constructive potential for systematic and especially moral theology.

Sanctorum Communio

This volume offers Bonhoeffer’s intriguing ecclesiology of “Christ-existing-as-community.”  Drawing on Leibniz’s Monadology, Bonhoeffer suggests that “the church is already completed in Christ” and exists principally as an unfolding of the new principle of personhood given in him. There is a completion to the ‘being’ of those in the Church; in a way, nothing new is needed from the individual-the internal principle of Christ’s own life is sufficient-establishing the primacy of grace.  On the other hand, “[i]n order for the church, which already is completed in Christ, to build itself up in time, the will of God must be actualized ever anew.” The unfolding of the Christ-life occurs on the level of the unique vocational ‘becoming’ of each of the individuals in the Church.

What Bonhoeffer thus provides is a telos for human existence based on simultaneous relationality with God and others. Anthropology for him is a matter of the “social ontic-ethical basic-relations of persons” that makes personhood a mediated “responsibility” before an Other. We are directed toward Others in a way that completes our being, the first and in a sense entire completion being rendered already in Christ.  There are obvious connections here to thinkers of the intersubjective like Martin Buber (and later, Gerhard Forde, in the idea of “proclamation”) who emphasize the I-You relation.  Particularly though, I think Bonhoeffer comes very close to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish Continental philosopher. Levinas emphasizes, much like Bonhoeffer here, the infinite height of the Other as constituting the fundamental plane of human existence, which thereby becomes a “response-ability.”  The relation to the Other serves to call into question the status of all human institutions and all our claims to absolute epistemological certainty (a.k.a. pride).  Levinas however writes philosophy “agnostically” and emphasizes that the Other with whom he is concerned is the other human person, a “horizontalized divinity.”  Levinas’ paradigm is in fact quite powerful, and I think one thing Bonhoeffer offers is a way to access this paradigm while retaining and positioning it under God and especially grace (which Levinas of course loses, despite attempting to speak of the summons of the Other as the “infinite glory” of the I).

Moreover, Levinas is the intellectual father of Jacques Derrida, whose “postmodern,” deconstructive methodology so often seems troubling for the Christian claim to mediate God’s activating truth through word and sacrament.  The decisive difference between Levinas and Derrida, however, is the pole to which they tether their deconstruction.  For Derrida, this pole becomes “Khora,” a non-place that serves as the unsecurable “origin” of language. This means that the knowledge on which we base our action and our lives is basically only a construction which can always be interrupted by something new that calls it into question.  Levinas, while affirming something like this latter statement, shows clearly that the “pole” remains a person.  That is, when our systems of knowledge, institutions, and ways of life are called into question, there remains (though Levinas would not put it quite this way) a person-al telos toward whom we may clarify our lives.  In the Bonhoeffer-Levinas connection then, I think we find one opening for entrée into what is beneficial in postmodernism while retaining our theology in full force.  Especially for Lutherans, I think we find a way of speaking to the integral nature of ethics as a primary plane of human existence without abandoning an even more primordial plane of grace.  For what else is the rupture emphasized by Levinas if not the power of God’s self-Revelation and indeed, a certain movement of Law-Gospel?

(Go to part 2 of 3)

See Concordia Theological Quarterly 72.1 (2008): 71-95.  You may access the article here.  By the way, I also agree very much with comments posted by Piotr Malysz elsewhere on this blog.  Bonhoeffer seeks to stand fully within his tradition yet in a critical way, a way open particularly to Barth and yet also to some limited Roman Catholic influences.

Sanctorum Communio [1927, pub. 1930], Act and Being [1930, pub. 1931], and Creation and Fall [Winter 1932-33, pub. 1933].  Hereafter, references will be to SC, AB, or CF in the DBWE editions.  These respectively apply sociological, philosophical, and biblical insights to a similar set of issues.

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther” in Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, ed. Peter Frick, 53-82 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 53.

SC, 142.

SC, 143.

SC, 78.

SC, 50.  NB:  Bonhoeffer’s “ontic” means what today we would call “ontological.”

Levinas was born in the same year as Bonhoeffer (1906), lost most of his family in the Shoah, but survived as Bonhoeffer did not, through his protected status as a “French” P.O.W.  He wrote several influential works, the most important being Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being.  Bonhoeffer and Levinas apparently had no knowledge of each other, or at least neither engaged the other’s work.

See Derrida, On the Name and The Gift of Death. I am vastly oversimplifying here for the sake of bringing the main point to the fore.  I also think that while Derrida is problematic, in some ways he is less so than many think and indeed quite helpful at times.

Theological Fragments: Bonhoeffer on the original state of humankind

“The attempt — with the origin and nature of humankind in mind — to take a gigantic leap back into the world of the lost beginning, to seek to know for ourselves what humankind was like in its original sate and to identify our own ideal of humanity with what God actually created is hopeless. It fails to recognize that it is only from Christ that we can know about the original nature of humankind. The attempt to do that without recognizing this, as hopeless as it is understandable, has again and again delivered up the church to arbitrary speculation at this dangerous point. Only in the middle, as those who live from Christ, do we know about the beginning” (Creation and Fall, 62).