Book Reviews, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: “Pacifism, Just War, and Tyrannicide: Bonhoeffer’s Church-World Theology and His Changing Forms of Political Thinking and Involvement” by David M. Gides

The question of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view on subjects related to war: Just War, Pacifism, Tyrranicide, and related issues is one that is hotly contested in Bonhoeffer scholarship. David M. Gides’s Pacifism, Just War, and Tyrranicide: Bonhoeffer’s Church-World Theology and His Changing Forms of Political Thinking and Involvement makes the case that Bonhoeffer did not experience a unity of thought on the subject and instead changed over time. Gides argues that Bonhoeffer ultimately developed a church-world theology that went beyond a conservative Lutheran Two Kingdoms position as well as against a time in his life in which he held to pacifism.

Gides separates Bonhoeffer’s thought on church-world relations into four phases, in contrast with what he says is the majority opinion that separates his thought into three stages. These phases are the church and world in mild tension, the church and world in heightened tension, the church against or apart from the world, and the church as the world. Gides argues that, too often, interpreters of Bonhoeffer’s thought have taken quotes from different parts of his life in order to try to form a cohesive picture, when instead Bonhoeffer’s thought had significant development through these phases (xii-xiii).

In the earliest phase, Bonhoeffer was decidedly not a pacifist and saw violence as potentially being sanctified through certain actions like laying down one’s life for the neighbor or to take up arms to defend the Volk (folk = the nation/people) (112-114). Gides argues this earliest statement and those like it were driven by a conservative or traditional Lutheran understanding of the Two Kingdoms theology which allowed for this lack of engagement with the state by Christians. Heightened tension in the world led Bonhoeffer to back off these early statements. Later in his life, Bonhoeffer felt a drive for ecumenism and pacifism, but this movement included engagement in the world directly. Here we see Bonhoeffer’s three stages of church-state engagement: questioning the state’s actions, providing service to victims of the state, and ultimately seizing the wheel itself from the state (also known as the famous “drive a spoke through the wheel” statement) to direct it away from evil (185). Later, Bonhoeffer makes some extremely strong statements about peace, including a powerful statement about the differences between peace and security. These show that he had moved into a pacifistic view, but his pacifism in this phase of his life, according to Gides, was one that separated the church from the state almost entirely, to the point where the church had to move away from or against the state (220-224; 230ff; see also his discussion of Discipleship in this context). Finally, Gides argues Bonhoeffer developed a church-world theology that allowed for direct action in which the church is the world and tyrannicide is possible. This phase included Bonhoeffer’s own involvement in the Abwehr and in part of a plot to kill Hitler (328-332).

Gides’s work is challenging and well-thought out. He presents serious challenges for several views, especially those that argue that Bonhoeffer remained explicitly pacifist (or that he was pacifistic throughout his life) as well as views that see Bonhoeffer’s thought as entirely cohesive. It does seem clear that Bonhoeffer’s thought developed on these questions, particularly comparing his pacifistic stage (phase 3) to his earliest thoughts on peace and war (phase 1).

There are some challenges to Gides’s theses, as well. One is the challenge offered by a minority of Bonhoeffer scholars that Bonhoeffer was not involved in the plot to kill Hitler at all (eg. in Bonhoeffer the Assassin?). Gides’s work was written before this other work, so it’s difficult to know what his defense would be, but it seems Gides would answer that Bonhoeffer does seem to be clearly involved in this plot, or at least, minimally, in actions that set him against the state in ways that could lead to such plots. That alone would undermine a fully pacifist view. Gides does acknowledge the diversity of pacifistic views (too often, pacifism is seen as a unified thought), and it would be interesting to see a full engagement with his work from the side of a pacifist developing a view from Bonhoeffer’s thought. It does seem to me Bonhoeffer made contributions to pacifistic thought, but that he could not be included in any pacifist position that holds to absolute non-violence.

Another challenge is that of Lutheran Two Kingdoms theology itself. Gides mentions this theology at multiple points in the work, but doesn’t do much legwork to define how he’s using it. Most often, Gides uses it alongside the word “conservative,” making it a narrower referent than the broader notion of Two Kingdoms thinking. Specifically, Gides seems to denote by “Two Kingdoms” the later developed Lutheran position that held to a kind of pseudo separation of church and state that enabled many in Germany to simply look the other way with what the secular authorities were doing, thus excusing or even participating in atrocities. However, such a theory of Two Kingdoms is one that, while “conservative” in the sense of being what seemed to be the traditional view in Germany at the time of Bonhoeffer’s life, does not fully show the breadth of thought on the Two Kingdoms theology of Luther. Indeed, Gides’s view of Bonhoeffer’s final position seems to be one that may actually be more fully in line with Luther’s Two Kingdoms theology than was the “conservative” position of the same during his life (see, for example, DeJonge’s Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther). In fact, one could make the argument that we could read Bonhoeffer cohesively within the bounds of Lutheran Two Kingdoms thought. Thus, Gides’s phases would be different interpretations of the Two Kingdoms theology, and the final phase especially may be closest to Luther’s own thinking on the topic. His phases in thought could then be seen to be sliding along the possible interpretations of Two Kingdoms theology. Gides does make the distinction that he is speaking of this “conservative” Two Kingdoms thought, but when he stresses that Bonhoeffer apparently rejected Two Kingdoms thinking, I believe he goes too far, because it seems more accurate to say that Bonhoeffer’s ultimate church-world theology was that of a fully realized Two Kingdoms.

Gides’s Pacifism, Just War, and Tyrranicide is a thoughtful reflection and interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s theology of church-world relations. His unique division of Bonhoeffer’s thought is reason for reflection, while his ultimate thesis will surely spark debate among those interested in Bonhoeffer’s theology. More importantly, he provides a way forward in reading Bonhoeffer’s ultimate theology, though not one that sees it as cohesive throughout his life.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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Dietrich Bonhoeffer– read more posts I’ve written on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. There are also several Bonoheffer-specific book reviews here.

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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