Luther, Bonhoeffer, and Public Ethics

Re-Forming the Church of the Future

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Michael P. DeJonge, Clifford J. Green
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The applicability of Martin Luther's 16th century political writings to the formation of a contemporary Lutheran political ethic has been both challenged and affirmed by several monographs in the last few years.  Some authors argue Luther’s stance before the unjust, authoritarian princes—especially in his response to the Peasant's Rebellion was to cowardly.  Others disqualify the viability of his political thought, on the basis of his anti-Semitism including somewhat controversial attempts to link Nazism’s rise to Lutheran thinking. Others feel that Luther's “Two Kingdoms” Doctrine has been misread, while others see his “Letter to Soldiers” as providing a theological framework for the rejection of participation in unjust wars, even when the state commands them. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings figure prominently in some recent attempts to formulate a contemporary Lutheran political theology. Readers find, in his works, resources that are more capable of responding to contemporary political realities then they find in responsible readings of Luther. Michael P. DeJonge's book Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther (Oxford University Press, 2017) demonstrates Bonhoeffer's theological debt to Luther. However, Bonhoeffer's writings on ethics and politics, including his Ethics (Macmillan, 1955) manuscript, and his reflections in Letters and Papers from Prison (Macmillan, 1953) are partial and seem fragmentary.

Prominent Bonhoeffer scholars DeJonge and Clifford J. Green edit a provocative essay collection on Luther, Bonhoeffer, and public theology—Luther, Bonhoeffer and Public Ethics: Re-Forming the Church of the Future—arising from a 2017 Union Theological Seminary (UTS) conference on the topic. Bonhoeffer studied at UTS before declining an offer to teach there, choosing instead to return to Germany. This collection demonstrates how the thinking of Luther and Bonhoeffer has been used, and perhaps misused, in various locations and time periods. The chapters, which are not always coherently connected, span history and systematic and political theology. This review only samples them.

Harmut Lehman's essay on Nazism's triumph in Germany on the 450th anniversary of Luther's death does not claim Lutheran thought caused Nazism. However, Lehman convincingly argues that the National Socialists made Luther an exemplar of German genius. A German, Luther reformed the church, so other Germans would reform the world. Victoria Barnett's essay looks at ways in which the Nazi's used Luther's legacy to further German nationalism, and their own anti-Jewish agenda. She notes that despite attempts to make the Confessing Church appear to be “pure resistance,” the Nazis were mainly concerned with the fate of the Jews who had been baptized and were considered members of the church; and were not as concerned with anti-Semitism against non-Christians.

Bridgett Kahl's creative essay combines reflections on Luther's writings on the Turks and Krister Stendahl's classic essay on Paul and the introspective conscience of the West in order to explore how Paul—and Luther's reading of Paul—might be reformulated to be inclusive. It is truly an engaging and creative piece that is one of the few in the volume that takes either Luther or Paul seriously as an expositor of the scriptures.

It is a significant drawback that some of the essays in this collection, while provocative, are too short to be developed fully and this is especially true of the essay by Karen Bloomquist, who starts a thought-provoking but fragmentary critique of Luther and neoliberalism. Others show how Bonhoeffer's theology has been fruitful outside of the American context. Allan Boesak reflects on the use of Bonhoeffer in the theology of the South African Freedom struggle. What is important is that these diverse essays show the ways in which Lutheran political thinking can be adapted to different struggles and contexts across time. As an example, Larry Rasmussen thinks about Bonhoeffer and environmental ethics. Finally, an interview between UTS President Serene Jones and Kevin Rudd, who served as a two-time Prime Minister of Australia (2007-10, 2013), which has been transcribed for this volume, explores the contributions of Bonhoeffer for contemporary governments 

This volume is thoughtful, and while not always systematic or coherent, will be provocative for those concerned with the future of public theology in the Lutheran tradition. The editors and contributors lay the groundwork for more work on public theology, an important task that must be shared by those in the academy, and practitioners and theologians in pastoral and public ministry for the sake of the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Health Hospice in Durham, North Carolina. 

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael P. DeJonge is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida.

Clifford J. Green is Bonhoeffer Chair Scholar at Union Theological Seminary, New York, and Project Director of the Early Career German-American Bonhoeffer Research Network.


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