Article Note: Ján Liguš, “Obedience or Resistance: The Legacy of Bonhoeffer”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 2 (June 2016)

Article Note: Ján Liguš, “Obedience or Resistance: The Legacy of Bonhoeffer,” European Journal of Theology 24:2 (2015), 173-182.

By Heath Spencer, Seattle University

In this article, Ján Liguš offers a brief overview of Bonhoeffer’s theology with a focus on church-state relations, submission to legitimate authorities, and conditions under which Christians might practice passive disobedience or actively resist the state. Liguš notes that even before the Nazis came to power, Bonhoeffer was already exploring the boundaries of church and state and emphasizing God’s sovereignty over both. In Das Wesen der Kirche (1932), Bonhoeffer drew a distinction between the Church as a visible institution and the Kingdom of God that transcends it and “includes in itself all races, cultures [and] religions” (175). He also reflected on the limits of secular authority, asserting that “if the state prevents the proclamation of the Word of God, conflict will arise and the Church can criticise and disobey the state” (176). Similarly, in The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1939), Bonhoeffer stressed surrender and submission to the will of God, which might require civil disobedience but precluded rebellion. Liguš describes this position as a “pacifist theological-ethical orientation” that Bonhoeffer later gave up (178). Not until Ethics, which Bonhoeffer began writing in 1940, does Liguš find a theological-ethical justification for resistance. By that point, Bonhoeffer’s understanding of freedom and responsibility, inspired by Jesus’ voluntary acceptance of guilt due to his love for a sinful humanity, allowed him to take on the guilt of participating in a conspiracy that included an attempt to kill the head of state. Here, Liguš follows the interpretation of Larry Rasmussen’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance.

Liguš’ aim is not only to explain what led Bonhoeffer from his earlier pacifism to participation in an assassination plot, but to identify elements in Bonhoeffer’s theology that were helpful to Eastern European Christians under communist regimes and that continue to offer hope in the present moment, when “the vast majority of people regard the church as irrelevant” (180). The article begins by comparing Bonhoeffer to reformer and martyr Jan Hus and ends with Bonhoeffer’s confidence that “the day will come” when Christians “will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it” (Letters and Papers from Prison, quoted on 180).

Unfortunately, Liguš fails to integrate his assessment of Bonhoeffer’s theology with recent historical research on Bonhoeffer and the German churches during the Third Reich. The result is an oversimplification of the “church struggle” as a contest between Nazism-free orthodoxy and Nazism-infused heresy. For example, Liguš’ claim that the German churches “departed from the heritage of Martin Luther” (174) during the Nazi era fails to address the fact that many Protestant National Socialists were inspired by Luther and believed they were carrying his work forward. A more subtle version of the same argument is apparent when Liguš writes that Bonhoeffer was “initially influenced by the biblical scholar Adolf Schlatter” but “had to deal with prominent liberal theologians Adolf von Harnack and Reinhold Seeberg” (174, emphasis mine).

The article also suffers from a lack of attention to other dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s life that contributed to his uniqueness—even within the Confessing Church—as well as his decision to participate in the conspiracy. There is little discussion of the political orientation of his family (of which four members were in the resistance), the fact that he had a brother-in-law of Jewish ancestry, or the impact of his experiences living abroad. Some statements are also misleading, as when Liguš emphasizes the piety of Bonhoeffer’s mother but fails to mention that the Bonhoeffers were not a church-going family. Robert Ericksen, by way of contrast, has suggested that Bonhoeffer’s limited exposure to Christianity as a child might have been an advantage, given that so many church-going Protestants ultimately supported Hitler (see Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust, 112-114). Finally, there is very little attention to Bonhoeffer’s responses to (and at times neglect of) the “Jewish Question,” even though Bonhoeffer’s famous essay on this topic in 1933 considers the possibilities of criticism, amelioration, and resistance to state policy on the part of the Church.

The strength of Liguš’ article is that it takes seriously both the pacifism and the resistance of Bonhoeffer. However, the search for a second Jan Hus is best served by a close examination of Bonhoeffer in his historical context, with full awareness of its complexity and ambiguity.