Bonhoeffer on “Thy Kingdom Come”

Children in Abandoned Lot in Front of Brick Wall with Sign for “Church of God”, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Walker Evans

Bonhoeffer on “Thy Kingdom Come”

The following is from a 1932 retreat lecture given by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In it, he critiques two inadequate and harmful understandings of God’s kingdom that believers hold.

First, he rejects the other-worldly, pietistic view of those who long for a kingdom in another realm beyond this one. This is escapist fantasy that separates believers from the real stuff of life and makes them, in fact, “hostile to the Earth.” “Christ does not lead [humans] into the otherworldliness of religious escapism. Rather, Christ returns [them] to the Earth as its true [children].”

Second, Bonhoeffer speaks critically of Christians who put too much stock in their capacity for transforming the world, whose utopian visions leave God out of the picture, who turn the church into a mere “organization of action for religious-moral reconstruction.” He warns against the illusion that Christians can “assume [God’s] role on earth in loud, boastful strength” and erect a world of justice and peace without God even while using his name.

Instead, Dietrich Bonhoeffer urges Christians to be people who live “in the affirmation of the Earth, in entering into its order, its communities, its history. The two belong completely together. For only where the Earth is fully affirmed can its curse be seriously broken through and destroyed…” In doing this, we must bind ourselves to God, who binds himself to the Earth and who alone is able to overcome its curse.

“Thy kingdom come”—this is not the prayer of the pious soul of the individual who wants to flee the world, nor is it the prayer of the utopian and fanatic, the stubborn world reformer. Rather, this is the prayer only of the church-community of children of the Earth, who do not set themselves apart, who have no special proposals for reforming the world to offer, who are no better than the world, but who persevere together in the midst of the world, in its depths, in the daily life and subjugation of the world. They persevere because they are, in their own curious way, true to this existence, and they steadfastly fix their gaze on that most unique place in the world where they witness, in amazement, the overcoming of the curse, the most profound yes of God to the world. Here, in the midst of the dying, torn, and thirsting world, something becomes evident to those who can believe, believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here the absolute miracle has occurred. Here the law of death is shattered; here the kingdom of God itself comes to us, in our world; here is God’s declaration to the world, God’s blessing, which annuls the curse. This is the event that alone kindles the prayer for the kingdom. It is in this very event that the old Earth is affirmed and God is hailed as lord of the Earth; and it is again this event that overcomes, breaks through, and destroys the cursed Earth and promises the new Earth. God’s kingdom is the kingdom of resurrection on Earth.

• Clifford J. Green, The Bonhoeffer Reader

42 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer on “Thy Kingdom Come”

  1. Steven, I was likely raised more fundamentalist than you–sectarian church of Christ–and I don’t know who Lester Roelofs is/was. But at this point in life, like you, I need the historical Jesus more than the “faith” Jesus.

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  2. I’ve never responded to a post after the fact so on the chance that I’m just talking to myself…

    Chaplain Mike wrote:

    “I don’t think his understanding of resurrection here is utopian but fully down to earth.”

    I took it that Bonhoeffer was actually decrying the utopian view. I was just pointing out that the utopian view goes back to the origins of Christianity which is why it lasts until today.

    Burro wrote:

    “I hope Stephen isn’t too attached to his HC method. I can understand clinging to it if you’re a smart, sensitive kid escaping from the psychic bloodbath of a Lester Roelofs-like fundamentalist upbringing but at some point you have to respond to the priest announcing ‘Christ is risen!’ not with ‘yes, I suppose, as it were, in some sense…John thought so, but hélas brutal history disillusioned Mark and Paul of that pleasant reverie’, but rather ‘He is risen indeed!'”

    Well I don’t know how smart or sensitive I was and I don’t know who Lester Roelofs is, but I was raised by hardcore fundamentalists and yes historical critical study helped cure me of that. I suppose the question is whether or not we think the texts of the Bible can withstand the same historical literary critical analysis as any other ancient literature. I gather It won’t surprise you if I say yes. Let me put it this way. I need the Jesus of history more than I need the Jesus of faith and I’m willing to run the risk that you (and certainly my family) can’t see a difference between me and Klaasie.

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  3. Did someone mention Barth?

    “Everyone who has to contend with unbelief should be advised that he ought not to take his own unbelief too seri¬ously. Only faith is to be taken seriously; and if we have faith as a grain of mustard seed, that suffices, for the devil has lost his game.”
    —Dogmatics in Outline

    And Merton’s comments;

    “This is one of the great intuitions of Protestantism. And, of course, from a critically Catholic viewpoint, one can find fault with it: but why? To say “only faith is to be taken seriously” can be understood in the light of that Christian—and Catholic—humility which puts all its trust in God. Our “good works” are necessary, hut they are not to be “taken seriously.” The Catholic dogma of justification never told anyone that he had to take his good works seriously in the sense of trusting completely in his own righteousness, but to take one’s good works seriously is to be a pharisee. Only faith is to be taken seriously because only the mercy of God is serious. And if we put too much emphasis on the seriousness of what we do, we not only make the judgment of God the most serious reality in our life, but we are in fact judged: we are judged as men who have taken seriously something other than His infinite mercy. He who takes mercy seriously will hardly sin seriously. He who takes his own works seriously will not be kept, by that seriousness, from sin. It is pseudo-¬seriousness. It is not good enough.

    What about unbelief, then? If faith is to be taken seriously, it follows that unbelief is also serious. No, because in taking faith seriously it is God whom we take seriously, not ourselves, not our faith. I do not take faith seriously as something which I definitively possess, but I take seriously God Who gives me faith and renews that gift, by His mercy, at every moment, in spite of my unbelief. This I think is one of the central intuitions of evangelical Christianity, and it is some¬thing which we must all learn. It is something, too, which many Protestants have themselves forgotten, becoming in¬stead obsessed with faith as it is in themselves, constantly watching themselves to see if faith is still there, which means turning faith into a good work and being justified, consequently by works. “To believe is to be free to trust in Him quite alone” and to be free from every other form of dependence and reliance. This is true freedom, and from it springs the capacity for every good work, for it removes all obstacles to love in our hearts.”

    Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pages 333-4

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  4. Robert,

    If you have time, this is the latest from Fr John Behr that I’ve heard. It might be helpful to you. Don’t be put off by the length (or the less than optimal sound quality in places). He’s an engaging speaker and you can fast forward through the introduction and the break about 2/3 of the way through.

    One of the points he makes is that there’s a reason that there’s no historical distance between us and Jesus’ contemporaries.

    Dana

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  5. “How can I pass judgment on what a true martyr for Christ had to say? Especially when he suffered for Christ’s sake more than I ever have or will.”

    Because martyrdom does not convey infallibility?

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  6. There’s a metric ton of epistemological confusion among people these days – and evangelicalism’s often trite ways of flattening the distinctions you raise does not help.

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  7. I affirm it Sundays, and whenever I do Evening prayer. But I wasn’t there, I haven’t experienced his resurrection the way say the apostles did. I don’t even know him in his historicity the way they did. If I know him, if I have knowledge of his resurrection, it is in a different mode than the apostles, or even his other contemporaries. But then I may have no knowledge of his resurrection at all, and only be fooling myself that I do. That’s a very real possibility. It’s something that has to be lived with.

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  8. This is much better than the excerpt quoted in the original post. Smells Eastern to me 😉

    Thanks, Christiane.

    Dana

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  9. Bonhoeffer on the Incarnation,

    ““” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others.
    The incarnate Lord makes His followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. The “philanthropy” of God (Titus 3:4) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love towrd all on Earth that bear the name of ‘human’.
    The form of Christ Incarnate makes the Church into the Body of Christ. All the sorrows of humanity fall upon that form, and only through that form can they be borne.
    The earthly form of Christ is the form that died on the cross.
    The image of God is the image of Christ crucified.
    It is to this image that the life of the disciples must be conformed:
    in other words, they must be conformed to His death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4f).
    The Christian life is a life of crucifixion.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

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  10. Boy, I’m sitting here debating whether to write anything. How can I pass judgment on what a true martyr for Christ had to say? Especially when he suffered for Christ’s sake more than I ever have or will. But my foolishness wins out…

    Bonhoeffer is right as far as he goes, especially with affirming the Resurrection as central – although with Mule I am a bit squeamish about the “curse” language. The idea of “incarnation” as wishing to fully be with and live among people has gained traction among some American Christians in the last couple of decades. Sometimes people talk about God becoming incarnate as if he had to somehow hold his nose in order to live on earth among humans; the more recent understanding of incarnation, especially by some Evangelicals, has tried to get past the “holding the nose” aspect, with more of a focus on God’s love. But what I sense behind this is still a theology in which there is a radical separateness between God and Man that somehow goes beyond the Creator/Creature distinction, and because of that there is something in Bonhoeffer’s words that comes through as having to, in a sense, force oneself to overcome something in order to be able to “live ‘in the affirmation of the Earth, in entering into its order, its communities, its history.'”

    In the theology of Eastern Christianity, it’s different. (Broken record, I know.) God didn’t have to “overcome” anything in order to become incarnate – not only did he do it out of sheer love, but he planned it from the beginning, and therefore created humans in such a way that the incarnation could happen. In Christ, everything that constitutes Divinity (Divine nature) is united with everything that constitutes humanity (human nature – not “sin nature”, which is a term that appears nowhere in the Greek of the NT). This ripples throughout all of time, forwards and backwards, and unites every human who ever lived and will ever live to Christ in his human nature. In addition to all humans being “made in God’s image”, the incarnation is what unites us to one another. Because humans are material beings, God has been united with us communally, in history, with material order of the created world.

    But wait – there’s more… In the theology of Eastern Christianity, Epiphany is the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus is baptized two things are happening. One is the revelation of God as Trinity (voice of the Father, the incarnate Son, Spirit like a dove, all present at once). The other is that when Christ goes into the water, he unites himself with all of creation, since water is needed everywhere for life and goes everywhere via the water cycle. In the Hebrew mindset, dark forces and chaos are also hidden in water; in his baptism Jesus shows that he is greater than everything that opposes God, and affirms to the fullest measure the goodness of the created world (even in the presence of surd evil). There’s no barrier to overcome.

    I think this limited understanding in the west of the meaning of the Incarnation (though I can see it in western liturgy and some theological writing through at least the 900s, with a liturgical aroma of it lingering into the 14th century) is what hampers Bonhoeffer – and many others.

    Dana

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  11. I dunno. I’m with you, CM.

    I hope Stephen isn’t too attached to his HC method. I can understand clinging to it if you’re a smart, sensitive kid escaping from the psychic bloodbath of a Lester Roelofs-like fundamentalist upbringing but at some point you have to respond to the priest announcing “Christ is risen!” not with ‘yes, I suppose, as it were, in some sense…John thought so, but hélas brutal history disillusioned Mark and Paul of that pleasant reverie’, but rather “He is risen indeed!”

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  12. I’m not really drawn to anybody in brotherhood. I view most peoples as sharpies out to take advantage of me, but its not really their fault If you’re raised in a barn, you learn to moo.

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  13. “Here, in the midst of the dying, torn, and thirsting world, something becomes evident to those who can believe, believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here the absolute miracle has occurred. Here the law of death is shattered; here the kingdom of God itself comes to us, in our world; here is God’s declaration to the world, God’s blessing, which annuls the curse. This is the event that alone kindles the prayer for the kingdom.”

    Bonhoeffer seems to be saying that the Kingdom of God comes with belief in the Resurrection. While this certainly comports with the Johannine viewpoint in particular it is by no means exclusive in the New Testament, especially Paul and Mark, who expect an imminent earthly kingdom. Sorry to impose some historical critical method on what was essentially an inspirational speech for very dark times but there has been a utopian strain in Christian belief that goes back all the way to the beginning. The “End Times” theology of today is simply the latest iteration of that impulse.

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  14. And I love what you say about “believing for them” rather than seeing them as deficient. It was DH who said the older he got, the more he found himself “drawn to the religionless” in brotherhood.

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  15. Those concepts are no longer very meaningful for me either, Mule, at least according to their traditional usage. Aside from that, I love the balance DH strikes here — the earthiness of the kingdom and the intervention of God necessary to achieve new creation.

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  16. Even when reading the best Western writers, like Bonhoeffer, I feel like I have to tread carefully lest a bomb go off under my feet. “Curse’ and ‘cursed creation’ are not concepts that fit comfortably into Orthodoxy. Also, the idea that if someone doesn’t believe, it is somehow a deficiency in them doesn’t stick well in my craw. Usually I don’t find people who don’t believe flawed or defective, but trying to be the best humans they can be under difficult circumstances.

    So I figure I have to believe for them.

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  17. Never mind! I reread the passage, and I see who it is! How deficient is my memory after only an hour. God shall have to pick me up by my bootstraps.

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  18. ” . . . . For I have learned
    To look on nature, not as in the hour
    Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
    The still sad music of humanity,
    Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
    To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
    A presence that disturbs me with the joy
    Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
    A motion and a spirit, that impels
    All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
    And rolls through all things.”

    (Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey)

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  19. I think God has a special place in His heart for plodders – those who skig through the grind of living in darkness, fighting to hold onto faith.

    ““Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” – Screwtape

    “The people with very hard problems are understood by God. He knows what wretched machines they are trying to drive. Some day he will fling them away and give those people new ones; then they may astonish everyone, for they learned their driving in a hard school. Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.” – C S Lewis, Mere Christianity

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  20. I getcha Robert.

    “They persevere because they are, in their own curious way, true to this existence, and they steadfastly fix their gaze on that most unique place in the world where they witness, in amazement, the overcoming of the curse, the most profound yes of God to the world.”

    I see very few instances in daily life where the curse is overcome. However, I must hold on to the assertion that God does speak a profound YES to the world.

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  21. Dietrich Bonhoeffer urges Christians to be people who live “in the affirmation of the Earth, in entering into its order, its communities, its history.

    While I appreciate the insight and truth of Bonhoeffer’s critique, I have to admit that I just don’t have the tremendous energy it takes to make that affirmation, to enter that order or those communities. I’m tired, I’m broken, I’m afraid, in many ways I’m alone. Most days it’s all I can do to get by and get through. I feel far more like those who sang the Spirituals expressing hope for another dispensation — which in their experience was more often than not tantamount to another world — in which all this suffering and death and futility and oppression (and I don’t deceive myself that I am only oppressed but not an oppressor) would end, and real life would begin. If there’s an unrealistic element of escapism in that, there’s nothing I can do about it; that’s where I am. I do not love this world as it is, I do not love my life as it is. I’ll have to leave the affirmations to those stronger than me, like Bonhoeffer, and hope that God will forgive me for my lack of love, and carry me through and in spite of my weakness.

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