Christian Duty in Secular Society, According to Luther and Bonhoeffer

by Tara Wengronowitz


On Friday, March 21, the Dean’s Office of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and the BC Libraries hosted a presentation of senior theses. Approximately twenty BC seniors set up posters displaying sophisticated outlines of their in-progress theses. Theology and classics double major in the class of 2014, Mark Hertenstein, presented an outline of his thesis entitled, “The Cross and Social Ethics: Luther and Bonhoeffer.” Hertenstein discusses the issues of Luther’s social ethics and how 20th Century Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, developed the beliefs further. The six specific sections of the thesis are: Luther’s Social Ethics, The Problem of Lutheran Social Ethics, Luther’s Theological Project, Bonhoeffer’s Social Ethics, Historical Problems and Bonhoeffer’s Context, and Bonhoeffer’s Theological Project. Hertenstein specifically discusses the complex issue of Christian activity in secular society.


In his thesis, Hertenstein focuses on Luther’s ideas of the human person, community, and natural law. The problem with Lutheran social ethics is that there is a division between Christian action within a Christian context and Christian action in the increasingly secular world. As a side note, Hertenstein addresses the problems with Luther’s works that are derived from his confusing language that makes correct interpretation a challenge.


Bonhoeffer lived and taught during the time of Nazi Germany. During this period, a German Christian movement endorsed absolute obedience to the state by tying God’s will to the will of the government. Bonhoeffer was an outspoken advocate against the Nazi movement and was so threatening to the Nazi regime that his eventual execution was demanded by Hitler himself.


Bonhoeffer believed that a Christian must always act for his neighbor, even at the risk of personal guilt. He said that Christians can and should do anything in order to serve their neighbor, even if it means taking up the sword. Luther, too, allows for Christians to “take up the sword” responsibly, and exclusively, for others. However, he is cynical about human beings’ ability to act selflessly. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, was more optimistic than Luther about the human ability to serve others generously.


Bonhoeffer was able to modify Luther’s ideas using modern philosophical and theological developments. In Bonhoeffer’s belief, a Christian must act for the good of his neighbor if he is able; to not act is evil.


Bonhoeffer argued that an absolute division between church and state resulted in a situation in which Christian people and the Christian Church were able to support Nazism. Hertenstein mentioned the present-day separation of church and state in America. His thesis is applicable to contemporary times in that Christians continue to struggle to behave in a Christian manner in secular society. Speaking out for what is morally right, even if it is in opposition to the law, is a challenge that Christians faced in Luther’s time, in Bonhoeffer’s time, and still today. At Boston College, a school of men and women for others, we must ask ourselves whether we serve our neighbors selflessly, or whether we are letting our Christian values waver in favor of an all-encompassing secular society.


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