By Matthew Puffer
If Bonhoeffer’s importance to Barth’s theology is little noted, this is not without cause. “Disturbed” by the “particular thorn” of the enigmatic Letters and Papers and its “positivism of revelation” charge, Barth likewise found the “mandates” in Ethics to be “arbitrary” and “inadequate.” He wrote Eberhard Bethge—responsible for Bonhoeffer’s posthumous publications, and Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and nephew—“very softly I venture to doubt whether theological systematics (I include his Ethics) was his real strength.” Understood within the context of their relationship and respective theologies, such quotations can illumine rather than discredit a reciprocal influence between Barth and Bonhoeffer. This essay does not rehearse Bonhoeffer’s well-known dependence upon Barth, but, rather, Bonhoeffer’s often over-looked influence upon Barth’s thinking.
Bonhoeffer imbibed Barth’s early writings during his student years at Tübingen and Berlin (1924-27). Studying with Barth’s former professor and recent sparring partner, Adolf von Harnack, Bonhoeffer experienced Barth as a “liberation” through the lecture notes of his Göttingen and Münster students. Still, Bonhoeffer’s dissertations, Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, voice critical assessments of Barth’s early transcendentalism. In ’31 the young Berlin University theology lecturer spent three weeks in Bonn where the two conversed regularly. Barth was “delighted” when his visitor quoted one of Luther’s witticisms in a seminar, launching a friendship that would last until Bonhoeffer’s death. Bonhoeffer wrote, “I have been even more impressed by my discussions with him than by his writings and his lectures. For he is really all there. I have never seen anything like it” (A Testament to Freedom, 382).
The two labored together during the Kirchenkampf, until Bonhoeffer—exasperated with the Confessional Church’s cautiousness, the watered-down Bethel Confession, and Barth’s reticence to proclaim a status confessionis—took up a pastorate in London. Barth responded with words neither would soon forget:
Get back to your post in Berlin straightaway! … you need to be here with all guns blazing! … standing up to these brethren along with me … Why weren’t you there pulling on the rope that I, virtually alone, could hardly budge? Why aren’t you here all the time? … Just be glad I do not have you here in front of me, because then I would find an entirely different way of putting it to you ... that you are a German, that your church’s house is on fire, that you know enough, and know well enough how to say what you know, to be able to help, and in fact you ought to return to your post by the next ship! … If you did not matter so much to me, I would not have taken you by the collar in this fashion. (DBWE 13: 39-41)Barth was in Basel by 1935 when Bonhoeffer returned, and though the two saw each other less in the subsequent years they remained important to each other, personally and intellectually.
As Bonhoeffer was reading II/2 and writing letters from prison, Barth was reading Bonhoeffer’s 1933 lectures, Creation and Fall, and developing his theological anthropology. Published shortly after Bonhoeffer’s death, Barth’s exegesis in III/1 appropriates Bonhoeffer’s analogia relationis against an analogia entis as the manner of human likeness to God. Barth’s reflections on Bonhoeffer’s insights become generative for his understanding of the Trinity and anthropology in the first three parts of III.
For Bonhoeffer, humankind bears the Creator’s likeness in its freedom, not as an inherent quality, but as “a relation between two persons” (Creation and Fall, 63). “The ‘image that is like God’ is therefore no analogia entis in which human beings, in their existence in-and-of-themselves, in their being, could be said to be like God’s being” (65). No individual exists alone, divine or human, so to perceive God or a human individual is to perceive a person in relation (surprisingly, Bonhoeffer fails to identify a freedom between the persons of the Trinity). In place of the analogia entis, Bonhoeffer argues an analogia relationis is a more faithful rendering of Genesis 1:26-27. Humankind’s created likeness to God consists, first, in its freedom for God and other human beings, and second, in its freedom from the creation, its dominion.
Rejecting numerous alternative interpretations of the imago Dei, Barth affirms Bonhoeffer’s analogy of freedom for God and for one-another, adding to his analogia relationis, the notion of God’s own freedom for Godself—the trinitarian “loving co-existence and co-operation, the I and Thou, which first take place in God Himself” (III/1, 196). For Barth, the original or prototype to which the imago Dei corresponds is not God’s relation to humankind ad extra, but the relationship and differentiation between I and Thou in God Himself. This original relation has its subsequent likeness in God’s relation to the human Jesus, Jesus Christ’s relation to humankind, and humankind’s relation to one-another as male and female. For both theologians, this analogy of relation in theo-anthropology bears directly upon ethics.
Barth writes, “When God and man meet as revealed in the Word of God, then definite spheres and relationships may be seen in which this encounter takes place … The one will of God and his one command embrace his work as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer … Similarly, the action of the one man is his action on the three corresponding planes” (III/4, 29). For Barth, “All ethical activity consists in discerning the will of God and bearing witness to it” as it is encountered by humankind within these spheres, these relationships (McCormack, 278).
Bonhoeffer too, maintains the essential element of relationships wherein the divine command is given, though the form of these relationships differs from Barth’s. For Bonhoeffer, the relations, or worldly mandates (family, work and government), are grounded in eschatological realities finding concrete expression in the divine mission here and now: Family—Christ’s relation to the Church-community and God the Father of Jesus Christ and Christ as brother to humankind; Work—“the creative service of God and Christ toward the world and of human beings toward God”; Government—Christ’s lordship over the heavenly city (Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 549-50). In, with, and under these three mandates, Christ is present in the concrete form of the church community. The Church, the fourth mandate, serves as an ontological ground and epistemological a priori for the participation of the other mandates in the reality of Christ. The worldly mandates bear witness to the promised heavenly kingdom precisely in their concrete encounters with the church-community. These encounters give provisional and temporal expression to eternal divine-human relations, foreshadowing, but also indicating here and now, the original and prototype existing in eternity.
Like Barth’s spheres, Bonhoeffer’s divine mandates reflect eternal dimensions of the divine-human relationship revealed through Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ. Favoring Bonhoeffer’s approach to the ethics of Althaus, Brunner, and Søe, Barth writes, “It is along these lines that we certainly have to think, and we may gratefully acknowledge that Bonhoeffer does this, even though it may be asked whether the working out of his view does not still contain some arbitrary elements…. The God who works and is revealed in His Word, in Jesus Christ, characterises Himself (in accordance with His inner trinitarian being) as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer” (III/4, 22, 25). Again, Barth offers critical modification to Bonhoeffer’s insights on divine-human relationships through reflection upon God’s Trinitarian existence.
While composing IV/1, Barth writes to P.W. Herrenbrück of Bonhoeffer’s importance. Although the letters from prison leave him “disturbed … embarrassed ... confused,” and “a lessening of the offence he has provided us is the last thing I should wish,” Barth nevertheless notes, “as always with Bonhoeffer one is faced by a peculiar difficulty. He was—how shall I put it?—an impulsive, visionary thinker who was suddenly seized by an idea to which he gave lively form, and then after a time he called a halt (one never knew whether it was final or temporary) with some provisional last point or other. Was this not the case with Discipleship? Did he not also for a time have liturgical impulses—And how was it with the ‘Mandates’ of his Ethics, with which I tussled when I wrote III/4?” (World Come of Age, 89-92).
On the theme of imitation in Discipleship, Barth indicates “it has long been clear to me that I will have to devote a lot of room to this matter in the Church Dogmatics.” And, again, “I always read his early writings, especially those which apparently or in reality said things which were not at once clear to me, with the thought that—when they were seen round some corner or other—he might be right.” Barth seems to have seen around additional corners in working out IV/2. Barth’s high praise in this volume resulted not only from reflection on Discipleship, but also from his oversight of John Godsey’s dissertation, The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In “The Sanctification of Man” (§66) Barth expresses his appreciation for Discipleship:
the best that has been written on [imitatio Christi] … the matter is handled with such depth and precision that I am almost tempted simply to reproduce them in an extended quotation. For I cannot hope to say anything better on the subject than what is said here by a man who, having written on discipleship, was ready to achieve it in his own life, and did in his own way achieve it even to the point of death. In following my own course, I am happy that on this occasion I can lean as heavily as I do upon another. (534)Later, in “The Holy Spirit and the Upbuilding of the Christian Community” (§67), Barth extols Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio, a work he regarded a “theological miracle” (Godsey, 21).
If there can be any possible vindication of Reinhold Seeberg, it is to be sought in the fact that his school could give rise to this man and this dissertation, which … makes far more instructive and stimulating and illuminating and genuinely edifying reading to-day than many of the more famous works which have since been written on the problem of the Church.… many things would not have been written if Bonhoeffer’s exposition had been taken into account. I openly confess that I have misgivings whether I can even maintain the high level reached by Bonhoeffer, saying no less in my own words and context, and saying it no less forcefully, than did this young man so many years ago. (641)Although Bonhoeffer goes unnamed in IV/3, his prison writings echo in Barth’s words: “Had the world first to become mature in order that in its own way the Church should become mature in a positive sense?” (21). It comes as little surprise to find further congruence in Barth’s conclusion, the Church is “free for the secular world.” Barth repeats the point in The Christian Life, where an extended quote could easily have been taken from Bonhoeffer’s “Outline for a Book”: “[The Christian’s] job, then, is to usher in a kind of Christian secularism or secular Christianity… thinking, speaking, and action in the expectation that he can most fittingly serve the gospel of God among children and citizens of the world by the closest possible approximation and assimilation to their attitude and language and even their thought forms, so that in his own person he will set before them the fact of God’s love… Christians have the freedom … to take seriously their solidarity with those outside” (200). Barth notes, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer possibly had something of this view in his last years when he made certain rather cryptic statements.”
Andreas Pangritz and Kevin Hart suggest that Barth derives similar inspiration from Bonhoeffer for his “secular parables” of the kingdom and “doctrine of lights” in other religions. We could add to these Barth’s discussion of lying and un-truth in §72 (“The Falsehood and Condemnation of Man”), which offers striking parallels to the younger theologian’s “What is Meant by Telling the Truth?”
Even in retirement, after the Dogmatics had been set aside, Bonhoeffer remained important to Barth. In 1967 he wrote to Bethge regarding his “masterpiece on Bonhoeffer”: “I have learned many things about Bonhoeffer for the first time,” including “the fact that in 1933 and the years following, Bonhoeffer was the first and almost the only one to face and tackle the Jewish question so centrally and energetically. I have long since regarded it as a fault on my part that I did not make this question a decisive issue, at least publicly in the church conflict. Only from your book have I become aware that Bonhoeffer did so from the very first. Perhaps this is why he was not at Barmen nor later at Dahlem.” Barth understands that Bonhoeffer’s opinions on the Aryan Clause and his isolation on these matters were, in part, what drove a wedge between Bonhoeffer and the nascent Confessing Church movement, leading to his departure for London in 1933. He sees in Bonhoeffer one who shared the convictions he held at the time “when I left theological Liberalism,” including the trajectory “from Christian faith to political action.” In the years of their acquaintance, “there was a genuine need in the direction which I now silently took for granted or emphasized only in passing … and the need to fill [this gap], Bonhoeffer obviously saw very keenly from the first ... he became a martyr, too, for this specific cause” (Letters 1961-1968, 250-52).
Finally, among his final letters, written only two months before his death, Barth declines Hendrikus Berkhof’s request that he advise their mutual friend, J. Boulon. “To direct him to remain in Beirut—what purely theoretically would be the best—I could not take responsibility: I already have in my memory the advice that I once gave Bonhoeffer to return from London to Germany, upon the execution of which he wound up in Flossenbürg” (Briefe 1961-1968, 505). The impact Bonhoeffer had on Barth was no less personal than theological.
Scholarship that looks closely into Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics must wrestle with Barth’s influence. The converse has not been the case. However, if we take Barth at his word in CD, significant elements of his theology and ethics in III and IV would have gone missing had Bonhoeffer’s influence not exerted itself. As Barth wrestled intensely with the epistemic and ontological conditions of possibility for Christian theology and witness (in I-II), Bonhoeffer was writing and acting upon conclusions to which the Dogmatics would not give expression until III-IV: creation, theological anthropology, special ethics, justification and sanctification, discipleship, the communion of saints, and secular Christianity—namely, the lived experience of Christian discipleship in the church-community. As Paul Lehmann rightly points out, Barth’s “specific attention to these concerns did not emerge until … it was too late for further exchange on these matters,” at least not within the architectonics of CD (“The Concreteness of Theology,” 68).
What, then, of Barth’s “doubt whether theological systematics (I include his Ethics)” was Bonhoeffer’s strength? Barth himself offers the greatest help in this regard. In I/1 Barth draws a distinction between regular and irregular dogmatics that pivots on the completeness and consistency with which one attends to a host of subjects. Regular dogmatics aim at completeness (Origen, Thomas, Calvin, Dorner). Irregular dogmatics “will be, and will mean to be, a fragment,” for example, the early church, Athanasius, Luther, and Kutter (I/1, 277). Barth engages in regular dogmatics without demeaning the irregular approach, “a little of which all of us secretly do and which we ought to do boldly” (Göttingen, 38). “The ultimate question cannot be whether we are doing regular or irregular dogmatics.” Instead, “What finally counts is whether a dogmatics is scriptural” (I/1, 287).
This distinction between regular and irregular dogmatics, consistent versus fragmentary (yet equally provisional), helpfully illuminates Barth’s seemingly devastating appraisal of Bonhoeffer in an otherwise effusive letter to Bethge. Barth’s assessment differentiates his own self-consciously regular dogmatics from Bonhoeffer’s, to which he gives such high praise in CD as elsewhere. It explains how Barth is able to laud Bonhoeffer’s insights while submitting them to extensive revision—Ethics is “brilliant” even as it is “fragmentary and provisional.” For him, the form of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics had to do not only with its unfinished state (Barth’s Church Dogmatics had been in a similarly unfinished and non-progressing state for some years when he made this comment of Bonhoeffer’s opus), but specifically with the lack of systematic perspective from which Bonhoeffer had approached his Ethics which left a disorganized, unpolished result.
Barth saw in Bonhoeffer’s irregular and often fragmentary writings much more than nascent indicators, but rather seminal elements he could develop within his own distinctive theology. Barth’s reformulations of anthropology and the Creator, Reconciler, Redeemer relations as the context of the ethical event build upon Bonhoeffer’s analogia relationis and his understanding of mandates as the relational context of God’s command in the “middle,” or, as Barth would have it, between the times. Such conversations between Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly warrant further consideration, as well as their conceptions of vicarious representative action and correspondence, re-presenting the Truth and giving witness, the Grenzfall in the ethics of suicide, and the difference election makes to the practice of ethics.
Barth recognized that analogy involves both differentiation and relationship, correspondence of the unlike, so perhaps it is fitting to close noting some shared features. Both theologians came to know the loneliness of forging new paths, resisting the accepted wisdom of their day, seeking for themselves not disciples, but to know the Word of God. They took seriously the Baptist’s “He must become greater, I must become less.” And at least one specific practice resulted from and informed their often shared and uncommon vision, sustaining them in the midst of busyness, solitude, and crisis. Bonhoeffer wrote after seven months in prison, “in addition to daily Bible study, I have read the Old Testament two and a half times through and have learned a great deal” (DBWE 8, 181). As a result, Bonhoeffer gained new insights on relational truth-telling. In preparation for IV/4 Barth wrote to his son Markus, the New Testament scholar, that he had again read “the New Testament from A to Z and word by word” (TCL, xv). His sacramentology followed. Certainly those who travel with or beyond these two great theologians will not require less in their own reflections.
Response - Supplementing Puffer’s Thesis:
Barth’s Growing Appreciation for Bonhoeffer
By Andy Rowell
Virtually all of the secondary literature on Dietrich Bonhoeffer explores the influence Barth had on him. Matt Puffer takes a different tact and focuses on how Bonhoeffer influenced Barth. He begins by recounting some of the harshest remarks Barth had to say about Bonhoeffer, but goes on later in the essay to put these phrases in context. His overall thesis is that Barth drew upon Bonhoeffer at various points in Church Dogmatics, and that it would be a mistake to hypothesize a great gulf between them.
From the time he met Bonhoeffer, Barth appreciated Bonhoeffer’s provocations but he was also always a bit confused by them. Puffer rightly and rigorously argues that Barth draws upon Bonhoeffer in a few important ways and that the confusion between the two of them should not detract from that fact. In addition to the systematic refinement that Barth gives to Bonhoeffer’s theological concepts in Church Dogmatics, the reasons behind the confusion are numerous and difficult to disentangle: Barth not having read Bonhoeffer earlier, the difficulty of communicating during the crucible of war-time Germany, differences in age (20 years), nationality (Swiss vs. German), differences in class (son of a Swiss pastor vs. son of Berlin psychiatrist), ecclesial pressures (Reformed vs. Lutheran), vocational journey (pastor turned academic vs. academic turned pastor), style of writing (regular vs. irregular dogmatics), and critics driving a wedge between them. I would like to supplement Puffer’s thesis by tracing chronologically Bonhoeffer’s influence on Barth—allowing the reader to see Barth’s growing appreciation for Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer and Barth met for the first time in July 1931. Bonhoeffer was 25 and Barth was 45. Bonhoeffer had interacted extensively with Barth in his dissertation (Sanctorum Communio ) and habilitation (Act and Being) while Barth had read nothing that Bonhoeffer had written. From that point until Bonhoeffer’s death, the two corresponded regularly and met occasionally. During Bonhoeffer’s lifetime, Barth ceded little ground to him—seeing himself primarily in the role of professor and Bonhoeffer as student. He did however depend on Bonhoeffer for one thing—news from wartime Germany. Eberhard Busch, Barth’s biographer, reports that “Barth was given a closer idea of the German situation . . . above all by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who visited him” three times in Switzerland during the summer of 1941 (Busch, Karl Barth, 314).
The word “Bonhoeffer” occurs 34 times in the 8,000 pages of Church Dogmatics. Barth interacted extensively with one insight from Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall in CD III/1, which was published in 1945. The rest of the references to Bonhoeffer’s work were written after Bonhoeffer’s death in 1945. Barth’s appreciation grew for Bonhoeffer after Bonhoeffer’s death. Barth drew mostly approvingly from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in III/4 (1951), and effusively from Discipleship and Sanctorum Communio in IV/2 (1958).
In 1951, Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison were published. Bonhoeffer’s comment about Barth’s “positivism of revelation” has been used as a bludgeon by Barth’s critics ever since. Andreas Pangritz, in his Karl Barth in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reports that the phrase was used in German theology to
play off the middle-class, liberal Bonhoeffer, who theology seems to be made believable on account of his death as a ‘martyr,’ against the Swiss democrat Barth, in particular his socialist leanings. Resistant against the Nazis—yes! as long as it remains within the domain of the middle class and as long as the military plays a decisive part in maintaining security; no! as soon as it tends toward a socialist revolutionizing of the order of society: this is how the message goes. (2-3)In other words, in Germany, many dismiss Barth as a dangerous fundamentalist whereas Bonhoeffer is the enlightened pragmatist. In the United States, the reception of Barth and Bonhoeffer has been almost reverse of that of Germany. Bonhoeffer is generally seen as the dashing dangerous activist (liberal or conservative—depending on the interpreter) while Barth is viewed as the long-winded abstruse (and thus harmless) professor.
No wonder then that Barth himself was reluctant to say exactly how and where he and Bonhoeffer diverged. In 1962, in a question and answer session at Princeton during Barth’s visit to the United States, Barth asked for clarification from the audience regarding an aspect of Bonhoeffer’s theology. “Is there any Bonhoeffer-specialist in this assembly?” This question takes on more significance when we consider the letter Barth wrote in 1967 to Eberhard Bethge after reading Bethge’s 800 page biography of Bonhoeffer. Barth writes, “I have learned many things about Bonhoeffer for the first time, or they have first made an impact on me, in your book.” He goes on to say,
Again, it was new to me that with Bishop Bell I myself was always so important a figure to him--until at the end he charged me with a “positivism of revelation,” an objection I could never clearly understand. Until now I have always thought of myself as one of the pawns, not the knights or castles, on his chessboard.It took Bethge’s book in 1967 (just a year before Barth’s death in 1968) for Barth to realize what a devoted follower he had in Bonhoeffer. As we have seen, as Barth worked on Church Dogmatics, his comments about Bonhoeffer became increasingly appreciative. If the various misunderstandings between the two had somehow been clarified earlier than 1967, it seems probable that Barth would have interacted earlier, more extensively, more explicitly, and less suspiciously with Bonhoeffer’s work. Puffer joins the consensus of Barth and Bonhoeffer interpreters, who can see with the benefit of post-1967 hindsight, that the two theologians were as theologically close to one another as to anyone else, even though this fact was sometimes obscure even to themselves.
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