When Dietrich Bonhoeffer met Karl Barth – with Charles Marsh

I posted previously and in a general way about Marsh’s book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Today I want to share Marsh’s account of Bonhoeffer’s meeting with Barth in Bonn in 1931. Bonhoeffer was fresh from his first trip to Union Seminary in New York, making the trip to see Barth after being home for only a few weeks after the better part of a year in America. He even skipped a short vacation at his family’s country house! Bonhoeffer stayed in Bonn for three weeks.

Bonhoeffer made his visit to Barth when Barth was hitting his stride and starting the first part volume of Church Dogmatics. He had spent the preceding decade working through the theological tradition, filling his theological toolbox, identifying the important issues with which he had to grapple, and feeling his way toward a fundamental rethinking of the theological enterprise. Now he began to speak in earnest. I must confess that CD 1:1 is one of my favorite bits of Barth. This is no doubt due, in part, to the overlap with Gollwitzer: this was when Gollwitzer was studying with Barth and serving as his research assistant. Gollwitzer would meet Bonhoeffer during this visit. Marsh mentions that Bonhoeffer saw some of Barth’s students perform a play that Barth wrote while younger, but he doesn’t mention that Gollwitzer was the director.

Bonhoeffer had to get up early to hear Barth’s lectures, but they seem to have made an impression. Of them he commented: “I have never seen anything like it before” (138). The experience left Bonhoeffer feeling a bit out of place: “despite his two doctoral dissertations where Barth had none,” he “felt a sudden fear of being exposed as a ‘theological bastard.’” This apprehension was no doubt enhanced by Barth’s students. Marsh describes Bonhoeffer’s impression of them as “both territorial and uncommonly deferential to the master,” such that “the Barth circle kept vigilant guard over its dominion.”

The pivotal moment in Bonhoeffer’s visit came when he engaged Barth directly. Here’s Marsh’s narration (bold is mine):

One day, after class, Bonhoeffer locked horns with Barth, if only a bit. Over tea in the professor’s office, the two were discussing the proper relationship between theology and ethics. . . .

Barth was explaining his understanding of theology’s peculiar place among the academic disciplines: theology is the science that ventures to speak a word about God . . . the second-order reflection on the church’s primary speech and practice, the writing that seeks to capture the bird in flight, to speak the impossible. Bonhoeffer asked what this had to do with reality [ed.: Oh, snap!].

The student agreed with the master on most of the basics: the theologian must be a servant of the church, and the basis for thinking truthfully about God is Jesus Christ. But Bonhoeffer was now living with the conviction that theologians must be willing to speak clearly and have a personal stake in their claims. He found Barth impervious to the ethical and social dimensions of doctrine—in fact, irritatingly so.

Barth responded with equal candor. Christian theology bore no responsibility to change society, he said [ed.: KB thinks Christians have this responsibility, just not theology as such]. Theology makes nothing happen in the ordinary sense, and that’s as it should be [ed.: nonetheless, KB wrote quite a bit of theological ethics in the course of CD, but this post isn’t about him…]. (138–39)

What was the aftermath of this exchange? Marsh fills us in:

Though Bonhoeffer worried about the impression he had made, he would be relieved to hear from a classmate that Barth had thoroughly enjoyed the exchange. The contrarian voice was perfectly welcome, and when the seminar resumed the next day, Barth asked Bonhoeffer to introduce himself to the other students. There soon followed an invitation to dine with the professor at home. . . . [All this led] Bonhoeffer to confess that his initial impressions of the Barth circle had probably been too harsh. (139–40)


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Thank you so much for the post. In some ways, hints of future criticism of Barth.

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