Showing posts with label Bonhoeffer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bonhoeffer. Show all posts

Monday, April 21, 2014

No, Bonhoeffer Was Not a Martyr

I'm a member of the Episcopal Church and our church calendar commends remembrances for "Holy Men and Holy Women" throughout the church year. I can't speak to how other denominations do this, but our list those commemorated, which is modified from time to time through our General Convention, is broader than the Roman Catholic definition of sainthood.

On April 9 we commemorate the life, ministry, writings and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "theologian and martyr", who was executed on this day in 1945 at Flossenburg prison. (See this blurb from the Episcopal Church website.) Like many of you, I find Bonhoeffer's life and writings deeply inspiring and provocative. But I think it's a label him a "martyr", and I wish we would drop that designation from our commemorations.

Of course, everything hinges upon how one defines a term. The Greek word martus literally means "witness," but in the early church the term came to be applied to those who suffered and died for professing the Christian faith. Bonhoeffer certainly was a witness to the faith: His writings -- especially such books as Life Together, Discipleship, the Letters and Papers from Prison edited by Eberhard Bethge and his unfinished Ethics have inspired millions. His work in the ecumenical movement was exemplary and his seminal contribution to the Confessing Church movement through his work on the Dahlem and Bethel confessions, his secret overseas missions to save Jews and his pastoral and educational work through the underground seminaries rightly establish him as a leading prophet of the German resistance. (By the way, if you haven't read it, I highly recommend you plough through Bethge's magisterial biography. It's a hefty thousand pages or so, but read it cover to cover.)

Bonhoeffer's theological and ecclesial commitments certainly are interwoven, through his biography and all-too-brief career, with the events that led to his death. But he was not killed because of his sermons or lectures on discipleship or even because he secretly mentored ordinands of the Confessing Church. Rather, he was executed because he was implicated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a co-conspirator, along with his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and other high-level dissidents within German military intelligence (the Abwehr) in what was to be a coup to depose the Nazi regime. It was the evidence in documents that implicated Bonhoeffer in this plot that ultimately led to his death sentence.

I'm not entering the debate about whether Bonhoeffer's involvement with the Abwehr vitiated his earlier pacifist commitments (he had once planned to study non-violent resistance with Gandhi in India). Nor am I making the claim here that violence is never justified, from a Christian perspective, in battling radical evil. I'm not going to get into debates about Romans 13 and the question of submission to temporal authorities.

Nor am I objecting to a broadened definition of martyrdom that includes sacrifice of life and limb for political and social causes rather than profession of the Christian faith in the stricter sense. I'm not trying to make any invidious comparison here between Bonhoeffer and, say, Felicitas and Perpetua, who like many other martyrs could have saved their lives if they had renounced their faith and embraced the emperor cult. I first vetted some of these musings in a Facebook post -- and I'm grateful for the pushback several of my friends offered on that thread. One friend lifted up other modern examples of those who died resisting injustice, such as the seminarian and civil rights activist Jonathan M. Daniels, who was murdered in 1965 in Alabama. The same friend also reminded me that the early Christians, by professing faith in Jesus the Christ, were themselves engaging in political protests against the Roman Empire.

Nor am I going to tromp out any Kantian or Augustinian scruples against lying. Still, for me, the fact that Bonhoeffer worked underground for the resistance and feigned support for the regime makes his actions something different from civil disobedience as it is usually understood. My question here relates more to the means used than to the ends sought.

By all means, let's continue to commemorate Bonhoeffer's life and work. But please let's stop calling him a "martyr", for doing so may divert us from facing the critical questions and challenges that pondering his example should raise for us: Under what circumstances may or must Christians employ the tools of violence and deception to fight grave injustice? From what I've read, I imagine Bonhoeffer would be deeply uncomfortable with this label, not out of any sense of false modesty, but rather because he was a Lutheran theologian with a profoundly tragic sense of human sinfulness who considered his involvements in the resistance movement to be extraordinary and demanded by the extremity of the times.

No. Bonhoeffer, though certainly an inspiring witness in many ways, did not die as a martyr. I prefer instead to think of him as an insurgent. He did not put such a great premium on his purity and holiness that he refused to bloody his hands in the guilt of his own people, whom he was trying desperately to save from self destruction. Sometimes, Luther taught, it is necessary to "sin boldly," and Bonhoeffer certainly exhibited great courage.

If he was a witness to anything, his death testified to brokenness of humanity and to the paradoxical hope of resurrection under the sign of the cross. Bonhoeffer bore part of the weight of the cross in solidarity with his past -- his identity as a German and a product of a compromised and complacent evangelical church and a member of a prominent and privileged upper-middle-class family.

And ultimately Bonhoeffer died like the rest of us -- naked, a sinner saved not by his actions or example but simply by the word of divine grace.

(While you're thinking about reading Bonhoeffer, take another look at this post Brandy Daniels wrote back in 2012.)


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Miscellaneous Book and Conference Announcements Post

A few friends from the theo-blogging and academic theology worlds have been in touch recently to ask that I help to promote some events and books. To my chagrin, I’ve sort of let them pile up a little. So here they are, all in one post! Should be easier for folks to access anyway – you only have to surf over once.

Anyway, this book and these conferences look very interesting. I only wish I had more time (and continuing education funding) so that I could take full advantage of them. But if you end up going, tell them DET sent you!


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Original Sin and Reconciliation in Bonhoeffer’s “Act and Being”

I recently decided to buzz through Bonhoeffer’s Habilitationsschrift. It has been sitting on my shelf for a few years now, staring at me reproachfully. So I took it down and read with what turned out to be rapt attention. It is simply amazing that he wrote this at the age of 24 . . . But, all jealousies aside, it is well worth reading. It is unfortunately neglected because it is (shall we say) a bit more intellectually demanding than (shall we say) some of his other writings. The first half is especially compelling, although the answer that he proposes to the problem he identifies there is less attractive to me than (shall we say) other possible answers.

How’s that for being vague?

Anyway, the bit that I want to share with you deals with the subject of original sin and reconciliation and, more specifically, how the two fit together. Bonhoeffer further develops his thinking on the original sin side especially in his Creation and Fall, which I also highly recommend.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, 146. As always, bold is mine.
In the judgment brought upon me by the death of Christ, I see myself dying in my entirety, for I myself, as a whole, am guilty as the actor of my life, the decisions of which turned out to be self-seeking ever and again. I made false decisions and, therefore, Christ is my death; and because I alone sought to be the master, I am alone in my death as well. But the death of Christ kills my entire being human, as humanity in me, for I am I and humanity in one. In my fall from God, humanity fell. Thus, before the cross, the debt of the I grows to monstrous size; it is itself Adam, itself the first to have done, and to do again and again, that incomprehensible deed––sin as act. But in this act, for which I hold myself utterly responsible on every occasion, I find myself already in the humanity of Adam. I see humanity in me necessarily committing this, my own free deed. As human being, the I is banished into this old humanity, which fell on my account. The I ‘is’ not as an individual, but always in humanity. And just because the deed of the individual is at the same time that of humanity, human beings must hold themselves individually responsible for the whole guilt of humankind. The interrelation of individual and humanity is not to be thought of in terms of causality–otherwise the mode of being of the entity would once again come into play; rather, it is a knowledge given the individual in God’s judgment–given in such a way that it cannot be used, in detachment from that judgment and in theoretical abstraction, for purposes of exoneration. On the contrary, because everyone, as human being, stands within the humanity of Adam, no one can withdraw from the sinful act to a sinless being; no, the whole of one’s being a person is in sin. Thus, in Adam act is as constitutive for being as being is for act; both act and being enter into judgment as guilty. The structure of Adam’s humanity should not be conceived in terms of theories of psychological-historical interpretation; no, I myself am Adam–am I and humanity in one. In me humanity falls. As I am Adam, so is every individual; but in all individuals the one person of humanity, Adam, is active. This expresses both the contingency of the deed and the continuity of being in sin. Because sin is envisaged through the concept of ‘Adam’, in the mode of being of ‘person’, the contingency of conduct is preserved, as is the continuity of the person of humanity, which attests itself in action–the person that I also am.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

"I fear that Christians who stand with only one leg upon earth also stand with only one leg in heaven."

"The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from everyday Christian life in community…may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; for in the poor sister or brother, Christ is knocking at the door."

"Since ethical thinking in terms of realms is overcome by faith in the revelation of the ultimate reality in Jesus Christ . . . there is no real Christian existence outside the reality of the world."

"People who reject their bodies reject their existence before God the Creator."
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I envisioned having a lot of time for blogging this summer, but that simply has not been the case - the last month has been a crazy one, to say the least. For two weeks, I was working at a theology summer camp of sorts, the Duke Youth Academy, and said job was bookended by a bicycle trip from Nashville to Durham and back (totaling over 1,000 miles). So I haven’t had much time to write, certainly not at the caliber of which are worthy of this blog (I did, by the way, start a personal blog to reflect on travel and theology and the such - check it out here).

While I’ll be sure to reflect more on some of the things I learned the last month here, that is not what I want to write about at the moment. Instead, inspired after (a) hanging out with an old and dear friend who is a Lutheran minister, who also happened to be working at DYA this summer, and (b) hearing news that an essay I wrote on Bonhoeffer and Foucault (“Ethics Beyond Biopower: Bonhoeffer and Foucault on the Problem of Race”) will be finally getting published in a collected volume, Ontology and Ethics: Bonhoeffer and Contemporary Scholarship later this year with Pickwick, I felt inspired to write about one of the greatest Lutheran theologians of all time - and one of the greatest theologians of all time, period, in my humble opinion - Dietrich Bonhoeffer!

So, time to get on my Bonhoeffer soapbox for a little bit, and contribute a Bonhoeffer entry to the DET “So You Want To Read . . .” series (indexed at the top of the recommended reading page).

Why Should I Read Bonhoeffer?

While this should, in theory, be the lengthiest and most detailed section of this blog post, I think that, in many ways, Bonhoeffer’s work speaks for itself - not to mention, I drop hints on why I think you should read Bonhoeffer throughout this lengthy post. Nevertheless, here is a short list of a few of the many, many reasons I think Bonhoeffer is well worth reading:
  • He was a theologian who lived his theology - actively working against the Third Reich, risking his life (and eventually loosing it) through embodying what he believed.
  • His theology itself reflects an engagement with ‘the social.’ While it is systematically rigorous, Bonhoeffer doesn’t separate systematics from sociality, which (a) makes for theology that is relevant and practical, not just abstract, (b) makes for more interesting reading material, and (c) is, I think enormously important when thinking about the theological enterprise itself - what the task and purpose of theology is/should be.
  • Many people on this blog, myself included, really like Barth, for many reasons that I’m not going to go into here. I see their projects as very, very similar, and, while saying this is going to likely get me in trouble with all you Barthians, I find Bonhoeffer to basically be a more bad-ass - albeit less prolific - version of Barth in that he more directly engages with social issues in both his life and his work. Bonhoeffer’s work, I think, actively resists a disembodied, abstract account of theology that is often present in academic theology today.
  • Bonhoeffer’s work, highly impacted by his time in New York - particularly in Harlem and at Abyssinian Baptist Church, has a lot to say to the highly racialized time and place many of us find ourselves in the contemporary U.S.
  • Bonhoeffer’s work, especially the later stuff, calls us to resist simple dichotomization and categorization - an important reminder in our polarized society, especially for those of us who easily turn to black-and-white thinking. Moreover, Bonhoeffer does so in such a way that doesn’t conversely encourage or endorse complicity as the antidote to such polarization. Bonhoeffer calls instead for an ethic of risk, grounded in the person and work of Christ.

What Should I Read First?

I thought it might be good to start by suggesting what not to read first:

  • First, I would recommend not starting with either Sanctorum Communio or Act and Being. While I think that these are both excellent texts, they are his dissertations (yeah, he wrote two - gotta love the whole German habilitation thing) so they are a bit more technical then the rest of his oeuvre, and also a bit less developed than his later stuff.
  • For entirely different reasons, I want to suggest not beginning with Discipleship (what many still call Cost of Discipleship). While I disagree with some of my peers who have called it one of the most overrated theology texts of the 20th century, I do think it is a bit overdone, and is best read after one is already swimming in Bonhoeffer.

So, then, what to read first?

  • Ethics! This is by far my favorite Bonhoeffer text. I mean, it’s basically spy theology - he wrote the majority of the essays that comprise this text while traveling as part of his duties as basically a double agent while he was part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. So you get some really, really good reflections on the possibilities, limits, demands of ethics. In particular, the essay that opens up the volume, "Christ, Reality, and Good: Christ, Church, and World" has been, perhaps, the most influential single thing I've read, for both my personal and academic theological development. His account of the relationship between the church and the world has helped me grapple with notions of belonging and theological anthropology as they relate to ecclesiology and ethics. More on that later, to be sure . . . Also, the same could be said of the essay "History and Good [2].
  • His Christology lectures! Such rich material, especially when one considers the context in which Bonhoeffer wrote and delivered these lectures - during the rise of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer presents a Christology that fundamentally rejects and disrupts the theo-logic of mastery, control, and domination that undergirded support for Nazi policies. At the center of Bonhoeffer’s theology is the figure of Christ as the Counter-Logos, rejecting the “ultimate deceit” of the classifying project of the human logos that has at its center the aim of domination, and shifts our question from ‘how’ to ‘who’ (29). You can find the Christology lectures in a newer translation/transcription, in Berlin: 1932-1933, which I would recommend if you’re doing anything scholarly with the text, but they’re also available in a nifty little paperback that is handy for traveling and such: Christ the Center.
  • Life Together. In many ways, I feel like this text is a sort of sequel of his christology lectures, exploring the communal implications of this Christology. The first chapter in particular lays out a theological argument for how we should live in community that is both poetic and theologically profound.

What about Secondary Literature?

Here I want to start again by suggesting what not to read. It seems as though there has been a bit of a resurgence of interest in Bonhoeffer lately, both in the academy as well as in popular culture [read: the real world]. This resurgence has ostensibly been stimulated / heightened by the recent biography of Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxes, which - I think - spent a good deal of time on the New York Times bestseller list. In my oh so humble opinion, I think Metaxes gets Bonhoeffer really wrong in a lot of ways, and that this book is an attempt to abdicate Bonhoeffer for a conservative political ideology. Metaxes actually says something along these lines in an interview with the Catholic News Agency, calling Bonhoeffer a man of staggering relevance for our time, too often hijacked by liberal theologians. For Metaxes, Bonhoeffer is helpful in that he offers us a "primer on the burning issue of what the limits of the state are" (source). Yeah, not exactly how I would read Bonhoeffer, and luckily, I’m not alone in that. Clifford Green, a renowned Bonhoeffer scholar who is actually the executive director and English editor of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works collection, writes a brilliant—and quite critical—review of it in The Christian Century. If you had thought about reading Metaxes’ book, or, even if you hadn’t, you should definitely read Green’s review. It is delightful.

Likewise, I would also recommend picking up Green’s book on Bonhoeffer’s social thought, Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality. Also, along the same vein, I’d recommend checking out Charles Marsh’s Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. Both of these books do an excellent job at locating Bonhoeffer within his social and philosophical context. And Green’s book in particular is especially helpful in thinking through and making sense of Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, if / when you do delve into those texts…

One of the things I find most fascinating and promising about Bonhoeffer is how he was impacted by his time in New York - at Union Theological Seminary and, in particular, at Abissynian Baptist Church. How did Bonhoeffer’s engagement with the black church, and with the Harlem Renaissance, impact his thinking? What might Bonhoeffer’s thought have to say to contemporary questions about race? There has, unfortunately, not been a lot of scholarship thus far that has engaged this aspect of Bonhoeffer studies. Two books worth looking at, however, are No Difference in the Fare: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Problem of Racism by Josiah Ulysses Young, and Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought edited by Willis Jenkins and Jennifer Mcbride. Also, I am not sure if he has (yet) published anything in this regard, but I know Reggie Williams has done some really important and interesting work on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Harlem Renaissance, and I would definitely recommend keeping an eye on what he has to say in this regard.

In terms of learning about Bonhoeffer’s life, there are biographies other than Metaxes’ that you can turn to. There are two in particular that I would recommend:

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, by Eberhard Bethge. This is the place to turn for a pretty solid and thorough introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life. Bethge was actually a good friend of Bonhoeffer, and spent many years assisting him at the preacher’s seminary in Finkenwalde, and this comes through in the text itself. One indication of that is its sheer length, over 1000 pages. Definitely a great place to turn if you want to get serious with Bonhoeffer’s work. Mind you, this is one of my soapboxes - that it is indelibly important to know the life and context of a scholar to grasp their work. I think this is especially the case when it comes to theological texts, and even more so when it comes to Bonhoeffer.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. This, perhaps, is a good biography to start with, for those who want a bit of a briefer introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life. It is also a a more recent one. Green actually gives a shout out to this bio in his Christian Century piece for its addressing new insights that have been discovered about Bonhoeffer’s life.

Bonhoeffer on the Interwebs

The internet also has some great things about Bonhoeffer floating around it. Here are some that I would recommend:

Some good Bonhoeffer posts from some of my other favorite theology bloggers:
Whew, ok. While this is by no means exhaustive, I think its a good start on places to look should you want to read Bonhoeffer (which, you should)! Enjoy!


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

An Introduction...

“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.” –David Foster Wallace, in Infinite Jest

If my life had a narrator in the Fall months of 2008 (spoken in a sullen British accent as in Stranger than Fiction), I am sure that narrator would have to steal Wallace’s quote. At that time, I worked in a mission that housed the homeless, addicted, and paroled in Anderson, Indiana. My job description was diverse and continually inflated, but one of my duties was to provide Christian nurture in this context. Much of this was in prayer, counseling, and bible studies. The Christian Center hired me when my degree in print journalism was still hot in my hands. I took a few introductory courses in Christian history, theology, and ethics at my alma mater, Anderson University. Yet these courses mainly served to stir a deep skepticism of my fundamentalist Christian faith. Having dissected most of the faith I held dear, I entered Christian ministry with the simple belief that the historical Jesus cared for the poor and so should I. Thus, barely six months into that ministry I recognized that I really didn’t know why I was pursuing Christian ministry—and yet I knew I had to pursue ministry. At that time, the best answer to that quandary was a seminary education. Having never visited and knowing little about Princeton Theological Seminary, my extraordinarily patient and supportive wife and I packed our bags and moved to New Jersey.

At PTS, my primary motive was to develop the relationship between my interest in theology and my passion for social justice. Prior to my first year of theological education, my sense of social justice determined what I believed about God. However, I found that my God shape-shifted according to the social issues that interested me. Hence, I was easily subjected to Feuerbach’s criticism of religion. Those of you who are familiar with PTS might find what happened next a bit predictable. In the spring of 2009, I was introduced to the theology of Karl Barth via George Hunsinger and Dietrich Bonhoeffer via Nancy Duff. This introduction signaled a theological shift that significantly impacted my faith and life. I learned that both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s social action extended from the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Considering this, I found that my previous efforts in helping the poor and afflicted were fundamentally selfish. These discoveries were absolutely liberating. Through my reconsiderations, I developed a passionate interest in theology and renewed passion for the social and political implications of theological reflection.

That is close to where you find me here today. I have intentionally left out much in this semblance of an introduction because I anticipate discussing my theological story in various ways through this blogging community. So, what can you expect from me? Well, as you probably can tell, theology is a very personal endeavor for me. Therefore, as I blog I will inevitably reflect both theologically and personally. Furthermore, as indicated in my biographical blurb, you can expect me to reflect on the doctrine of Holy Scripture—as that is a primary interest of mine. More so, I will be in class for the foreseeable future and I like to challenge myself by testing what I am learning in those classes beyond the requirements of those courses. So, this semester you can expect some reflection on early Trinitarian doctrine and Lesslie Newbigin. Lastly, I am somewhat obsessed with music and running. Although I don’t anticipate any theological reflection on running, I do expect to talk about music. Mind you, I don’t play a single instrument (other than air guitar and air drums)—but I am quite the pretentious if not skilled listener. I look forward to venturing into this weird and wild blogosphere. See you there.


Monday, May 02, 2011

Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 5

This is the fifth of an eight-part (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight) miniseries on the concluding chapter of Helmut Gollwitzer’s The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion (Scribner, 1970).

For Gollwitzer, the Marxist criticism of religion sets six tasks for theology. The fourth of these tasks continues Gollwitzer’s sally against apologetics. The particular form of apologetics that attracts Gollwitzer’s ire now, however, is that which would link Christianity with religion as a general category and, attempting to demonstrate that religion is a necessary facet of human culture and development, thus hope to secure Christianity’s pedigree. As true as such claims may be about religion, and Gollwitzer is willing to entertain that possibility, he provides four reflections on the issue.

  1. Such arguments cannot defeat the immanentism of the Marxist criticism. To begin, who cares about this immanentism when leveled at religion? Christianity has no dog in that fight. Furthermore, a general defense of religion will not defeat this immanentism. So Gollwitzer: Christianity “cannot prove, or wish to prove, that the living God to whom the biblical word bears witness does not belong to the immanent conditions of the world, and is not a product of our need. It can, however, indicate that this is not so, by showing how in his revelation he distinguishes himself from the gods” (155). In other words, Christianity should show that its God is not one of the gods, leaving the latter to fend for themselves since “It is with the powers of this world, positive and negative, that we have to do in religion, not with the Creator himself, who must in his freedom encounter us, in order that we may have such dealings with him as to know him and be able to speak with him” (ibid).
  2. Secularism pushes these things further, although Marxism is only one form of secularism. Whereas in the past Christianity could assume the general religiosity of those it encountered, such is no longer the case. It would be a mistake for Christianity to think that it first had to reproduce this general religiosity among its hearers before proclaiming the uniquely Christian message. No, that message must be proclaimed in such a way as to bypass the need for this general religiosity. Of the secular person, Gollwitzer writes:
    Without his putting himself in a religious frame of mind, creating for himself religious experiences, awakening within himself a so-called natural consciousness of God, thus without his being compelled to adopt forms of consciousness which he can no longer recapture, he must be encountered in his life, which has become secular, by the good news from the Lord of the world, who has committed himself in the man Jesus of Nazareth to the world and the secularity of the stable and the gallows” (155-6).
    This, Gollwitzer maintains, is what Bonhoeffer was on about when he spoke of a “non-religious interpretation” of the gospel.
  3. What theology should focus on in the encounter with Marxism, then, is not the antithesis between atheism and religion, but the one “between the ‘God for us’ of the gospel, and the human refusal to live in the strength of the vital reality of this ‘God for us’” (156). In other words, it must call the world to repentance, to abandon the attempt at self-justification, which can take religious, secular, technological, and other forms. Nothing is ultimately gained if a culture or an individual converts from atheism to religion, so far as Christianity is concerned: “The only conversion with brings something new, is that form law to gospel” (ibid). The strength of this conversion is that it tears us away from all these forms of self-justification. It “ends our existence as functionaries of a front representing a world-view, and makes us messengers of the love which from above seeks every individual, the religious man as the atheist, as a creature beloved, which must leave the tense struggle against the feared non-being, to receive fellowship with him who places himself between the creature and non-being” (157).
  4. All this lies behind Gollwitzer’s concluding statement, which provides a very measure paradigm for Christian engagement with Marxist criticism. I’ll quote it in entirety:
    Thus it is possible without prejudice, without irritation, and defensiveness to discuss with the Marxists the phenomenon and the problems of religion. Not the Christian message but our human method of receiving and embodying it, the Christian religion, will there, so far as Christianity is in question, be dealt with, but it must not be withdrawn from criticism. In this, theology will be both the defender of religion over against the onesidedness, the superficiality and the fatuities of Marxist criticism, and at the same time the ally of this criticism against cruelties, stuffiness, terrorism and like inhumanities of the religious life (157; bold is mine).


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Call For Papers - Bonhoeffer Graduate Student Conference

I’ve been asked to publicize the following call for papers. My apologies to the organizers for being slow in doing so. The good news is that the deadline is still in the future! Perhaps I can talk my wife into letting me send in a proposal…



New Conversations on Bonhoeffer’s Theology

A Graduate Student Conference at the University of Notre Dame
April 10-11, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) remains one of the most prominent and contested modern German theologians. His theology has been at the center of important discussions on pastoral theology, practical ethics, political responsibility, and the role of the Christian in the modern world. Bonhoeffer’s dramatic involvement in the assassination plot against Hitler, and consequent execution, has no doubt contributed to the widespread interest in his work. Today he is among the most widely read theologians in North America and Europe.

Recent scholarship on Bonhoeffer’s theology, while attentive to these earlier discussions, has branched out in new directions. First, there has been increased interest in Bonhoeffer’s early and more academic works. Second, a number of recent studies have drawn Bonhoeffer into debates in continental philosophy and other disciplines. Third, there has been a renewed attentiveness to Bonhoeffer’s early twentieth-century theological and historical context. These developments indicate a growing interest in reading Bonhoeffer along systematic, philosophical and historical lines. Fourth, closer attention to Bonhoeffer’s engagement of Catholic interlocutors along these same lines has raised new prospects for Protestant-Catholic dialogue. The purpose of this conference is to draw together and further these developments.

New Conversations will feature papers by graduate students and senior scholars from North America and Europe, including:

Robin Lovin (Southern Methodist University)
Christiane Tietz (Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz)
Bernd Wannenwetsch (Oxford University)

Gerald McKenny, Randall Zachman, Cyril O’Regan, Krista Duttenhaver and other Notre Dame faculty will chair graduate student paper sessions.

We cordially invite graduate students to submit a one page abstract by 1 December 2010 to for a paper 25 minutes in length. Please also indicate contact details and institutional affiliation. We especially encourage abstracts on Bonhoeffer’s theology in relation to the following:

Continental philosophy
Political theory
Early 20th century theology and history
Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist theology
Catholic theology
Karl Barth
Erich Przywara
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Ethics and moral theology
Narrative theology
Other topics

Enquiries may be directed to Adam Clark and Mike Mawson at New Conversations intends to provide accommodations for all student presenters and some travel costs for European students.

This event is sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, the Notre Dame Theology Department, the Notre Dame Graduate School, the Henkels Lecture Series and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 3

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Theology of Karl Barth
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.

Barth and Bonhoeffer: Life Together

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.

Bonhoeffer in CD III: Differentiation and Relationship

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.

Bonhoeffer in CD IV

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?”

Bonhoeffer’s Lasting Impression

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.

With and Beyond Barth and Bonhoeffer

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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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bonhoeffer on the Necessity of Knowing Scripture

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together” in Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works vol 5 (Fortress, MN: 2005): 63.

“We must once again get to know the Scriptures as the reformers and our forebears knew them. We must not shy away from the work and the time required for this task. We must become acquainted with the Scriptures first and foremost for the sake of our salvation. But, besides this, there are enough weighty reasons to make this challenge absolutely urgent for us. For example, how are we ever to gain certainty and confidence in our personal deeds and church activity if we do not stand on solid biblical ground? It is not our heart that determines our course, but God’s Word. But who in this day has any proper awareness of the need for evidence from Scripture? How often do we hear innumerable arguments ‘from life’ and ‘from experience’ to justify the most crucial decisions? Yet the evidence of Scripture is excluded even though it would perhaps point in exactly the opposite direction. It is not surprising, of course, that those who attempt to discredit the evidence of Scripture are the people who themselves do not seriously read, know, or make a thorough study of the Scriptures. But those who are not willing to learn how to deal with the Scriptures for themselves are not Protestant* Christians.”
I can’t help but feel that these words from Bonhoeffer are as pertinent today as they were when he wrote them. Although there is cause to lament the growing biblical illiteracy of society, we ought to be positively depressed by that which runs rampant in our churches.

*Note: The German term translated as “Protestant” is actually evangelischer, which some of you will recognize from this blog’s title, and whose direct translation is “evangelical.” Although the term has wider application in Germany that justifies the translation given, the alternate translation perhaps puts a finer point on things in the North American context.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pertinent Words from Bonhoeffer on the Strong and the Weak

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 6 (Clifford J. Green, ed.; Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, trans.; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005): 192-3.
“Even where one avoids [a] radical version of the idea, the right to life of those who are socially valuable is evaluated differently from the socially worthless, even though in both cases nothing but innocent life is involved. But this different valuation evidently cannot be carried out in life, because it would have impossible consequences. It would forbid [what one takes for granted,]* namely, the risking of socially valuable lives on behalf of lives that might be socially less valuable, for example, in war or in any situation in which life is at risk. This is enough to indicate that those of social value make no distinctions about rights of life. Precisely they will be ready to risk their own lives for those whom society values less – the strong for the weak, the healthy for the sick. Precisely those who are strong will not ask about the utility for themselves of the weak – although the weak might do so. Instead, the need of the weak will lead the strong to new tasks that develop their own social value. The strong will see in the weak not a lessening of their strength, but an incentive to higher deeds. The idea of [destroying the life]** of one who has lost social utility comes from weakness, not from strength.”
* I often wonder if this can be taken for granted anymore.
** Destruction can be both active, in the sense of seeking to destroy an enemy, or passive, in the sense of failing to prevent the destruction of something that it was within your power to prevent.

Just food for thought.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Technology

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 3 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004): 67.
“We do not rule; instead we are ruled. The thing, the world, rules humankind; humankind is a prisoner, a slave, of the world, and its dominion is an illusion. Technology is the power with which the earth seizes hold of humankind and masters it. And because we no longer rule, we lose the ground so that the earth no longer remains our earth, and we become estranged from the earth. The reason why we fail to rule, however, is because we do not know the world as God’s creation and do not accept the dominion we have as God-given but seize hold of it for ourselves...There is no dominion without serving God; in losing the one humankind necessarily loses the other. Without God, without their brothers and sisters, human beings lose the earth.”
Wow. It might be worth reflecting on ways in which technology, among other things, takes one's brothers and sisters away, to speak nothing of God.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bonhoeffer on Genesis 1.1 – “And God said…”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004): 40-1:
“[T]he God of the Bible remains wholly God, wholly the Creator, wholly the Lord, and what God has created remains wholly subject and obedient, praising and worshiping God as Lord. God is never the creation but always the Creator. God is not the substance of nature. There is no continuum that ties God to, or unites God with, God’s work – except God’s word…That is, ‘inherently’ [‘an sich’] there is no continuum; were the word not there, the world would drop into a bottomless abyss. This word of God is neither the nature nor the essence of God; it is the commandment of God. It is the very God who thinks and creates this word, but as One who chooses to encounter the creature as its Creator. God’s creatorship is not the essence, the substance, but the will or commandment of God; in it God gives us God’s very self as God wills. That God creates by the word means that creation is God’s order or command, and that this command is free.

“God says, God speaks. This means that God creates in complete freedom. Even in creating, God remains wholly free over against what is created. God is not bound to what is created; instead God binds it to God. God does not enter into what is created as its substance; instead what relates God to what is created is God’s command. That is, God is never in the world in any other way than as one who is utterly beyond it. God is, as the word, in the world, because God is the one who is utterly beyond, and God is utterly beyond the world, because God is in the world in the word. Only in the word of creation do we know the Creator; only in the word addressed to us in the middle do we have the beginning. It is not ‘from’ God’s works, then, that we recognize the Creator – as though the substance, the nature, or the essence of the work were after all ultimately somehow identical with God’s essence or as if there were some kind of continuum between them, such as that of cause and effect. On the contrary we believe that God is the Creator only because by his word God acknowledges these works as his own, and we believe this word about these works. There is no via eminentiae, negationis, causalitatis!”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Latest from the PTS Barth Conference

The after-dinner talk on day 2 of the conference has concluded. It was delivered by Charles West, an emeritus professor here at PTS, and was entitled, “Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Kraemer on Religion.” He took as his main task comparing the polemical answers of these three figures to the 20th century question, “What is religion?” This is to be contrasted to the 21st century question of, “How do we engage with the myriad of religious expressions that surround us?” Although his commentary on these thinkers was insightful and thought provoking, I will not go into detail on that portion (read: I was too busy listening to take notes!). Here are some of the payoff points.

What can we learn from these thinkers?
  1. We should recognize, with Bonhoeffer, that it is possible and even natural in our increasingly technological would to be irreligious.

  2. To understand the world in this way is a theological statement. A non-religious world is in reality possible because despite human sin, God in Christ is its judge and redeemer. This is reality whether the world knows it or not. God makes the world secular and gives it historical direction and purpose. Mission is therefore an urgent calling. The world depends on the faith and witness of believers. In this, Kraemer is right.

  3. Barth is the theological powerhouse behind this mission. He provided, and still provides, for Christians the copious exposition of revelation that guides and corrects the church in its encounter with religious temptations throughout the world.
Watch for more from the conference tomorrow.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Webster on Bonhoeffer and Reading Scripture

John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 81-2.

[Bonhoeffer possesses in his middle period] a distinctive conception of the nature of Holy Scripture, one which has already been moved beyond that presupposed in the exegetical work of Creation and Fall, above all because Bonhoeffer now assumes the perspicuity of Scripture. Scripture’s perspicuity renders redundant the somewhat cumbersome technicalities of the philosophy of existence which burden the exposition of the early chapters of Genesis. What Bonhoeffer contests is the assumption that Holy Scripture is inert until realised by interpretive acts of ‘making present’. ‘True making present’ requires no ‘act of making present’; rather, it is a matter of ‘the question of the Sache’, of the text itself. Issues of interpretation are subservient to issues of the matter of the text, namely Jesus Christ who here announces his presence. ‘When Christ comes to speech in the word of the New Testament, there is “making present”. Not where the present puts forward its claim before Christ but where the present stands before Christ’s claim, there is “making present”.’ …Bonhoeffer argues that the human present is not determined by ‘a definition of time’ but by ‘the word of Christ as the Word of God’. ‘The concretissimum of the Christian message and of the exposition of texts is not a human act of “making present”, but is always God himself, in the Holy Spirit.’

There is a direct consequence here for the task of interpretation which shapes very profoundly the biblical writings of this period of Bonhoeffer’s life. Christian proclamation becomes relevant through Sachlichkeit, that is, through being ‘bound to Scripture’. The ‘matter’ of the New Testament is Christ present in the word; he, not I, is the proper logical subject of Vergegenwärtigung, and so the making present of the text is nothing other than Auslegung des Wortes. Crucially, this means that the task of establishing relevance is not pre- or post-exegetical; on the contrary, exegesis itself performs this task, and does so because the textual word which is the concern of exegesis is Christ’s address to church and world in the potency of the Spirit. That word is not as it were waiting on the fringes of the human present, hoping somehow to be made real; it announces itself in its own proper communicative vigor.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bethge on Bonhoeffer’s First Trip to the United States

Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 104-5.

The reader should remember that Bonhoeffer completed his habilitation thesis (Act and Being) in the early months of 1930, having completed his doctoral thesis (Sanctorum Communio) in 1927. The trip to the United States here discussed followed upon his habilitation.
The idea of spending a year in America as an exchange student arose in the second half of 1929…Nevertheless he hesitated before putting in his application. He mistrusted what awaited him in America. The New World in itself did not fascinate him sufficiently. Was he to become a student again and devote a whole year to whatever place might be allotted him? He was told something about American ‘textbook methods’; and he regarded American theology as non-existent.

So he sought information from a previous recipient of an American grant, and what he was told was not exactly encouraging. One indeed had to go as an ordinary student, subject oneself to the ‘credit system’, and accumulate the required number of points by attending lectures and seminars and receiving satisfactory reports; agreement to this was insisted on by the American consulate before it granted a visa. To prevent him from being excessively disappointed as a result of his German ideas of academic freedom, his informant advised him to imagine the atmosphere of a German secondary school. In his field of systematic theology there was of course nothing to learn. The only place that was worth while was Union Theological Seminary in New York, which had a great many other things to offer, but he might well be allotted a place at Hartford or St. Louis; seventeenth-century orthodoxy still prevailed even at Princeton, so his German informant told him. He was advised to postpone going to America until he could go there as a professor.

He hesitated, but at the beginning of May, when he was assured of a place at Union Theological Seminary, he did so no longer.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Bethge on Bonhoeffer’s Relationship to Barth

Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 134.

"In the relations between the two men four phases can be distinguished, which can be summarized roughly as follows:
  1. The phase of Bonhoeffer’s unilateral knowledge of Barth through the latter’s writings, beginning in 1925. In 1927 and 1929 Bonhoeffer, excited by and grateful for the Barthian message, while holding fast to the principle of finitum capax infiniti, raises a number of theological-epistemological questions directed at Barth. These, however, as formulate in Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, do not become fully known to Barth until after Bonhoeffer’s death.

  2. The phase of eagerly sought meetings between 1931 and 1933. Bonhoeffer hopes for Barth’s support in his concern for the concrete ethical commandments of the Church, but does not receive it in the form that he desires.

  3. The phase of theological differences, accompanied by a very close alliance in church politics. Bonhoeffer attempts to think through the Articles of Justification and Salvation independently of Barth, but with the continued hope that he might be able to have him as an ally occasionally. Barth has reservations; only after Bonhoeffer’s death does his The Cost of Discipleship receive Barth’s special praise.

  4. The period of indirect new questions in the letters from prison of 1944. IN these there occurs almost incidentally the ominous term ‘revelationary positivism’, which Barth could not accept and liked least of all in Bonhoeffer’s work.
Whatever the implications of Bonhoeffer’s earlier or later criticisms of Barth may be, in all four phases he wanted them to be regarded as coming from inside and not outside the Barthian movement. In the bitter secession of former Barthians from the movement he did not wish to be identified with men like Gogarten or Brunner, and he joined vigorously in attacking them. This is very evident in the second and third phases."