Friday, June 29, 2007

Ten theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: theologian, Christian, martyr

Benjamin Myers Faith and Theology blog has a guest post by Ray Anderson of the Fuller Theological Seminary about German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In just one post, Anderson manages to provide a great deal of thought-provoking information about this theologian and martyr.

Here are some highlights:

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian. Rather, one should say that he became a Christian theologian. Eberhard Bethge, his former student and biographer, notes the year 1933 as a “transition from theologian to Christian.” In 1936 Dietrich wrote to a girlfriend and confessed: “I plunged into work in a very unchristian way.… [T]hen something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible…. I had often preached. I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it, but I had not yet become a Christian” (Bethge 2000, 203-5). By his own admission, his two most scholarly writings, Sanctorum Communio (1927) and Act and Being (1930), were written by a theologian who was not yet a Christian. I take the word “Christian” here to mean “disciple” – one who does not merely believe in Christ, but experiences Christ.

. . .

4. Bonhoeffer was a worldly theologian. While the “worldliness of Christianity” became a dominant theme in his Letters from Prison, underlying this perspective was his conviction that the God who became human in Jesus Christ abolished the distinction between religion and the world. In his earliest writing he stated that religion is dispensable, God is not. “Not religion, but revelation, not a religious community, but the church: that is what the reality of Jesus Christ means” (Communio 1963, 112). Later, having witnessed the utter failure of the church as a religious institution to act on behalf of the oppressed Jews, he followed Christ out of the church into the world. Only those who live fully in the world have a claim to follow Christ, he wrote from prison. The God of religion whom we seek to call into the world on our behalf, has already entered the world in the form of a suffering God. “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God” (Letters, 360). The “worldliness” of Christianity is not our invention, but our calling. The ambiguity of this situation, he asserted, is precisely what the incarnation created for us. It is ambiguity that creates prophets.

5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prophetic theologian. He was one of the first to recognize and point out the disastrous consequences of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. In June 1933, when the church struggle erupted over the National Bishop (Ludwig Müller) and the opposing General Superintendents were suspended, Bonhoeffer urged an interdict upon all pastoral services (baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.) as a way of confronting the German Christians with their unholy alliance with Hitler. But he could not arouse sympathy for this drastic action. In fact, Barth advised against this radical proposal, suggesting that “we should let the facts speak for themselves.” In September, following the Brown Synod, Bonhoeffer urged the formation of a new Free Church and even wrote to Barth requesting his support. But here again Bonhoeffer was disappointed at Barth’s counsel to wait until the present leaders “discredited themselves” (Bethge 2000, 292). It was in April 1933 in his article on “the Church and the Jewish Question” that he suggested that the only way to act responsibly would be by “throwing a spoke in the wheel” of the national government. Prophets often die by their own words; theologians seldom do.

6. Bonhoeffer was a postmodern theologian. Postmodern ethics was anticipated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he turned the “modern” basis for ethics (as advocated by Kant) on its head. He wrote: “In the sphere of Christian ethics it is not what ought to be that effects what is, but what is that effects what ought to be” (Communio 1963, 146). The problem of Christian ethics, said Bonhoeffer, is the same as the problem of Christian dogmatics, the realization of the reality of revelation in and among God’s creatures in the form of concreteness, immediacy, and obedience. In a world where good and evil are mixed, and where ambiguity conceals the divine commandment, the Christian’s ethical responsibility is to follow and obey Christ, not merely to adhere to abstract ethical principles. There is no place for “self justification” by virtue of reliance on predetermined principles for action. “Principles are only tools in God’s hands, soon to be thrown away as unserviceable” (Ethics 1995, 71).

. . .

8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a practical theologian. Practical theology deals with God’s self-revelation and activity through the life and ministry of human beings. From the early Barth, Bonhoeffer learned that the act of God reveals the being of God. His second dissertation, Act and Being (1930), attempted to bring Barth’s concept of “pure act” into the historical realm through Heidegger. But Bonhoeffer was never a disciple of Barth. True, Barth led him away from idealism into critical realism with regard to divine revelation, but God’s life and activity through the human person Jesus Christ became for Bonhoeffer the praxis of revelation and thus the form of practical theology. His Christology was orthodox so far as Christ is the form of God in the world, but practical so far as the Christian is the form of Christ in the world. Because the former was merely a dogmatic assumption, his own theological praxis was concerned with action prior to reflection – a statement that scandalized his students.

Read it all (including the insightful comments).


Alice MacArthur said...


Thanks again for finding more insightful articles to read on the internet. Must confess that your blog is now tops on my list when I want to stay abreast of things.

Not sure how you manage to do it!

Chuck Blanchard said...

Thanks for the kind words Alice. My secret is that the time-consuming part of blogging is the reading--which I was doing anyway (and can do early in the morning, after work and at lunch). Once I find something interesting and fugure out what I want to say, it is easy to cut and paste into the blog.

I think my pace, however, willhave to slow down--my summer schedule is looking brutal. I have been out of town most of the last few weeks. Thank goodness for laptops!