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Against Heresy from the Prior

Entry One--The Promise of Bonhoeffer's Theology Today, from a presentation on March 10, 2011 at the Fort Dodge Forum, Grace Lutheran Church, Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Entry Two--Lenten Sermon, following Entry One.

The Promise of Bonhoeffer’s Theology Today 

Theology Changes the World

 

It was 1969, and as a freshman at Luther College I had my first introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  “The ‘world had come of age’ at Luther College,” and thanks to the influence of Robert W. Jenson and Karl Barth there was now room at Luther College for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   

 

Jenson was a prodigy at Luther College in the early 50’s and upon graduation was sent to Luther Seminary in St. Paul with the hope that he would go to Europe, earn his PhD. and return to Luther College to teach.  Little did Luther College know what the fulfillment of that promise would mean for the Norwegian Lutheran Pietism of the religion and biology  departments and the curriculum of the college.

 

Jenson indeed graduated from Luther Seminary and went to the University of Heidelberg where he discovered the dialectical theology of Karl Barth.  He wrote his thesis on Karl Barth’s Trinitarian Dogmatics, which eventually was published as  Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth. Jenson returned to Luther College in the early 60’s and not unlike Bonhoeffer when he came to study at Union Seminary in 1932 and 1939, he was critical of  the theology of  America and in particular Norwegian Lutheran pietists.  The faculty noting the radical nature of their prodigy’s approach brought a petition to the board to fire Robert Jenson.  To the board’s credit they did not fire Jenson, instead the whole religion and biology departments resigned en mass. President E.D. Farwell put Jenson in charge of the religion and philosophy departments and Jenson hired the young group of religion and philosophy professors open to dialectical theology who taught my generation of Norwegian Lutheran pietists what Trinitarian reflection in the Spirit of Luther, Barth and the Cappodoican Fathers does to theology and practice. This theology also radically changed the Biology department and the overall curriculum at Luther College. Theology does make a difference. 

 

By the time I arrived at Luther College in the fall of 1969, Jenson had already left for Gettysburg Seminary, but the fruits of his work were abundantly evident.  My first introduction to Bonhoeffer came through Bishop John Robinson, Harvey Cox, and Thomas Altizer and their books based on Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison in Honest to God, Secular City, and The Death of God. While I read the words of these books and sensed some of the passion of the authors, I had no framework for understanding the argument that was being made or the theology present.  What I did understand was that their approach was not quite the same as the Lutheranism I had been taught in the Norwegian Lutheran Theocracy of my birth. It seemed new and exciting and as I look back this refreshing spirit was part of the call which eventually lead me to Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary to become a Pastor in the LCA and eventually the ELCA. ( Jenson, “A Theological Autobiography to Date”,  Dialog Vol. 46 1 p. 46-54)

 

In seminary, I became somewhat familiar with Letters and Papers from Prison and their critique of the traditional Lutheran Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms.  I found some of those ideas helpful in my first parish in the inner city Kansas City, Missouri.  However, it was not unit I started work on a D. Min in 1987 that I found a framework for interpreting Bonhoeffer’s deeply theological writings.  Once again it was Robert Jenson who helped me.  I was introduced to “Trinitarian” theological reflection when I wrote a paper comparing Jenson’s book, Triune Identity, with Moltmann’s Trinity and the Kingdom of God. Both Moltmann and Jenson were influenced by Barth and the early Luther that many German Theologians in the 19th  and 20th  century had forgotten.  Both Moltmann and Jenson began their theological reflection, rediscovered by Barth, with the Cappadocian Fathers. 

 

 In his book Alpha and Omega Jenson states the problem in Trinitarian theology this way: “Augustine’s starting point in theology was unabashedly ‘natural’:  What happens in your heart when you hear the word ‘God’?” And his answer was pure Platonism: “You think a greatest and highest substance that transcends all changeable creatures… And so if I ask, is God changeable or unchangeable? You will quickly respond, “God is changeless” “God not only does not change, he cannot: just so, He is rightly said to be.”  It is the foundation of all subsequent Western Theological metaphysics, laid by Augustine that God “He who ‘is’ is “Being itself” (Jenson, Alpha and Omega pg. 118)

 

This simple omnipotent God as ‘Being’ left God without an Act or a relationship and thus rendered God without transportation to get from heaven to Earth except in the form of the early heresies and their semi God’s, Aryanism, Subordinationism or Modalsim.

 

So, instead of beginning Trinitarian reflection with nature or one’s heart or the best idea humanity can produce and proceeding to a Platonic God in the sky who has difficulty making contact with the earth, Jenson following Barth rediscovered the work of the Cappodocian fathers.  They, simply put, did two basic things: 1.) they began their thinking not with nature and the heart, but with the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And 2) they turned the vertical hierarchical view of God on its side.  Their achievement was to say that the individual identifying characteristics of the Three- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- are the relations they have to each other.  The three identities are one in their mutual relations within the Godhead (Jenson, Triune Identity 137).

 

Each of the inner-Trinitarian relations is then an affirmation that as God works creatively among us, so he is in himself.  In a concrete sense, which has many implications, God is not One in Three.  God is only God in the mutual relationship of the three identities. 

 

One cannot understand Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, Life Together and his proposal for the future in Letters and Papers from Prison as well as his courageous actions,  if one does not realize that above all Bonhoeffer was, in the tradition of Luther, Barth and Jenson, a  first order Trinitarian thinker.  Bonhoeffer gives us the framework for understanding his work and life in his two doctoral theses, Sanctorum Communio, (The Communion of Saints), and Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology.  Bonhoeffer then continues this reflection in his first lectures in 1932 at Berlin University, Creation and Fall and Christ the Center and in all the rest of his writings.  His first two books were not available in English until recently with the publication of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English. 

 

Thus, my approach in the rest of this presentation will be to look at the context in which Bonhoeffer developed his theology, to give a brief review of the influence of Barth and Luther on his theology, and to lay out the argument of his early work and trace their influence on his latter works, and finally propose some of the ways in which his theology remains alive and promising for us today.

 

Bonhoeffer’s Germany

 

Culture is a strong influence on anyone whether one lives in a tribal culture or a modern Western nation.  Germany’s culture of the 19th  and early 20th  century was a powerful influence on all who lived in this relatively new nation state.  Bonhoeffer was as much a part of that German culture as anyone else and it influenced him greatly. 

 

Some important things to keep in mind in regard to the influence of the German context:

1.) The German ideology which helped lead Germany into WWI and II.

2.) The religious thought which supported this approach.

3.) Bonhoeffer’s immersion in German life and thought

4.) Bonhoeffer’s witness to stand against German culture and thought.

 

Of central importance in the German culture of the 19th and early 20th century were the industrialist and commercial elites, the military, especially the officer corps, the educated middle classes including the various professions, in short, people who had originally identified themselves strongly with the Bismarckian system from 1871 when the German Nation state began.  They considered themselves as comprising the Nation, as the custodians of the true national values, monarchist, and conservative. It is important to remember that Bonhoeffer’s family came from this spirit of Germany.  It is equally important to remember that the Protestant Church, theologians, and many members came from this class as well.

 

Opposed to these were the broad mass of the industrial working class who, during the Bismark Empire (1871-1918), had aligned themselves behind the Social Democratic Party and the socialist orientated Free Trade Unions.  After having been outlawed by Bismarck in 1878 the socialists had regrouped in 1891, and by 1912 were the largest single party in the German national parliament, the Reichstag.  The SPD had been a defacto national opposition in the Empire, but German domestic political life was further complicated by the existence of a strong Roman Catholic party, the Zentrum or Centre Party, which also represented the Roman Catholic population’s opposition to the Protestant and Prussian hegemony in the united Germany.  The Centre Party also fostered a Christian trade union movement distinct from the larger Free Trade Unions. 

 

In the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) it appeared at first as though the modern forces of social democracy, the Roman Catholic Centre Party and liberals could collaborate on the basis of the new constitution, designed to safeguard basic rights for the long-term political and economic stability of the nation.  They were opposed by the old-fashioned right wing conservatives from the Bismarck era as well as the Nazi Party which at that time we might consider a fringe right wing extremist group.  The German Communist Party, the largest outside of the Soviet Union, also functioned to undermine the parliamentary state. 

 

When as a consequence of the world economic crisis in 1930, the Nazis under Adolf Hitler suddenly mobilized sufficient votes to win 112 seats in the Reichstag, compared to their previous 12, the possibility of the Nazis combining forces with other right- wing forces to form a government was realized.  Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933.  He was widely regarded as the leader (Fuhrer) who would rid Germany of the chaotic politics of the Weimar era and concomitant threat of a communist take-over, restore Germany’s international prestige, repudiate the provisions of the Versailles Diktat, which was seen to restrict Germany’s path to ‘glorious times’ as promised by Kaiser Wilhelm early in his reign, in 1894.  The consequences of Hitler’s seizure of power, apart from the ruthless elimination of all sources of opposition both inside the Nazi Party and without, were first, economic recovery, largely through rearmament and massive public works, but secondly the implementation of a radical anti-Jewish policy in accordance with Nazi ideology.  All this led to the serious preparation for war, the refusal to pay off international debts, and the beginning of actual physical persecution of citizens of Jewish ancestry and belief. 

 

One of the great tragedies of German history is that the opposition to these disastrous policies from Germans themselves was notoriously weak.  The army, the church- especially the Protestant Lutheran Church, and the representatives of the former political parties, with few notable exceptions, were either unable to mount a sustained critique of the Nazi regime or, least of all, engage in conspiratorial action against it.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer must be counted among the most outstanding of these exceptions. 

 

The power of the cultural ideology cannot be underestimated. Behind all of this was an ideology the Prussian National spirit, Volksgeist, which had effected the unification of Germany under Bismarck in 1871, and the essence of that spirit, was the drive to expand.  Prussia had absorbed ‘Germany”; now Prussia-Germany’s future role in history was to further expansion in the world by being vigorously competitive with the other Powers. 

 

This indeed was how the world was constituted, as many leading German thinkers advocated.  The Lutheran Philosopher, G. W.Hegel (1770-1831) had earlier provided the intellectual framework for such a view of world history.  Indeed, the purpose or vocation of each of the peoples on the earth was to become a state, and this could only be accomplished through the use of force because the expansionist drive that resides in every people, to a greater or lesser degree, could not be expressed otherwise.  The course of world history revealed a constant struggle between peoples for hegemony; warfare was the natural order of things. 

 

Prussia Germany was restless with creative energy in every sphere, industrially, commercially, militarily and intellectually.  She was the culturally supreme nation, and it was thus her God-given vocation to hasten the decline of the moribund Powers and assume the leading world-political position. 

 

Apart for the Social Democratic Party and elements within the Roman Catholic Center Party, there was virtually no opposition to it.  Indeed, among its staunchest advocates were German Protestant theologians. Prominent among these were Bonhoeffer’s Berlin teachers, particularly Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and Reinhold Seeberg (1859-1935). As leaders in the theological discipline, these men not only shared the dominant ideology concerning the need for the nation to expand, but also provided it with a persuasive theological justification. 

 

Harnack and Seeberg’s point of departure was essentially that of Hegel, namely that peoples were platonic ‘ideas of God’ and that it was in their nature to compete with each other for domination of the earth.  Force was a given in the life of nations; eternal peace was certainly not a possibility in this world.  Theologically speaking, most German Protestant theologians of this era were more concerned with the existing world as the venue of Almighty God’s self-revelation than with the Bible as the source of revelation.  This meant that their theological orientation was determined by their understanding of world history.  In a word, it was not so much the activity of God in the Bible that claimed their attention as God’s tangible and visible accomplishments with and for the German people.  God, Hegel claimed, ‘had been dissolved into history’.  The author of the universe could only be conceived of in relation to divine self- revelation, indeed God’s Reich on earth.  For the German theologians, this Reich was without doubt the Prussia-German Empire. 

 

The Harnacks and Seebergs stand as representatives of their estate.  They elevated a version of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms to dogmatic status. At that time, the historians and theologians shared the same world view, and their understanding about the evolution of the Prussian-German Empire.

 

Hitler’s election was a virtual confirmation for the German people that National Socialism was a legitimate expression of the spirit of Prussian German history.  This explains in part why there was so little effective resistance to Nazism.  It appeared to represent the resurrection and continuation of a political culture that distinguished Prussia-Germany from the barbarous East (communism) and the decadent West (liberalism).

 

It is, therefore, not surprising that Bonhoeffer, too, accorded a very high status to the function of the state in the history of salvation. However, his own personal and intellectual history is one of absorbing parts of the culture and standing up against others. Can you imagine how difficult it would have been to stand up as a young 21 year old to the great Dr. Adolf von Harnack, your neighbor, friend, and theological mentor and teacher?

 

Bonhoeffer did challenge von Harnack and the whole theological system taught in Germany at that time. His approach was radically changed by his experience of Christianity in other countries (Italy, Spain, the Untied States and England), with the growing ecumenical movement, and not least by his encounter with the theology of his Swiss friend and theological mentor, Karl Barth.  All this combined to enable Bonhoeffer to critique the Hitler regime in ways not possible for the majority of Lutherans in Germany.   The majority continued to see the state as an autonomous entity distinct form the society over which it ruled; indeed, an entity operating in a sphere above the people in its charge, following its own laws of existence which had been prescribed by Almighty God.  The subjects of the state had no prior right to criticize or judge it in any way; their role was always to obey no matter how unjust or destructive the laws and decisions of the state might appear to be.  Ultimately everything that happened was in accordance with the inscrutable will of the Almighty.

 

Eventually Bonhoeffer in standing against his culture and theology,  went far beyond the ecumenical movement and the confessing church when he made the second step into conspiratorial resistance.

 

His theology while not totally separate from his German culture, lead him to a much different place.  His theology, developed early in his life and modified because of historical circumstances, along with his courageous witness and actions which lead to his death, make him worthy of study for Lutherans today in America.  (The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 3-23)

 

The particular influence of his German Family on his life and theology.

 

Bonhoeffer against the hopes of his parents and older siblings decided to become a theologian at age 14. 

 

Bonhoeffer came from what I call a 19th century aristocratic family, which had developed high expectations both intellectually and vocationally.  These gifts and standards were to be used for the good of all. 

 

His genealogical heritage on both his mother’s side- the Prussian world of the Hases and Kalckreuths, and his father’s side-the Wurttemberg world of the Bonhoeffers- were filled with Doctors, Pastors, Professors and landed gentry. 

 

This heritage which was passed down affected Bonhoeffer’s daily habits and approach to life as well as his aspirations.  The particular status of his family played a large role in the way he lived his life.  He portrayed a kind of independent confidence rarely seen in Germany or any culture.  Perhaps the Kennedy’s and their legacy for public service might be an American illustration.  This independent and yet great appreciation for family and tradition along with a high awareness of the gifts and responsibilities he and his family were graced helped form the person who acted in the way he did.

 

The Bonhoeffers were not churchgoers in the sense that they were active members and participated in the life of a congregation.  The children were not sent to church, and the family did not attend church even on the major holidays.  For religious ceremonies including baptisms, the parish minister was bypassed in favor of relatives, first Dietrich’s grandfather and then his maternal uncle, Hans van Hase. The family, however, had no desire to shirk the bourgeois German church customs, and the children were sent to confirmation class.  The family, including Dietrich’s mother, had its own direct relationship with the Bible and their history and the traditions of the church, without feeling a need for any ecclesiastical guidance; thus, any direct connection to the institutional church seemed unnecessary. Dietrich’s mother gave the children religious instruction and taught them Bible stories. Later when Dietrich began teaching religion himself, he simply followed his mother’s example. I think one could say that Bonhoeffer’s image of community was not the institutional church but his family.

And yet, even though all the boys in the family followed their father into studying science or law, Dietrich at the age of 14 decided to be a minister and theologian.  His family did not encourage this:  Years later his father wrote:

 

“At the time you decided to devote yourself to theology I sometimes thought to myself that a quiet, uneventful minister’s life, as I knew it from my Swabian uncles and as Morike describes it, would really almost be a pity for you.  As far as uneventfulness is concerned, I was greatly mistaken.  That such a crisis would be possible in the realm of the church seemed out of the question to me, coming from my scientific background.”   (Bethge, DBB 3-44)

 

The influence of his education and life experiences:

After his first year in Tubingen at the University where his father and older brothers studied, he spent an influential two month term in Rome in 1924.  He became fascinated with Catholic Rome and these experiences became a permanent influence on Bonhoeffer’s thought. 

 

It cannot be said that it diminished his critical awareness, but the Roman expression of the universality of the church and its liturgy had a tremendous impact on him.  From this perspective, his own Evangelical church at home struck him as provincial, nationalistic, and narrow-minded. 

 

In a letter home, he wrote,

“Unification with Protestantism, however good it might be for both sides, at least in part, is out of the question.  Catholicism can do without Protestantism for a long time yet, the people are still very attached to it, and, compared with the tremendous scale of the ceremonies here, the Protestant church often looks like a small sect. 

 

Perhaps Protestantism should never have aimed at becoming an established church, but should have remained one of the large sects, which always have things easier- and perhaps then it would not be in the present calamity.  An established church believes it possesses an expansive capacity that enables it to give something to everyone.  That during its formation it was able to do so was essentially due to the political turn taken by questions that are no longer at issue today and thus, the more political circumstances changed, the more the church lost its hold over the people; until finally the term Protestantism concealed a great deal that, frankly and honestly, was nothing but materialism, with the result that the only thing still valued and respected in Protestantism is the potential for free thinking, which for the reformers held an entirely different meaning.  … For too long it has been a refuge for homeless spirits, a shelter for uneducated enlightenment.  Had it never become an established church, things would be very different.” He confessed to an acquaintance in Barcelona that Catholic Rome had been a real temptation for him. (Bethge DBB 56-64)

 

 

Berlin University 1924-1927

Berlin University was just over one hundred years old, but the influence of its theological faculty was worldwide.  It was the center of promoting a 19th century, modern, liberal approach to religion, theology and life.  The influence of Schleiermacher, its founder, was as great as that of Adolf von Harnack, its controversial director in Bonhoeffer’s day.  The faculty represented the epitome of theological thinking of the time and came to contrast itself with the new conservative theology of Karl Barth and his followers. 

 

The Lutheran Theological influence:

Bonhoeffer learned the modern methods of historical critical study from historian von Harnack and Lutheran dogmatists, Karl Holl and Reinhold Seeberg.  Holl irrevocably reinforced in him the doctrine of “by grace alone” as the one article by which the church stands and falls.  He convinced him that even the devout are not able really to love God.  After this, Luther’s phrase cor curvum in se (heart turned in upon itself) became a key phrase for Bonhoeffer.  But Bonhoeffer became critical quite early of Holl’s interpretation of Luther’s faith as a religion of conscience (which reflects Schleiermacher’s influence) this seemed to threaten the assurance of faith which comes to us from outside us.

 

Bonhoeffer also owed his first introduction to Russian or eastern Orthodoxy to Holl.  Holl introduced him to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  On March 13 1925 he wrote his parents:

 

I have just been reading Dostoevsky’s highly interesting speech on Pushkin, where he portrays his as the first man to distinguish between the Russian and the European, as the herald of the Russian ideal: “supranational pan humanism,” as he calls it.  Remarkable how a people’s typical characteristics should lead them to transcend themselves, in any case as a nation.  For Dostoevsky this idea is necessarily and emphatically linked to Christianity, and thus the genuine Catholicism of original Christianity is reestablished.

 

While he did not explore Orthodoxy directly this insight about early Christianity before the enlightenment helped attract him to Karl Barth.

 

On the other hand, the knowledge of Luther he received from Seeberg and Holl gave Bonhoeffer the critical independence with which he encountered the onslaught of Barth’s theology. Unlike Barth who threw out sacraments, Bonhoeffer remained a sacramental theologian of the cross.  Also, Seeberg introduced him to Hegel.

 

Hegal had spoken of the Lutheran Reformation and its approach to the world as an all transforming light that had shown more clearly the nature of God’s reconciliation with the world.  The history of the world is the history of God and of God’s reconciliation. Hegel therefore spoke of the history of the development of religious consciousness as ascending and progressing series of divine revelations, the highest and ultimate of which is Christianity in its radiant manifestation in the Reformation.  He and his followers could identify God’s revelation concretely in the world; one need no longer discern the reality of the Divine solely in the domain of consciousness.

 

Studying Hegel’s Introduction to the History of Philosophy, Bonhoeffer read that to deny Christ’s presence in his community in a real, genuine manner was the sin against the Holy Spirit.  Seeberg had commented on that assertion in his 1924 Dogmatics: as the logos became flesh in Jesus, so the Holy Spirit becomes flesh in the community of Jesus Christ.  Seeberg spoke of Jesus as the inaugurator of a new humanity, the identification of Jesus and the community of the church.  Here is Hegel’s dialectic of the unfolding of the Holy Spirit, the logos in the world. Christ, the incarnate logos, is truly present and in a real manner in his community and, therefore, in the world hence ‘Christ existing as community’. This insight permitted Bonhoeffer to integrate sociality into epistemology.  From an initially epistemological category, sociality eventually developed into a central theological one for Bonhoeffer.

 

Although Bonhoeffer rejected the optimistic system that Hegel developed, his ability to choose ideas of importance and integrate them into his own thinking is shown in the way he used Hegal’s concept of “Christ existing as Community” in his early writings  and some of Hegel’s views of history will come back in Letters and Papers From Prison.

 

Equally important was making the move from the modern elevation of the individual self to Christology. As he began to work in Seeberg’s seminar with Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and the conviction it expressed, that even the most devout can not find God, Bonhoeffer recognized that seeking to establish one’s identity on ones’ own inevitably leads to an exaggeration of the self and to a prison like solitude.

 

 This lead Bonhoeffer to Christology.  Luther’s emphasis on the crucially important dimension of who God is meant that reconciliation is for us, but also outside or beyond us, in the person and world of Christ. Reconciliation, Bonhoeffer claimed, frees us from the exaggerated self that results from the attempt to derive identity through focusing on the consciousness of the self. With Luther, Bonhoeffer spoke here of the cor curvum in se, discovered in Seeberg’s seminars.  The extra nos et pro nobis came to be integrated into the concept of sociality within a dialectic of ‘the other’.

 

However, his Lutheran teachers turned Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone into a system. They developed a synthesis of Luther and the systems of German Idealism.  Such synthesis represented a false assurance. The assurance offered by his teacher’s brilliant systems transformed the deeply perturbing biblical message into a Christian world view and morality.  What Luther meant by reconciliation was turned into the realization of a human ideal- life that is in the best sense ‘rational’, life that mirrors dutifulness towards the regulations of work and virtue, therein fulfilling the example of Christ.  Justification enabled the attainment of this ideal.  This was Luther turned into Schleiermacher at his best.

 

Thus, even while Holl and Seeberg drew him fully into the exploration of Luther’s theology, particularly the earlier expression of it, Bonhoeffer maintained a critical distance from their interpretations.  From Bonhoeffer’s perspective, when Holl turned Luther’s faith into a ‘religion of conscience’, conscience being human receptiveness to duty, faith itself became possible for humans again.  So too, Seeberg’s religious natural theology posited certain preconditions in the human spirit for God’s revelation and spoke of ‘points of contact’ in human receptiveness and activity, even though the former is defined as faith and the latter as love.  Thus, faith was portrayed as corresponding to the needs of the human spirit.  In this way Seeberg failed to do justice to Luther’s view of the gospel as the judgment of all religion.  The result being that he and most Lutheran theologians had no defense against the spirit of Nazism.

 

According to Luther, faith is an utterly new creature that comes to be through God’s creative word of revelation.  A church that has ‘rediscovered Luther’s legacy and wishes to appropriate it has to ask how it can frame the necessary questions of its time in the light of the insights of the Reformation.  For a number of theologians, Bonhoeffer among them, this meant working out, but in a thoroughly different manner, a theology that turned towards the word of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  As already intimated Barth’s trinitarian dialectical theology offered Dietrich Bonhoeffer the necessary perspective. 

 

Clearly Bonhoeffer’s theological development was decisively shaped by the Luther he encountered during his Berlin years.  This lasted right through to the end of his life.  Indeed, the contribution of Bonhoeffer’s teachers to the modern development of an autonomous culture, science, art and philosophy, is precisely what Bonhoeffer later referred to in prison as ‘the world come of age’.

 

He learned much yet despite his respect for the greatness of the nineteenth century and its church father, Schleiermacher, Bonhoeffer believed, that their starting point that religion is a purely formal primary characteristic of the created spirit or self, enabling and compelling the self to a direct awareness of the absolute spirit is the wrong place to begin theological reflection.  The idea that ‘Human Reason’ is given the capacity to acquire an intuition of the primary will, obscured the Reformation.  He viewed Seeberg and his friends, with their anthropological and theological optimism, as incapable of understanding the collapse and crisis that had followed the First World War, and thereby incapable of interpreting those events to his generation.  He rejected any new attempts to point to a human religious potential, whatever its nature, that led back to self-examination. (Bethge DBB 65-77, Remscheid The Formation of Bonhoeffer’s Theology, TCCDB 50-69)

 

 

Central to this critique: In the winter of 1924-1925 Bonhoeffer discovered Barth. 

 

Before Bonhoeffer was formally acquainted with Barth, Barth and Harnack recognized they were polar theological opposites.

 

To the Liberal theologians of Berlin Barth said, “Jesus simply has nothing to do with religion.  The meaning of his life is the actuality of that which is not actually present in my religion- the actuality of the unapproachable, the unreachable, the incomprehensible, and the realization of the possibility which is not a matter of speculation. ‘Behold I make all things new.’  ‘The affirmation of God, man and the world given in the New Testament is based exclusively upon the possibility of a new order absolutely beyond human thought; and therefore, as prerequisite to that order, there must come a crisis that denies all human thought…”

 

Romans had appeared in 1919 and the first volume of collected lectures, “The Word of God and the Word of Man, was published in German in 1924.  His reading which was not encouraged by his professors gave Bonhoeffer his first insight into the structure that would arise from the foundation of Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. 

 

Harnack and Barth had a bitter debate in 1923.  Barth responded to von Harnack’s view of the starting point of religion as the human conscience and will…

 

“Should we theologians not have the courage to let our theology begin with what is, perhaps, the fundamentally skeptical but nonetheless clear memory of the totally unintelligible, unbelievable and incredible and certainly disturbing testimony that God himself said and did something: something entirely new, outside the correlation of all human words and things, precisely as something new, not just as any word and things alongside other words and things, but this particular word and this particular thing?”

 

Harnack wrote sadly to the young Bonhoeffer that “spiritual life was threatened by ‘contempt for scientific theology and the menace posed by unscientific theology.’  Therefore those who uphold the banner of true science must defend it more steadfastly than ever.”

 

With his discovery of dialectical theology, a new certainty replaced Bonhoeffer’s restless wanderings.  It was like a liberation; he now began to take real joy in his work. The distinctive task of preaching- the earthly, concrete proof of God’s word in the words repeated by human beings- was the starting point for this new theology, and this tore him away from the game of speculation. 

 

Barth forced Bonhoeffer’s attention away from those aspects of human nature that had been unmasked so terribly to that generation.  He made the religious experience, which Bonhoeffer had long sought with youthful enthusiasm and was the source of such difficulties for him, seem inconsequential.  For Barth, the certainty being pursued here was anchored not in people but in the majesty of God, and could not exist as a separate matter apart from God. In contrast to many who found Barth so gloomy, Bonhoeffer ascribed to him true hilarities.

 

Was it not significant that this new theology was able to convince the young Bonhoeffer?  Here was a young man with a thorough philosophical grounding who had familiarized himself with the latest methods of historical criticism.  Unlike many young Barthians, he was neither a youthful rebel driven or shattered by the postwar crisis, not a former pietist rebelling against his upbringing.  Here was a well-balanced young man from an upper-middle-class home who had been objectively convinced: a young man who, thanks to the scope of his background and his natural gifts, was able to see things as they were without succumbing to blind enthusiasm.

 

Despite his gratitude for the essence of this theology and in the spirit which had been formed in his family, Bonhoeffer retained his right to think critically and independently.  But Barth was always criticized as an ally; where he saw weak points, he did not hesitate to offer alternative suggestions.

 

 His critique began at a point that characterized his own inner needs: he assumed that Barth’s emphasis on the inaccessibility and free majesty of God threatened and dispelled the due emphasis on humanity’s concrete earthly plight. 

 

This was the point where he questioned and criticized: he asked whether the free and inaccessible majesty of God is realized in freedom from the world, or whether it is not more the case that it enters into the world, since the freedom of God has committed itself to the human community.

 

This struggle remained at the center of his thoughts and his actions until his death in April of 1945.  The combination of his Lutheran and Barthian insights would drive him in his key foundational writings, Sanctorum Communio, Act and Being, and Lectures at Berlin: Creation and Fall and Christ the Center.  His more popular writings, The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together and the collection of his Letters and Papers from Prison were applications of these more foundational writings. 

 

Bonhoeffer was loyal, committed, focused, independent, and amazingly driven to concrete actions by his relatively objective theological decisions. Trinitarian Theology makes the difference in the world.  This made him uniquely prepared to be the one that God used in the crisis in Germany and perhaps most importantly in the influence he has had and continues to have in today’s world. ( Bethge, DBB 73-77; Marsh, Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: the Promise of His Theology; 3-33; Rumsheidt, TCCDB 61-65)

 

Threads of his Doctoral Theses in his writings:

 

Sactorum Communio: A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church

Bonhoeffer began his dissertation one year after his return from Rome. He began it at the beginning of the winter semester 1925-1926 and completed it in eighteen months.  It was accepted by the faculty on 1 August 1927.

 His topic: The Church. For him it was both a puzzle and a longing.  Who is it? What is it? Where is it? His subtitle was “ A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church.”

 

He wrote , “Luther’s love for the church and deep dogmatic insight into the significance of its historical nature made it very hard for him to tear himself away from the Church of Rome… The congregation of the faithful remains our mother.

 

Bonhoeffer’s primary question to Barth now was whether his concept of revelation did not neglect the church.  .

 

In SC, Bonhoeffer states that the key to understanding creation, sin and revelation can only be fully understood in terms of concrete sociality.

 

A theological focus on human sociality naturally entails attention to the Christian community, the church.  Or perhaps a reverse formulation is better: because being Christian is life-in-church-community, so this commnal-social paradigm informs Bonhoeffer’s thinking about human sociality generally. 

 

Bonhoeffer’s approach to the Christian church-community reminds one of Athanasius, the champion of Nicene Christianity.  In his On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius presented the biblical narrative as the story of God’s creatures, who were created out of nothing and were entirely dependent on their Creator, and who slid into corruption and non-being as a result of sin.  In the incarnation, cross and resurrection, the same Logos through whom the world was created comes to save the world by what is, in effect an act of re-creation.  In short, the church-community is humanity being remade and redeemed as a result of God’s creative grace. 

 

This is what Bonhoeffer means when he says that the church is ‘the part of humanity in which Christ has really taken form’.  It is not the creation of a religious organization, not the setting up of another religion alongside or over against other religion; it is the renewal, the humanization, of humanity per se.  The church is God’s new will and purpose with humanity. 

 

In SC, Bonhoeffer’s first affirmation about the Christian community is that the church is established and real in Christ; it is a divine reality, the social form of revelation.  This means that the first thought about the church must be to realize that it comes from God’s action and presence.  It is not an organization to fulfill religious needs.  It is not an institution with local manifestations and impressive centers in London, Rome, Moscow, Athens, Geneva or New York.  It is not the partner of governments to provide moral legitimating or to support law and order.  It is God’s creation in Christ.  Here Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology was quite consistent with Karl Barth’s theology of revelation and, because this approach was so unusual in Berlin when Bonhoeffer wrote Sanctorum Communio, Barth called the work a theological miracle. If the church grows by the Holy Sprit, this too is God’s initiative and means that people are brought into a divine reality already created by God. 

 

In addition to affirming the traditional marks of the church as the community where the Gospel Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated, Bonhoeffer goes beyond Luther and also paints a distinctive picture of life in the Christian community.  The ‘life principle’ of the new humanity is that free loving self-giving of Christ which Bonhoeffer call Stellvertretung, vicarious action on behalf of others.  Concretely this takes two forms among the members of the community:  ‘being-with-each-other’. The Christian life is a shared life, not a private spirituality; it is a life of bearing each other’s burdens, being ‘Christ to one another’, as Luther put it.  Being for-each-other takes very practical forms which Bonhoeffer puts in italics:  self-renouncing, active work for the neighbor; intercessory prayer; and finally the mutual forgiveness of sins in the name of God.  In Life Together we see how powerfully this understanding of Christian community shaped Bonhoeffer’s leadership of the Finkenwalde theological college.  (DBWE 1 Sanctorum Communio; Green Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality; Green ‘Human Sociality and Christian Community’ TCCTDB 113-130)

 

Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology

Bonhoeffer’s second book, Act and Being, was written during the summer and winter of 1929.  Once more it dealt with the theme of Sanctorum Communio- how revelation becomes concrete- but emphasized it more by addressing the theological discussion of the time.  He now posed his critical questions to the Barthians more clearly and decisively than he ever would again.

 

He plunged into systematic theology ignoring his advisor Seeberg’s suggestion that he deal with a historical or biblical problem.  He wanted to take sides, criticize, and press forward into the field where the debate of the late 1920’s was raging most fiercely; around the ontologies of Barth and Bultmann, their presuppositions, and the suitability of their methods. Bonhoeffer criticized Bultmann for his dependence on Heidegger, claiming that with the introduction of “potentiality,” the concept  of possibility in Christian decisions, Bultmann destroyed the theological foundation for the preexisting, free act of God- and, with that, certainty was replaced by reflection.  He criticized Barth for his formalistic understanding of the freedom of God.  ( Bethge 133)

 

In Act and Being, Bonhoeffer was essentially addressing philosophers, whom he found guilty of the original sin of idealism, namely, confinement in the self.  He also argued with Barth, he wanted to persuade him of his own belief that despite everything, God was accessible- the finite is capable of carrying the infinite.  Both were important to Bonhoeffer: the philosophers he had read and attacked since his school days and Barth, who had convinced him that theology could stand on its own. 

 

Theologically and sociologically, his first book was an argument for the concreteness of revelation in the form of community.  The second book argued for the theological and epistemological struggle- basically for the same concreteness. 

 

In revelation it is not so much a question of the freedom of God-eternally remaining within the divine self, on the other side of revelation, as it is of God’s coming out of God’s own action.  It is a question of the freedom of God, which finds its strongest evidence precisely in that God freely chose to be bound to historical human beings and to be placed at the disposal of human beings.  God is free not from human beings but for them.  Christ is the word of God’s freedom.  God is present, that is, not in eternal nonobjectivity but –to put it quite provisionally for now-“haveable,” graspable in the Word within the church.  Here Barth’s formal understanding of God’s freedom is countered by a substantial one.  ( DBB, Bethge 134)

 

To greatly oversimplify; while the early Barth, desiring to proclaim God’s majesty, began by removing him to a remote distance, Bonhoeffer’s starting point, inspired by the same desire to proclaim his majesty, brought God into close proximity. 

 

The importance of Act and Being was that when taken in conjunction with Sanctorum Communio- it contained many of the ideas that were to be applied to the ‘nonreligious interpretation’ in the letters from prison fifteen years later.  Act and Being gave the social and ethical transcendence of one’s neighbor the magnificent formulation “Jesus, the Man for Others.”  From 1929-1939 this applied to the concrete church.   Eventually, from 1939-1945, Bonhoeffer conceived of this Christology as permanently and essentially freed from all bounds, applied to the world as Christ’s own proper dominion. 

 

He criticizes Barth, “If God is in revelation strictly as act, then the question arises of how one can speak of divine and human continuity.  If he is the pure exaction of his knowing act but remains transcendent of every attempt to grasp him in reflection then God’s act in revelation has no material or temporal extension, no history as such, no place in the world as its concrete expression.”

 

Barth emphasizes that God’s freely willed relation to the world is contained within God’s relation to himself, for “nothing can accrue to Him from Himself which he had not or was not already.  But for Bonhoeffer “Christ existing as community” is the way God shows himself as one whose freedom is in his binding, because God in Jesus Christ is one who really steps out of himself into the world without losing himself or relinquishing his identity. 

 

Unlike Barth, Bonhoeffer is willing to risk the thought that God and humanity together in Jesus Christ is a greater conception than God alone in himself; God and the world in unity is a greater conception than God in God’s self. The world reconciled to God in Jesus Christ does add something to God that God did not have before. Through and in Jesus Christ one can think of God as one who discovers unprecedented delights in the world which he created and reconciled to himself.,,, this is a demonstration of God’s desire that the fellowship he enjoys in Trinitarian community gains expression in the luminescence of his mysterious, worldly, and communal otherness.  God is a present God is accessible, in fact, in concrete community. 

 

Community with God is not an individualistic possibility, but is actual and real in the community of God’s creatures with each other; to serve and love God is simultaneously to serve and love God’s creatures, one’s fellow human beings.  Community with God is simultaneously the community of co- humanity.   ( Bethge, DBB 131-137, Act and Being 2 DBWE; Green, Human Sociality and Christian Community  in TCCTDB 114-117)

 

 

Christ as Concrete Community in the New Theology of Letters and Papers from Prison

 

After July 20, 1944, the day the assassination plot failed and reprisals began, the mood changes in his letters, even though nothing as yet could be pinned on Bonhoeffer by the Gestapo.  It is during this period, anticipated in the letter of April 30, that Bonhoeffer wrote his celebrated “theological letters,’ which describe the direction in which his thought was moving as he pondered, albeit tentatively, the contours of Christianity in a postwar Europe and, by extension, in our contemporary world.  Bonhoeffer was not yet forty years of age, so how his life would have played itself out and his thought developed if he had survived is not an easy question to answer.  Bur as we reflect on the totality of his legacy, we can discern how so many of the trajectories in the earlier phases of his life anthology found their final though still fragmentary expression in these letters.  (DBWE 8 LPP, pg 4)

 

So what is it about these particular letters that is so significant?  Why is it that they have made such an impact on Christian theology and practice over the past decades since they were first published?  The short answer to these questions is that in them Bonhoeffer helps many who may have become disillusioned with Christianity as a creed, and dismayed by its failures in serving the world, to think in fresh ways about faith in Jesus Christ and what it means to be the church today.  In doing so Bonhoeffer does not propose trite or easy answers- no one who had previously written so powerfully about God’s concrete revelation for us, and costly discipleship and ethics of free responsibility could do that- but he does speak clearly and provocatively to people living fully in the modern world who are seeking to be truly Christian and fully human, people who are fully engaged in the life of the modern world but also open to the possibility of an authentic faith in the God of Jesus Christ. (DBWE, 5)

 

The theological letters include those dated, April 30, May 5, May 29, June 8, July 16, July 18, and July 21.  Together with his “Thoughts on the Baptism of Dietrich Bethge” in May and the “Outline for a Book,” they embody Bonhoeffer’s “new” theology from prison. (DBWE 8, pg.15)

 

Even before his imprisonment there was a shift in emphasis from his Church Struggle writings, for example in Discipleship, where the church is “against the world,” to a more world-centered ethic of responsibility in his Ethics, where the focus is more on social responsibility, justice, peace, and the reconstruction of society after the war… Also in hindsight we now know that much of what was beginning to emerge in Bonhoeffer’s prison theology was already prefigured in his dissertation Sanctorum Communio, notably, his understanding of “the other,” which in his prison theology found fresh expression in Jesus as the human being who exists “for others.” (DBWE  8, pg. 21)

 

Bonhoeffer had long been influenced by Barth’s theology.  But in prison by contrast, he recognized afresh his indebtedness to the liberal Protestant legacy in which he had been nurtured at the University of Berlin, especially by Harnack.  In many respects Bonheoffer’s prison theology was an attempt to engage critically both neo-orthodoxy as represented by Barth and liberal Protestantism as represented by Harnack, in an attempt to restate the meaning of Christ for today.  With Barth he remains Christological in focus, convinced that Barth’s critique of religion from the perspective of the Gospel remained fundamental even if it did not go far enough.  But with Harnack, he took more seriously the questions raised by the Enlightenment and the challenges of modernity.  Put differently, Bonhoeffer’s concern now was how to speak of the God of Jesus Christ without the need for a religious worldview that was no longer credible, and to do so mindful of the immense changes that had taken place in human endeavor over the past few centuries.  All of this prompted the question that came to dominate Bonhoeffer’s theological reflections: “What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? ((DBWE 8, pg 23)

 

World Come of Age

The church and theology, in a lasting attempt to shore up Christianity, resorted to an apologetic based on “ultimate questions,” such as despair, sin, and guilt, to which  God alone was the answer.  In doing so, God was reduced to a duex ex machine who is only needed when everything else has failed, thus in effect pushed out of the center of human affairs to become the God of individual piety, bourgeois privilege, and a ghetto church, that is, the God of religion.  Such an apologetic assumed a “religious a priori,” that is, a religion longing and a sense of weakness in human beings that could be appealed to in preaching the gospel with that in mind as the point of contact.  But it was precisely this that Bonhoeffer questioned.  By contrast, he wanted to speak of God at the center of life and address men and women in their strength, that is, their maturity and autonomy as responsible human beings in a ‘world come of age.’  (DBWE 8, pg. 24)

 

Nonreligious Interpretation of Christian Faith

For Bonheoffer, the question of God concerned “who Jesus Christ actually is for us today.”  If we start with such ideas as God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, we will never arrive at a true knowledge of God.  However, if we participate by faith in Jesus Christ who shows us that God as Trinity is the one who “is there for others,” we are liberated from self and experience the transcendence that is truly the God of the Bible.  Only then does the reality of God become meaningful.  As Bonhoeffer writes in the “Outline”: “Our relationship to God is no ‘religious’ relationship to some highest, most powerful and best being imaginable-that is no genuine transcendence.  Instead, our relationship to God is a new life in ‘being there for others,’  through participation in the being of Jesus.”  This is the meaning of Christ becoming fully human and dying on the cross.  In other words, by “nonreligious interpretation” Bonhoeffer proposed not a return to the anthropocentric approach of liberal, mystical, pietistic or ethical theology but a recovery of “the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

 

Bonhoeffer did not see his task as popular “apologetic” in the sense of adapting the gospel to the modern mind, that is, a secular gospel.  Unfortunately, this was too often how his “new theology” was understood, especially in the US.  Bonhoeffer countenanced not a reduction of the gospel but a recovery of its meaning in a new historical context.  Whereas during the Church struggle his emphasis was on Christ as Lord confronting Nazi ideology and calling the church to faithful obedience to Christ as the “one Word of God,”  now Bonhoeffer’s emphasis was far more on Christ crucified (following Luther’s theology of the cross) for the sake of a world in which humanity had become responsible “before God” yet “without God,” This Bonhoeffer believed, would enable secular people to believe again in the God of the bible, whose power is discerned in weakness on the boundaries of human existence and yet is at the center of worldly existence.  Such “this worldliness” was not a shallow worldliness, but one in which we come to know Christ in the midst of our responsibilities, constantly aware of both the reality of death and the hope of the resurrection.

 

The paradox is that the God who is at the center of the world, who addresses human beings in their strength not just their weakness, is at the same time the God who, in Jesus Christ, “consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way and only so, is at our side and helps us.”  The God of the Bible is not, as we have established, the god of religion, but the God of the Bible , and this is a significant development, the “suffering God.”  And it is precisely this that Bonhoeffer proposes as the “starting point for our ‘worldly interpretation.”

 

If Jesus exists for others, then the church must not seek its own self-preservation but be “open to the world” and in solidarity with others, especially those who are oppressed and suffering.  (DBWE 8, pgs. 25-26)

 

 

The Church for Others. 

Bonhoeffer’s proposals are quite radical, especially when viewed from the perspective of the established Protestant church in Germany.  For example, he proposed that as “a first step it must give away all its property to those in need”  and that its ministers should not receive a state stipend.  The overall emphasis is on service, not domination, on demonstrating by example what new life in Christ means, of speaking with moderation, authenticity, trust , faithfulness, steadfastness, patience, discipline, humility, modest contentment.” (DBWE 8, pg 27)

 

“Worldly Transcendence” Toward a New Humanism

As is now increasingly acknowledged among Bonhoeffer scholars, his prison letters strongly point toward a new form of Christian humanism.  This becomes possible because of his Christology, and especially the “becoming human of God”.  Just as Christ became “fully human,” so Bonhoeffer sees the Christian life no longer in terms of becoming a religious person but in those of becoming more truly human.  By this he means not the superficial worldliness of the enlightened “ but a profound ‘this worldliness’ that shows discipline and includes the ever-present knowledge of death and resurrection.”  It is in the context of this discussion that for him this meant learning to live fully in the world by throwing “oneself completely into the arms of God,” for this he says , “ is how one becomes a human being, a Christian.” (DBWE pg. 29)

 

 

 

Recovery of the “arcane discipline”

To be “open to the world” by existing for others does not imply surrendering either its identity or the profound mystery of its faith in Christ, for that would simply be another example of “cheap grace.”  For this reason, it was necessary that the church recover the “arcane discipline” of the ancient church, whereby the mysteries of the faith are protected from profanation.  In this way, prayer, worship, the sacraments, and the creed would remain hidden at the heart of the life of the church, not thrust upon the world in some triumphalist manner.  In the world the church, would be known by its service and its work for justice and peace rather than by the disciplines that sustained its life of faith, hope and love.  In sum, as Bonhoeffer wrote on the occasion of Dietrich Bethge’s baptism, “we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings.  All Christian thinking talking and organizing must be born anew, out of prayer and action. (DBWE 8, pg. 30)

 

Bonhoeffer wants to plumb the depths of God’s presence in the world; to understand the earth, its riches, delights, and sorrows, in all its ‘christic’ grandeur.  In a sense that is where Bonhoeffer begins and where he ends in the fascination with the mystery of worldliness, particularly embodied in the mystery of human sociality.  His preoccupation with the concreteness of revelation is part and parcel of this fascination. 

 

He says, “a glimpse of eternity is revealed only through the depths of our earth. The one who would leave the earth, who would depart from the present distress, loses the power which still holds him by eternal, mysterious forces. That is the Christian’s song of earth and her distress.” ( Marsh 150-157)

 

 

Bonhoeffer’s critique of the Two Kingdoms.

It was unfortunate that, when Bonhoeffer was first arrested, the reaction of many of his fellow churchmen was to dismiss him as a mere political agitator who had meddled in matters totally foreign to his faith and ecclesiastical calling.  He was not to be included in the confessing church’s intercessory prayers, despite the peril he was in.  After the war, it was smoother for the church to catalogue Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy as a misguided, political treasonous act than to see in his participation in the resistance a persistent shaming of the churches to represent Jesus Christ more honestly against a particularly noxious tyranny.  To accept the challenge of his prison letters and to follow his personal example meant that they would have to sacrifice too many of their clerical privileges. (Kelly, “Prayer and Action for Justice”  CCTB pg. 252)

 

Above all the difference with most of his fellow German theologians, church members and citizens had to do with his adaptation of the traditional Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms.

 

 

 

 

 

The Origin and Problem with the doctrine of the two Kingdoms.

 

It is important to remember that the interpretation of the two kingdoms doctrine was central in the situation in Nazi Germany.  The powerful cultural influence to separate those two kingdoms and for the right hand –The church- not to interfere in the left hand of God- the state-, was extreme for many reasons, including the ideology of the German nation which was discussed earlier.

 

It is also important to remember that this doctrine comes from the Lutheran view of Justification by Grace through faith alone. Braaten and Jenson discuss this when they talk about secularization in regard to German Lutheran theologian Fredrich Gogarten.  Gogarten was also influenced by Barth and influenced Bonhoeffer.  

 

“The beating heart of Gogarten’s entire theology was the Lutheran doctrine of salvation by grace through faith apart from works of the law.  By denying that works possess any saving efficacy, faith secures their worldly significance.  That is, faith secularizes them, keeping them down to earth, strictly something for this world, divested of all “religious" meaning as duties that must be performed to be saved.  Such secularization or historization –the words are virtually synonymous for Gogarten- of faith’s relation to the world belongs to the essence of Christian faith, but when cut loose from Christian faith secularization degenerates into secularism, by which humans proclaim themselves autonomous lords over the world and wrapped up in themselves.  In not being “free for God” as his creatures taking responsibility for the world as God’s creation, they end in bondage to themselves.” ( Jenson and Braaten, Twentieth Century Theologians, 97.)

 

The two kingdom doctrine had helped cut loose the state from Christian faith and Nazism had formed a new religion.  Bonhoeffer’s whole theological approach and his life’s witness was to bring Christian faith back into the center of the world through his Trinitarian reflection of “Christ existing as Community.” His first theological move was to attack the dualism of the doctrine.

 

One important difference between Bonhoeffer  and Luther must be noted.  Bonhoeffer’s heavy suspicion of inwardness compels him to drop the theologically and metaphorically cumbersome task of explicating the grammar of the inner and outer spheres or the two kingdoms.  In emphasizing the axiom “Christ existing as community” as the principal agent of the call to the outside, he also avoids reducing the event of God’s grace to the acoustic and individualistic call of proclamation.  Bonhoeffer opposes any thinking in two spheres for the reason that it profanes the one reality interconnected through and mediated by Christ.  He claims that the inner- outer distinction can produce theological convolutions which complicate what in the final analysis, might be a station so simple as “Follow after,”  be with others as the losing, giving and finding of yourself. 

 

Thus, Bonhoeffer collapsed the traditional distinctions into “Christ Existing as Community.” He never abandoned the doctrine totally but redefined the doctrine for exclusive use in community.  First he abandoned the phrase, “orders of creation” which had turned into an attack on the Jews, and replaced it with “orders of preservation” in Cost of  Discipleship and other earlier writings.  Finally in his ethical writings he used the term “Divine Mandates”.

 

Orders of Preservation

Orders of preservation are forms of working against sin in the direction of the gospel.  Any order however ancient and sacred it may be- can be dissolved, and must be dissolved when it closes up in itself grows rigid and no longer permits the proclamation of revelation  from this standpoint the Church of Christ .. has to keep in mind only one thing: which orders can best restrain this radical falling of the world into death and sin and hold the way open for the Gospel?  The Church hears the commandment only from Christ, not from any fixed law or from any eternal order, and it hears it in the orders of preservation.. It can demand the most radical destructions simply for the sake of the one who builds up. 

 

Nations are allowed to be- for the time being.  But always over them hangs the question of whether they are providing a means for obedience to Christ, or an obstruction.  Any order however ancient and sacred can be dissolved therein also lies one of the roots which eventually led Bonhoeffer into the most radical course of his life, political conspiracy to overthrow the regime. 

 

Divine Mandates

Bonhoeffer started using the term ‘Divine Mandates’ in his Ethics. The mandates are another instance of structured moral responsibility in his relational, communal, contextual ethic.  They, too, reflect Bonhoeffer’s insistence on the oneness of reality in the penultimate and ultimate and the orientation of our responsibilities in the former by the act of God in the latter.  We are not born into an undifferentiated maze of atomized events and relations.  Rather we are formed in the mandates.  The mandates are community structures such as family, economic life, citizenship and the state, the church, circles of friendship, etc.  Such formation in these social structures, running its own course as part of natural life and the penultimate, pushes us to be with and for others.  So from birth to death we find ourselves amidst a corporate life filled with obligations opportunities and responsibilities that reflect the requirements of life together.  As these requirements are lived out, responsibility is both learned and exercised.  Basic moral formation takes place in this manner, and much of the moral life itself is lived in the rather unguarded and unselfconscious way that happens by virtue of being a good friend, spouse, citizen, church member, employer or employee. 

What truly defines the mandates is not the continuity of unchanging orders, but their structuring of our existence so that it is for one another.  When they do not do this, they are no longer God’s mandates. 

 

When they fail to care for the nurture and protection of life, but instead turn against it, as the Nazi state did, they are no longer God’s mandates and they must be reformed.  Doing so may well require that special case of the deed of free responsibility that sets itself against current, even entrenched, social institutions and practices and at the same time strikes a blow for life as understood vis-avis reality in Christ. 

 

His formulations here break both with the traditions of Christian ethics he knew and with the secular enlightenment’s moral center in the Sovereign Self.  ….What he knew we need remains needed: a new account of responsibility and the institutions for it, in the world as a single and complex, but endangered reality, its fate in the hands of far-reaching and cumulative human power.  …The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live.  It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come.

 

As such, moral discernment in community is an ongoing requirement.  What can and must be said is not what is good once and for all, but the ways in which Christ takes form among us here and now.  We must always be asking as Bonhoeffer does,’ who is Christ for us today? Asking this- and answering means immersion in the life of the “Divine Mandates” in Christian community to garner insight into the forms Christ takes among us now and articulate them for the wider world and the exercise of responsibility there.  Beyond theological insight, moral discernment also means an informed empirical knowledge of the situation in which Christians decide and act.  Moral credibility and authority require this well informed knowledge of the ever- changing context of decision.  The word of the church to the world.  (Rasmussen, ‘The Ethics of Responsible Action’: TCCCDB pgs. 221-223)

 

Is there a risk in collapsing the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Yes, the Gospel is more easily turned into a law.  Christian community’s entrance into the political or social arena can be controversial and at times wrong.  But Bonhoeffer believed that the dualism of the doctrine had lead to an abandonment of Christian witness in the world. The check and balance for Bonhoeffer is God’s entrance into the world and exists as a community living the arcane witness of the theology of the cross.

 

Who is Jesus Christ Today- Implications of Bonhoeffer’s theology for us today.

After I had finished my D. Min in 1992 and after the first document on Lutheran Sexuality had come out in 1993, I encountered the tension of attempting to adapt Bonhoeffer’s theology  with ELCA Lutheranism.

 

In July of that year, I attended a seminar with Dr. Bill Lazereth, one of the leading Lutheran theologians in the LCA and ELCA.  In the LCA, together, he and Dr. George Forell had lead the LCA’s division on Church and Society.  They had thoughtfully developed a more nuanced “Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms’ in contrast to Lutheran Germans during WW II, in their approach to Lutheran Social Ethics.  ‘Faith active in love’ was the way Forell described the result of a more healthy interpretation of the doctrine of the two kingdoms.

Lazareth’s  seminar was a critique of the ELCA social statements which at that time included,: Foundtional statements,  Abortion, Capital Punishment and the proposed document on Human Sexuality.

 

Lazareth gave a furious and passionate critique of the ELCA Church and Society department, their foundational documents, theology and approach in the Social statements. He stated that the department had come under the influence of Dr. Larry Rasmussen who taught at Union Theology in New York who was in Lazareth’s words a Barthian and a Bonhoefferian.  I had not read Larry Rasmussen or knew of his theology but in preparation to understand what Lazareth was speaking, I went to the library and found two books by Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: His Significance for North Americans and  Moral Fragments and Moral Community. After a brief perusal I saw part of what Lazareth was talking about.  Although a Lutheran theologian, Rasmussen, following Bonhoeffer, and while not throwing out two kingdom thinking, was proposing a greater collapse of the doctrine of the two kingdoms than Lazareth and Forell and may I add Braaten, Nestingen and Forde would allow.  The central issue was the place of natural theology.  Do we see the creation as God’s law which brings order and God’s judgment on the law as incapable of revealing salvation, or do we have a more nuanced, Bonhoefferian view in which we begin not with natural law but with God’s Trinitarian revelation of God in Christ which exists as community in the world enable us to see God’s purpose and new creation?

 

Lazareth gave a furious and passionate critique of the ELCA Church and Society department, their foundational documents, theology and approach in the Social statements. He stated that the department had come under the influence of Dr. Larry Rasmussen who taught at Union Theology in New York who was in Lazareth’s words a Barthian and a Bonhoefferian.  I had not read Larry Rasmussen or knew of his theology but in preparation to understand what Lazareth was speaking, I went to the library and found two books by Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: His Significance for North Americans and  Moral Fragments and Moral Community. After a brief perusal I saw part of what Lazareth was talking about.  Although a Lutheran theologian, Rasmussen, following Bonhoeffer, and while not throwing out two kingdom thinking, was proposing a greater collapse of the doctrine of the two kingdoms than Lazareth and Forell and may I add Braaten, Nestingen and Forde would allow.  The central issue was the place of natural or foundational theology. Lazareth gave a more prominent place to the place of natural law.  Bonhoeffer and Rasmussen did not begin their theological reflection with natural or foundational theology as demonstrated in their writings.

 

The next day I asked Dr. Lazareth after he destroyed Rasmussen and the ELCA disasters called Social statements, “So, Dr. Lazareth, the problem with Bonheoffer and Barth in the Barmen declaration was that they did the right thing for the wrong reason.”  He simply said, “yes.”  The right reason apparently makes all the difference. He believed Bonhoeffer had adopted Barth’s position that Grace precedes the Law.

 

Carl Braaten also made a serious critique of the spirit of Bonhoeffer’s approach in his book No Other Gospel:

We find here a rejection of all types of natural theology, or foundationalist  philosophy, or apologetic methods in order to translate the primary language of faith into some other system of language.  The result of this alliance of theology with neopragmatism is the tendency to exchange truth for fidelity.  The enterprise of fundamental theology, uncovering universal principles and structures, is surrendered in order to secure a license to operate as one voice alongside others in a pluralistic setting.  It is difficult to sustain the truth-claim of the gospel and the universal mission of the church on the basis of this program for theology.  Fideism is linked to relativism as theology modestly restricts itself to its own data base and leaves all other disciplines to their own devices.” ( Braaten 19)

 

Bonhoeffer had learned from Barth that theology stands on its own and he develops his theology with that understanding. Richard Niebuhr, in his book, Christ and Culture, thinks that this foundational approach has consistently led to a type of a conservative paralysis or throwing out of the doctrine of two kingdoms entirely.  He concludes, “the two most frequently voiced charges (against the Lutheran position are) that dualism tends to lead Christians into antinomianism and into cultural conservatism… Hence, however important cultural duties are for Christians their life is not in them; it is hidden with Christ in God” (Niebuhr (187-189).  Bonhoeffer’s view of Christ-as -Community would be a counter to Braaten’s approach.

 

I think Joseph Sittler provides another alternative approach in the ‘spirit of Bonhoeffer.’.  A debate between Sittler and Lazareth in the 60.s demonstrate some of the issues still worth debating.  Christa Klein talks about this debate about which approach to social ethics in the LCA would be the norm: 

In his essay “The Structure of Christian Ethics, Sittler envisions an ethical “dynamic” in which believers respond to the gifts and tasks set before them through God’s triune work in their particular historical circumstances.  They are enabled to respond by faith. Faith must discern among the facts of a situation and then act upon what it has discerned.  There is, to be sure, no human fact in which sin is not involved.  But within some structures of fact there are alive, free and operative forces of grace, insights of elemental justice, re-creating energies of love…(Klein 48-49)

 

Sittler’s concern is for the integrity and therefore the responsiveness of Christian Faith, for lived faith.  He dislikes guidelines which could trammel the inventiveness of Christian love in particular circumstances.  I think Bonhoeffer would say that the inventiveness of Christian love is what Christ-in-Community is all about. It is not about a liberal or a conservative approach or cultural relativism.  It is about following the Triune God as revealed in concrete ways in Christian community.

 

Lazareth, on the other hand responded to Sittler in an essay “Christian Faith and Culture.”

For him the framework of Christian ethics does not lie within the individual response to God’s action through faith, but rather in the way God has structured human community.  The Christian simultaneously belongs to the community of faith, the church, and the community of life, human society.  The judgments Christians make are influenced by three realities-God’s sovereignty, God’s rule through creation, and the particular witness of Christians, individually and in concert… Lazareth whose approach to social ethics would eventually become predominant, said in an interview that he thought Sittler’s theological reflections…were consonant with the ‘cosmic Christology’ which Sittler had been developing as a delegate on the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches through his exposure to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This troubled Lazareth, who wanted an ethic that would illumine the common ground through universal structures for both Christians and non-Christians living together in a pluralistic society ( Klein, 48-49).

 

Bonhoeffer knew well the arguments against what he was proposing.  Yet, he trusted the power and concrete promise of the Triune God as revealed in Christ-as-Community as the more faithful approach to living as Christians in today’s world.

 

The debate within the ELCA on Social Ethics including the debate on human sexuality continues to take place between the ‘spirits’of Lazareth and Bonhoeffer.

 

So, I continue to wonder if Lazareth, Forell, Braaten, Forde, and Nestingen are right, or is the approach of Bonheoffer who adapted Barth and Luther more useful today.

 

I certainly think Bonhoeffer’s approach is the direction we need to follow today in many ways. His thought is essential in critiquing culture and individualism in America and in the church and directing us toward the concrete community as the place for Christ’s presence in the world.  Ands yet, the weakness of the doctrine of the two kingdoms or of Bonhoeffer’s tentative proposals are that we virtually have no sense of community to practice either approach in America. 

 

On going dialog and practice are needed.

The most helpful approaches in this lineage that Bonhoeffer proposes that I am familiar with are:

 

Douglas John Hall in his many works exploring the Theology of the Cross.  His systematic theology, Thinking the Faith, Professing the Faith, and Confessing the Faith covers his theology and reveals his indebtedness to Bonhoeffer.

 

 In the ELCA, several authors are worth exploring:  Larry Rasmussen, Moral Fragments and Moral Community: A Proposal for Church in Society, and Mark Olson, Moving Beyond Church Growth: An Alternative Vision for Congregations; The Evangelical Pastor: Pastoral Leadership for a Witnessing People; An Evangelizing People: Lay Leadership for a Witnessing People.  Craig Nessan’s books: Beyond Maintenance to Mission: A Theology of the Congregation and Shalom Church: The Body of Christ as Ministering Community and Joseph Sittler’s books: The Structure of Lutheran Ethics, and Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics.

 

Robert Jenson culminated a life time of reflection on the Trinity with his two volume Systematic Theology: The Triune God and The Works of God.  He explores the Western Tradition in light of the Orthodox traditions. He states, “ The Western church has gone through history the Eastern church has so far missed, and this is reflected in problems that a Western theologian must work through.  Nor are such necessities always bad; much has been perceived in the West’s conceptually tortured theological history that Orthodoxy also now needs to reckon with.” (Jenson Vol 1, viii.)

 

One of the best books I have read in recent years is by Methodist Bishop, William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching.

 

Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson are Bonhoeffer scholars who have worked on editing and translating the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works project.  Their books may be a good place to start reading Bonhoeffer’s works: A Testament to Freedom and The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

 

The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English project are worth having in ones Library or Kindle.  They still have 3 volumes to be released of the 16 volumes.  The German and English editor’s introductions are worth the price of the books. They also introduce one to the leading interpreters of Bonhoeffer in the world today.

 

An important direction in regard to the Lutheran interpretation of Justification in what I would call the “spirit of Bonhoeffer” include: Tuomo Mannermaa’s books, Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World, and Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification. Jenson and Braaten have also edited a helpful introduction to the topic, Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther.

 

Some of the best what I call theological literature written in the ‘spirit of Bonhoeffer’ is by Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Marilyn Robinson and Wendell Berry.  Berry’s “communitarian” writings on community and agriculture give a concrete insight into what Bonhoeffer’s view of community could look like in America.

 

There are many possible implications of Bonhoeffer’s theology and witness as is noted in his continued popularity among all types of Christians including the young.  According to Stephen Haynes, “ In a recent on line discussion of sainthood among religious ‘seekers’  the number one candidate to be named was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” (Haynes. xi)

 

Here are a few of my tentative proposals for the ELCA which suggest that as Bonhoeffer says in his thoughts on the occasion of the baptism of Dietrich Bethge, “we are still waiting for God’s own time.” I keep in mind that Bonhoeffer’s impact on the German Lutheran church’s structure after WWII was negligible at best and that perhaps one of the reasons is that we have no sense or practice of community in the “spirit of Bonhoeffer”.

 

  1. Dissolve Synods and replace them with small Ministeriums using the model of Life Together and the Arcane Discipline.  Clergy would be paid under a communal system similar to the one proposed by Bill Hume based on the Australian model. Mark Olson also proposes a model in his books.
  2. The ELCA’s primary role would be the preparation of Pastors trained to serve in the Ministerium model. This of course would change the direction and shape of semiary education to look more like the community at Finkenwalde seminary or the collective Pastorates of 1937-39 than most Lutheran seminaries.  The Ministeriums and Parishes would discern how to best serve the community and world.
  3. Other than or perhaps with “Biking and Beer Time”, Clergy will spend more time studying and discussing Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer, the Trinity, the Orthodox and the Bible.
  4. Following a suggestion by Douglas John Hall, we will look more to the artists, writers and poets for help in finding purpose and meaning in the “world come of age.”
  5. God’s world will be served by discerning in community, “Who is Jesus Christ Today?”

 

 

From Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rudiger Bethge, Tegel Prison, May 1944.

 

Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and the world.  Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and for our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and action for justice on behalf of people.  All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.  By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly.  We are not yet out of the melting period.  Any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification.  I t is not for us to prophesy the day (though this day will come) when people will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it.  It will be a new language, perhaps quite nonreligious, but liberating and redeeming- as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with people and the coming of God’s kingdom. … Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and act for justice and wait for God’s own time.  May you be one of them…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Altizer, Thomas J.J,. and William Hamiltion, Radical Theology and the Deathof God. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1966.

 

Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Minneapolis: Fortress Press Revised Edition 2000.

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 16 vols. Edited by Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1996-

 

Braaten, Carl E. No Other Gospel: Christianity Among the World Religions. Minneapolis: Fortress; 1992.

 

Cox, Harvey. The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. Revised edition. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

 

De Gruchey, John w., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

 

Green, Clifford. Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Revised Edition 1999.

 

Haynes, Stephen R. The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

 

Jenson, Robert W. and Carl Bratten. Ed.,  A Map of Twentieth Century Theology: Readings from Karl Barth to Radical Pluralism.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995

 

___________. Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons; 1963.

 

___________. “A Theological Autobiography to Date”  Dialog Vol. 46 1 p. 46-54.

 

________________. Systematic Theology: The Triune God Vol . Oxford/ New York: Oxford University Press, 1997

 

______________. Systematic Theology: The Works of God Vol. 2. Oxford/ New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

 

 

______________. Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company Rev. ed. 2002. 

 

______________ ed. with Carl Braaten. Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

 

Kelly,Geffrey B. and F. Burton Nelson eds. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: Harper Collins Publishers 1990

 

_______________________________. The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K. 2003

 

Klein, Christa R., with Christian von Dehsen. Politics and Policy: The Genesis and Theology of Social Statements in The Lutheran Church In America. Minneapolis: Fortress; 1989.

 

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Christ Present In Fath: Luther’s View of Justification. Minneapolis; Fortress Press 2005

 

________________ Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2010

 

Marsh, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonmhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

 

Moltmann, Jurgen. Trinity and the Kingdom of God Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1981

 

Niebuhr, Richard H. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row; 1951.

 

Nessan, Craig, Beyond Maintenance to Mission: A Theology of the Congregation. Minneapolis Fortress 1999.

 

______________. Shalom Church: The Body of Christ As Ministering Community. Minneapolis, Fortress. 2010.

 

Olson Mark A. Moving Beyond Church Growth: An Alternative Vision For Congregations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2002.

 

____________. An Evangelizing People: Lay Leadership for a Witnessing People. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 1992.

 

____________. The Evangelical Pastor: Pastoral Leadership for a Witnessing People Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 1992

 

Rasmussen Larry L., Moral Fragments & Moral Community: A Proposal For Chruch in Society Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

 

________________., and Renate Bethge.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer: His Significance for North Americans. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1990

 

Robinson, John A.T. Honest to God. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963.

 

Willimon, William H. Conversations With Barth on Preaching Nashville, Abingdon Press 2006

 

 

 

The next day I asked Dr. Lazareth after he destroyed Rasmussen and the ELCA disasters called Social statements, “So, Dr. Lazareth, the problem with Bonheoffer and Barth in the Barmen declaration was that they did the right thing for the wrong reason.”  He simply said, “yes.”  The right reason apparently makes all the difference.

 

Yet, I continue to wonder if Lazareth, Forell, Braaten, Forde, and Nestingen are right, or is the approach of Bonheoffer who adapted Barth and Luther useful today.

 

I certainly think his approach is essential in critiquing culture and individualism in America and in the church and directing us toward the concrete community as the place for Christ’s presence in the world.   The most helpful critique in this lineage that I am familiar with are:

 

Douglas John Hall in his many works exploring the  Theology of the Cross.  His systematic theology, Thinking the Faith, Professing the Faith, and Confessing the Faith covers his theology and reveals his indebtedness to Bonhoeffer.

 

 In the ELCA, several authors are worth exploring:  Larry Rasmussen, Moral Fragments and Moral Community: A Proposal for Church in Society, and Mark Olson, Moving Beyond Church Growth: An Alternative Vision for Congregations; The Evangelical Pastor:Pastoral Leadership for a Witnessing People; An Evangelizing People: Lay Leadership for a Witnessing People. 

 

Robert Jenson culminated a life time of reflection on the Trinity with his two volume Systematic Theology: The Triune God and The Works of God.  He explores the Western Tradition in light of the Orthodox traditions. He states, “ The Western church has gone through history the Eastern church has so far missed, and this is reflected in problems that a Western theologian must work through.  Nor are such necessities always bad; much has been perceived in the West’s conceptually tortured theological history that Orthodoxy also now needs to reckon with.” (Jenson Vol 1, viii.)

 

One of the best books I have read in recent years is by Methodist Bishop, William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching.

 

Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson are Bonhoeffer scholars who have worked on editing and translating the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works project.  Their books may be a good place to start reading Bonhoeffer’s works: A Testament to Freedom and The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

 

The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English project are worth having in ones Library or Kindle.  They still have 3 volumes to be released of the 16 volumes.  The German and English editor’s introductions are worth the price of the books. They also introduce one to the leading interpreters of Bonhoeffer in the world today.

 

An important direction in regard to the Lutheran interpretation of Justification in what I would call the “spirit of Bonhoeffer” include: Tuomo Mannermaa’s books, Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World, and Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification. Jenson and Braaten have also edited a helpful introduction to the topic, Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther.

 

Some of the best what I call theological literature written in the ‘spirit of Bonhoeffer’ is by Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Marilyn Robinson and Wendell Berry.  Berry’s “communitarian” writings on community and agriculture give a concrete insight into what Bonhoeffer’s view of community could look like in America.

 

There are many possible implications of Bonhoeffer’s theology and witness as is noted in his continued popularity among all types of Christians including the young.  According to Stephen Haynes, “ In a recent on line discussion of sainthood among religious ‘seekers’  the number one candidate to be named was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” (Haynes. xi)

 

Here are a few of my tentative proposals for the ELCA which suggest that as Bonhoeffer says in his thoughts on the occasion of the baptism of Dietrich Bethge, “we are still waiting for God’s own time.” I keep in mind that Bonhoeffer’s impact on the German Lutheran church’s structure after WWII was negligible at best.

  1. Dissolve Synods and replace them with small Ministeriums using the model of Life Together and the Arcane Discipline.  Clergy would be paid under a communal system similar to the one proposed by Bill Hume based on the Australian model. Mark Olson also proposes a model in his books.
  2. The ELCA’s primary role would be the preparation of Pastors trained to serve in the Ministerium model. This of course would change the direction and shape of semiary education to look more like the community at Finkenwalde seminary or the collective Pastorates of 1937-39 than most Lutheran seminaries.  The Ministeriums and Parishes would discern how to best serve the community and world.
  3. Other than or perhaps with “Biking and Beer Time”, Clergy will spend more time studying and discussing Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer, the Trinity, the Orthodox and the Bible.
  4. Following a suggestion by Douglas John Hall, we will look more to the artists, writers and poets for help in finding purpose and meaning in the “world come of age.”
  5. God’s world will be served by discerning in community, “Who is Jesus Christ Today?”

 

 

From Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rudiger Bethge, Tegel Prison, May 1944.

 

Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and the world.  Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and for our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and action for justice on behalf of people.  All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.  By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly.  We are not yet out of the melting period.  Any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification.  I t is not for us to prophesy the day (though this day will come) when people will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it.  It will be a new language, perhaps quite nonreligious, but liberating and redeeming- as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with people and the coming of God’s kingdom. … Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and act for justice and wait for God’s own time.  May you be one of them…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Altizer, Thomas J.J,. and William Hamiltion, Radical Theology and the Deathof God. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1966.

 

Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Minneapolis: Fortress Press Revised Edition 2000.

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 16 vols. Edited by Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1996-

 

Cox, Harvey. The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. Revised edition. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

 

De Gruchey, John w., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

 

Green, Clifford. Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Revised Edition 1999.

 

Haynes, Stephen R. The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

 

Jenson, Robert W. and Carl Bratten. Ed.,  A Map of Twentieth Century Theology: Readings from Karl Barth to Radical Pluralism.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995

 

___________. Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons; 1963.

 

___________. “A Theological Autobiography to Date”  Dialog Vol. 46 1 p. 46-54.

 

________________. Systematic Theology: The Triune God Vol . Oxford/ New York: Oxford University Press, 1997

 

______________. Systematic Theology: The Works of God Vol. 2. Oxford/ New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

 

 

______________. Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company Rev. ed. 2002. 

 

______________ ed. with Carl Braaten. Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

 

Kelly,Geffrey B. and F. Burton Nelson eds. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: Harper Collins Publishers 1990

 

_______________________________. The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K. 2003

 

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Christ Present In Fath: Luther’s View of Justification. Minneapolis; Fortress Press 2005

 

________________ Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2010

 

Marsh, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonmhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

 

Moltmann, Jurgen. Trinity and the Kingdom of God Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1981

 

Olson Mark A. Moving Beyond Church Growth: An Alternative Vision For Congregations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2002.

 

____________. An Evangelizing People: Lay Leadership for a Witnessing People. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 1992.

 

____________. The Evangelical Pastor: Pastoral Leadership for a Witnessing People Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 1992

 

Rasmussen Larry L., Moral Fragments & Moral Community: A Proposal For Chruch in Society Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

 

________________., and Renate Bethge.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer: His Significance for North Americans. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1990

 

Robinson, John A.T. Honest to God. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963.

 

Willimon, William H. Conversations With Barth on Preaching Nashville, Abingdon Press 2006



Entry Two, Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

For the 5th Wednesday in Lent March 24 2010

Homily on the Daily Readings

Luke 18: 31-34

We continue our reflection on last Sunday’s gospel story, when Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.  In John Jesus knew he had to die.  He also knew this from tonight’s text from Luke:

 

“For he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon.  After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.”

 

As we move to the last days of Lent and prepare for Palm/Passion Sunday and Holy Week, we see that Jesus knew what he was talking about.  He is about to die.

But the twelve in Luke understood nothing about all these things.

 

Now is not the time to blame the dense disciples, but it is the time to ask, Do we understand?  Do we really understand why Jesus, Son of God had to die on a cross in order to complete his purpose for us?

 

So, let’s ponder a bit... Throughout history there have basically two explanations.

 

The most popular, as depicted in the movie “The Passion of the Christ”, is called the Substitutionary Atonement theory or Christ as sacrificial victim.

 

In a nutshell it goes like this:


We humans have sinned.  God needs to appease or satisfy this gross mistake of human beings.  What human being could be found who is good enough to pay the price of sin?  Only his Son Jesus…  As sacrificial victim Jesus, receives in his own person the righteous judgment of God against human unrighteousness. 

 

Is that why we have the cross. 

 

Now there is some real truth here, Christ substitutes for us something we cannot do. Christ does sacrifice for us.  But during the Middle Ages and into our own time something changed. In order to point out how awful our sin is the innocent victim needs to suffer greatly.  Thus the more blood, the pain, the more humiliation, the more suffering the better….The more Jesus suffers the better we feel.

 

What is wrong with this? After all, Jesus does suffer and die on a cross. But all one needs to do is read the stories of the Passion and then watch the movie the Passion of the Christ again and see the bloody liberties the director of the film took with the Biblical text and you see more clearly this explanation.

 

Elizabeth Moltmann Wendell sums up this approach as it has evolved:

“God wanted to damn everybody, but his vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of his own Son, who was quite innocent, and therefore, a particularly attractive victim.  He now only damns people who don’t follow Christ or who have never heard of him.” 

 

Using last weeks question when we reflected on the Prodigal Son story, what image of the Father does this theory paint?  How does that image of the blood thirsty God compare with the Prodigal Father?

 

The other major theory: The Moral Theory… Why the cross, to show the depth of divine love…

Now this one sounds much better...  The intention of the sacrifice is not more blood and suffering but to see forth an ultimate truth which if received by the recipient will alter the perspective of the recipient.  The cross as a positive demonstration of universal love appeals both to our kindlier conception of humanity and our friendlier conception of God. 

 

But here, the effect of the cross depends upon us and our response.  If it changes you than God’s plan worked, if not well, it’s your fault…

 

Are these good reasons for God in human form to die on a cross?

 

Instead how about some reasons you and I could come up with simply from reading the Bible this Lent.

 

How about the temptation story on the first Sunday in Lent, in which Jesus was told by the devil he would be given the power to turn stones to bread; authority over all the kingdoms of this world, the possibility that he would not die. Note that Jesus was offered the means to feed the hungry, the authority to end war between peoples, and even the defeat of death itself.  But he refused.

 

His refusal begins to get at the why of the cross. He refused because he knew God’s kingdom cannot be forced into existence. God acts, God promises, God attracts us, God does not force us to believe.

 

Remember the story of The God of Abram and the covenant in Genesis 15 from Lent 2, in which God does all the promising, God takes the burden of the curse of our brokenness on him.  When we believe this story, there is no possibility of vindictiveness in the God who made unconditional promises to Abram. 

 

And remember, the God whose ways do not fit into explanations of why people suffer in the Lenten 3 Gospel?

 

And remember, the God who breaks all the rules in order to reconcile with us in the story of the prodigal God who is the God Mary anointed for his burial in last Sunday’s Gospel…

 

Now we have some Biblical reasons for Jesus dying on a cross.  He refused the powerful political and religious systems of the world which promise to give security and prosperity through violence and force…and he claimed power over them…

 

But God’s way which is not our way, which is why the disciples did not understand it, is to defeat the world’s power and idolatry, through weakness, suffering and death. 

 

In the Empire’s hands, the cross was simply the way of getting rid of rivals. 

 

In God’s hands, the Cross became God’s way of dying to the Empires way,  and our ways and through death, giving us life and a new way, free from violence, fear and death in God’s new kingdom.  

 

So, now with our Bibles in hand, let’s get ready to go to Jerusalem with Jesus. A parade, a last supper, washing of feet, a trial, a cross and a big surprise are waiting for us. 

 

Amen

 

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