Bonhoeffer on “Non-Religious Interpretation,” part 2

Bonhoeffer painting

See part one. See the comments in part one for some good thoughts and questions from others.

This is the second and final installment of my exploration of Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity, found in his prison letters. I am more critical in this post — certainly, more questioning. Some of the footnote comments may be of interest, to alert those who ignore footnotes.


Bonhoeffer acknowledges that Barth was the first to recognize the mistake of “making a space” for religion in modern life, illustrated by the apologetic theologies discussed in the previous post. But, according to Bonhoeffer, Barth failed to guide us in the “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts,” which is necessary for a responsible theology today. Bonhoeffer bemoans Barth’s “positivism of revelation.”[1] What does this mean? As far as I can tell from Bonhoeffer’s brief comments, Barth failed to carry through his criticism of religion. He stopped at his criticism of these false apologetic strategies, but in their place he offered the received dogmatic material of the church’s faith. “Positivism” was sometimes used as a label for any conservative theology that subordinated itself to a given and stable authority, namely the Bible and derived confessional standards.[2] Thus, the theological task is the explication of this material, the enterprise known as dogmatics, often valuing precision of expression and analytical rigor. We do not know exactly what Bonhoeffer has in mind, but he is clearly not happy with this turn in Barth. And he uses Barth as an example of neglecting the task at hand. (We have to leave to the side whether this is fair to Barth.[3]) This task is to interpret Christian concepts into non-religious concepts, thereby rendering them more truly faithful to Christ. Why does Bonhoeffer see this as such a pressing matter? Because only in this way can modern man encounter God again, confronted with the demand of love in every situation. Thus, it is ultimately an ethical concern for Bonhoeffer, as we would expect from his previous writings. And as such, these prison letters on “religionless Christianity” can be seen as having strong continuity with his prior treatments of ethics as encounter and decision, not law and duty.

But, what are we to make of this “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts”? It is here that criticisms can emerge. In many (not all) of these statements, the “non-religious” appears to be a norm and authority for Bonhoeffer – a norm and authority derived from the world as such. So, as we see, Bonhoeffer has been discussing his impression of reading a book on physics, realizing that, as he later states, “Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’”[4] He will elsewhere describe this as “the world come of age.”[5] That is true, of course, insofar as it goes — for a large segment of European society, and we would not want to recover the various defensive theologies that have attempted to deal with this.

But why does Bonhoeffer then suppose that the (post)metaphysical assumptions of this “non-religious man” are determinative for the church’s proclamation? Is this not just another apologetic theology? This is the curious thing about Bonhoeffer’s account of how the church must now relate to secular man. It is remarkably uncritical about this non-religious man, to whom the church must address its liberative Word. A good illustration is when Bonhoeffer recognizes that the concern for “personal salvation” is a question that has “left us.”[6] And, thus, the church should leave it as well. I am wary of how Bonhoeffer handles this. We do not have to endorse everything that may be associated with “personal salvation,” but Bonhoeffer fails to question whether this leaving behind of concern for matters of personal salvation may be an indictment of modern man, an illustration of his rebellion. More to the point, here is another instance where Bonhoeffer simply presents, without question or criticism, that “people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more,” as he stated earlier.[7]

Bonhoeffer appears to be endorsing, without sufficient criticism, the maturation of Western philosophical and social development. Indeed, Bethge notes that in June of 1944, “coming of age” appears in his letters for the first time, a term which he held “with noticeable joy” and which, according to Bethge, “he had learned from Kant.”[8] As such, Bonhoeffer is taking modern philosophical anthropology and using it as a norm for the theological task of the church. That, at least, is my critical reading of these particular statements. But, what about his ethics and Christology?

Simultaneously, Bonhoeffer attempts to ground this concept of autonomy in his Christology, perhaps circumventing my above criticism. As Bethge notes, “The genesis is his Christology; the cross of Christ not only judges and delivers the world, but also give it freedom to be what it is in its own worldly structures.”[9] And this takes us back to his criticisms of existentialism and theologians like Bultmann and Tillich who failed to account for how “Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations,” not just man in crisis.[10] So, for Bonhoeffer, it is Christ who liberates us to live freely and joyfully in this world, and therefore this Western autonomy is properly Christian. But, we must ask, is it just a coincidence that modernity, in its own ever-progressing quest for man’s autonomy and success in doing so, is fulfilling this properly Christian anthropology? In other words, it seems that Bonhoeffer has two approaches, two starting points even, which have not been correlated or reconciled. The one originates from the phenomena of modern human life as such, and the other originates from the person and work of Jesus Christ. If Bonhoeffer had more consistently located his “religionless” project in the latter, instead of appearing to give undue weight to the former, then perhaps he could avoid censure from those of us who are wary about his proposals in these letters.

Lastly, I must mention his interesting, albeit perplexing, comments on Bultmann’s demythology project. Bultmann has appeared elsewhere in the letters, but here is perhaps the clearest statement:

Bultmann seems to have somehow felt Barth’s limitations, but he misconstrues them in the sense of liberal theology, and so goes off into the typical liberal process of reduction – the ‘mythological elements of Christianity are dropped, and Christianity is reduced to its ‘essense’. My view is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must be kept – the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection etc.) is the thing itself – but the concepts must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a pre-condition of faith (cf. Paul and circumcision).[11]

I find this perplexing, because I really do not know what he means. He wants to retain (in some sense not defined) the miraculous and mythological but interpret them in a non-religious, non-metaphysical way, which is what I thought Bultmann was doing! And the concern about not making these metaphysical assumptions (a world where virgin births and bodily resurrections can happen) into “preconditions of faith” is at the heart of Bultmann’s project, as far as I understand it. So how exactly is Bonhoeffer retaining the mythological? Behind this question is the question of what Bonhoeffer means by “metaphysics” in his criticism of “religion.” I have noted the ethical concern, but there seems to be more. Bethge claims that, in Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, “Metaphysics here means a conceptualization of the message within the philosophical framework of both the Greeks and the idealistic philosophers of the nineteenth century.”[12] That’s pretty standard. If that is the case, then what precisely in this metaphysics must change in Bonhoeffer’s reinterpretation into non-religious categories? That is the big, glaring question to which I do not see any satisfying answer, nor does Bonhoeffer even give an attempt to answer this question. I am no fan of Bultmann’s project, but is Bonhoeffer really all that far from him?

But, as I said at the beginning of the previous post, these are suggestive reflections in the form of letters, while being imprisoned by a genocidal regime! They are not theological treatises, as we are accustomed. As a result, we are left with a lot of questions.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition, SCM Press, 1971; Touchstone, 1997), 328.

[2] Not to be confused with “logical positivism,” a philosophical movement of secular post-metaphysical scientism. In theology, “positivism” can also indicate a theology that eschews natural reason, as in Paul Janz’s definition: “Positivism in theology is any position that seeks to uphold the integrity of transcendence (or revelation) by giving up the integrity of reason or of natural enquiry” (Janz, God, the Mind’s Desire [Cambridge University Press, 2004], p. 5; Qtd. in Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma [IVP Academic, 2014], p. 80).

[3] It seems especially odd to criticize Barth in this way, given Barth’s creative and ingenious reworking of the Christian tradition: to wit, his comprehensive rejection of natural theology and his reworking of the doctrine of election, to name two areas where his “novelty” is most criticized to this day. In a letter to Eberhard Bethge, Barth wrote that “positivism of revelation” is “a concept still incomprehensible and unintelligible to me.” See Fragments Grave and Gay (London: Fontana, 1971), 119-122.

[4] Bonhoeffer, ibid., 325. The book is The World-View of Physics by C F Von Weizsacker and referred to on p. 311, ibidem.

[5] Ibid., 329, 341, 361.

[6] Ibid., 286.

[7] Ibid., 279.

[8] Eberhard Bethge, “Bonhoeffer’s Christology and His ‘Religionless Christianity,’” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 23:1 (Fall, 1967), 68.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bonhoeffer, ibid., 342.

[11] Ibid., 329. In an earlier letter (p. 285), he criticizes Bultmann for “abridging the gospel” by separating God and miracle, both of which must be interpreted “in a ‘non-religious’ sense.”

[12] Bethge, ibid., 66. Bethge describes the ethical concern as “to relocate genuine transcendence in this world – in the person next to me” (ibid.).


Image: Painting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (source)



  1. I’m not really sure the Death of God theologians were misinterpreting Bonhoeffer’s intentions, although I think Bonhoeffer was himself uncertain about, and uncomfortable with, his own thoughts and their implications. In fact, I’ve come to believe that Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about these matters, as opposed to the example his life, are more-or-less a dead end, finding their terminal point in the theologies of Hamilton and Altizer. They are deep thoughts from which theology must recover, not on which it can build.

    • I think the DoG theologians were indeed taking a trajectory which Bonhoeffer seems to indicate, as my criticisms above suggest. But I am adding qualifiers like “seems” because (1) Bonhoeffer himself does not give concrete guidance here and (2) because his Christological claims could offer a better way to conceive his proposal.

      It is important to recall that Bonhoeffer warns Bethge about the radical nature of his recent thoughts, precisely in regard to his proposal for a secular theology, whatever that looks like — which lends support to the DoG theology.

  2. The critique of Bonhoeffer’s uncritical acceptance of modernity or nonreligious man is right and could probably be extended to most modern theology. What’s interesting is that there still is a ‘given’ – only it’s no longer God’s existence but man’s non-religiousness. It’s not enough to just say that man has come of age – to paraphrase Plantinga, you don’t call something into question by simply saying (even loudly and passionately), ‘I hereby call this into question’ – you have to so why such and such is the case. Simply saying that man has learned to live without God as a working hypothesis won’t do it.

    • Good point about the “given” for Bonhoeffer — we could say “positivism of non-religiousness”!

      Your point about uncritical acceptance of modernity extending to most of modern theology is something to which we all must give ample consideration, and the current “backlash” by a revived patristics and scholasticism (both Thomist and Protestant) indicates that we are amidst such a re-consideration. In Trinitarian theology, this is most evident — e.g., Stephen Holmes, Lewis Ayres, et al.

      But I would caution ourselves. For example, the “Hellenization thesis” where Greek and Hebrew thought forms are strictly contrasted, which dominated 20th century theology, is not entirely without merit, even if we now know its over-simplifications. I have learned a lot from 20th century theological personalism, which is encountered almost everywhere: E. Y. Mullins, Martin Buber, Emil Brunner, John Baillie, Oscar Cullmann, and many more. We can see their limitations now, but they were reviving something lost, as each epoch must and as ours is now.

      As you know, I consider Barth’s CD II.1 to be the exemplar for how to engage responsibly with the past and present. And he did far better than his peers at avoiding an uncritical acceptance (or rejection) of modernity’s demands. Every theology student should read II.1, the sooner the better. It will save him or her from the trends and reactions that plague so many students.

  3. Firstly, I don’t want to let Bonhoeffer off the hook so entirely because these are “only” letters. Paul wrote deep and penetrating theology through his letters, and did not need to write dogmatics. I don’t think it gets Bonhoeffer off the hook for what he seems to be trying to say.

    The thing that strikes me is that he comes to this realization reading…a physics book? Really? To take the pulse of Europe, he allows himself to be bamboozled by the generally high-handed approach of the academy that is self-consciously triumphant? I don’t want to cut him no slack but…it’s like a fundamentalist having a crisis of faith after reading Dawkins and retooling theology around the idea that the world has become gnu-atheists.

    Again, I bring up Ellul: in refuting how Europe was now “secular” he tells a story how he went out in the country (he lived in Bordeaux) and met a man at his farm. As they sat around the fireplace, with the sun dimming, the man turned to Ellul, who was a pastor at the time, and pointed to the fire. This, the man said, is my god. Ellul was taken aback, and thought the man was joking. No joke. Fire sustained him at night, cooked his food, this was the god of this world. For Ellul, this anecdote unmasked the face of the standard European.

    Modern man is like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His belief in rationality and reason flows side by side with a belief in fairies. He deludes himself that he is anything but his ancestors. Man can’t help but build altars.


    • I am in very large agreement with you. I am, of course, not letting Bonhoeffer off the hook. I think his expressions are [on the surface at least] indistinguishable from Bultmann’s. But, I am indeed expressing some caution. I am recalling Barth’s words, in the same letter to Bethge:

      “Was he really sure about what he meant when he composed them? But even if I am mistaken here, I still maintain that those letters from prison were only one, and indeed the last, of the stations of his life’s way, which, right from the beginning, was a very lively spiritual venture. They certainly are not its goal. I would also maintain that he would have been capable of the most astounding evolutions in quite a different direction, and that one therefore does injustice to him — ranked all of a sudden in the same line as Tillich and Bultmann — to interpret him now on the basis of those passages (or to regard him as his own prophet in the light of them).” (Fragments Grave and Gay, p. 122)

      I need to read Ellul. A close mentor of mine, Professor Thomas W. Currie, recommended Ellul to me, but I have never read any of his works.

      • Fair enough. It’s easy to dismiss when the man is gone from our times. Justice is done by those who knew him and interacted with him. I like Barth’s words; they’re an example of love covering over a brother!

        Ellul is a joy, though what he is saying can be elusive. He speaks a lot of wisdom. His books come in pairs that paint in the biblical dualism of ‘this-world’ and ‘the-world-to-come’. You’ll read one and realize that every path is a dead-end, humanity is going to drown in its own blood and madness. You’ll read the other and be floored at the in-breaking of the sovereign Lord and His Kingdom. One of my favorites (which is free online!!) is “The Politics of God & Man”.

  4. ‘But I would caution ourselves. For example, the “Hellenization thesis” where Greek and Hebrew thought forms are strictly contrasted, which dominated 20th century theology, is not entirely without merit, even if we now know its over-simplifications.’

    I agree completely – one shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater in any case. The ‘problem space’ that we’ve been given by your example of the Hellenization thesis (though I more or less ocnsider the thesis *as a whole* to be wrong) has given us a good deal worth thinking about. Let’s not write off the good that can come from any problem space, even if we see what caused it as quite mistaken (as I think)!

    I almost get the feeling that Bonhoeffer really didn’t know *how* to be modern in a way that is recognizably Christian but also not merely an apologetic religion. I think a good deal can be gleaned from his earlier writing – his christology lectures show how he was willing to affirm orthodox doctrines (virgin birth etc) while also affirming that they can’t be verified as an object of strictly historical study. His point being that things like the VB etc aren’t historical in the sense that their truth is contingent upon correct historical methodology. This does away with the need to base faith on ‘evidence’ as apologetics would have us do without relegating it to the realm of ‘myth’.

    This can, I believe, be tied in with a remark he made about Bultmann in which he states that he doesn’t believe that Bultmann went far enough – and that remark really puzzled me. I think we can reasonably assume that he meant that, as a matter of consistency, Bultmann should have also demythologised God instead of rather arbitrarily stopping with him. So Bonhoeffer is perhaps caught between the affirmation of orthodoxy and his rebellion against apologetic religion – one of which leads to demythologization (which, as you noted, he saw as ‘the thing itself’) and one of which leads to a form of historical rationalism.

    • Isn’t the problem not with apologetics or evidentiary thinking, but not understanding that these too are under the domain of faith? We have faith that the world gives us an accurate picture of itself, that there are “laws” (or some sense of constancy), and our faculties are capable of understanding. From thus we assess evidence.

      Relationally, this might come in a different form. The “evidence” to where the missing husband is might be the disappeared grocery list. Faith is the door to the context-story that would inform us on how to gather and process our evidence, and an “apology” is that no, he did not run away, he is merely shopping.

      Is the missing bridge between Bonhoeffer that he mistakenly swallowed the program of Modernity in his attempt to reach them?

  5. I think what’s missing from these comments is a realisation of the extent to which Bonhoeffer’s gesturing — gesturing — towards a “non-religious interpretation” was motivated by his detestation of Christian bullshit, and not just — and certainly not mainly — the bullshit of anti-science god-of-the-gaps theology (he’d be going nuts over ID) but above all the bullshit of imperial theology, theology at ease with the status-quo, theology ideologically entangled in shafting the poor and the weak, theology which is not always, implicitly, liberation theology (he’d be going really nuts over the Religious Right). Bonhoeffer was not only shocked by the Reich Church and the anti-Semitism which seemed to be in the church’s DNA, he was also deeply stirred by preponderance of pagans in the resistance. To repeat a point I made in response to Kevin’s first post, for Bonhoeffer the hermeneutical is driven by the socio-political ethical.

    Having said that, I agree that much in Bonhoeffer’s prison writings remains obscure and not altogether consistent (though, contra Cal, I suggest that the same could be said of Paul’s corpus!) — but not, I think, unintelligibly so. So, for example, Kevin, I think there is a correlation between Bonhoeffer’s historical account of our “coming of age” and his Christological take on autonomy (which I think Bonhoeffer would see as providence, not “coincidence”), viz., in each case the deus ex machina must go, replaced by a God who is not accessible, who on the one hand does not fill epistemological lacunae, and on the other hand “lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross”. The common denominator is the deus absconditus. But, of course, the correlation is not symmetrical: Bonhoeffer’s thought is consistently Christologically freighted from his doctoral work right through to LPP.

    As another (quick) point, I too can’t join up all the dots in Bonhoeffer’s comments on Bultmann, but it is clear to me, Kevin, that Bonhoeffer’s project is not “indistinguishable” from Bultmann’s. Take the Virgin Birth: for Bultmann it has to go because it scientifically beggars belief; for Bonhoeffer, however, it has to be reappraised because it is theologically suspicious, i.e., it is arguably docetic. Both theologians want to speak, without bullshit, to a “world come of age”, but their language games (Wittgenstein) are very different.

    The whole issue of secularisation — and the largely discredited secularisation thesis — demands a look in a discussion of LPP, coupled with a principalities-and-power theology (which I suspect would be invaluable in helping Bonhoeffer to make some necessary adjustments in his developing thought), but I’ve already far outstayed my welcome in this great thread, and only hope that this intervetiton is a helpful lubricant.

    • The Church, and the churches, in Germany failed so miserably to resist the evil of Nazism. The “pagans” had an advantage over Germany’s Christians in deciding to join the battle against the Third Reich, since they were not hampered in their decision by concerns over maintaining Two Kingdoms doctrine, and their consciences could not be assuaged by the idea that they were “only obeying orders,” as was thought to be the duty of every Christian in relationship to governing authority.

      Bonhoeffer’s concern in criticizing the deus ex machina, the god-of-the gaps, was that this god claims too little for the Lordship of Jesus Christ. A god standing only at the periphery of life is already standing aside when the demonic powers and principalities attempt to push their way to the center, and claim what is vital and strong as their own, even though what appears there at the center under their influence is really a death-dealing parody of vitality and strength.

      • One thing, though: Bonhoeffer did not want to claim Lordship for Jesus over all of life by succeeding in the kind of endeavor embraced by the Christian culture warriors. Instead, Bonhoeffer wanted Christians to look with a discerning and appreciative eye toward those things already affirming true strength and vitality in the world, especially when they don’t involve Christians, and embrace them rather than react negatively and defensively against them. When we react in this manner, we marginalize ourselves and deny the great good that God often works in the world of human beingsentirely apart from the Christian community; as a result, we sometimes put ourselves on the wrong side, working against the approximations of justice and mercy in the world into which non-Christians have poured.

        I think the comments here have helped me gain a new appreciation and understanding for some of what Bonhoeffer was saying.

      • One last: I remember that somewhere in the L&PP, Bonhoeffer talked about the nobility of Jesus Christ, and the nobility of the gospel, a nobility that had no need or desire to exploit human weakness for the spreading of the Kingdom Rather, wrote Bonhoeffer,Jesus and his gospel are magnanimous, celebrating human thriving and vitality, claiming them as part of God’s reign (albeit from the obscurity that the cross still casts over Jesus’ resurrection and the new creation), and working God’s purposes by way of the contradiction of a divine weakness that is so strong that it can be seen only by the eyes of faith in the midst of the secular autonomy of “man come of age.” B believed that Jesus’ Church should exhibit this very same nobility in its approach to the world.

    • Thanks, Kim, for the lubricant. I appreciate this. Yes, I can see where “the hermeneutical is driven by the socio-political ethical,” but it is not consistently maintained — or, at least, not consistently articulated in this way — even though it is consistently put forth as the upshot (the proper outcome). Likewise, the historical account of man come of age and the Christological liberation of man appear to be running parallel, for the most part, and not even subsumed under a theological category like providence. But, of course, we can read Bonhoeffer generously, harmonize and expand, and that is a useful exercise.

      By the way, I agree that the only worthwhile criticism of the virginal conception is the Docetic criticism, even if I disagree. If I remember correctly, Brunner used this criticism alongside the historical-critical peculiarities, arriving at an agnostic position on the matter.

    • Yes.

      Bonhoeffer disdains a church that needs human failure or dependence on religion to acknowledge God. As noted above, Bonhoefferian pessimism went straight to the DoGs. Bonhoefferian optimism went to those ever quoting St Irenaeus about that in which the glory of God subsists.

      Bultmann saw a comparatively narrow scientific progress as a problem for gospel-proclamation, and proposed demythologization as a solution narrowly tailored to it. Despite the demonic war in which he found himself, Bonhoeffer saw a more general human progress– some achieved, some to come– that required a more general solution.

      Bonhoeffer’s view is not contingent on the actual state of scientific knowledge. However impressed Bonhoeffer was by his physics text, had he next read, say, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, he would not have changed his mind.

      Click to access nagel4.pdf

      By ‘metaphysics’, Bonhoeffer may have meant both that speculation which science abandons in turning to its proper object, and also that speculation which the evangelist eschews in speaking plainly about Christ.

      Bonhoeffer sounds as though he imagines that the ‘mythology’ that is “the thing itself” can anchor, constrain, or influence some reasoning about life that is frankly worldly as in, say, Boethius, but not otherworldly as in, for example, Plotinus. This would not imply that we have only a this-worldly reality, but rather that ‘mythology’ rather than ‘metaphysic’ signifies the contingency of this reality on the kingdom.

      To trace just one later trajectory influenced by Bonhoeffer’s, the young Robert Jenson tried the dry idiom of analytic philosophy to achieve just such plain speaking against metaphysical religion and for Christ.

      To speak consistently in that fashion, however, is itself a project of rethinking metaphysics, either as the seven ecumenical councils did this, or else in some other way. In pursuing that rethinking, however, Jenson discovered (as Cal has been rightly insisting) that seemingly neutral thought is tacitly complicit in unacknowledged ‘principalities and powers’. Thus Jenson’s later career is largely one of reworking received categories around the Trinity. From Kevin’s criticisms and those of his commentators, this is just the outcome we should have expected from such a trajectory.

  6. Your first paragraph — yes,yes..

    Your second paragraph: well, this is a fine blog, the posts first-rate, finely tuned and toned (and sometimes delightfully offbeat!), and the comments are always worth following.

    • Yes, Kim, this is one of only three US blogs that I always read. In it, I value, not only the virtues that you mention, but also its independence of the buzz and chatter elsewhere, and its salience to important unfinished business.

  7. I agree with Kim that Bonhoeffer in LPP is not “indistinguishable from Bultmann” as Kevin suggests. In the whole of LPP it seems that he is trying to deal with the failures of the German church and thus looks at what is corrupt in their theological convictions that led to such passive moral and ethical response to the plight of the Jews. To me, B., is on the hunt for a better theology that engages with the real world and thus is critiquing barth for his lack of contact with the real world. Perhaps this would be similar to Brunner’s critique of Barth on this point. And would be more true to Luther’s own insistence on embodied, “worldly”, theology.

    I actually think B. is too Barthian to ever go the same theological direction as Bultmann. But he was definitely on the hunt for a new a priori. His critique later of therapy and even the idea that “belief in the resurrection is not the solution to the problem of death.” Pow! That is a real punch in the gut against uncritical piety and also existential interpretation of faith.

    Again, as i said in my post on Kevin’s previous blog, he is critical of the a priori of the german theological system that is coopted by the “powers” of German nationalism. They need a stronger antidote that is founded on the work of Christ in the cross. Perhaps Aulen’s Christus Victor atonement theory would have helped him come up with an answer for “who is Christ for us today?”

    • Just to clarify, I am only saying that Bonhoeffer is “indistinguishable from Bultmann” on a surface level, in how he expresses the need and task of non-religious interpretation in these handful of comments that I’ve cited. And I’ve tried to note the ambiguity and tension with his Christological concerns, as well as the ambiguity of the terms themselves (“metaphysics,” “religion,” etc.).

      Yes, I think his criticisms are indeed very similar to Brunner’s, as I blogged here:

      Pretty much all of Barth’s former allies, in the dialectical movement, did not understand his turn toward dogmatics. The ones who understood and appreciated it were the Catholics (Henri Bouillard, HuV Balthasar, et al.), not the Protestants. Kudos to the Catholics!

  8. Kevin, I’ll start here by saying I agree with your assessment that ethics necessarily plays a primary role in Bonhoeffer’s later theology. However, I don’t believe this ethical concern is necessarily continuous with his earlier writings. His earlier works regard Christian practice, but not necessarily ethical action, and, because of this, he expresses some regret with regard to writing them in one of his prison letters (though he admits that he still stands by them, for what they were during that time, he says the times had since changed). You make three points in this post to which I must respond:

    “This is the curious thing about Bonhoeffer’s account of how the church must now relate to secular man. It is remarkably uncritical about this non-religious man, to whom the church must address its liberative Word.”

    I completely disagree with this reading of his letters. I believe Bonhoeffer is profoundly critical of the modern, “non-religious” man. His statement is more lament than anything else, and I read a certain sadness in admitting the failure of a religious Christianity. Any joy that comes across in the letters regarding this is part distraction (from his temporal reality) and part Freudian mask (attempting to convince himself that perhaps there is more hope for humanity than he actually felt at the time). This requires some psychoanalysis (and thus speculation), but I believe it is central to understanding his project. You refer to this at the end of your post, implying that Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment by the Nazi’s was a co-factor which restricted his ability to produce a coherent theological work. But I do not see his imprisonment as a co-factor, I see it as the central cause of his new-found questioning of religious constructs (his Christ-on-the-cross moment, as it were).

    “Bonhoeffer appears to be endorsing, without sufficient criticism, the maturation of Western philosophical and social development. Indeed, Bethge notes that in June of 1944, ‘coming of age’ appears in his letters for the first time, a term which he held ‘with noticeable joy’ and which, according to Bethge, ‘he had learned from Kant.'”

    Again, I don’t believe the joy found in Bonhoeffer’s letters is the product of rejoicing in modern man’s accomplishments. Any joy that comes across, I believe, is directed at the realization that the world (including temporal religious institutions!) is as imperfect and in need of salvation as it ever was, and the failure Bonhoeffer was experiencing in a Nazi prison (and the failure of the great progressive enterprise of humanity) just proves that if we hope in God, it will be a God who acts over all creation, among all religions, and not a “deus ex machina,” as he says. It is thus an eschatological joy! So this “coming of age” is not a good thing, but just a thing. A thing to which Christians must respond, and which cannot be ignored (which is what he claims Barth is doing!). This is not the starting-point for his theology, but, rather, the necessary reality into which any meaningful theological discourse must accept and respond. This is not syncretism or capitulation, but a cold, hard realism, which can only be fully understood in recognizing the failure of modern man in all aspects (including theological speculation, which was something Barth seemed unwilling to do). Looking at it this way, Bonhoeffer is prescribing a radical return to a very high view of God–a God away from whom we cannot run, though we may deny the metaphysical existence of such a God; a God from whose future we cannot deter. Perhaps this is the God of Jonah that Bonhoeffer refers to in one of his letters?

    “He wants to retain (in some sense not defined) the miraculous and mythological but interpret them in a non-religious, non-metaphysical way, which is what I thought Bultmann was doing! And the concern about not making these metaphysical assumptions (a world where virgin births and bodily resurrections can happen) into ‘preconditions of faith’ is at the heart of Bultmann’s project, as far as I understand it.”

    My understanding is that Bultmann did not want to retain the miraculous and mythological, and that this is precisely what Bonhoeffer was criticizing. Bonhoeffer is essentially saying that Bultmann’s god is not big enough, while for Barth he is saying the same. Bonhoeffer’s position here requires some nuance, but you’re correct in pointing out that it requires some defining of “metaphysical” and “religious.” I don’t believe it’s his definition of metaphysics that is the primary question here, but, rather, his definition of religious. This is the central area of his criticism: the institution, practices and political role of the church. He never says Barth’s dogmatics are wrong–he says they need to be reinterpreted! I understand some may see that as a criticism of Barth’s theology as a whole, but I don’t think it is. I think Bonhoeffer is criticizing the way Barth was using his theology at the time (my understanding is that after the war, Barth takes up this criticism and incorporates it into his dogmatics, but you’d be a better judge of that than I). Bonhoeffer’s statement about “preconditions of the faith” is specifically regarding RELIGION and not dogmatics, per se. I.e. does a person need a religious Christianity in order to be a Christian? Or, is it even possible to practice a religionless Christianity? I think this is where Bonhoeffer’s questioning truly goes off into speculation, for he certainly retains the trappings of a religious Christianity even up to the day he was killed, according to accounts of his fellow prisoners.

    • Thanks, Matt, I’ve enjoyed reading both of your comments, here and in response to part one. It would be too difficult for me to address all of your points at this moment, but I will discuss it with you on Saturday. See you then!

    • This is certainly a different reading than I’ve heard in regards to Bonhoeffer, but I’d like it to be true (I have a soft spot for the man). It certainly jives with some of the dissonances in his writings.

      Someone in another comment said that what Bonhoeffer was experienced was a kind of high-Lutheran becoming Zwinglian.

      Now, take that label worth a grain of salt but what I see that as meaning is that Christ can be present outside of complex liturgies and confessions. I wonder how Bonhoeffer interacted, or knew about, the works of the Dutch Reformed who created a mood for realizing Christ’s Lordship over the common.

      What do you think about that in relation to Bonhoeffer, his own tradition, and his realizations in prison? I’ve not read the letters, how much does the rich and deep simplicity he saw among black American churches come into play?


      • Cal, I’d like it to be true as well! Bonhoeffer is much too complicated a figure to try and claim him as my own, but I supposed I’m entitled to my own opinions about what he meant. On that note, I do highly recommend reading his letters (and “Ethics”)–if for no other reason than to get into the mind of how a Christian was responding to the injustices of the Nazi enterprise.

        With regard to your question about Bonhoeffer’s influences, he certainly was a Lutheran, but having been a student of Barth he was on the Reformed side of that tradition (if one can say such a thing). I’ve never heard anyone describe him as Zwinglian, though, to be honest, I’m not sure what that even means. Certainly, as you say, it would mean that Christ is indeed present outside of liturgies and confessions and sacraments and even communities of the faithful. I think, rather than espousing a natural theology, this, for Bonhoeffer, was simply a radical affirmation of the God revealed in scripture. As far as the Dutch Reformed tradition goes, I suppose any Reformed influences would have come from his dialectical background. So however much Barth was influenced by the Dutch Reformed, the same can be probably be said for Bonhoeffer.

        His experience with the African American tradition is much more interesting, and, in my opinion, much more immediately influential upon Bonhoeffer’s theology. What he saw and experienced at Abyssinian Baptist Church was a community of oppressed people, radically removed from the influence of their oppressors, engaging and interpreting the Gospel in their own context. To say this contextualized gospel was profoundly different from Bonhoeffer’s inherited Euro-centric religion is an understatement–he’s on record as acknowledging the witness of the Spirit at Abyssinian was truer to the God of scripture than anything else he’d experienced in Germany, London or white America. Any constructive thoughts about what a religionless Christianity might look like would be profoundly shaped by this experience with the African American experience. Again, in this way I think Harvey Cox is the true inheritor of Bonhoeffer’s theology, but that’s still just my opinion.

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