Friday 29 June 2007

Ten theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: theologian, Christian, martyr

A guest-post by Ray Anderson, Fuller Theological Seminary

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

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a lonely theologian. Though he had a twin sister, was home-schooled by his mother, and was raised in a highly interactive social environment, his decision to become a theologian was met with curiosity and even some scorn. He was caught between his mother’s piety and his father’s open contempt for religion. Kenneth Morris says that in making his decision to become an academic theologian his “father pitied him and told him so” (1986, 75). For all his analysis of the social aspect of the self, Dietrich grew increasingly isolated in the midst of his activity. “With some exaggeration it might be said that because he was lonely he became a theologian, and because he became a theologian he was lonely” (Bethge 2000, 37). When a theologian writes (in Discipleship, 87), “Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads to death” (Jeder Ruf Christi fährt in den Tod), we know that the door to life has become so narrow that only one can pass through at a time. Perhaps Bonhoeffer had already read the bleak observation of the 19th-century German underground theologian, G. J. Hamann: “In a world of fugitives / One who moves in the opposite direction / Will appear to run away.”

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a conflicted theologian. While others perceived in Dietrich self-assurance and even a bit of arrogance, he often experienced self-contempt and even periods of depression in his own soul, or what Bethge, who perhaps knew him best, called accidie or tristitia. These periods often followed times when he had been particularly effective in preaching, teaching or leading others. However, as Bethge recalls, after his arrest and imprisonment in 1943, he no longer experienced these times, as he was gripped by a sense of duty. In spite of enforced inaction, he had finally achieved the concrete discipleship that he longed for (Bethge 2000, 506, 833).

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

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

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

7. Bonhoeffer was a post-denominational theologian. What he viewed as the demise of the church was its claim to a special place as a religious institution and its failure to exist in solidarity with the world in obedience to Christ. His participation in ecumenical conversations and dialogue marked a blurring of denominational boundaries and the recognition of authentic Christian existence in mutual friendship, as expressed in his final words sent to Bishop Bell in England from his death cell: “for me it is the end but also the beginning – with him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests and that our victory is certain – tell him too that I have never forgotten his words at our last meeting.” Writing from prison, his view of the church’s future was incarnational and ethical in a truly worldly sense. “The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give always all its property to those in need…. The church must share in the most secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving” (Letters, 382). Denominations are religious institutions at the edge of the world; the church is an incarnational presence in the midst of the world.

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

9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a maverick theologian. John Maverick was a 19th-century Texas rancher and legislator who received a herd of cattle in payment of a bill and turned them loose on the range without a brand. When one of them turned up without a brand, it was assumed to be one of Maverick’s. Many have tried to mark Dietrich with their own brand, to no avail! He slipped away from the death of God theologians when they realized that the same man who wrote from prison about living in a world without God was the one who invited a Russian atheist fellow prisoner to participate in a final communion service just before being executed. Pacifists put a claim on him but felt betrayed by his admission that he would kill Hitler himself if the lot fell to him as a member of the conspiracy. Evangelicals like his talk about Jesus but wish Bonhoeffer had been more concerned about his unsaved relatives and friends. Social activists applaud him for his concern for the oppressed but are embarrassed by his orthodox Christology. Even in death, as in life, he remained unbranded.

10. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a martyred theologian. There is disagreement over this, of course. His complicity in the conspiracy thrust him directly into political resistance. In the minds of many traditional Lutherans, this excluded him from being a Christian martyr. In a sermon preached in 1932 he had this to say about martyrs: “the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness” (Bethge 1975, 155). By his own definition, he was a martyr. He never claimed justification for his actions, other than to assume guilt as a necessary component of responsible action. Whether it was true or not, he thought that his actions, to the very end, were those of a Christian disciple in obedience to Christ. Martyrs live for what they confess to be true, and die for it. Only those who confess the same truth will call a person a martyr.


michael jensen said...

CRaig A Slane makes the case for Bonhoeffer as martyr in his book 'Bonhoeffer as Martyr'...

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Prof. Anderson, for this moving reflection.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Prof. Anderson and Ben! When I was writing my contribution to the confessions meme, I forgot to include the confession that I owe far more to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life and writing than I usually acknowledge--simply because Bonhoeffer was "trendy" when I was in seminary. While trends or fads are lousy reasons for attending to a theologian, they are even worse reasons for ignoring or failing to acknowledge such a great witness as Bonhoeffer.

Anonymous said...

I am currently reading letters and papers from Prison. What a lovely treat this post is...!


Anonymous said...

"his own theological praxis was concerned with action prior to reflection"

Man, that's really food for thought!

Adrian said...

Have you read Marilynne Robinson's essay on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in her collection of essays titled "the Death of Adam." I found it to be a pwerful and poetic meditation on his life.

Anonymous said...

Adrian: have not read the essay by Robinson, thanks for calling attention to it.

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks, Prof. Anderson, for these wonderful theses. My only quibble is with #6. My thoughts on this may be an aspect of my fundamental disagreement with emergent types that (1) there actually is such a thing as "postmodernity," and (2) that this has any real positive significance for theology. But that aside, I fail to see how thesis six relates to what you wrote. It seems that you are equating modernity with Kant's philosophy -- or in this case Kant's ethics. That seems to be a very narrow definition, and somewhat arbitrary. Is postmodernity really the first time in history that discipleship was elevated over abstract principles? I have a very hard time swallowing the notion that we have postmodernity to thank for bringing us back to the gospel. This thesis aside, the rest was excellent.

Anonymous said...

David: I agree, to label D. B. as an incipient postmodrn theologiain is a bit of a stretch, and I also agree that postmodern is hardly a hermeneutic for the gospel. My point was simply that modernity tends to base ethics on universal principles, while D. B. turns toward an ethic of responsibility in terms of discipleship. I did struggle over whether to include #6 but decided to use that heading to point out his turn away from universal principles in favor of concrete obedience. Thanks for your insightful comments here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ray,

I loved your suggestion that Bonhoeffer was a "post-denominational" theologian.

I've been thinking of him recently in relation to Christology and ethics, but your comment makes me wonder what his approach might suggest for ecumenism.

I know you recently wrote a book on the emerging church, and I'm curious what your take would be (or what you think B would say) on some of the recent efforts at ecumenical dialogue that aim for institutional and visible unity in "the Church."

My guess is that you would say the latter sounds like the Jerusalem model and you (like most emergent types... and perhaps Bonhoeffer?) would prefer the Pauline dispersion model.


Anonymous said...

LeRon: you guessed right! While D. B. was involved in ecumenical dialogue prior to his activity with the conspiracy, I think that he began to view the insitutional form of the church as dispensable to the extent that it claimed some kind of privileged religious space in the world. And yes, I would hope that he would agree with me that Paul's 'emergent' theology that fueled the missional thrust of the Kingdom out of Antioch was a more authentic ecclesiology (yes he still used the term!) than that of the Jerusalem community. But I would not want to 'brand' D. B. with the emerging church label!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ray,

What a treat! I'd been think of doing a 10 Ps on DB myself. I am now so glad I didn't: why have cotton when you can have silk?

It's also very timely for me personally, as I'm just about to review a new book on Bonhoeffer (for the UK Student Christian Movement magazine Movement): Heart of Flesh: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Study in Christian Prophecy by Gillian Court (published, appropriately - #7 - by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland). So #5 - and as Bonhoeffer was so Jeremiah-like, #2 and #3 as well - will come in handy!

I think my only quibble (of definition, really) would be with with your statement (in #8) that "Bonhoeffer was never a disciple of Barth": and not so much because "almost everything Bonhoeffer wrote was written with Barth in mind" (John Godsey, approvingly cited by Charles Marsh), but precisely because true Barthians are not clones by critics.

I particularly like #9, how Bonhoeffer fits no formula, how he is a thorn in the flesh of liberals and evangelicals alike.

And as for #10, Amen! - as if the earliest martyrs themselves weren't bearing a Christian witness precisely in bearing a political witness. Christ or Hitler was simply (!) the Christ or Caesar of the Third Reich.

Thanks again for your insight and precision. We are all in your debt.


Anonymous said...

Prof. Anderson! What a delight to find you here. Thanks for the posts. Your lecture on a theology for the emergent church in Irvine was great, and it seems like it could make the 10 point post format, as well.

#8 is still sticky for me: I worry that the without reflection, I will only reproduce the actions and values of my context.

Anonymous said...

Ah the dilemma of definitions! Ken, I chose the word 'disciple' carefully with reference to D. B.'s relation to Barth, because D. B. would never admit to being a disciple of anyone other than Christ. At the same time, as Andras Pangritz (2000) argues, Bonhoeffer and Barth were two edges of the same 'sword' of the Word of God, each cutting away at the tenacles of religion and forging a way forward on slightly different paths.

And Erin, by action without reflection, I think that D. B. meant the kind of reflection that steps back from action in order to establish some justification in universal principles prior to action. He 'reflected on' situations not about them, in order to gain insight as to where his action should best be invested. Insight is directed into situations for the sake of action; reflection is directed away from situations in order to establish ethical justification (if possible) for action.

Robert Cornwall said...

Thanks Ray for this wonderful set of propositions -- You have kept up Kim's tradition well.

Bonhoeffer has long been an inspiration to me and even when I'm not sure what to do with him I'm challenged by him. I always wonder what would have happened had he lived a full life rather than died so young. Would he have had the same influence as he has had? Of course, had he lived, he would have had the opportunity to more fully define himself.

And while I did have you for a class in seminary (Theology of the Family), it was Lew Smedes who taught my one class in Bonhoeffer's thought.

Anonymous said...

An added bonus to this post was that I finally learned the origin of the term "maverick." :-)

Anonymous said...

A grand example of the romantic spirit, ah what great things can be achieved by the wholly consumed mind, to fire the imagination of prescient youth and cause it to dream of glorious death. Christ of course being the example, but how would House diagnose the malady? Surely some little parasite created this imbalance which is entirely absent from the more cautious Barth, one can understand entirely why doctors once prescribed the pipe as an effective remedy for high blood pressure and terrible passions in general. Picture Gandalf in Moria lighting his pipe a small delicate flame revealing the weight of darkness ever present which the incandescent light never really sees being too consumed by its own need to burn.

David Williamson said...

A truly fascinating post. I've just started reading his prison letters. The warmth he displayed for his family and his lack of self-pity are astonishing.

Godfrey Onentho said...

How challenging are the theologial convictions of Bonhoeffer! Look at this one: “The church is the church only when it exists for others.... The church must share in the most secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving” (Letters, 382). A point for honest reflection for the Church today, its leadership and followers involved in social life (politics, economics and science). People all over the world want the church to do more to address moral degeneration, to be pragmatic and confront oppression and injutice in its entirety adn with the zeal of Jesus Christ. Who is ready to do it?

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