Some Bonhoeffer Reflections

Since today is the remembrance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom, I thought I’d offer a few reflections on his theology – these are all reposts of thing I’ve already written. At any rate, here they are:

This was a fruitful conversation I had on the Facebook some time ago.

These are my thoughts in response to Kevin Davis’s perceptive series on Bonhoeffer.

Here’s one of the first in-depth posts I wrote on Bonhoeffer’s (in)famous ‘world come of age’ idea. Here’s part two.

Here’s why one of my favourite lines from Bonhoeffer is ‘Here, at least, what we call God is needed’

My thoughts on Bonhoeffer’s somewhat ambiguous ‘religionless Christianity’. Richard Beck’s post, with which I interact in my own post, remains one of the best expositions of Bonhoeffer’s theology I’ve found.

I wrote a short post comparing the theological methodology of Bonhoeffer and Torrance here.

I compare Calvin and Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of the knowledge of God here.

And, finally, one of the first things I ever wrote on Bonhoeffer and his christology.

Anyway, that’s all for now. If you know of any more good posts, link them in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Book Review: ‘The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics: A Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Ethics’ in Relation to Virtue Ethics’, by Jennifer Moberly

The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics: A Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Ethics’ in Relation to Virtue Ethics‘, by Jennifer Moberly

Pickwick Publicaitons, 270 pp. $30.00

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has long been one of my favourite theologians. Actually, thinking back on it, he was probably one of the first serious theologians I became interested in, and after reading The Cost of Discipleship, I dove into his Ethics. That book was a paradigm shift for me, and since then I’ve read a good deal of Bonhoeffer’s writing, but always come back to Ethics.

Jennifer Moberly, in this study, seeks to draw out aspects of Bonhoeffer’s ethical vision that fit together with virtue ethics. In between the introduction and the conclusion are five chapters, having to do with whether or not Bonhoeffer thought of himself as a virtue ethicist, a survey of virtue ethics in Christian thought, Bonhoeffer’s ethics as virtue ethics, Bonhoeffer’s modes of ethical discourse, and divine command and/or virtue ethics. Continue reading

Some Bonhoeffer Thoughts

These are my comments on Kevin Davis’ outstanding 2-post series on Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity – do give them a read here. At the risk of self-advertising, here are some more of my thoughts on Bonhoeffer

‘We really don’t know what Bonhoeffer meant by “metaphysics,” and that is a big part of the problem with interpreting him here — but it is clear that he wants to secularize Christian concepts in some sense.’

There is definitely a problem there – I suspect, based on his reference to 12th-13th century as being when man ‘came of age’ that he has *some* form of scholastic metaphysics in his sights, but as you note, none of these things are carefully defined or discussed. The safe route would be to take him as simply trying to say how we can be Christians and have something to say to the world when God isn’t a given – stop trying to plug up apologetic/existential ‘gaps’ with God, stop trying to make man feel guilty when he’s oblivious to it, and simply live in faith in the world. That seems to be the safest option. But, again (again) this may not be the case – he speaks of Bultmann ‘not going far enough’ but then he also writes about how the mythology ‘is the thing’ of Christianity. Does he want us to return to the God of the Bible – revealed in weakness, operating in ways that are foolish to the world because of that weakness – or does he (as he almost seems to hint at) want us to do away with god-talk altogether and simply live in the world in faith?

Part of this also turns on the issue of the ‘secular’. You see that a lot, in guys like Charles Taylor, James KA Smith, etc – but who has pronounced us to be residents of a ‘secular’ age? No doubt our everyday experience may reflect a deepening secular-ity, but so what? Experience may be (and often is) wrong – why do we need to make the faith fit into our experience of the world as secular? There’s a lot of baggage here that needs to be opened and subjected to scrutiny when it is all too often simply taken to be truth.

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.

‘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.

A Few Assorted Thoughts on God, Weakness, Jesus and the World

This is actually a discussion I had on a Facebook comment thread -I posted this and the following exchange ensued (one commentator is bold, one is italicized, and my responses are in plain text. I’ve edited here and there, so any awkwardness is my own fault).

I think I should disagree with this argument from Bonhoeffer. Perhaps it’s born of the times in which he wrote, in which evil seemed to be prevailing in his world, that he should see God’s true power in His apparent weakness, but I don’t think it reflects the Biblical picture we have of an intervening God, who conquered all through a seeming act of “weakness” (namely, the Cross).

The Kingdom principles which Jesus teaches tends to upend conventional wisdom, in that the last will be first and the first will be last, service is true leadership, there is virtue in suffering, etc. But God certainly made His presence felt in power as well as in seeming weakness, all through the Scriptures.

If Jesus is the Word of God, the full revelation of God, etc etc, then right off the bat, as Jeff pointed out, there are some serious challenges to conventional wisdom. If we go a bit further, and say that in Christ God was/is acting to reconcile all things and all men to Himself, then it seems that God’s way of acting in the world is completely at odds with how we think He should act in the world.

What I think is an appropriate way of thinking about what Bonhoeffer means by ‘weakness’ is this: the world is a world of striving, power, will, force, violence, etc. That’s what it means to act in power in the world. God doesn’t simply choose to armwrestle the world and win – through weakness (perhaps apparent weakness – we could say that this weakness is true strength) He overcomes the entire ‘machine’ of force, violence, striving, and power. When God flexes His muscles, it takes the form of the Cross and the Manger.

There’s a lot of merit to that, but the God who acts with meekness in so much of the New Testament also took down Annanias and Sapphira in the book of Acts for attempting to deceive the Holy Spirit, and kicks butt and takes names at the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation. The Lord is complex, at the very least.

I think it can be pretty certainly said that when it comes to Kingdom/reconciliation, violence will never advance it (see Jesus’ rebuke to Peter for chopping that one guys ear off).

Though it IS rather interesting that Jesus instructed His disciples to go and get a sword…I don’t believe Jesus is at all contradictory…but I am sure He enjoys playing with our presuppositions, no matter where they sit.

Jesus also says that he comes to not bring peace but a sword – so there’s obviously more happening here than simple descriptions of primitive warfare. Though references to swords are very common (especially in Proverbs) – not to mention the sword of the Spirit, etc. One could probably argue that it’s a subverted metaphor – remember, the weapons of our warfare are not flesh and blood, so Jesus could quite easily command his disciples to gird up for war – but waged with weapons of the spirit – peace, the Gospel, etc.

The context of Jesus saying that He brings “a sword” deals with the division, especially of families, within the Jewish community over His claims to being Messiah. It creates near enmity between family members when one person in the family embraces Jesus as Messiah–the others see it as a betrayal, and the new believer is usually shunned by the rest of the family/community. It happened then, just as Jesus said, and it continues to happen today. This is why Jesus told us to count the cost of discipleship, though that’s going to dovetail quite nicely into being a Bonhoeffer reference as well.

However, Jesus didn’t seem too off-put by the fact of war and violence…He often used the ideas of soldiers going to war, Kings planning wars, and such…I don’t believe Jesus was promoting war or violence, nor do I believe He was pleased by it. But I do think that He regarded such things as a reality of the fallen world that we all must live in. And, though He did use such examples to point to spiritual truths, it also strikes me that Jesus didn’t seem too adverse to earthly power, when such powers were in line with shaping world events for the spread of His Gospel.

Also, in spite of Jesus letting the Romans do with Him what they did, I don’t see Jesus being a pacifist at all. He would have told husbands/fathers to protect their wives and children against invaders, and were it not for Him seeing God’s hand of judgment against His people in terms of the Roman occupation of the Promised Land, He would have organized armed rebellion against the pagan invaders.

I’m not a pacifist or super zealous anti-violence-in-the-bible guy – so I don’t see Jesus as a pacifist (in the modern sense) in any way. I also agree that Jesus was fine working within the existing structures of power (most of the characters in the NT seem fine with that) but with the intent to both (a) subvert or reform them and (b) remind them who it was that their authority came from (I think we see both of those themes in Paul, though the anti-imperial themes are blown way out of proportion these days). Paul is a great example of someone willing to use the circuitry of the Roman empire to spread the mesage of the Gospel, even though those two things are pretty at odds with each other. But I believe that there is intent to subvert and reform by the spreading of the message – since there’s significant biblical witness to the Gospel being God’s power to save.

Thought Notes 7/25/2014

I was reading Nussbaum’s ‘Therapy of Desire’, and it occurred to me that Epicurus might well be the first eliminativist (whether or not this is a novel insight I don’t know). Epicurus holds that our senses are completely reliable faculties in terms of giving us true knowledge (contra Plato) – all our errors (specifically moral/ethical) come from belief. He effectively distrusts people’s natural reason, noting that reason can easily be twisted, corrupted, ignored and otherwise rendered ineffective and even harmful – hence why he directs us to our senses. Epicurus’ method involves a theraputic dialectic designed to show how we can remove these false beliefs – a surgery, if you will.

This started me thinking: do beliefs play the large role in ethics that they are usually assumed to do? Ethical approaches are typically ‘intellectualist’ or ‘cognitive’ – our doing the good depends on our knowing the good. I’ve wondered if this is the case, though, especially after reading James K.A. Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’, where he points out that the intellectual/cognitive aspects of our ‘acting’ in the world (whether moral, ethical, or whatever) are pretty much the last aspect of our actions.

Bonhoeffer spends a fair amount of time in his book ‘Ethics’ deconstructing the idea that ethics is a matter of knowing good, or knowing the good, via dialectic or deduction. He considers the idea that ‘the good’ being an objbect of human knowledge the devil’s first lie – this knowledge must be invalidated for any true ethic to be formulated. The ‘good’ isn’t derived from natural knowledge via dialectic or deduction but from the the presence of the Truth itself. I’ll spend some more time thinking on this, because I actually think there are some intersections between his thought and the classical ethical tradition.

Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Knowledge of God

Calvin takes as a basic axiom that the knowledge of ourselves and our knowledge of God is the most important aspect of knowing in general – of religious epistemology. They are tied together in an intimate way, Calvin says – from our knowledge of ourselves, we’ll come to a knowledge of God. However, no one can come to a true knowledge of themselves without a true knowledge of God. The two are tied together intimately.

Calvin treats knowledge of God first, and descends to the self later on – from the knowledge of ourselves, we can deduce only that we’re in a world of misery, and that we desire to rest in something greater. Our natural knowledge of God is suppressed or ignored, despite there being a kind of imprint of the divine on the heart and mind (this is an axiom for Reformed epistemology). The basic point, however, is that the knowledge of the self is tied together with knowledge of God – in Calvin’s case, our self-knowledge is knowledge of our need for God. For a brief exposition, see:  http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/01/15/a-calvin-clarification/

What happens, according to Bonhoeffer, is that when we begin to think and reflect upon ourselves, all our knowledge becomes self-knowledge, and takes part in the disunion of the knowledge of good and evil:

‘Man knows good and evil, but because he is not the origin, because he acquires this knowledge only at the price of estrangement from the origin, the good and evil he knows are not the good and evil of God but good and evil against God.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23)

Knowledge of good and evil is the cause of all the disunion in man’s life – and the cause of death in man’s life. The problem isn’t that we know good and evil, and try to do the good, but fail, and see that we need God – the problem is that we know good and evil, apart from God, against God. In Bonhoeffer’s terminology, we become a god against God:

‘…man, knowing of good and evil, has finally torn himself loose from life, that is to say from the eternal life which proceeds from the choice of God…Man knows good and evil, against God, against his origin, godlessly and of his own choice, understanding himself according to his own contrary possibilites; and he is cut off from the unifying, reconciling life in God, and is delivered over to death. The secret which man has stolen from God is bringing about man’s downfall.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23-24)

Bonhoeffer, contra Calvin, says that the knowledge of the self isn’t tied to knowledge of God – knowledge of the self is born out of disunion with God. This is an inversion of what’s a fairly key point in a lot of philosophy and theology – the knowledge of the self.

 

History and Theology

Continuing with the ‘eyes of faith’ theme I’ve got going, let’s take a look at Bonhoeffers thought on seeing Christ in history:

‘The historical approach to the Jesus of history is not binding for the believer. Historical certainty is not a union with Jesus; that is no more than encounter with any other person from the past. We can have ‘Moments with Christ’ as we can with Goethe. It is not a mystical union either with some person in history, but rather a person who bears witness to himself…But it is the risen one who himself creates faith and thus knows the way to himself ‘in hitory’. When we have Christ witnessing to himself in the present, any historical confirmation is irrelevant. In faith, history is known, not from within nor from itself, but in the light of eternity. This is the direct approach of faith to history.’ (Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center’, p. 72-73)

Lots going on here. My thought is that we can’t come to a true knowledge and union with Christ through the methods of historical inquiry alone – we must approach the living Word with an in faith, which is given to us by the word. Our faith is not in historical method – we don’t come to a true knowledge of Christ through really close study of history textbooks. Our faith is given to us *by* Christ – it is only through this faith that we can know Christ through history. Again, we won’t come to a knowledge of the Living God through good historical methodology but rather by faith.