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.


Bonhoeffer on the Conscience

‘This flight, Adam’s hiding from God, we call conscience. Before the fall there was no conscience. Man has only been divided in himself since his division from the Creator. And indeed it is the function of the conscience to put man to flight from God. Thus, unwillingly, it agrees with God, and on the other hand in this flight it allows man to feel secure on his hiding place. This means that it deludes man into feeling that he really is fleeing. Moreover it allows him to believe that this flight is his triumphal procession and all the world is fleeing from him. Conscience drives man from God into a secure hiding place. Here, distant from God, man plays the judge himself and just by this means he escapes God’s judgement. Now man really lives by his own good and evil, from the innermost division within himself. Conscience is shame before God in which at the same time our own wickedness is concealed, in which man justifies himself and in which, on the other hand, the acknowledgement of the other person is reluctantly preserved. Conscience is not the voice of God to sinful man; it is man’s defense against it, but as this defense it points towards it, contrary to our own will and knowledge.

Adam, where are you?” With this word the creator calls Adam forth out of his conscience, Adam must stand before his Creator. Man is not allowed to remain in his sin alone, God speaks to him, he stops him in his flight. ‘Come out of your hiding-place, from your self-reproach, your covering, your secrecy, your self-torment, from your vain remorse…confess to yourself, do not lose yourself in religious despair, be yourself, Adam…where are you? Stand before your creator.” This call goes directly against the conscience, for the conscience says: ‘Adam, you are naked, hide yourself from the Creator  do not dare stand before him.” God says: “Adam, stand before me.” God kills the conscience. The fleeing Adam must realize that he cannot flee from his Creator.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Creation and Fall/Temptation: Two Biblical Studies’, p. 90-91)


‘Teaching about Christ begins in silence. ‘Be still, for that is the absolute,’ writes Kierkegaard. That has nothing to do with the silence of the mystics, who in their dumbness chatter away secretly in their souls by themselves. The silence of the Church is silence before the Word. In so far as the church proclaims the Word, it falls down silently in truth before the inexpressible: ‘In silence I worship the inexpressible,’ (Cyril of Alexandria). The spoken Word is the inexpressible; this unutterable is the Word. ‘It must become spoken, it is a great battle cry,’ (Luther). Although it is cried out by the Church in the world, it remains the inexpressible. To speak of Christ means to keep silent; to keep silent about Christ means to speak. When the Church speaks rightly out of a proper silence, then Christ is proclaimed.’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center,’ p. 27)

Bonhoeffer on Freedom

‎’In man God creates his image on earth. This means that man is like the Creator in that he is free. Actually he is free only by God’s creation, by means of the Word of God; he is free for the worship of the Creator. In the language of the Bible, freedom is not something man has for himself but something he has for others. No man is free “as such,” that is, in a vacuum, in the way that he may be musical, intelligent or blind as such. Freedom is not a quality of man, nor is it an ability, a capacity, a kind of being that somehow flares up in him. Anyone investigating man to discover freedom finds nothing of it. Why? because freedom is not a quality which can be revealed–it is not a possession, a presence, an object, nor is it a form of existence–but a relationship and nothing else. In truth, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means “being free for the other,” because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free.’
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (‘Creation and Fall / Temptation: Two Biblical Studies,’ p. 39-40)

This is another example of how critical relationship is in Bonhoeffer’s thought – just as Christ exists for me, I exist for others.

Christology: ‘For me’

‘Christ is Christ, not just for himself, but in relation to me. His being in Christ is for me, pro me . This being pro me is not to be understood as an effect emanating from ihm, nor as an accident, but it is to be understood as the essence, the being of the person himself. The core of the ther person himself is pro me. That Christ is pro me is not an historical, nor an ontic statement, but an ontological one. Christ can never be thought of as being for himself, but only in relation to me.’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center,’ p. 47)

Here we come to a very interesting part of Bonhoeffers christology: that Christ literally exists for me, and cannot be understood in any other way other than being in relation to me. This relational factor is what makes Bonhoeffers thought so brilliant – that Christ cannot be understood any other way than relationally. Christ in His essence is for me – and for humanity. He stands in humanity’s place before God – and here is what I believe to be the core of Bonhoeffers christology:

‘Jesus Christ is for his bretheren because he stands in their place. Christ stands for his new humanity before God. But if that is so, he is the new humanity. There where mankind should stand, he stands as a representative, enabled by his pro me structure. He is the Church. He not only acts for it, he is it, when he goes to the cross, carries the sins and dies. Therefore, in him, mankind is crucified, dead and judged.’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center,’ p. 48)

It is the for me that justifies the world – this is a universal atonement brought on by the very essence of Christ. As stated above this is not an effect that comes from Christ but the very essence. The relational factor here is key and an underlying presupposition critical to Bonhoeffers thought – as it should be for all theology.


‘All things appear distorted if they are not seen and recognized through God. All so-called data, all laws and standards, are mere abstractions so long as there is no belief in God as the ultimate reality.’

‘Any perception or apprehension of things or laws without Him is now abstraction, detachment from the origin and goal. Any inquiry about one’s own goodness, or the goodness of the world, is now impossible unless inquiry has first been made about the goodness of God.’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Ethics,’ p. 187)

This line of thought is an interesting one, and to my mind shows how radical Bonhoeffer is in his conception of reality. Bonhoeffer doesn’t just say that things are meaningless without God – he flat out denies them any existence in a substantial form apart from God.

The Knowability of God – Foundations of Christology: The God-Man

Apart from God’s energies (workings) in creation, the most decisive and important way in which God can be known is through His revelation in Jesus Christ in history. Jesus Christ is the concrete presence of God in history – Jesus is fully human. Jesus is also fully God. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this God-man distinction was crucial:

‘Because Jesus is Christ is man, he is present in time and space; because Jesus Christ is God, he is eternally present. The presence of Jesus Christ in the Church, at a particular time and place, is because of the fact that there is one whole person of the God-Man. It is therefore an impossible question to ask how the man Jesus, limited by space and time, can be contemporary with us. This Jesus does not exist in isolation. Equally impossible is the other, how can God be in time. This isolated God does not exist. The only possible and  meaningful question is, ‘Who is there, present in time and place?’ The answer is, ‘The one person of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.’ I do not know who the man Jesus Christ is, unless I can at the same time say, ‘Jesus Christ is God’; I do not know who the God Jesus Christ is, unless I can at the same time say, ‘Jesus Christ is man.’ The two factors cannot be isolated, because they are not seperable. God in timeless eternity is not God; Jesus limited by time is not Jesus. Rather we may say that in the Man Jesus, God is God. In this Jesus Christ, God is present. This one God-Man is the starting point of Christology.’ (‘Christ the Center,’ p. 45)

The humanity of Jesus Christ was central for Bonhoeffer – Karl Barth had similar thoughts as well. The basic idea is summed up in the final sentences bolded above. Only if Christ was completely human would the Incarnation have had any meaning for humanity. This forms the foundations of one of the distinctive mark of Bonhoeffers (as well as Barth’s) theology: that God is ‘for us’ in Christ – in the real and complete humanity of Christ, and in the real and complete divinity of Christ, God reconciled the world to Himself.

Bonhoeffer on Grief

‘There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.’
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer characteristically gives an answer grounded in the concrete, and not in the abstract – pain is real, loss is real, and the void left by a loved one who has passed on is real, and it doesn’t go away. This also shows some of his other theological presuppositions – namely the relational factor that makes his theology (in addition to Barth’s) so powerful and his ethical thought so brilliant – both the authentic and the relationship  are foundational in his thought.

Existence, Reality, Love, Christ and God

We have seen in previous posts how Dietrich Bonhoeffer connects being human to being in Christ – that in being in Christ, one truly is human.

‘Human beings are called to share the suffering of God in a godless world. Therefore we must really live in the godless world; and may not make the attempt to somehow conceal, to transfigure its godlessness religiously; we mus live in a “worldly” fashion, which means we are liberated from false religious attachments and inhibitions. ‘Being a Christian does not mean being religious in a certain way, or, on the basis of some methodology, to make something out of ourselves (a sinner, a penitent, a saint); rather, it means to be a human being. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world. This is the reversal: not to think first of our own needs, questions, sins, and anxieties, but to let ourselves be pulled into the way of Jesus, into the messianic event that is now fulfilled (Isa. 53:4-5).’
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Karl Barth makes a similar point in his magnum opus ‘Church Dogmatics’:

‎’The Christian life begins with love. It also ends with love, so far as it has an end as human life in time. There is nothing that we can or must be as a Christian, or to become a Christian, prior to love. Even faith does not anticipate love. As we come to faith we begin to love. If we did not begin to love, we would not have come to faith. Faith is faith in Jesus Christ. If we believe, the fact that we do so means that every ground which is not that of our being in love to God in Christ is cut away from under us: we cannot exist without seeking God. If this were not the case, we should have failed to come to faith. And the fact that it is so is a confirmation that our faith is not an illusion, but that we ourselves as men truly believe.

But there is nothing beyond love. There is no higher or better being or doing in which we can leave it behind us. As Christians, we are continually asked about love, and in all that we can ever do or not do, it is the decisive question. Love is the essence of Christian living. It is also the ‘conditio sine qua non,’ in ever conceivable connexion. Wherever the Christian life in commission or omission is good before God, the good thing about it is love. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, pp. 371-372.)

Barth here is referring to Christians – but I will be using this in conjunction with Bonhoeffers thought in just a moment (see 1B below).

Theologian and philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his monumental book ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs,’ that the worth of human beings and natural rights is grounded in love – affectionate love from God.

‘…I conclude that if God loves a human being with the love of attachment, that love bestows worth on that human being; other creatures, if they knew about that love, would be envious. And I conclude that if God loves, in the mode of attachment, each and every human being equally and permanently, then natural human rights inhere in the worth bestowed upon human beings by that love.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs,’ pp. 360)

So here we have:

1A. Existence grounded in reality. (Bonhoeffer)

1B. Reality grounded in Christ. (Bonhoeffer)

1C.Existence grounded in seeking God. (Barth) Even though Barth here is intending this to refer to the Church, I am taking it one step farther and applying it to human existence on a universal level.

2. Worth of existence and natural rights grounded in the love of God. (Wolterstorff) This has more to do with ethical thought than ontological existence. See 2B below.

3. My assertion, then, is this: that apart from participating in reality and seeking God, there is no human existence. People exist, but not in their truly human form.

2B. While those not participating in reality/seeking God are not truly living in a human sense, they do in fact have worth bestowed upon them by God by His love for them as well as natural rights.


Bonhoeffer, Being Human and Being Christian

‘Human beings are called to share the suffering of God in a godless world. Therefore we must really live in the godless world; and may not make the attempt to somehow conceal, to transfigure its godlessness religiously; we mus live in a “worldly” fashion, which means we are liberated from false religious attachments and inhibitions. ‘Being a Christian does not mean being religious in a certain way, or, on the basis of some methodology, to make something out of ourselves (a sinner, a penitent, a saint); rather, it means to be a human being. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world. This is the reversal: not to think first of our own needs, questions, sins, and anxieties, but to let ourselves be pulled into the way of Jesus, into the messianic event that is now fulfilled (Isa. 53:4-5).’
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Here Bonhoeffer goes beyond grounding responsible action in the reality of Christ – here he grounds being human in Christ. To be a Christian is to truly be a human, and to be human is to be a Christian. One must be in Christ to participate in reality and to participate in the suffering of God. For Bonhoeffer this is the only way to truly even live in any meaningful way – the reality of Christ is his starting point and grounding presupposition. So not only is responsible action grounded in Christ, but the very state of being human is as well.

This is a pretty radical view – Bonhoeffer doesn’t take the easier route of saying that existence is meaningless without God; he denies that one can even exist in any meaningful sense without God. In a way Bonhoeffer also connects human being to suffering – God’s suffering in the world.