Who Owns Bonhoeffer?
by Scot McKnight
Oct 16, 2014
|Bonhoeffer Author Andrew Root|
I have been with a wide variety of theologians and pastors who love Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In fact, Bonhoeffer seems to be on every one’s side. Is there a “real” Bonhoeffer beyond the ownership? We might wonder where he’d locate himself in our theological spectrum but that’s speculation. Andrew Root, in his new book on Bonhoeffer, called Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together, sketches what Stephen Haynes called the “Bonhoeffer phenomenon.” That is, he sketched the various groups who thought they had ownership of that altogether interesting, if at times elusive, German theologian.
Three views of Bonhoeffer (plus one):
1. The Revolutionaries: “They pounced on certain phrases and thoughts in Bonhoeffer to support their own position. Most particularly, Bonhoeffer’s conception of “religionless Christianity” caught their attention, making Bonhoeffer the face of radical (anti-)Christianity. Haynes states, “For radicals Bonhoeffer is a ‘seer’—a man born out of time who perceived the future with uncanny prescience” (13).
When I was a college student Bonhoeffer and radical revolution was the name of the game, and I had more than one associate wonder aloud to me if Bonhoeffer did not become an atheist. I found myself amazed people would think like that of him. As a student I read his The Cost of Discipleship (now called more accurately Discipleship) and so the atheism theory jarred me. As a senior, however, I read The Letters and Papers from Prison and began to wonder what he was talking about when he spoke of “religionless Christianity” and “the world come of age.” So, this is one reading of Bonhoeffer: this view, I understand, is now advocated by Peter Rollins. (Root says this of Rollins’ view: “Perhaps the most popular of these is Peter Rollins, who so deeply misreads Bonhoeffer along these lines that he admits disdain for the earlier historical and intellectual elements of Bonhoeffer’s thought.” [13 n. 3])
The Bonhoeffer of Discipleship and Life Together is something Bonhoeffer himself abandoned; they were the early Bonhoeffer.
2. The Liberals: “This group was enamored with Bonhoeffer’s attention to social justice, exploring particularly Bonhoeffer’s resistance to National Socialism and his advocacy for the Jews. But, Haynes explains, these historical realities are not the central biographical lens through which they see Bonhoeffer. They instead draw on the themes of resistance, themes of resistance, advocacy, and the call for justice, centered on Bonhoeffer’s experience in New York City, and particularly in Harlem in 1930-31″ (14).
Root knows Bonhoeffer has roots in German Protestant liberalism; he was a student of Harnack, not to ignore also a family friend. But Root is right to point out that Bonhoeffer broke with liberalism as a student at liberal-theology-Berlin when he discovered Barth, and Seeberg his mentor at Berlin knew the tensions with Barth/Bonhoeffer at Berlin. Barth’s target of criticism was Berlin! And Bonhoeffer found Union Theol Seminary’s theology severely lacking. It was all justice and activism.
3. The Conservatives: If the revolutionaries like Letters and Papers from Prison, and the Liberals his spirituality in Negro spirituals, the conservatives have fastened onto his Discipleship and Life Together. “Bonhoeffer is a hero for conservatives because he not only spoke boldly of following Jesus but also did so—into the hands of his executor” (17). None other than [James?] Dobson saw in Bonhoeffer a path for evangelicals in the public sector.
Metaxas follows this line. Here is what Root says of Metaxas: “… which I find so flawed and earnest to paint Bonhoeffer as a conservative (not possessing the openness of Bethge’s work) that I cannot follow him in any way, for to do so would be to foreclose on one of the above interpretations” (18 n. 13).
4. Plus One: Root pursues Bonhoeffer not so much through his precise theological location on the spectrum but through his pastoral theology, and in particular, he traces Bonhoeffer through the lens of his youth ministry theological turn. I hope you read this book — it’s a good one on how pastoral theology is done.
Root is convinced readers of Bonhoeffer have ignored approaching him through the lens of his pastoral ministry to youth.
At Relevancy22 we follow each of the trends listed above with a Christian "common sense realism" that might be applied to each group's grasp of the truth as they wish to see it and purvey it. Similar to a cluster of blind scientists trying to describe an elephant - one thinking the animal is all nose, the other all hide, and the third large ears, missing the animal itself, so too Bonhoeffer is drawn upon in this way by all parties involved.
So that, when coming to Radical Theology, we will admit to that aspect of Christianity that can (and should be) religionless realizing that our cultures can never attain this aspect, only aspire within its religions and denominations.
That when coming to Liberal Christianity we should pay attention to liberal scholarship's observations and statements of the Bible as scholars in their own right of academia just so long as they don't loose the tradition of the historic orthodox Christian faith in Christ Jesus. An orthodox faith which we here at Relevancy22 have intentionally been elevating and re-describing within today's postmodern, post-Christian contexts. Contexts that neither deny Jesus nor refuse to listen to the newer discoveries and observations made of the Christian faith and its religious foundations. A difficult tightrope to walk... but nonetheless we walk it without collapsing into a loss of faith in the God who loves. And loves us through His Son as the ultimate expression of His grace and truth.
And finally, when coming to conservative Christianity - one which this writer here (myself) has been birthed within and from - we seek its truths. But also wish to display its foibles, its bad theology, and fallacious dogmas. We would do the historic Christian faith no justice if we were not to examine all its foundations, its philosophies, its directions and bearing, lest we loose that precious faith itself to the false prophets of our day. Whether they be in the pulpits of the church or at the dais of the university lecture rooms. All who pretend to examine Jesus must proclaim Him Lord and King, Savior and God. Suffering Servant and loving Humanitarian.
Jesus is the conundrum of faith even as He can be all things to Radicals, Liberals, or Conservatives. Each group, each direction, each organization of thought has its own philosophical and religious lenses through which it chooses to see Jesus and the Christian faith. No less we here at Relevancy22 using a combination of all the above approaches without losing sight of the Lord's calling to be the mustard seed, the new wine, the lost coin of the Kingdom realm. Even the found faith of our days and times, years and appointments.
We wish to rupture the faith of the land. To disturb it, stir it, apply it, and re-examine it at every level of our thought and being, actions and attitudes. Even as the Lord Himself did during the times of His ministry to the lost generations of both believers and unbelievers alike. So be ye then salt, and light, and new wine, in the name of the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
October 16, 2014
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Taking Sides in Theological Disputes
by Scot McKnight
Oct 13, 2014
Every generation has its theological disputes. Some are much more significant than others, though some suggest that each of the debates concerns the most essential elements of the faith. Which translation to use is not as important as the Trinity but some of the voices in the former debate suggest apocalyptic doom if we get it wrong.
Rudolf Bultmann (see my post here) famously advanced his theories about de-mythologizing the New Testament because of the advances in science and technology, and one of his more famous lines was that one can’t believe in spirits and demons and use the radio. He saw himself stripping the NT of those mythological elements that prevented moderns from believing the more essential core of the gospel. And he pressed forward an existentialist gospel in Lutheran terms. From the decade of WWII and throughout most of his career Bultmann heard from, faced, and responded back to his many critics, including many established Lutheran pastors in the Confessing Church. [note: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (DB) was a Lutheran pastor during Bultmann's era. - re slater]
Taking sides was part of the theological dispute about Bultmann.
Bonhoeffer took sides and his position can be found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English) 16. I’d like to trot out what DB said to illustrate in this post three things: first, that the Bonhoeffer many embrace is not the full Bonhoeffer (he was not only Barthian but in some ways Bultmannian) and, second, that the only way to know Bonhoeffer is to read him — not read about him in biographies. Third, it is nearly impossible not to take sides (unless one ignores an issue).
About a year ago I did a series on Mark Thiessen Nation’s book Bonhoeffer the Assassin? (here and here) in which he argues Bonhoeffer sustained his pacifism even during the war year all the way to his death. At the time I said I wanted to reconsider the so-called shift (or in Nation’s case, non-shift) in Bonhoeffer’s thinking but to do so I’d have to read Ethics again and Letters and Papers from Prison again, and along with that the correspondence in his last few years (which can be found in DBW 16). More of this at another time.
In that volume (DBW 16) I encountered his observations about the Bultmann controversy among the Confessing Church pastors. To professor-journal editor Ernst Wolf, 24 March 1942, Bonhoeffer said this:
I take great pleasure in the new Bultmann volume. The intellectual honesty of his work never ceases to impress me. Apparently Dilschneider recently disparaged you [Wolf] and Bultmann quite stupidly here at the Berlin pastors’ meeting; and, as I was told, the meeting came within a hair’s breadth of sending you a protest against Bultmann’s theology! And from Berliners, of all people! I would like to know if any of them has actually worked through the commentary on John . This arrogance, which flourishes here—under the influence of several blowhards, I think—is a real scandal for the Confessing Church.
Barth took sides, too. One of the leading opponents of Bultmann’s work was Hans Asmussen, and Barth sized it up on 12 May in a letter to Otto Salomon:
From the same letter we became aware of the repercussions of the most recent Bultmann furor. It saddened me as well; but should the “pious Hans” truly desire to burn him at the stake over this, I would most likely join the other side. Oh, if only our dear friends in the Confessing Church would leave all that and would finally begin to rack their brains, five minutes before midnight, whether there is anything, anything, they could do to deal with the inexorable coming disaster! The demythologized New Testament is truly only the dotting of an i, that is, in comparison with all that the Germans have done and daily continue to do in the occupied regions, stirring up a cloud of wrath. But I am afraid that all their eyes are still closed and behind them they are only dreaming, dreaming….
Bonhoeffer, too, took sides in these terms:
Now as to Bultmann: I belong to those who welcomed his writing— not because I agree with it. I regret the twofold approach it takes (the arguments deriving from John 1:14 and from the radio should not be mixed together; I do consider even the latter to be a valid argument, but the distinction should be clearer) —in this regard perhaps I have remained Harnack’s student to this day. To put it bluntly: Bultmann has let the cat out of the bag, not only for himself but for a great many people (the liberal cat out of the confessional bag), and in this I rejoice. He has dared to say what many repress in themselves (here I include myself) without having overcome it. He thereby has rendered a service to intellectual integrity and honesty. Many brothers oppose him with a hypocritical faith that I find deadly. Now an account must be given. I would like to speak with Bultmann about this and open myself to the fresh air that comes from him. But then the window has to be shut again. Otherwise the susceptible will too easily catch a cold.
If you see Bultmann, please give him my greetings— Tell him that I would like to see him, and how I see these things. (To Winfried Krause, 25 July 1942.)
On the 13th of September, in a letter to Ernst Wolf, he said something similar:
As I hear from Marburg, the Council of Brethren there is presently in the midst of deciding about the expulsion of Bultmann from the Confessing Church! These theological hypocrites, so works-righteous! Were it actually to come to expulsion, the matter would have to go to the Conference of Regional Councils of Brethren. If the same thing happened here, I think I would have to have myself expelled as well, not because I agree with Bultmann, but because I consider the others’ attitude by far more dangerous than Bultmann’s.