In this age of American hyper-identity politics and the resulting disintegration of political and religious discourse, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as a model for developing integrated approaches to theology and public discourse through his independent critical engagement with both the liberal Protestant and dialectical/neo-orthodox schools of his day.
The most accurate portrayal of Bonhoeffer’s theological development should start with his best friend and authoritative biographer, Eberhard Bethge:
“At the root of his choice [to become a theologian] was a basic drive toward independence…the driving force in his life was the need for unchallenged self-realization” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Eberhard Bethge, 37).
Reinhold Seeberg, Bonhoeffer’s professor and dissertation advisor at the University of Berlin, also saw in the young Bonhoeffer a strong appetite for critical independent thought. In his evaluation of Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation, Sanctorium Communio, Sebeerg acknowledged Bonhoeffer as a gifted and ingenious theologian who “seeks to discover his own way” (The Cross of Reality, Gaylon H. Barker, 35). However, we should not assume Bonhoeffer’s drive for independence meant a total resistance to the leading theological movements of his day. In fact, it was the total opposite. “He was always prepared for intelligent discussion of other opinions,” writes Seeberg, “and had a critical ability to cope with other views” (Barker, 35).
Bonhoeffer’s independence and fearless drive to critically engage with a wide range of thought was also observed by his fellow students. For instance, Helmut Goes, a student who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s fierce and critical independence first hand, reflects on a debate that ensued between the student Bonhoeffer and his most senior professor (and family friend), Adolf von Harnack:
“I already noticed Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the very first sessions. Not just because he surpassed almost all of us in theological knowledge and ability; that was for me the most impressive thing. But what really drew me to Bonhoeffer was that here was someone who did not merely study and absorb the words and writings of some master, but who thought for himself…I actually had the experience (and to me it was rather alarming and a tremendous novelty) of seeing the young blond student contradict the revered polyhistorian His Excellency von Harnack politely, but contradicted him again and again. I no longer know the topic of discussion—Karl Barth was mentioned—but I still recall the secret enthusiasm I felt for this free, critical and independent theological thought” (Barker, 36).
In general, the liberal tradition of Bonhoeffer’s professors at the University of Berlin oriented their theology towards the world and human experience. Whereas the dialetical movement, lead by Karl Barth, revolted against this, seeking to re-orient theology towards God and revelation.
From the liberal tradition, Bonhoeffer learned “loyalty to the world and respect for what exists,” writes Jonathan Sorum (Barker, 38). Like his liberal professors, Bonhoeffer refused to make claims about God and his relationship with human beings that devalued their experience in the natural world or their humanity in general. “And while he leveled severe criticism against liberal theology, he could never escape what he believed to be its open and honest dealings with the world” (Barker, 47). However, seeing the weakness of liberal theology and its tendency to deny the realm of God, Bonhoeffer sided with Barth in his conviction that all theology must begin with God. But herein is where each school’s deficiencies lie according to Bonhoeffer:
Sorum tells us that the liberals “could only affirm the world by, in effect, denying God,” whereas Barth “could only affirm God by denying the world” (Barker, 38). In essence, the former tradition could only pursue ethics, whereas the latter could only pursue God. This of course did not reflect accurately the incarnation, where God in Jesus offers us the One whose love and mercy towards human beings has everything to do with our ethics in the world. So, even though Bonhoeffer’s fierce independence led him to critically engage and disagree with certain aspects of both schools of thought, much of his theology was still influenced by each tradition; he held the two in tension, developing a third way down the middle with Luther’s theology of the cross as his anchor and inspiration.
“Bonhoeffer had both radical and conservative thoughts.”
– Timothy Larson in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture
“While gratefully borrowing from both the liberal tradition of his Berlin teachers and Karl Barth’s revolt against that tradition,” writes Sorum, “Bonhoeffer went his own way, a way that he believed encompassed the main concern of both and at the same time avoided their serious deficiencies. Bonhoeffer conceived of this third way as an attempt to recover Luther” (Barker, 38).
The words “conservative” and “radical” are words that carry major cultural and political baggage, but in no way does Bonhoeffer or his credible scholars/biographers see Bonhoeffer embracing certain aspects of what some people might call “conservative” or “progressive” theology as embracing extremist ideologies on either side, especially if one’s politics and theology leads to anything other than the merciful and loving Christ of the gospels who dignifies human beings with the divine kiss of love by becoming human. So we should be careful not to read into Bonhoeffer’s ability to cope with other views as him somehow being able to embrace and justify violent and dehumanizing extremism or discouraging critique of various unstable and toxic factions in American political and religious history. Context is most important, and Bonhoeffer’s independent critical thought ensures we are not selling our soul to the devil, but following Jesus with a critical theo-political edge rooted in the theology of the cross.
Many scholars have written about Luther’s significance in Bonhoeffer’s theological and ethical development, which for me came organically through studying Luther with Dennis Ngien at Tyndale University.
I learned that in Luther’s theologia crucis, “God is not free from the world, but free for the world” (Sorum in Barker, 38). He concludes, like many of us who have studied Luther and Bonhoeffer’s alignment, that Luther helped Bonhoeffer develop his one reality Christology (the “Christ-reality”), where ethics and God formed a whole in the Christ event, and thus in existence.
Sorum concludes: “The church’s life in the world is God’s life in the world. So dogmatics and ethics are one … Luther [like Bonhoeffer] could do both dogmatics and ethics at the same time. For him, everything was one piece; dogmatics, ethics, God, human beings, and the world were all one reality, and not only was God really God within this one reality, but precisely God’s being God is what made everything else real. Bonhoeffer seeks to follow Luther” (Barker, 38).
Next up: My next article will start to develop what I am calling Bonhoeffer’s earthbound theology. Stay tuned!