Bonhoeffer: Dead End Theology

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Seven years ago, Dutch DGK minister Rev E Heres[i] wrote:

“It is remarkable how much attention there is in our time for the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This spring, guest lectures on Bonhoeffer were given at various places in the country by Prof. Dr. B. Kamphuis (Kampen) and Prof. Dr. G.C. de Hertog (Apeldoorn).

In the week in which I am writing this, the Nederlands Dagblad organised a ‘Bonhoeffer trip’ to Germany, led by the two professors mentioned.

Under the editorship of Dr G.C. den Hertog and Dr B. Kamphuis a book was also published: ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The challenge for his life and work for now’. The authors consider it very important for ‘the Reformed tradition’ to take note of the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer is seen by many theologians as a ‘guide to the churches’ today. He is even called the ‘prophet of the 21st century’.

In the recently published book by Dr. G. Dekker on the developments in the GKV [RCN], under the title, ‘The ongoing revolution’, Bonhoeffer is also discussed at length. Dr. Dekker chooses Bonhoeffer’s views as an angle for his appraisal of developments within the GKV.”[ii]

Theology From Above and From Below

Of the names mentioned above, the one that stands out is Barend Kamphuis.  In 1999 Kamphuis published his doctoral thesis under the title, Above and Below.[iii]  The title indicates two different schools of theology; two different perspectives on Jesus Christ.  To regard Jesus Christ from below means to take the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, as our starting point; to examine – critically – what our sources tell us about Him; to strip away myths and other unbelievable elements; and then, supposedly – we have left the story of what really happened to the very ordinary man Jesus.  To regard Jesus Christ from above, on the other hand, means to take as our starting point: “Jesus is God, a heavenly Being Who came down to earth, revealing and redeeming.  This divine Person came down to earth where He also became a human being.” (14)[iv]

Not Everything Is What It Seems

Christology from above seems to take Scripture at face value.  In the 1930s, when Karl Barth attacked the Christology from below, insisting that “all theology must begin with the revelation of God”,[v] he was regarded as the champion of the historic Christian faith.  Barth, it seemed, was not interested in searching behind the text in order to find out what really happened; instead, he seemed to just accept what is written as the Word of God.  Wonderful, not?  In reality, though, Barth did not accept the Bible as the Word of God at all.  Instead he insisted that God’s Word is hidden somewhere deeply inside the Bible; and when we read or study the Bible God speaks to our souls through that very human and rather unimportant document.  If someone would ask Karl Barth, do you believe that what the Bible says really happened?; he would answer: you are asking the wrong question.  According to Barth, what happened – whether God created the world, and whether Jesus really lived and died and rose again – is not important; rather, we must let God speak to us through the Word and He will tell us what we need to know.

Bonhoeffer: In The Line Of Barth

So: where does Bonhoeffer fit in?  Bonhoeffer was undoubtedly ‘liberal’ (261): he denied the virgin birth (262) and regarded the early chapters of Genesis as a “mythical, infantile, fantastic depiction of the shadowy, hidden pre-history.” (263)  Bonhoeffer characterized the Bible as “the witness of God’s revelation, a witness by means of which God is still able to reveal Himself even if that witness itself never actually becomes God’s Word.”[vi] (263)  Jesus was never a perfect man without sin either, according to Bonhoeffer. (257)  Kamphuis (somewhere) characterizes Bonhoeffer as ‘more Barthian even than Barth.’

Concern For A Broken World

Bonhoeffer realized that he was living in a post-Christian era.  (213) As far as Bonhoeffer was concerned, there was a time in the past when the world ‘needed’ religion, but the world has now ‘come of age’ so that we are capable of dealing with our own problems and we don’t need God anymore.[vii]  Bonhoeffer himself had a deep aversion to religion, (266) and thus he insisted that we present the Gospel to the non-religious world in a non-religious way. (270-271) How to do that?  According to Bonhoeffer, the church does not ‘present the Gospel to the world’ by preaching about sin or judgment or salvation (or anything else for that matter).  Instead the Gospel is that “Jesus Christ, as The One Who has taken up every human being into Himself, lived a substitutionary life; His whole life, active and passive, was substitutionary.” (248) In other words, “in Christ, God has accepted all of fallen humankind.” (251)  By accepting Christ, “God accepted the whole sick, sinful human nature, God accepted the whole fallen humanity, and not just the man Jesus.“ (247) If this is the gospel – as Bonhoeffer claimed – then it is obvious that the church does not need to reconcile (unbelieving) people to God, because God has already accepted them all!  Rather, the church, as the body of Christ, must – in a non-religious way – represent Christ as the loving neighbour (231) and accept all people – believers and unbelievers alike – unconditionally, just as God has already accepted all people. 

Distinctions Removed Entirely

Of course, if it is true that God has accepted the whole fallen humanity in Christ, then there is no longer a church which belongs to God apart from a world which lives in enmity against God.  And then the antithesis – the enmity between the church and the world – is no longer relevant.  This leads to a secular Christianity, sometimes called ‘post-evangelical’ Christianity, in which the worship service in church can easily be replaced by a discussion in the local pub with a neighbour about the meaning of life on a Tuesday evening; and if God is not mentioned in the discussion, then that is not an issue because “God becomes visible in His invisibility, and He is present in His absence.  In the cross of Christ we see how God allows Himself to be pushed out of this world.  That’s how we recognize God in Christ in a world without religion.  When we live without God we live for Him and with Him; and then He is with us in a tangible way.“ (235)  Please read that again: at this point words fail me.  This whole quotation seems like nonsense, even blasphemous nonsense; and my conclusion is that if you talk long enough you can, indeed, make the Bible say whatever you like.  Now I begin to understand why the theology of Bonhoeffer might be popular: the concept of universal atonement combined with the notion that when we live without God we are actually living for Him must seem attractive for everyone who wants ‘the best of both worlds’.

A Different God

Several other factors also explain Bonhoeffer’s growing popularity.  One is, in my opinion, the sense of hopelessness that is noticeable in the world.  Apart from the global issue of climate change, there is, especially in European countries like the Netherlands, a huge refugee problem; so that it seems almost absurd to believe in an almighty God, Who makes everything happen according to His plan.  The God of Bonhoeffer is not like that, though.  Instead He is “powerless and weak in this world”. (237)  Bonhoeffer said: “For me the idea that God himself is suffering has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity.” (281) “So, in the context of a world without religion, God is confessed as The One Who is with us in His powerlessness.” (294) I can imagine how this might be comforting in a sad kind of way: according to the logic of Bonhoeffer, when we see how much there is in this world that is broken, we should not ask, ‘Why, Lord’?  The question should no longer be: why did God lead things in such a way?  Instead the god of Bonhoeffer’s theology is nice; and He would undoubtedly have made everything ‘nicer’ if He could have done so; but He was not able to do that!  This is truly a god in our image, who is not responsible for what goes wrong in the world: instead he stands beside us and mourns with us.  How thankful this makes us to know, on the other hand, the very different God of Lord’s Day 9 of our catechism: the Father, almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.  This confession of God’s almighty power gives us hope!

Again: God’s Word

There was one point on which Bonhoeffer criticized Barth, and that was: positivism with respect to God’s revelation. (271) When Barth wrote about the virgin birth and the Trinity, he wrote about these topics as if they really happened – as if Barth was positive that they really happened.  Barth also made positive statements like: murder is wrong; and: stealing is wrong.  Bonhoeffer rejected all positive statements that would seem to be valid for all people of all times and all places.  In his estimation we cannot tell anyone positively what the will of God is and expect them to simply apply that to their lives; instead, everyone must be left free to decide for themselves what the will of God is.  (271)  Why?  Well, for Bonhoeffer, there are two revelations, Scripture and Jesus Christ; and the revelation of Jesus Christ must always ‘trump’ the revelation of Scripture so that we follow Jesus Christ rather than Scripture.  In the words of Bonhoeffer, taking statements from Scripture regarding sexuality or women in office – to name just two examples – and making such statements normative in the Twenty First Century, “would fail to do justice to the incarnation of Christ by which God has concretely entered into our reality.” (272)  On this point, of course, the theology of Bonhoeffer fully justifies recent developments in what used to be our sister churches in the Netherlands.  After all, the incarnation of Jesus Christ ‘trumps’ every word written in Scripture!

Conclusions:

According to Kamphuis, Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the place of the church in the world threatens to bend his whole theology out of shape. (293) Bonhoeffer gives so much attention to the role of the church that he fails to give due attention to key doctrines like the forgiveness of our sins. (293) Kamphuis concludes that, “in spite of Bonhoeffer’s good intentions, he helped to open the way for the post-Barthian horizontalism”. (295)  That leads, effectively, to a church that has no message for the world and a form of Christianity that offers no hope and no salvation.

In practice, and especially in his personal life, Bonhoeffer chose to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, even when that made him an enemy of the German state.  For that I respect him.  But Bonhoeffer was also a teacher; a leader; and then I think of the word spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)  From our Reformed perspective, it cannot be denied that Bonhoeffer – like Barth – drove a wedge between God’s Word of Revelation in Scripture and God’s Word of Revelation in Jesus Christ.  In fact, Bonhoeffer, even more than Barth, gave the impression that taking seriously what God said in His Word is not really important.  Especially because Bonhoeffer has so many followers, he will have to answer (or: he may have already answered) before the throne of God for these serious mistakes.  For my part, I am thankful for the fact that I could grow up in a church that accepts the whole Bible, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, as the true, inspired, and authoritative Word of God.  How much easier it is for us; and how much greater our responsibility is.  May God continue to hold on to us, and cause us to hold on to the truth of Scripture: for our own sakes and for the sakes of generations still to come.

 

[i] Rev E Heres is of De Gereformeerde Kerken (DGK). The DGK were instituted by people who had liberated themselves from the increasingly apostate GKv. Rev Heres published this under the title, “Much interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer”, in http://www.eeninwaarheid.info/index.php?rub=10&item=837&zoekterm=Bonhoeffer, 15-6-2013, available in English here: https://defenceofthetruth.com/en/2013/08/much-interest-in-dietrich-bonhoeffer-by-rev-e-heres-15613-translated-from-eeininwaarheid/

[ii] English reference to Dr Dekker’s overview of developments in the GKV can be found here: http://www.eeninwaarheid.info/index.php?rub=12&item=807&zoekterm=Bonhoeffer

[iii] B. Kamphuis, Boven en Benden: Het Uitgangspunt van de christologie en de problematiek van de openbaring, nagegaan aan de hand van de ontwikkelingen bij Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer en Wolfgang Pannenberg. Kampen: Kok, 1999] 

[iv] Numbers in brackets in this essay refer to pages in the book cited above.  Emphasis is invariably added.

[v] C. Van Til, The Triumph of Grace.  No publisher, 1962, vol 1., page 72.

[vi] A typical Barthian statement: the Bible is consistently distinguished from the Word of God.

[vii] Encyclopedia Brittanica, s.v. ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ethical and religious thought’.  Accessed 6 October, 2020.