Misreading Bonhoeffer: A Response

Bonhoeffer
I was recently alerted (via Facebook) to an article by Richard Weikart, “The Troubling Truth about Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” Christian Research Journal 35.6 (2012) which can be read HERE.
It seems Weikart initially felt quite happy with Bonhoeffer while he thought him an “Evangelical,” but quickly dismissed him once he came to see him as “Neo-Orthodox” (pp.1-2). What makes this so troubling is that neither category is fitting for this early twentieth century German Lutheran minister theologian, but seem more concerned with categories of Americans intent on dismissing folks by use of labels. That being said, Weikart expresses numerous points at which he finds trouble with Bonhoeffer.
Under the heading of Scripture, Weikart quotes Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation.” He then proceeds to argue this is not true to Luther (on the “priesthood of all believers) or Lutherans. But this type of belief about the place of the proclaimed word and its potency is precisely Lutheran. Weikart seems to not realize the place of the preached word in Lutheran theology proper or in the theology of Luther. For Luther (and thus Lutherans in his wake), it is the proclaimed word of God where one hears the voice of Christ. Such is the case with Bonhoeffer.
Where Weikart accuses Bonhoeffer of moving from his earlier reading of Scripture with regularity, he seems oblivious to Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the spiritualizations of the pietistic Lutheran practices with which he had at first been fostered into and only later came to see the pietism often did not result in greater faithfulness, but only a higher sense of spiritualized success all the while avoiding taking responsibility in the life of the world (see his many such comments on this in Ethics). There is in fact nothing wrong with not reading Scripture daily. Jesus didn’t. He couldn’t. What is imperative is that we meditate upon Scripture, hear it and obey it. The Scriptures nowhere demand daily Bible reading. That is a matter of pietistic Evangelicalism that has learned to think such a practice is a requirement of genuine spirituality. Bonhoeffer seems to have understood this at deeply sustained levels.
While many (in the U.S.) regard Barth as “neo-orthodox” this is not owing to Barth himself, but to early American interpreters of Barth who either failed to understand him or misrepresented him. It is easier to just lump him in with others who are also rejected without wrestling with what he has actually written.
Under his attack on Bonhoeffer’s (and Barth’s) view of Scripture, Weikart misses that the Scriptures are recorded not as transcripts, but as careful theological reflections of the revelation of God concerning the stories of Israel, Jesus, the Church and the world. The Scriptures are not attempting to document empirically verifiable history, but instead that which must be believed by faith which is offered sufficient witness to believe. Weikart’s view seems to be more intent on historicality (even when the text itself does not warrant it, nor the preservation of the text) rather than the realities to which the text points in the manner in which the writers were inspired to record them.
Further, what Bonhoeffer rejects of the emphasis upon trying to speak of the “historical” with regard to Jesus is that 19th-20th century German obsession with doing just that. This led to a number of notions such as a bifurcation of the Jesus between that of history and that of faith, or worse yet, an eradication of the historical Jesus altogether. Bonhoeffer was responding in just that sort of milieu. And he responded by pointing to faith in the preserved stories of Jesus regardless of the ability to historically verify details beyond the witnesses of the texts themselves.
Weikart’s use of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison shows an utter disregard for the writings of one in a personal letter to another that was NOT intended for public consumption. If any of us had things we said privately preserved by others after our death and disseminated globally we would find ourselves having stated things which we were wrestling with and/or were not offered with the context of explanation (because it is assumed the person spoken to knows this sufficiently to understand). Judgment of all of us would ensue.
Under the title “The Good Book,” Weikart fails to grasp Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Scripture as offering “universal, timeless truths”. Bonhoeffer is convinced that to treat Scripture as offering such, is to pre-determine what God would have us to do in any and every situation. But this (for Bonhoeffer and for myself) ignores the living word of the living God who speaks today through that word to us. It makes a binding law of the word of Jesus. It means one is no longer required to attune their ears to the Spirit, but only to reread words written. It is on this very idea, that I have personally found life and joy in Christ and proclaim that we are not through listening as if we have heard all there is to hear…NO! We must go on listening anew today!
On Weikart’s claim of universalism, he fails to engage the very “this-worldly” notion of redemption at work in Scripture and the theology of Bonhoeffer. Instead, he seems to think more of spiritualized heavenly individualistic salvation. Bonhoeffer, however, was concerned with the redemption of the cosmos that was enacted in Christ Jesus. Bonhoeffer was concerned with “people” and not simply individuals and he was concerned with this precisely because of the election of Jesus wherein all of humanity finds redemption. This is not to say all are saved, but to say that in Christ salvation is sufficient for all and is extended to all and must be declared to all. The pastoral and missiological implications of this are profound.
I for one find little to judge negatively of Bonhoeffer’s reflections stated by Weikart, but maybe, just maybe, I’ve become one of Weikart’s “liberal” “neo-orthodox” folks he seems so adamant are to be despised and rejected. Or maybe Weikart is simply judging Bonhoeffer by means of his own skewed theological and ideological agenda rather than on grounds of truthful discourse that hears Bonhoeffer in Bonhoeffer’s own context. To those who have ears to hear…
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My apologies for not citing Bonhoeffer’s works throughout. This is more of an overall response (without direct access to Bonhoeffer’s works from my home). For those interested in reading Bonhoeffer in context, they can read the pages cited by Weikart as well as reflecting particularly on Bonhoeffer’s Ethics which answers (for myself) the misreading of Bonhoeffer contra much of American Evangelicalism and its inherited pieties.

Bonhoeffer on God in the Gaps

Bonhoeffer on Gaps
This quote speaks (in part) to Bonhoeffer’s notion of the world “come of age” and a “religionless Christianity” that has only spoken to God where human knowledge is at its limits. Such cannot be the case. He wrestled with the notion of a positive Christology over and against a simply negative Christology in his lectures while at Finkenwald. In this later development of his thought, he seems yet further arguing for the need to positively construct our theology based on what is known (eg, revealed).
This becomes all the more significant in a world that presses the boundaries of our knowledge yet further and seems to find less need of providing any “theological” explanation for existence and experience (a world which Bonhoeffer found himself wrestling with). Theology cannot be a “stop-gap” to fill the holes of our knowledge. Theology must be located as such in the very concrete (objective and yet subjective) person and work of God in Christ Jesus.

The Church for Others

serve_the_poorIn Sunday School this morning we discussed the core value of “community” as the church. We were discussing some of the ways in which our “community” turns in upon itself (sometimes in self-preservation; sometimes because it simply cannot live in the world). I was reminded that the church exists pro mundi beneficio (for the benefit of the world) because our Lord is pro nobis (for us).*
The church does not exist for its own self-preservation and its own benefit. The church (every local gathering of those following the Lord Jesus Christ) exists for the benefit of the world. The world which God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, loves. The world which Jesus gave his life to redeem. The world wandering in darkness. The world dead in sin.
The church is the light of the world. The church is life. The church is redemption. The church is love. The church exists for the benefit of the world. Let us never forget that.
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* This follows the trajectory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s several descriptions of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and exaltation “pro nobis” (several of these can be found in: “The Young Bonhoeffer: 1918-1927” DBW 9 [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003], p.338; “Berlin: 1932-1933” DBW 12 [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009], p.359)

Another Bonhoeffer Volume Is Published

IT’S HERE!!!  The eleventh volume of the sixteen volume Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English: Ecumenical, Academic and Pastoral Work: 1931-1932.  I was overjoyed to find my copy on my front doorstep this afternoon.  There now remains only one more volume (number 14) to be published before the series is complete.

Volume 11 in the sixteen-volume Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition, Ecumenical, Academic, and Pastoral Work: 1931-1932, provides a comprehensive translation of Bonhoeffer’s important writings from 1931 to 1932, with extensive commentary about their historical context and theological significance. This volume covers the significant period of Bonhoeffer’s entry into the international ecumenical world and the final months before the beginning of the National Socialist dictatorship. It begins with Bonhoeffer’s return to Berlin in June 1931 after his year of study in the United States. In the crucial period that followed, Bonhoeffer continued his preparations for the ministry, began teaching at Berlin University, and became active at international ecumenical meetings. His letters and lectures, however, also document the economic and political turbulence on the European and world stage, and Bonhoeffer directly addresses the growing threat of the Nazi movement and what it portends not only for Germany, but for the world. Several of the documents in this volume, particularly the student notes of his university lecture on “The Nature of the Church” and his lectures on Christian ethics, give important insights into his theology at this point. His ecumenical lectures and reports are significant documents for understanding the ecumenical debates of this period. 

I did note that Fortress Press is now offering all of the published volumes as a set for only $400 (which is a STEAL).

I Heart Barth

As I mentioned earlier this week Hendrickson Publisher’s made Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics available for a steal of a price.  This has lead to theological geeks, er, students finally having access to Barth’s magnum opus.  Several of the students at Providence Seminary where I attend have been discussing this for some time and in a rapid succession of laughable suggestions…a new blog was born: I Heart Barth.  So far there are three authors (myself as one of them) that will be working through Dogmatics together over the next several years (decades???).  We also will be discussing Bonhoeffer (anyone who knows me knows that I can’t help but discuss Dietrich any chance I get and one of the other bloggers is writing his thesis on Bonhoeffer…oh happy day…oh happy day… 🙂 and N.T.Wright among others as we work through the Dogmatics in the midst of studies, church and life.

Did I really just agree to one more thing…….

One More for Bonhoeffer

I have waited a long time for Bonhoeffer’s Fiction from Tegel Prison to be released in the critical edition by Augsburg Fortress. It is finally being published this Wednesday (and will hopefully arrive by then). It is something quite striking to consider reading the fiction of a man of tremendous faith living on death row and not knowing what the outcome of his prison life will lead to.

As I understand it Dietrich was never fully satisfied with these fictional writings (which in part are about his own life, but fictionalized), but they still offer another insight into the man behind them.  I’m looking forward to some new Bonhoeffer reading……

As an aside, what type of book (or genre) would you most likely write if facing the  uncertainty of another day in prison (or an endless stream of days)?  I personally think it likely I would once again take up poetry and more meditative/devotional writing.

Why I'm Done With The Christian Life

Perhaps you may be wondering why I would say that I’m done with the Christian life (which is following suit after Dietrich Bonhoeffer who states as much in the final pages of his “Cost of Discipleship”). I’m a pastor after all and shouldn’t say such things…right? Before you start writing to me to compel me to not abandon the faith…please read on.

The reason I’m done with the Christian life is because I’ve determined not to live the Christian life any longer, but to have my life hidden in Christ. If I live the Christian life it means I have some ethic or guiding principle that seems to be culturally “Christian”, but this says nothing about its correlation to the very real life, death and resurrection of Christ. I will not let my life be judged by some “Christian” standard, but by the one who is Faithful and True…who alone bears the judgment of the world. I will not be conformed to Christianity, but to Christ who is the very Image of God. I will not live for Christianity, but for Christ who gave His life for the world and has taken it up again.

I pray that I may cease living a “Christian life” and truly take up the life of Christ crucified and risen. May my baptism be a baptism into Him. May the cup and the bread be his presence and power. May my prayers be taken up into His prayer. May the spirit that dwells in me be His Spirit. May I be found hidden in Christ and crucified to the world. And may I never be only a “Christian” again…

ITS FINALLY HERE!!!

I was absolutely elated yesterday to get my copy of the newly published “Letters and Papers from Prison” (Vol. 8 in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works).  This is the volume wherein Bonhoeffer (I believe) has been most misunderstood and misrepresented (though some would certainly disagree with my conclusions).  His notion of “religionless Christianity” deserves a careful consideration and not a knee-jerk reaction as is so often the case.  I would encourage anyone interested in (the later…more controversial) Bonhoeffer to find a copy and read it thoroughly.

Here are the links to the pdf files of the Introduction, the Prologue, the First Chapter, and the Table of Contents.  Happy reading!  🙂

(Moltmann on) Bonhoeffer on the Old Testament

John Hobbins (one of my personal favorite bloggers to read) just posted an article that I found wonderful entitled: Moltmann on Bonhoeffer’s Approach to the Old Testament (and he has helpfully translated the German for those of us not able currently able to read such).  It does indeed seem that many want to attain to the knowledge of God without the struggle to attain such.  We must study the OT intently (but more importantly be studied by it) and finally come to grips with the One who is Holy and demands that His people be as He is, before thinking that we can just be Jesus’ “friend”.  We need the other-ness of God to really appreciate the this-ness of God.  We need the fear of God to really appreciate the mercy, grace and love of God.