All Eyes on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian for our Troubled Time

Javier Garcia on Christ, Church, and the World: New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Theology and Ethics

Christ, Church and the World: New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Theology and Ethics. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.
One figure who has proven particularly resilient to the challenge of academic justification is Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German theologian, pastor, and, most famously, resister against the Nazis during the Second World War. For various reasons, Bonhoeffer enjoys particular acclaim and popularity across political divides, academic factions, and church denominations as one of the most widely read theologians of the twentieth century. Whether it is due to the drama of his life and death, his involvement in plots to kill Hitler, or the suggestive quality of his theological works, Bonhoeffer continues to inspire an entire industry of popular writings and academic scholarship.

The moment that perhaps best encapsulated Bonhoeffer’s contemporary significance in America was the 2016 US election. Stephen Haynes, a scholar who focuses on Bonhoeffer’s reception, explains in a piece for the Huffington Post, “Has the Bonhoeffer Moment Finally Arrived?” how many conservative evangelicals claimed Bonhoeffer as their hero and used his legacy to endorse Trump. In his 2010 biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, evangelical media mogul Eric Metaxas portrayed Bonhoeffer as the defender of traditional values against an oppressive regime that threatened to destroy them, a schema which he mapped directly onto the American landscape where conservative Republican values were under threat by democrats, led then by President Obama. Although Metaxas’ popular biography was vehemently criticized by Bonhoeffer scholars for its historical inaccuracies and blatant right-wing political agenda, it nevertheless proved commercially successful, being translated into multiple languages and selling (it is rumored) over a million copies.

Metaxas’ biography occasioned a cultural shift where many conservative evangelicals embraced Bonhoeffer as their hero. Such appropriation intensified with the legalization of same sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, arguably the deathblow to conservative evangelicals in the culture wars. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention declared “A Bonhoeffer Moment in America,” in other words, a moment to resist against our own Nazi-like state. Given this trajectory, it is no wonder that Metaxas (who repeatedly referred to Hillary Clinton as “Hitlery”) enthusiastically endorsed Trump, and an estimated 80% of white evangelicals voted for him. The election and the continued invocation of Bonhoeffer in relation to contemporary US politics demonstrates his enduring influence in the public imagination. In the age of Trump, all eyes are on Bonhoeffer.

It seems somewhat strange that this reserved German aristocrat from a bygone era would garner such interest today, especially since his handful of published works have been meticulously probed from every angle for over seventy years. After all this time, what can we learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we don’t already know?


Enter Christ, Church, and the World: New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Theology and Ethics (T&T Clark, 2016), edited by Michael Mawson and Philip Ziegler at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Aberdeen has become a vibrant center for Bonhoeffer studies, with Mawson, Ziegler, and the prolific English theologian Tom Greggs at the helm. Rather than a less helpful form of Bonhoeffer research – the fastidious navel-gazing over Bonhoeffer minutiae – the scholars at Aberdeen focus on advancing Bonhoeffer studies by engaging with contemporary issues. As such, this edited volume, with contributions from prominent Bonhoeffer scholars from around the world, results from workshops and colloquia held at Aberdeen from 2014-15 entitled “The Challenge of Bonhoeffer’s Theology for Contemporary Ethics and Public Life.”

This volume appears at a crucial turning point in Bonhoeffer studies. The completion of the official critical edition of the seventeen volume Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke and its recent translation into English as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works marks the “crowning achievement of the senior generation of scholars.” It paves the way for a new generation of reflection with Bonhoeffer’s entire oeuvre readily available. Bonhoeffer’s enduring interest is described well in the introduction of this edited volume: “It is one of the signal features of Bonhoeffer’s legacy that at one and the same time it drives theological research more deeply into the classical disciplinary questions that constitute its traditional core, even as it demands creative engagement with the most lively and fundamental matters of current public life and cultural debate.” More specifically, the topics of Christ, church, and the world, which structure this book, represent Bonhoeffer’s varied engagement with issues of academic theological import and public significance.

In prison, Bonhoeffer penned the arrestingly simple and endlessly evocative phrase: “What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?” This volume responds with three proposals in dialogue with Bonhoeffer.

For Christiane Tietz of the University of Zurich, Bonhoeffer’s staunchly “Christ-oriented” theology provides a much-needed resource for combating unhelpful tendencies in modern theology and opening avenues for dialogue on sexual ethics. Tietz describes the growing trend in contemporary German Protestant theology to adopt an understanding of Christianity whereby “… Christian existence does not necessarily take place within the church. It can sufficiently be pursued in an individual, culturally expressed existence outside the institutional church.” (One might add that this trend exists not only in Germany but is an endemic issue in American Christianity – the preference of individualistic faith over ecclesial life). Bonhoeffer’s Christological conception of the church which persists throughout his writings is crystallized in a potent phrase from his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio: “Christ existing as church community.” As Tietz explains, for Bonhoeffer “being a Christian is possible only in the church,” since Christ’s presence in the church creates community with God and with others. With Bonhoeffer, then, the individualist option is no option at all: “No Christianity outside the church is possible.”

Another notable advantage in Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric theology is its doctrine of creation. While Nazified German Christians (Deutsche Christen) in 1933 spoke of “orders of creation,” a term which opened the door to sanctify racial hierarchy as inherent in the created order, Bonhoeffer spoke instead of “orders of preservation,” an alternative vision where God preserves creation in its openness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Albeit a simple condition, this Christological orientation nevertheless precludes interpretations of creation that are closed to the gospel, including Nazi allegiance to blood and soil. According to Tietz, such orders of preservation provide a bulwark against the accusation that homosexual relationships are unnatural. In her estimation, “From the perspective of orders of preservation the criterion for a ‘Christian partnership’ would not be the sexual orientation of two partners, but the question of whether this order helps to preserve the world for Christ. This is also possible in a same-sex relationship.” Thus, Bonhoeffer helps address a pressing issue in Christianity today, namely, homosexuality.

But how exactly are we to conceive of the person of Christ? Bonhoeffer’s incomplete Lectures on Christology from 1933, of which we have only compiled student notes, has traditionally been the classic text for answering this question. In these lectures, Bonhoeffer focuses on what he calls the “who question.” Human inquiry seeks knowledge through the “how question,” the classification of objects into a neat system that belongs to the immanent logos. When it comes to Christology, this “how” approach must be categorically rejected, as it presents an affront to the unclassifiable and self-attesting Logos, the counter Word who dethrones human reason. If “Christology is doctrine, speaking, the word about the Word of God,” then the only question that can be asked of this person is “who are you?” This is the question of revelation, of transcendence, of existence, and of personhood that can only properly be asked within the church. For all its rhetorical power, Bonhoeffer’s approach has been interpreted as problematic because of its strict limits of inquiry. The young lecturer remains deeply allergic to any semblance of metaphysical speculation that goes beyond the “who question.” Reformation attempts to come to terms with the sacraments or the relation of the two natures of Christ, for example, are chided as deviations from this pure path. The formula from the early church council, the Council of Chalcedon, in contrast, is celebrated because in its negative statements “the doctrine of the two natures has itself been surmounted.” He therefore enjoins his students: “We must carry on in this Chalcedonian sense.” In Part III, the final extant section of the lectures, Bonhoeffer articulates his Christology in a way that remains within his self-imposed limitations.

Chris Holmes of the University of Otaga and Stephen Plant of the University of Cambridge interrogate these lectures from two angles. The problem with Bonhoeffer for Holmes is simple: “… with Bonhoeffer we do not really get a doctrine of God.” If “Christology is derivative of theology,” this calls for a recovery of the “‘first premise’ of theology” in Bonhoeffer’s account, namely, God. To do this, Holmes recruits Kathryn Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Doctrine of God to flesh out a more fully developed Trinitarian account that puts firmer ground under Bonhoeffer’s Christology. Sonderegger helps give metaphysical muscle to Bonhoeffer’s Christological bones, incorporating the incarnation into a robust account of the inner Trinitarian life of God. For Holmes, this move is necessary and complementary to Bonhoeffer’s project, since “from God do we understand the manger, the life, cross, resurrection, ascension and heavenly session of Jesus Christ in all their fullness.”

Plant notes that many of Bonhoeffer’s assumptions in the lectures were inherited from his professor at the University of Berlin, the towering figure of liberal theology, Adolf von Harnack. Besides his aversion to metaphysical inquiry, Bonhoeffer preferred the insights of individual theologians in the early church to doctrinal decisions taken by the institutional church. Likewise, Bonhoeffer shared his professor’s privileging of modern theology over classical conventions. For Plant, recent revisionist scholarship on Nicaea, led by Lewis Ayres’ Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, sheds new light on the account Bonhoeffer presents in his Lectures on Christology. Plant concludes, “My suspicion is that Bonhoeffer’s views of the function of the creeds and of the relation between historical theology and systematic or dogmatic theology may be typical of his time in certain ways that we should not wish now to pass unchallenged.” Ayres helps to provide strategies to correct unhelpful narratives of the pre-modern to which Bonhoeffer and other modern theologians are susceptible and should therefore pay heed.

Related to Christology is hamartiology, or the account of sin in Bonhoeffer’s thought. Eva Harasta and Tom Greggs hone in on this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s theology. Notably, in her essay, Harasta fills a gap in Bonhoeffer’s equation of sin: how can sin persist in a reality that is reconciled to Christ? In other words, how can Adamic existence persist in what Bonhoeffer calls the Christ-reality? Harasta identifies relational structures that are opposed to Christ’s conforming reality to himself. Contempt and idolization are the key words in the Ethics that describe these oppositional structures. Nevertheless, for Bonhoeffer, the cross, “where Adam and Christ become one,” is not thwarted by these forces. Instead, in the cross Christ “identifies himself with Adam, conforms himself to Adam, and thereby transforms Adam’s reality and brings about the reality of reconciliation.”

Greggs’ contribution highlights the consequences of arranging doctrinal topics in systematic theology. In the history of Christian thought there have been theologians who are characterized as systematic in their approach, due to their logical and structured argumentation, and episodic theologians who write in response to particular questions or historical circumstances, which makes their work more difficult to organize neatly. This difference is clearly seen in the work of Karl Barth, famous for his thoroughly systematic multi-volume Church Dogmatics, and Bonhoeffer, whose varied works range across genres, topics, and historical circumstances, without an explicit effort at systematization. According to Greggs, while Bonhoeffer was not a systematic thinker in the way Barth was, Bonhoeffer’s theology is nevertheless “resolutely and continuously ecclesiologically orientated, or better still ecclesiologically founded.” The consequence of this orientation towards the church is a thoroughly corporate understanding of sin and salvation based in concepts of reciprocity, relationality, and community. Greggs concludes, “the key distinctive for Bonhoeffer is the nature of the church and the effect of thinking about the church on the dogmatic locus of hamartiology.” This arrangement illustrates the import of dogmatic decisions and provides a vocabulary for Protestants to speak of the church as salvific. From this, Greggs calls for students of Bonhoeffer to think “along with and beyond” their teacher particularly by reflecting upon the role of the Holy Spirit in ecclesiology. Adding this missing piece will give further insight into “how the church is ‘in Christ.’”

It is above all in the field of ethics, however, that readers have looked to Bonhoeffer for insight. His life serves as a kind of moral tale whose heft is felt on every page of the Ethics. These fragmented manuscripts, which Bonhoeffer saw as his magnum opus, leave us with the record of a man wrestling in real time with the impossible moral quandary thrust upon him. How should a Christian act in circumstances where, in his words, one must choose “between wrong and wrong”? To do nothing, and incur the guilt thereof, or to enter the conspiracy against Hitler, and incur the guilt of lying, and most of all, of plotting assassination? Bonhoeffer’s fateful decision led to his execution at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in April, 1945, just before the end of the war. Nevertheless, as Bonhoeffer reflected, moral decisions in crisis situations – on the “boundary” – are taken in the free venture of faith, trusting God for his forgiveness.

Naturally, readers will ask how they should reason morally in complex circumstances. But precisely here, at the moral rub, Bonhoeffer doesn’t deliver as expected. He rejects the traditional ethical enterprise. Ethics is not about objective onlookers deciding between good and evil. This implies a choice between general principles that do not correspond to reality. Ethics should not be an abstract academic discipline but the most concrete on-the-ground engagement with the world. As Bonhoeffer writes in the opening lines of the manuscript “Christ, Reality, and Good: Christ, Church, and World,” “The real question is not ‘How can I be good?’ or ‘How can I do something good?’ but rather, what is the will of God?” This maneuver leaves interpreters confounded: how can it be helpful to direct Christians to do the will of God without ethical principles that would guide such behavior?

Philip Ziegler’s intervention in this volume provides some guidance in this direction. He readily admits, “There is remarkably little ethics in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics.” Those in search of concrete moral guidance will simply be disappointed. Rather, according to Ziegler, Bonhoeffer’s project in the Ethics is thoroughly metaethical, “being pre-eminently concerned with the fundamental presuppositions, commitments, and dispositions of moral discourse, reflection and action, rather than with the content of particular moral judgments or the form of discrete moral acts.” Ziegler argues that Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran soteriology of salvation by grace gives foundation and shape to the moral life to such an extent that it serves as moral description. What we do will never be as fundamental as how we are addressed and regarded by the Word of God in Jesus Christ. The concern of theological ethics is “divine pragmatics,” that is, the power of the Word of God to shape reality together with its practical implications. Writes Ziegler, “Attending to what the Word makes of the world and we in it: that is the chief business of a Christian ethic.” Therefore, readers of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics should understand this soteriological priority. To put it another way, “Ethics is not the way of salvation. It is not, to use Luther’s favourite image, the tree. It is the fruit of the tree.” And only the right tree will bear good fruit.

What fruit, then, does Bonhoeffer’s Ethics yield in contemporary ethical issues? Michael Mawson offers an example by applying Bonhoeffer’s understanding of personhood to current debates on disability. Mawson begins by introducing flawed philosophical and cultural accounts of human personhood in contemporary scholarship. Philosophers Peter Singer and Michael Tooley, for example, define personhood in terms of capacities, a definition which excludes human beings with disabilities and newborns. Mawson supports the return of recent theologians to the concept of humans being created in the image of God insofar as it allows us to view personhood apart from capacities, that is, as a gift of God. Nevertheless, Mawson objects to the common jump to social Trinitarianism in modern theology that often accompanies these efforts at defending human personhood. In order to draw attention to relational personhood and its attendant ethical implications, recent disability theologians ground human personhood in the Trinity. Mawson contends that such a move, apart from disregarding the differences between human personhood and divine personhood, diminishes the embodiment and concrete limitations that must be accounted for among the disabled. What is needed is an understanding of creaturely personhood that incorporates its limited conditions. Bonhoeffer provides just that in Creation and Fall, his theological interpretation of Genesis 1-3 from 1933. For Bonhoeffer, the analogy between God and creatures is not an analogy of being but rather an analogy of relationship. In other words, the essential similarity between human beings and God, which accounts for the image of God in human beings, would not primarily be that human beings share in being – a traditional interpretation in Christian thought – but rather their inherently relational nature. If God’s freedom is a freedom for humanity in Jesus Christ and thereby thoroughly relational, the human freedom that characterizes the image of God is a created freedom for God and for others in relationship. It is this distinct creaturely freedom that affirms the limited bodily features of human relational personhood and thereby includes the disabled. Mawson concludes, “Ultimately, it is this creaturely anthropology, I would suggest, that can provide a better basis for attending to and actively caring for others, that is, for taking action and responsibility in the world.”

Finally, on the perennial question of Bonhoeffer’s stance towards Judaism, Michael DeJonge and Andreas Pangritz provide new readings. DeJonge clarifies that Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine is the interpretive key to making sense of Bonhoeffer’s widely quoted but seldom understood 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” Where some interpreters have championed Bonhoeffer for his early defense of the Jews here, others have accused him of Lutheran quietism. It has always been a puzzle how exactly the church and state relate in this short piece. For DeJonge, the logic of the two kingdoms, grounded in the dynamic of law and gospel, resolves the tensions in this essay and accounts for Bonhoeffer’s conception of the church’s relation to the state. Moreover, contrary to the majority of readers who believe Bonhoeffer stepped outside of the Lutheran tradition in his decision to join the resistance, DeJonge locates this turn within his Lutheran heritage, which is based on a correct understanding of the two kingdoms doctrine. Pangritz, in turn, tackles the hagiographic image of Bonhoeffer as the lone righteous voice in a sea of Nazi clones. Pangritz details the laudable efforts of Karl Barth, Elisabeth Schmitz, and Wilhelm Vischer who equally – and in some ways even more boldly – spoke up in defense of the Jews during the Nazi period. A crucial element here is the way these theologians, along with the later Bonhoeffer, reconceived the Jewish-Christian relationship in ways that rejected traditional supersessionism. It is truer to history, then, to place Bonhoeffer within “a network of theologians who were vitally concerned about the so-called ‘Jewish Question’ and who felt it necessary to revise the theological tradition in this respect.”


In June 2017, I participated in a week-long Bonhoeffer conference held at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Ten young Bonhoeffer scholars, five from Germany and five from the US, were invited to give papers and discuss his works with senior scholars Clifford Green, Christiane Tietz, and Michael DeJonge. We met every day in the “Bonhoeffer Room” (formerly known as the “Prophet’s Chamber”), where Bonhoeffer decided to return to Germany on the eve of the Second World War. At the beginning of the week, when we kick-started what would become twenty-five hours of conversation on this man and his work, I could not help but wonder, “what does Bonhoeffer have left to teach us?” It should come as no surprise after reading this review that the answer is, simply put, very much. Christ, Church, and the World is only one example of the ways that Bonhoeffer continues to provide compelling answers for our pressing questions in ethics and public life. In our own troubled times, when the political conditions we live in are particularly unsettling, looking to Bonhoeffer is instructive, perhaps most of all as a resource for finding unlikely hope and promise. As Bonhoeffer wrote in “After Ten Years,” a reflection of Hitler’s first decade in power, “In its essence optimism is not a way of looking at the present situation but a power of life, a power of hope when others resign, a power to hold our heads high when all seems to have come to naught, a power to tolerate setbacks, a power that never abandons the future to the opponent that lays claim to it.” If we can but learn this defiant optimism from a man who knew real trouble, we will have taken a major step towards building a better future.

Javier A. Garcia is Associate Director of the William Penn Honors Program and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.