Bonhoeffer’s Experience with the American Liberals: My Experience with the American Evangelicals

Theological virtuoso Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after already earning two PhDs in theology (by his mid-twenties), came abroad to diversify his theological portfolio. He landed on the shores of New York, and in the halls of Union Theological Seminary. He had been trained in the liberal theological tradition, where it was founded, in Germany by its greatest minds; its most premier, just as he was entering studies, was Adolf von Harnack. But after writing his PhD dissertation, Communio Sanctorum, and then his post-doctoral Habilitation, Act and Being, even while being critical of aspects of Karl Barth’s theology, in the main, Bonhoeffer took the Christocentric, and orthodox turn with Barth. This had all happened just prior to him ending up at Union. He had the real deal liberal theological training behind him (just as Barth did), and could sniff out a phony version of it better than anyone else. Even so, as noted, he had abandoned the premises of liberal theology through appropriating Barth’s broad contours, and made that significant turn. When he entered Union Theological Seminary he was anticipating finding more of the same in regard to liberal theology, but he had come to learn how to apply theology at the social (street) level; and Union had a stellar reputation for this. But what he found, and was shocked by, was just how far-gone Union was. He realized that they were peddling an imposter’s version of liberal theology; to the point that they had completely gutted it of anything doctrinally or historically interesting. In the end he didn’t even think that what Union was offering was Christianity at all. This is interesting, and parallel to my own impression of American evangelicalism today. But before I share some of my impressions, let us hear further on Bonhoeffer at Union, and how Gary Dorrien frames things for us: 

He said it bluntly to his friend Helmut Rößler in December 1930. American liberal Protestantism, Bonhoeffer wrote, was ‘infinitely depressing’ to him, ‘smiling in desperation’ without realizing it was desperate: 

The almost frivolous attitude here is unprecedented, and my hope of finding Heb. 12:1 fulfilled has been bitterly disappointed. Moreover, theology in Germany seems infinitely provincial to them here; they just don’t understand it; they grin when you mention Luther     (DBWE 10: 261). 

A week later, writing to German church superintendent Max Dietsel, Bonhoeffer allowed that American seminarians were certainly friendly; they even expected professors to be friendly. But conversations with American students and professors ‘almost never yielded anything of substance,’ because Americans were averse to substance and truth: 

There is no theology here. Although I am basically taking classes and lectures in dogmatics and philosophy of religion, the impression is overwhelmingly negative. They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students—on the average twenty-five to thirty years old—are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.        (DBWE 10: 265-6) 

Bonhoeffer struggled to convey how bad it was. He had groused about shallow students at Berlin, too, but he assured Diestel that this was much worse. Americans ‘dreadfully sentimentalized’ religion, they spouted their opinions with ‘an almost naïve know-it-all attitude,’ and any reference to Luther evoked insolent laughter. They were proud to be superficial, counting it as sophistication. With a glimmer of something important, Bonhoeffer said that most of the theologians and clergy at Union accepted James’ notion of a finite God: ‘They find it to be profound and modern and do not sense at all the impertinent frivolousness in all such talk.’ Local church services were much the same: 

The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a Negro (indeed, in general I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes)      (DBWE 10: 266) 

That was another important glimmer; Bonhoeffer caught that gospel truths were existential to Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and his African American congregation at Abyssinian Church. Overall, however, the case for despair was overwhelming. Bonhoeffer puzzled over how the usual fare in American churches could be called Christianity. The Federal Council of Churches, he reported, was equally frivolous: ‘People talked about everything, except about theology. Only rarely did anyone venture any comments really getting to the point, and if they did, the discussion quickly moved on to the daily agenda’ (DBWE 10: 266-67). 

There are interesting parallels, I think, between Bonhoeffer’s impression of American liberalism, and how American evangelicalism has come to operate today. I can only imagine Bonhoeffer running across a Progressive church today, or your typical American evangelical church, and walk away with the same impressions he did when he was exposed to the “Christianity” at Union Theological Seminary. For me personally, this is my impression of American evangelicalism in the main. I think of Christianity Today styled evangelicalism, and when I juxtapose that with so-called Progressive American Christianity, I don’t see much difference. Maybe their doctrinal statements would differ, but their praxis reduces to the same; what Christian Smith and others have identified as a moralistic therapeutic deism. There is no real sense of the Christian, and thus concrete God of Jesus Christ present in most of American evangelicalism these days (whether that be on the progressive or mainstream evangelical continuum). What we are exposed to are other purely pragmatic or flattened versions of the social gospel, with no reference to a God outside of the horizontal domain; or we get a pie-in-the-sky notion of God, who is there to help us feel good about ourselves, and present us with experiences that are supposed to elevate us to our best lives and self-actualized selves now. 

 

An Ontological-Relational Framing of the Bondage of the Will: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ as Antidote

I am not a classical Calvinist; by now most of you know what I mean when I say that. I am not a classical Arminian; indeed, I’m not Arminian at all. I am Athanasian Reformed (aka Evangelical Calvinist). I affirm something like total depravity; I prefer to call that homo incurvatus in se, like Martin Luther did. Either way, I believe all of humanity, at the fall, was plunged into a rupture with the triune God, such that humanity lost all capacity to be for or with God in any way. In other words, as some refer to this more popularly, in regard to salvific matters, I am a proponent of ‘total inability.’ This means that I reject the (‘Pelagian’) notion that humanity retains an abstract (from God) freewill that would allow humans, apart from a radical in-breaking of God’s Grace in Christ, to be for God and not fundamentally against Him. I maintain that all of humanity, along with Adam and Eve in the garden, fell into a ruptured relationship with the triune God, such that postlapsarian humanity inhabits a status that keeps them incurved upon themselves, motivated by a saucer of competing affections that never allows them to see God as anyone but themselves. One manifestation of this, among others, is that such humans will construct rationalist citadels of anthropological heft wherein their reason, incurved upon itself as it were, becomes the standard for all that is real (think cogito ergo sum, or tabula rasa). 

In light of that you might think that I must, then, rely on some notion, in an ordo salutis (order of salvation), of God’s ‘regenerating grace’ (ie grace as a quality) entering into the ‘elects’’ heart in order for that particular person to come to have capacity to finally see[k] God for who He really is in Christ. But I don’t endorse the model of substance metaphysics that funds that sort of theory of anthrosalvation. Instead, as you also know of me by now, I think from the largely After Barth tradition. Within this tradition we have figures such as Thomas Torrance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer et al. For Barth and Torrance, in particular, they are both in-formed by Athanasian categories, in particular, and Patristic, in general; among other (modern) influences. Even so, they operate from a complex when it comes to the particular issue of thinking about the so-called Bondage of the Will; they both affirm it, but from within an ontological/filial frame. For them the issue of rupture between God and humanity isn’t primarily juridical, instead it’s a relational matter. For them, in the fall, humanity’s being has lost its human being in the sense that it has been spliced out of God’s image (imago Dei) in Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). Because of this plunge into ‘sub-humanity,’ humans no longer have the capacity to be free for God; since God alone is genuinely free. You see, for the tradition I think from (which is the biblical one), human being only has being and orientation, insofar as it is in right relationship with the triune God. Outwith this relationship the ‘abstract human’ has no capacity to operate with any notion of primal freedom; of the sort that God alone possesses. In order for that seemingly impossible possibility to become a possibility, for my tradition (which is the biblical one), it requires that God does something for us; viz. that He ‘disrupts’ the state of affairs an abstract humanity finds itself in, and from this act, humanity comes to have an objective ground to be towards God once again. Albeit, in the resurrection of Christ, this ground is now greater than the soil the first Adam provided for; in the resurrection of Christ humanity now has the fertile soil it requires to grow towards God from in and through the second and greater Adam’s vicarious humanity for the world.  

Jens Zimmerman offers insight on how the aforementioned lineaments operate in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 

These differences notwithstanding, Bonhoeffer still shares with Heidegger the basic hermeneutic axiom that human knowledge consists in the interpretation of a reality in which one already moves, lives, and has one’s being. For Bonhoeffer as a Christian theologian, this reality is of course determined by Christ alone. Knowledge of one’s participation in this Christ-reality comes only by God’s grace as one is drawn into communion with the Trinity. Bonhoeffer’s solution to the mind-world dichotomy is thus very similar to Heidegger’s, albeit based on a specifically Christian ontology. Already in Act and Being, he develops the fundamentally hermeneutic concept that faith is not cognitive assent to doctrine, but ‘a mode of being’ (DBWE 2: 118). Believing in God is not merely a mental act but involves being drawn into a reality that is ‘prior to the act of faith’ (DBWE 2: 117). This ‘being-in-Christ’ is characterized by an intentionality directed purely to Christ (a fides directa or actus directus), so that the self is transformed by this reality. For Bonhoeffer ‘everything hinges on faith’s knowing itself not as somehow conditioning or even creating this being, but precisely as conditioned and created by it’ (DBWE 2: 118). Human reflection on this reality is a necessary, secondary interpretation of this existential reality. This kind of secondary reflection is called theology, ‘which is not existential knowledge’, but rather an interpretation of the church’s experience of God as crystallized and sedimented in tradition over time through preaching, creeds, and dogma. In this way, theology acts as the ‘preserving and ordering memory [Gedächtnis]’ of the living, ‘spoken word of Christ in the church’ (DBW 2: 131, …). Preaching draws on this memory of Christ’s presence and also shapes it at the same time. 

Participating in this Christ-reality does not constitute some Hinterland or parallel universe allowing the Christian to escape from the world. Bonhoeffer states: 

Like all of creation, the world has been created through Christ and has its existence only in Christ (John 1:10; Col. 1:16). To speak of the world without speaking of Christ is pure abstraction. The world stands in relationship to Christ whether the world knows it or not. (DBWE 6: 68) 

Bonhoeffer is well known for his insistence that the Christian’s participation in the Christ-reality does not negate the world but rather founds proper human responsibility for the world. On account of God’s becoming human, God and humanity, and therefore God and world, must be thought together. Bonhoeffer avers that ‘where the worldly establishes itself as an autonomous sector, this denies the fact of the world’s being accepted in Christ, the grounding of the reality of the world in revelational reality, and thereby the validity of the gospel for the whole world’ (DBWE 6: 60). For Bonhoeffer, the incarnation itself—God’s transcendent truth entering into human history and temporality—sets the hermeneutical pattern for Christian knowledge, wherein the sacred is known only in the profane, the revelational in the rational, and the supernatural only in the natural (DBWE 6: 59). [1] 

Maybe this is your first encounter with this sort of salvific conniving, but hopefully not your last. This is why as Athanasian Reformed types we say there is an historia salutis rather than an ordo salutisThe focus on salvation in this frame is on the pre-history (ad intra) and history (ad extra) of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. We see His life as the Via by which all of humanity comes to have an objective ground as the pre-condition from whence they come to have the Spirit generated capacity to say Yes to God; that is from Christ’s Yes and Amened life for them in the resurrection humanity that ascended and is now seated at the Right Hand of the Father. This might raise some ‘causal’ questions for the Aristotelian-minded among us, that is in regard to how this avoids ‘universalism’ implications, and we have response for that. I have already addressed that more than once elsewhere here on the blog, and in our books. But to be sure, as an Evangelical Calvinist, I affirm humanity’s need for newly-created ground that we might come to genuinely think God from prior to our acknowledgement of God. As has been pressed throughout this post: I maintain, along with the biblical tradition I think from, that it is only in and from the elect and primordial humanity of Jesus Christ that humanity is raised up with His archetypal humanity, and it is from here, from this sacred space of liminal humanity for all, that sub-humanity can rise from the ashes of its desolate life and breathe from the lungs of Christ’s Yes for them coram Deo. 

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[1] Jens Zimmerman, “Bonhoeffer and Contemporary Philosophy,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 439-40. 

 

Bonhoeffer’s ‘Conditional Pacifism’ and His ‘Tyrannicidal’ Plans for Adolf Hitler

Clifford Green has written a very persuasive essay, like I don’t see how its thesis can be defeated, with reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his ‘conditional pacifism.’ Green underscores that while this pacificism, after a time of theological maturation, served as an ethos for Bonhoeffer; that it would be better to call Bonhoeffer’s mood as a ‘theological peace ethic.’ Certain pacifists, like in the Anabaptist tradition, seem to want to recoup Bonhoeffer for their own sort of fundamental pacifism, but this simply does not cohere with Bonhoeffer’s concrete situated ethic vis-à-vis what he calls ‘vicarious representative action.’ Green writes:

In a revealing autobiographical letter sent from his Finkenwalde seminary in 1936, Bonhoeffer wrote that he had recently experienced ‘a great liberation’ cuased by ‘the Bible, especially the Sermon on the Mount’. As a result, he was devoted to renewal of the church and the pastorate, and ‘Christian pacifism’ was now ‘something utterly self-evident’ (DBWE 14: 134). Statements like this, and his book Discipleship, have led some to argue that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist who was committed to a consistent nonviolence, one who did not participate in, nor approve of, any plot to kill Hitler and overthrow his regime. Others have reasoned that, since Bonhoeffer was involved in the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime, and did indeed approve the effort to kill Hitler, he must have abandoned his pacifism for just war thinking or something like Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism. Neither approach interprets Bonhoeffer on his own terms or identifies the distinctive components of his peace ethic. Instead I propose that Bonhoeffer’s peace ethic is based on its theological components, not on a commitment to nonviolence, and that he does not abandon these fundamental convictions to work in the conspiracy which was planning the coup d’état.1

Green, right from the get-go (of his essay) problematizes the typical facile readings of Bonhoeffer. And this is it how it should be. Bonhoeffer wasn’t a tradition of thought, instead he was a dynamic person, who in turn represents a complex; just as his sitz im leben was highly complex. This is how he ought to be read. He shouldn’t be co-opted by the Anabaptist ‘peace trad’; conversely, he shouldn’t be hijacked by ‘just war theorists.’ The reality was that he was motivated, in a general mood, by the ‘peacefulness of the Gospel reality,’ while at the same time driven by that same Gospel message to be for the other (so his so-called ‘vicarious representative action’). It was this latter reality that led him into his work with the conspiracy to commit tyrannicide on Hitler and company.

Green’s essay in toto is excellent; you’ll have to read it for yourself. Until then let me close this by sharing a long passage (in fact the total conclusion for Green’s essay) which summarizes all that Green had heretofore provided argument for. Even in this summarization he offers some of his best evidence in regard to Bonhoeffer’s complex position with regard to his ‘peace ethic’; indeed, Green quotes some of Bonhoeffer’s best friends and compatriots in the ‘Confessing’ movement.

How best to summarize Bonhoeffer’s overall position, in his specific historical context, on peace and war, on resistance and tyrannicide? It would be a serious misunderstanding to read Bonhoeffer’s statement that ‘you can’t give a final answer to the question of whether a Christian can participate in war’, or the statement that he had not ‘made up his mind about participating in a war under different circumstances’, and then conclude that he stood in a neutral, uncommitted place, above the fray. It was not as if the choice about war and violence was always an open question for Bonhoeffer, which could be decided one way or the other. Rather, his default position is against war, and for peace, for nonviolence against violence, for the church condemning all war as sinful rather than justifying it. In other words, his peace ethic led his contemporaries who knew him personally to call him some sort of pacifist.

Karl Barth, later discussing in the Church Dogmatics when tyrannicide would be justified, wrote that Bonhoeffer belonged to the Christian circles who gave a definite positive answer in regard to Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer, he said, ‘was really a pacifist on the basis of his understanding of the gospel. But the fact remained that he did not give a negative answer to the question’ (Barth, 1961: 449).

Eberhard Bethge wrote that ‘after meeting Lasserre the question of … the biblical injunction of peace and of the concrete steps to be taken against warlike impulses never left him again’. But he was a ‘conditional pacifist’, who never became a thoroughgoing, unconditional pacifist, a grundsätzlich Pazifist (Bethge, 2000: 153, 127).

Similarly, Franz Hildebrandt, a lifelong pacifist and Bonhoeffer’s close friend, is a unique witness. When the news of his friend’s death also informed him that Bonhoeffer was involved in the conspiracy, he was surprised (Green, 2005: 46). But when later asked in an interview about Bonhoeffer’s pacifism he replied: ‘It was never a pacifism unqualified and held-to in principle’ (Kelly interview, cited in Green, 2015: 208).

Herbert Jehle—the physicist who attended Bonhoeffer’s lectures in Berlin, visited him frequently in London from Cambridge, and also visited him in Finkenwaldesaid, ‘I became a pacifist exclusively through Dietrich’. In an interview he consistently spoke of Bonhoeffer as a pacifist without qualification (Rasmussen, 2005: 119). But when his widow was asked about Jehle’s attitude to Bonhoeffer in the conspiracy, she answered for him vigorously and without hesitation: ‘Oh, he had to do it!’ (Green, 2005: 46). In other words, Jehle, too, agreed with Bonhoeffer that, in Nazism and Hitler, Bonhoeffer and the coup planners faced an ultimate, last-resort situation.

Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, who became General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, reported that in 1939 Bonhoeffer discussed with him whether he should register as a conscientious objector in the impending war. To the question of how it came about that he became actively involved in the 20 July 1944 plot, Visser ‘t Hooft answered: ‘The very conviction which had made him a man of peace, led him into active resistance’ (Zimmerman & Smith, 1966: 194).

These contemporary witnesses all refer to Bonhoeffer’s ‘pacifism’. Bethge and Hildebrandt are quick to qualify it. So ‘conditional pacifism’ is probably as good a short phrase as any to summarize Bonhoeffer’s position. But unfortunately ‘pacifism’ does not point to the pervasive Christian foundation of his position as does the construct ‘theological peace ethic’. His peace ethic’. His peace ethic cannot be understood apart from its Christological, scriptural, ecclesial, and doctrinal dimensions. Nor can his attitude to the coup d’état conspiracy and tyrannicide be understood apart from his theological ethic of free responsibility in which it is embedded. Therefore we must combine the two phrases and say that Bonhoeffer’s Christian peace ethic was a conditional pacifism.2

For those who want to continue to maintain that Bonhoeffer can be read into the unconditional pacifist tradition, say of Anabaptist pedigree, you must work through and beyond Green’s argument; I don’t see how that is possible. It is better to simply accept that Bonhoeffer does not fit the nice and neat categories that some of us would like to romanticize him into. As I noted he is a complex man in a complex time; but who isn’t?

As I recall, even someone as evangelical as Norman Geisler came up with a category he called selectivism when it came to his preferred ethic. As much as the geeks will not countenance the idea of placing Geisler into a discussion about Bonhoeffer, and I don’t really like it either (maybe I’m a geek), I’d say Bonhoeffer’s ‘conditional pacifism’ fits pretty well with this sort of ‘selectivism.’ That notwithstanding, Bonhoeffer had a much deeper theological development behind his ‘conditionalism,’ which we can see in his so-called ‘vicarious representative action’; I’m a huge fan of this thinking. It recognizes that concrete personhood for the Christian is only found as that is grounded in Jesus Christ’s humanity. And it is out of this humanity, as the Christian participates through union with Christ, that they find their identity first from Christ’s humanity and then in the other [person]. This helps explain Bonhoeffer’s commitment to the conspiracy of tyrannicide (ie taking Hitler and his whole crew out). Bonhoeffer said with reference to Hitler, as reported by his friend Bell, “The murderer had to be stopped.” Bonhoeffer’s ethic for the other led him to concrete action in the face of total evil; this was motivated by his love for the other, as that first came from Christ.

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1 Clifford Green, “Bonhoeffer’s Christian Peace Ethic, Conditional Pacifism, And Resistance,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 345. 

2 Ibid., 359-60.

Eschatology and Political Action for the Christian: With Reference to Bonhoeffer

Eschatology frames the Christian life, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: ‘The Church of Christ witnesses to the end of all things. It lives from the end, it thinks from the end, it acts from the end, it proclaims its message from the end’ (DBWE 3: 21). This has significant implications for the Christian’s engagement with the broader culture; in this instance I want to emphasize how this ought to impact the Christian’s relationship to the politik, insofar that the Christian bears witness to the political in their theological existence as Christians in, but not of this world system. Mark Lindsay offers a nice entrée into Bonhoeffer’s thinking on eschatology, particularly as that is in contact with the Nazi context, he and so many other Germans et al. were thrust into under the mantle of Hitler’s Antichrist reign. Lindsay writes:

The lectures he delivered against this background—lectures that would form the basis of his most famous book, Discipleship—explore precisely this participatory engagement with Christ in the world. Crucially, there is an inescapable eschatological dimension to the life of engaged discipleship. Towards the end of the book, and with Nazism firmly in his sights, Bonhoeffer speaks of the threat that the world poses to the Church. Having already argued for a rightful ‘living-space’ (Lebensraum) (DBWE 4: 232-4, 236) of the Church in the world, Bonhoeffer goes on to say that

the older this world grows, and the more sharply the struggle (der Kampf) between Christ and Antichrist grows, the more thorough also the world’s efforts to rid itself of the Christians. To the first Christians the world still granted a space . . . A world that has become entirely anti-Christian, however, can no longer grant Christians even this private sphere . . . Christians [are now forced] to deny their Lord in exchange for every piece of bread they want to eat. In the end, Christians are left with no other choices but to escape from the world or go to prison (DBWE 4: 247).

This, he says, is a world in which the end (das Ende) is near (DBWE 4: 247).[1]

The concern I have is that many Christians are not able to discern who the Antichrist is today, and who isn’t. That the Babylonian Captivity of the Church in the culture has become an instance of Stockholm syndrome, such that the churches in the broader world have come to love their captors rather than be captivated by the Eschatos of all things, Jesus Christ. One concrete instance we are seeing of this in the West, currently, is the state of Canada. This state, in the name of safety and welfare for the ‘greater good’ (look into the history and see where that rhetoric has been deployed before) has now begun building walls around churches; whether that be with physical fencing, or hundreds of police, or health and welfare troopers deployed by the state. In other places in Canada, the Montreal Police Department, in their enforcement of COVID lockdowns, are literally calling certain media, media attempting to record the state’s activities, ‘Jew media.’ These are all modern-day instances of Antichrist behavior of the sort that has the potential to blossom into things Bonhoeffer himself experienced as he thought out his eschatology vis-à-vis the Church’s existence in the world.


[1] Mark Lindsay, “Eschatology,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 261.

Human Freedom vis-à-vis God: With Reference to the Theanthropology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. –John 8:32, 36

15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”  18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. –Romans 8:15, 18-25

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by[f] him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. –Colossians 1:15-20

I wish I had the time and space to do a proper exegesis of the above passages, but for now they will simply have to hover in the background; I’ll leave it to the reader to discern how they might relate to the rest of what I write in this post.

Freewill has been a matter of deep consternation in the history of the church; not to mention in the history of the Philosophy departments on the university campuses. Whether it be the infamous Augustine/Pelagius binary (the historical particularities notwithstanding); Luther/Erasmus; Calvin/Pighius; Dort/Remonstrants; so on and so forth. While this locus has occupied the minds of many, and still does, I want to argue that it is not a genuinely biblical theological point of doctrinal consideration. In order to aid my argument, I will appeal to a reading of Bonhoeffer’s anthropology (or Theanthropology) which will point up how a genuine doctrine of human freedom vis-à-vis human agency actually functions theologically in the biblical text. Following, I will reflect further on Bonhoeffer’s anthropology, per the report of his reader, and also make a note on how theological ideation, in general, is what’s at stake in these discussions more than is getting personal biographies of past theologians completely right (even though this has its own relative significance). Here is Rachel Muers on Bonhoeffer and freedom:

Freedom is one of the key terms Bonhoeffer uses to specify what it means to be human. In discussing Genesis 1:26 he specifically locates the image of God in human freedom: ‘To say that in humankind God creates the image of God on earth means that humankind is like the Creator in that it is free’ (DBWE 3: 62). At several points—and in terms that we shall discuss later because of the problems they raise for contemporary theological anthropology—he contrasts freedom with necessity as the distinctive mark of human life over against non-human animal life (see DBWE 6: 196).

In the context I have outlined, however, in which the human person is given his or her ‘boundary’ by the other, and this very boundary is what makes the person, just what does human freedom actually mean? Clearly it cannot mean the freedom of unlimited self-assertion or self-creation. In fat, for Bonhoeffer, the attempt to exercise that kind of freedom, to be ‘like God’, to live without limits, is at the heart of sinful existence (DBWE 3: 116). Moreover, and linked to this, in Bonhoeffer’s account freedom is not a built-in human capacity at all. There is nothing about me, taken in isolation, that makes me free: not my rationality, not my will, not even my ‘thrownness’ into the world.

For Bonhoeffer, the freedom proper to humanity is freedom in relationship, both to God and to the neighbour in community. As creaturely freedom, it is received before it is possessed or exerted; it is ‘freedom for’ or ‘freedom in relation to’ another, rather than ‘freedom to’ do something. Insofar as it is ‘freedom from’ anything, it is freedom from the endless circle of the ‘heart turned in on itself’—Luther’s cor curvuum in se (see DBWE 2: 46)—the attempt to secure one’s own existence and meaning, perhaps the prisoner’s ‘lonely question’, to which the sinful human being, excluded from community, is condemned. Again, Creation and Fall makes it clear that this freedom—precisely as freedom-in-relation, freedom-towards-the-other and freedom-for-God—is creaturely freedom and not only redeemed freedom. It is the freedom for which humanity is made, but this is not a freedom to which people ‘reading from the middle’ have access apart from redemption in Christ.

The Imago Dei—i.e. that in humanity which reflects God—is thus given in the relationship of humanity to God that begins as a relationship of God to humanity, the free act of the creator. A key point to note here, of course, is that God’s own freedom, seen in creation and redemption, is freedom-for and freedom-in relation. Humanity images God in receiving freedom-for-God and freedom-for-the-other; and as God calls humanity into relationship and humanity responds, God’s own way of being free is present within creation. In a telling and undeveloped aside, Bonhoeffer suggests that this is the meaning of the patristic texts on the ‘indwelling of the Trinity in Adam’ (DBWE 3: 64): God’s own ‘freedom-in-relation’, God’s triune being, is imaged in human life not just because the human being in some way resembles God, but because human life receives and reflects the freedom that God has.[1]

I submit the above to you as the biblical way to think human freedom vis-à-vis God’s freedom. The problem typical discussions have, in regard to freewill, is that they ALWAYS go beyond Scripture and its reality in Christ; and instead they start having a philosophical discussion that has no ‘point of contact’ with the ‘Scriptural witness.’ Philosophical discussions about human agency and freewill, by definition, think humanity in an abstract manner; or we might want to say in a ‘purely profane’ manner. In other words, to think human freewill in abstraction from humanity’s groundedness in God’s image for humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, is not to think from God’s Self-revelation to humanity about humanity, but to think humanity from an independent humanity (from God’s for us) and then, post-factum project that onto a discussion about Godness. This mode, or hermeneutic, is to attempt to speak for God, instead of to think of God Deus dixit, after ‘God has spoken’ Himself for us in His Word for us (pro nobis), in Jesus Christ.

An Aside on Historical Biography and the Popular

I just watched an interview with Dr. Ali Bonner via vlog done by host, Warren McGrew. Bonner recently released her book The Myth of Pelagianism. It was an informative interview, and the history discussed is important and very interesting. But I am afraid that McGrew, and those of like-mind, become too enamored with the biographical history itself rather than the theological ideation under consideration. Whether or not Pelagius, for example, would affirm what has come to be known as Pelagianism, and he probably would, is beside the point. The issue is whether or not what this doctrine, which has come to be known as Pelagianism, if it actually has correspondence to something like what we just discussed with reference to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of human freedom. McGrew, Leighton Flowers&company do not seem to grasp this, and continue to suppose that simply because Pelagius’ thinking might have been considered the ‘orthodox’ teaching at one point, that this does not mean it should have been per the Scriptural realities. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. There must be greater depth, a broader perspective deployed if these folks want to avoid the errors of the Socinians et al. Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Rachel Muers, “Anthropology,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 202-03.

A Theology of Crisis: How a Doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo Ought to Lead to Christ Concentration in Theological Reflection

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” –Genesis 1:1

Thomas Torrance makes much of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, as he should! The very freedom of God is at play in this doctrine, such that God remains free from the contingencies of this world, just as He is its Creator; but only first as He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a result, knowledge of God remains contingent on God’s free choice to make Himself known to the world. Thus, systems of theology that attempt to think God discursively from His effects in nature, like Thomism does, are discounted from the get-go. To appropriate creatio ex nihilo in this way entails a theory of revelation wherein the world, and humanity as part of the world, is at God’s behest, and solely contingent upon its knowledge of Him insofar as He chooses to reveal Himself.

It isn’t just Torrance who thinks this way about God’s relation to the world, but prior to TFT, we get this from theologians like Karl Barth, in his theology of crisis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in certain ways, although not in uncritical lockstep, is already thinking After Barth. Matthew Puffer writes the following with reference to Bonhoeffer’s own style of theology of crisis, and how that relates to a doctrine of creation, and more significantly, as this ties into a received doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and the attending doctrine of creatio continua (God’s continuing creative power deployed in its sustenance from moment to moment).

During the 1930/1 academic year as a Sloane Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer’s paper on ‘The Theology of Crisis and its Attitude Toward Philosophy and Science’ introduced American students and professors to recent developments in German theology, including ‘the position of the founder and most original thinker of the theology of crisis, of Karl Barth’ (DBWE 10: 462-3). Bonhoeffer presents a view of science and theology in which the two, properly practiced, cannot conflict due to their differing roles. Science, in this heuristic, is concerned only with what takes place within the realm of the physical world. Theology, on the other hand, is concerned to interpret what takes place in the physical world as science presents it. Bonhoeffer applies this schema to cosmology and creation.

In its pure sense cosmology presumes to know nothing about God and can only speak about the universe on the basis of naturalistic explanations. Cosmology is limited in that it can never get beyond the limits of human thinking and perception, albeit aided and constrained by technology. Cosmology may come to the end of its investigative powers in discovering the foundational principles or the first moments of all that is and, if it so chooses, call that which it assumes must be the cause behind these discoveries “God.” The theology of crisis argues that such a God cannot be the Christian God of whom the Bible speaks as the creator for two reasons.

Firstly: I know God as creator not without the revelation of Christ. For God’s being the creator means being the judge and the savior too; and I know all that only in Christ. Secondly: creation means creation by absolute freedom, creation out of nothing. So the relationship of God to the world is completely free, it has been set and is always set anew ‘creatio continua’ by God. Thus God is not the first cause, the ultimate ground of the world, but its free Lord and creator [and] as such he is not to be discovered by any cosmology, but he reveals himself in sovereign freedom wherever and whenever he wants. (DBWE 10: 475)

According to Bonhoeffer, the god of the cosmologists is not the Creator, the Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer rightly ascribes to the Barth of Romans both creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, and he gives no indication of any disagreement on his part. The creative act of God is always taking place beyond the empirical realm of natural science. God thus remains free with respect to creation, as the continuing creator, and cannot be discovered by means of human capacities and initiatives, whether by Christians or cosmologists. Only in Christ does God reveal Godself to be Creator, judge, and saviour. (In Ethics, Bonhoeffer’s language of Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer reflects Barth’s continuing influence in this matter [DBWE 6: 48, 402].)[1]

This dovetails nicely with a recent post vis-à-vis Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the analogia entis. Evangelicals, in particular, need to come to learn to think Christian Dogmatically about things; they need to understand that there is a theological taxis or order to the way various doctrines relate to each other, with particular reference to a theology proper.

But to the point of what was just said about Bonhoeffer by Puffer, if we think God radically as the God of creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, we will come to better appreciate just why it is that many of us in this tradition repudiate natural theology at its core. We are contingent beings, as such our knowledge of God, the Creator, is contingent on His gracious willingness to make Himself known. This is why Evangelical Calvinism, as an iteration of this particular tradition, believes that a genuinely Christian theology can only unfold after Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’ [see Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics]). There is no necessary linkage between our beings and God’s, not if our beings our contingent on His freedom in being for us first. As such this sort of theological ontology, in and order of being to knowing, implicates a theological epistemology. I.e. God first, then us, as He becomes us in Christ, and in this becoming we come to have a knowledge of God as we are participatio Christi (participants with Christ). The crisis of our situation, the anxiety produced by being a Gentile lot separated from God comes to an end, moment by moment, as God breaks down the veil, and makes one new humanity in the new humanity of His life for and with and in us, in Jesus Christ.

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God bythe Spirit. –Ephesians 2:11-22


[1] Matthew Puffer, “Creation,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 182-3.

‘In Adam / In Christ’: Bonhoeffer’s Nein to Przywara’s Analogia Entis

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. –John 1:18

For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. –Galatians 1:12

The aforementioned passages point up an important reality in regard to the Christian’s capacity to know God. The ground for a Christian knowledge of God isn’t something internal to the person, rather it is an extra nos (outside of us) reality that is based in God’s free choice to be for and with us in Jesus Christ. Both the Apostles John and Paul knew, and experienced this as they were confronted by the living God robed in the humanity of the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. But this isn’t the way the classical tradition for knowledge of God has primarily developed within the Latin tradition of the Western church. Instead, we get something like Thomas Aquinas’ Prima Pars and his five proofs for God’s existence. The typical qualification here is that: Aquinas still situated his proofs of God in tandem with God’s Revelation, it’s just that his proofs become an exercise meeting his prior axiom of ‘grace perfecting nature’; i.e. there is a complimentary relationship between both grace and nature (‘two books of revelation’ as it were). But the above passages militate against this. They assert that knowledge of the Christian God is solely rooted in God’s Word for us, as He speaks that and lives that for us in Jesus Christ. That is, for the Apostles, there was no speculative frame for thinking God; it was purely grounded in the Hebraic concept of the God of Israel revealing Himself now in these last days through the Son.

There are other components involved in all of this; primary of which is engaging with a theological anthropology, and the noetic effects the Fall has had upon the human heart (the heart being the center of all that it means to be human before God, coram Deo). But for our purposes I simply want to refer us to a sketch of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thinking contra what has been called the analogia entis (analogy of being). I have written on this in published form, with some reference to Aquinas. But in this instance, we get a more modern treatment of this locus as 20th century Roman Catholic theologian, Erich Przywara, comes into view. Thus Przywara’s development of the analogy of being is the version that Bonhoeffer (along with Barth) had in mind as he presented his critique against it. If you are unaware of what the analogia entis entails you should get a feel for it as you read the following quote from Matthew Puffer. Here Puffer explains how and why Bonhoeffer repudiated Przywara’s version of the analogy of being in particular, and the analogia more generally. He writes:

In his Habilitationsschrift, Bonhoeffer writes, “There are in theology no ontological categories that are primarily based in creation and divorced from those latter concepts [sin and grace, “Adam” and Christ]’ (DBWE 2:32). The implications of this claim are on display in Bonhoeffer’s critiques of Erich Przywara’s analogia entis, or analogy of being. Bonhoeffer argues Przywara’s interpretation of the image of God as an analogia entis is flawed because it assumes ‘a continuity of the mode of being in status corruptionis and status gratiae’ (DBWE 2:74). Here Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran heritage is evident. As a former Augustinian priest, Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (1535/6 CE) had followed Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis (c. 401–16 CE) by interpreting Genesis 3 and Paul’s letters as teaching that human beings lost the image of God with Adam’s fall. According to Przywara, ‘[human] being, whether in the original state of Adam or in Christ, may always be certain of its analogy to God’s being (DBWE 2:75). Opposing this view on ontological grounds, Bonhoeffers asks rhetorically ‘whether there is in fact a being of human beings in general that is not already determined in every instance as their “being in Adam” or “being in Christ,” as their being-guilty or being-pardoned, and only as such could lead to an understanding of the being of human beings’ (DBWE 2:75). Bonhoeffer faults Przywara’s interpretation for positing a human nature that reflects—i.e. is the image of—the divine nature, without accounting for the biblical witness’s binary of two human conditions: either ‘in Adam’, a postlapsarian state of corruption, or ‘in Christ’, a state of grace in which the human image of God is renewed as a new creation (2 Cor. 3:18, 5:17; Eph. 4:23-4; Col. 3:9-10). This critique of Przywara would re-emerge in Bonhoeffer’s winter 1932/3 lectures on ‘Creation and Sin’ and ‘Theological Anthropology’ (see Howell, 2016).

According to Bonhoeffer, then, being in Adam is ontologically discontinuous with being in Christ. Those who reject the notion that they are sinners in need of Christ’s reconciliation are ‘in Adam’, whereas those who in faith confess their needed reconciliation are a new creation ‘in Christ’. Furthermore, only by faith in Christ is God recognized as Creator, the world as fallen creation, and human beings as God’s creatures (DBWE 2: 151). That we do not know God as Creator apart from Christ is nowhere more apparent than in Bonhoeffer’s 1931 lecture on the theology of crisis.[1]

As Puffer insightfully identifies in Bonhoeffer, we can clearly see that the analogia entis was anathema for Bonhoeffer. It isn’t difficult to see the role the Luther[an] simul justus et peccator plays in the binary vis-à-vis the ‘two Adam’s’ motif as that functions in Bonhoeffer’s development against a classical or even revised notion of an analogy of being. And this is to the point: for Bonhoeffer, as I think, for the Apostles, there is a discontinuity between the conditions of humanity we find in the first Adam versus the greater and second Adam who is the Christ. This contrasts quite starkly with the classical analogia as we find that in Aquinas; insofar that Przywara echoes Aquinas the same holds true for him.

The reduction is this: if there is a distinction between Adam and Christ, then the analogy of being cannot hold theological epistemological (nor ontological) water. If ‘grace perfects nature’ as it does for Aquinas et al. then an analogia entis not might only obtain, but it necessarily must insofar that a knowledge of God, in a God-world relation, is under consideration. If nothing else we can see how a priori theological commitments impinge on these questions. But I would maintain that the anti –analogia entis posture we find in Bonhoeffer (and Barth) comes not from a speculative a priori theological commitment, but instead from an a posteriori evangelical given as that comes immediately through God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In other words, I maintain, along with Bonhoeffer (and Barth) that there is no knowledge of God outside of an encounter with Him which we realize by the very faith of Christ. That is, there is no objective knowledge of God apart from His subjective confrontation of us, moment-by-moment, through the ever-present Christus praesens that invades our lives by the Spirit. It is by the Spirit that we call Jesus Lord, and it is by the Lord that we have the liberty to finally see God for who He is in Himself for us; rather than speculating about what and who He might be from an analogy grounded in abstract nature from His (so the analogia entis).


[1] Matthew Puffer, “Creation,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 182.

Spitting Out the Caricature-Water: An Anatomy Lesson on Pelagianism

In my last two posts I have made reference to the theological heresy known, historically, as Pelagianism. In an effort to provide further theological development and engagement with this locus I want to refer us to a description of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the cor curvum in se (heart turned in on itself) provided for by Philip Ziegler. There is a facile understanding of so-called Pelagianism, by some (of my interlocutors), wherein they seem to think that the conceptuality that the language of Pelagianism signifies is theologically unproblematic. In other words, some of my interlocutors believe that if they can exonerate Pelagius himself from the ‘heretic-label’ that his teachings have gained via the councils of 2nd Orange, Ephesus, and Carthage, that they can espouse his teachings, in the main, and avoid the heretical label altogether (since in their view Pelagius wasn’t really a heretic anyway, particularly, because according to them Pelagius didn’t teach what the whole history of the Church believed he taught). But this naively misses the whole point: whether or not Pelagius taught the idea of a neutral morality and human-will, indeed in need of an aide of grace, is not the point of critique in regard to Pelagianism simpliciter. What is at stake is, oriented by biblical faithfulness vis-à-vis whether or not someone’s theological anthropology in fact coheres with the teaching of Scripture in toto. In other words, does Scripture teach that humanity simpliciter is born with a freewill that has the capaciousness to respond to the offer of the Gospel on its own strength or not? This is what some of my interlocutors have attempted to argue, all the while either by way of acquitting Pelagius himself, or by suggesting that they aren’t corollary with the historic tenets of Pelagianism proper; particularly as understood by almost ALL within Church history.

Bonhoeffer, according to Ziegler’s accounting, maintained the common notion that Luther et al. have maintained in regard to the biblical anthropology of homo incurvatus in se. That is, “and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn 3.19); further, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom 3.11). The case can be made further, from Scripture, that the human problem is unsurpassable save someone extra nos (outside of us) entering into our incurved and sinful situation, and redeeming us from the inside out; guts and all. According to Ziegler this is what Bonhoeffer maintained; here is how Ziegler illumines that for us:

Whatever else will be meant by divine freedom and transcendence, in the first instance they mean that God is not at the disposal of fallen human reason, neither ‘to hand’ or ‘in hand’ to be deployed in schemes of metaphysical and existential explanation. Bonhoeffer conceives of human reason as such to be verkrümmten—warped and turned in upon itself—fully conformed to sin’s distortion of humanity…. As such it is ‘imprisoned in itself, it sees only itself, even when it sees another, even when it wants to see God (DBWE 2: 45). To the extent that such reason does think and speak of ‘God’ it can only do so as an epiphenomenon of its own religious ambitions, as an idea firmly resident in and subservient to its own self-reflection (DBWE 2: 44, 50, 51). Since, as Bonhoeffer explains, ‘thinking is as little able as good works to deliver the cor corvum in se from itself’ (DBWE 2: 80), the truth of God must come upon reason ‘from beyond and break in upon it in such a way that one is placed ‘into the truth by Christ in judgment and grace’ (DBWE 2: 96). Thus the axiom ‘deus non potest apprehendi nisis per verbum’ (it is impossible to apprehend God apart from the word), which Bonhoeffer approvingly cites from the Confessio Augustana (DBWE 2: 53, 67). The saving address of the Word has the form of God’s transcendent freedom: it is God giving himself ‘without precondition’ (DBWE 2: 89) to be known across the otherwise unbridgeable chasm of unlikeness, most concretely the unlikeness of human sin and divine righteousness (DBWE 2:54, 79).[1]

For Bonhoeffer, according to Ziegler, and I would maintain for the teaching of Scripture itself, the human condition is so enslaved to sin that it has no hope in itself to surpass its condition. In other words, the fallen human being, which is what all human beings apart from Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity are, is so trodden down by the effects of sin that there isn’t one part of it, not its affections, intellect, or will, that hasn’t become constrained by its own weight of ineptitude; that isn’t only always for the self rather than for God. And this is precisely why ‘He who knew no sin, assumed sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’ The fact that it took God to become Theanthropos (Godman) ought to illumine the minds and hearts of those who would be tempted to think that they have anything in them (even if claimed to be from a God -givenness), that could say Yes or No to God; that this is utterly and biblically fallacious. And yet this is what some of my interlocutors want to maintain; and to do so with a straight (and even smug, at points) face.

The heresy of Pelagianism, in the history, apart from debates surrounding the man Pelagius, is what Bonhoeffer, according to Ziegler maintained in the aforementioned. Some of my interlocutors will assert that Bonhoeffer is just a good Augustinian; but that reply is simply an attempt to poison the well with caricature-water. What Pelagianism, the doctrine, has come to signify is: that people have a God-given and grace aided capacity in themselves to respond positively or negatively to the Gospel offer; that is Pelagianism. Some of my interlocutors believe that this teaching is in fact the biblical teaching, eo ipso they are Pelagians, by any historic standard for understanding that terminology and the conceptuality it signifies. But the biblical teaching, as we have just been noticing, with help from Bonhoeffer, is that humanity requires resurrection and the new creation of Christ’s human body in order to have capacity to say Yes to God. Some of my interlocutors, though, have an anemic understanding of what the atonement entails (and this ironically is where they are in lockstep with the Calvinists they claim to be in critique of). The atonement involves ontological depth, as TF Torrance rightfully emphasizes; along with the Apostle Paul. This implies that the Gospel isn’t simply about whether or not someone gets to go to heaven or not; the Gospel, under this pressure, involves what it in fact means to be fully human coram Deo (before God) in the prosopon Christi (face of Christ). Some of my interlocutors don’t understand the depth dimension of the Gospel implications in regard to what it actually did; i.e. it fully recreated humanity by the resurrection humanity of Jesus Christ. This ought to enlighten some of my interlocutors; they ought to be able to infer that if the Gospel goes this deep, then it went this deep for a reason. The reach of sin has a primal orientation such that its effects denude the human capacity in itself, even if so-called God-given and aided by grace, in such a way that it takes God Himself to stoop down and recreate the capacity for us to be for God and not against Him in and through the Yes and Amen of His life for us (pro nobis) in Jesus Christ!

My next post, or some post in the near future will be in reference to the Apostle Paul against Pelagianism and its contemporary proponents. I’m afraid some of my interlocutors believe they have the scriptural teaching on their side, but they really don’t!


[1] Philip G. Ziegler, “God,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 140.

My Beef with Academic Theology is the Same as Bonhoeffer’s

Peter Frick captures well from Bonhoeffer’s (and Barth’s) posture towards academic theology how DB felt about so-called academic theology indeed. Bonhoeffer’s “unease” with academic (or university) theology resonates with me deeply. I often, as you’ve noticed, rail against academic theology, and the academic theological subculture (of glory) that funds it. It is for the very same reasons that Bonhoeffer (and Barth) were not ultimately for it. Frick writes:

From his early teen years to the end of his life Bonhoeffer was shaped by theology and, posthumously, became known as a shaper of theology himself. Academic theology in an encyclopedic sense (drawing on philosophy, social philosophy, sociology) constituted for Bonhoeffer the backbone of his academic teaching in the university and the underground seminary. Indeed, with ease he moved from the university to the seminary. From London he wrote to his friend Erwin Sutz: ‘I no longer believe in the university; in fact I never really have believed in it—to your chagrin’ (DBWE 13: 217). The reason he no longer believed in the university is not that all of a sudden he rejected academic theology; what he rejected was a form of academic theology that in his view left a deep vacuum in the students’ own spiritual life and proved useless for the work of the pastor and preacher. Here he comes close to Barth once more; Barth wrote his Letter to the Romans out of his own uneasiness with academic theology. It was of his years at Finkenwalde, not surprisingly, that he said in retrospect that they were perhaps the most fulfilling time of his life. It was a time when he could teach theology unhindered and preach often.[1]

I think this exemplifies well what my issue has been. I am not, nor have I ever been against the ‘hand that feeds me,’ theologically. What I am against is the stultifying gamesmanship of academic theology wherein a person’s identity is given being by how many original ideas they have developed in papers and various manuscripts with their names on them one way or the other. I am against the culture of CV-building, even if that’s how the ‘game’ works (for career advancement etc.). The game needs to go ‘underground’ if that is what it takes for it to loose itself from the shackles of self-promotion. This is what I see in the ‘theological walk’ of someone like Bonhoeffer. For him theology was clearly a lifestyle, and not a job. I think this is ‘difficult teaching’ for many; too difficult. They might say a false dilemma; I beg to differ.


[1] Peter Frick, “Bonhoeffer The Academic Theologian,” edited by Matthew Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler, The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019), 51.

Bonhoeffer’s Impression of Union Theological Seminary as an Analogy for American Evangelicalism

Theological virtuoso Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after already earning two PhDs in theology (by his mid-twenties), came abroad to diversify his theological portfolio. He landed on the shores of New York, and in the halls of Union Theological Seminary. He had been trained in the liberal theological tradition, where it was founded, in Germany by its greatest minds; its most premier, just as he was entering studies, was Adolf von Harnack. But after writing his PhD dissertation, Communio Sanctorum, and then his post-doctoral Habilitation, Act and Being, even while being critical of aspects of Karl Barth’s theology, in the main, Bonhoeffer took the Christocentric, and orthodox turn with Barth. This had all happened just prior to him ending up at Union. He had the real deal liberal theological training behind him (just as Barth did), and could sniff out a phony version of it better than anyone else. Even so, as noted, he had abandoned the premises of liberal theology through appropriating Barth’s broad contours, and made that significant turn. When he entered Union Theological Seminary he was anticipating finding more of the same in regard to liberal theology, but he had come to learn how to apply theology at the social (street) level; and Union had a stellar reputation for this. But what he found, and was shocked by, was just how far gone Union was. He realized that they were peddling an imposter’s version of liberal theology; to the point that they had completely gutted it of anything doctrinally or historically interesting. In the end he didn’t even think that what Union was offering was Christianity at all. This is interesting, and parallel to my own impression of American evangelicalism today. But before I share some of my impressions, let us hear further on Bonhoeffer at Union, and how Gary Dorrien frames things for us:

He said it bluntly to his friend Helmut Rößler in December 1930. American liberal Protestantism, Bonhoeffer wrote, was ‘infinitely depressing’ to him, ‘smiling in desperation’ without realizing it was desperate:

The almost frivolous attitude here is unprecedented, and my hope of finding Heb. 12:1 fulfilled has been bitterly disappointed. Moreover, theology in Germany seems infinitely provincial to them here; they just don’t understand it; they grin when you mention Luther     (DBWE 10: 261).

A week later, writing to German church superintendent Max Dietsel, Bonhoeffer allowed that American seminarians were certainly friendly; they even expected professors to be friendly. But conversations with American students and professors ‘almost never yielded anything of substance,’ because Americans were averse to substance and truth:

There is no theology here. Although I am basically taking classes and lectures in dogmatics and philosophy of religion, the impression is overwhelmingly negative. They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students—on the average twenty-five to thirty years old—are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.        (DBWE 10: 265-6)

Bonhoeffer struggled to convey how bad it was. He had groused about shallow students at Berlin, too, but he assured Diestel that this was much worse. Americans ‘dreadfully sentimentalized’ religion, they spouted their opinions with ‘an almost naïve know-it-all attitude,’ and any reference to Luther evoked insolent laughter. They were proud to be superficial, counting it as sophistication. With a glimmer of something important, Bonhoeffer said that most of the theologians and clergy at Union accepted James’ notion of a finite God: ‘They find it to be profound and modern and do not sense at all the impertinent frivolousness in all such talk.’ Local church services were much the same:

The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a Negro (indeed, in general I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes)      (DBWE 10: 266)

That was another important glimmer; Bonhoeffer caught that gospel truths were existential to Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and his African American congregation at Abyssinian Church. Overall, however, the case for despair was overwhelming. Bonhoeffer puzzled over how the usual fare in American churches could be called Christianity. The Federal Council of Churches, he reported, was equally frivolous: ‘People talked about everything, except about theology. Only rarely did anyone venture any comments really getting to the point, and if they did, the discussion quickly moved on to the daily agenda’ (DBWE 10: 266-67.[1]

There are interesting parallels, I think, between Bonhoeffer’s impression of American liberalism, and how American evangelicalism has come to operate today. I can only imagine Bonhoeffer running across a Progressive church today, or your typical American evangelical church, and walk away with the same impressions he did as he was exposed to the “Christianity” at Union Theological Seminary.

For me personally, this is my impression of American evangelicalism in the main. I think of Christianity Today styled evangelicalism and juxtapose that with so-called Progressive American Christianity, and don’t see much difference. Maybe their doctrinal statements would differ, but their praxis reduces to the same; what Christian Smith and others have identified as a moralistic therapeutic deism. There is no real sense of the Christian, and thus concrete God of Jesus Christ present in most of American evangelicalism these days (whether that be on the progressive or mainline evangelical continuum). What we are exposed to are other purely pragmatic or flattened versions of the social gospel, with no reference to a God outside of the horizontal domain; or we get a pie-in-the-sky notion of God, who is there to help us feel good about ourselves, and present us with experiences that are supposed to elevate us to our best lives and self-actualized selves now.


[1] Gary Dorrien, “Bonhoeffer’s Assessment of Union Theological Seminary,” edited by Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler, The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019), 30.