Bonhoeffer’s Dialectical Christocentrism

For those who are interested, here is a piece that explains what my Bonhoeffer dissertation is all about and what will determine my theological program after that. It may be a little dense and technical, but if you want to get the whole picture of how my work on Bonhoeffer connects with the future of the Church, you will want to read this post.


Title: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Method: Phenomenology as Mediation Between Concreteness of Revelation and Worldly Responsibility

Central question: Why is it that Bonhoeffer, a liberal theologian, came to put so much emphasis on following Christ while at the same time he was led to the world as the place that determined context and content for this following?

Thesis: Bonhoeffer’s dissertation and Habilitationsschrift are undervalued sources in Bonhoeffer studies for they provide us with important clues concerning his implicit theological method which expresses itself in his later works, under the influence of phenomenology, as a prioritizing of revelation in Christ while locating this revelation in the encounter with the world, thus resulting in a dialectical christocentrism that calls for concrete obedience to Christ in, for, and through an understanding of the world.



Bonhoeffer scholarship is marred by two problems that, in their persistence over time, have created a skewed perspective of Bonhoeffer. There is a general lack of work on his two dissertations and a resulting lack of insight in the influences Bonhoeffer underwent and the synthesis he achieved. The dissertations, however, provide important clues to the overall programmatic character of Bonhoeffer’s theology in process. Secondly, Bonhoeffer never carried out a systematic development and exposition of his thought, which some have taken to mean that Bonhoeffer was not a systematician. This dissertation aims to show that Bonhoeffer’s thought is characterized by overarching theoretical motifs that are pervasive in and undergird his ethical theology and that as such his thought can very well provide the basics of a theology that seeks to revitalize the presence of the Church in the Western world. This argument is achieved in the following steps:


1. Bonhoeffer not so close to Barth. Bonhoeffer is often interpreted as a Barthian; as someone who closely followed Barth and had only minor points of criticism with regard to the great theologian. A closer look will reveal that Bonhoeffer was not particularly convinced of the Kantian move that Barth had made. Barth had adopted Kant’s epistemology and applied it to theology: God is unknowable. Barth removed God completely from the human grasp and turned this God into a wholly other being who communicates only on its own terms. Bonhoeffer, working a generation later, was less attracted to such an unknowable and hidden God. As he looked on how Barth’s theology played out, he concluded that such a theology, though safeguarding the primacy of revelation, did not present a God who was tangible and available enough.

Epistemology is not the answer to the problems of theological liberalism but rather exacerbates modernity’s problems. Bonhoeffer rejects Barth’s “positivism of religion.”


2. Bonhoeffer influenced by Heidegger. Bonhoeffer, being twenty years younger, had the opportunity to interact with newer philosophy. He came into contact with phenomenology, esp. in the form that was worked out by Martin Heidegger. In his second dissertation, Bonhoeffer interacts substantively with Heidegger and seems to reject the philosopher on every count. Reading between the lines, however, we get a different impression: Bonhoeffer is deeply influenced by Heidegger and phenomenology and integrates phenomenological approaches and concepts into his own thought. With phenomenology Bonhoeffer is able to by-pass the epistemological conundrum that is a corollary of Barth’s system as influenced by Kant. Phenomenology does not deal with whether something is knowable or not, but attends to the phenomena in the world, whether they be objects, other subjects, or religious experience, as givens in which consciousness is always already involved. In Barth’s system God is made inaccessible to human effort; God appears only on God’s terms. This results in a kind of sterility, a divine aloofness. This theology, that allegedly lacks concreteness, is countered by one based on the encounter with revelation as it appears in the phenomenological experience of reality. Christ is not only to be encountered in the Bible, not only in the Church, but in the other and in the world. Bonhoeffer never worked this out systematically but after careful study this seems to emerge from his theology. For Bonhoeffer the real world, the concrete reality around us, becomes a datum of utter significance.


3. Christ the Center. This might all be obscure information, of interest only to the specialist in systematic theology, were it not for the fact that this, what we might call a “phenomenological turn” in theology, is one of the elements that make Bonhoeffer’s theology so powerful and relevant for today. God, Christ, and revelation are not located exclusively in the Bible but are encountered as phenomena in reality, wherever this Christ presents himself: in the church but particularly and especially also in the world. Bonhoeffer’s interest in a “world come of age” and  the formation of “a religionless Christianity” have everything to do with the encounter with the phenomenon of the revealed Christ in the world and the other. By framing his theology with the help of certain aspects of phenomenology there are both an ethical and a horizontal turn in Bonhoeffer. The world becomes a datum of prime importance in the construction of theology, because at the center of the world we encounter Christ.


4. Dialectical christocentrism. With these steps in place, let’s have a brief recap and then extend our exploration of Bonhoeffer into the area of relevance for the present. It may be clear at this point that this dissertation makes a serious attempt at making a contribution to Bonhoeffer scholarship by (1) calling for an appreciation of the early Bonhoeffer, (2) pointing out that the mature Bonhoeffer is deeply rooted in the early Bonhoeffer, and (3) arguing for a significant role of phenomenology in Bonhoeffer’s thought as a means to avoid Barth’s positivity of revelation and an instrument to maintain the concreteness of revelation (contra theological liberalism). The result of the integration of the Barthian a priori of revelation and the phenomenological emphasis on the givenness of the encounter with the revealing Christ in the midst of reality we might call “dialectical christocentrism.” This is not a term that Bonhoeffer used. The later musings of the prison letters are too fragmented to be either theoretically structured or comprehensive enough in scope, that we could even talk of a constructive theology. Yet, a careful tracing of thought patterns throughout Bonhoeffer’s works yields us a framework for which “dialectical christocentrism” might function as a provisional label. Dialectical christocentrism draws attention to the fact that Christ is at the center of all of reality, in the Church, and in the encounter with the other. But it is a dialectical centrism. Dialectical, for one the one hand Christ is the center in such way that revelation is given concretely with its attendant ethical demands and call to discipleship, while on the other hand, the encounter takes place with Christ as the center of the world such that a hermeneutics of the concrete world needs to be carried out in order to understand the call of Christ. If it is true that the “world has come of age” as Bonhoeffer suggested, what does this mean for the status of the “religiosity” of Christianity? Bonhoeffer wrestled with questions like these prior to his death at the hand of the nazis.



The contribution to the study of religion in America is twofold. First, the phenomenology in Bonhoeffer will shed further light on how Bonhoeffer learned from pragmatism and (more importantly) appropriated the perspective of oppressed black people in his encounter with the Harlem Renaissance. Secondly, Bonhoeffer’s dialectical christocentrism (once again this is my terminology), can be used as a heuristic tool to examine and analyze the American religious landscape, but also as the basis for a prophetic theology that seeks to address the current situation. It will for instance show how evangelicals have located revelation exclusively in Scripture at the expense of the world which results in the problems of the verticalization of spirituality, neglect and avoidance of the world, propositional theology, foundationalism, and rejection of cooperation and synthesis. I here point out evangelicalism in particular because I am an evangelical myself and thus to some extent justified in issuing criticism, but the applicability of Bonhoeffer’s thought extends to the whole gamut of christianity in North America. All in all, Bonhoeffer’s theology, primarily formed within the context of the continental philosophical tradition, but at the same time significantly influenced by components he encountered in America, will continue to provide a fresh source of inspiration for the religious situation in North America.



From the above it should be clear that the results of my dissertation could be of significant value to the vitality of religion in America. First of all it should be noted that Bonhoeffer is a very popular theologian, who is loved, respected, and read across the denominational spectrum. Evangelicals and liberals alike would like to consider him their own. Recently, there has been a steady flow of Bonhoeffer publications (two biographies by American scholars among them!). Bonhoeffer is a public theologian who speaks to the heart of a lay audience. Tapping into this phenomenon, my dissertation will have the potential of finding a larger audience than a mere academic one. If not the dissertation itself, its material will lead to publications on Bonhoeffer for christians rather than theologians and will seek to extend the notion of “dialectical christocentrism” to other areas such as the state-church relationship, interreligious dialogue, anthropology, and ecology, besides the current state of the Church in the West.


Secondly, Bonhoeffer’s theology, as encapsulated in the framework of dialectical christocentrism, will seek to address the imminent threat of serious decline of Christianity by calling both conservatives and liberals to transform their respective theological paradigms (currently subject to separation between us and them, obliteration of the living Christ, and privileging of one’s own community) and, in doing so, (1) build bridges between denominations, (2) learn to listen to Christ’s call anew, (3) seek to place this call in the world as it is today with its needs, challenges, and opportunities, and (4) transform the Church in a community that exists for the other and for the world. Though Bonhoeffer’s context and his questions were not the same as our context and situation, the Church is in a similar state of turmoil (without fully acknowledging it), and the relevance of the Church in a “world come of age” is something that is still——today actually more than ever——at stake and disputed. Bonhoeffer did all the hard work of theological analysis and synthesis that belongs to the systematic task and gave himself to the application of what he had encountered in the world and what had transformed him. He was at the brink of addressing the world with a new form of theology in which theoretical rigor, radical praxis, and a call for transformation of the Church went hand in hand. If Christianity does not want to die down in our secularized, multi-religious, post-Christian West, it needs to be revamped. And Bonhoeffer’s unfinished work proves a rich source of inspiration. This revitalization starts from the ground up: (1) with “ground” as in “the foundations” i.e. theological method, but also (2) “ground” as in the situation on the ground, where oppression, conflict and confusion happen. Finally, my dissertation on Bonhoeffer has both intrinsic and instrumental value. It has intrinsic value with an eye toward Bonhoeffer scholarship, but aims to have instrumental value as well in that the meaning and relevance of Bonhoeffer are explored for the situation today.


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