Gaylon Barker’s book about the theology of the cross in Bonhoeffer “The Cross of Reality: Luther’s Theologia Crucis and Bonhoeffer’s Christology” deserves the highest praise. Although, I have to admit, it’s also been a pain in the ass until I read it. That is to say, this book was published at the very moment that I did my innovative discovery of the theology of the cross being the guiding motif in all of Bonhoeffer’s work.
Initially, I put this book aside. I thought the best thing to do to a potential enemy was to ignore him until he went away. I started outlining myself and wrote about 30 pages on what I thought the theology of the cross has to do with the theology of Bonhoeffer. I was determined not to have my dissertation work ruined or tainted by some wannabe theologian out there who had had the audacity to write about the theologia crucis in Bonhoeffer before I could start on that job. One of my professor’s, Lois Malcolm, has a theory about this. It’s related to the work of the Spirit. Once a time for something has come and you think you have an edge on it, you better write, because you can be sure someone else has also started to think about it and is in the process of writing a book about it. Gaylon Barker beat me to it.
When I finally picked up the book I did indeed find a lot of stuff that I had envisioned to be part of my project. But I soon realized that was a blessing in disguise. Would I have had to do all this work, I would have never come to the essence of my own project. I realized that Barker had managed to blaze a trail but had still left a lot of work undone. So there was a blessing in disguise right in front of me. My dissertation project still stood. The contribution I had I mind still needed to be made. And what is more, Barker draws the same conclusions that I was working toward: (1) Bonhoeffer’s theology is informed from beginning to end by Luther’s theologia crucis, (2) Bonhoeffer’s theological method is shaped by the theologia crucis, (3) Bonhoeffer’s theologia crucis is a modern and innovated version of the theology of the cross.
Barker, provides us with an excellent overview of where and how the theologia crucis pops up in Bonhoeffer’s thought, which is basically all the time and everywhere. The work needs to be done because the signs are often overlooked The book begins with how Bonhoeffer initially followed Karl Hall and his Luther Renaissance but soon started finding his own way together with the generation of Luther scholars after Holl. This loosely defined group of scholars retrieved in different ways Luther’s theology of the cross. Bonhoeffer went his own way, but careful attention to the wirings of the young Bonhoeffer reveals that an intense and increased focus on Luther leads him to the theologia crucis as well.
The theologia crucis entails an approach to spirituality and theology that emphasizes both soteriology and religious epistemology that confronts human schemes, rationalities, and constructs and provides a theology of revelation and salvation that place the dependable believers in the loving hands of a gracious God. Its epistemology places God within the context of the created order: only the cross of Christ is what we know of God. The body of Jesus is the revelation of God. This is a hermeneutical epistemology of immediacy: God is graspable here and now in the body of Jesus. In Christ, God is placed within the reality of the world. Bonhoeffer picked this worldly emphasis up and made it a very important element of his later theological thoughts. Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross is thoroughly world-affirming. Barker shows how this development takes place in Bonhoeffer and, without ever deviating from his program, analyzes all Bonhoeffer texts with analytical precision in order to reveal what has always been there in plain sight: the theology of the cross is the organizing element in Bonhoeffer’s thought.
I hope that many people interested in Bonhoeffer’s theology will give attention to Barker’s book. It forms a clear step forward to a definitive interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s theology. Having said that, I’m also glad to note that the project isn’t finished. Parsing Bonhoeffer’s theology for the presence of the theologia crucis is one thing, and so is admitting that Bonhoeffer did not follow Luther slavishly. But what does that mean? How did this work? How are we going to make sense of the totality of Bonhoeffer’s writings and his engagement with the theological and philosophical thinkers that were contemporary to him in the light of this theologia crucis? Is there something like a method? In my opinion, Barker sets the stage for an interesting new move in Bonhoeffer scholarship in which Luther’s theologia crucis is not only seen to form the backbone of Bonhoeffer’s theology but in which it will become clear that all Bonhoeffer’s interactions with the thinkers of his time was crucially informed by the theology of the cross.