The Theology of Bonhoeffer As a Theology of the Cross

In anticipation of the publication of my dissertation this summer, here is a brief, albeit nerdy, summary of the argument.

I set out to argue that Bonhoeffer’s “Act and Being” is a new interpretation of Luther’s theology of the cross. Attention for Bonhoeffer’s academic work is lacking. In addition, there is not enough attention to the Lutheran roots of Bonhoeffer’s theology. My aim is not to portray a Lutheran Bonhoeffer–heck, I’m not even a Lutheran myself–but to uncover the real genuine roots of his theology, which are deeply anchored in the theologia crucis as articulated in Luther’s own theology.

Bonhoeffer nowhere says he is attempting to articulate a theology of the cross, so the way I arrive at this conclusion is through an initial comparison of Act and Being and Barth’s lecture/essay Fate and Idea. The similarities in structure and conceptuality are uncanny and it is weird that this hasn’t been spotted before. Since Barth openly concludes that Luther’s theology of the cross is the dialectical pattern that he sees as the solution to the tension between fate/being and idea/act, it stands to reason that Bonhoeffer’s own intention is to address this claim of Barth heads-on and show how it needs to be done in a way that is actually faithful to Luther.

This, then, is how Act and Being needs to be understood: as an attempt to overcome the dialectical tension between act and being (understood as being epistemological in nature!) in order to synthesize them in the being of Christ which is the church. In other words: no, Luther is not dialectically relating fate/being to idea/act, he is actually bringing them together.

In order to complete his argument within the discussions and conceptual world of his own time, Bonhoeffer exposes Barth’s dialectical method as logically and ethically incoherent if not self-refuting. If Barth’s method is not faithful to the idea of revelation, then what is?

In order to prepare the answer to that question, I first turn to a discussion of Luther’s theology of the cross wondering whether Luther’s theology emphasizes distance between us and God (e.g. Barth’s Wholly Other God) or stresses divine presence (e.g. Bonhoeffer’s Christus praesens). While the search for the “original” theology of the cross is difficult since it is involved in a hermeneutical circle as modern interpretations of the theology of the cross inform our reading of Luther, there seems to be a strong case for an emphasis on divine presence.

To be sure, Luther’s theology is riddled with paradoxes, and his theology is marked by a deconstruction avant la lettre of the theological system of scholasticism confronting us with the aporia of the crucified Christ. Knowing God, however, has not become a problem the way it has for the modern self for whom knowledge as such is a problem. Luther doesn’t have to answer Kant. And thus God is present, precisely in that mangled and tortured body of Christ, “haveable” and “graspable” as Bonhoeffer notes. Luther makes an important connection between the body of Christ on the cross and the church which is also the body of Christ. It is this connection that Bonhoeffer takes up in his discussion of Heidegger’s philosophy of being.

Bonhoeffer, who lives, like Barth, after the philosophy of Kant, needs to answer the modern problem of knowing. Bonhoeffer, unlike Barth at that point, has discovered that the problem of knowing (epistemology) is really a problem of being (ontology). So he turns to Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology and transposes the relation of Dasein to the Being of its own being (See Heidegger’s Being and Time) to the discipline of theology, i.e. the relation of believing Dasein to the Being of revelation.

Heidegger had discovered that philosophy up to that time had not really given attention to the Being of beings. He also realized that you can’t observe this Being of the world from a distance. You discover it as you “do” that being. Bonhoeffer picked up on that insight and applies it to the relation of the believer to revelation, i.e. the Church as Christ’s body. The former can’t objectively attempt to “know” revelation; you get to know it as you participate in it, i.e. as you act like the body of Christ in the world.

In this theological analogy (which implicitly entails a refutation of Heidegger’s methodological atheism) Bonhoeffer achieves a coordination, as he calls it, between act (usually the self-initiating act of comprehension but in this case, faith) and being (entailing the realization of the Christian that she belongs to a new being–Christ existing as community–that she can only hermeneutically question through self-involvement and participation).

I limit my investigation only to the dialogues in Act and Being with Barth and Heidegger for the sake of clarity and manageability.

What emerges is a theologia crucis that, in close alignment with Luther’s own theology, is characterized by three things:

(1) a deconstructive moment (for Luther a No against the theological “system”; for Bonhoeffer a No against all epistemological trajectories (including dialectical theology!),

(2) a hermeneutical existence (one can only question the being one participates in through faith (which is an actus directus and not an act of observation from an objectifying distance),

(3) and an ethical call (which is not an ethical possibility, because being the church is the gift of grace through Christ but nevertheless is only real and true to the extent that this life manifests in us through our self-involvement and participation).

It turns out that Bonhoeffer’s theology very closely aligns itself with the theology of Luther. This does not mean that Bonhoeffer is a conservative theologian. On the contrary, he obliterates boundaries and takes both Lutheran theology and dialectical theology to the next level. Moreover, the nature of the theologia crucis is such that it resists systematization and is open to new interpretation and application as the need of the times demand.

A true theology of the cross will never be hijacked by dogmatism or claims of absolute knowledge of God. Such knowledge is always rejected. One knows God only in the praxis of Christ. Bonhoeffer discovered these things and though his spiritual breakthrough was to occur a few years later, the words flowing from his pen in Act and Being irresistibly drew him away from the self-inverted person that he was.

Photo credit: Diana Vargas, Unsplash.

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