Why Evangelicals Need to Pay Attention to Bonhoeffer
Those who know me, are familiar with the fact that the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the subject matter of my dissertation. I believe he has something to offer that is extremely important for evangelicalism today. I have some time to flesh it all out, but here is a little piece on why I think Evangelicals need to pay attention to Bonhoeffer.
As I started deconstructing the underpinnings and assumptions of my theology, while studying at Bethel Seminary, I needed something to replace the foundation that I was losing, something to fill the void. I looked in different directions, but never completely found that one thing with which I could bridge my continuing evangelical commitments and a different theological paradigm. Until I met Bonhoeffer. Here is why.
1. Bonhoeffer shares with evangelicalism a deep concern for discipleship and personal commitment to the person of Jesus Christ. It is this concern that has garnered interest among many conservatives and evangelicals who have otherwise little in common with Bonhoeffer’s lutheranism or his liberal background. Christ is at the center in Bonhoeffer’s theology. In his thinking about the church, the life of the Christian, and the world, Christ is the Lord, His existential structure is to give himself away for that world.
2. Bonhoeffer was a very creative and integrative theologian. He is often considered to be not very systematic in his approach. But methodology was actually one of his main concerns. In his second dissertation “Act and Being” he makes such a methodological move. It is not easily understood. Where theology up to his day in a typical modernist fashion based its theologizing on a foundation of the certainty of human knowledge (or the denial of such as in the case of Karl Barth), Bonhoeffer argued that we much give up such a focus on knowledge.
Instead of arguing for the historicity of the biblical narratives or the resurrection of Christ in order to gain a certain starting point (like the conservatives of his day) or to abandon this and look for experience as a basis for doing theology (like the liberals of his day), Bonhoeffer simply started with revelation: the concrete presence of the person of Christ in the Church. This is where his theology begins. All other beginnings are human beginnings in which revelation depends on our effort. In theological terms: Bonhoeffer made the move from epistemology to ontology, from a form of Christianity where reason rules to the presence of Christ to whom we have access through faith.
This is a major shift, but so easily overlooked. As modernity is running on its last legs it is time evangelicalism gets rid of its modernist tools for doing theology. It needs to start afresh with the Gospel of Christ and not with a defense of or a foundation for that Gospel that finds its basis in human knowing. This is not the place to unpack Bonhoeffer’s solution to this problem, but in this regard there is much in Bonhoeffer from which evangelicals can learn. Many still firmly believe that there is a linear route from reading the Bible to its meaning, that theology amounts to ‘finding out’ what the Bible teaches on a given topic, etc.
3. Theology and ethics always go together, but often they are still kept in separate categories. We either study ethics or we study doctrinal theology. We either look for a doctrine of the Holy Spirit or want to know how we should conduct ourselves ethically in the public sphere. We often see the work of theology as an abstract matter that can be carried out away from the world with its suffering and injustice. For Bonhoeffer theology starts with ethics. The Other is an ethical boundary to the self. A person’s self-awareness begins with the demand of the other. I want to do theology only insofar it will be able to show me what I have to do, how I have to live. Bonhoeffer insisted that, like Christ, we have to exist for the other. This inspires me.
4. How do we bridge Church and world? How can we as the Church be both an ethical community called out of the world toward Christ and a sent community that affirms the world as God’s world? How can we be both devoted members of the church and responsible members of society? This question has become urgent in our post-christian and pluralistic societies. Bonhoeffer shows an interesting development from a christology centered in the Church to a ‘worldly’ Christ who is at the center of all of reality. Bonhoeffer increasingly emphasized the importance of our creaturely existence. Toward the end of his life, Bonhoeffer embarked on a theological journey he never was to finish. He talks about a ‘world come of age’ and the need for ‘a religionless Christianity.’ This sketch of a world-affirming theology might well provide building-blocks for a theology of public responsibility and civil engagement that, through its christological center, is in balance with a theology of the church. Bonhoeffer’s end showed how far he thought this responsibility might have to go.
I could mention more reasons, but these are the four most important ones: the centrality of Christ, theological method, ethics, and civil responsibility. Bonhoeffer leads the way for me. I think that these changing times will challenge the evangelical movement to rethink its theology and reformulate its answers. Bonhoeffer’s voice speaks afresh today and we have to learn from him.