To Be or Not To Be Religious: A Clarification of Karl Barth’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Divergence and Convergence Regarding Religion

Christian theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) inherited a particular understanding of religion. In the broadly post-Kantian milieu, nineteenth-century thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack defined religion essentially, anthropologically, and subjectively. That is, religion has a particular essence, and is in some manner inalienable from our humanity. The emphasis of this conception is on the experience of the religious subject, instead of the knowledge of religion’s object (let alone its reality).[1] It is this notion of religion that both Barth and Bonhoeffer challenged.

However, despite the challenge they issued to their shared intellectual heritage, Barth and Bonhoeffer appear to diverge on both the definition and, therefore, the critique of religion – at least during the stage of Bonhoeffer’s 1943-45 imprisonment. While Barth unleashed a thoroughgoing theological critique of religion as faithlessness [Unglaube], he also insisted that humans were always and unavoidably religious.[2] Barth maintained that, despite the liabilities of religion, we cannot and should not be religionless because we are not truly godless.[3] Bonhoeffer, however, spoke in 1944-45 of a desirably “religionless Christianity.”[4] This, despite the fact that he ostensibly intended to carry forward Barth’s theological critique of religion – which was, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion, Barth’s “greatest merit” as a theologian.[5]

Whether Barth and Bonhoeffer share a common theological critique of religion has been subject to intense scholarly debate. To answer this question, we need first to ask another: What did Barth and Bonhoeffer mean by the term “religion”?  I propose that, although Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s definitions of religion diverge, their critiques of religion converge. Barth developed a systematic/dialectical concept of religion as self-justification, which the early Bonhoeffer inherited. However, in prison, Bonhoeffer developed a historical/psychological definition of religion as an inward and partial approach to human life. We must realize that these are two different definitions of religion, lest we compare apples to oranges, as it were, and conclude that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critiques of religion also diverged.

Once we realize the divergent definitions, we can see the convergent critiques of a particular essence of religion: the self-justifying projection of a deity – a projection which calls for theological analysis. That is, for both Barth and Bonhoeffer, at the heart of “religion” is the impulse to posit and make room for a “God,” in order to secure our own identities by means of and over against this deity. Although religion, thus understood, is inescapable, it is not constitutive of our humanity.

[[To continue reading, download the PDF: To Be or Not To Be Religious.]]

—Notes—

[1] See Christine Axt-Piscalar, “Liberal Theology in Germany,” in The Blackwell Companion to Nineteenth-Century Theology, ed. David Fergusson (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 468–85; Ernst Feil et al., “Religion,” in Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion, vol. 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 31–55; James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[2] See Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garrett Green (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2006). This is a new translation of §17 in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 280–361. Henceforth, all references to the Church Dogmatics will appear in the following form: CD I/1, 1.

[3] CD IV/1, 483.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., DBWE 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 361–67.

[5] Ibid., 429.

30 Works on Karl Barth & Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Are There Others?

  1. ABROMEIT, Hans-Jürgen. Das Geheimnis Christi: Dietrich Bonhoeffers erfahrungsbezogene Christologie. Neukirchener Beiträge zur systemaschen Theologie 8. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991.
  2. BEINTKER, Michael. “Kontingenz und Gegenständlichkeit: Zu Bonhoeffers Barth-Kritik in ‘Akt und Sein.’” In Krisis und Gnade: Gesammelte Studien zu Karl Barth, edited by Stefan Holtmann and Peter Zocher, 29–54. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.
  3. BENKTSON, Benkt-Erik. Christus Und Die Religion: Der Religionsbegriff Bei Barth, Bonhoeffer Und Tillich. Arbeiten Zur Theologie, II/9. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1967.
  4. BETHGE, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Edited by Victoria J. Barnett. Revised. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1967.
  5. BOOMGAARDEN, Jürgen. Das Verständnis der Wirklichkeit: Dietrich Bonhoeffers systematische Theologie und ihr philosophischer Hintergrund in “Akt und Sein.” Gütersloh: Chr. Kaiser/Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1999.
  6. BURTNESS, James H. “As Though God Were Not Given: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Finitum Capax Infiniti.” Dialog 19, no. 4 (1980): 249–55.
  7. DEJONGE, Michael P. Bonhoeffer’s Theological Formation: Berlin, Barth, and Protestant Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  8. EICHINGER, Franz. “Zwischen Transzendentalphilosophie und Ontologie: Zur kritisch-systematischen Standortbestimmung der Theologie beim frühen Bonhoeffer.” In Vernunftfähiger – vernunftbedürftiger Glaube: Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Johann Reikerstorfer-, edited by Kurt Appel, Wolfgang Treitler, and Peter Zeillinger, 65–86. Religion – Kultur – Recht 3. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2005.
  9. FEIL, Ernst. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Translated by Martin Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
  10. GODSEY, John D. “Barth and Bonhoeffer: The Basic Difference.” Quarterly Review 7, no. 1 (1987): 9–27.
  11. ———. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960.
  12. GREEN, Clifford J. Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality. Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
  13. ———. “Trinity and Christology in Bonhoeffer and Barth.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 1–2 (2006): 1–22.
  14. GREGGS, Tom. Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2011.
  15. ———. “The Influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Karl Barth.” In Engaging Bonhoeffer: The Impact and Influence and Impact of Bonhoeffer’s Life and Thought, edited by Matthew Kirkpatrick. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016.
  16. KAMPHUIS, Barend. Boven En Beneden: Het Uitgangspunt van de Christologie En de Problematiek van de Openbaring Nagegaan Aan de Hand van de Ontwikkelingen Bij Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer En Wolfhart Pannenberg. Kampen: Kok, 1999.
  17. KARTTUNEN, Tomi. Die Polyphonie Der Wirklichkeit: Erkenntnistheorie Und Ontologie in Der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. University of Joensuu Publications in Theology 11. Joensuu: University of Joensuu, 2004.
  18. KRÖTKE, Wolf. Barmen – Barth – Bonhoeffer: Beiträge Zu Einer Zeitgemäßen Christozentrischen Theologie. Unio Und Confessio 26. Bielefeld: Luther-Verlag, 2009.
  19. LEHMANN, Paul L. “The Concreteness of Theology: Reflections on the Conversation between Barth and Bonhoeffer.” In Footnotes to a Theology: The Karl Barth Colloquium of 1972, edited by Martin Rumscheidt, 53–76. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1974.
  20. MARSH, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  21. MAYER, Rainer. Christuswirklichkeit: Grundlagen, Entwicklungen Und Konsequenzen Der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. Arbeiten Zur Theologie, II/15. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1969.
  22. PANGRITZ, Andreas. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘Within, Not Outside, the Barthian Movement.’” In Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, edited by Peter Frick, 29:245–82. Religion in Philosophy and Theology. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.
  23. ———. Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
  24. PUFFER, Matthew. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Theology of Karl Barth.” In Karl Barth in Conversation, edited by W. Travis McMaken and David W. Congdon, 46–62. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014.
  25. REUTER, Hans-Richard. “Editor’s Afterword to the German Edition.” In Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, 162–83. DBWE 2. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.
  26. SHERMAN, Franklin. “Act and Being.” In The Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems and Possibilities in His Thought, edited by Martin E. Marty, 83–111. New York: Association Press, 1962.
  27. TIETZ-STEIDING, Christiane. Bonhoeffers Kritik Der Verkrümmten Vernunft: Eine Erkenntnistheoretische Untersuchung. Beiträge Zur Historischen Theologie 12. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.
  28. WITVLIET, J. Theo. “Bonhoeffer’s Dialoog Met Karl Barth.” Kerk En Theologie 16 (1965): 301–21.
  29. WOELFEL, James W. Bonhoeffer’s Theology: Classical and Revolutionary. Nashville: Abingdon, 1970.
  30. WÜSTENBERG, Ralf K. “Philosophical Influences on Bonhoeffer’s ‘Religionless Christianity.’” In Bonhoeffer and Continental Thought: Cruciform Philosophy, edited by Brian Gregor and Jens Zimmermann, 137–55. Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Press, 2009.

Reading Recommendations? Barth's & Bonhoeffer's False Gods

Hi internet – especially all you Barthians and Bonhoefferians (-ites?) out there.

I’m in the process of compiling a reading list, and I could use your suggestions.

Here’s my goal: to explore the possible relationship between Barth’s critique of the “No-God”(Nich-Gott) and Bonhoeffer’s critique(s) of viewing God as a “stopgap” (Lückenbüßer) or “working hypothesis.”

As far as primary sources go, I plan to focus on the Romans commentary, Garrett Green’s recent re-translation of CD §17, and Letters and Papers from Prison.

As for secondary sources, right now I’m starting the list with Tom Greggs’ Theology Against Religion. I’ve read this twice now, and it has been a major inspiration for the project.

I’ve also got my eye on Michael DeJonge’s Bonhoeffer’s Theological Formation, Ernst Feil’s The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Andreas Pangritz’s Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jeffrey Pugh’s Religionless Christianity.

I’m also working my way through Sven Ensminger’s Karl Barth’s Theology as a Resource for a Christian Theology of Religions. While this looks very helpful for a larger project on Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the theological critique of religion, I’m still looking for sources that deal more directly with Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s God as “stopgap” or “working hypothesis.” 

Do you have any reading recommendations for me? 

OR, even better: Have any of you translated Hans-Joachim Kraus’ Theologische Religionskritik into English yet? Because that would be fantastic.

My Regional ETS Presentation: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re in the Birmingham area from March 21-22, 2014, and you’re interested in evangelical theology, please consider attending the Evangelical Theological Society’s Southeastern Regional Meeting at Beeson Divinity School! This year’s theme is “the theological interpretation of Scripture,” and the plenary speaker is Wheaton’s Daniel J. Treier (incidentally, Dr. Treier and I are both alumni of Cedarville…go figure). 

Furthermore, if you’re free from 5:00-5:30pm on Friday, March 21, consider swinging by room S009 to hear me present “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God.” The atonement and the unity of the Church are topics that I’m passionate about, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to give my first ever conference paper. Here’s the abstract: 

This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. Given Adam Johnson’s thesis regarding God’s triune being-in-act, the fullness of the divine perfections, and the unity and diversity of Christ’s saving work, I draw upon the theology of Karl Barth and pertinent biblical data to frame a theory of the atonement based on the unity of God. Although the lack of ecclesiological unity is the impetus for my study, I choose primarily to emphasize the synthesis of God’s unity and the doctrine of reconciliation. That is, I focus on the theological explanations within the atonement of why the church is to be unified. However, after framing a unity-based theory of the atonement, I conclude this study by casting a vision for the ecclesiological implications of such a theory.

If you can’t make it to my presentation, but you’re interested in the topic, check out my previous series of posts and the undergraduate thesis paper from which this conference paper is drawn. Also, consider buying the new paperback edition of Adam J. Johnson’s God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology). It’s much cheaper than the previous hardcover edition, and without his fresh insights into the doctrine of the atonement and Barthian theology, my paper would not have been possible. 

Finally, please attend the entire conference at Beeson if possible! Here’s the full schedule.

Grace and Peace

~Josh

 

Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof (pt 4)

(Continued from Part One, Two, and Three. Full essay here.)

Ecclesiological Relevance

If the atonement theory I propose has theological and exegetical merit, then the church is obligated to respond to the truths therein by bringing these unifying atonement realities to bear on the here and now.

A divided and divisive church denies in praxis the gospel it proclaims.

In recognition of God’s uniqueness, we must cast down our idols and worship him alone. As the Shema urges, complete and total devotion is the only appropriate response to the one true God.

Although physical idols may not be as universally common today as they once were, invisible idols are as prevalent as ever, especially within the context of Western materialism, where money, possessions, influence, and power are the modern-day Baal. Is the church, especially the affluent segments of the North American church, willing to eschew these idols in order to worship the one true God with heart, soul, and strength?

“We believe in biblical separation from all forms of ecclesiastical apostasy.”

In demonstration of God’s simplicity, we must seek unity with ourselves, each other, all of creation, and God himself. In doing so, we must reject false unities in favor of true ones.

Although the redemptive mode of God’s unity in the presence of sin seems to give distance an appropriate place within the life of the church, we must be extremely careful when presuming to exercise this righteous act of separation ourselves, for the idolatrous desires of our own hearts tend toward a false, absolutized unity which demonizes otherness. The fundamentalist doctrine of “biblical separation” is too often claimed when the real problem is not heresy, but diversity – which is not a problem at all given the inherent otherness within the Trinity.

Furthermore, God exercised redemptive separation for the sake of achieving true unity through Christ, not to keep himself pure and unstained from a creation he wanted nothing to do with.

Ecumenism and catholicity are to be embraced, not feared.

In other words, if God did not completely separate himself from a truly sinful creation so that he might one day have robust unity with it once more, what right do we have to separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ for what often amounts to legitimate differences of opinion in secondary matters of doctrine and praxis?

Peter Enns Wants Children to Reject Genesis - Around the World with Ken HamIn light of God’s oneness and his redemptive, unifying mission, we must watch out for and avoid the most dangerous heretics: those who cause divisions in opposition to the unifying missio Dei (cf. Rom 16:17).  That is, Christians should only separate from one another for the gravest divisive offences in doctrine and praxis. Even then, this separation should only be partial and temporary.

If sin is divisive schism and the saving work of Christ is that of at-one-ment with God, each other, and creation, then claiming the pursuit of righteousness and doctrinal purity at the expense of unity is a shameful undoing of the work of God in the Messiah to reconcile all things to himself.

Instead, we must seek to be one as God is One, heeding the exhortations of the apostle Paul to

“live worthily of the calling with which [we] have been called,with all humility and gentleness,with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. [For] there is one body and one Spirit, just as [we] too were called to the one hope of [our] calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6).

We must prefer true, robust unity to false, forced homogeneity.

Nevertheless, this pursuit of robust unity is rarely easy. Volf rightly notes: “As God does not abandon the godless to their evil but gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through atonement, so also should we – whoever our enemies and whoever we may be.”

That is, our demonstrations of oneness should not only prompt us to encourage it where it already occurs, but to engage areas of division and strife as ambassadors for unity and reconciliation, reaching out to both victims and aggressors when it comes to schism and discord. We are called to show humility, gentleness, and patience to even the most divisive and argumentative types of people, extending the oneness of God to the darkest, divided corners of his creation.

Conclusion

It is theologically and exegetically legitimate to view the atonement as the act in which the One God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his incomparable uniqueness and undivided simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation.

If our proclamation, our gospel, be true, then the global church of Jesus Christ has the responsibility and privilege of bringing these unifying atonement realities to bear on the here and now, honoring God’s uniqueness and demonstrating his simplicity in fulfillment of his redemptive mission.

Then, and only then, will the high priestly prayer of the One who faced exile in our stead be answered: “[I pray] that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

My brothers and sisters, may the God of incomparable and undivided oneness give you unity with one another in accordance with Jesus the Messiah, so that together you may with one voice glorify God and carry forth his redemptive mission throughout creation. Amen.

Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof (pt 3)

(Continued from Part One and Two. Full essay here.)

SIN

With God’s robust oneness in mind, sin is divisive schism, a corruption of the primordial vocation for unity with the creator. Sin drives against the grain of the universe, alienating us from God, each other, and from our very selves. Sin ignores and profanes God’s uniqueness through idolatry. It also twists God’s robust, simple unity into schism, the demonization of otherness, and the construction of false unities.

Instead of welcoming the other, we are far more likely to crucify her. We gather like-minded people around us to construct our own “unified” kingdoms, to build up thick walls between “us” inside and “them” outside, losing sight of God’s uniqueness and making a mockery of his simplicity.

When sin enters the created order, infecting and affecting it on every level, God responds with distance until true unity can be achieved. Just as God’s righteousness takes the appropriate redemptive mode of wrath when confronted with sin as unrighteousness, in the face of these aforementioned abominations, God’s unity takes on the righteous character of distance and separation, through banishment and exile.

We see this first in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and the creation itself is cursed as God “pushes it away,” so to speak, from his shalom and presence. According to Walton, “the biggest problem of the Fall was…the loss of access to the presence of God…the overwhelming loss was not paradise; it was God.”

Nevertheless, God remains merciful in his strong reaction to schismatic sin, for he patiently refuses to sentence human sin with the full and permanent exile it deserves. He calls the nation of Israel back from the partial exile into full fellowship with himself through the covenants and Torah.

However, their hardhearted divisiveness leads them to eschew repeatedly the loving faithfulness of their God. In a righteous response, God distances their schismatic sin from his perfect unity once more through the exile of the nation.

Yet God is still merciful to them in the Diaspora. He promises to make a new covenant with his people, fulfilling his creative purposes through the True Israelite, the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah.

CHRIST

The saving work of Christ is that of re-unification, of reconciliation, and of at-one-ment. Continue reading “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof (pt 3)”

Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof (pt 2)

(Continued from Part One. Full essay here. Part Three here.)

God is One: Unity Defined

Barth makes the bold statement that “If we understand it rightly, we can express all that God is by saying that God is One” (CD II/1, 442). However, understanding this divine perfection rightly is crucial, for Barth always cautions against the abstraction or absolutizing of the divine attributes.

“The relation between subject and predicate is an irreversible one when it is a matter of God’s perfections” (CD II/1, 448).

“Necessarily, then, we must say that God is the absolute One, but we cannot say that the absolutely one is God” (CD II/1, 448)

…“when the unity of God is turned into the divinity of unity there can only result what are actually caricatures of God” (CD II/1, 450).

God defines his perfections, not vice versa. With this caution in mind, to define the divine perfection of unity we look to God himself.

Most succinctly, God is One.

This oneness, however, has both an external and an internal dimension. Continue reading “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof (pt 2)”

Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof (pt 1)

(This series of blog posts is a truncated version of my senior seminar: “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God” (pdf) Consult the essay for full bibliographical information.)

Introduction

The impetus for this study is a seemingly unanswered prayer. “[I pray] that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21 NET). Ever since Jesus of Nazareth first uttered these words, his followers have done what appears to be an increasingly-worse job of being one.

A simple count of the various denominations and factions within Christianity reveals the troubling truth that, although claiming to follow the same Lord, Christians around the world are often divided. In fact, it could be argued that the modus operandi throughout church history has been to pursue unity in orthodoxy through division. Whether in 1054, 1517, or 2012, the followers of Jesus the Messiah have often judged it more important to be correct than to be one.

As a presupposition to my argument, I posit a link between the lack of ecclesiological reconciliation and the doctrine of reconciliation, that is, the doctrine of the atonement. As McKnight questions:

“Could it be that we are not reconciled more in this world – among Christians, within the USA, and between countries – because we have shaped our atonement theories to keep our group the same and others out? I believe the answer to that question is unambiguously yes.”

In search of the theological resources to address the problem of church unity through the nexus of ecclesiology and atonement theology, I turn to the doctrine of God and the divine attribute (henceforth “divine perfection”) of unity.

In this essay, I endeavor to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the One God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation.  Continue reading “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof (pt 1)”