Are the Beatitudes “Renunciations” (Verzichte)?

In Discipleship (DBWE 4), Dietrich Bonhoeffer frames all of the Beatitudes in terms of Jesus’ disciples living in renunciation (Verzicht) and want (Mangel).

Interestingly, for Bonhoeffer, Jesus is only speaking to his disciples in the Beatitudes (he makes this argument on the basis of Luke 6:20ff.). And the disciples’ renunciation and want are caused by Jesus’s call to discipleship.

Jesus sees: his disciples are over there. They have visibly left the people to join him. He has called each individual one. They have given up everything in response to his call. Now they are living in renunciation and want; they are the poorest of the poor, the most tempted of the tempted, the hungriest of the hungry. They have only him. Yes, and with him they have nothing in the world, nothing at all, but everything, everything with God. (DBWE 4:101).

Bonhoeffer also writes:

Therefore, “Blessed!” Jesus is speaking to the disciples (cf. Luke 6:20ff.). He is speaking to those who are already under the power of his call. That call has made them poor, tempted, and hungry. He calls them blessed, not because of their want or renunciation. Neither want nor renunciation are in themselves any reason to be called blessed. The only adequate reason is the call and the promise, for whose sake those following him live in want and renunciation. (DBWE 4:101).

Although Bonhoeffer is willing to frame all of the Beatitudes in terms of want and (especially) renunciation, he takes issue with August Tholuck’s distinction between some of the Beatitudes speaking of want “and others of the disciples’ intentional renunciation or special virtues” (DBWE 4:101; cf. Tholuck, Commentary, 64). Not, note, because Bonhoeffer has a problem with framing the Beatitudes in terms of renunciation and want, but rather because he thinks that “Objective want and personal renunciation have their joint basis in Christ’s call and promise” (DBWE 4:101–2).

In this connection, Bonhoeffer has a lengthy footnote:

There is no basis in scripture for constructing a contrast between Matthew and Luke. Matthew is not interested in spiritualizing the original Beatitude (Luke’s form), nor is Luke interested in politicizing any original Beatitudes (Matthew’s form) referring only to “state of mind.” Need is not the basis of blessedness in Luke, nor is renunciation the basis in Matthew. Rather, in both, need or renunciation, spiritual or political matters are justified only by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes the Beatitudes into what they are, and who alone is the basis of calling those matters blessed. Catholic exegesis, starting with the letters of Clement, wanted to have the virtue of poverty declared blessed, thinking on the one hand of the paupertas voluntaria [voluntary poverty] of the monks, on the other hand of any voluntary poverty for Christ’s sake. In both cases the mistake in interpretation lies in seeking to make some human behavior the basis for blessedness, and not solely Jesus’ call and promise. (DBWE 4:102n2).

So, for Bonhoeffer, Christ’s call is clearly central—not human behavior. And yet, Christ’s call seems to cause the human situations in view in the Beatitudes.

Here’s how Bonhoeffer frames the Beatitudes in terms of “want” and “renunciation.”

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit -> “those who live thoroughly in renunciation and want for Jesus’ sake” (DBWE 4:103).
  • Blessed are those who mourn -> “those who are prepared to renounce and live without everything the world calls happiness and peace” (DBWE 4:103; cf. DBWE 1:184).
  • Blessed are the meek -> those “who renounce all rights of their own for the sake of Jesus Christ” (DBWE 4:105).
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness -> “Disciples live with not only renouncing their own rights, but even renouncing their own righteousness” (DBWE 4:105).
  • Blessed are the merciful -> “these followers of Jesus live with him now also in the renunciation of their own dignity, for they are merciful” (DBWE 4:106).
  • Blessed are the pure in heart -> “Those who renounce their own good and evil, their own heart, who are contrite and depend solely on Jesus” (DBWE 4:107).
  • Blessed are the peacemakers -> those who “renounce violence and strife” (DBWE 4:108).
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake -> “In judgment and action those who follow Jesus will be different from the world in renouncing property, happiness, rights, righteousness, honor, and violence. They will be offensive to the world. That is why the disciples will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Not recognition, but rejection, will be their reward from the world for their word and deed.” (DBWE 4:109, emphasis added).

According to an editorial footnote, Eberhard Bethge’s notes

say that “everything is renunciation; nothing is Christian doctrine of virtue. Difference between ‘active and passive’ (making ethical distinction) is invalid” (22). As early as lectures of 1935 and 1935–36, Bonhoeffer sees the Beatitudes summarized in Matt. 5:10f. (DBWE 109n43).

Now, because I’m working on how Barth and Bonhoeffer read Genesis 1–3 and Matthew 5–7, I’m especially interested in the resonances between what Bonhoeffer has to say about the “pure in heart” renouncing their “good and evil.”

However, on a broader level, I’m curious where he got this thoroughgoing emphasis on “renunciation” (Verzicht) from.

By Joshua Steele

Software engineer using "dead" languages to help the living. Learn more at joshuapsteele.com.

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