Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Bible: Back to the Beginning (Dissertation Dispatch, 2020-03-26)

Perhaps it’s just the global COVID–19 pandemic, but I’ve been really discouraged about my dissertation lately.

My normal reading/writing workflow has ground to a halt because (1) we are temporarily without childcare and (2) my wife, a Family Nurse Practitioner is still working full-time from the office. That leaves me home alone with our 1.5-year-old during the week and, while she is a wonderful child, she’s not really jazzed about dad sitting quietly in a corner getting some reading and writing done during the day.

Right before the pandemic hit, I was able to quickly work my way through the rest of Barth’s as-yet-unpublished 1933–34 lectures on the Sermon on the Mount (Erklärung der Bergpredigt, over 100 pages of type-script lectures that I was able to obtain via PDF from the Karl Barth Archiv in Basel). I was really hoping to find some kind of smoking gun that would (1) clearly display an exegetical difference between Barth and Bonhoeffer and (2) help to explain the ostensible differences between Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological critiques of religion.

However, unless I missed something (which, let’s be honest, is possible—I need to work my way through these lectures again because they’re so important), there’s no smoking gun in the 1933–34 lectures. Barth and Bonhoeffer are definitely in the same camp of interpreters of the Sermon on the Mount. There might be slight differences, especially of emphasis, between them—but I didn’t encounter anything major in Barth’s lectures.

This was a serious blow to my motivation and morale. I was considering quitting the project, daydreaming about Wheaton having to shut down the program due to the pandemic, etc. Although I’ve decided to stick with it, I still am getting tired of searching for a “smoking gun” discussion of a biblical passage in Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s writings. And I honestly think that both Barth and Bonhoeffer would find my dissertation—at least in its more historical sections, which have taken up almost all of my time for the past 3 years—a colossal waste of time. I’m quite sure that both of them would prefer that I spend my time reading the Bible closely instead of reading them so closely.

Nevertheless, although I’m still down in the dumps about this whole process, I’ve got some things on my mind that I will keep chipping away at.

First, I’m convinced that, because they meant different things by the word “religion” (at least when you compare Barth with Bonhoeffer’s prison letters), Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological critiques of religion are complementary. Ralf Wüstenberg has shown that Bonhoeffer’s definition/description of “religion” shifted at least twice in his life, and what Bonhoeffer calls “religion” in prison is something different than what he called “religion” earlier (and what Barth called “religion” across his career).

Second, I’m convinced that there are important links between (1) Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological critiques of religions and (2) their theological interpretations of Genesis 1–3. Furthermore, Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of “the knowledge of good and evil” differ in the same ways that their theological critiques of religion differ. Now, because Bonhoeffer doesn’t cite/discuss Genesis 1–3 in his theological critique of religion in Letters and Papers from Prison, it strikes me as impossible to prove that Barth and Bonhoeffer’s differences on the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 1–3 caused their divergences on “religion.” Nevertheless, both Barth and Bonhoeffer critique the knowledge of good and evil in the same kinds of different-yet-complementary ways that they critique “religion,” and I think that’s significant.

Third, given how both Barth and Bonhoeffer use the knowledge of good and evil to critique general and even Christian approaches to ethics, there’s something going on between their theological critiques of religion and their theological critiques of ethics. Exactly what is going on is what I’m currently trying to figure out! I’ve been taking a closer look at their theological interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount and, while I haven’t been able to find a super significant exegetical difference between the two theologians when it comes to Matthew 5–7, I think that Barth is more nervous than Bonhoeffer about (1) ignoring the contours of the history of the covenant between God and humans and (2) implying that humans have the knowledge of good and evil such that they can answer the question “what should we do?” with the text of the Sermon apart from a fresh revelatory work of the Holy Spirit.

Both Barth and Bonhoeffer are against doing ethics on the basis of universal ethical principles. They are both intensely skeptical about the ability of humans to know and do the good apart from divine revelation. But Bonhoeffer seems more comfortable (than Barth) with saying that we can read the Sermon on the Mount today and move immediately from what Jesus says in Matthew 5–7 to what we should do. He displays a similar “exegetical immediacy” with regards to Genesis 1–3. Bonhoeffer is comfortable moving directly from Eden to the Church today. Barth, on the other hand, emphasizes that the correct movement is from Genesis 1–3 to Israel, to Jesus, to the Church today.

What do Barth and Bonhoeffer’s differences on (1) the knowledge of good and evil and (2) “exegetical immediacy” (that’s the best descriptor I’ve been able to come up with for now) have to do with their ostensible differences when it comes to (3) the theological critique of religion? That’s what I’m trying to think through in order to tie this project together and take advantage of the reading and research I’ve done so far.

So, in addition to focusing on the Genesis 1–3 texts and the Sermon on the Mount texts in Barth and Bonhoeffer, I’m going to revisit their theological critique of religion texts to see if I can figure out how to tie the various pieces of this project together even if I haven’t been able to find the “smoking gun” passage(s) I was hoping for. It’s been awhile since I started this project with a detailed analysis of texts like chapter 7 of Barth’s Romans commentary, §17 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, and the “theological letters” in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I’m hoping that, after spending so much time slogging through stuff about Genesis 1–3 and Matthew 5–7, revisiting Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological critique of religion texts will help to advance my thinking.

By Joshua Steele

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

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