Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Sermon on the Mount (Dissertation Dispatch 2020-02-04)

I’m still very much in the weeds, taking a closer look at how Bonhoeffer and Barth read the Sermon on the Mount.

Given the importance of the Sermon on Mount for Bonhoeffer’s life and work, I’m persuaded that there’s something important to be found here—something that will hopefully shed some light on the Barth-Bonhoeffer relationship re:their theological critiques of religion.

Additionally, there are at least two other tidbits that have me interested in how Barth and Bonhoeffer read the Sermon on the Mount.

On October 17, 1934, Bonhoeffer wrote to Gandhi, inquiring about the possibility of going to India in order to learn how to develop “a truly spiritual living Christian peace movement.” In that letter, Bonhoeffer writes:

We are having great theologians in Germany—the greatest of them being in my opinion Karl Barth, whose disciple and friend I am happy to be—they are teaching us the great theological thoughts of the Reformation anew, but there is no-one to show us the way towards a new Christian life in uncompromising accordance with the Sermon on the Mount. It is in this respect that I am looking up to you for help.

Bonhoeffer to Gandhi, October 17, 1934

On September 19, 1936, Bonhoeffer wrote the following to Karl Barth. He is commenting on their lack of communication since the fall of 1933.

There are all sorts of reasons that I have not written since then. I always thought that if I were to write you, I would have to have something reasonable to say, but something reasonable in that sense was precisely what I never had, at least not such that I thought I might take up your time. And I still do not have that today. Besides, I also wanted to arrive at a certain point on my own with regard to the particular questions that emerged for me from Scripture and which constantly occupied me at the time; in the process I quite frankly repeatedly discovered that in several points I was probably moving away from what you yourself think about these questions. Basically the entire period was an ongoing, silent dispute with you, which is why I had to remain silent for a while. Primarily it involved questions concerning the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and the Pauline doctrine of justification and sanctification. I am currently working on this material and would very much have liked to ask you and hear your views on so many things.

Bonhoeffer to Barth, September 19, 1936 (DBWE 14:252-253), emphasis added.

Now, what’s really intriguing to me is *why* Bonhoeffer would think, in 1934–36, that Barth’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount was insufficient. Was this just a general sense, based upon familiarity with Barth’s theology? Or did Bonhoeffer have some particular Barthian exegesis in mind?

By Joshua Steele

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

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