Dissertation Dispatch: 2019-11-11

I’m narrowing my focus to Genesis 1–3 and the Sermon on the Mount.

Originally, my dissertation proposal cast a very wide net. I was going to have the following chapters:

  • Introduction (5,000 words)
  • Chapter 1: Creation and Fall (Genesis 1–3) (16,000 words)
  • Chapter 2: The Prophets (16,000 words)
  • Chapter 3: The Gospels (16,000 words)
  • Chapter 4: The Epistle to the Romans (16,000 words)
  • Chapter 5: Completing the Biblical Critique of Religion (16,000 words)
  • Summary and Conclusion (5,000 words)

However, after doing survey work, and spending most of the previous academic year working on Barth and Bonhoeffer’s reading of Genesis 1–3, I’ve decided to narrow my focus down to Genesis 1–3 and the Sermon on the Mount.

For one thing, Bonhoeffer doesn’t have that much material in any one place on the book of Romans.

This is, admittedly, interesting in and of itself. Why, after being so clearly inspired by Barth’s theological interpretation of Scripture in his Romans commentary, did Bonhoeffer decide to devote his first theological interpretation of Scripture to Genesis 1–3?

The same thing is basically true when it comes to the Prophets, especially the Book of the Twelve.

Bonhoeffer, it’s true, does have the following:

  • “Old Testament Examination on Amos 9” in The Young Bonhoeffer (DBWE 9:447ff.).
  • “The Tragedy of the Prophetic and Its Lasting Meaning” in Barcelona, Berlin, New York (DBWE 10:325ff.).
  • “Poem ‘Jonah’” in Letters and Papers from Prison (DBWE 8:547ff.).q

However, he’s got nothing that comes close to the length and level of detail that are evident in his handlings of Genesis 1–3 (in Creation and Fall) and the Sermon on the Mount (in Discipleship).

As for Barth, the book of Romans is undeniably relevant for his theological critique of religion.

However, I plan to address this in my dissertation when I’m talking about the importance of being precise when we’re defining the term “religion.”

What about the Minor Prophets?

Well, Barth does cite the Book of the Twelve throughout his works. But, as far as his main “theological critique of religion” passages go, there’s not very much to go off of.

The exception seems to be Barth’s discussion of Amos in CD §17.3 (“True Religion”). Here it is:

“And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold it is a stiffnecked people” (v. 9). That is revealed religion as such. That is the actuality of revealed religion. That is revealed religion as seen for a moment in abstraction from the grace of revelation. And that was how above all the prophet Amos saw it. He described the sacrifices offered to Yahweh at Bethel and Gilgal by the bitter term “scandals” (transgressions R.V. 4:4), He warned them: “Seek not Bethel nor enter into Gilgal” (5:5). In the name of Yahweh he proclaimed: “I hate, I despise your feasts and will not smell your solemn assemblies. Yea though ye offer me your burnt offerings and meal offerings I will not accept them, neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs: for I will not heed the melody of thy viols” (5:21–23). In the most bitter earnest he flings the question: “Did ye bring unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel?” (5:25). He also raises a question which relativises the whole of Israel’s existence in a devastating way: “Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the Lord. Have I not brought up Israel out of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (9:7). In the light of all this we can quite understand why the priest Amaziah thought that he ought to denounce this man to the king as a “rebel,” and to expel him from the royal temple of Bethel (7:10f.). It is equally significant that Amos expressly refuses to be a prophet or of the prophetic guild (7:14f.). With Amos there seems to open up an irreconcilable gulf between revelation and the religion of revelation (CD I/2, 328).

Now, as an aside, Barth has an extended discussion of Amos in CD IV/2 (445–52). It might be interesting to compare Barth and Bonhoeffer on Amos, using Bonhoeffer’s “The Tragedy of the Prophetic…” lecture and Barth’s CD discussions as starting points.

However, I now plan to discuss Amos and the Book of the Twelve in the context of my constructive chapter. It strikes me as odd that Barth and Bonhoeffer didn’t do more to explicitly tie their theological critiques of religion to the Minor Prophets. Given the starting points that we have for their interpretations of the Minor Prophets, how might they have used the Book of the Twelve to advance their theological critiques of religions? Is there anything in the Minor Prophets that would critique or at least nuance Barth and Bonhoeffer when it comes to religion?

What about the Gospels?

OK, so I’ve dealt with my originally proposed chapters on the Prophets and Romans. What about the Gospels? Well, I originally cast the net that broadly because Bonhoeffer mentions a litany of Gospel passages in a prison letter to Bethge:

This being pulled along into the—messianic—suffering of God in Jesus Christ happens in the NT in various ways: when the disciples are called to follow him, in table fellowship with sinners, through “conversions” in the narrower sense of the word (Zacchaeus), through the action of the woman “who was a sinner” (done without any confession of sin taking place) in Luke 7, through the healing of the sick (see above Matt. 8:17), through receiving the children. The shepherds stand [at] the manger just as do the wise men from the East, not as “converted sinners,” but simply because they are drawn to the manger (by the star) just as they are. The centurion at Capernaum, who makes no confession of sin at all, is held up as an example of faith (cf. Jairus). p 482 The rich young man is “loved” by Jesus. The courtier in Acts 8, Cornelius (Acts 10), are anything but persons in desperate straits. Nathanael is “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47), and finally there are Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the tomb. The one thing they all have in common is their sharing in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their “faith.” There is nothing about a religious method; the “religious act” is always something partial, whereas “faith” is something whole and involves one’s whole life. Jesus calls not to a new religion but to life (DBWE 8:481–82).

Oddly enough, however, Bonhoeffer rarely mentioned any of these Gospel passages elsewhere in his writings. The main exception, of course, it the call of the disciples, which (as the editors of Letters and Papers from Prison note) Bonhoeffer discusses in Discipleship (DBWE 4), pages 57–76.

As is well-known, Bonhoeffer’s explanation of the call to/of discipleship is intricately tied to his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, no other passage of Scripture played as large of a role in Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. So, without discounting the importance of other passages in the Gospels, a “Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Bible” project really can’t get away with neglecting the Sermon on the Mount. And I believe that there will be enough material in the Sermon on the Mount to sustain a chapter (at least) of the dissertation, instead of devoting a chapter to “Gospels” in general.

What did Barth have to say about the Sermon on the Mount?

At first glance, honestly, it would seem that the Sermon on the Mount played a larger role in Bonhoeffer’s life and thought than it did in Barth’s. This very well might be true, but it’s important to remember that Barth did not completely neglect the Sermon.

As Grieb notes:

Barth lectured on the Sermon on the Mount at Göttingen in the summer of 1925 and again at Bonn during the winter of 1933-34. But, unlike Bonhoeffer, he never wrote a treatise on it, although there are numerous references to the Sermon in his Ethics and especially in the Church Dogmatics. The longest of these is about fifteen pages of small print in II/2 from 686 to 700. Under the heading in section 38, “The Command as the Decision of God,” Barth deals first with “The Sovereignty of the Divine Decision,” “The Definiteness of the Divine Decision,” and finally, “The Goodness of the Divine Decision. It is within that second section, “The Definiteness of the Divine Decision,” that we find Earth’s discussion of the Sermon on the Mount, after a lengthy preliminary discussion… (A Katherine Grieb, “‘Living Righteousness’: Karl Barth and the Sermon on the Mount,” in Thy Word Is Truth: Barth on Scripture, ed. George Hunsinger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 98–99).

Thanks to the generosity of Peter Zocher, director of the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel, Switzerland, I’ve been given access to the manuscript of Barth’s 1925 Sermon on the Mount lectures and the typescript of his 1933–34 lectures. These lectures, along with Barth’s discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in CD II/2 and elsewhere, will provide a good foundation, on the Barth side of things, for a comparative and critical reading of Barth and Bonhoeffer on the Sermon on the Mount.

Ultimately, the gap that I’m trying to fill with my dissertation is “Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Bible.”

That is, I want to take a closer look at Barth and Bonhoeffer’s handling of Scripture in order to make better sense of the “Barth-Bonhoeffer relationship.” I’m trying to follow John Webster’s suggestion that “rather than pursuing questions about positivism of revelation or about the worldly and ethical, light can be shed on the relation of Bonhoeffer and Barth by looking at the place of the interpretation of Scripture in their respective theologies” (Word and Church, 88).

Now, the immediate challenge that a “Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Bible” project faces is the amount of material. Both Barth and Bonhoeffer (especially Barth, because he lived longer and wrote more) wrote copious amounts of material on the biblical text. How would you go about covering this in 100,000 words, footnotes included? (That’s the word count I’m working with for my dissertation at Wheaton. Thankfully, this doesn’t include the bibliography!)

So, I need some kind of delimiter, something that helps me focus on a particular subset of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s biblical material. For various reasons, I’ve chosen the theological critique of religion as my delimiter/focus/filter.

For one thing, as I wrote in my “elevator pitch” for the dissertation:

My project traces its origins to a single classroom discussion question in the Spring of 2015. The question was this: “In what ways is Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religion similar to, and different from, that of Barth?”

This discussion question led me to write a paper that I would later use as my writing sample when applying to PhD programs: “To Be or Not To Be Religious: A Clarification of Karl Barth’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Divergence and Convergence Regarding Religion.”

Here’s an abstract for that paper:

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.

I now plan to expand my work in that paper to the first body chapter of my dissertation, which I will devote to the pitfalls and potentials involved in defining “religion,” perhaps the slipperiest of all theological terms!

So, I intend to focus on three main things in this Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Bible dissertation.

  1. What Barth and Bonhoeffer meant, precisely, by “religion.”
  2. How they interpreted Genesis 1–3, especially the “knowledge of good and evil,” and how these things relate to their theological critiques of religion.
  3. How they interpreted the Sermon on the Mount, and how this relates to Barth and Bonhoeffer’s interpretations of the knowledge of good and evil and religion.

At least, that’s the plan at this point!


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