Here’s the Elevator Pitch for my Dissertation Proposal: “Scriptural, but Not Religious”

Tomorrow, I defend the proposal for my dissertation. For now, the dissertation is tentatively titled: “Scriptural, but Not Religious: Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a Biblical Critique of Religion.”

Here’s the “elevator pitch” for the dissertation. Feedback appreciated.

Scriptural, but Not Religious: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and a Biblical Critique of Religion

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?”

Although we only spent a few minutes on that question in class, it’s been on my mind ever since.

In fact, it’s the reason I’m defending this dissertation proposal today — not because I’ve found the perfect answer to the question, but rather because I think I’ve found a better way to approach the question.

You see, every discussion of the Barth-Bonhoeffer relationship that I’ve read eventually gets around to discussing the similarities and differences between Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critical understandings of religion. And rightly so, because this is the most confusing aspect of their relationship to explain.

Why does Bonhoeffer in prison, after adopting Barth’s theological critique of religion as idolatrous unbelief…
Why does Bonhoeffer, after claiming that the critique of religion was Barth’s greatest merit and original contribution as a theologian…
Why does Bonhoeffer say that Barth left us with nothing more than a “positivism of revelation” — a flattening of doctrines to the same relative importance, as a result of which the world is left to its own devices — whatever that means!
Why does Bonhoeffer then speak approvingly of a “religionless Christianity,” something that Barth explicitly refused to support?

This is the central mystery, as it were, of the Barth-Bonhoeffer relationship.

So far, scholars have attempted to solve it either by (1) proposing theological frameworks to explain Barth and Bonhoeffer’s differences, or by (2) proposing explanations of just what Bonhoeffer meant by the “positivism of revelation.”

I do not mean to discount the work that’s been done already in these two areas. However, instead of proposing a theological framework or an explanation of “positivism of revelation,” I want to examine the connection between these two theologians’ critiques of religion and their use of Scripture.

Why? Because, despite John Webster’s suggestion about 18 years ago that examining each theologian’s use of Scripture would be a helpful way forward in explaining their relationship, no one has devoted lengthy attention to the relationship between Barth and Bonhoeffer’s theological critiques of religion and their interpretations of particular biblical passages.

This is what I would like to do. This will be my original contribution to scholarship.

If given permission, I will examine the connections between Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological interpretations of particular biblical texts and their theological critiques of religion.

I believe that doing so will help us understand the historical and conceptual relationships between these two theologians. It will also inform a biblical critique of religion for the church’s use today.

By joshuapsteele

The Rev. Dev. I solve problems with a pastor's heart for people and a programmer's eye for detail. Learn more at


  1. Nice topic Joshua. I find both of these writers extremely interesting. This offers a very interesting lens through which to view them both. Where do you think they most differ in their fundamental understanding of the Church?

    1. Hi Todd, thanks for your comment! It’s a great and open question that you’ve asked. It’s been argued (I think convincingly) that Barth and Bonhoeffer differed from each other in their christologies, with Barth having a more classically Reformed christology and Bonhoeffer having a more classically Lutheran christology. Since they both viewed the Church primarily through the lens of Christ (their ecclesiologies were both christocentric), their differing christologies led, I think, to different emphases in their ecclesiologies. I think it’s fair to say that Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran christology led him to place more emphasis on the human/earthly form of the church than Barth did (or, at least, than Barth did before Bonhoeffer’s death).

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