No One Knows what “Positivism of Revelation” Means!

When it comes to the Barth-Bonhoeffer relationship, there is perhaps no greater conundrum than the meaning of what Bonhoeffer called Barth’s “Offenbarungspositivismus” (“positivism of revelation” or “revelatory positivism”) in his Letters and Papers from Prison (DBWE 8).

Now, before we proceed, please note that Bonhoeffer meant something very particular by “religion” in his prison letters. For an overview of how Bonhoeffer and Barth differed on the meaning of “religion,” and what that means for how we interpret their theological critiques of religion, please see my essay: “To Be or Not To Be Religious: A Clarification of Karl Barth’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Divergence and Convergence Regarding Religion.”

Anyways, here’s Bonhoeffer’s first mention of positivism of revelation, in an April 30, 1944 letter to Eberhard Bethge:

How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well? Is there such a thing as a religionless Christian? If religion is only the garb in which Christianity is clothed—and this garb has looked very different in different ages—what then is religionless Christianity? Barth, who is the only one to have begun thinking along these lines, nevertheless did not pursue these thoughts all the way, did not think them through, but ended up with a positivism of revelation, which in the end essentially remained a restoration. For the working person or any person who is without religion, nothing decisive has been gained here. (DBWE 8:363–64, emphasis added).

As the editors note:

This reproach, “positivism of revelation,” raised here for the first time against Karl Barth (cf. also 3/139, p. 373, and 3/161, p. 429), is consistently preceded by an appreciation for Barth’s critique of religion (for example, 3/139, p. 373: “Barth was the first theologian 
 to begin the critique of religion”). However, the remarks about “nonreligious interpretation” and “arcane discipline” show that “positivism of revelation” is a programmatic term indicating that in his critique of religion, Bonhoeffer draws other consequences. For the origin of the concept “positivism of revelation” and its significance as a demarcating formula in theology, see Krause, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in Theologische RealenzyklopĂ€die, 64n1; Feil, Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 175–177, with reference to DBWE 6:376–78; Pangritz, Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 76–87; WĂŒstenberg, Theology of Life, 60–65. (DBWE 8:364n17).

In his May 5, 1944 letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes:

What matters is not the beyond but this world, how it is created and preserved, is given laws, reconciled, and renewed. What is beyond this world is meant, in the gospel, to be there for this world—not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Barth was the first theologian—to his great and lasting credit—to begin the critique of religion, but he then put in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation that says, in effect, “like it or lump it.” Whether it’s the virgin birth, the Trinity, or anything else, all are equally significant and necessary parts of the whole, which must be swallowed whole or not at all. That’s not biblical. There are degrees of cognition and degrees of significance. That means an “arcane discipline” must be reestablished, through which the mysteries of the Christian faith are sheltered against profanation. The positivism of revelation is too easygoing, since in the end it sets up a law of faith and tears up what is—through Christ’s becoming flesh!—a gift for us. Now the church stands in the place of religion—that in itself is biblical—but the world is left to its own devices, as it were, to rely on itself. That is the error. At the moment I am thinking about how the concepts of repentance, faith, justification, rebirth, and sanctification should be reinterpreted in a “worldly” way—in the Old Testament sense and in the sense of John 1:14. I’ll write you more about it. (DBWE 8:373, emphasis added).

Before we proceed, I’ll note that “Now the church stands in the place of religion” is “An der Stelle der Religion steht nun die Kirche” (DBW 8:416) in the original German. I still can’t figure out if this means:

  • The church is a part of the religious sphere.
  • OR: Now the church stands in religion’s spot, in religion’s stead.

Anyways, finally, in his June 8, 1944 letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes:

Barth was the first to recognize the error of all these attempts (which were basically all still sailing in the wake of liberal theology, without intending to do so) in that they all aim to save some room for religion in the world or over against the world. He led the God of Jesus Christ forward to battle against religion, Ï€ÎœÎ”áżŠÎŒÎ± against ÏƒÎŹÏÎŸ. This remains his greatest merit (the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans, despite all the neo-Kantian eggshells!). Through his later Dogmatics he has put the church in a position to carry this distinction in principle all the way through. It was not in his ethics that he eventually failed, as is often said—his ethical observations, so far as they exist, are as important as his dogmatic ones—but in the nonreligious interpretation of theological concepts he gave no concrete guidance, either in dogmatics or ethics. Here he reaches his limit, and that is why his theology of revelation has become positivist, a “positivism of revelation,” as I call it. To a great extent the Confessing Church now has forgotten all about Barth’s approach and lapsed from positivism into conservative restoration. Its significance is that it holds fast to the great concepts of Christian theology, but it appears to be exhausting itself gradually in the process. Certainly these concepts contain the elements of genuine prophecy (which include the claim to the truth as well as mercy, as you mentioned) and of genuine ritual, and only to that extent does the message of the Confessing Church get attention, a hearing—and rejection. But both remain undeveloped, remote, because they lack interpretation. … As for Bultmann, he seems to have sensed Barth’s limitation somehow, but misunderstands it in the sense of liberal theology, and thus falls into typical liberal reductionism (the “mythological” elements in Christianity are taken out, thus reducing Christianity to its “essence”). My view, however, is that the full content, including the “mythological” concepts, must remain—the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself!—but that these concepts must now be interpreted in a way that does not make religion the condition for faith (cf. the πΔρÎčÏ„ÎżÎŒÎź in Paul!). Only then, in my opinion, is liberal theology overcome (which still determines even Barth, if only in a negative way), but at the same time the question it asks is really taken up and answered (which is not the case with the Confessing Church’s positivism of revelation!). The fact that the world has come of age is no longer an occasion for polemics and apologetics, but is now actually better understood than it understands itself, namely, from the gospel and from Christ. (DBWE 8:428–31).

So much for the primary texts in question when it comes to the issue of Offenbarungspositivismus. However, secondary texts with proposed explanations of the positivism of revelation have proliferated since 1944!

Here’s how Tom Greggs summarizes the state of the question:

There is the scope for a monograph which attended singularly to the vast array of interpretations scholars have offered with regard to the way in which one should understand Bonhoeffer’s three word (one in German) charge. Indeed, there is almost as much (if not more) reflection on this than the meaning of religionlessness and non-religious interpretation.

To make what follows easier to read, I’ve broken it up into bullet points:

  • For some theologians, the charge is aimed more at Barthians and the Confessing Church than Barth himself.
  • Others see it as arising from a degree of misunderstanding on the part of Bonhoeffer of Barth’s purpose. For others, it revolves around a shift towards existential thinking on Bonhoeffer’s part, compared to Barth’s overarching systematic principle of christology which swallows up all else.
  • Still others consider the meaning to relate to the distinctive christological method of Bonhoeffer compared to the trinitarian method of Barth.
  • Some have suggested the ultimately positive role of religion in Barth in terms of leading humans to grace, or the philosophical distinction between a theologian who is influenced primarily by Feuerbach, Freud and Marx (Barth), compared to one influenced primarily by Nietzsche (Bonhoeffer).
  • Others point to the influence of the philosopher, Wilhelm Dilthey, on Bonhoeffer during the period of his prison writings.
  • For some, the issue is the dominant influence of Luther on Bonhoeffer compared to Calvin on Barth, particularly over the issue of the extra Calvinisticum.
  • Still others see the issue as resting in the positive meaning of ‘religion’ for the two theologians, with Bonhoeffer adopting an ‘operational or behavioural’ concept of religion in comparison to a ‘morphological or institutional’ one.
  • For others, it is Barth’s ‘all or nothing’ approach that should be emphasized, especially around the issue of the virgin birth, as being at the heart of ‘positivism of revelation’.
  • For others, the matter is Barth’s inability to relate revelation to the world, or his strong distinction of the church from the world.
  • At stake in some interpretations is Bonhoeffer’s unpreparedness to create a theory of religion (and his critique of Barth’s doing so), and the related issue of religion being a harmatological concept for Barth compared to an historical concept for Bonhoeffer.
  • Still others analyse the distinction between Bonhoeffer and Barth in terms of different emphases in their theological approach—on the secondary objectivity of God in the former, and the primary objectivity of God in the latter. (Theology against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth, 56–58.)

Greggs himself then proceeds to offer an explanation that situates Bonhoeffer’s accusation vis-a-vis Schleiermacher:

One possible way of understanding Bonhoeffer’s charge against Barth is to see it in relation to the theological father of liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher. It may well be that Bonhoeffer believed that Barth was ultimately influenced (if negatively) by liberal theology, and that Barth was still allowing his work to be defined by the confines of liberal thought. Considering this point might help to unpack what Bonhoeffer meant by positivism of revelation, and to demonstrate that Bonhoeffer is seeking to be even more Barthian than Barth, rather than engaging in a different agenda. (Greggs, 61).

What’s the payoff of doing so?

What, then, does this mean for Bonhoeffer’s charge against Barth of ‘positivism of revelation’? Firstly, it relates to the accusation of the ‘take it or leave it’ nature of revelation which, according to Bonhoeffer, exists in Barth’s work. Positivism points to the givenness of the individual instantiation of Christianity, its unique stand-aloneness which separates it not only from other religions but also from the world. Secondly, and more fiercely, it seems that Bonhoeffer’s term suggests a logical flaw in Barth’s doctrine of revelation which separates it off from all other potential engagements external to itself, creating a self-enclosed circle, self-sufficient in its entirety. The argument of this would go thus: the positive aspect of a religion is its individuality and distinctiveness from all else. The cause of this (according to Schleiermacher) is revelation. Barth seems to agree with Schleiermacher in his presentation to some degree, since revelation contradicts religion. But, for Barth, the very thing which is distinctive is not only caused by revelation, but is revelation. In other words, according to Bonhoeffer’s critique of ‘positivism of revelation’, Barth says something akin to ‘revelation makes Christianity a positive (unique) religion, and what is revealed is that Christianity is a religion which arises in some way out of revelation: the positivism of the Christianity, which is caused by revelation, is, thereby, revelation.’ Thus, revelation, rather than being the means of establishing the distinctiveness of Christianity becomes the beginning and the end. (Greggs, 63).

Here’s Greggs’ assessment of Bonhoeffer’s critique:

However, this presentation fails to do full justice to §17 of Church Dogmatics. As has been seen in Chapter 2, it is not a concept of revelation or even grace which is the Aufhebung of religion, but Jesus Christ Himself. The trueness of Christian religion does not rest in revelation or grace, but its religion is contradicted in the same way in which sin is contradicted, not simply by the revelation of revelation, but by the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. To a degree, therefore, the charge rests on an insensitive reading of Barth, but nevertheless that reading does not stop Bonhoeffer from sensing that Barth is on the path that he, too, should walk along: it means only that Bonhoeffer does not realize how closely and how much in step he and Barth are walking, and, given the on going and dynamic nature of both of their works (see above), this can hardly be a charge of mis-representation. Bonhoeffer builds upon Barth’s indicative description of human religion and optatively hopes for a Christianity which can become religionless: for Bonhoeffer, there is the hope that religion need not be the ‘given’ (positive) for theology. He charges Barth with the task of moving further away from Schleiermacher’s categories—otherwise put, with the task of becoming more intensely Barth. The critique is not a critique against Barth’s constructive work, but a critique of the continued Schleiermacherian categories which Barth still works with as a background: Bonhoeffer does not want less Barth; he wants more. (Greggs, 63-64).

This blogpost isn’t the place to evaluate all of these proposals. Suffice it to say that I think that (1) no one is really sure what Bonhoeffer meant by positivism of revelation and (2) the conversation about the Barth-Bonhoeffer relationship would be better off focusing on Barth and Bonhoeffer’s biblical engagement (instead of continuing to speculate about what Bonhoeffer’s enigmatic accusation meant).

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

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