What did Barth and Bonhoeffer think of the Bible? (Dissertation Dispatch, 2020-03-30)

I’m trying to parse out the relevance of Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s engagement with Scripture for making sense of the “Barth-Bonhoeffer relationship.” Specifically, I’m trying to, at the very least, add some biblical content and context to the ongoing debate over the relationship between Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological critiques of religion.

As I put it in the “elevator pitch” for my dissertation proposal:

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?

In order to answer these questions (or at least move toward an answer), I’ve spent a considerable amount of time looking for specific biblical passages that (1) both Barth and Bonhoeffer discussed (2) at least thematically in relation to their theological critiques of religion. Genesis 1–3 and Matthew 5–7 (the Sermon on the Mount) have emerged as the most relevant passages in this regard.

However, there’s also the question of method and how Barth and Bonhoeffer “dogmatically located” Scripture. Consider what John Webster had to say about Barth, Bonhoeffer, the Bible, and the Barth-Bonhoeffer relationship:

My suggestion here, however, is 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. Both give a thoroughly theological depiction of reading Scripture, that is, a depiction in which language about God is direct and operative; both, therefore, define the human act of interpretation as radical attentiveness and self-relinquishment to God’s saving self-communication through the instrumentality of Holy Scripture. This, I suggest, is one of the points at which these two church theologians come very close to each other, and offer much food for thought to church and theology now. (Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics, 88–89).

Now, although Jameson Ross (in his 2019 Durham PhD dissertation, “Bonhoeffer’s Ecclesial Hermeneutic: The Practice of Biblical Interpretation in 1930s Germany”) has demonstrated much more continuity in Bonhoeffer’s biblical interpretation (specifically, between Bonhoeffer’s 1925 student paper on “The Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture” and his 1935 “Contemporizing New Testament Texts”) than Webster saw, I believe that Webster was right to emphasize the following about Bonhoeffer’s biblical work:

The direct, homiletical rhetoric, the deliberate avoidance of technicality or complexity, the prose stripped to the basics, are all tokens of the fact that Bonhoeffer has come round to an understanding of the task of interpreting Scripture which is governed by two convictions: that Holy Scripture is the viva vox Dei, and that this living voice demands an attitude of ready submission and active compliance. These two convictions are remarkably similar to what Barth himself discovered in the heritage of Reformed Christianity, and they can now be traced in Bonhoeffer (Webster, Word and Church, 101).

Webster applies this to Bonhoeffer’s post-Creation and Fall biblical work, but I would, following Jameson Ross’s dissertation, apply it to Creation and Fall as well.

This directness—or “exegetical immediacy,” as I’ve taken to calling it—is, I believe, a distinguishing feature of Bonhoeffer’s exegesis. Sure, he may have gotten some of it from Barth’s trailblazing work in the area of theological exegesis. But I think that Bonhoeffer is even more comfortable with exegetical immediacy than Barth.

For example, when it comes to Creation and Fall, Bonhoeffer is comfortable with making direct moves from Eden to today. Barth, on the other hand, only wants to move from Eden to Israel to Jesus to the Church to today. Barth is, in other words, more attentive to the contours of salvation history, as it were, than Bonhoeffer is—at least when it comes to the passages regarding Genesis 1–3 and Matthew 5–7 that I’ve looked at.

For this reason, I’m not sure I agree with the assessment of Michael Mawson in his essay on “Scripture” in The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Commenting on Bonhoeffer’s 1925 student paper on scriptural interpretation, Mawson writes that “Bonhoeffer’s early essay is perhaps best read as an enthusiastic endorsement of and expansion on this key Barthian claim” (that the Bible tells us what God says to us, not what humans have said about God, pg. 125). However, Mawson then stresses the influence of Luther:

On the other hand, while Barth may have provided the proximate impetus for Bonhoeffer’s way of approaching Scripture, this early essay also displays the formative influence of Luther. Even more so than Barth, references to Luther abound in Bonhoeffer’s scriptural engagements and theology, here and elsewhere (cf. Krötke, 2008: 57–60). Luther’s influence is especially evident in Bonhoeffer’s deep insistence on the historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) of the Bible and the hiddenness of God’s word in these human words and texts (cf. DBWE 9: 293–4). (Pg. 125)

I don’t doubt or quibble with Luther’s influence on Bonhoeffer, but I wonder if this is the best way of stating the Luther-vs-Barth difference. It seems to me that Barth only becomes more and more concerned with the historicity of the Bible, at least when it comes to the contours of the covenant between God and humanity in Christ. On the other hand, Bonhoeffer appears to become less concerned with the historical contours within Scripture, and more concerned with present day history and what the Word of God has to say.

Another way that I’m thinking about this is as follows. At least one part of Bonhoeffer’s accusation of Barth’s Offenbarungspositivismus (in the prison letters) is that Barth flattens various doctrines to the same level of significance. Bonhoeffer writes:

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. (DBWE 8:373, my emphasis).

If Bonhoeffer accuses Barth of flattening out the contours of various levels of doctrinal significance, I wonder if Barth could charge Bonhoeffer with flattening out the contours of salvation history and moving from texts to the present day too quickly, without taking the intervening history of Israel and/or the Church into account.

To be sure, Bonhoeffer does not do this on the basis of extrapolating universal principles from Scripture in order to move from the historical text to the present. In his 1935 lecture on “con temporizing New Testament texts,” Bonhoeffer writes:

Contemporizing comes about not through the selection of certain texts but by making the whole of Holy Scripture audible as a witness to the word of God. The only method of contemporization is thus the substantive textual exposition [of the Holy Scriptures] as the witness of Christ, and such exegesis has the promise of Christ’s presence. (DBWE 14:421–422).

Bonhoeffer takes a Lutheran “was Christum treibet” approach to the Bible. This is not to say that Barth’s handling of Scripture isn’t also Christological! But it does seem to me that, when commenting upon a passage of Scripture, especially one in the Old Testament, Bonhoeffer wants to get to Christ more quickly and directly than Barth.

By Joshua Steele

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

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