Bethge’s Ginormous Biography of Bonhoeffer: On “Making oneself sure of something”

Okay, I finally pulled the trigger and spent my $150 Amazon.com gift card. The first purchase was Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have to say, upon opening the package, I feel the need to retract my earlier griping about the book’s cost. I had no idea it was over 1000 pages long. It’s like buying two books and the price now seems appropriate. I’m obviously glad to have the book in hand… 45 pages in and am already completely enthralled.

Bethge was explaining what he thought DB’s reasons were for studying theology in the first place. Bethge believed that DB would have never wanted to come to a full conclusion on the matter because he “sensed that the curiosity to make oneself sure of something was self-destructive. So we must accept a certain amount of uncertainty…” I’ve been quite struck by this phrase and the recognition of the danger of “making oneself sure of something.”

One of my favorite quotes of all time was given by David Burrell when he was speaking at NTS years ago. He said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: people who need certitude, and those who search for truth.” I think he’s onto the same thing as Bonhoeffer. Both are insisting  not upon some radical postmodern incredulity toward the existence of absolute truth, but upon the kind of self-deception which always accompanies certitude.

Certitude is deadly.

  • First, it severely limits the ability to grow because certitude refuses to entertain the idea that it could be wrong. Why continue to search for the truth when we’ve already arrived? 
  • Second, it creates a posture of defensiveness. Any challenge to certitude must be met with resistance, even violence – I see this in people like John Piper and other self-proclaimed protectors of “orthodoxy.” Certitude requires us to expend an inordinate amount of energy defending our version of reality.
  • Third, it follows from the first two reasons certitude is deadly, that our certitude actually adversely impacts the spiritual journey of other seekers. When we traffic in certitudes, requiring others to do the same, attacking those who do not, then we limit the ability of those who are still in progress to continue their journey unabated. In undermines our confidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of everyone who seeks after God. Certitude erases the space people require in order to work things out for themselves in community with us.
Doubt, or perhaps uncertainty is not the opposite of faith, certitude is. Faith requires that which we put our faith in to remain – at least to some extent – unseen, unknown, or obscured. Because we see as through a glass dimly, we know that our means of comprehending the divine are somehow compromised. Thus our ability to cut through paradox and the inherent contradictions of our lives will never be solved on this side of eternity. The pursuit of truth is the pursuit of God. The pursuit of God requires a certain amount of humility with regard to our ability to be certain. Bonhoeffer is right, there is a danger in making oneself sure of something. We see the truth not so that we can somehow exhaustively explain it. We seek the truth so that we will be transformed by the journey such a quest requires.

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01987366942991607757 Scott Stone

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I have an ethics another class this quarter, The Ethics of Bonhoeffer. I’ll add Bethge’s book to the pile.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04581876323110725024 Robert Cornwall

    Bethge is the definitive bio of Bonhoeffer, though his friend Ferdinand Schlingensiepen has written the best recent version. Bethge was DB's closest friend and the keeper of the flame until the rest of the world caught on. You will find it a continuing source of insight!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11993391994629535341 Stan Harstine, Ph.D.

    Tim, actually the opposite of faith is sin, so in a sense your conclusion is correct since certitude requires that we claim to be fully knowledgable about all things, a claim that is near to deity.

    BTW, I'm a friend of your bro, Jeff.


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