Bonhoeffer Loved Luther… Like A Lot

Bonhoeffer Loved Luther… Like A Lot September 15, 2018

Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther: A Review

Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther.  Michael P. DeJonge. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Say it again. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Although his long-standing association with his contemporary Karl Barth has sometimes led us to believe Bonhoeffer was more Barthian than Lutheran, and although evangelicals (that bastard Eric Metaxas chief among them) like to claim him for their cause, the truth is simple: Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran.

DeJonge opens his book with simple statistics. Bonhoeffer quotes Martin Luther more than any other theologian–870 times, and usually approvingly. Karl Barth, by contrast, gets fewer than 300 citations in Bonhoeffer, and theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Calvin each get only a few dozen citations.

Frequency alone fails to establish influence, so DeJonge offers a more nuanced and compelling thesis. “Bonhoeffer thought his theology was Lutheran, and he was justified in thinking so” (7). DeJonge believes this thesis has interpretive value, because taking Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism “seriously generates better interpretations of his texts in their context than readings that do not” (7). It especially facilitates coherently interpreting what are otherwise especially difficult problems in Bonhoeffer scholarship.

Offering this thesis, DeJonge then unpacks first how Bonhoeffer understood himself as a Lutheran, and second what it might mean for Bonhoeffer to consider himself a Lutheran. Much hinges on this method. It offers itself as a compelling model for interpreting any theological figure. Consider first how the author gives him or herself, their own self-understanding. Engage their self-understanding charitably. Then consider more broadly whether their self-understanding comports with a broader historic understanding of the tradition. Or, as DeJonge once more summarizes it, “Bonhoeffer understood his own thinking to be Lutheran (in a narrow, insider sense of Lutheran), and he was justified in that (in a broader, outsider sense of Lutheran)” (10).

Failing to notice the Lutheran character of Bonhoeffer’s thinking results in a variety of interpretive problems. For DeJonge, chief among these is the inattention to the connection between Bonhoeffer’s theology and Luther’s two-kingdoms thinking. Similarly, attending to the influence of Luther on Bonhoeffer highlights Bonhoeffer’s academic phase focus on “the church as the present Christ or, what is the same, the place where the gospel is preached and heard” (14).

The book opens with a consideration of Luther Renaissance scholars’ impact on Bonhoeffer, with particular attention to Karl Holl. Although Holl is not widely known today, he is recognized as the initiator of the Luther Renaissance. Bonhoeffer’s close engagement with Holl illustrates how early and deep Luther is in Bonhoeffer’s thinking. Intriguingly, Bonhoeffer even offers a correction to Holl’s hyper-focus on conscience, and instead grounds justification in Christ rather than the conscience, a move that has significantly influenced our theology of justification yet today.

Christology takes center stage in the book as a whole. DeJonge maps the influence of Luther on Bonhoeffer’s single-agent Christology. “The heartbeat of Lutheran christology is the christological ‘is’–this man is God–which translates into the exclusive agency of the person of Christ… if there is anything about the Lutheran tradition that Bonhoeffer sees with [special] clarity and pursues with abandon, it is the exclusive christological agency of the person of Christ” (67).

Then, from “Christ is” DeJonge notes that Bonhoeffer moves to “Christ is present” and finally to “Christ is present as Word, sacrament, and church-community.” Sound Lutheran? You bet!

Something I particularly love about DeJonge’s approach: he has a way of situating Bonhoeffer, placing him within a particular tradition and historical moment while also reading him generously. Having outlined a variety of theologies of two-kingdoms that arose in the 20th century, he says of Bonhoeffer that his “two kingdoms thinking is of course of a particular type… from early through the late period of his thinking, Bonhoeffer thinks in terms of the two kingdoms, although his thinking adjusts, to borrow a phrase from Ethics, in accord with reality” (102-103). This is the kind of author and scholar you want to spend time with, somebody who generously reads his subject of inquiry, and even enlists that author in the interpretation of his own development.

In the late portion of the book, DeJonge takes time to disambiguate Bonhoeffer from the Anabaptist theological lens, especially the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Such disambiguation is essential, because the association of Bonhoeffer with Anabaptism “leads to a number of misinterpretations. ” So he takes time in the Anabaptist chapter to demonstrate Bonhoeffer’s non-commitments to nonviolence over-against the misinterpretations of Hauerwas and Yoder (143).

A book on Bonhoeffer necessarily must include notes on resistance. “There has been consensus for several decades among political historians of the early modern period that European theories of resistance found their first articulation in the Lutheran tradition” (198). So even if much has been and needs to be said about Luther’s influence on Hitler and the system Bonhoeffer was resisting, failures to note the connection between the Lutheran articulation of resistance and Bonhoeffer’s commitment to resistance result in a misinterpretation of the theological grounding of such resistance.

For Bonhoeffer, as for Luther, an authentic understanding of the doctrine of justification results in an abiding commitment to the vocation of a Christian, which Bonhoeffer interprets as responsibility. DeJonge quotes his World Alliance Lecture: “vocation is responsibility, and responsibility is the whole response of the whole person to reality as a whole” (249). Over-against a pseudo-Lutheranism that divides reality into independent spheres, with Christ an authority over only some of those spheres, DeJonge sees that Bonhoeffer in a deepening of Luther’s key insight centers in on this concept of responsibility (Stellvertretung). Bonhoeffer is not just influenced by Luther. He also offers a “critique of Lutheran according to what he considers its own best standards” (248). In theology, there’s really no better form of reception than that.

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