Bonhoeffer and Barth

Bonhoeffer_Ethics_Cover Sections like this in Bonhoeffer’s writings always make me wonder how much Barth influenced him; they also make me hesitate to think of and speak of Bonhoeffer as an evangelical in the present day sense of the term.  Here’s the section found on pages 194 & 197 of his Ethics:

“The Christian ethic speaks in a quite different sense of the reality which is the origin of good, for it speaks of the reality of God as the ultimate reality without and within everything that is.  It speaks of the reality of the world as it is, which possesses reality solely through the reality of God.”

“Christian belief deduces that the reality of God is not in itself merely an idea from the fact that this reality of God has manifested and revealed itself in the midst of the real world.  In Jesus Christ the reality of God has entered into the reality of the world.  The place where the answer is given, both to the question concerning the reality of God and to the question concerning the reality of the world, is designated solely and alone by the name Jesus Christ.  God and the world are comprised in his name.  In Him all things consist (Col. 1:17).  Henceforward one can speak neither of God nor of the world without speaking of Jesus Christ.”

“…The reality of Christ comprises the reality of the world within itself.  The world has no reality of its own, independently of the revelation of God in Christ.”

There is more to this discussion, of course; there are further nuances and developments to trace.  However, it is a discussion worth having.  In fact, John Baillie (a professor at Union Theological Seminary in the 1930’s when Barth’s influence was starting to grow) said, “Bonhoeffer was my student in this Seminary in 1930-1931 and was then the most convinced disciple of Dr. Barth that had appeared among us up to that time, and withal as stout an opponent of liberalism as had ever come my way” (quoted in Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 158).  Comments are welcome, of course.  I’ll be looking into this a bit more in the next few months, Lord willing.

shane lems

3 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer and Barth”

  1. Thank you for posting this as a caution to those who would embrace Bonhoeffer with uncritical enthusiasm. I would endorse your suspicions and hesitation as having merit.


    1. I agree with you regarding Bonhoeffer as well as Barth. I try to refrain from “uncritical enthusiasm” with respect to any theologian/preacher that I read or hear. It’s disturbing though that many in the Reformed community will draw lines in the sand if you don’t unequivocally agree with the teachings of certain “celebrities” in the community or even the pastor at your church, signs of a cultish mentality. That sort of inerrancy should belong to Scripture alone, not the man with the podium (or the printing press).


  2. Yes, Bonhoeffer is a “Barthian,” if that term is licit at all. That’s a good thing on the whole, as far as I am concerned. You do not have to venture very far in any of Bonhoeffer’s writings to find Barth’s presence, and Barth returned the favor in either CD IV.1 or IV.2 (I can’t remember which) where he prefaces one of his extensive ethical treatments with a recognition of Bonhoeffer’s influence on himself, citing Ethics in particular. So, they influenced each other.

    As far as the “evangelical” label is concerned, both men rejected “inerrancy” and the scholastic rationale behind it. But Barth was considerably more scholastic than Bonhoeffer, especially beginning in the late 20’s and culminating in the entire revision of the first part-volume of his dogmatics in the early 30’s. De facto, if not de jure, Barth’s doctrine of scripture operates with an assumption of theological infallibility, with the appropriate act/event caveats you would expect from Barth. For this reason, Barth has been accused of “biblicism” by his liberal detractors. At the very least, we have to recognize that there is no dogmatic pronouncement in the CD that lacks exegesis, agree or disagree with the quality of his exegesis. To give one controversial example, Barth affirmed the superordination of man and the subordination of woman in CD III.4, exegeting Gen 1:27, Eph 5, et al.

    There are other reasons why both men would not comfortably belong to “evangelicalism” as commonly defined in America. Another example would be their criticisms of pietism, as basically the conservative variant of subjectivity-based modernism. Yet, neither would belong comfortably to liberalism either, namely the oldline Protestant churches, even as these churches give token reverence to both men.


Comments are closed.