Theological Fragments: Robert Jenson on contact with the Word

“There is no need to embark on the endless preliminary of first persuading men to return to the convictions of their fathers, so that next we may show them how they fail to measure up to these convictions, so that finally we may speak of God’s mercy. We can speak without needing to appeal to these now shaky bridges between Christ and ourselves. We need no bridges at all between Christ and ourselves, these or any other. Our relation to God’s revelation of himself in His Son is not something apart from our ordinary lives as human doers and sufferers. It is not something which comes second, so that we are first involved in our history and the history of our world–and then faced with the choice of whether also to become involved with God’s Word. The message of the Church does not need to create a point of contact with human life. The Word is that “other” over against whom human life is lived.”

(Robert Jenson, Alpha and Omega, 147)


The Usefulness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Constructive Appraisal (3 of 3)

By Adam Clark

(Go to part 1 of 3)
(Go to part 2 of 3)

Creation and Fall

Creation and Fall makes this point beautifully, I think, in Bonhoeffer’s invocation of God’s Creative Word across the void.  If this Word were withdrawn even for one moment, all Creation would simply cease to be. Lutherans have long acknowledged the power of God’s word, and it seems high time to acknowledge its continual efficaciousness in the work of Creation even in those outside of the Church.  What I think Bonhoeffer in fact suggests to us, though he does not entirely take the suggestion himself, is a way of speaking about this truth without conflating it with God’s work in Redemption-that is, without creating some kind of “anonymous Christianity.”

Consider for instance his work with the imago dei.  Bonhoeffer claims, actually in SC, that the image remains present in every human being because “only through God’s active working does the other become a You to me from whom my I arises…One might then speak here of the human being as the image of God with respect to the effect one person has on another.” Bonhoeffer is still a bit stuck in an idealist mode with his relationality.  What we must in fact affirm is that the relation touches down in the concrete, even if it cannot reside there; it does not simply pass through me to the other person in a “spirit-only” sense.  God’s Word sustains the fullness of our being; He is always sustaining the image ontologically from His side, even as we drop it ontically in specific ways from ours.  Here, I am invoking something like the doctrine of privation: God upholds our being and acting, but we co-opt and warp that principle in the process in particular choices (and through those choices, established dispositions – Augustine) to do evil. We recall that in SC that Bonhoeffer suggests a Christ principle unfolding in all believers.  He also suggests there that “everyone else” belongs to an “Adam principle” that functions in much the same way, except that it unfolds in sin.  Precisely here Bonhoeffer both succeeds and fails.  He succeeds in that he maintains the relationality of humanity and shows the inescapability of ontic sin.  He fails in that he gives Christ and Adam equal status as ontological. Even in Adam, whose ontic-ness we inherit, God’s ontological Word continues its work in the face of the real reality of continual co-opting by sin.

Of course, Bonhoeffer’s emphasis in CF is on the renewal of the imago in Christ, which is a distinct relation from the original imago. He speaks of how this new analogia relationis sustains us ontologically from God’s side.  Poignantly, this relationship makes us free for others, who are grace to us precisely in that their otherness reminds us of our creaturehood.  They reinforce the boundaries of the self that God gives. Again, the horizontal and vertical are bound together tightly in the fundamental establishment of our being (cf. Levinas above), but in the proper order.

The gift of the imago, in either of its forms (created, renewed), is a prime example of what Bonhoeffer means saying that the imperative is the indicative. God commands existence and this command unfolds in a way that indicates to the creature her way of life.  Now, as beautiful as this idea is, it is also dangerous, in that it is an idea Bonhoeffer seems to take over fairly directly from Barth.  Indeed, I think that it presages the development in Barth of the further idea that the Law is the “form” of the Gospel – the imperative is always united with the indicative.  For Bonhoeffer, as well as Barth, this means that the gift of our being always flows ineluctably into the task of our becoming in appropriate action toward God and others.  Now in one sense, I think this is quite true of the originary gift of being.  We have a being that is given as delimited (we are a self, not a confluence of cosmic powers) by its very opening toward others, indicating that communion with those others is the meaning of our being. At the same time, Bonhoeffer does not sufficiently distinguish this idea from his further suggestion that the command given regarding the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in Gen 2:16-17 intends to extend the delimitation of our being. Taken at face value, this depiction could mean that task becomes equal with gift in the meaning of our being.

What we must say instead is that the gift of being opens onto further commands oriented toward our becoming in a concrete historical situation.  Here, I think we find the meaning of the so-called “third use of the law” as an original component of God’s creative plan.  In essence, God always planned to give us a righteousness coram Deo as gift that could be extended coram hominibus as task by specific commands – specific commands that determine nature toward a given history.  Likewise, the original grace we receive of experiencing our creaturely being through the Other as image of God would then naturally open into service to that one according to her historical situation.  There is a foundation of being that is in essence “outside of history” and an extension of it within history – related, and yet distinct.  What went wrong in this process I think Bonhoeffer exposits rightly: disobedience meant that the imperative could no longer seamlessly orient us toward the indicative, bringing the accusation of the law.  What we receive then in Christ is twofold:  first, the gift of new being that brings back the unity of basic gift-openness.  In this new ontological eruption, we have the possibility in some given instance to hear again and enact, even if only partially, the command of God for the concrete.  This command comes to us especially the Face of the Other Person and our vocation to serve her in the concrete historical moment.  At the same time, the failure to always instantiate the indicative for the moment will always drive us back upon our general failure to instantiate the unity of imperative-indicative.  In this way, the law always accuses and we always return to the Law-Gospel movement.  At the same time, we are able to distinguish two different movements: not just our 1) ontic failure, but also 2) the ontological movement from Jesus Christ that enables us to hear the command, even in its specificity, with the joy of Psalm 119.  Both are dynamisms.  Both never come to rest.  We are simultaneously fully saint and fully sinner.

A final point, if the patient reader can stand it.  This unfolding of christological ontology, or the “Christ principle” as SC called it, opens I think a new possibility for application of the Finnish (and perhaps thereby the Orthodox) insight into theosis to the question of “virtue” as an ethical category.  I am not interested here in debating whether we can speak of justification in theotic terms.  What is clear in the Formula of Concord is that we can and should speak of God’s indwelling as flowing from the God’s pronouncement of us as righteous in His justifying word. The Word across the void becomes the new shape of our lives; we are sanctified.  The Finns I think rightly point out in this regard that for Luther, Christ becomes the “form” of faith within us.

Now what does this mean?  Or at least, what could we take it to mean?  Here we must take up and then depart from the Thomistic tradition, in order to vindicate some of its conclusions.  For St. Thomas, grace is something distinct from Christ himself and it comes to be a created “form” in the soul in Aristotle’s sense of that term. The form is that which makes something what it is, as the rational soul is what makes a human a human rather than an animal.  The form is therefore the principle from which a thing acts “according to its nature.”  Grace for Thomas is also the source of the operations of various virtues; virtues are likewise created structures (“habits,” this time) that form the various faculties (intellect, will, passions) so that they are ordered rightly relative to one another, thus producing right acts when they are activated.  Thus, what if take seriously Christ “as the form of faith” as a philosophical concept?  Christ as uncreated grace, rather than created, would thereby take up the position of the “form” of our soul; he would give it his own shape.  Remember however that this is an ontological relationality, not a statically-ontic createdness.  It is Christ-existing-as-church-community, unfolding the principle of his life into the specific historical situations of believers.  In this paradigm, Christ would hold together our intellect, will, passions etc., patterning them according to his own.  Thus we can speak of virtues as the resources of dispositions trained toward a certain kind of action.  These are upheld in us through exposure to the Word in preaching and Sacrament, whereby Christ sustains our being and becoming.  To put it a little crudely, Christ is sort of like the container which shapes the “waters” of our faculties without ever becoming them without remainder.  The relation is of course truly much more intimate, but this image perhaps suggests at least something helpful.


Throughout the above, I have been able only to sketch out in broad outline some of the research interests toward which Bonhoeffer spurs us.   Hopefully, however, I have made one thing clear:  he enables Lutherans to engage in dialogue with both the rest of the Church and the world in a way that allows real interaction with the terms of those traditions while remaining faithful to our own.  This in fact was Bonhoeffer’s vision in the Ethics: a Church and world critically engaged and mutually corrective, with Christians entering this dialectic based on their confidence in God’s sustenance of both sides of the equation.

CF, 40, 45.

SC, 54-5.

CF, 60-7, 94-102.

CF, 40-4.

Here, I think we can see how, as Luther says in the Large Catechism, faith can be the fulfillment of the first commandment.  To receive the revelation of God is to be oriented toward everything that will proceed from that relation, just as faith will then fulfill the rest of the commandments.  The first gift of being oriented toward movement toward the other is the long stressed “spontaneity” of good works at their font.

CF, 80-93.

FC, SD III.54.

Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification, ed. Kirsi Stjerna (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).

See ST I-II q.110.

The Usefulness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Constructive Appraisal (2 of 3)

By Adam Clark

(Go to part 1 of 3)

Act and Being

Act and Being draws out some of these insights and refines them in a helpful way.  Bonhoeffer’s focus in this volume is to show how the major German thinkers including Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger all commit the same basic philosophical mistake:  they all reduce reality to the epistemological quest of the I to ground its own (self-) knowledge, a quest which entraps the I within its own consciousness. They thus fall prey to the basic structural deficiency of sin in which the human being becomes curved inward on itself. Bonhoeffer by contrast develops an account, as suggested above, in which God’s revelatory entry into the human person suspends her being in that act.  Importantly, however, he also gives kudos to both the Kantian and Hegelian strains of philosophy for certain correct insights.  Kant, Bonhoeffer says, was the “Protestant epistemologist par excellence,” in that he sought to delimit the person and especially her reason through the alterity of the Ought.  On the other hand, Hegel accurately recognized that the person can only exist as a mediated relation to God which has a true historical context.  The only One who can fit both bills is of course Christ; in Him, God both sustains (ontologically mediates in history) and defines (epistemologically delimits, granting a self) the human person.

What Bonhoeffer provides here is perhaps a way past a stalemate in ethics today between Kant and Hegel.  For those theologians and philosophers who follow Kant, ethics becomes simply a matter of self-legislation (that is, self-delimitation on the basis of the Ought [Moralität] that constrains based on whether an action could apply to all).  The chief value in this schema of course becomes the ability to self­-legislate, that is, autonomy.  The individual is severed from other persons as the basis of ethical actions.  Simultaneously, this emphasis pretends to a universal reason that demands commonality among all peoples and ignores historical development of various cultures and practices.  Many, finding this paradigm unacceptable, turn to Hegel for a more historically- and communally-grounded approach.  However, here they discover a dual problem: first, Hegel’s communities are all conflicted aspects of a monistic principle driving toward unity.  Therefore, he also has a universalizing tendency that can become violent (rather not the point in ethics).  Second, Hegel’s approach is grounded in nothing more than the ethos [Sittlichkeit] of the culture of the time.  There is nothing transcendent that can offer a corrective to the dominant opinion.  With his emphasis on God’s sustenance of the world especially in Christ, Bonhoeffer can counteract both problems.  He can provide a delimitation and a communal history that are both rooted in something beyond the limited perspectives of individuals or the present times but in a way that works from within the tradition of secular discourse itself.

In a different direction, Act and Being also offers a potential, though difficult, point of connection with Catholic theology.  At one point in the text, Bonhoeffer engages Erich Przywara’s version of the analogia entis as moving in the direction of the relational paradigm (analogia relationis) he is advocating. He also quotes Aquinas’ statement in the Summa Contra Gentiles that “doing follows upon being” [agere sequitur esse] as the “ontological, fundamental thesis of Catholic and orthodox Protestant dogmatics.” While Bonhoeffer probably overreads both Pryzwara and his representativeness for the Thomistic tradition, I think there is something here.  In twentieth century Catholic theology, few questions are as important as that of what God’s “ordering of being”-that is, the natural law-actually is.  A number of Catholic scholars have begun to emphasize the shift marked by Aquinas and his immediate interlocutors from a Stoic emphasis on a kind of “map” of uniform reality (the Logos) to natural law as a kind of dynamism in the human person. In the Summa Theologiae, I-II q.91, Aquinas explicates this dynamism as a kind of participation in God’s “eternal law,” that is, the unfolding providential plan that embraces and orders from the beginning all contingencies of human existence.  The emphasis on contingency is important; this sort of natural law definition has led these scholars to develop a more “underdetermined” notion of nature.  In my opinion, this definition could open toward the usual Protestant emphasis on the normativity of God’s ongoing historical command.  It thus allows for a concept of nature with which we can be more satisfied yet which is also more robust than some of what we have used in the past.  Particularly, I think a close examination of St. Thomas yields the important insight that he really does take sin seriously as blotting out the right operation of this natural dynamism (which includes reason, etc.).  He does not endorse much of the later Catholic optimism that leaves a lot of room for reason to accomplish ordering in the world.  What he emphasizes however is that our sin still is not greater than God’s power of sustenance.  I think this point is one we must work to retain.  If our very being is upheld from God’s side of the equation, then we need to find a way to speak about this ontological reality in anthropological terms, without collapsing it into the ontic reality of our sin as we experience our own consciousness.

(Go to part 3 of 3)

AB, 33, 39, 62.  Not incidentally, Levinas also attacks these same thinkers and in much the same way.

AB, 41,46.  This is the ratio in se ipsam incurva or more generally, the cor curvum in se inherited from Luther, and Augustine before him.

AB, 34.

AB, 45.  The close of AB, pp. 157-61, has a beautiful description of how the child in baptism is the model of this ontological-epistemological reality.

AB, 73ff.

AB, 103.

Particularly, though they are often at odds on other matters, Jean Porter in Nature as Reason and Natural and Divine Law and Martin Rhonheimer in The Perspective of the Acting Person.  The philosophy and theology of John Paul II also enters into this discussion in a vital way.

If we cannot, we risk falling into the Flacian error of equating our nature with sin itself.  Cf. FC I.

The Usefulness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Constructive Appraisal (1 of 3)

By Adam Clark

How Lutheran is Bonhoeffer and in what ways is he useful for theology today? Regarding the first question, Pastor Eric Andrae has offered a fine beginning in a recent article entitled “Pro Deo et Patria.” His focus is on the many ways Bonhoeffer places the theology of the cross at the center of his approach to prayer, public action and discourse, and community.  Particularly helpful is the way in which Andrae reins in a lot of later speculation about Bonhoeffer’s advocacy of “religionless Christianity” in a “world come of age.”  Andrae draws on Bonhoeffer’s close friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge to show rightly that even this emphasis is ultimately an expression of a profound christology.  This christology recognizes that reality impinges on us all prior to our conscious, systematic articulation of it and that God has definitively given shape to this reality in Christ.

What I find less helpful in Andrae is his tendency to draw a line between the very early and the later Bonhoeffer.  In his opening paragraph, in claiming that Bonhoeffer truly became a Christian only in 1932 after the publication of his early works, Andrae implies that his earlier theology is not exactly Christian (and therefore neither truly Lutheran nor useful).  While I agree with Andrae that Bonhoeffer’s Christ as Center is not entirely helpful, I think some of Bonhoeffer’s other works have much more to offer.  These works include his two dissertations, Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, as well as the lectures given right on the breakpoint identified by Andrae, later published as Creation and Fall. While by the latter, Bonhoeffer clearly is moving into a more devoutly Christian phase, one can still see how the thinking of the first two works undergirds this movement and its fruition in the Ethics.  Moreover, I take it as a salutary sign that, as Wolf Krötke notes, Bonhoeffer’s training focused from the beginning on an intense study of Luther, so that by his lecture in 1931-32 on “The History of Systematic Theology,” Bonhoeffer turns its central question – Where do we stand? – into the question Who will show us Luther? Accordingly, the following sketches a few brief reflections on themes from these three works that I think offer constructive potential for systematic and especially moral theology.

Sanctorum Communio

This volume offers Bonhoeffer’s intriguing ecclesiology of “Christ-existing-as-community.”  Drawing on Leibniz’s Monadology, Bonhoeffer suggests that “the church is already completed in Christ” and exists principally as an unfolding of the new principle of personhood given in him. There is a completion to the ‘being’ of those in the Church; in a way, nothing new is needed from the individual-the internal principle of Christ’s own life is sufficient-establishing the primacy of grace.  On the other hand, “[i]n order for the church, which already is completed in Christ, to build itself up in time, the will of God must be actualized ever anew.” The unfolding of the Christ-life occurs on the level of the unique vocational ‘becoming’ of each of the individuals in the Church.

What Bonhoeffer thus provides is a telos for human existence based on simultaneous relationality with God and others. Anthropology for him is a matter of the “social ontic-ethical basic-relations of persons” that makes personhood a mediated “responsibility” before an Other. We are directed toward Others in a way that completes our being, the first and in a sense entire completion being rendered already in Christ.  There are obvious connections here to thinkers of the intersubjective like Martin Buber (and later, Gerhard Forde, in the idea of “proclamation”) who emphasize the I-You relation.  Particularly though, I think Bonhoeffer comes very close to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish Continental philosopher. Levinas emphasizes, much like Bonhoeffer here, the infinite height of the Other as constituting the fundamental plane of human existence, which thereby becomes a “response-ability.”  The relation to the Other serves to call into question the status of all human institutions and all our claims to absolute epistemological certainty (a.k.a. pride).  Levinas however writes philosophy “agnostically” and emphasizes that the Other with whom he is concerned is the other human person, a “horizontalized divinity.”  Levinas’ paradigm is in fact quite powerful, and I think one thing Bonhoeffer offers is a way to access this paradigm while retaining and positioning it under God and especially grace (which Levinas of course loses, despite attempting to speak of the summons of the Other as the “infinite glory” of the I).

Moreover, Levinas is the intellectual father of Jacques Derrida, whose “postmodern,” deconstructive methodology so often seems troubling for the Christian claim to mediate God’s activating truth through word and sacrament.  The decisive difference between Levinas and Derrida, however, is the pole to which they tether their deconstruction.  For Derrida, this pole becomes “Khora,” a non-place that serves as the unsecurable “origin” of language. This means that the knowledge on which we base our action and our lives is basically only a construction which can always be interrupted by something new that calls it into question.  Levinas, while affirming something like this latter statement, shows clearly that the “pole” remains a person.  That is, when our systems of knowledge, institutions, and ways of life are called into question, there remains (though Levinas would not put it quite this way) a person-al telos toward whom we may clarify our lives.  In the Bonhoeffer-Levinas connection then, I think we find one opening for entrée into what is beneficial in postmodernism while retaining our theology in full force.  Especially for Lutherans, I think we find a way of speaking to the integral nature of ethics as a primary plane of human existence without abandoning an even more primordial plane of grace.  For what else is the rupture emphasized by Levinas if not the power of God’s self-Revelation and indeed, a certain movement of Law-Gospel?

(Go to part 2 of 3)

See Concordia Theological Quarterly 72.1 (2008): 71-95.  You may access the article here.  By the way, I also agree very much with comments posted by Piotr Malysz elsewhere on this blog.  Bonhoeffer seeks to stand fully within his tradition yet in a critical way, a way open particularly to Barth and yet also to some limited Roman Catholic influences.

Sanctorum Communio [1927, pub. 1930], Act and Being [1930, pub. 1931], and Creation and Fall [Winter 1932-33, pub. 1933].  Hereafter, references will be to SC, AB, or CF in the DBWE editions.  These respectively apply sociological, philosophical, and biblical insights to a similar set of issues.

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther” in Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, ed. Peter Frick, 53-82 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 53.

SC, 142.

SC, 143.

SC, 78.

SC, 50.  NB:  Bonhoeffer’s “ontic” means what today we would call “ontological.”

Levinas was born in the same year as Bonhoeffer (1906), lost most of his family in the Shoah, but survived as Bonhoeffer did not, through his protected status as a “French” P.O.W.  He wrote several influential works, the most important being Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being.  Bonhoeffer and Levinas apparently had no knowledge of each other, or at least neither engaged the other’s work.

See Derrida, On the Name and The Gift of Death. I am vastly oversimplifying here for the sake of bringing the main point to the fore.  I also think that while Derrida is problematic, in some ways he is less so than many think and indeed quite helpful at times.

Theological Fragments: Bonhoeffer on Genesis 1:6-10

“Here the ancient image of the world confronts us in all its scientific naïveté. …in this passage the biblical author is exposed as one whose knowledge is bound by all the limitations of the author’s own time. Heaven and the sea were in any event not formed in the way the author says, and there is no way we could escape having a very bad conscience if we let ourselves be tied to assertions of that kind. The theory of verbal inspiration will not do. The writer of the first chapter of Genesis sees things here in a very human way. This state of affairs makes it seem then that there is very little to say about this passage. Yet on this next day of creation something completely new takes place. The world of what is fixed, or solid, the changeless, the inert, begins to exist. That is what is peculiar: that in the beginning just those works of creation are created which in their fixedness, their immutability, their repose, are to us the most distant, the most strange. Completely unaffected by human life, that which is fixed stands before God in undisturbed repose. An eternal law holds it fast. This law is nothing other than the command of the word of God itself” (Creation and Fall, 47-48).

Theological Fragments: Bonhoeffer on the creating Word

“That God creates by speaking means that in God the thought, the name, and the work are in their created reality one. What we must understand, therefore, is that the word does not have ‘effects’; instead, God’s word is already the work. What in us breaks hopelessly asunder — the word of command and what takes place — is for God indissolubly one. With God the imperative is the indicative. The indicative does not result from the imperative; it is not the effect of the imperative. Instead it is the imperative.

“…Our complete inability to hold the indicative and the imperative together in our minds shows that we no longer live in the unity of the active word of God but are fallen. …Creation is not an ‘effect’ of the Creator from which one could read of a necessary connection with the cause (the Creator); instead it is a work created in freedom in the word” (Bohoeffer, Creation and Fall, 42; 43).