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Will the Real Bonhoeffer Please Stand Up? Part 4

Having begun with Kant’s concept of the transcendental unity of apperception in order to establish God’s immanence Bonhoeffer was brought up against a potential philosophical problem. Kant’s Transcendentalism had a solipsistic tendency. In other words, if my mind is the constitutive manifold of reality, then how can I possess any knowledge regarding the existence of a reality external to me? Yet, for Bonhoeffer, this was not a problem but a wonderful theological advance! He wrote, “Is it merely a coincidence that the most profound German philosophy resulted in the enclosing of the all in the I?”[1]

Theological Advance

For Bonhoeffer, this enclosing of the all—even God—in the I had marvelous theological significance. Imagine how an always present God “existent only in, or for, the consciousness of human beings”[2] was far better than, say, a Barthian conception of God—a “God who ‘comes’ and never the God who ‘is there.’”[3] For Bonhoeffer, locating God in the self-consciousness meant that God “is there.” But this raises the question with which we ended our last post; namely, how does this make Christ haveable?

To answer this question Bonhoeffer would have to engage in Christology. He must identify or describe this Christ who both transcends the conscious self and who is enclosed within the self. In Bonhoeffer’s Outline for a Book found in his Letters & Papers from Prison, he gives us a toe hold, “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best being imaginable—that is not authentic transcendence…”[4] Nor, says Bonhoeffer, does the transcendence of God have anything to do with the transcendence of epistemological theory.[5] Thus, Bonhoeffer rules out traditional metaphysical and epistemological ideas of transcendence.

So, what remains?

Christological Innovation

In Bonhoeffer’s earlier 1933 lectures on Christology he approached the same theological matter from a telling and unique angle. In these lectures he describes the issue of transcendence and immanence as the difference between the question of “who” and “how?”[6] According to Bonhoeffer traditional Christology has always left theologians wrongly speculating on how to fuse a metaphysical transcendent God with a finite and immanent man. Instead, Bonhoeffer shifts the Christological question from the “how” by asking “who,” to which Bonhoeffer responds, “He is the one who has really bound himself in the freedom of his existence to me.”[7] In other words, the Christ who transcends my self-consciousness has ensured his enclosure in it.

The Church to the Rescue

However, Bonhoeffer understood the problem in his theology. It was centered on self. He writes in Act and Being, “All that we have examined so far in this study was individualistically oriented.”[8] Yet Bonhoeffer contended that if his theology is solipsistic then, like idealism, it had failed.[9] But a logical question emerges. Why? If God has enclosed himself in the I, then what more do I need? Bonhoeffer had two answers.

First, in his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer established one essential criteria for his doctrine of the Church, “every concept of community is essentially related to a concept of person.”[10] Accordingly, after having found other definitions of ecclesiology wanting Bonhoeffer writes, “for the individual to exist, ‘others’ must necessarily be there.”[11] This ethical dimension is picked up in Act and Being when Bonhoeffer says, “every member of the church may and should ‘become a Christ’ to the others.”[12]

The second and more significant answer comes from Life Together written in 1936. Bonhoeffer says that the Christian needs his brother because “the Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s heart is sure.”[13] Why? Because Bonhoeffer says, “When I go to another believer to confess, I am going to God.”[14] The other believer acting on the authority of the Christ enclosed in his I is able to declare me forgiven[15] and give me certainty and assurance of having been forgiven and I am able to do the same for him. [16] Thus, for Bonhoeffer, the ecclesia extracts the individual from the potential solipsism of idealism as well as supplies me with a present and haveable Christ in my brother who is Christ pro me.

Cornelius Van Til once said that you can tell a good deal about a system of theology that has been informed by Kantian philosophy. Bonhoeffer’s theology has certainly drunk deeply from the Kantian well and as a result there is more of man than God in it. The result is personally unsatisfying. However, there are those who vigorously argue that Bonhoeffer is an evangelical to whom we must listen today. In fact, some contend that Bonhoeffer experienced a conversion while in America and though he may once have been a German liberal he became an evangelical Christian. We will head in that direction next time.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Acts and Being (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 80.

[2] Ibid., 57.

[3] Ibid., 85.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (NY: The Macmillan Co., 1971), 381.

[5] Ibid., 282.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology (NY: Harper Collins, 1978), 30.

[7] Ibid., 48.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, 113.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 34.

[11] Ibid., 51.

[12] Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, 113.

[13] Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 32.

[14] Ibid., 109.

[15] Ibid., 111.

[16] Ibid., 113.

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