Friday, December 29, 2006

Toward a Post-Liberal Theology?: The Architecture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christology and Ecclesiology

Part III: The Christology Lectures of 1933

Bonhoeffer, now a professor at Berlin, delivered these lectures in the summer semester of 1933. The text we have is not Bonhoeffer's own but a carefully reconstructed manuscript from the notes of the students present, edited and compiled by Bonhoeffer's closest friend, literary executor, and biographer Eberhard Bethge. Moreover, the lectures themselves are not complete as a third section, on "the eternal Christ", was planned but apparently never completed as no extant notes have been found.

Bonhoeffer begins the lectures in what at first glance seems to be an obscurely and piously enthusiastic manner:
Teaching about Christ begins in silence…. That has nothing to do with the silence of the mystics, who in their dumbness chatter away secretly in their soul by themselves. The silence of the Church is silence before the Word. In so far as the Church proclaims the Word, it falls down silently in truth before the inexpressible…. To speak of Christ means to keep silent; to keep silent about Christ means to speak. When the Church speaks rightly out of a proper silence, then Christ is proclaimed (CC, 27).
What at first seems to be a piece of subtle dialectical piece of rhetoric in fact reaches to the heart of the matter at the outset of the lectures. Speaking of Christ "rightly"—properly identifying Jesus—is done neither by the drumming up of sophisticated dogmatic formulae separated from the church’s worshipping posture ‘under’ the Word, nor by the search for some "inner Christ" (the Christ of faith) or an historical Jesus. Bonhoeffer knew all too well the cul-de-sac of that well-traveled road. The intellectual posture of 'silence' essential for engaging Christology (and to the discipline of theology in general) employed by Bonhoeffer is not a novel or erratic turn of phrase. Rather, what the diction of silence is meant to convey is that the only 'appropriate' approach to and description of the discipline of Christology is a dogmatic one and more precisely a dogmatic one employed in a doxological mode. Pangritz notes that for Bonhoeffer, "the meaning of 'dogma' is not so much 'doctrine', but rather praise of the 'doxa', the glory of the Lord."

Two significant material considerations fund this methodological move on Bonhoeffer's part and represent a crucial 'moment' in his Christology—a critical moment that clarifies just how extensive his response to and undercutting of theological liberalism is. First Bonhoeffer claims that the discipline of Christology is "the center of its own space"; it "remains unique. It has no proof by which it can demonstrate transcendence of its subject. Its statement that this transcendence, namely the Logos, is a human person, is presupposition and not subject to proof" (CC, 28). Second, for Bonhoeffer, theology and in particular, Christology, is concerned not with impulsive human utterance about Jesus, but with a Divine Counter-Logos: "When the Counter-Logos appears in history, no longer as an idea, but as a 'Word' become flesh, there is no longer any possibility of assimilating him into the existing order of the human logos" (CC, 30).

In the first instance, Bonhoeffer's claim that Christology “occupies its own space” is short form for the axiomatic theological claim that Jesus Christ cannot be classified or assigned a “place” within an accepted order of reality and actuality logical inquiry and not vice versa (Webster, Word & Church, 116). In the words of John Webster, Jesus is “that in terms of which all other reality is to be mapped” (116). The second claim, that Jesus is the “Counter-Logos”, is closely related to the first and is in essence an extension of the first point. In the incarnation Jesus comes as the Word who both disrupts and interrupts all speech and thought. This, as Webster notes, shapes christological inquiry profoundly because it repudiates “any idea that theological talk about Jesus is pure initiative” (116). Such talk is, in a most profound sense for Bonhoeffer, what the church must obediently engage in because in the first instance, it has been spoken to, and in a very real sense, silenced by the interruption of the Counter-Word in which all true words (christological reflection included) find their genesis and impetus—“when the church speaks rightly out of a proper silence, then Christ is proclaimed” (CC, 27).

Bonhoeffer here, at the outset of the lectures, offers his prolegomenal response to theological liberalism. In making the two claims noted above, Bonhoeffer is attempting to cut the feet out from under the edifice of theological liberalism and specifically of liberal thinking about Jesus which ultimately ends up in either of two equally distressing thought patterns about Jesus—the Jesus of history or the Christ of faith. Both are equally problematic because both uniformly disregard and violate the two above-mentioned rules of christological inquiry. In Bonhoeffer’s words, both errors have misconstrued the ‘who’ question by imposing upon the subject matter with questions of ‘how’, the question of demonstrability.

In this sense, all classical and formal epistemological questions are subsumed within and under the doctrine of revelation, the event of God’s salvific activity (his pro-me activity) in Jesus Christ. In this way, Bonhoeffer does not operate with an epistemology per-se but takes God’s activity as the basic criteria, especially within Christology. This is why, for Bonhoeffer, two questions can never enter christological discussion: 1) the question of whether or not the church is justified in its claims about Jesus—“this question has no basis, because the human logos can have no authority to doubt the truth of the other Logos. The testimony of Jesus to himself stands by itself, self-authenticating”; and 2) the ‘how’ question of how the truth of its christological assertion is possible—“in that way the human logos would be claiming to be the beginning and the father of Jesus Christ” (CC, 32). Both questions are formally apologetic ones and for that reason are suspect from the start. Yet they are also, at the material level, driven by the desire to speak, to engage in logos, and not keep silent before the Counter-Logos. In other words both questions are engagements in sinful disobedience. The only permissible question on Bonhoeffer’s account, is the question of ‘Who?’, to which he devotes the rest of the lectures.

The formal negotiation between legitimate and illegitimate questioning is not a trivial affair but of fundamental dogmatic importance. This is so simply because how the church speaks of Jesus, how it goes about answering the question of identity belies what it thinks about the one with whose identity it is concerned. In other words, method is informed and formed by the content, by the subject matter and not vice versa.

In filling out an answer to the question of ‘who’ it is that the church speaks of when it names Jesus Christ, Bonhoeffer offers us three interrelated claims: Christ is Word, Christ is Sacrament, and Christ is Church. In all of these Jesus Christ is ultimately the absolute and categorical expression of God’s freedom, which as noted above, is not a freedom from but a freedom for—a freedom constituted in Christ’s nature as the God-Man:
Christ is Christ, not just for himself, but in relation to me. His being Christ is his being for me, pro me. This being pro-me is not to be understood as an effect emanating from him, nor as an accident; but it is to be understood as the essence, the being of the person himself. The core of the person himself is pro-me (CC, 47).
Christ cannot be thought of other than in his being as pro-me. It is only by acknowledging Christ’s promeity that Christology can properly proceed to discuss him as “contemporaneous” and contemporaneously present only existing as Word, Sacrament, and Church.

Our interest here is obvious. Christ is present because, at core, he is only who he is in relation to me, there is no other Jesus. That is, his act informs his being and equally his being his act. While Bonhoeffer does not put it in these terms, he is essentially saying that Christ’s nature is exhausted (in the sense of fully defined) in relation to me or more specifically in relation to his church as such also to all of created reality, myself included. This is not by ontological necessity but by divine freedom—the freedom to be so defined. It is this Jesus who is freely present as Word, Sacrament and Church. While the first two forms of his existence are of vital importance to Bonhoeffer’s Christology, our interests, specifically the relation of Christ to Church, are animated by Bonhoeffer’s familiar assertions concerning the third form of his existence—as gemeinde—which receive renewed attention here. Bonhoeffer reiterates that “Christ is not only the head of the Church, but also the Church itself” but here adds the qualifier that “Christ is the Church by virtue of his pro me being”. He also further qualifies his ruling axiom, Christus als Gemeinde existierend, by offering this commentary: “Between his ascension and his coming again the Church is his form and indeed his only form. That he is in heaven at the right hand of God does not contradict this; on the contrary, this is what makes possible his presence in and as the Church” (CC, 58, emphasis mine).

Friday, December 22, 2006

George Herbert's Christmas

After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.

There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?

Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou as a stranger:

Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n His beams sing, and my music shine.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Toward a Post-Liberal Theology?: The Architecture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christology and Ecclesiology

Part II: Christ and Church: Background and Development 1927-33

The Christology lectures of 1933 are but a small, incomplete, but rich snapshot of Bonhoeffer's robust and vibrant Christology that developed from his time under the tutelage of Harnack, Holl and Seeberg (developed in stark contrast, but with much reverence to the Christology of Harnack) on into the rest of his academic and ecclesial career. While Harnack certainly wielded much inspiration on the young Bonhoeffer at Berlin, the major influence upon his thought at this early juncture was the shift toward a "high" christological concentration initiated largely by the work of Karl Barth, whom Bonhoeffer first met in 1931 and subsequently lamented not meeting earlier. It was here, within the milieu of the project of nineteenth century theological liberalism's "turn to the subject"—a situation permanently interrupted by the second edition of Barth's Rommerbrief—that Bonhoeffer, no less than Barth before him, began to marshal his own unique riposte to the behemoth before him.

The Christology and ecclesiology of Bonhoeffer's early academic work is situated within a complex and intricate web of philosophical, historical, theological and sociological themes that makes it difficult to distill hisinitial thought, so we can hardly do it justice here. In Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer is cycling many dogmatic loci through a re-formed and re-worked understanding of person, community and sociality: "'Person', 'primal state', 'sin', and 'revelation' can be fully comprehended only in reference to sociality." His stated purpose in Sanctorum Communio then, is to "understand the structure of the given reality of a church of Christ, as revealed in Christ, from the perspective of social philosophy and sociology." Claiming that all systematic loci of dogmatic theology are essentially and obdurately social and relational at their core—a claim that characterizes and spans his entire theological and ecclesial contribution—Bonhoeffer adds a new and unique voice to the chorus of early 20th century European theology. His first dissertation then can be read as a phenomenological/theological investigation into the nature and identity of the church and its Lord. Yet although Bonhoeffer develops a very profound and elaborate concept of person, community and relationality (developed in discussion not only with German Idealism but also in the context of the emerging existential/neo-orthodox theologies of Buber, Brunner, Gogarten, et all), our purpose in this survey is to examine his early Christology and ecclesiology. We may ask then, in considering the social and relational structure of all dogmatic loci, 'Who is Jesus Christ, and who and what is his church?'

Bonhoeffer answers with the rich but difficult, and as we will argue below, the ultimately problematic christological paraphrase of the Pauline "Body of Christ": "Christus als Gemeinde existierend"—"Christ existing as church-community". Christ, as the revelation of God, is the new collective humanity in response to the old Adamic collective of broken humanity and is thus the reconciliation of humanity to its primal reality (creation). Christ, as the Stellvertretung, ('vicarious representative action') is initiator of this new sociality and is (in the sense of being, constituting and circumscribing) its reality: "Adam's action is extremely egocentric…in Christ, however, humanity has been brought once and for all—this is essential to real vicarious representative action—into communion with God." As Stellvertretung, Christ exists eccentrically—that is, pro nobis. The anthropological counterpart of this reality, the church, is the concrete manifestation or bearer of this new reality.

It is an Irenaean-type of recapitulation or reversal but it goes beyond Irenaeus in its material claims. Bonhoeffer claims, according to Green, that "the person of Christ, exists in a social form: the church." Green claims that Bonhoeffer is aware of the difficulties with parsing this phrase in such a way as to allow the church to domesticate and possess its Lord: "the presence of Christ is not the essence of the church at human disposal; Christ is not a possessed attribute of his human community, frozen into a static being." Bonhoeffer nevertheless claims that, "the church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God." He goes on to qualify this: "one must not think of a second incarnation of Christ…but rather of a form of revelation that may be called 'Christ existing as church-community'".

Needless to say, this is a notoriously slippery claim and one that requires much doctrinal qualification—qualifications that are made explicit within his Christology lectures of 1933 (which we will investigate and consider below). In short form Bonhoeffer is claiming that Christ is the church but the church is not Christ insofar as the church is at once both the peccatorum communio and the sanctorum communio and is thus unable to claim of itself the status of 'revelatory'. That is, Christ and church are identified but not to the point that Christ is identified with the church without remainder. While it is not always explicit within Bonhoeffer's early work (owing, in some measure, to the nature of these writings as largely sociological and anthropological), Christ is the Lord of the community and as its Lord He is the One who calls that community into being (here Bonhoeffer has a pneumatology at work, however truncated, which we cannot herein entertain). Only by His own activity is Christ identified with the collective community. Christ exists as Gemeinde because he freely decides to do so. The relationship is then a dynamic one and not one that can be characterized as stagnant or fixed. The free Lord freely identifies Himself with the community in the concrete acts of Word and sacrament.

In his second dissertation, Act and Being, Bonhoeffer continues to develop a relational ontology but shifts his focus to mainly epistemological and anthropological concerns. The christological and ecclesiological themes present within Sanctorum Communio undergo no major formal changes but do gain material clarity within Bonhoeffer's main concern with expounding a theological ontology. Within this ontology, it is the doctrine of revelation that provides Bonhoeffer with the opportunity to capitalize and expand upon the themes within Sanctorum Communio. Here the theme of divine freedom leads into Bonhoeffer's social ontology and ecclesiology. God in Christ is not free from humanity but free for humanity. The freedom of God, His very being, is an existence for humanity. It is an existence marked and characterized by God's freedom to be bound to humanity in Christ:
In revelation it is not so much a question of the freedom of God—eternally remaining within the divine self, aseity—on the other side of revelation, as it is of God's coming out of God's own self in revelation. It is a matter of God's given Word, the covenant in which God is bound by God's own action. It is a question of the freedom of God, which finds its strongest evidence precisely in that God freely chose to be bound to historical human beings and to be placed at the disposal of human beings. God is free not from human beings but for them. Christ is the word of God's freedom. God is present, that is, not in eternal objectivity but…'haveable', graspable in the Word within the church.
Here Bonhoeffer is reacting to what he considered an abstract account of divine freedom on the part of the 'neo-orthodox' or 'dialectical' theology of his day, an account of divine freedom epitomized in the early work of Barth. This account was one-sided in the sense that in describing divine freedom the full weight of the depiction was made in reaction to the domesticated deity of Protestant liberalism.

While Bonhoeffer would agree that this was a necessary step, this picture of divine freedom did not follow its own christocentricity through to its full conclusion—that divine freedom is precisely God's binding of God's very own self to the contingent and historical reality of the world in Jesus Christ. No abstract deity here. God's identity is bound up with humanity's. God's mode of presence to the world is in Christ and Christ's mode of presence to the world is in and through his own community as himself—Christ existing as church-community: "the church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God." Indeed, we can agree with Hauerwas, who maintains that for Bonhoeffer, "that the church takes up space [in the world] is but a correlative that God in Jesus Christ occupies space in the world…. Bonhoeffer's ecclesiology is but the expression of his Christology, in which the reality of Christ determines all that is. For Bonhoeffer it is in Jesus Christ that the whole of reality is taken up." The themes of Bonhoeffer's early Christology and ecclesiology and the intricate relationship between these two dogmatic loci as developed throughout both his early academic dissertations is efficiently and simply summarized in a passage from Bonhoeffer's inaugural lecture at the University of Berlin, July 31st, 1930 entitled 'Man in Contemporary Philosophy and Theology':
It is the mystery of the community that Christ is in her and only through her reaches to men, Christ exists among us as community, as church in the hiddenness of history. The church is the hidden Christ among us. Now therefore man is never alone, but he exists only through the community, which brings him Christ, which incorporates him in itself, takes him into its life. Man in Christ is man in community; where he exists is community…. Therefore man can no longer understand himself from himself, but only from Christ, who exists as community…
Bonhoeffer's early work goes a long way in outbidding Protestant liberalism's truncated and docetic Christology and ecclesiology. However, it was not until Bonhoeffer turned his attention to Christology proper that these early themes gain the lucidity necessary to gauge Bonhoeffer's theology on the central theme of the identity of Christ and his community and to measure just how much ground he makes up in response to liberalism.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Revisiting the Doctrine of the Divine Attributes
Peter Lang, 2007
Dr. Christopher R. J. Holmes

I wanted to draw readers attention to a new and exciting book examining the doctrine of the Divine attributes by a good friend of mine,
Dr. Christopher Holmes, now at Providence Seminary in Manitoba, Canada.

Chris examines the doctrine of Divine Glory as it is handled in the theological work of Karl Barth, Eberhard Jüngel, and Wolf Krötke.

"There is a renewed vigor in discussions of the perfections of God in contemporary Protestant theology. This study of three leading accounts of the matter offers a splendid analysis of key texts and topics, and should be studied not only by specialists in contemporary Christian theology but also by all who are concerned to articulate the Christian doctrine of God." (John Webster, University of Aberdeen)
Toward a Post-Liberal Theology?: The Architecture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christology and Ecclesiology

Part I: Introduction

In the next few posts, I want to engage Dietrich Bonhoeffer on some very fundamental questions of the relationship between Christ and his church.

An important caveat must be made at the outset of this discussion: treating Bonhoeffer’s theology requires a certain kind of intellectual humility on the part of the interpreter simply because we do not have the "mature" Bonhoeffer as we have, say, the "mature Barth", and are thus limited in reaching definite and fixed conclusions regarding his theological contribution. This is not to say that something like this is also required when treating Barth's theology, especially his pneumatology—it is simply to highlight that Bonhoeffer's thought never matured to the degree that someone like Barth's did. In other words, the theological punctuation requisite in treating Bonhoeffer are ellipsis points and question marks—not periods…

I intend to demonstrate that Bonhoeffer's theological contribution is pregnant with much promise, especially regarding his christological contributions, and provides a viable and overall stable way forward "after" theological liberalism. That the so-called "postliberal school" has never mined Bonhoeffer's theology is nothing short of academic misfortune since his Christology is a rich and highly nuanced account of the identity and presence of Jesus Christ that goes a long way in outbidding liberalism. Stanley Hauerwas's recent treatment of Bonhoeffer's theology would seem to be the only exception to date. Although Hauerwas regards Bonhoeffer as formative to his own postliberal theology, Bonhoeffer remains largely ignored on this embattled theological front. His work, if properly engaged, would go a long way in nourishing a postliberal theology, especially with regards to Christological concerns. In many ways, Bonhoeffer preempts some of postliberalism's most basic themes and his work should be regarded, just as Barth's is, as precursory to this movement.

However, while Bonhoeffer's Christology is very fruitful and fertile some nagging problems nevertheless remain. There are certain perils and liabilities associated with the great Protestant liberal tradition against which Bonhoeffer is on most accounts successfully reacting (perils mainly associated with his ecclesiological contributions) that linger regardless of Bonhoeffer's best efforts to evade them. In other words, upon my reading, Bonhoeffer has indeed fallen from Schleiermacher's tree, but not as far as he has often been read to have fallen. These difficulties need to be supplemented in order to bolster Bonhoeffer's own response to theological liberalism. This thesis will be articulated via an examination of the architecture of Bonhoeffer's Christology and its relationship to his ecclesiology especially with regards to some formal and material claims articulated within his Christology lectures of 1933. I want to demonstrate that the relationship between Christ and Church as structured by Bonhoeffer throughout his short career, and evinced chiefly within the Christology lectures, makes up much dogmatic ground in response to liberalism. Yet there is a moment of dogmatic casualness and torpor within the architectonics of this relationship that leaves Bonhoeffer open to the charge that the identities of Christ and the church are fused to a degree that they are potentially confused (an overtly liberal confusion). This potential confusion is exacerbated from this point on (1933 forward).

The importance of this investigation will be borne out in via, but it should be noted that the question of the identity of Jesus Christ and the church is one with which Bonhoeffer struggled throughout his career. Andreas Pangritz can write, "the question 'Who is Jesus Christ?' forms the cantus firmus of Bonhoeffer's theological development from the beginning to the end." It is the problematique that characterizes his work and provides the dogmatic adhesive that holds his diverse writings together. Bonhoeffer's theological career can be characterized as a struggle to give adequate dogmatic description and structure to the very basic and fundamental question, 'Who is Jesus Christ?' In contrast to a recent attempt to unify Bonhoeffer's theology under the rubric of a "theology of sociality" (which to me seems to be but a reification of the dogmatic problem with which we are herein occupied, I am thinking of the work of Clifford Green) we will consider the question of the identity (Christology) and presence (ecclesiology) of Jesus Christ as the central, basic, and circumscribing issue in Bonhoeffer's theology. I don't plan to engage in theological archeology to demonstrate this—that would require a book-length treatment examining each of Bonhoeffer's writings—but will presuppose it throughout and in so doing, hope that conceptual weight will be given to it; the proof will be in the pudding.

To begin I will sketch the development of Bonhoeffer's Christology and his ecclesiology from 1927 through 1933. It is here, in his two most demanding writings (Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being ) that the groundwork for his later work was laid. This survey will prepare us for an examination of some themes from the Christology lectures of 1933 and the great dogmatic promise found there. I will then put some wider criticisms grown from very basic christological and ecclesiological concerns to Bonhoeffer regarding the formal and material issues concerning the relationship between Christ and church. It is these concerns that, as I will suggest, need supplementation, in order for Bonhoeffer's work to adequately achieve its intended goal of outstripping theological liberalism and to avoid the pitfalls into which such theology consistently falls.