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.