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).


Halden said...

Patrick, in regard to where you say the following:

"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' "

Firstly, where does this quote come from? Is it also from CC or from a secondary source. I just wanted to look at that statement a little more if it is indeed on of Bonhoeffer's.

Secondly, while the Logos that is Christ is self-authenticating and therefore cannot be called into question by a human logos, I don't know if Bonhoeffer would directly identify the proclamation of the church with the counter-Logos as you seem to imply. Bonhoeffer more than anyone knew full well that the church could get their claims about Jesus wrong as any reading of Discipleship seems to make abundantly clear.

I think what Bonhoeffer would deny is that our human logos can pose the "how" question to the Counter-Logos. To do so puts our opinons and theories about Christ above what Christ himself has said. However I don't think that Bonhoeffer collapses the Counter-Logos into the church's proclamation. Rather the church is called into being by the Counter-Logos and is called to bear faithful witness to it.

Perhaps you've read more broadly in Bonhoeffer than I have, but what I see him doing is saying that Christ's word about himself cannot be evaluated by other criteria, not that the church's word about Christ cannot be called into question. To be sure there is a profound identification between Christ and the church in Bonhoeffer's thought, but Christ is always the head toward which the church points and under which it stands.

I guess it seems like your saying that Bonhoeffer's ecclesiology leads him to espouse the church's infallibility, which he definately did not. Or at least that he's being logically inconsistent by not espousing it. So is that what you're driving at here? And if the anser is "future posts!", that's fine, too. :)

Patrick McManus said...

Hi Halden,

so sorry that I haven't replied earlier. I doubt that you'll even read this.

The quote is indeed Bonhoeffer's from the section quoted (CC, 32) and referenced.

I do agree that Bonhoeffer is aware of the dangers of positing the christus als gemeinde existierend as he himself says. However, the identification of church and Christ stands to a degree that the collapse of one into the other is always a danger.

Bonhoeffer writes, "the church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God." (it's in CC, believe me!) This should make anyone with enough Reformed sensibilities a little nervous. Though such language does not necessarily need to be avoided, it does need a better account than Bonhoeffer here gives it. I do not think that this leads to a simple doctrine of infalibility for Bonhoeffer was well aware of the falibility of the church! The worry is one of the identity of Christ. I think my worry stems from my reading of Frei here. Though Bonhoeffer does want to move from idenity to presence (to use Frei's terms), I think he is, in reality, going the other way (as a good Lutheran!)

What is worrisome is the lack of a doctrine of God (specifically an account of the Spirit) which would go a long way in guarding against this danger. As well, it would (or could) fortify his claim about the church's identity.

In my next section, I spell out my worry, which if you can convince me otherwise, I would be glad to leave behind. As it is, the relation between Christ and church is not clear enough (and this is due to a lack of an account of the trinitarian relations, in the end).



ps. I enjoyed your theses on homosexuality. Well written indeed.