Tuesday, February 20, 2007

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

Part IV: The Perils of
Christus als Gemeinde existierend

Bonhoeffer’s contribution offers much in response to theological liberalism. Yet we are left with some nagging suspicions that, left on its own, the architecture of Bonhoeffer’s Christology and ecclesiology cannot fully afford what it wishes to purchase—a ticket to outbid theological liberalism.

We return to some of his early programmatic statements: "the church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God" (SC, 138, emphasis mine). 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'" (SC, 138, emphasis mine). The difficulty within Bonhoeffer’s description is that we are inevitably led—even against his best efforts to not think of the church as a second incarnation—to think of the church as, at the very least, an extension of the incarnation. Without parsing the discontinuity between the identity and presence of Jesus Christ as say Barth or more precisely as Hans Frei has done, we are left with a number of difficulties (both potential and actual). Here the danger is that the identity of Jesus is not only dislodged from its own unique narratively rendered description (which is a weighty, but different concern) but is so fused with his presence that his identity (his act and being) is too easily confused with a phenonmenologically rendered description—the visible and sociologically describable gemeinde, grounded earlier, within Sanctorum Communio, in a sociologically and philosophically describable “personhood” and “community”.

Take the following, from
Discipleship, for example:
In his grace, [Jesus] has left something unfinished in his suffering, which his church-community is to complete in this last period before his second coming. This suffering will benefit the body of Christ, the church. Whether this suffering of Christians also has the power to atone for sin (1 Peter 4:1) remains an open question. What is clear, however, is that those suffering in the power of the body of Christ suffer in a vicariously representative action ‘for’ the church-community, ‘for’ the body of Christ (Discipleship, 222).
The issue here is not about the activity requisite of the church, for it is indeed called to follow Christ precisely in his suffering and so, it too suffers. The issue at hand is that Bonhoeffer missteps when he claims that we complete the work of Christ to the point of leaving the question of the vicarious and atoning suffering of the community for sin an open one—which is a clear outcome of not attentively distinguishing the identity of Christ from that of the church (here we have a deep division between Barth and Bonhoeffer). To speak of the community as “completing” the work of Christ introduces within that community’s activity a certain active promeity, which it shares with the promeity of Christ. We are close—and let me be clear here that this is against Bonhoeffer’s best intentions—to the ancient heresy of Pelagianism wherein human activity bears soteriological consequence. If Bonhoeffer wants a genuine human activity and at the same time to avoid Pelagianism, as I believe him to, he needs to delineate in what way human activity participates in divine activity without usurping that activity and domesticating it to a flat phenomenological account of divine activity. Furthermore, without fully considering the full and complete work of Christ, the work of Christ, as pro me activity is in danger of being evacuated of its full promeity. That is, the relation between the activity of Christ and the activity of the church is, on this score, a shared activity—and what’s more—a shared salvific activity, for the community becomes the Stellvertretung. The community thus does not correspond to the vicarious activity of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit but rather, in some sense, constitutes that activity in its own activity (which is but a form of ecclesiastical triumphalism).

This line of critique could be extended but what is at the root of the problem is an underdeveloped account of divine activity vis-à-vis the church, and such underdevelopment is but symptomatic of Bonhoeffer’s neglect of the doctrine of God proper—there is in fact no fully operative doctrine of God (doctrine of the Trinity) in Bonhoeffer’s corpus (for instance, a developed pneumatology would go a long way in avoiding the above problems).

To expand upon this critique, let us remember that “relationality” is derived, not from God’s relationality in se, but in an economy characterized and controlled by a phenomenologically achieved definition (an inheritance of 19th century liberal theology). That is, the problem that presents the difficulty with regards to Bonhoeffer’s Christology and ecclesiology is a neglect of the “relationality” of the Trinitarian economy. Barth offers us a keen assessment of the difficulty:
Theological thought is distinguished from philosophical thought by the fact that it does not regard the incarnation of the Word as the truth of a state, e.g., the truth of the unity of subject and object, of the man-relatedness of God or the God-relatedness of man, which is then an underlying principle of dogmatics that has to be exegeted…but regards it rather as the truth of a divine act. But if it is understood as an act, then the terminus a quo (‘God in Himself’) and the terminus as quem (‘man in himself’) must be differentiated and then interelated in the description of the act as such. What would ‘God for us’ mean if it were not said against the background of ‘God in Himself’?” (CD I/1, 170 emphasis mine).
Barth’s concern is that in order to properly take account of the divine economic activity ad extra, and so to appropriately gauge the human-divine relationship, proper attention must be paid to the activity of God ad intra. What indeed would it mean to say “God for us” without saying “God in himself”? This is essentially what Bonhoeffer does—he says “God for us” without taking account of “God in Himself”. The danger is that “relationality” and all of its correlates (“community”, “person”, “the other”) are read phenomenologically.

So we come full circle in that the methodology that ruled Sanctorum Communio, an arguably classic liberal methodology, was never really overcome even in spite of a rich and strenuously orthodox christological development. Not only that but this methodological move was never deemed necessary to overcome in the first place! That methodology, as we discussed earlier but which only now can be fully appreciated, asserted that a Christian concept of community (ecclesiology) is funded either via a concept of God or via a concept of person (which always has a concept of God in view), and that both are equally valid. This is precisely the classic liberal dichotomy within theological method precipitated by the turn to the subject in later nineteenth century theological discourse! This is specifically what funds his distressing paucity with regards to reflection upon the doctrine of the Trinity (let us remember what weight the doctrine of the Trinity held in Schleiermacher’s theology!). Not only that, but Bonhoeffer’s ontology from Act and Being is inadequate to the degree that it offers him little help in parsing the difficulty of taking account of divine and human activity (that is, the act and being of Christ and church) with regards to the identity of Christ and his church. Is Christ exhaustively identified with the community? Does the community partake in some sort of hypostatic union with Christ such that it has both a human and divine dimension? As we tentatively answered above, Christ and church are identified but not to the point that Christ is identified with the church without remainder—this is Bonhoeffer’s intention. Yet there is a tension here that is not adequately resolved and so the question of the fusion of identities and the consequences therein need to remain open as an extension or possibility inherent within Bonhoeffer’s theological contribution.

While Bonhoeffer gains mileage on the tradition of theological liberalism in his effort to outbid that tradition, he remains, in certain important respects imbedded within that tradition. Without a full-blown doctrine of God funding his ecclesiological and christological moves, especially an account of the activity of the Holy Spirit in relation to ecclesiological concerns, Bonhoeffer’s contribution remains an inadequate attempt to mount a successful response to the nineteenth century’s shortfalls. This is not to discount the ground that Bonhoeffer makes up in his Christology lectures—which is significant. In this sense Bonhoeffer is a legitimate forerunner of postliberal theology as many of his concerns in his Christology lectures parallel, to a great degree, the concerns of someone like Hans Frei. Yet he remains a precursor of postliberal theology who could not really shed his liberal skin completely (and this may indeed be why he is largely overlooked in contemporary postliberal theology). To do so, his contribution needs to be properly supplemented with a robust doctrine of God wherein he could properly take account of the human activity of the church without falling into the above problematique.