Christ and Revelatory Community in Bonhoeffer's Reception of Hegel

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David S. Robinson
Dogmatik in Der Moderne
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company
    , June
     260 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Bonhoeffer scholarship has witnessed an increase in the attention given to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s use of other thinkers. While there have been accounts detailing Bonhoeffer’s reception of Martin Luther, Søren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger, there has not been a sustained treatment of Bonhoeffer’s intellectual exchange with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. David S. Robinson’s Christ and Revelatory Community in Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Hegel addresses this lacuna in Bonhoeffer scholarship. Moreover, Robinson’s reading of Bonhoeffer’s reception of Hegel as both eclectic and Christological is efficacious in that it challenges caricatures of Bonhoeffer’s use of Hegel’s thought while simultaneously preserving Bonhoeffer’s insistence on the centrality of the person of Christ. Following Bonhoeffer’s own instruction to his students, Robinson’s account presents and preserves both the “ja und nein” in Bonhoeffer’s reception of Hegel (11).

In order to articulate Bonhoeffer’s eclectic reception of Hegel, Robinson challenges the charge that Idealism is merely a manifestation of the self-confinement of human reason. While Robinson acknowledges that Bonhoeffer operates with an Idealist foil, he argues that dismissing Hegel on these grounds obscures continuities between the two thinkers. To repudiate these long-held assumptions in Bonhoeffer scholarship regarding Hegel and Idealism, Robinson underscores the social aspects of Hegel’s project. Robinson details the ways that Hegel’s Geist operates as a “social composition of reason” and includes an inherent critique of the incurvature of the self (27). According to Robinson, this is evidenced in Hegel’s criticism of the “beautiful soul” and subsequent call to confession. This analysis buttresses one of the more significant arguments of the book. Robinson associates Hegel’s emphasis on confession with Bonhoeffer’s most explicit use of Hegel’s philosophy—Bonhoeffer’s modification of Hegel’s “God existing as community.” For Robinson, Bonhoeffer’s shift in subject, from God to Christ, is related to a shift in act—from Hegel’s emphasis on confession to Bonhoeffer’s focus on intercessory prayer. Robinson states that the changes in subject and act express Bonhoeffer’s desire that Christ bind the community together through intercessory prayer and action. Interestingly, Robinson’s interpretation seems to diverge from that of Michael Mawson who appears to advocate for stronger discontinuities when interpreting Bonhoeffer’s modification of Hegel’s “God existing as community” (Christ Existing as Community, Oxford University Press 2018).

Continuing his diachronic account of Bonhoeffer’s reception of Hegel, Robinson proceeds with an analysis of Bonhoeffer’s post-dissertation work including Creation and Fall and Lectures on Christology. Robinson’s reading of Creation of Fall is particularly commendable as he gives even the most established Bonhoeffer scholar new colors to see and interpret the text. He convincingly details how important themes and specific vocabulary from Bonhoeffer’s exposition of Genesis 1-3 are indebted to Hegel’s description of the fallen state. While Bonhoeffer opposes Hegel’s account of divine knowledge and advocates for discontinuity from humanity’s primal unity, Robinson illustrates how Bonhoeffer is in agreement with Hegel in his depiction of the fallen human. Both Bonhoeffer and Hegel describe the fallen subject as one marked by division due to an insatiable desire to know good and evil, which Robinson creatively renders as the “cleaving mind” (70). Robinson offers similar analysis of Bonhoeffer’s Lectures on Christology. While Bonhoeffer does recognize Hegel’s distinction between idea and appearance as docetic, Robinson asserts that this does not entail a rejection of human reason as such. To this end, Robinson places Bonhoeffer’s well-known encounter between the Menschenlogos (human logos) and Gegenlogos (counter logos) alongside Bonhoeffer’s claims for a new form of reason with Christ as the hidden center. Closing the critical distance between the two thinkers, Robinson notes that Bonhoeffer deploys his own notion of Christ as an idea through his conception of the Christuswirklichkeit (Christ reality) in Ethics (124).

Part 3 of Robinson’s work interacts with the concrete actualization and political contexts of Bonhoeffer’s reception of Hegel. Robinson examines both thinkers’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount, distinguishing ways in which Bonhoeffer’s account seeks different political ends and reclaims confession space for the church. Nevertheless, throughout this section Robinson is careful to avoid presenting a hagiographic account of Bonhoeffer as a political revolutionary in comparison to Hegel. Rather, Robinson shows how an oppositional narrative of the two thinkers does not allow for examination of problematic aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theological and political thought—such as his early blatant support for national expansion while in Barcelona.

Robinson concludes the book as he began it, by challenging an argument against Idealism—in this case the charge that it results in the “subordination of ethnic and political difference” (195). While Robinson notes how neo-Hegelians co-opted Geist to support the Third Reich, he contrasts this misuse with the race-critical approach of W.E.B. Du Bois. This analysis of Du Bois foreshadows Robinson’s closing constructive arguments comparing Hegel’s “shapes of Geist” with Bonhoeffer’s “form of Christ” in Ethics. Robinson notes that Bonhoeffer’s Ethics are set within a Eurocentric frame and offer “no world history, for Bonhoeffer leaves several continents on the periphery” (222). However, Robinson locates a surplus claiming that Bonhoeffer’s “form of Christ” deconstructs Eurocentrism providing resources for intercultural exchange and a “fuller reckoning” with people on the underside of history (227). Robinson evidences this surplus in two ways. First, he notes that Bonhoeffer describes the West as a site of historical contest rather than solely identifying the form of Christ with one heritage or nation. Second, Robinson claims that Bonhoeffer works against the racism of his time when he argues that Western history is entwined with the people of Israel. While Robinson is right to identify this surplus, I fear this interpretation overlooks the ways that Ethics masks the continued subjectivity of non-western peoples through the language of reconciliation and unity. For example, recent work by J. Kameron Carter troubles Robinson’s reading, arguing that in Bonhoeffer’s narrative, western peoples endure as the supervising authority of those below, reproducing the racial practices of colonialism. Nonetheless, Robinson’s text will endure as the foundation for any future attempts to illuminate the relationship between Bonhoeffer and Hegel.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew K. Jones is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen and curator for the Bonhoeffer Center.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David S. Robinson isa Postdoctoral Fellow in Theology and Science at Regent College and Research Associate at Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.