Christ, Church and World

New Studies in Bonhoeffer's Theology and Ethics

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Michael Mawson, Philip G. Ziegler
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , March
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Christ, Church and World collects the formal proceedings of an international Bonhoeffer seminar conducted at Aberdeen in 2014-15. Readers of the resulting essays will find them stimulating in their own right as expositions and evaluations of Bonhoeffer’s theology, and intriguing as a clue to the direction of Bonhoeffer’s ongoing reception.

The first three essays treat Bonhoeffer’s christology. Christiane Tietz argues for the continuing provocation of Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of “struggle between Jesus as the Logos of God and the human logos” (17). The subsequent essays push back on that distinction as Bonhoeffer deploys it. Christopher R. J. Holmes suggests that Bonhoeffer underrates metaphysics, so that “we get a rich Christology” but “not . . . a doctrine of God” (37, emphasis in original). His preferred model is systematic theologian Katherine Sonderegger. Stephen J. Plant points out Bonhoeffer’s “sharp distinction . . . between the positive Christological work undertaken by individuals in the early church and the negative work of the institutional church in the decision of its councils” (51). He goes on to argue that Bonhoeffer follows Harnack (and perhaps even Luther) too much in mistrusting Nicaea and Chalcedon as sites of revelation, and posits historical theologian Lewis Ayres as a more profitable guide to the meaning of the history of doctrine for systematic theology.

The following three essays likewise form a triptych on sin and salvation. Eva Harasta brilliantly exposits the contrast between Adam and Christ in Bonhoeffer, as Christ transforms the sinful conscience into one “guilty [i.e., confessing] without sin” (72). Tom Greggs continues with the theme of confession, which forms the hinge of Bonhoeffer’s fundamentally ecclesiological and thus “significantly corporate” account of sin and redemption (79). Philip G. Ziegler argues that this emphasis renders Bonhoeffer’s ethics properly theological, as it “puts divine agency or divine pragmatics at the heart of the matter” (114).

The final three essays turn to the contexts of Bonhoeffer’s writing and reception. Michael Mawson’s essay on Bonhoeffer and contemporary disability theology is as near as the volume comes to a contextual theology. It critiques disability theologies that understand human being and relationality in light of trinitarian metaphysics, suggesting that Bonhoeffer “similarly develops an account of relational personhood as gifted by God” but “more clearly insists upon the concrete and embodied particularity of the other human being” (135). Michael P. DeJonge offers a partial preview of his forthcoming work on Lutheran “two-kingdoms” political theology in the midst of the world wars. He argues that Bonhoeffer’s “The Church and the Jewish Question” does not repudiate Luther, but rather correctly applies him to the German church struggle and the resistance to nazism. Andreas Pangritz puts the same essay into the context of other German and Swiss resistance to nazi anti-Semitism—particularly that of Karl Barth, Elisabeth Schmitz, and Wilhelm Vischer—in order to bring out “the distinctive profile of Bonhoeffer’s position” (161).

The editors suggest that the recently completed critical edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works in English represents the key to a newly text-centered mode in Bonhoeffer scholarship, and to the emergence of a “generational shift” (1). Indeed, the essays are collectively noteworthy in Bonhoeffer’s reception history for how they range across his corpus in pursuit of their themes. Where the death-of-God theologians fixed on the prison letters, or many evangelicals on Discipleship and Life Together, the Aberdeen scholars whose essays comprise this volume move freely between the early works (Sanctorum Communio, Act and Being, the Christology lectures) and the wartime writings (especially Ethics) in order to show development or continuity. This is what one might hope to see in a scholarship grounded in a Works: a sense of the unities and complications of Bonhoeffer’s output. Especially intriguing is the prominence of Act and Being, an often obscure philosophical habilitiation, in all three of the essays on sin. It suggests how DeJonge’s definitive exposition of that work in Bonhoeffer’s Theological Formation (Oxford, 2011) has brought it into the mainstream of anglophone Bonhoeffer studies.

The textual focus of these essays perhaps necessarily creates a lacuna, namely, a concrete account of how Bonhoeffer’s biography might inform readings of his theology. The point is not only, as in liberation and contextual theologies, to draw attention to the privilege of hegemonic voices or the erasure of the oppressed. Readers of Bonhoeffer, whatever their political or theological stripe, invariably do and arguably should approach his theological and devotional works in light of his eventual tyrannicide and martyrdom. The essays sometimes mention Bonhoeffer’s intellectual and church context but, Pangritz’s essay aside, do not quite address his life. Mawson’s call for attention to “concrete and embodied particularity” in theology applies as aptly to the interpretation of individual lives as to communal experiences.

The great service of the authors is in the theological themes they draw out from the whole of the Bonhoeffer corpus. Scholars of Bonhoeffer will find themselves provoked, informed, and perhaps nudged to explore new volumes of the Works and new avenues of exploring them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher J. Ashley is a Chaplain Resident at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Mawson is Lecturer in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen, UK.

Philip G. Ziegler is Senior Lecturer of Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, UK.



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