Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Theologians for a Post-Christian World

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Wolf Krötke
John P. Burgess
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , October
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Wolf Krötke’s Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologians for a Post-Christian World, translated by John P. Burgess, is a collection of essays that explains the significance of the works of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the Christian church’s faith and practice today. Instead of summing up all the essays, it will suffice to note a preponderant theme that exemplifies the relevancy and significance of Barth and Bonhoeffer.

One of the ways in which Krötke explains the relevancy of both German-speaking theologians is by highlighting their political theology. For example, in the first chapter of this anthology, Krötke brings attention to the contextual nature of Barth’s theology and how it arose out of crisis. The Swiss theologian’s work was specifically responding to two primary events in his lifetime: first, the onset of the First World War, and second, the rise of the Third Reich along with the ensuing “church struggle” (Kirchenkampf) in Germany, wherein some Christians started accepting Nazism. What makes this chapter particularly compelling is Krötke’s utilization of his own personal story as a young theological student growing up in communist East Germany. As someone who wanted to commit himself to Christianity under a dogmatically atheistic regime, Krötke tried to formulate a theological understanding of the church under a socialist state by immersing himself in Barth’s ecclesiology. Krötke found particularly relevant for his context Barth’s statement that God always sustains the church even under persecutory circumstances. As comforting as this sentiment may be, the question still arises, however, how exactly Barth is useful for the church today. The significance of Barth today is unfortunately not fully fleshed out until chapter 7, where Krötke uses Barth as a tool for theological resistance.

Chapter 7 of Krötke’s book is particularly effective in explaining Barth’s significance for doing theology today because he discusses Barth in light of the rise of Nazism. Resistance in Nazi Germany, in particular, was recognizing “the end of negotiation, discussion, and compromise” (104). This is because what was at stake was good versus evil. As Krötke then keenly notes, “We must expect Christian theology in all circumstances to distinguish between good and evil and to insist on this distinction in both spiritual and political matters” (105). By using Barth, Krötke states that Christian resistance toward tyrannical regimes such as that of Nazi Germany stems “from the grace of God against sin” (117). This is the crux of Christian resistance: emphasizing God’s grace that opposes all forms of evil, which further compels (or, at least, should compel) the church to likewise denounce all such forms of evil.

Krötke’s treatment of Bonhoeffer’s political theology, on the other hand, focuses on Bonhoeffer’s direct participation in the resistance against Adolf Hitler. Krötke first notes in chapter 14 that Bonhoeffer gives one exception to the rule that people should follow the laws of the state: when the state becomes the “the beast from the abyss” (207). Here Krötke highlights Bonhoeffer’s theology of action. Knowing that one is in the hands of the reconciling God is not an excuse for individualist passivity; that is, this idea is not merely meant for personal comfort. Rather, Bonhoeffer saw the reconciling God “not [as] a principle to be paraded about theologically but rather a call to action” (211). Therefore, as Krötke aptly remarks, “Bonhoeffer’s [influence] is therefore a call and encouragement for us to commit ourselves to responsible, free deeds in our time and place so that all people will be able to affirm their existence as God’s creatures on earth” (214). The Christian life, in other words, is one that includes social responsibility.

There are many more excellent essays in this anthology from Krötke that touch on other salient topics. From the topic of religion (chapters 2 and 9) to theological exegesis (chapters 4 and 12), these essays definitely give much food for thought when it comes to the theologies of Barth and Bonhoeffer. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge the nice balance that Krötke strikes in these essays. On one hand, Krötke throughout the essays shows an indebtedness to Barth and Bonhoeffer for his own personal theology. On the other hand, Krötke critically attempts to go beyond Barth and Bonhoeffer. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologians for a Post-Christian World is a must-read for those who seek to study the interconnections between two of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kristoff Reese Grosfeld is a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wolf Krötke (PhD, University of Tübingen), widely regarded as a towering figure among late twentieth-century German theologians, is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Humboldt University in Berlin.

John P. Burgess (PhD, University of Chicago) is the James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.