Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is perhaps remembered as the most famous Christian martyr of the twentieth century. He was also a Lutheran pastor and theologian who helped start the Confessing Church, launched an underground seminary, and conspired with others to plot Hitler’s assassination. Bonhoeffer’s fascinating personal story might be the most significant draw for many people to his literary output, and so the legacy of his scholarly and popular reception has been diverse, to put it mildly. Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s writings have been pressed into service for a huge variety of perspectives. From the supposedly radical theologians of “Christian atheism” to modern American evangelicals, Bonhoeffer’s life and witness have been enlisted by an array of divergent admirers. So at the risk of simply offering one more sketch of Bonhoeffer, transfigured in the image of my own theological perspective, I’d like to offer a short reflection on the theme of “worldliness” as it appears in his later work and how that’s connected to an item of his Lutheran heritage: the theology of the cross (theologia crucis).
The striking, fragmentary assemblage of Bonhoeffer’s writings known in English as Letters and Papers from Prison has been the subject of much conversation. This is especially true in the case of some rather obscure remarks Bonhoeffer makes about a “religionless” or “worldly” interpretation of Christianity. Bonhoeffer suggests that the conditions of the modern world have rendered the “working hypothesis” of God obsolete. Any recourse to God as an explanation for the inexplicable is, in the end, only a stopgap measure. Such a god is one of diminishing necessity as more and more of the world becomes intelligible by scientific means, and then harnessed by technological ones.
During the 1960s, Bonhoeffer’s comments were enlisted as part of a broader initiative to envision Christian theology in atheistic terms without God at all. In certain cases, this resulted in little more than a tepid recapitulation of nineteenth-century, liberal Protestant theology, simply dressed up in the spirit of a newer age. Nineteenth-century conservative morality was exchanged for the morality of radical politics and the cause of revolution.
Even so, Bonhoeffer’s proposals remain shocking and more than a little perplexing. That God allows Himself to be “pushed out of the world and onto the cross” in subjection to death and nothingness embodies a critical threat to the whole heritage of classical theism with its view of God as the “unmoved mover” (Aristotle) who stands behind the universe. Under this view of theism, the problem of suffering, death, and evil is particularly lethal for the ultimate unanswerable question: where did the world come from? The “god of the gaps”––the god who explains what humans can’t––simply re-duplicates in miniature the problem with such a version of theism.
For Bonhoeffer in late career––imprisoned by the Nazis and awaiting inevitable execution––such an account of theism has little to say to a suffering world marked so thoroughly by evil. Atheism is not, however, the solution Bonhoeffer sets forth. A bare and simplistic negation of theism––which trades in God for the moralism of radical politics––proves neither adequate as far as suffering is concerned, nor particularly interesting. In this case, Bonhoeffer’s trendy interpreters of five decades ago failed to grasp the logic of his “religionless” interpretation of the Gospel.
Understanding Bonhoeffer correctly involves taking stock of an older tradition of critical, counter-religious thinking which can be traced back to the Reformation, especially Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. Bonhoeffer’s plea for living in a thoroughly religionless manner in the world “before God but without God” (etsi deus non daretur) is rightly framed as an extension of Luther’s own effort to discern God’s self-giving not in glory but in suffering and the cross of Christ. The word Luther preached––a suffering and self-donating God who bestows Himself on sinners in Jesus Christ––proved a radical and liberating subversion of a religious economy premised on human performance. Bonhoeffer extends this radical critique with the assertion that “only a suffering God can help” a world so filled with evil and death like ours. Evil is nothing new, to be sure. But the situation of modernity, especially the mechanized evil embodied in two world wars and the holocaust of European Jewry, exerts peculiar pressure on the supposition of classic theism.
The only God who can help us, paradoxically enough, is the one who comes to us in the profoundest weakness of cross and suffering. In Luther’s language, this is the self-giving of God under the form of the opposite (sub contrario). Humans expect God to save the day, to enter the story at precisely the right moment to set everything right. The truth of the matter that both Luther and Bonhoeffer set forth from the Scriptures is that, at the right time, Christ comes to rescue not in power and glory, but in His weakness. Christ comes to vanquish our enemies––sin, death, the devil, and hell itself––but He doesn’t do so in the way we expect. He comes and disempowers all these things in the emptiness and desolation of His death on the cross. At the hands of the very sinners for whom He dies, Jesus removes the power of human suffering by undergoing all of it Himself and alone.
In the time that remains, suffering will indeed mark the Christian life. The world agonizes in anticipation of the restoration which will surely come. Yet even so, the cross of Christ reorients the priorities and possibilities of Christian proclamation. Christ’s death and resurrection become the definitive events by which God’s relationship to His creation is apprehended. No “god of the gaps” is necessary to fill in the details of the unknown in life, for all things––even suffering and death––are enveloped by the dying and rising of Jesus Christ. Death, evil, and suffering are ultimately accountable to Him, for He is Lord over death (Dominus mortis). This lordship over even death itself discloses that God is not discoverable in our highest ideals of what He must be like according to our most pious desires or moral imagination. It is the crucified Jesus, pushed out of the world itself and onto the cross, who does something much better than simply make God intelligible or discoverable. Christ actually brings God to us in the events of His death, by taking our sin and disobedience and, in exchange, gifting to us His righteousness and blessedness. In this magnificent and unexpected act of gift-giving, God is at His most divine, for He is the giver of all good gifts––most preeminently, the gift of His own Son. And in passively receiving this gift of the dead and risen Jesus, the world is at its most worldly. In so receiving, human beings are their most human.
There are many things to be learned from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, as well as his other works, too. But Bonhoeffer’s forgivably fragmentary appropriation of Luther’s theology of the cross indicates that the death of Christ subverts both theism and atheism. For in Jesus Christ, almighty God Himself has entered into death for our sakes. He is neither an apathetic “unmoved mover,” uncontaminated by the presence of death, nor the pathetic projection of humans utterly alone in the universe. God is instead Lord over all these, precisely by bringing forth life from death––first in His Son, and now to those who belong to Him by faith as well.