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Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

​Wolf Krörke. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologians for a Post-Christian World. Translated by John P. Burgess (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 272 pp. $48.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Kyle Trowbridge (September 09, 2020)



Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologians for a Post-Christian World is a set of essays by German Protestant theologian Wolf Krötke, newly translated into English by John Burgess. Born in 1938, Krötke lived through the Second World War and under the official atheism of the East German Communist regime. Krötke wrote his dissertation “Sin and Nothingness in the Theology of Karl Barth,” under Eberhard Jüngel (ix). An undercurrent of the book is Krötke’s biographical experience of growing up in East Germany, being imprisoned for two years by the government, and then witnessing the problems and promises of German reunification. As such, what emerges is a work that never shies away from its context. The synchronicity between the context of theological reflection and the content of theology are always conjoined for Krötke.

The book contains sixteen of Krötke’s essays, written from 1981-2012, interpreting the work of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The volume is split into two parts, with eight essays covering Barth and eight on Bonhoeffer, ranging from topics like experience, anthropology, religion, exegesis, politics, and doctrine.

In chapter two, Krötke turns to anthropology and the question of religion in Barth’s corpus. Krötke begins by situating Barth’s understanding of religion as “unbelief” against those that begin their consideration of religion from human experience (Pannenberg) or a religious a priori (Troeltsch) (23-24). As Krötke notes, Barth opposes attempts to think theologically without attending to theology’s subject matter: God (24). As such, proper theological anthropology, in this sense, understands there to be a “noninterchangability” of God and creature. This “gap” opens humanity to be the free subjects they are. There is never a moment, neither for the atheist nor the religious person, where an encounter with God happens outside the ambiguous terrain of human existence. In chapter three, Krötke returns to the theme of chapter one: the relationship between God and humanity. Krötke pushes back against readings of Barth’s understanding of God as authoritarian. For Krötke, the language of partnership, which is christologically oriented in form and content, best describes what Barth is after when he glosses the relationship between God and humanity. Barth’s use of themes like covenant, reconciliation, and freedom should thus be read in this vein. In Krötke’s reading, what emerges is less concerned with an account of deification or holiness, but rather a correspondence between God and creatures made possible through the revelation of God in Christ.

Chapters four and five turn to Barth’s exegetical work. In chapter four, Krötke argues that understanding Barth’s interpretation of Scripture is foundational for how he interprets and understands God’s revelation. Thus, Barth’s scripturally centered account of Christology leads Krötke to claim that “Christology must continually refer to Scripture and be faithful to what it says about Jesus Christ . . . For Barth, Christology is not just another example of biblical interpretation; rather, it is for him an exemplary case” (60).

In the sixth chapter, Krötke works through what Barth’s anthropology may contribute to pastoral care. Once again, themes of witness and representation conjoin with others like “signaling” to marshal a Christologically and pneumatologically centered understanding of pastoral care and the human body. The eighth chapter outlines the contours of Barth’s ecclesiology. Krötke argues that the best way to understand Barth’s ecclesiology is as a “provisional representation” grounded in reconciliation. This representation, Krötke argues, is best expressed as a type of dramatization. The church witnesses and represents reconciled humanity, which is rooted Christologically, whose mission is to serve this vision of reconciliation.

The second half of the book turns to Krötke’s work on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Chapter nine offers a reinterpretation of Bonhoeffer’s views on religion in his Letters and Papers from Prison. Krötke argues that we can only appreciate Bonhoeffer’s later perspectives on religion by analyzing his other works, including his various letters, Christology lectures, and sermons. Looking to these sources show that Bonhoeffer shares Barth’s concern that religion is always under pressure and judgment from Christ (138). Religion, both as social practices and constructs, must always be thought of afresh and anew. It is revelation itself that allows Bonhoeffer to reexamine “the truth of the religions that we encounter in the world” (141). Chapter ten follows this lead, as Krötke works through the theme of religionlessness and sharing in God’s suffering in Bonhoeffer’s works. Krötke then turns to Ludwig Feuerbach, noting similarities between Feuerbach and Bonhoeffer on God’s suffering and in their criticisms of religion. Despite these theological continuities, Bonhoeffer inverts Feuerbach’s critique that everything we ascribe to God is human projection, instead working this critique into his understanding of God’s suffering. As Krötke puts it, “what makes God’s suffering divine is that it affirms the world in its godlessness” (159). Thus, there is no flight from the world or the folly of searching for a renewal of power.

Chapter twelve outlines Bonhoeffer’s exegetical work on the Psalms. Krötke argues that the Psalms, specifically Psalm 119, are a roadmap for Bonhoeffer’s life and work. Bonhoeffer reads Psalm 119 as stressing “the path that God gives a person” (180). The path includes prayer and meditation, while also provides a way for Bonhoeffer to think with the goodness and joy found in the law of God. For Bonhoeffer, the law of God and of Christ, is seen as “good instruction” (186). Krötke then notes how this understanding of the law informed Bonhoeffer’s Ethics fragment on the “concrete commandment.” For Bonhoeffer, the law is concretized through the revelation of Jesus Christ, governing all of human life; specifically the church, government, family, and culture.

Chapter sixteen closes the central portion of the Bonhoeffer section, glossing the interpretation of biblical concepts non-religiously. Krötke understood the art of this firsthand from his experience under official atheism. The appendix offers a brief but promising purview into the relationship between Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer, a topic that remains overlooked in the Bonhoeffer guild.

Chapter sixteen closes the central portion of the Bonhoeffer section, glossing the interpretation of biblical concepts non-religiously. Krötke understood the art of this firsthand from his experience under official atheism. The appendix offers a brief but promising purview into the relationship between Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer, a topic that remains overlooked, as best I can tell, in the Bonhoeffer guild.

For the remainder of the review, I will pursue a few themes in greater detail: providence and the relationship between Barth and Bonhoeffer. In chapter thirteen, Krötke discusses Bonhoeffer’s understanding of providence and God’s guidance. Whereas much scholarship has been written on Bonhoeffer’s views of the weak and suffering God, Krötke turns to Bonhoeffer’s views of God’s gubernatio. Krötke notes the residual influence of some of Bonhoeffer’s liberal teachers here, including Adolph von Harnack. Krötke argues that the wisdom and “faith of the Father” found in von Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch stuck with Bonhoeffer. Through Bonhoeffer’s exegesis on Psalm 119 and Bonhoeffer’s little mediation on the Moravian texts, the emphasis on God’s guidance is “basic to Bonhoeffer’s personal understanding of God” (204). Piety is thus guided in an eschatological register, or as Krötke artfully puts it, “stations on the way to God” (204).

Krötke argues that Bonhoeffer’s “complete trust in providence – God’s ‘seeing ahead’” through wisdom that steers creatures actually “draws from another source than faith in Jesus Christ alone” (193). Krötke points back to the church fathers and notes the gubernatio was part of the doctrine of creation, which Bonhoeffer incorporated into his Christology. However, I wonder if this is getting the focus backward. Perhaps what Bonhoeffer is thinking through is not how providence and creation inform Christology, but rather how Christology informs and pressures creation and providence. As Bonhoeffer notes in Ethics,“[N]othing created can be conceived and essentially understood in its nature apart from Christ, the mediator of creation. Everything has been created through Christ and toward Christ, and everything has its existence only in Christ (Col 1:15). Seeking to understand God’s will with creation apart from Christ is futile” (DBWE 6:399-400).

Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the relationship between providence and Christology run close to that of other modern Protestant theologians (including Schleiermacher, Barth, and Jüngel) who begin the task of thinking about theology through the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ (See Paul Nimmo, “The Divine Wisdom and the Divine Economy,” Modern Theology 34 [2018]: 403-418). Bonhoeffer starts his reflections on the doctrine of providence with the revealed God as witnessed in Scripture and builds his case from there. If this is where right thinking about theology proper is to begin, then Christology shapes the form and content for how Bonhoeffer thinks of God. From Christology, we go forward into eschatology, those “stations on the way to God,” and then only backward to creation. If this is the case, it is not too far afield to suggest that Christology norms both the doctrines of creation and providence in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of God, not the other way around. The God who guides us in the world cannot be thought of apart from Christ, and our thinking about Christian life cannot be separated from this understanding. As Bonhoeffer says, we must derive omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, “only from Jesus Christ’s ‘being for others’ unto death” (175). Paul Nimmo has recently made the provocative remark that, when thinking of God this way, we must ask, “how deep does the cross go in the identity of God?” (Nimmo, 417). To think with Bonhoeffer on this score, we would do well to consider that if “only the suffering God can help,” this informs not only the practical or ethical questions of the Christian life, as shown by Krötke in chapter fourteen, but also may ask us to reconsider what guidance, providence, and preservation would look like when oriented this way (DBWE 8:479).

Krötke’s gloss on Bonhoeffer’s use of providence also provides an avenue to reading Bonhoeffer’s political thought. In chapter fifteen, Krötke provides a specific intervention into Bonhoeffer’s views of the state. As others have noted, Bonhoeffer protested against any supposed “orders of creation” and instead proposed the idea of the “orders of preservation” in its place. With Michael DeJonge, Krötke rightfully understands Bonhoeffer’s view of the state to be situated Christologically (Michael P. DeJonge, Bonhoeffer on Resistance: The Word Against the Wheel [New York: Oxford University Press, 2018]). The state’s authority, whether Christian or not, comes from God. The state is grounded, so to speak, Christologically. Bonhoeffer is concerned with how God’s preservation of the world through Christ is maintained (or governed), and how Christ draws the boundaries that preserve those coordinates.

It is here where we might begin to see some of the differences between Bonhoeffer and Barth. Politically, Bonhoeffer’s concern, then, is how boundary making is ordered and preserved. When the state trespasses into the boundary that is appropriately occupied by the church, it is not just human institutions that are at risk, but God’s preservation and providence that are threatened. To be a “theologian of resistance” as Christian Tietz has described Bonhoeffer, would then be to recast as a theologian who holds the line where those boundaries are.

During much of the same period, Barth engaged a different project. As Krötke mentioned in chapter one, Barth was someone whom Krötke turned to as a theologian “who always began at the beginning” (5). This “theologian of permanent revolution”(see Paul Lehmann, “Karl Barth, Theologian of Permanent Revolution,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 28, no.1 (1972): 67-81) as Paul Lehmann described Barth, as it were, is meant not only to challenge institutional claims but to return to one’s own work again and again in order to rethink and reconsider the task of theology. Krötke believes that it is no accident that Barth rethought the doctrine of election in the wake of a time when “captive theology wrought unimagined evil in the 1930s” (87). Krötke argues that this doctrine is, for Barth, that which “the church stands or falls” (74). Within his revisionist doctrine of election, Barth recasts election as “the judgment of the grace of Jesus Christ prior to an expectation of a future in which humanity is divided (86)” during a time of genocide, war crimes, and devastation. Instead of fortifying the boundaries that help us chart what it means to live a human life in this world, as Bonhoeffer was doing, Barth was rethinking, reconsidering, and redrawing them.

These essays are a great introduction to the thought of Barth and Bonhoeffer, but they also had me wanting more of Krötke’s own work, a work concerned, as Burgess notes in the preface, with “the God who in Jesus Christ comes to us and frees us for true humanity” (xi). John Burgess has done all of us a favor in introducing more of Krötke’s work to an English-speaking audience.

Kyle Trowbridge, M.T.S. Student, Christian Theological Seminary

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.