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"Only the Suffering God can Help"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the highest name in Germany, was a theologian of the underground Confessing Church put to death in 1945. His emphasis on religionless Christianity, the autonomous come-of-age person and the one reality in Christ are important legacies.."God appears as the one who remains with his people in history, not the one who wants to redeem his people from history."
"Only the Suffering God can Help!"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Relational Christology and Eschatology

By Hans Vium Mikkelsen

[This 1995 article by Hans Vium Mikkelsen from Denmark is translated abridged from the German on the World Wide Web,

This article attempts to describe one decisive theme in Bonhoeffer's theological work starting from "Ethics": the introduction of the relation of God and the world as a basic theological term. This description is based on an analysis of Bonhoeffer's doctrine of justification and reconciliation. An understanding of God independent of God's relation to people (and the world) is theologically impossible. The last section of the article shows that Bonhoeffer joined this accentuation of the relation of God and the world as a theological axiom with the theology of the cross version of God's nature. He turns against the doctrine of God's aseity and against the axiom of God's impassiveness or incapacity for suffering. This leads to Bonhoeffer's conclusion: Only the suffering God can help.

"There is no person in him- or herself as there is no God in himself. Both are empty abstractions." (1)


Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most widely read German theologians of this century. Interest in Bonhoeffer was often greatest outside the "strict" expert theological milieu on account of his sharp theological rejection of National Socialism comparable with the rejection of the Dane Kaj Munk. Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945 three weeks before the end of the war.

Interest in Bonhoeffer concentrated on his biography. As an unfortunate side effect, his theology was not given proper attention. As one of the first dialectical theologians, Bonhoeffer emphasized the relation of God and the world as a basic theological category, a relation with personal categories and universal consequences.

In this study, I will analyze Bonhoeffer's theological initiative by focusing on one of the main themes of this theological works: the question of the possibility of integrating God and the world and the significance of this integration for understanding God and the world. This theme pervades his whole work like a red threat beginning with his dissertation "Sanctorum Communio" to the theological correspondence with his friend Eberhard Bethge during the time of imprisonment. This collection termed "Letters and Papers from Prison" in Bonhoeffer research was posthumously edited under the title "Resistance and Surrender" (Widerstand und Ergebung). (2) I begin my presentation of the Bonhoefferian understanding of the relation of God and the world with "Ethics" where Bonhoeffer clearly describes this relation as a basic theological category. (3) "Ethics" offers a helpful starting-point for entering Bonhoeffer's theological universe since he compiled and corrected some of his earlier theological reflections here. "Ethics" points to the theology of the cross that marks his prison letters...

Bonhoeffer's re-formulation of the justification doctrine with the help of "ultimate" and "penultimate" interprets the justification doctrine dynamically beyond its purely forensic interpretation. The substance of the reconciliation idea is re-formulated with the help of the term "genuine worldliness". Bonhoeffer wanted to emphasize the practical theological consequences of reconciliation instead of starting from a speculative theory about the motive underlying reconciliation. In the following, Bonhoeffer's use of the relationship of God and the world as a basic theological term will be analyzed. Starting from his theme "ultimate" and "penultimate", his understanding of the world as the world accepted by God will be discussed.

2. "Ultimate" and "Penultimate" Things

2.1 The Justification Doctrine in "Ethics" and "The Cost of Discipleship"

The justification doctrine was often attacked on account of its "static" effect on the believing person. The believer is transposed into a "joyful passivity" so he can be nothing but a sinner even in the best life. Bonhoeffer already opposed this static interpretation in the book "The Cost of Discipleship". He declared that Luther saw a very close connection between justification and sanctification. (12) The danger in "The Cost of Discipleship" is that the relationship of God and the world sometimes had strongly dualistic characteristics so God and the world could be understood as absolute opposites. For Bonhoeffer, dualism allowed no possibility for a positive theological interpretation of the world. In its most extreme consequence, this understanding of the world led to a kind of "Christian" Gnosticism in which believers' approach to the world was reduced to the desire for redemption from this world. In other words, Bonhoeffer in "The Cost of Discipleship" was unable to think positively about the relation of God and the world despite the emphasis on the close connection of justification and sanctification.

Bonhoeffer rediscovered the justification doctrine as a crucial theological theme in "Ethics". However his interpretation of the justification doctrine was essentially different from his earlier conception in "The Cost of Discipleship" through his reformulation stressing "ultimate" and "penultimate" things. Bonhoeffer now distinguished between the temporal and qualitative aspects of justification to overcome its purely forensic interpretation. He emphasized the universal character of the justification doctrine, its pro allis against its pro nobis, with his dialectical understanding of the relation between the "ultimate" and "penultimate". This universality is not meant speculatively but only makes sense from practical knowledge. Speaking of the universal character of the justification doctrine is only meaningful on the basis of the changing significance of the justification doctrine for the individual. The universality of the justification doctrine can be described as a faith postulate that is only sensible as a faith postulate. This discovery is more a "practical" than a "theoretical" realization.

2.2 The Qualitative Aspect of the Justification Doctrine

The qualitative aspect is an expression for the decisively new that happens to the individual in justification. Through this decisively new, persons are "torn" out of their isolation, their sola peccator esse, by God. The person appears in justification as the person justified by God, the true person, the person characterized by his or her relation to God. Justification is God's qualitative last word, God's irrevocable act of mercy toward the person. Justification cannot be "surpassed" either by God or by people. The qualitative aspect of justification negates every form of a religious method enabling the person to recognize God from him- or herself. "The way of Jesus Christ and the way of all Christian thinking goes from God to the world, not from the world to God." (13)

The justification doctrine is the "last" or "ultimate", the ultimate judgment over the "penultimate" preceding justification. Participating in any form in justification or earning justification is not possible. "The qualitative last word excludes all methods once and for all." (14) The justification doctrine can only be understood from God as the acting subject. The qualitative aspect of justification expressed by the relation between the "ultimate" and the "penultimate" is part of a justification doctrine based on the relation between God and the person set by God.

2.3 The Temporal Aspect of Justification

Bonhoeffer's temporal aspect of justification contains two dimensions, a chronological and an eschatological dimension. In this section, I concentrate on the eschatological interpretation with its decisive renewal of the justification doctrine. (15)

The chronological aspect implies that theology cannot and should not ignore the penultimate. The penultimate first appears in its relation to the ultimate and has its theological importance from that relation. The emphasis on the ultimate against the penultimate may not lead to an underrating of what precedes this ultimate since that would annul its dialectic. Rather Bonhoeffer argues theologically to upgrade the penultimate by accentuating the connection between the ultimate and the penultimate. A pioneer or trailblazer function comes to the penultimate.

Bonhoeffer expands the justification doctrine far beyond the traditional forensic interpretation of the relation between the individual person and God by attaching an eschatological dimension to justification with the terms "ultimate" and "penultimate". "Ultimate" and "penultimate" are expressions for the re-evaluation in the justification doctrine (and on the individual plane) and also for the complete change that takes place in Christ's resurrection (surpassing the individual plane). Bonhoeffer expressed this as follows: "Jesus Christ the Resurrected means that God out of love and omnipotence ends death, calls into being a new creation and presents new life. `The old is passed away.' `Behold, I make all things new'". (16) He illustrates the connection of justification by grace alone (founded on Christ's reconciling death) and the new creation in Christ's resurrection.

My thesis that Bonhoeffer's emphasis on "ultimate" and "penultimate" things contains an eschatological element can be corroborated by referring to Bonhoeffer's own criticism of what he described as the false interpretation of the eschatological. This criticism is found first in his early writings. Two references show how Bonhoeffer's criticism was leveled against the understanding of Christianity as an individual redemption doctrine. The first example comes from a proclamatory 1932 Potsdam address of the "early" Bonhoeffer. (17) In the second example Bonhoeffer argues more carefully, that is with a theology of the cross understanding of the resurrection that highlights Christ's suffering over against the triumph of the resurrection.

The Christian understanding of eschatology, according to Bonhoeffer, cannot be equated with the desire for a coming or future redemption from this world. In this case, Christianity would wrongly decay to a religion with its center of gravity as the world to come. What comes after death could outgrow everything else. Christianity would be nothing but the renewed attempt of a personal redemption myth through which the person by virtue of faith in a better life beyond death is empowered to endure life in suffering, anxiety and distress. (18) If this futurist-personalist redemption doctrine offered a theologically plausible interpretation of the eschatological element in Christianity, Christianity would encourage a depreciating if not negative attitude toward present life in this world. Bonhoeffer vehemently rejected such an individual redemption doctrine.

Christianity proclaims redemption for the world, not redemption from the world. Redemption for the world is expressed in the demand to live God's promise in this world. He explained this by referring to the Old Testament. Redemption for God's people occurs in history as for example the liberation of the people of God in Egypt and Babylon. God appears as the one who remains with his people in history, not the one who wants to redeem his people from history. What is decisively new in Bonhoeffer's proclamation of God as the one living with his people in history is that he applies this understanding of God with view to the Old Testament and as a general key for interpreting the relation between God and the world in the New Testament. He interprets Christ's resurrection from the Old Testament and understands it theologically as an impressive reference to Christian dependence on life in the world for the world. (19) This prioritization of the worldliness of the Resurrection hope allows speaking of the Crucified as the Resurrected, as Karl Barth does, and conversely of the Resurrected as the Crucified.

Bonhoeffer's criticism of the interpretation of the resurrection miracle as a one-sided unilateral redemption of people from this world is a persistent theme in his later work. Beginnings of this criticism can be found in the 1932 lecture. Probably inspired by Nietzsche's "Thus Sprach Zarathusta", Bonhoeffer proclaimed in 1932 that the Christian should be strong, not weak! (20) Bonhoeffer took seriously the accusations of the Nietzschean criticism of Christianity in opposing the notion that Christianity exists in a false counter-position to the world. (21) If this were true, religion criticism would be right that Christianity is only for weak persons (Nietzsche) and thus is nothing but "opium for the masses" (Marx).

In "Ethics", Bonhoeffer also avoids the false polarization between Christians and the world by joining christology and eschatology. For him, eschatology is understood from the tension between Christ's resurrection and his return. Christ's return is already near in the resurrection even if not yet perfected in the world. This perfection will first occur with the arrival of the Parousia.

Bonhoeffer's understanding of eschatology could be defined as an "already-not yet" orientation. For him, the eschatological has both a present and a future character. In Bonhoeffer's words, "the resurrection has already dawned in the middle of the old world as the last or ultimate sign of its end and its future and at the same time as living reality." (22) "As long as the earth stands, the resurrection does not annul the penultimate. Eternal life, the new life, breaks into the earthly life ever more powerfully and creates its space in that earthly life." (23) The eschatological already exists in the world without completely penetrating the world. The world is not yet identical with God's coming reign. Bonhoeffer linked eschatology and christology but recognized that they can only be found sub contrario. Therefore the empirical demonstration of God's reign is impossible.

If God's reign were a measurable recognizable reality, its character as the christological corrective to the world in the world would be lost. God's reign would be immanently discoverable in the world. The consequence would be a (mistaken) identification of the coming of God's reign with the fulfillment of a social utopia and the self-enthonement of the person as the "eschatological subject". The person could then accelerate the coming of God's reign on earth. Bonhoeffer opposed this completely immanent interpretation of God's reign by proclaiming God as the subject of the coming kingdom. Humans cannot accelerate or prevent the coming of God's reign.

Bonhoeffer's insistence on God as the eschatological subject was in no way synonymous with the person acting passively and negatively toward the world. A causal connection between measurable social improvements and the coming of God's reign should be avoided. (25) The person cannot and should not realize God's reign. Starting from the idea of the "already- and not-yet", the person can and should live in the hope for the present reality of God's reign and its future coming. The connection between christology and eschatology appears in the faith of the person in living in the time between Christ's resurrection and his return. Therefore the person has to participate in the continuous relationship between God and the world beginning in Christ. "Christian life is involvement in the Christ encounter with the world." (26) "We expect Christ, know that he is coming and can only prepare his way." (27)

This close interlocking of eschatology and christology flows into a kind of "pioneering-christology" that accentuates the connection between faith and praxis. (28) What is new here in Bonhoeffer's work? Did he only clothe one of his old motifs from "The Cost of Discipleship" - the necessity of discipleship - in another language in "Ethics" when he spoke of "involvement in the Christ-encounter with the world" instead of "discipleship"? Or did the substance change with the new terminology?

An important shift of accents occurs here in Bonhoeffer's theological judgment of the relation of God and the world involving practical consequences in understanding the relationship of the Christian and the world. In "The Cost of Discipleship", discipleship is marked by its original situation in confrontation with the world in which God and the world appear as absolute and incompatible opposites. The emphasis on participation in Christ's encounter with the world in "Ethics" presupposes the possibility of a positive dialectic between God and the world without regarding God and the world as identical. Accentuating the dialectic between "ultimate" and "penultimate" makes possible a positive understanding of the world without renouncing on the christological corrective to the world. The world retains its importance through its references to God's coming reign that necessitates the preservation and maintenance of the world as a sign to the future.

3. The Interpretation of the World as Accepted by God

3.1 Reconciliation as the Concrete Starting-Point for the Theological Judgment of the World

One of the constantly recurring themes in "Ethics" is that theology's understanding of the world takes its starting-point in the world as the world reconciled by God in Christ. (29) Theology does not have the task of distinguishing between reconciled and un-reconciled parts of the world but should start from reconciliation as an unequivocal reality in effect for the whole world. Thus reconciliation in Christ is a presupposition for theology, not its goal! This is the crucial difference in how the relation of God and the world is presented. Bonhoeffer's approach to the reconciliation theme is "practical-christological". The center of gravity in his interpretation of reconciliation lies in the relation of God and the world as it appears in Christ.

On account of his strict rejection of a doctrine of God's aseity, Bonhoeffer avoids the temptation to go behind the reconciliation act through a speculation about God's reconciliation motive preceding the reconciliation. His "practical-christological" approach appears in the accentuated worldly aspect of Christianity. Bonhoeffer's approach to the reconciliation doctrine formulates the ethical consequences of reconciliation. For Bonhoeffer, reconciliation is the theological prerequisite that persons should live in the world for the world and not in the hope for redemption from this world.

Moreover the proclamation of the reconciliation of God and the world in Christ thwarts every theological attempt at a rigid division between the "Christian" and the "worldly" since the whole world was reconciled with God. "The world belongs to Christ and is what it is only in Christ... Christ died for the world. Christ is only Christ in the midst of the world." (30) God and the world appear in a dialectical relation in Christ. Christ can only be understood as Christ and the world can only be understood as the world from this bipolar connection.

3.2 The One Reality in Christ

Bonhoeffer proclaims that there aren't different realities - a "Christian" and a "worldly" reality - that can be imagined independent of one another. With different realities, Christianity would regress to a partial claim that doesn't take seriously the reconciliation of God and the world in Christ on account of deficient understanding of the universal character of reconciliation. In that case, the world would be erroneously interpreted as divided, not as reconciled by God in Christ. Bonhoeffer described the reconciled world with the term "accepted world". When Christianity and the world are conceived as two incompatible realities, a positive-dialectical relation becomes impossible.

Bonhoeffer's objection to a separation between God and the world, the "Christian" and the "worldly", is based on his understanding of christology in which "the reality of the world" and "God's reality" in Christ are united. (31) The attempted division of the world into several planes of reality in which God and the world are assigned misses the reality given by God through Christ. This was tantamount for Bonhoeffer with tearing asunder what is united once for all in Christ. Therefore this accentuation of the "one reality in Christ" could be described as dialectical christocentrism.

Bonhoeffer's proclamation of the one reality in Christ cannot be compared with the Hegelian conception of reality in which God with Christ is completely incorporated in the world. Rather Bonhoeffer starts from a dialectic that can only speak of God and the world under the presupposition of God's relation to the world in Christ. (32) If one takes seriously reconciliation, speaking of God in and for himself or of the world in itself without entering into the world reconciled by God in Christ is theologically meaningless.

Because God entered the world irrevocably in Christ, God and the world are not realities independent of each other. In the relation between God and the world set by God, Bonhoeffer holds fast to God as the subject of this relation. God may not be conceived as dependent on people. Relation to the world in Christ inaugurated by God points to the fact that God in Christ voluntarily bound himself to the world. This bond can be understood as an expression of God's freedom kat exochen.

3.3 "Genuine Worldliness" as a Dialectical Term

The term "one reality in Christ" emphasizes a dialectic integrating God and the world in a polemical unity. (33) This polemical unity must underlie all speech of God and the world. In abstract understanding of God or the world "in themselves" is theologically meaningless. This is not synonymous with the complete identification of God and the world where all emphasis of a dialectical or polemical unity is put aside.

The christological character of the Bonhoefferian reconciliation doctrine implies that the universality of reconciliation rests on a faith postulate. The christological corrective to the world through the reconciliation is not annulled. Rather a synchronization of God and the world in a principled unity (in contrast to a polemical unity) is prevented. Thus Bonhoeffer in "Ethics" screens himself both against a secular-theological understanding of the world and against a radical enthusiastic approach to the world. (34) Both of these interpretations imply a principled unity of God and the world expressed either in a radical attempt of world improvement forcing the coming of God's reign (Christian radicalism) or in a theologically verified possibility that the world can be conceived without God (theological secularization, "theology after the death of God"). In both cases, the relation of God and the person is emphasized so that the idea of God "breaks down" under this dependence.

Working with a polemical unity instead of a principled unity, Bonhoeffer can insist on God as the subject of the relation between God and the world established by God. Bonhoeffer's proclamation of "genuine worldliness" expresses this christological corrective to the world. Bonhoeffer's stress on the relation between God and the world (the terms "reality" and "world" are synonymous in "Ethics") is clear in his term "one reality in Christ". He rejects ideas of God and the world independent of this relation as empty abstractions since the understanding of God and the world outside this relation are in danger of being absolutized and annulling one another in a principled unity instead of a polemical unity. The term "genuine worldliness" is not synonymous, as often assumed, with the secular-theological approach to the world but should be understood as a new theological term that highlights two essential insights:

the necessity of a relation between God and the world is established in an anthropological deficit (that the person first appears in his/her true humanity in the encounter with God) and a theology of the cross approach to the world.

With the term "genuine worldliness", Bonhoeffer takes the dialectical position that the world can only exist as the true world in the relation between God and the world. If the world is not limited as world through its relation to God, the world grants itself divine qualities and robs itself of its true worldliness as the world before God. (35)

Theology declares that the world is liberated to be the world in the limitation experienced through the relation to God. The world is liberated to be something different, to exalt something greater than itself. Bonhoeffer's argument for "genuine worldliness" presupposes that the person remoto Deo absolutizes himself into God and - paradoxically - dehumanizes himself. Only in his or her relation to God can the person live as a true person. The anthropological deficit necessitates this.

The second decisive insight in the term "genuine worldliness" is the theology of the cross concentration in Bonhoeffer's later work. In the last chapter of "Ethics", Bonhoeffer wrote: "The cross of reconciliation is the liberation to life in genuine worldliness... The proclamation of the cross of reconciliation is liberation because the vain attempts to divinize the world are left behind. The disunions, tensions and conflicts between `Christian' and `worldly' are overcome. Simple action and life in faith in the reconciliation of the world with God is urged." (36) in connection with Bonhoeffer's further theology of the cross reflections in "Letters and Papers from Prison", an intensive theological discussion flared up around these sentences which were understood by many either as worshipping secularity (negative secularism) or as secular theology (positive secularity). In the meantime I read the quotations as a theology of the cross expansion of the dialectical understanding of reality. Both in "Ethics" and in "Letters and Papers from Prison", Bonhoeffer underlined the necessary relation of God and the world and simultaneously reinterpreted it on the basis of his theology of the cross concentration. This relation should be understood in connection with the interpretation of human reality that is also a prerequisite of every form of a true dialectic.

The world that includes God in his relation is a world that no longer starts self-evidently from God in the search for its self-image. The world understands itself without God - God in the sense of an objective necessity for its genesis and preservation. (37) Bonhoeffer's term "genuine worldliness" and his emphasis on "life before and with God without God" should be seen in juxtaposition to the classical-theistic idea of God where a dialectical understanding of the relation of God and the world (38) was avoided under the conditions of the modern age. Bonhoeffer understands the relation of God and the world as a faith postulate that can only appeal for its authority to a "practical" knowledge, not to any scientific-empirical verification.

3.4 The Autonomous Non-Religious Person

A dialectical interpretation of the Bonhoefferian term "genuine worldliness" harmonizes with Bonhoeffer's last theological statements in the prison letters. The term "genuine worldliness" connected with the term "autonomous non-religious person" is one of the central themes in "Letters and Papers from Prison". (39)

With Dilthey, Bonhoeffer understood religion as the historically conditioned horizon of understanding of pre-modern people. Bonhoeffer's theological criticism of the religious in "Letters and Papers from Prison" takes up the religion-critical objection where religion is a means for keeping people in a state of minority and repression. In this criticism, Christianity is distorted as an individual salvation doctrine with a world to come prioritized over worldliness. Bonhoeffer takes seriously this criticism by defining the person as the come-of-age a-religious person and the religious as an overcome contingent historical outlook on life. (40) This does not mean that the person has lost God or the relation between God and the world is annulled. Rather this relation can now appear independent of its antiquated religious clothing.

In Bonhoeffer's theological understanding, Christianity and the modern age do not oppose one another since the modern age - as he understood it - liberates people to live in their true relation to God. The autonomous person in Bonhoeffer's vocabulary is not understood as the person emancipated from God - as in the "theology after the death of God" - but as the person liberated to understand God from a religious philosophy of life. This liberation of the person from religion can be regarded as theologically positive because it enables God's true being to emerge more clearly. This is the meaning of the well-known sentences from the prison letters: "The God who is with us is the God who abandons us (Mark 15,34)! The God who lets us live in the world without the work-hypothesis God is the God before whom we constantly stand. Before and with God, we live without God" (41); "The come-of-age world is godless and therefore perhaps nearer to God than the underage world." (42) If one reads this in connection with the sentence from "Ethics": "The cross of reconciliation is the liberation to life before God in the midst of the godless world, the liberation to life in genuine worldliness", the autonomous non-religious person appears as a dialectical-theological term urging the relation of God and the person set by God.

The world is not godless but liberated from its religious conceptions by God. Therefore the picture of the personal God of another world with God as the transcendent personal Redeemer God can no longer be theologically emphasized. The dialectic between God and the world summarized by Bonhoeffer under the term "the one reality in Christ" would be impossible.

What is new in a dialectic referring to the non-religious person is that Christianity's idea of God is seen here in relation to God's rule in the world instead of God's redemption from the world. On first view, this seems to contradict the characterization of the person as autonomous and non-religious. In "Letters and Papers from Prison", Bonhoeffer redefines this rule manifest in the world from a theology of the cross. God's rule appears in his renunciation on rule. The omnipotent God let himself be forced out of the world on the cross and thus gained space in the world in a paradoxical way as the suffering God on the cross. "The Bible points people to God's powerlessness and suffering. Only the suffering God can help." (43)

God's rule over the world becomes a theological category that is only meaningful in connection with the christological corrective to the world as embodied in Christ's suffering, death and resurrection. The theological change of paradigms in the shifted understanding of the person from homo religiosus to an autonomous non-religious person must be seen in connection with the change in the picture of God. God is conceived here - with rejection of the apathy axiom - as the near and sympathetic God and no longer the elevated, omnipotent and personal Redeemer God. The proclamation of the autonomous non-religious person is a statement about God and a statement about people.

4. Final Remarks

On the basis of Bonhoeffer's "Ethics", Bonhoeffer's use of the relation of God and the world can be understood as a basic theological category. The analysis of the two terms "ultimate" and "penultimate" showed how Bonhoeffer interpreted the world christologically on the basis of a dynamic interpretation of the justification doctrine. The world has its theological importance in and through Christ since the Christ-event absolutely determines the theological approach to the world. This is clear in Bonhoeffer's interpretation of the justification doctrine. The world's destiny or calling rests on the idea of "already-and-not yet" that stresses the change of the world in Christ even if this change is not yet perfected. This eschatological reserve in the relation of God and the world prevents a simplistic identification. As the penultimate, the world is a sign for the ultimate that must be preserved. The world should be neither eliminated as theologically uninteresting nor absolutized and transfigured into God's kingdom. In both cases, the world would no longer be penultimate. The understanding of the world as penultimate and a sign for the ultimate presupposes theologically the proclamation of the world accepted by God in Christ. God irrevocably entered the world in Christ. Therefore a conception of God or the world abstracted from the reconciliation of the world by God in Christ is theologically impossible. As a result, the understanding of the Bonhoefferian "genuine worldliness" as a theological legitimation of the secular godless world proves to be an error. Such an interpretation could not imagine God without the world. However the world can be imagined without God.

In contrast, Bonhoeffer's "genuine worldliness" emphasizes the relation as a basic theological category that unmasks an independent understanding of God and the world "in themselves" as an empty abstraction on account of an anthropological and theological deficit, not only because God makes himself known in relation to the world. The anthropological deficit is an expression of the self-idolization and dehumanization of the person remoto deo. The theological deficit describes the annullment of the idea of God in ignoring God's relation to the world.

God's being in an eminent sense is a being-for-others. Therefore for Bonhoeffer, every attempt to elaborate a doctrine of God about God "in and for himself" was doomed to failure. The understanding of God independent of his relation to the world is godless. Bonhoeffer thinks of this relation with great radicalism in that the understanding of God and the person can only be protected by constant insistence on that relation and the interaction between God and the world, between God and the person.

The proclamation of God's being as a being-for-others must be seen in connection with the theology of the cross perspective announced at the end of "Ethics" and in "Letters and Papers from Prison". In contrast to a distant and insensitive God, God appears here as the near and compassionate, a conception that Bonhoeffer presented in one of the prison letters in his prioritizing of the historical character of redemption. This shift in the picture of God from individual Redeemer God to a compassionate God in history is closely allied with the liberation of the person from a religious picture of the world. Bonhoeffer described this liberation with the term autonomous person even if autonomy here means something different than emancipation from God. Therefore Bonhoeffer's theological use and the philosophical use of the autonomy term must be clearly distinguished.

The assumption that Bonhoeffer with his emphasis on the autonomous person and the come-of-age world solved the theological problem of autonomy would be overly hasty. A criticism of Bonhoeffer's insistence on the relation term could underscore the deficient protection against God's "breakdown" in his relation to the world. Bonhoeffer's refusal to develop a doctrine of God describing God "in himself" past the revelation in Christ actually leads to God's dependence on his relation to the world. Did Bonhoeffer sufficiently substantiate his assertion that this relation between God and the world goes back to God himself? In other words, Bonhoeffer lived without a doctrine of God's aseity. On this foundation, the relation between God and the world was very strongly accentuated. If this relation inaugurated by God were only founded on a statement of proclamatory character without being anchored in the logic of relational theology, this speech itself would be open and vulnerable to the banal attack on religion of the Feuerbachian projection theory. This seem true with Bonhoeffer. His persistence on God's independence in his relation to the world is more assertive than theologically established.


See the original German at  http://www.theologie-examen.de/index_erstesexamen_Dogmatik.htm.]

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