Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Theological Echoes and Tensions in Bonhoeffer's Discipleship

According to some scholars, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, which forms the larger first part of Discipleship, marks a break with the interpretation of it by most previous German Lutheran theologians.  For example, in the context of Martin Doblmeier’s film, Bonhoeffer, John De Gruchy states that German Lutherans have traditionally interpreted the Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal, whose sole purpose is to make people aware of their sinful condition, and that Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount presented a novel departure from this understanding. A similar assessment is offered by Friedrich Schlingensiepen, who states that Bonhoeffer interpreted the Sermon on the Mount in a way that was “contrary to the usual Lutheran interpretation.”  For Bonhoeffer, “the Sermon on the Mount was intended not only to lead human beings to the conviction that they are sinners who can be saved only through faith in the grace of God; even more, Jesus required consistent obedience from his followers. Anyone who claimed otherwise was preaching ‘cheap grace.’”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer's closest friend and principal biographer, Eberhard Bethge, also concluded that Bonhoeffer had held “the conventional Lutheran harmless understanding” of the Sermon on the Mount at least through 1929.  At that time, Bonhoeffer accepted the notion that a literal interpretation of the Sermon “would turn it into a law, and that law had been abolished through Christ.”

By the early 1930s, however, according to Bethge, “Bonhoeffer was entering new ground and an altered intellectual climate in his emphasis on the concreteness of faith in his interpretation of earthly discipleship, and his location of the disciple within the boundaries of historical and local decisions, fraught as they were with visible inconsistencies.” This “emphasis,” Bethge stated, was “in contrast to the Reformation era.” That conclusion seems already to have been made by Bonhoeffer himself when he remarked to his former teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr (in a 1934 letter from London), that the Sermon on the Mount “must be understood differently from the Reformational understanding.”  Gerhard Krause interpreted this remark to mean that Bonhoeffer himself “directed” Discipleship “against the students of Luther.”  In other words (to cite Bethge again), Bonhoeffer directed the book against his own earlier “conventional harmless Lutheran” understanding of the Sermon.

While Bonhoeffer’s treatment of the Sermon on the Mount in Discipleship differs in tone and content from previous interpretations by Lutheran scholars, to claim that it marks a departure from “the usual Lutheran interpretation” can also be misleading, since it seems to ignore Bonhoeffer’s continuity with exegetical decisions taken by Martin Luther himself. Even after 1932, the year Bonhoeffer claimed to have become a Christian (which also entailed his adoption of a form of Christian pacifism), he seems to have underestimated the degree to which he still shared basic exegetical and theological insights of Luther on the Sermon on the Mount. Accordingly, Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Sermon was not really "new for Protestant churches," as Schlingensiepen claims and as Bonhoeffer’s own remark to Niebuhr suggests.  Instead, Bonhoeffer uncovered issues and concerns in the biblical texts that German Lutheran theologians had been ignoring, repressing, forgetting, and distorting—insights that nonetheless are present in Luther’s own exegesis and that of a few other important Lutheran scholars from the century before Bonhoeffer, especially August Tholuck, whose commentary on the Sermon on the Mount was one of Bonhoeffer’s principal resources.

For further analysis of continuities and discontinuities between Bonhoeffer's Discipleship and Luther's sermons on the Sermon (and Tholuck's commentary on it), click this link.


  1. It's my belief many Christians would rather subscribe to law rather than grace. Law is easier to understand. Law can be plugged into a formula for living. Critical and abstract thought may be discounted.

    It's quite an irony when you think about it. Without grace, Christ's death and resurrection are meaningless. In contrast, grace seems to be the one concept that makes so many of my Christian brothers and sisters uncomfortable.

    Stir...Stir...Stir... ;).

    1. The phrase, "cheap grace", often is used to suggest that people don't take the Law seriously enough. I have come to think of that term more as a matter of failing to appreciate the enormity of the price that our Lord paid and a failure to appreciate that the price had to be that large because we have nothing to contribute.

  2. I have to confess that having read Nachfolge I can't see why Bonhoeffer remained a Lutheran. I think implicit within St. Paul's writing there are distinctions to be made between "person" and "office" in terms of ethical decision-making. To allow my son to be murdered by someone because of any ethic in the Sermon on the Mount amounts to ignoring the situation for what it is: a means to defend my son (and to prevent my so-called "neighbor" from breaking the murder commandment)