Feasting on Forsyth and Bonhoeffer

First, here’s what I’ve been reflecting on today. Two Forsyth quotes:

‘The supreme task for the last reality, if it be holy, is to assert and secure itself against the last challenge of it. It is to cope with moral evil, which is its absolute antithesis and mortal foe. If man can do that he is his own reality and his own God. If he cannot, his only footing is in the God who can – who indeed must, or He is not God.’ (PT Forsyth, The Principle of Authority, 185)

‘Faith can be confounded only if God fail.’ (PT Forsyth, The Principle of Authority, 350)

Next, the latest IJST is out and includes some promising articles:

‘Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism’, by Bruce Mccormack

‘Violence in Bloomsbury: A Theological Challenge’, by Oliver Davies

‘Accommodation to What? Univocity of Being, Pure Nature, and the Anthropology of St Irenaeus’, by Hans Boersma

‘The Trinity, Election and God’s Ontological Freedom: A Response to Kevin W. Hector’, by Paul Molnar

‘Actualism and Incarnation: The High Christology of Friedrich Schleiermacher’, by Kevin Hector

There’s also some interesting reviews, including one that I reproduce here by Peter Manley Scott on Kelly and Nelson’s book on Moral leadership in Bonheoffer.

Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, xvii + 300pp.

What is to be done with Bonhoeffer’s literary legacy? In this excellent book, Kelly and Nelson give an emphatic answer: by his writings, Bonhoeffer is to be taken as a political theologian. By concentrating on his exercise of moral leadership, and his criticism of the leadership failures of others, Kelly and Nelson re-contextualize Bonhoeffer’s theology into the example of his life. In other words, Bonhoeffer is a political theologian with a difference: Kelly and Nelson narrate his efforts at responsible church leadership in a crisis situation by attending to the interaction between Bonhoeffer’s theological work and his free decisions. As Bonhoeffer noted in one of his last letters, it is example that gives words their power. Kelly and Nelson implicitly take this as a hermeneutical clue for their splendid presentation of Bonhoeffer: no abstracted theology, no thoughtless leadership but instead the highly intelligent work of being a disciple in a politically dangerous situation in which the truth of the gospel is at stake and responsible action is required; political theology in the service of Christ.

Furthermore, they make insightful suggestions about an additional recontextualization: how such an example of moral leadership might inform and criticise the moral leadership currently being practised by the Western churches. Thus an abiding subtext of the book is the failures in moral leadership in our present-day churches. Put positively, ‘It is not surprising that students of Bonhoeffer’s thought today see so many parallels in his challenges to the churches of Germany and their own churches’ efforts to promote peace, justice and liberation among the people they represent and among those who have no one to speak up for them’ (p. 148).

The organizing principle of the book is thematic rather than chronological. After an opening chapter that offers an account of Bonhoeffer’s life, the remaining chapters imaginatively explore aspects of Bonhoeffer’s spirituality. The commitment to justice or to peace, siding with the poor and the oppressed, following the way of the cross, living in church community: these are among the aspects discussed by Kelly and Nelson. The sources from which this presentation is drawn are mostly Bonhoeffer’s more theological writings; however, the two final chapters draw extensively on Bonhoeffer’s sermons and poems. Much of this discussion will be familiar to those who have read widely in Bonhoeffer and know the biography by Eberhard Bethge. Nonetheless, arranging the material thematically and concentrating on the matter of leadership does serve to highlight the convergence of discipleship and responsible action in Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. Additionally, we get a clearer sense of the resources – prayer, reading the Bible, community, family – on which Bonhoeffer himself drew. Through all this, there may also be a tendency to abstract Bonhoeffer a little from his context: the moral leadership of his contemporaries in the Confessing Church is not discussed in detail; when Bonhoeffer is compared to other Christian leaders, the ones selected are Romero and King. Martyrdom – to which I shall return – thereby emerges as an important theme. Moreover, there are some theological surprises: for example, Kelly and Nelson argue for the importance of the Spirit in Bonhoeffer’s theology. Indeed, it may be the case that attention to the path of discipleship allows a clearer view of the pneumatological dimension of Bonhoeffer’s work. Whether Bonhoeffer’s theology may be described as adequately trinitarian, and how some of his theological judgements might be altered if developed in a trinitarian direction, are questions worth pursuing, although they do not receive attention in this book. Nonetheless, this is a well-researched, creative, beautifully written, thought-provoking and moving presentation of Bonhoeffer as Christian radical.

I mentioned earlier that the organization of this book is thematic rather than chronological. There is one sense in which this is not true. That is, the book hinges upon an assessment of Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in the assassination plots against Hitler. It is not quite clear when Bonhoeffer makes this decision but certainly by 1940 he is involved in working in support of the resistance movement in Germany. The nature of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism up to that point, and his change of heart regarding the absoluteness of his pacifism, are carefully documented in chapter 5. As it is this decision to enter into the conspiracy that lead to his arrest and execution, and also to an increasing distance from the Confessing Church, the issue of moral leadership is here presented in its most intensive form. Is it truly an exercise in moral leadership to make such a decision? Perhaps the determination to answer this question in the affirmative accounts for the boldness of the writing of this book. This apparent defence of Bonhoeffer’s decision, and therefore an acceptance of Bonhoeffer’s change of mind as moral development, is important for the case being made regarding Bonhoeffer’s relevance for us. As already noted, the authors wish to make a connection between Bonhoeffer’s moral leadership and the quality of moral leadership exercised today. To what extent, then, is Bonhoeffer’s example to be imitated? One move made by Kelly and Nelson is to relate his position to the current ‘war on terrorism’, specifically the attack on Afghanistan by the USA in 2001. In that Bonhoeffer appealed to the moral consideration of self-defence in defence of war, Kelly and Nelson appeal to the USA’s right of self-defence in the face of terrorist attack and thereby grant moral approval to the invasion of Afghanistan. (They also provide an excellent assessment of the moral basis of US actions at home and abroad; I am tempted to say that pp. 115–28 are a ‘must read’ for those concerned with Christian moral leadership today.)

Of course what must be persuasive here is the similarity of the Allies’ response to Nazi Germany in terms of self-defence with the US attack on Afghanistan (and, later, Iraq) in terms of self-defence. Are these two acts of self-defence comparable? On the second occasion, does self-defence require attack, or may it also support a different course of action? Was the attack by the US on Afghanistan truly motivated by a desire, of which Bonhoeffer would have approved, ‘to liberate the innocent from terror and death’ (p. 118)? To clinch their case, Kelly and Nelson quote Jean Bethke Elshtain: ‘If evil is permitted to grow, good goes into hiding.’ In its lack of precision and caution this strikes me as a very un-Bonhoefferean comment.

Moreover, almost any action could be justified in its light. After all, who apart from the depraved wants good to go into hiding? Moreover, we may ask why Bonhoeffer’s pacifism is now rescinded in favour of a critique based on the provisional defence of war? The analysis provides no answer. Yet for the comparison to work we need some account of how terrorist groups are like the Nazi state.

I have one further, related, misgiving. Can Bonhoeffer do no wrong? In this employment of Bonhoeffer as witness for all moral seasons, I fear that there is a subtle pressure to ‘instrumentalize’ his theology. By this means, the creativity of his theology is overstated also. This pressure can be seen in the theological as well as the ethical discussion. For example, Kelly and Nelson maintain that in his 1933 Christology lectures Bonhoeffer did not wish his students to get ‘bogged down in the heavy theological analyses of how the incarnation of the Word of God was possible’ (p. 38). Yet Bonhoeffer is also reported as maintaining the filioque as an important theological protocol against Nazi investment in the false construal of the orders of creation as predating the Word made flesh (p. 73). Is there not some inconsistency here: please do not worry about incarnation but, hey, we need to maintain the filioque! Moreover, are there not questions to be asked of the filioque itself: is there no other theological way of refusing the Nazification of the orders of creation and is the filioque still to be defended today?

That is, against instrumentalization, is it not at least plausible that his theology will need to be developed to engage issues such as the war on terrorism in a period of the West’s military and economic hegemony in a new, global context? Would not this be the only appropriate way to honour Bonhoeffer’s commitment to concretion in moral deliberation? Perhaps such development is what might be done with Bonhoeffer’s literary legacy. After the celebrations in 2006 to mark the centennial anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s birth would this not be a suitable issue to which Bonhoeffer scholarship might turn?

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