Karl Barth and Christian Ethics: Living in Truth

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Brimming with admiration for this theologian who sacrificed his life to oppose the evils of Nazism, I enthusiastically recommended his book to my friends.

I also esteemed him for rejecting racism and anti-Semitism, and for his works of compassion for the poor and oppressed. Bonhoeffer was my hero. However, it baffled me. Was this the same Bonhoeffer I knew and loved? Had he changed? Bonhoeffer apparently did not share my concerns. My next exposure to Bonhoeffer came in the late s, when I was working on my Ph.

In a church history course at a liberal seminary both the textbook and professor admired Bonhoeffer, considering him a fellow liberal. It struck me forcefully that Bonhoeffer was praised by just about everyone across the theological spectrum, from fundamentalists to evangelicals to neo-orthodox to liberals to death-of-God theologians, not only for his courageous life, but also for his theology. How could this be? Divergent Discipleship. I decided to find out, so I began a systematic study of Bonhoeffer that led me to some rather unsettling discoveries.

Bonhoeffer was not the theological conservative I had earlier assumed him to be. Why, if what I am saying is true, have many evangelicals embraced Bonhoeffer so uncritically? Second, Bonhoeffer was a courageous individual who uniquely combined a powerful intellect with compassion for the disadvantaged. He was a sophisticated thinker completely conversant in—and heavily influenced by—Continental philosophy, including Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others. Fourth, many evangelicals applaud Bonhoeffer for rejecting liberal theology, not realizing that the neo-orthodox theology he embraced is still far from evangelical theology.

Even if it rejects nineteenth-century-style liberal theology, neo-orthodox theology is on the liberal side of the theological spectrum, since it rejects biblical inerrancy and other doctrines central to genuine Christianity. Probably nothing about Bonhoeffer appeals to evangelicals more than his insistence on the authority of Scripture. Sometime around , Bonhoeffer had a significant religious experience, which some describe as a conversion experience. Many evangelicals wrongly conclude that Bonhoeffer was urging all Christians to follow this example. However, Bonhoeffer was directing his exhortations primarily to theologians, not to the laity.

Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation. Struggles with Scripture.

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After or so, Bonhoeffer seems to have lost his earlier zeal for the Bible. In January , June , and March , he admitted to his friend and confidant Eberhard Bethge that he went days and weeks without reading the Bible much, though sometimes he would read it voraciously. I know that I only need to open my own books to hear what may be said against all this….

Bonhoeffer thus recognized that his devotional life in the s did not match his earlier writings.

The Troubling Truth About Bonhoeffer’s Theology

Instead, Barth insisted that all Scripture is the Word of God. However, by this he did not mean that Scripture was historically accurate; in fact, he did not think Scripture had anything to do with empirical reality. Barth divided knowledge into two separate realms—religious and empirical, and the Bible is religious truth, not empirical truth. Barth never embraced biblical inerrancy and readily admitted that higher biblical criticism had academic legitimacy.

However, he thought that the historical accuracy of Scripture was irrelevant. Thus Barth and Bonhoeffer considered apologetics misguided, because it transgressed the boundaries separating the empirical and religious realms.

Bonhoeffer often criticized the doctrine of verbal inspiration. He accepted the validity of biblical criticism, but maintained that even those passages that are not historically accurate are nonetheless the Word of God. According to Bonhoeffer, even though historical criticism has proven that Jesus did not speak some words ascribed to Him in the Bible, this makes no difference in interpreting Scripture. We must still rely on and preach the whole Bible and keep moving, like one crossing a river on an ice pack that is breaking up.

Inspired but Inaccurate.


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In one section of The Cost of Discipleship , Bonhoeffer affirmed the truth, reliability, and unity of the Scriptures in the strongest possible way. The sentence: Christ is risen and present, is the dissolution of the unity of the Scripture if it is ontologically understood….

The sentence: Christ is risen and present, strictly understood only as testimony of Scripture, is true only as the word of Scripture. What Bonhoeffer is calling fanaticism here is the belief that the testimony of Scripture has ontological significance, that is, that Scripture is referring to things that really exist or have existed in the past.

Bonhoeffer thus presented the truth of Scripture as nonhistorical, not testimony about some actual event. He wondered how this could be. Bonhoeffer did not believe that truth can be contained in propositions or timeless principles.

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While working on The Cost of Discipleship , he wrote to a friend, explaining that truth is not timeless and universal, as many people assume it to be. In a lecture permeated with Nietzschean allusions, Bonhoeffer rejected the idea that Christian ethics is based on eternal principles or norms. What is said [in the Scriptures] about the content of discipleship? Follow after me, run along behind me! That is all.

Chapter 2. The Truth about God: The Decalogue as Condition for Truthful Speech

To follow him is something completely void of content…. Again it [discipleship] is no universal law; rather it is the exact opposite of all legality. It is nothing other than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, i. Thus there is no further content possible, since Jesus is the only content. Reformation Is Sin. The Cruelty of Peace.


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Living on Dishonest Wealth. Back matter Index. Retrieved from Bloomsbury Collections, www. Hauerwas, S. Accessed September 25, Email x Sanctify them in the Truth. Share x. Buy This Book. Chapter DOI Better to say that God found me. Being found by God feels odd anywhere, I suppose, but especially so in England — in Oxford, no less. Even stranger still, it occurred during a meeting of the English Society for the Study of Christian Ethics, which is surely the last place most of us would expect God to show up. So perhaps an explanation is in order. As we were walking together Nigel observed,

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