Christian History: Neo-Orthodoxy – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer’s cost of discipleship is yet another addition to this movement. Bonhoeffer makes a distinction between costly grace and cheap grace as his own reaction to the liberal movement. This is a distinction made to oppose those who accept that they are sinners, who then use this fact to justify a life of sin – “sin boldly!”, in Martin Luther’s often misinterpreted words. To give you the full quote from Luther’s actual writing, more in line with Bonhoeffer’s thinking on this point, look at his actual words (the best translation possible):

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (this is where “sin boldly” comes), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.

Of course, like most popular phrases, we tend to interpret them in the way that best fits the way we want to live our life. Bonhoeffer’s early 20th-century German Protestant context, and its liberal leanings, took the idea and ran to an ultimately incorrect conclusion. I think we’ve discussed more than enough about them, though, so let’s look at Bonhoeffer’s solutions instead.

Karl Barth may go straight for the theological answer, but Bonhoeffer strives for the more practical one. Cheap grace starts as the kind of grace we like, the kind that fails to cause improvements in the way we live. In sum, Bonhoeffer calls it

the grace we impose on ourselves…absolution without personal confession…

At first glance, this appears an opposing viewpoint  to the Reformation’s primary idea of justification by faith; Bonhoeffer, however, rejects that criticism via nuance. That fact of justification provides the earnest and willing disciple with comfort that when he/she/it stumbles and falls, they will not fail to pick themselves up again – a life of discipleship as depicted in Scripture. The modern generation (of Bonhoeffer’s time) removed this obligation to discipleship – grace, then, is not a thing one receive, but also something that we use, correctly or incorrectly, within our own path through life.

Think of the idea as “active” grace. You must actually live like a Christian to become a Christian. Holding onto a belief in itself simply doesn’t cut it, and organized religion makes the process a little too safe and harmless. Do you want to serve Christ and change you life, or do you simply want reassurance? Will your Christianity show by action or by belief? Bonhoeffer’s dilemma, then, led to a theological split with the Protestant Church…in a way.

Bonhoeffer sets a foundation for a “religionless” Christianity. He was involved in what one could call a variety of “secular” activities, and constantly moved in those realms where, in his eyes, religion was not a factor. Humanity’s continual development of independence away from God was actually an improvement:

…we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur (as if God did not exist).

The idea that people need to follow some “religion” developed as a human construct, similar to Barth’s objection. Is evangelizing while a person feels emotionally vulnerable a genuine Christian action, and does “conversion” in the traditional sense remain worthwhile construct? Bonhoeffer relates this to Paul’s adamant conviction that Gentiles do not need to become Jews; rather, Christianity does not need human concepts of “religion”. This is as much a Bultmannian reaction as an Neo-Orthodox one, though Bonhoeffer believed he did not take demythologization far enough. Christians must live a secular life, speak of God in a secular way, and thereby share in God’s suffering.

Bonhoeffer makes a highly effective case by showing the inadequacy of Christianity as “religion” rather than revelation. Philosophical metaphysics made salvation an escape from the world, and forced a preoccupation with the individual’s spiritual status as a result. As well, it particularizes Christianity into one facet of life – the Sunday Christian in his/her/its religious ghetto. Bonhoeffer wants to bring God to the center of life, not just some fringe element. Christians must serve the secular world in a Christian way amenable to that world. God, like in Barth, remains the supreme authority.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reaction, however, creates a false dichotomy, even if that was not his intention. Religion may or may not be a human institution (depending on whether you are Catholic or Protestant, for example), but that does not mean that God is not a part of that particular institution. If that community follows God’s Word, then it indeed becomes “religion” in a “Christian” way. To be “in the world, but not of it” does not mean either accepting secular or religious symbols as something in exelcis – rather, it is traversing in both worlds while  remaining, through and through, a disciple of Christ. In that sense do I cite John 17:

14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 7 Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18 As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

We all come from particular cultures, some Christian and some not. Each and every one, if we truly believe what Jesus says (John 15:19 also fits), means we belong to a different world and a different mode of being. We should expect opposition and trials, but in this we find ourselves sanctified in the truth. We must depend on God, or all else fails. We must “sin boldly” so that grace abounds all the more, both for us and for those we seek to help and change. Surely, the Church demonstrated its propensity for sinful behaviors and horrible deeds, but it looks towards God’s grace as an aid.

It’s the difference between accusation and a willingness to forgive, no matter how terrible the person (in our opinion, of course). No grace exists as “cheap” – anyone who sins and recognizes that as a sin understands the cost of it. I think of the recent issues people presented about the imagined Christopher Columbus versus the true oppressor, a genocidal maniac who wanted gold. Yet, he express more guilt and regret for the things he did and allowed on his colony than a person who did not recognize it. It’s that difference, between recognizing sin and ignoring it, that makes a better distinction than “costly” and “cheap”. We earn neither.

To remove dependence on God seems a misnomer if sin also ts into the equation – if religion is bad, yet humans need independence from God, why not allow religion as an independent construct of humanity independently seeking God’s will? There does not seem to be a need to “secularize” Christianity, for it already traverses both realms, sometimes with conflict and sometimes with tension. Many characters in the Bible take different approaches to the problem – Daniel, for example, makes a religious stand by not eating meat, but depends on God to solve the problem – then, he integrates with Babylonian society. Was this “secular YHWH cult” effective, or did it still keep its religious tone?

In addition, Christians need community and fellowship with other Christians as well! How can one serve without solidarity with one’s fellow disciples, a united front (incognito, perhaps)? Bonhoeffer did not have the time to develop his thoughts fully, but there are definite problems: God is still too distant and too impersonal. I realize we trend towards “weak” theology at this moment in time, but that’s not consistent with Scripture at all.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • I had a hamster named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He too died in a dark cold prison, unfortunately. We tried to keep him safe from the cat. But we forgot to keep him warm in the cold attic. Very sad. He too could have used more time to develop his theology.

    • Zachery Oliver

      Whether or not this is real or imagined for the sake of a joke, I LOL’d.