Book Reviews, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: “Christ and Revelatory Community in Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Hegel” by David S. Robinson

Robinson shows in Christ and Revelatory Community in Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Hegel that Bonhoeffer was influenced by, but also departed from GWF Hegel’s philosophy and theology on a number of key points. The book serves as a way to see Bonhoeffer through a Hegelian lens, and also note how Bonhoeffer developed Hegel’s thoughts in some key ways, particularly related to the community of the church.

Robinson begins with outlining some of Hegel’s thought related to the community and the somewhat elusive Geist (Spirit) in his thought. Then, he turns to Hegel’s incorporation of those ideas into the unfolding of Revelation in history and how Bonhoeffer specifically also incorporated revelation into history. The coming of Christ leads to a new community and the creator-human (Jesus Christ) opens new possibilities for the one and the many to come into conversation with each other. More explicitly, Robinson then turns to Christology in both Bonhoeffer and Hegel. Robinson argues Hegel’s Trinitarian theology–including the  was not pantheistic but instead understood relationship as a central aspect of community. Bonhoeffer utilized similar themes in writing about Christ as existing in the community of the church.

One particularly fascinating chapter focused in on Bonhoeffer’s sacramental theology, contrasting it with how Hegel viewed the Eucharist. Bonhoeffer explicitly aligned himself against the Reformed objections to the Lutheran understanding of real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Franz Hildebrandt, a friend of Bonhoeffer’s, utilized Hegelian thought to counter Karl Barth’s Reformed understanding of “this is my body” (132-134). Bonhoeffer himself incorporated Hegel’s concepts of seeing doctrine ad integral to the community to see Christ present in the Word preached as well as in the sacrament–the est of the sermon and sacrament (142). Hegel’s vision of the Eucharist sees union of objective and subjective into one through Christ, and he sees the Sacrament as the place where the Geist may become indwelling in the human person (146). Such a Lutheran understanding is reaffirmed and even made stronger in Bonhoeffer’s position, as he argues that one cannot distinguish idea from history/nature (though Robinson argues this was not necessarily Hegel’s position; see p. 147ff).

Community continues to be important as the concepts of freedom and revolution arise in Hegel and Bonhoeffer. These are questions of community that must be asked, and the thinkers diverge on this point. Hegel has been seen as an “apologist for Prussia” (169ff), though Robinson argues that he would better be understood as someone seeking Reform within existing institutions (172). Bonhoeffer addresses these questions through confessional space and seeing the church as the body of Christ–Christ existing as community in the church (177ff).

The concept of the Volk–folk–a kind of nationalist precursor to the Nazi ideology in Germany, is one that looms large in Hegel and Bonhoeffer in different ways. Robinson argues that Hegel’s Volkish tendencies were exacerbated and expanded by later Neo-Hegelian thinkers who sought exclusion based upon bloodlines and race, turning Hegel’s concepts of Geist into blood and “racialism” (197-198). Nevertheless, the dominant strand of Hegelian thought that arose in Bonhoeffer’s time was highly tied to Volk and bloodlines, an intensely racist theme that was used by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer, however, was exposed to thinkers apart from Hegel and one of those who helped shape his thought was W.E.B. Du Bois, whose The Souls of Black Folk, Robinson argues, was at least intrinsically influential for Bonhoeffer’s thinking. Both Hegel and Bonhoeffer criticized the state for its treatment of Jews and emphasized their humanity (204-206; 207-09). Hegel’s thought was Eurocentric, despite some aspects of criticizing the nationalism of his peers. Bonhoeffer’s thinking, Robinson argues, became transnational and ecumenical.

Robinson clearly carries the argument that Bonhoeffer was deeply influenced by Hegel’s thought. Whether it was by way of contrast or utilizing similar structure of arguments, Bonhoeffer’s training made him cognizant of Hegelian philosophy and interacted with it at many points.

Christ and Revelatory Community in Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Hegel is a fascinating look at Bonhoeffer’s reception of Hegelian thought. Robinson demonstrates that Bonhoeffer developed some ideas along Hegelian lines, while also sharply breaking from them in some respects. I highly recommend it for those looking to delve deeply into Bonhoeffer’s thought.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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