Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s influence on modern theology continues to grow, as he has clearly become one of the most influential theologians from the 20th century. What is exciting for those who are interested in his theological legacy is the increasing interest in applying his thought to new approaches and modern questions in ways that go beyond mere interpretation and into a broader application. Steven van den Heuvel takes up one of the most pressing and interesting questions of our time by applying Bonhoeffer’s thought to questions of environmental ethics in his Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric Theology and Fundamental Debates in Environmental Ethics.
Van den Heuvel puts quite a bit of work into emphasizing Bonhoeffer’s Christology, laying the groundwork for later development through the book. His interpretation of Bonhoeffer is fascinating, and he ably navigates the difficulties of seeing Bonhoeffer as a true Lutheran while also seeing the innovations he made. Bonhoeffer’s concept of the Christ reality allowed him to both resist and oppose Nazi ideology while refusing to shunt responsibility and action (56-57).
By placing Bonhoeffer in his historical situation, moreover, van den Heuvel explains several difficult questions related to Bonhoeffer’s thought and use of terminology. For example, it might be baffling for many Christians today to see Bonhoeffer react so strongly against “orders of creation” when they are commonly used by many theological strands today. But van den Heuvel notes that Bonhoeffer was reacting against the Nazification of those theological categories as they attempted to use “orders of creation” to make racial hierarchy and integrate it into the church (92-95). Thus, Bonhoeffer insisted on use of “orders of preservation” and developed that terminology over and against the ideological developments that attempted to unite Nazis and Christianity.
After extensive discussion laying the groundwork for Bonhoeffer’s thought, van den Heuvel turns to specific questions of environmentalism. These included detailed look at several environmentalist threads and how Bonhoeffer’s thought can expand upon it and adapt it.
One specific insight is the question of technological advancement. This question is one that was of interest to both Bonhoeffer and Luther. Van den Heuvel shows that, as often was the case, Bonhoeffer followed Luther’s reasoning in seeing technology as a way for fallen humanity to maintain its mastery over nature in ways that are often deleterious (174-175). This question ties into the overall theological problem of the “mastery” of humanity over nature. Too often, Genesis 1:26-28 is used to see the world and nature as something that humanity can abuse and use to the fullest extent. But Bonhoeffer offers corrective here, seeing the fall of humanity as integral intertwined with how we interact with nature. Thus, because Bonhoeffer has a focus on this world, he notes that we live in a fallen world, in which the urge to dominate nature becomes, all too often, a destructive force. Indeed, van den Heuvel notes that Bonhoeffer apparently departs from Luther’s view regarding the Fall here. Where Luther held that the eschaton would bring about human dominance of the world once again, Bonhoeffer did not see that as part of the eschatological hope (175).
Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric Theology and Fundamental Debates in Environmental Ethics is incredibly important because it shows conclusively that Bonhoeffer’s thought is not something that remains in the past, but has real-world applications to today’s contemporary debates. Van den Heuvel has done Bonhoeffer scholarship a service by showing not only careful attention to Bonhoeffer’s thought and interpretation but also through showing how modern theologians can apply his thought to modern questions.
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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