Book Reviews, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: “Attacks on Christendom in a World Come of Age: Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and the Question of ‘Religionless Christianity'” by Matthew D. Kirkpatrick

Søren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were both Lutherans who lived in a time of tremendous pressure on the church from outside forces to conform to their culture. Each developed a theology that called into question the nature of the church and of Christianity itself. Matthew D. Kirkpatrick, in Attacks on Christendom in a World Come of Age, explores the theological strands and trends of these two theologians. He shows how influential Kierkegaard was on Bonhoeffer’s thought, but he also draws out applications from both thinkers to today.

Kirkpatrick begins by drawing out Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom. Then, he outlines Bonhoeffer’s pushing back against the German concept of volk. Idealism is a major factor for both Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard. Three chapters that make up the bulk of the book are dedicated to the attacks from each theologian on idealism. Before a conclusion, Kirkpatrick turns to the theologians’ attacks on Christendom and how they drew out what was plaguing Christianity in their own times.

Kierkegaard’s own theology developed against a kind of lackadaisical approach to Christianity in which people did not truly practice their faith. It had been incorporated into the culture in ways that made it a servant of the state rather than something to invigorate the populace and awaken faith. For Bonoheffer, it was a growing awareness of how the concept of the Volk had become an idol that led him to question the people’s use of Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms to demand loyalty to the Nazi regime (49ff). Bonhoeffer strongly pushed back against this use of the two kingdoms and developed his own theology, in part, against this. This does not, however, mean that Bonhoeffer was immune to his cultural upbringing or the Volkish nationalism. Early on, he flirted with some of the questions of Christian ethics in regard to the Volk when he was in Barcelona (63ff). However, he ultimately rejected this, along with nationalism (64ff).

The attack on idealism occupies a major portion of the book. Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer feature prominently throughout this section. Each saw idealism as an elimination of the individual and reality, a kind of fleeing from reality (90-91). Bonhoeffer’s attack on idealism is developed directly along Kierkegaardian lines, and Kirkpatrick argues that Bonhoeffer demonstrates his continuity and reliance upon Kierkegaard’s thought throughout this section (95ff).

Bonhoeffer’s development of discipleship uses Kierkegaard, Luther, and theologians of the Middle Ages (166). It is also developed alongside a rejection of an idealist view of discipleship. Idealism leads to a kind of deification of reason that is detrimental to faith.

Kierkegaard’s attack on Christianity has been criticized by some as aristocractic pride or a demonstration of a deeply unsettled, angry mind. Kirkpatrick argues that, by contrast, the attack on Christendom from Kierkegaard is a logical development of his previous theological stages (175ff). Drawing from numerous works of Kierkegaard, Kirkpatrick shows that Kierkegaard’s attack was a call to genuine Christianity and an attack on a kind of cultural, comfortable “faith” that failed to live up to the need to set aside all for Christ. Bonhoeffer’s own attack on Christendom was influenced heavily by Barth, but he goes well beyond Barth as he shows how the Christian develops from religion and in faith (186ff). Bonhoeffer’s attack is against a kind of detached Christianity that sees God as a working hypothesis for life (192); instead, Christian faith must allow God into life in such a way that God is not a principle or belief but rather God become human in the form of Christ as a challenge to all ages (193, 194). This sets Bonhoeffer apart from Bultmann and others who tried to demythologize Christianity. That is not Bonhoeffer’s project; Bonhoeffer’s project is to reinvigorate Christianity and throw off the chains that various cultural worldviews placed upon it, but specifically the notion of deus ex machina that is so pervasive (see, for example, 206).

Attacks on Christendom in a World Come of Age draws readers into a dialogue with two of the most important modern theologians. It calls readers to realize that Christianity is in a dialogue with events in the world, all while able to truly bring truth and Gospel to the world. I highly recommend it.

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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