Book Reviews, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: “Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross” by J. I. de Keijzer

Act and Being is perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s most opaque and difficult book. J. I. de Keijzer seeks, in Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross, to show that Bonhoeffer’s book was, in fact, constructing a theology of the cross in conversation with Karl Barth, Martin Heidegger, and, most importantly, Martin Luther.

The introduction lays out de Keijzer’s project, including an emphasis on seeing Bonhoeffer in his context and, specifically, as a Lutheran theologian. This latter point is important, because de Keijzer goes on to emphasize the need to avoid starting with a defined theology of the cross in order to read that back onto Bonheoffer (and Barth–more on that soon) but instead to draw on the work of the individual to allow them to outline their theology of the cross (31). He then goes on to outline Barth’s theology of the cross and argue that Bonhoeffer is, himself, intentionally arguing for an alternative. Evidence for this is derived from Act and Being, Bonhoeffer’s second dissertation, and how it argues in a parallel structure to Karl Barth’s “Fate and Idea.”  

After showing that Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being is intended as a parallel and contrasting project to Barth’s own theology of the cross, de Keizjer notes several points of divergence Bonhoeffer takes over and against Barth. One of these is the argument over whether the finite can contain the infinite (Bonhoeffer sides with Lutheran theology here, and de Keijzer shows that the Lutheran view does not stumble in the ways Reformed/Calvinist theologians often charge it with). (He expands on this both on 42-43 and 109-111, the latter of which shows how this is a major dividing line between the two Reformation branches of theology.) Another is a series of problems Bonhoeffer–explicitly or not–shows in Barth’s theology, such as how Barth’s theology is individualistic rather than comunal, that he (Barth) essentially made Christianity into a branch of idealism (47-49), and most famously, Bonhoeffer’s charge that Barth’s theology is a negativism of revelation. The latter receives quite a bit of space in de Keizjer’s work, as he argues that Bonhoeffer sees Barth’s work as failing to fully create a Christian theology. The negativism (or positivism) in Barth’s thought regarding theology receives an answer, according to de Keijzer, in Bonhoeffer’s use of the theology of the cross because Bonhoeffer’s own theology offers 3 things that Barth’s does not: 1. it offers helpful insight to the nonreligious person; 2. it does not undercut grace as a gift; 3. it provides guidance in nonreligious interpretations of theological concepts (52-54). 

Martin Luther also looms large in de Keijzer’s discussion, as he notes that Luther cannot simply be reduced to one along a continuum of theologians who argued for a theology of the cross (55ff). Instead, Luther’s insights were essential for Bonhoeffer and, argues de Keijzer, for rightly understanding the theology of the cross in general. God’s real presence in and for the world is absolutely central to a right understanding of the incarnation and how God is present in Jesus’s flesh (57-58). Moving ahead, de Keijzer argues that Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross provides a strong basis for just such a theology, giving several essential elements toward that end, such as the ambiguous relationship between revelation/faith and reason, the ability to use spacial metaphors fruitfully in theology, movement from the cross to the world, Christ on the cross as God acting in behalf of humanity, and a radically sacramental understanding of the body of Christ. 

Luther’s influence continues as de Keijzer notes that while it may look as though Bonhoeffer and Luther diverged regarding epistemology and faith, that is far from the case. Luther’s epistemological project was to make room for grace in his own context, while Bonhoeffer’s project was to break the epistemological barrier created by idealism in order to retrieve grace (115ff). Luther continues to be central to Bonoheffer in the latter’s reading of Heidegger. Heidegger himself was heavily influenced by Luther, and Bonhoeffer utilized Heidegger’s philosophy in Act and Being to deconstruct rationalistic schemes (127ff, esp. 138-140). Ultimately, of course, Bonhoeffer’s project is heavily focused on ecclesiology and how through the church, Christ truly is present with God’s people (162ff). 

Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross is a fascinating look at a specific aspect of Bonhoeffer’s theology, and, more specifically, the points he was elucidating in his complex Act and Being. De Keizjer does a fantastic job of both explaining the finer points of Bonhoeffer’s view in contrast to his contemporaries and interlocutors while also showing how Bonhoeffer’s work may be applied to Christian life today. Highly recommended.

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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