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Tillich's Theological Influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Ken Armentrout, Boston University, 2012

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from here)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian, administrator, professor and pastor. Many individuals such as Barth and Buber influenced his theology and professional life but many do not realize that Tillich also played a significant role in his life and thought.

Professionally as both a professor and pastor, Tillich was influential in securing for Bonhoeffer a ministry to refugees and a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Henry Smith Leiper and Tillich has been appointed to a committee to find an individual to work with refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution and newly arriving in New York city. Tillich “stated his conviction that he [Bonhoeffer] was exactly the right person for this delicate and difficult task” (Works, Vol. 15:  173-174). On May 31, 1939 in a letter from Samuel McCrea Cavert, Leiper conveyed that suggestion, urging that  Dietrich Bonhoeffer be moved to New York City to undertake the urgent work with refugees. Reinhold Niebuhr then further suggested that, while working with refugees, Bonhoeffer might also lecture at Union Seminary.

Early within the development of Bonhoeffer’s thought, he was reading and consulting the works of Paul Tillich. Tillich’s influence upon Bonhoeffer was in the areas of theology of revelation, and church and culture. Bonhoeffer initially understood revelation as dialectical in a way that was influenced by the thought of Tillich (Vol. 2: 8). Later, in Act and Being, Bonhoeffer argued against Tillich’s understanding of revelation as Tillich presented it in The Religious Situation. Bonhoeffer argued that revelation marks a clear distinction between philosophical and theological anthropology. Bonhoeffer believed that revelation informs a theological anthropology that understands human existence as determined by guilt and grace. Philosophical anthropology, by contrast, cannot adopt this viewpoint on human existence but must understand existence as an unconditional threat or the need of humanity to understand itself (Vol. 2: 77, note 89).

In 1939, as a part of the last five pages of American Diary, Bonhoeffer included notes that became the foundation of his “Essay about Protestantism in the United States of America.” Bonhoeffer wrote this essay after his return to Germany in August of 1939. Bonhoeffer there described a turn in American theology over the previous ten years as a return to revelation and away from secularism in its many forms, including modernity, humanitarianism, and naturalism. He located this shift from the “social gospel” to Dogmatics especially at Union Theological Seminary and in the writings of German theologians who were deeply influential in America, among whom he numbered Tillich (Vol. 5: 459).

Bonhoeffer appreciated Tillich’s early work on the relation of religion and culture (Vol. 11: 226). In a letter to Eberhard Bethge on June 8, 1944, Bonhoeffer addressed the rise of modernity over the previous century and the correlative loss of God in society, in the academy, and in the sciences. Subsequently he commented that only in existential questions does God continue to be relevant because the existential philosophers try to demonstrate the continuing need for God in the life of the world in the aftermath of the modernity and secularism—a relevance that liberal theology fails to express. In commenting on Tillich’s work in light of then current cultural crisis of the loss of God in Christ within the world, Bonhoeffer argued that Tillich interprets the development of the world through the form of religion. Social leaders felt misunderstood by Tillich and rejected his analysis. This failure of understanding, according to Bonhoeffer, is rooted in flaws within Tillich’s analysis, including especially that Tillich interpreted the world against itself and believed he understood the world better than it understood itself (Vol. 8. Pg. 428).

In Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer’s dissertation completed in 1927, he argued against Tillich’s understanding of the holiness of the masses. While discussing the community of the church addressed through word and sacrament, Bonhoeffer argued for the community of faith made up of individuals. In contemplating the Protestant community as an instance of the masses, Bonhoeffer referenced Tillich’s perception that the ‘spirit’ has withdrawn from the masses, but that a direct relation between the masses and the ‘spirit’ is still possible. Tillich understood the holiness of the formless mass as receiving form through “the revelation of the forming absolute” (Vol. 1, pg. 239). Bonhoeffer responded that Tillich’s understanding of the “holiness of the masses” has “nothing to do with Christian Theology.” The holiness of God’s church-community is bound to God’s word in Christ, that word is only ever personally appropriated, and never a decision of the masses. Bonhoeffer agreed with Tillich that the church-community must be engaged with and it must respond when the masses are seeking community. Yet the relevant criteria for judgment derive from the church-community's judgment of the masses, not the masses' judgment of the church-community (Vol. 1, pgs. 239-240).

Later in Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer picked this theme up again. He points out that this revelation of God in the word of Christ is not known in the masses. God’s concrete historical will is known by the masses but only as God’s word of judgment toward the masses. Salvation is only within the church (Vol 1, pgs. 273-274). In his lectures on the History of Twentieth-Century Systematic Theology, Bonhoeffer agreed with Tillich that humanity is a new form of life in nature, expressing community and enabling the rediscovery of the transcendent in the past act of God in Christ. God is manifest in Christ within history and this becomes the basis for the new life of the individual and community—a thoroughly Tillichian theme from the Systematic Theology, especially volume 3 (Vol. 11, pg. 228).

In conclusion, while much disagreement exists between the theology of Bonhoeffer and Tillich, Bonhoeffer’s recognition of the dialectic aspect of the nature of revelation is partly the result of Tillich’s influence. Bonhoeffer recognized the significant influence of Tillich in the then current theological and cultural shift from secularism to the rediscovery of revelation. The emphasis of Bonhoeffer on revelation in his own theology is a result of Tillich’s thought that enacted change within the discipline. Finally, while they disagreed over much concerning a theology of church and culture, they agreed that the community of the church needs to provide community for all individuals.

In response to the suspension of Tillich from his teaching position at Berlin University, several students were collecting signatures urging officials of the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs to reconsider. Subsequently those officials asked for a letter from the Berlin faculty concerning the theological significance of Tillich. Bonhoeffer wrote to Erich Seeberg on April 21st, 1933 to inquire about his initiating a process of support for Tillich. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Even just my own personal gratitude for what I have learned from Tillich on many occasions gives me the courage to turn to you, and ask if you might initiate such a process among the faculty” (Vol. 12, pg. 104). In his own words, Bonhoeffer recognized the profound impact that Paul Tillich has had on his life and thought.

 

Bibliography

Barnett, Victoria J.; Barbara Wojhoski (eds). Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. 16 vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986-present.

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