Tillich's Theological Influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Ken Armentrout, Boston University, 2012
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from
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.
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.
Barnett, Victoria J.; Barbara Wojhoski (eds).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. 16 vols. Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 1986-present.
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