Moltmann on Bonhoeffer

9 Apr

Today we recognise the martyrdom of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 70 years ago: he was hanged for his part in the plot to kill Hitler. He wrestled deeply with what it might mean for a Christian to engage in such action.

I had the privilege several years ago to hear Jürgen Moltmann lecture about Bonhoeffer and his own relationship with Bonhoeffer’s thought—he who had also been a prisoner of war and had all the time since been a theologian of hope.

Here are my notes from that lecture, at the 10th International Bonhoeffer Congress, in Prague, July 2008

Moltmann said that he would offer a reflection on the significance of Bonhoeffer’s theology. His personal recollection is that his first encounter of Bonhoeffer’s theology was during his own period as a prisoner of war, so they have a shared experience of doing theology from prison. This is why the lecture is titled ‘Theology with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’. In Moltmann’s opinion, Bonhoeffer’s insights in the prison letters have not yet been fully appreciated.


  1. Encounters with DB: As a prisoner of war at Norton Camp, JM had participated in a sort of school of theology behind barbed wire.’ He was given a copy of The Cost of Discipleship, a gift from the YMCA and a little later Life Together. Moltmann said that these did not impress. They were ‘too churchy’. He was looking for solitude; he was in his ‘existential phase’ and was despairing. In December of 1945 he read something by W A Visser’t Hooft (later first General secretary of the WCC), about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the letter about ‘this-worldliness’. The idea was that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe.’ JM said: ‘I was impressed by this.’

In 1951 the Ethics appeared, and then Letters and Papers from Prison ‘bowled me over’.

Moltmann described himself as liberated from his existential guilt and loneliness through these works.

‘Bonhoeffer’s theology gave me new life and this is with me still today. … It stimulates one to move into the wide spaces of theology.’

Here Moltmann made several asides, comparing Bonhoeffer’s theology with that of Karl Barth, whose Church Dogmatics ‘has it all finished’, while Bultmann’s theology he felt did not offer the hope he was seeking. By comparison, Bonhoeffer draws one into an open thought process and ‘sends ideas out there on their own journey’. This was theology being lived, theology in its own becoming.

  1. The this-worldliness of Christianity: True Worldliness.

Strangely, Bonhoeffer discovered this away from the world, and from the church, in prison. There he discovers the freedom of the secular world.

The crucial insight is that Jesus calls us to this life, not to a new religion.

Quotation from Ethics: It is only in the midst of the world that Christ is Christ.

This world is not especially tied to the church. It is in this ‘this-worldliness’ of life and faith that Bonhoeffer wishes to live and to find Christ.

He rejects what Moltmann called the ‘inner migration’ of the bourgeois classes, for a new, disciplined this-worldliness, with a complete awareness of and commitment to death as a real possibility: and in this, Moltmann explained, we participate with the love of God for this world. Thus it is only in the midst of this world that we can find God, and not in the separate religious places.

Then followed some remarks about Bonhoeffer’s musical and passionate tastes, which Moltmann contrasted with ‘religious moralism’.

He then drew attention to the fact that Bonhoeffer read the Old Testament a lot, and read the New Testament in the light of the Old. This was a shift from the position of DB’s earlier work.

Moltmann’s comment on the importance of this Hebrew Bible perspective: ‘only when we know the utter unspeakability of God can we find and know God in this world.’

As early as 1932, DB had denounced any view of ‘transcendence’ which involves rejection of this world, or a flight from the world.

Here Moltmann suggested the importance of Blumhardt (the younger) as an influence on Bonhoeffer, and described Blumhardt as ‘the spiritual father of the theology of hope’.

(I believe the following is a quotation from Blumhardt …)

‘The curse of the flight to the next world … (is that) God has closed it off… because we are supposed to live in this world… God’s goal is this world.’

Moltmann then spoke personally about the temptations of living in prison. He noted that while he had not lived in a prison like Bonhoeffer’s, he had lived for three years behind barbed wire.

Two basic temptations occur:

  1. To split up reality, and retreat as much as one can into an inner world, of dreams and ‘hopes’. This approach can eventually lead to mental illness.
  2. Resignation: to give in to despair.

JM said he knew these temptations, as did Bonhoeffer: But DB resisted them both. In Letters and Papers, JM believes, Bonhoffer proclaimed and practiced the exact opposite of both. He loved life, in spite of the pain he experienced in it and for it.

  1. ‘Brothers, remain true to the earth’.

The coming kingdom of God is for this earth.

‘Only the person who loves the earth, and God, is one who can know the kingdom of God.

The person who loves God loves the earth. The person who loves the earth loves God. …

The person who seeks the kingdom of God seeks it for the earth.’

JM said emphatically: Christians are not to give up hope for the earth. God’s most profound ‘Yes’ to the world is the resurrection of Christ.

It is not, as is often thought, the Incarnation, but the death and resurrection of Jesus, on earth: and the decisive factor here is the resurrection, which is not a resurrection from earth, but the emergence of a genuine hope which sends us into our lives on earth in a wholly new way.

So in 1944, Bonhoeffer returned to his 1932 views of faithfulness to God’s beloved earth.

It was this earth that saw the incarnation, in which the cross was set, and where the resurrection takes place.

Similarly, in Bonhoeffer’s views about marriage: ‘Let our marriage be a ‘Yes’ to God’s earth.’ This affirmation sees his (intended) marriage as a sign of hope against hope, and of love for God’s earth. Moltmann noted a similarity with Blumhardt again: the goal is the heavenly kingdom on earth: that God may be a God whom we are permitted to see on earth. Indeed, among the despised, this is where we see God on earth, in Jesus.

‘We have not yet fully grasped the theological reversal which Blumhart and Bonhoeffer saw here.’

This contrasts with piety’s focus on heaven as our home, which led us to think that the earth is not important.

  1. The world that has become of age. Beyond the tutelage of religion. Here Moltmann noted the significance of Kant’s ‘manifesto’ for Enlightenment: ‘Have the courage to use your own reason.’ Bonhoeffer took up this concept of Enlightenment, at the end of Letters and Papers, in the idea of a world come of age. We must live, act and use our understanding ‘as if there were not God.’ This means the end of the God who does away with our autonomy, or the ‘God of the gaps’. But this does not put an end to Christian faith.

Bonhoeffer rejects any apologetics that would make use of the weaknesses of the world, just as also he rejects Karl Barth’s ‘theological positivism’. Rather, he seeks ‘a worldly hermenutics’, with just a few cryptic ideas, no more. ‘Before God we are to live without God’.

This means participation in the suffering of God, in worldly life. It contrasts with the religious attitude which points to ‘the power of God’ in this world. ‘Only the suffering God can help.’ Moltmann said that here, in the fellowship of Christ, the dialectic dissolves: in the ‘Godforsakenness’ of God in Christ, we find that God is present.

Moltmann offered some critical responses to these ideas:

Many people have accepted the paternalism of the totalitarian state, or the secularist ‘world come of age’ view, which saw our past cultures as immature, or the 19th Century’s critique of religion. But we have not in fact moved into a religionless age. In fact we see a new religious fundamentalism, in many places.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls both religious and secular people to the Kingdom of God on earth. Christian existence is truly human, mature, responsible existence in the midst of the challenges and difficulties of this world and this life. Jesus is not about creating ‘Christians’, but human beings as such.

  1. Only the suffering God can help’.

In the context of God’s ‘expulsion’ from the world, God pushed out of the world, God is weak and helpless.

Hegel had noted that the religion of modern times builds itself up on the feeling that God is dead.

Bonhoeffer follows Hegel on the idea that God is present in the modern world through his suffering.

Moltmann asserted that in the whole of the nineteenth and early twentieth century of (German) theology, only Bonhoeffer spoke of the suffering God, and it is vital that this was seen in Christological terms.

In the later 19th century, some English Anglican spoke of the passability of God, but Bonhoeffer spoke of the suffering of God, not only in Jesus. God suffers from the Godlessness of the violent, and the Godforsakenness of the violated. A new theology of the cross came into being, after the Second World War. Many people took up Bonhoeffer’s idea, consciously or unconsciously.


A final thought: The God who helps through his suffering is not untouchable in heaven, but is a God who bears and carries the world, as a mother carries a child, or ‘on the wings of eagles’. Like the Good Shepherd, God carries and endures the world, in hope. This suggests the idea of a God of hope—‘but that is another story’.


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