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A Vital Network of Theologians

A review of Michael Mawson and Philip Ziegler (eds), Christ, Church and World: New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Theology and Ethics (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), featured in The Expository Times 129, 4 (January 2018).

The University of Aberdeen hosted several leading voices in Bonhoeffer studies over the course of 2014-15. The series of presentations, which took place under the editors’ direction with the support of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, provided the material for this rich collection of essays oriented around four main themes: Christology, hamartiology, ecclesiology, and Christian-Jewish relations.

Philip Ziegler’s eloquent essay shows that Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is largely meta-ethical insofar as it seeks to ‘map the moral terrain’ within which reflection, decision, and action take place. He traces Bonhoeffer’s refusal of appeals to mere humanity or ‘the creature as such’ in favour of theologically locating human beings as either ‘in Adam’ or ‘in Christ’ (pp.101-4). Such ‘cartography’ is complemented by essays that deploy Bonhoeffer’s thought for areas of contemporary interest: Michael Mawson deftly recovers Bonhoeffer’s account of embodied creatureliness as a promising resource for disability theology, while Christiane Tietz skillfully employs Bonhoeffer’s Christology to challenge dominant assumptions about a common ‘religious’ consciousness or a predictable ‘natural’ order on which ethics are based.

Two essays stand out for their bold pursuit of ‘supplementation and reparative critique’ in response to identified gaps in Bonhoeffer’s theology. These contributions expose modernist tendencies in Bonhoeffer’s 1933 Christology lectures, from an ‘aversion to metaphysics’ to the habit of pitting a theological genius against an intransigent ecclesial institution. Stephen Plant then outlines a ‘pro-Nicene’ theology in pursuit of stronger continuity with the conciliar tradition, while Christopher Holmes argues for a more robust account of the immanent Trinity. While reparative critique is a worthy endeavour, and Bonhoeffer often sought out ecumenical engagement, the drive for supplementation is more questionable. For instance, Holmes’ claim that Bonhoeffer’s ‘intense Christological concentration’ can ‘obscure’ or ‘lose’ the doctrine of God (p.40) suggests a ‘systematic’ assumption foreign to Bonhoeffer’s style and occasion.

The final pair of essays provide a rich contextualisation of Bonhoeffer’s controversial arguments in response to the so-called ‘Jewish question’. Michael DeJonge clarifies Bonhoeffer’s fidelity to Luther’s ‘two-kingdoms’ doctrine in his critical response to state legislation. Andreas Pangritz vividly renders intersections in the thought and activism of such figures as Elisabeth Schmitz, Wilhelm Vischer, and Karl Barth. This ‘network of theologians who were vitally concerned’ about their Jewish neighbours reveals that Bonhoeffer was no lone advocate (p.178).

As the questions addressed by Bonhoeffer remain crucial to contemporary ethics, the editors are to be commended for inviting us into this vital theological network.

© David Robinson, 2018