Reviewed by Richard Gillingham
If the commentators are to be believed Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth had an ambiguous theological relationship. After initially being firmly in Barth’s camp particularly in their mutual roles in the Confessing Church. However, in his letter work, especially Letters and Papers it has been asserted that a fissure opened up over Barth’s positivism of revelation. The applicable passage from Bonhoeffer’s prison letters is from the letter dated 30 April 1944 immediately following a discussion of ‘religionless Christianity’:
Barth, who is the only one to have started along this line of thought, did not carry it to completion, but arrived at a positivism of revelation, which in the last analysis is essentially a restoration. For the religionless working man (or any other man) nothing decisive is gained here. The questions to be answered wouldsurely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God -without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak(or perhaps we cannot now even “speak” as we used to) in a “secular”way about “God?” In what way are we “religionless-secular” Christians,in what way are we the ek-klisia, those who are called forth,not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quitedifferent, really the Lord of the world. (text copied from online version here).
Throughout this text Pangritz asserts that the criticisms of Barth, which were present as early as his Act and Being, are more specifically related to some of Barth’s more conservative followers (such as Hans Asmussen). Pangritz rather argues that the lines of similarity between Barth and Bonhoeffer are more substantive than is sometimes supposed. In particular, Pangritz in a study of Barth’s theology after Bonhoeffer’s death shows that some of the ambiguity that caused some concern for Bonhoeffer is made more explicit. That is not to say that there are no differences. Most notable according to Pangritz is the Bonhoeffer who wrote Letters and Papers was less opposed to some aspects of liberal theology than Barth, a legacy that he seems to have suppressed in the Confessing Church period.