Renewing the Mediating Power of Christ with Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard

While I am often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people—because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it is particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable)— to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Dietrich Bonhoeffer[1]

As soon as Christ’s kingdom makes a compromise with this world and becomes a kingdom of this world, Christianity is abolished. But if Christianity is in the truth, it is certainly a kingdom in this world, but not of this world, that is, it is militant. Søren Kierkegaard [2]

We are living through a period in which Christian belief is proving implausible if not impossible. This cultural/political moment seems, for many, to have exhausted the possibility of keeping the faith, perhaps because of personal injustices suffered or because of the exposure of the underbelly of religion gone bad.  As I see it unfold all around, I completely understand the particular circumstance of friends, acquaintances and former students in their turn from the faith, and by “understand” I mean I feel what they are feeling. The Christian complicity in racism, in religious nationalism, in deadly stupidity, combined with a loss of trust in church institutions and the personal wounds inflicted by the same, is crisis invoking. At a more basic level, there is a huge question mark in front of God’s love, control and providence, and a feeling that the Christian message is implausible, irrelevant and inconsequential.

If ever there were someone who understood and dealt with a similar crisis of faith, it must have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, partly due to his work with German counter-intelligence, was aware he was living through the complete failure of the church during what would come to be called the Holocaust or Shoah. It was a period in which the church and Christians had not only failed but had, in part, enabled the “final solution” – thus he calls for a new form of the faith called “religionless Christianity.” Christian anti-Semitism was the basis of German and National Socialist anti-Semitism – which is one reason why Bonhoeffer felt that he could no longer speak the name of God and presume to be communicating. Bonhoeffer would propose his religionless form of the faith in the face of what he considered the end of Western Christianity. In his religionless Christianity, along with his notions of “cheap” and “costly” grace, worldliness, obedient faith, the need for personal choice, the rejection of institutionalism and German idealism, he is following Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard too had faced a complete collapse of trust in the institutions of the church and had turned, not to reform so much as an abandonment of Christianity as he knew it. Both Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard speak of a costly grace that bids one come and suffer and die with Christ, as opposed to a triumphalist Christianity that presumes personal safety, comfort, and security as part of the faith. The idea, however, that may best sum up both thinkers, both in their relationship to others and in their understanding of how the Christian, in spite of the failure and complete absence of the church and authentic Christianity, is the notion of Christ’s mediating power in the life of the Christian. Both turn to the existential experience of the individual and the need for Christ to stand in immediate relationship to the “I” so as to mediate God, self, and the world.

My claim here is not without controversy at any level: some see no connection between the two thinkers, some would not make the connection between Bonhoeffer’s relgionless Christianity and Kierkegaard’s anti-Christendom, some see a contrast between Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual and Bonhoeffer’s focus on the community of the church, but more importantly what is contested is that these two thinkers are conjoined in an effort toward the emergence of a new form of the faith as seen in the mediating role of Christ. Afterall, Kierkegaard eschews any role as a reformer and Bonhoeffer is true to his Lutheran context, never envisioning anything more than the church in which he was raised – or so the argument goes.[3] What I would argue (following Mathew Kirkpatrick, among others) is, not only are Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard conjoined in their major categories and focus but they both envision a reform of the definition of faith, beginning with an abandonment of the established church and a reworking of what it means to be human as this is mediated by Christ.  

First there is a turn from the mediating role of the established church. In the article, “This Must Be Said, So Let It Be Said,” Kierkegaard encourages a boycott of the church “Whoever you are, whatever your life is otherwise, my friend—by ceasing to participate . . . in the public divine service as it now is . . . you always have one and a great guilt less—you are not participating in making a fool of God by calling something New Testament Christianity that is not New Testament Christianity.” Kierkegaard calls for the destruction of the established church, “Yes, let it happen. What Christianity needs is not the suffocating protection of the state; no, it needs fresh air, persecution, and—God’s protection.” He compares the clergy to stockholders in a company where the best dividends will be paid out to those who avoid the harsh truth of the gospel. In The Moment Kierkegaard not only denounces the clergy for having discarded authentic Christianity but declares that the state church has made Christianity’s existence impossible. For by employing the clergy the state gives these professional stockholders a vested interest in maintaining the situation. As Kirkpatrick notes, throughout The Moment, Kierkegaard describes the clergy as “parasites,” “wolves,” “swindlers,” “criminals,” “forgers,” “soul-sellers,” “oath-bound liars,” “perjurers,” “hypocrites,” “cannibals,” “thieves,” “huckstering knaves,” etc.[4] He pleads with his readers:

But one thing I beseech you for God in heaven’s sake and by all that is holy: avoid the pastors, avoid them, those abominations whose job it is to hinder you in even becoming aware of what true Christianity is and thereby to turn you, muddled by gibberish and illusion, into what they understand by a true Christian, a contributing member of the state Church, the national Church, and the like. Avoid them . . .

Kierkegaard, by the time he writes this, no longer believes that Christianity exists in Christendom, and that Christendom actively inhibits Christianity. There is no longer any Christianity to reform, Kierkegaard argues in his own voice.  

This whole junk heap of a state Church, where from time immemorial there has been, in the spiritual sense, no airing out—the air confined in this old junk heap has become toxic. Therefore the religious life is sick or has expired, because, alas, precisely what worldliness regards as health is, Christianity, sickness, just as, inversely, Christian health is regarded by worldliness as sickness. Let this junk heap tumble down, get rid of it; close all these boutiques and booths, the only ones that the strict Sunday Observance Act exempted . . . and let us once again worship God in simplicity instead of making a fool of him in magnificent buildings. Let it again become earnestness and cease to be play . . .

While this harsh conclusion might be tempered by Kierkegaard’s earlier statements, it remains that he sees only one way forward – and that is through the “single-individual” immediately dependent upon Christ.

In my previous blog (here) I demonstrated Bonhoeffer’s acknowledgement of the failure of the church. In Letters and Papers from Prison he indicates the Christian religion has for 1,900 years rested on the false belief of some sort of instinctive “religious a priori,” in which humankind is naturally endowed with an innate perception of God. Religion has been a garment in which authentic Christianity has sometimes been cloaked and the concern has been with its portrayal of God as a strong, transcendent figure, standing beyond the world. The cloak must be shed, according to Bonhoeffer, because the trappings have displaced the substance. Bonhoeffer calls for the church to sell its land, to cease paying the clergy – who should seek support in free-will offerings or through secular jobs. In Christology, Bonhoeffer attacks the church for its elitist message, such that “for the working-class world, Christ seems to be settled with the church and bourgeois society.” By 1940 with the essay “Guilt, Justification, Renewal,” Bonhoeffer’s understanding is even more severe: “The church was mute when it should have cried out, because the blood of the innocent cried out to heaven.” The guilt of the church is such that it has misused the name of Christ, attempting to secure itself rather than take a dangerous stance alongside the suffering. He concludes, the church is only the church when it is there for others, so the church has failed to be the church.

Both Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer turn to a more immediate understanding of Christ’s mediation. It is not through the institutional church or the clergy, but it is Christ within the individual and their perception of the self and world where Christ mediates. As early as Act and Being (his second dissertation), Bonhoeffer reflects Kierkegaard in the notion that transcending the limits of a world “enclosed in the I” is the beginning of a true experience of God. “A ‘genuine ontology’ requires an object of knowledge—a genuine Other—that ‘challenges and limits the I. The ‘being of revelation’ is just such an object of knowledge. It does not depend on the I, whose being and existing it precedes in every respect.” In this “being of revelation” human knowledge is suspended in “a being-already-known.”[5]

Kirkpatrick claims, “For both Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, everything concerns the ability to say “I,” and that before God.”[6] Kierkegaard’s psychological writing is forged around the idea that the individual only becomes an authentic (spiritual) self when “grounded transparently in the power that established it.” Both Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard describe individual participation in the Trinity; the Son, mediating relation to the Father through the Spirit. This becomes a possibility and reality through the guidance and imitation of Christ, a Kierkegaardian understanding deployed by Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer’s copy of the book, Sickness Unto Death, bore the marks of his heavy underlining, according to Kirkpatrick).

As Kierkegaard describes it, “Despair is a Sickness in the Spirit, in the Self” in which there is a refusal or failure to be a self. This despair has primarily to do with one’s relation within the self – between what he calls the relation between the body and the soul. “In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul.” There is an antagonism built into the human self-relation which is definitive of the human disease.  The primary importance does not pertain to any one element of the relation (soul or body or the ego) but to the dynamics of the relation or to the negative unity (death drive) or to what Paul calls “the body of sin” or “the body of death.”

 The conflict between the law of the mind and the “I” (the ego) is constituted in the third term: “the body of death” or “the body of sin.” The body of death is an orientation of the “I” to itself with “itself” objectified through the law. The relation can be constituted in a negative unity (the body of sin or the body of death) but he also offers another possibility: The one “which constituted the whole relation.” “This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self, namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.”

Kierkegaard’s psychological portrayal (as in Sickness Unto Death), of the immanent and immediate role of Christ’s mediating role pervades the thought and theology of Bonhoeffer. Kirkpatrick’s dissertation and book argue that Kierkegaard’s notion of the individual, including his understanding of love and the concept of mediation, are behind Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the individual in community and his notions of obedience and discipleship. Bonhoeffer, according to Kirkpatrick, fulfills Kierkegaard’s notion of a reformer as here is the single individual leading people in obedience through the mediation of Christ.

Despite his profound thoughts concerning the nature of community and the authority of the church, the foundation of Bonhoeffer’s theology is that of the single individual, drawn away from direct relationship with others into the mediation of Christ, bound to undivided relationship with God. [7]

The failure of the Church and the failure of Christianity in Christendom might be seen as something on the order of Paul’s thorn in the flesh realized corporately and universally. The church triumphant and the religious version of the faith (focused on defending God’s transcendent might), turn out to be the great weakness and failure of the Western form of the faith. In the midst of this failure Bonhoeffer envisions the emergence of a new form of the faith, largely based on his reading of Kierkegaard. While he never has the opportunity to spell this out (the Nazis kill him before he can even begin his projected work), what it most clearly revolves around is the understanding that Christ bids me come and die so that “I” can be overcome.

 In Christ, God’s self-revelation, we are brought to “the boundary of the being that has been given to [us]” and it is only here through “the God who became human” that we become human. Divine and human are not “two isolated realities” as God’s “vertical Word from above” neither adds nor subtracts “but rather qualifies this entire human being as God.” Jesus Christ becomes God for us and we become fully human in faith alone. In his Lectures on Christology Bonhoeffer says, “I can never think of Jesus Christ in his being-in-himself, but only in his relatedness to me.” At the same time, Christ is my limit – the boundary of my being and my true center. As the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6), he is the mediator of every relationship with the Creator.[8]

The way forward in this time of crisis – or the way this time of crisis points – is to the realization that Christ only wants us to become “the human beings that we really are.” As Bonhoeffer says, “Pretension, hypocrisy, compulsion, forcing oneself to be something different, better, more ideal than one is—all are abolished.”[9] The realization is that we can only become truly “human before God” through the mediation of Christ in apprehending all things.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967), 141–42.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity. Translated and edited by Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 211.

[3] Both though attack the notion of a state church, with Bonhoeffer hinting to Barth, “Several of us are now very drawn to the idea of a free church.”

[4] I am utilizing Matthew D Kirkpatrick, Attacks on Christendom in a World Come of Age: Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and the Question of “Religionless Christianity” (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 166) (Kindle Locations 6296-6302). Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[5] This is Peter Hooton’s summation from Act and Being, in the unpublished version of his dissertation.

[6] Kirkpatrick 7568

[7] Kirkpatrick 7530-7536

[8] “Lectures on Christology,” DBWE (Collected works in English) 12: 305, 353, Quoted from Hooton, 192 in Beyond, in the Midst of Life: An Exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in its Christological Context, Dissertation submitted to St Mark’s National Theological Centre, School of Theology, CSU in 2018.

[9] Ethics, DBWE 6: 94. Ibid 193.