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Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer on Discipleship

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Translated by Chr. Kaiser Verlag Munchen and R.H. Fuller, Revision by Irmagard Booth, New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995. 316 pp. $13.00.

Introduction

One does not need to read between the lines in order to see the chief concern of Bonhoeffer’s popular book, The Cost of Discipleship. He is transparently determined to convince the reader to abandon the cheap grace mindset and to embrace the more radical paradigm of costly grace. The message of the first chapter, “Costly Grace,” sets the tone for the entire book. All that comes after this chapter is in a sense an echo of or a working out of this main thesis: grace is costly.

The Chief Concern: To Attack Cheap Grace

Cheap grace is discipleship-less, cross-less, and Christ-less grace (43). Cheap grace is justification of sin rather than justification of the sinner, but costly grace is a grace which causes men to commit themselves unreservedly to a life of cross-bearing discipleship. His discussion and summary of church history is basically a lament of the church’s abandonment of costly grace for cheap grace (46-53). He gives away the overall intent of his book in this brief treaties of church history and the Lutheran tradition: “To put it quite simply, we must undertake this task [of regaining costly grace] because we are now ready to admit that we no longer stand in the path of true discipleship…although our church is orthodox. … We must therefore attempt to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship” (55). To this end he labors in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, attempting to show that grace includes a
radical commitment of obedience to Christ and is not merely an abstract belief which has no demands on the life of the believer.

His fivefold method of defacing cheap grace is a combination of his doctrine of the situational precondition, eisegesis, a “literal” hermeneutic, legalistic standards and unhelpful exhortation. All of these chosen weapons are given exclamation since the author couches them in sharp rhetoric.

The Chief Weapon of Attack: The Situational Precondition for Faith

Bonhoeffer sees a dichotomy between doctrine and discipleship. Discipleship and abstract doctrine are mutually exclusive: “An abstract Christology…[and] religious knowledge…render discipleship superfluous…[and] exclude any idea of discipleship whatever” (59 cf. 62, 248). His pessimism with regard to abstract doctrine helps set the stage for his paradigm of the situational precondition for faith. Bonhoeffer hopes to convince the reader that he or she must simply obey the commands of Jesus—whether they have “faith” or not.

The author finds in his exegesis a unique paradigm for conversion. This paradigm is based on his distinction of a situation in which faith is possible verses a situation in which faith is not possible. The call of discipleship, he teaches, is a call for one to “go out of his situation in which he cannot believe” and “into the situation in which…faith is possible” (62). This is the call of discipleship (or at least it is the first phase of the call). He calls this situation “the road to faith” because only through this situation can one learn to believe (63). He says of one whom Christ commanded to follow, “If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe” (62). This is why he must follow Christ: to learn how to believe by means of this “situation.” I have referred to this “road” of followship as the situational precondition for faith, since, according to Bonhoeffer it is a “situation” (in which faith is possible) and a necessary precondition for faith (if he does not follow, he will never even enter the possibility of learning faith). The situation he speaks of is that situation in which the person is following Christ. One must be obedient to the call of Christ to follow because without obedience to this command one never enters into this necessary situation in which faith is possible.

This first step of obedience is not faith, however, but “the road to faith” (63). This step “can never be more than, a purely external act and a dead work of the law,” and it does not have “any intrinsic worth or merit,” though the call of Jesus justifies it (65, 63). “Last, but not least, the situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith” (63). From this “last” description of the situation comes Bonhoeffer’s well-known summary of this doctrine, “only the one who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes” (63). As I will show, this paradigm which he sets up early in his book works as the primary hermeneutical filter in Bonhoeffer’s exegetical attempts throughout the book.

Critical Evaluation Part I

The Situational Precondition Is An Unqualified Contradiction

It must be said at the outset of my evaluation that Bonhoeffer’s chief doctrine of the situational precondition for faith is self-contradictory. Bonhoeffer’s paradigm collapses logically due to a serious violation of the law of non-contradiction. To the question “How do we get faith?” he would answer, “By first obeying the voice of Christ to follow Him so that you might find yourself in the situation in which faith is possible.” This is why he says to the reader, “If you don’t believe, take the first step all the same, for you are bidden to take it” (67). Elsewhere, however, he tells us that one cannot take the first step without faith because the “situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith” (63, emphasis mine). “In the end, the first step of obedience proves to be an act of faith in the word of Christ…unless he obeys, a man cannot believe” (66).

Here it seems to me that he falls into a fallacious line of reasoning. One must obey with action in order to then learn how to believe—but he can only do this with faith. His exhortation is like counseling a man with no means of transportation to drive to the Honda dealership and buy a car. This reasoning seems similar to the circular reasoning of the scientific theory of spontaneous generation: the world exists before it exists in order to create itself. Only with this author, faith exists before the possibility of faith exists because faith is the necessary means to achieving the situational possibility.

Thus Bonhoeffer’s famed summary statement of this doctrine of the situational precondition is actually a self-contradiction when interpreted in light of the context in which he originally expressed it, for what he means is this: only the one who first believes has the ability to then obey, and only the one who first obeys will ever believe. In a nut shell he is arguing that one must first have faith before he is able to obtain it. His chief doctrine and famous saying is thus an unqualified contradiction which teaches that the one who does not have faith obtains faith by means of faith before he or she ever has faith. This discovery thoroughly frustrated me and made me wary of his whole book. I was especially frustrated as I progressed through the book with this caution, finding that many of his arguments fell victim to similar logical incoherency. This discrepancy made much of his book unhelpful to me in regard to the purpose for which it was written. For Bonhoeffer discipleship is costly, but for me, Bonhoeffer made discipleship confusing.

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More to Come…

My next post will be entitled “Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer, Part II” and will look at more of Bonhoeffer’s 1) hermeneutical creativity, 2) literal hermeneutic, 3) legalistic standards, and 4) unhelpful advice. It would be good for the reader to bear in mind that I am by no means critical of Bonhoeffer himself; only his attempt to articulate a biblical and helpful theology. I happen to greatly admire Bonhoeffer, and I would recommend biographies on his life more than his own writings. Whatever I might say about his book, his life would put my petty picking at his ideas to shame.

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3 Comments

  1. Celucien L. Joseph says:

    Bradley,

    The Cost of Discipleship is probably one of the most important written pieces on Christian Ethics. Do you remember that we had to read this book in Seifrid’s NT Theology? For me, it was a stunning experience. At any rate, I go to Bonhoeffer’s book over and over again because of its relevance in this modern christian culture.It speaks volume on a host of issues.

    Great post! I look forward to the new one.

    Blessings,
    Lou

  2. Bradley says:

    Yes Celucien! I remember that! I think the reason his book is so powerful for so many people is because of his repeated call to a more radical paradigm for discipleship. This is what draws people to his book. Anywhere that discipleship has been superficial, the spirit of Bonhoeffers book will be challenging.

  3. Bradley says:

    Ryan–could u leave us a link to your review of Bonhoeffer?

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