Bonhoeffer on Human Freedom and the Image of God

Tonight is the final night of the four week teaching series, “Bonhoeffer: Following Jesus in a Fragmented World,” that I’ve been leading at Whitby Christian Assembly.  That 200 people would come out on Wednesday evenings in January to hear about a dead German theologian is testimony to the commitment and passion of this extraordinary congregation.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is no ordinary dead German theologian!

Last week, I shared some insights into Bonhoeffer’s theology of the human person and his theology of the church—neither of which can be fully understood without the other.  In the presentation, I included some reflections on Bonhoeffer’s rich understanding of the relation between human freedom and what it means to be created in the “image of God.”  While our modern conceptions of freedom tend to be centered around consumer choice (ie. – we are only free when we can choose between Tim Horton’s and Starbucks), Bonhoeffer rightly interprets freedom theologically and, hence, relationally. Here is one of Bonhoeffer’s more arresting passages on this theme from his lectures on the opening chapters of Genesis, entitled Creation and Fall:

“To say that in humankind God creates God’s own image on earth means that humankind is like the Creator in that it is free. To be sure, it is free only through God’s creation, through the word of God; it is free for the worship of the Creator. For in the language of the Bible freedom is not something that people have for themselves but something they have for others. No one is free ‘in herself’ or ‘in himself’ [‘an sich’]—free as it were in a vacuum or free in the same way that a person may be musical, intelligent, or blind in herself or in himself. Freedom is not a quality a human being has; it is not an ability, a capacity, an attribute of being that may be deeply hidden in a person but can somehow be uncovered. Anyone who scrutinizes human beings in order to find freedom finds nothing of it. Why? Because freedom is not a quality that can be uncovered; it is not a possession, something to hand, an object; nor is it a form of something to hand; instead it is a relation and nothing else. To be more precise, freedom is a relation between two persons. Being free means ‘being–free–for–the–other’, because I am bound to the other. Only by being in relation with the other am I free.”1

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, ed. John W. deGruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 62-63.

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