Bonhoeffer on the Danger of Theology

In the winter of 1936, Dietrich Bonhoeffer delivered a series of lectures on the theme of pastoral care to the seminarians under his direction at the underground seminary at Finkenwalde. Bonhoeffer concluded this course of lectures by reflecting on the need for pastoral care for pastoral counselors. Interestingly, Bonhoeffer suggests that “another source of trouble for the serious pastor is his own theology” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 14, ed. H.G. Barker and M.S. Brocker (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 590).

Before sharing Bonhoeffer’s concluding thoughts on the matter, a few important observations are in order. First, Bonhoeffer himself was a theologian of the first rank and his evolving resistance against the Nazi regime over the course of his life was fundamentally rooted in this theological convictions. In fact, Bonhoeffer had previously warned young theological students at the University of Berlin that their most important task would be learning to discern the spirits – a task impossible apart from the practice of theology. Second, Bonhoeffer does specifically have in his sights “the serious pastor,” who has done his dogmatic homework and recognizes her theological work as the necessary calisthenics which precedes proclamation and pastoral ministry more generally. The counsel which follows is not for those dismissive of the work of theology. For such pastors what follows can only be received as cheap grace. However, for those who have thoroughly committed themselves to the theological task, Bonhoeffer’s counsel may contain salutary words of admonition.

“Theology is the discipline in which a person learns to excuse everything and justify everything. A good theologian can never be cornered theologically; in everything he says he is just. And the theologian can acknowledge even this without a word of penance.

Whoever has begun to justify himself with the help of theology itself has already fallen into the devil’s grip, and as long as he is a theologian, he can never get free! Be a good theologian but keep theology three paces away from you; otherwise eventually it will mortally endanger you. Whoever is in such distress can be helped no longer with theological reasoning but only through a summons to prayer, to personal confession, to obedience, as law. The problem with the theology of justification is that it seeks to free us from the law. Deal with such a fellow pastor not with theology but with proclamation” (591).

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