What do Niebuhr, Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich have in common? More than you might imagine.

What do Niebuhr, Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich have in common?  More than you might imagine.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich are the most well-known Protestant theologians of the twentieth-century.  All downplay the mythical worlds of heaven and hell.  The eschaton is now; we have already been saved by Christ’s intervention in history; he need not come again.  What we have to do is live up to what we have been given gratis.  Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Barth hold this view most strongly, Niebuhr less so, and I’m ignoring important differences among them.

Bultmann and Barth come to this view because there is nothing left but faith.  If we regard the Bible as historically bound, while at the same time conveying an essential truth, then that truth must be known by faith alone.  The Bible provides symbols, such as the cross, to help us discover and express that faith. 

By the way, there are no references in this post; references are found in my original posts on each man. 

Barth beautifully summarizes what God demands of us: “allow yourself now quite simply to be loved by me, and love me in return.”  That, and just that, is the good.  We are all elected.  Barth holds this view because he believes that all the action is with God: Jesus Christ is the electing God and the elected man at the same time.

I think there is much truth in this view, but Bonhoeffer’s caution about cheap grace is worth remembering.  God may save us, but it is our obligation to live up to the gift. 

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship. 

Salvation is a great thing, and at the same time an enormous responsibility.  For none of these men is salvation equivalent to eternal life.  To be justified in the eyes of God is its own reward.

Notice by the way that none of these theologians attempt to prove the existence of God.  As the myths that organize Christianity become more transparently mythical, faith remains the only alternative, and it’s pointless to argue someone into faith.  It’s not pointless to talk about it. 

Bultmann puts the point most clearly. 

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.

Like Barth, he holds that “paradoxically, the community of faith looks ahead to an event that has already happened.”  What has happened is freedom—freedom from this world.  “The Gospel has the power to grant freedom from the world.”  There is no security but faith in God; the conceits of this world amount to nothing.  Like Barth, we are already saved if we would take the time to know it. 

Much of what Bultmann says makes sense, particularly his interpretation of the kerygma, the message of the gospels.  The kerygma is not just the “good news.”  Its purpose is to interrupt our existence, call the meaning of our lives into question, and so free us from the world.  One sees here how the core conventions of Protestant faith remain, even as the mythological scaffold is removed. 

The main problem with Bultmann is that while he has updated the Bible, so to speak, he has not updated sin.  It remains an individual act.  But something we can call structural sin also exists.  Unrestrained capitalism, neo-colonialism, and a way of life in which everything has its price.   Just by being a citizen of this world (and not everyone on the planet belongs to this world; many are simply its victims), I have hurt other people.  How to think about this, how to make atonement for it, has no place in Bultmann’s theology, which is about the relationship between me and my God.  That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth.

Bonhoeffer’s idea of religionless Christianity may seem like a contradiction, but it’s not.  Christ did not seek to establish a religion, but to speak for the oppressed and downtrodden, as well as to save our souls.  He and his first followers sought to establish communities in the midst of the Roman empire.  Bonhoeffer, along with Barth, and Bultmann, sought to do the same amidst the Nazi empire. 

For Bonhoeffer, religion is no longer about redemption.  Religionless Christianity, as he called it, is interested in two things: prayer and righteous action.

Bonhoeffer came to admire the Old Testament more and more because it is not a teaching of redemption—that is, the saving significance of Jesus Christ.  “Myths of redemption search outside history for an eternity after death.”  For Bonhoeffer our job is to care for others in this world.

As for prayer, Bonhoeffer believed it leads to action only when we understand God properly.  God’s participation in Christ, his identity with Christ, meant for Bonhoeffer that God chose to become weak and powerless so as to identify with and represent the suffering of this world. Bonhoeffer believed, and I think he was right, that this vision of a weak God who depended on humans to do his work in this world was a uniquely valuable aspect of Christianity.  God not only speaks for the outcast; he became one. 

Sometimes it seems that for Bonhoeffer we could get by on prayer and social service agencies.  Not so.  His alternative to the church was small ecclesiastical communities such as Finkenwalde.  There students and faculty lived together as well as studied and worshiped together.  It was closed by the Gestapo in 1937. 

Bonhoeffer writes of the “secret discipline” that constitutes prayer and worship in the absence of religion.  Some think the secret is the Eucharist.   I think the secret is God’s weakness.  The secret asks the world to hear the screams of its victims; for it is we who must save them.

What happened to God?  For Bonhoeffer, the transcendent is not about the infinite, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation.  The transcendent is here and now in the desperate needs of others.  He reminds me of the Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. 

Tillich would turn Christianity into existentialism.  God becomes our “ultimate concern” and sin becomes estrangement, separation from God, from self, and from neighbor.  Some seem to find this language useful.  I am not one of them.  The most moving part of the Bible is its stories, and they get lost in an existential approach. 

Tillich’s concept of a “God above ‘God'” makes the most sense.  Tillich is taking aim at the image of God as the man upstairs, wearing a white cloak and a long beard, and ticking off the sins and good deeds of everyone.  Or is it just everyone who believes in God?  The God above “God” means that our language of talking about God has become banal and bereft.  Needed is a way to talk, or at least think about a God who is above and beyond the limits of our imagination.  How do we talk about eternity might be another way to put it, for eternity is not endless time.  Eternity is above time, if a spatial metaphor works.  In the same way God is above the “God” to whom we worship and pray.   God must be rendered unfamiliar, more than we can imagine. 

Niebuhr is my favorite theologian, but I’m not sure why.  He is not the most profound.  Perhaps it is his worldliness that appeals, not just his belief that Christians must act in the world, but his willingness to recognize that nations exist, and so do limits.  That sometimes means choosing the lesser of two evils.

His deepest insight, the one with the most ramifications, is that the greatest ethical and religious danger is communal idolatry.  We may talk about God, but science, technology, medicine, and the nation state (nationalism) are our real gods.   Even democracy may become an idol.  We did not fight the Second World War to destroy evil, though that was one result.  We fought it to preserve and extend our power and influence over the world.  Not democracy, but God, has the first and last word.  I still don’t understand what the American flag is doing in church.  It seems like idolatry to me.  God may take sides, but not the side of nations.

God take sides in the sense that he judges but does not impose.  He stands outside of history, but his grace is occasionally a weak force in history.  The judgment of God preserves the distinction between good and evil in history, but like Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr emphasizes the powerlessness of God.  It is a chosen powerlessness, so that he might side with the those whom history has cast aside.  Niebuhr calls this the scandal of the cross.  Once again, God wins by losing.

It is impossible to symbolize the divine goodness in history in any other way than by complete powerlessness, or rather by a consistent refusal to use power in the rivalries of history.

God stays neutral in the conflicts of history, recognizing that no side is without an ego invested in the outcome, that all conflict is rivalry, not good over evil. 

Any participation by God in the rivalries of history . . . means the assertion of one ego interest against another.

Trouble is, Niebuhr’s account of the “war of finites” makes no sense when talking about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and the murder of the Rohingya.  In the case of annihilatory power, no rivalry is involved, only the slaughter of innocents. 

Niebuhr was often accused of leaving the Bible behind.  He didn’t.  He understands that while history is a war between good and evil, none of the participants is pure.  What he doesn’t seem to understand, and like the others he wrote after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, is that while no regime is evil incarnate, some regimes practice annihilatory evil.  If God could step in to save the lives of millions of children, but doesn’t, then I’m not sure I want to worship this God.        

If God can act in history, if his divine grace is occasionally present in history, then God’s failure to act in the presence of the annihilation of innocents preserves no one’s freedom.  If God’s limits are not reached with the deaths of millions of humans, some the result of “creative achievements” like Zyklon B, gas ovens, and atomic bombs, then it is hard to know what these limits are.

Human suffering does not testify to God’s suffering for us.  Human suffering becomes human sacrifice if we insist on a God who acts in history but chooses not to.  Christ’s suffering is an inspiration; it is not an invitation to suffer. 


In one way or another, all agree with Bultmann that we can no longer believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.  For all, Heaven and Hell are myths.  The second coming is relatively unimportant.  Important is how we respond to the first coming, when God intervened in history in the form of Jesus Christ.  In this regard they are traditional (Tillich is an exception).  Jesus Christ is God incarnate, and he offers salvation to all.  Salvation, though, has little to do with eternal life, and much to do with how we live, care, and worship in this world.  In this regard, Niebuhr is as godly as any of the others. 

Because the miracle and wonder world of the Bible no longer inspires us, faith becomes central.  God cannot be proven, only assumed.  This is the source of a certain conservatism in their teachings.  If we can’t rely on the Bible, except as a source of religious symbols, then faith becomes ever more important.  For some faith becomes more private, but Bonhoeffer particularly recognizes that a “religionless Christianity” requires a new type of community. 

All take the God of Israel, the God of the Jews, as foundational for Christianity.  Four left Germany to escape Hitler; Bonhoeffer remained and died at the hands of the Gestapo.  But it seems to me that given their historical experiences, none address the Holocaust and Hiroshima as marking a new era of annihilatory evil on a mass scale.  Doing so would, IMHO (in my humble opinion), require struggling even more seriously with God’s relationship to the world, and what his “grace made perfect in weakness” really means (2 Corinthians 12:9).    

Perhaps God is powerless, but for several of these men he chooses powerlessness in order to unite himself as Christ with the outcasts and exiles of this world.  But somehow, I can’t get past Niebuhr’s statement that while God remains neutral in history, he would prevent the destruction of this world.  Couldn’t he do more?  Shouldn’t he?  I suppose that is not up to humans to decide.  His thoughts are not our thoughts, his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55: 8-9).  In any case, it certainly makes the good and decent action of humans in this world more important.

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