Review of J.I. de Keijzer, Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross: The Influence of Luther in Act and Being (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019) xiv + 185 pp. €69.00 (paperback).

In J.I. de Keijzer’s monograph, several prominent trends in Bonhoeffer scholarship intersect: namely, renewed attention to his early academic theology, sensitivity to the Lutheran provenance of his thought, and the impact of Karl Barth on his theological development. De Keijzer draws these strands together in order to elaborate and defend his central thesis that “Bonhoeffer’s theological development unfolded along a fresh articulation of Luther’s theologia crucis” (10–11). More specifically, the book unfolds as an attempt to read Bonhoeffer’s habilitationschrift, Act and Being (specifically, Parts A and B), as both an appropriate reception of Luther’s theology of the cross after Kant and a critique of the manner in which Barth’s early theology also drew on this aspect of Luther’s thought.

Rather than taking the approach one might expect in such a project (especially, given the subtitle)—i.e. mapping Luther’s theologia crucis in order to provide a framework within which to assess Act and Being as emblematic of this theological method—De Keijzer begins with Barth. The essay “Fate and Idea” is his particular focus since its titular concepts are analogous to those of Bonhoeffer’s habilitationschrift and in the essay Barth associates his own approach to theology with a theologia crucis. Insofar as Barth and Bonhoeffer are working with similar concepts in their critical engagements with philosophy, this provides the basis from which de Keijzer proceeds, in the third chapter, to critically evaluate their respective articulations of a theology of the cross. Crucially, he sees Barth as only engaging with the epistemologically deconstructive aspects of the theologia crucis because of his commitment to God’s formal freedom. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, pairs the deconstructive aspect with an emphasis on the fact that God is haveable and graspable in Christ on the cross. The resulting thematization is one in which Barth champions crisis and distance, while Bonhoeffer prioritizes crucis and presence. It is, then, in the distinction between Barth and Bonhoeffer that de Keijzer sketches the contours of the specific sort of theologia crucis he detects as unfolding in Act and Being.

The fourth chapter zooms out to consider the roots of the theologia crucis in Luther’s thought before surveying a number of its subsequent appropriations in philosophy and theology. Here, de Keijzer divides the figures surveyed into two camps: those who reflect Barth’s proclivity for distance (Loewenich, McGrath, Kant, and Kierkegaard) and those who resonate with Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on presence (Hegel, Simpson, and Jüngel). He then concludes by suggesting that Luther’s own thinking on the topic resonates more with the latter camp than the former.

Chapters five and six zoom in to focus on Act and Being. Specifically, de Keijzer argues that Barth’s theologia crucis, accented as it is by Kantian commitments, is act oriented, while Bonoeffer’s is being oriented, coming to expression in Christ existing as church community. Here, de Keijzer is particularly concerned to show that Bonhoeffer’s critical alternative to Barth is shaped by the logic of the theologia crucis in a way that can be directly linked to Luther (specifically, his treatise, The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods). He then goes on to treat Bonhoeffer’s engagement with Heidegger’s philosophy in order to show how it provided him with a framework for conceiving of how revelatory encounter with Christ (act) is always already suspended in Christ existing as church community (being). According to de Keijzer, Bonhoeffer analogically appropriated Heidegger’s philosophy for his theologia crucis in a manner that enabled him to forefront the presence of Christ in his coordination of act and being. 

Ultimately, then, the church community serves as the context within which a theologia crucis properly committed to Christ’s presence unfolds. According to de Keijzer, this is Bonhoeffer’s unique contribution to and expansion on Luther’s theologia crucis, and it provides a basis from which “epistemology (theological method), Christology, ecclesiology, and ethics come together” (160). Interpreted in this manner, in Act and Being he suggests that we encounter a thoroughly modern theologia crucis ripe and ready for addressing the challenges of the modern age.

De Keijzer’s ambitious attempt to hold together the three strands mentioned at the beginning of this review means that he lays himself open to questions and critiques on a number of fronts. I will, however, mention only two here. First, methodologically, by waiting to address Luther’s theologia crucis until the fourth chapter, the book’s central concept suffers from a frustrating lack of definition for the first three chapters. In other words, it is clear that de Keijzer thinks Bonhoeffer gets it right and Barth gets it wrong, but without a clear idea of what exactly he intends by the term “theologia crucis”, the reader simply has to take his word for it. Second, one might wonder if de Keijzer’s tendency to organize his argument in terms of  binaries (i.e. Barth and Bonhoeffer, distance and presence, crisis and crucis) results in a polarization of the concepts of act and being that threatens to obscure the import of Bonhoeffer’s coordination of the two.  Although he is careful to note that Bonhoeffer maintains a place for the in-reference-to of act, this aspect is mostly glossed over by de Keijzer in order to emphasize being as the locus of presence and crucis.

Ultimately, de Keijzer makes an able contribution to conversations pertaining to Bonhoeffer’s theology in Act and Being, the Lutheran flavor of his theology, and his theological position vis-a-vis Barth. It may not supplant standards on these topics (i.e. the seminal work done by the likes of Tietz, DeJonge, Marsh, and Pangritz), but it supplements them by offering a possible way of mapping Bonhoeffer’s theological concerns and motivation in Act and Being according to Luther’s theologia crucis.

About the Reviewer(s): Koert Verhagen holds a PhD in Divinity from the University of St Andrews and is currently a post-doctoral research fellow there in the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology. His current research assesses the social implications of justification in Bonhoeffer's theology.

About the Author: J.I. de Keijzer Born 1965; BA in Biblical Studies at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee; MA in Christian Thought at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, USA; PhD from Luther Seminary, St. Paul, USA; currently an independent scholar interested in the intersections of cross theology, radical theology, public theology, and social justice.

You can purchase Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross at the following link: https://www.mohrsiebeck.com/en/book/bonhoeffers-theology-of-the-cross-9783161569999