Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Romans as the Completion of Bonhoeffer's Hermeneutics

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Romans as the Completion of Bonhoeffer's Hermeneutics

Article excerpt

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In a remarkable way, the Epistle to the Romans has always shown the way forward in the darkest hours of church history, from spiritual depravity to new revival.1 This was true as far back as the days of St. Augustine in his battle with Pelagius. The same happened in the sixteenth century with Martin Luther in his fight for the proper doctrine of justification. This was the case with John Wesley in his spiritual agony. The same happened to Karl Barth at the beginning of the twentieth century as he set out to conquer the nexus of problems of liberal theology.2

Churches today live in a deep crisis. This time around, the crisis is called "Biblical criticism," which is practiced by theological faculties around the world with the help of the so-called historical-critical method. This is why it is extremely important to probe once again the Epistle to the Romans. As theologians, we have a mission to proclaim its message in a fresh way to grassroots parishioners and others interested in hearing it. May we hope for an ecclesiastical renewal through all this increase!

My purpose in this article is to study the hermeneutical principle of the Epistle to the Romans. Which lines of thought does the apostle Paul follow in his study of the Bible (i.e. the Old Testament)? I will attach special attention to the new perspective that the gospel of Jesus Christ revealed to him. To begin with, this task calls for a brief survey of the development so far. After this, I will give an account of the actual theme under consideration, especially in light of this context.


Within the scope of a single presentation, it is not possible to sketch a complete line of theological development with the minutest precision, say, starting with the Age of Enlightenment (much less from the beginning). Therefore, it seems appropriate for me to concentrate on the main lines only. In order not to have to deal with all outdated attempts to solve problems, I will merely quote in the following summary L. Goppelt's assessment of the so-called "purely historical" method, which roughly dates to the nineteenth century and belongs to the exegetical phraseology extending to the First World War (and certainly also after this). He reasons in the following manner:

[...] that "purely historical" did not mean objective scientific method. As E. Troeltsch himself clarified, "an entire world view" was operative as rational presupposition. Had it not been the intention here to emancipate biblical research through the historical-critical principle in order to make such research all the more independent of the philosophies of particular epochs? Was not this the goal of wresting such from the domain of ecclesiastical tradition, from the categories-as was often said-of metaphysics? Was there to be a solution to this dilemma? Was one not unavoidably bound to the rational presuppositions of one's time?3^

Space does not permit close investigation of such movements as the Tübingen school, the (original) religious-historical school, or (classical) liberal theology, and so we move directly on to the hermeneutical reorientation which started to take shape shortly after World War I. In particular, two names play a major role there, namely Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann.4

Personally, I wish to add yet another name: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Strangely enough, he has not gained great public attention in the discussion of the principles of the philosophical prerequisites of theology, even though his Habilitationsschrift, Akt und Sein (1931), truly deserves consideration in this context. Incidentally, Barth and Bultmann have already been submitted to careful study and multiple critical reappraisals. There is not much left to be studied from their hermeneutical input except for someone whose field is the history of dogma, whereas to date Bonhoeffer's contribution has not been sufficiently scrutinized. …

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