Paul and Bonhoeffer on Humility according to Eve-Marie Becker

Amidst the stresses of the last year, I have not managed to keep up with my blogging. As such this is not such a problem, but I do regret the fact that I have therefore not written a single post on my translation of Prof. Eve-Marie Becker‘s excellent book Paul on Humility, which I greatly enjoyed and from which I profited significantly both personally and intellectually.

1) One characteristic that I appreciated about Becker’s book is the nuanced way in which she develops the multilayered character and constructive potential of humility. I think that the following excerpts from Becker’s concluding “Attempt at Terminological Specification” give a good sense of this strength of the book (pp. 147-150):

147-148: With ταπεινοφροσύνη, Paul, rather than shaping a ‘moral norm’ that would follow the flow of “Greco-Roman morality,”50 expresses an ethical attitude that must be conceptualized from the standpoint of the individual and related to the fellowship in a polity. Thus, viewed against the Greco-Roman world of ideas (especially Plato and Aristotle) as outlined in this study, the goal of Paul’s concept of humility is communitarian and political rather than individual: the goal of humility, according to Paul, is the unity of the community with a view to the expectation of eschatological time—humility functions here as an ethical and ecclesiological tool. It promotes the fellowship also with the apostle, even across physical separation.

50 So Horrell 2019, 148, 150ff.

148-149: Paul propagates ταπεινοφροσύνη as ethos, which has characteristics of an ethical, but even more of a dianoetic (phronesis), virtue. For the striving for conformity to Christ and fellowship with God reckons with an establishment of the justice of God, for which the κλητός prepares not only morally but—in the sense of φρονεῖν—with the whole person. The fact that the term ταπεινοφροσύνη rapidly fell into the intellectual discourse of (Christian) virtues and their relation to the ancient doctrine of virtue is already grounded, to a certain degree, in the Pauline concept and is promoted by corresponding lexis (e.g., ἀρετή in Phil 4.8). The Pauline term humility is, however, multilayered and opens up far-reaching theological-ethical perspectives on life together in the Christian community and its place in space, time, and history. History ultimately arises out of “accepting this responsibility for other human beings” and “for entire communities or groups of communities,”52 and humility is the basis that enables this. Thus, ethical thinking has not only eschatological but also historical implications. The term humility in Paul is arranged in a correspondingly large and complex way. The mere reproduction of ταπεινοφροσύνη in post-Pauline virtue catalogues signifies, by contrast, a reduction of Pauline humility to a moral category. Here, the dualistic thinking on virtues and vices is in danger of morally charging humility according to the need of the moment or, alternatively, discrediting it (cf. already the discourse behind Col 2).

52 Bonhoeffer 2005, 220 (GV = 1992, 219).

2) A second characteristic of Becker’s book from which I benefited greatly was her facilitation of a dialogue with a remarkable range of ancient and modern voices and perspectives on humility. To give a sense of this wonderful feature of the book, I will provide an excerpt from her discussion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on humility, which she finds to be especially close to those of Paul:

36-38 (cf. also 147 and 189 [index]): Against this polyphonic cultural-historical and philosophical-historical background, it is thus impressive how Barth and especially Bonhoeffer, in the midst of political resistance and in the confusion of World War II—partly in direct confrontation with Nietzsche73—dealt with humility ethically and ecclesiologically. In 1944 Bonhoeffer ( “Entwurf für eine Arbeit” / “Outline for a Book”) sketched out a conception of a church, which opposes the “vices of hubris” and instead speaks of “patience, discipline, humility, modesty, contentment.”74 In conscious confrontation with ancient teaching on virtue, Bonhoeffer formulates an ‘ecclesial catalogue of virtues,’75 which goes beyond New Testament (e.g., Col 3.12) conceptions of virtues:76

The church is church only when it is there for others. As a first step it must give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the freewill offerings of the congregations and perhaps be engaged in some secular vocation [Beruf]. The church must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community—not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell people in every calling [Beruf] what a life with Christ is, what it means “to be there for others.” In particular, our church will have to confront the vices of hubris, the worship of power, envy, and illusionism as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, authenticity, trust, faithfulness, steadfastness, patience, discipline, humility, modesty, contentment. . . . All this is put very roughly and only outlined. But I am eager to attempt for once to express certain things simply and clearly that we otherwise like to avoid dealing with. Whether I shall succeed is another matter, especially without the benefit of our conversations. I hope that in doing so I can be of some service for the future of the church.77

Bonhoeffer’s reflections on humility shape his theology.78 It is initially motivated ecclesiologically or ‘ecclesio-sociologically’ and thus builds on the lines of questioning of his dissertation Sanctorum Communio (1930). However, Bonhoeffer’s life’s work also circles thereafter around the themes of “Christ, community, and concreteness.”79 However, his late conceptualization of humility in the “Entwurf für eine Arbeit” / “Outline for a Book” and his sketches on an ethics lead beyond the framework of ecclesiology in two respects. As Charles Marsh has recently shown, they are closely connected, first, with Bonhoeffer’s reflections on a religionless Christianity. Bonhoeffer hopes for a new elite, who “exhibit the highest values” and thus will exemplify “what a life with Christ is.”80 In an ethical respect, the practice of humility is an expression of ‘good works,’ which characterizes human life together and especially the ‘good’ “in relation to God.”81

Second, it is then especially Bonhoeffer’s personal fate of becoming a political martyr as a theologian82 that lets ecclesiology and ethics become a political ethic. As we shall see, here we find a direct point of contact with Paul and ταπεινοφροσύνη in Phil 2. A further concretization of Pauline ταπεινοφροσύνη takes place in the life and political martyrdom of a contemporary of Bonhoeffer, namely with Ernst Lohmeyer. We will need to return to the tragic fate of Lohmeyer, one of the most significant—if not the most significant—commentators on Philippians in the twentieth century.83

Bonhoeffer’s reflections on humility also come close to Phil 2 because in 1944 they were probably written under the impression that the theologian, who had already proven himself to be a brilliant interpreter of Paul early on,84 was in a parallel situation to the person of Paul as a prisoner. The imprisonment with an expectation of a violent death as well as reflections on a possible suicide or escape from prison, as Marsh describes this in the last chapter of his biography on Bonhoeffer,85 are close to the reality of life, as Paul also presents it in Phil 1.86 Especially after the events of July 20, 1944, these life circumstances probably became important—whether consciously or unconsciously—for Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of humility. During and because of the separation from their communities, in a situation of farewell, the apostle to the gentiles and the resistance fighter reflect on the connection between ethics, community, and humility. For both the elite action of the individual, which finds its standard in the model of Christ, becomes the key to existential understanding. Bonhoeffer also formulates this thought explicitly:

It (= our church) will have to see that it does not underestimate the significance of the human “example” (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s writings!); the church’s word gains weight and power not through concepts but by example. (I will write in more detail later about “example” in the NT—we have almost entirely lost track of this thought.87

Thus, what is regarded as essential to humility becomes clear only in the personal model and example. With this we are also close to Phil 2. In the originating text of Christian humility, Paul makes Christ the paradigm of ταπεινοφροσύνη. With his understanding of humility, Bonhoeffer appears to come very near to Paul personally and materially. He proves himself to be a genuine interpreter of the Pauline term humility—not least through the way that reflections on humility have the character of a testament and are precisely therein an expression of an ‘unfinished ecclesiology.’88

73 Cf., e.g., Bonhoeffer 1993, 93.

74 Bonhoeffer 2009a, 503 (GV = 1998, 560)

75 On this, cf. Bonhoeffer 1993, 26, where Bonhoeffer, in connection with his preliminary studies on an “ethic,” points out that in the ancient teaching on virtue, “obedience. Service. Truthfulness. Knightly faithfulness humility, mercy, thankfulness, love, chastity” [sic!] are lacking.

76 Some terms (“illusionism, trust, steadfastness, patience, modesty”) are, however, subsequent additions; cf. Bonhoeffer 2009a, 503, nn. 28-29 (GV = 1998, 560, nn. 27-28).

77 Bonhoeffer 2009a, 503-4 (GV = 1998, 560-61). With the exception of the phrase “our church,” the italics have been added by E.-M. Becker.

78 Cf. the numerous attestations in the indices to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works (Anzinger/Pfeifer 1999, 496; Barnett/Wojhoski 2014, 24).

79 Marsh 2015a, 57 (GV = 2105b, 78).

80 Marsh 2015b, 465-66; cf. 2015a, 378.

81 Bonhoeffer 1993, 36 and 61-66.

82 On the problems of the distinction made between “Christian martyrdom and political resistance” made by the Berlin-Brandenburg church in the reception of Bonhoeffer, cf. Bethge 2000, 930ff., quotation on 931 (GV = 1978, 1041ff., quotation on 1042).

83 See under section 7.3 below.

84 On this, cf. Bonhoeffer’s 1926 essay “Joy in Primitive Christianity” (“Freude im Urchristentum”), which Marsh (2015a, 51-52 [GV = 2015b, 71-72]) refers to in this context.

85 Marsh 2015a, 348ff. (GV = 2015b, 428ff.) Cf., much more cautiously, Bethge 2000, 832 (GV = 1978, 934).

86 On this, see E.-M. Becker 2013.

87 Bonhoeffer 2009a, 503-4 (GV = 1998, 560-61).

88 Cf. Bethge 2000, 887 (GV = 1978, 995). Bethge evaluates this unfinished ecclesiology of Bonhoeffer critically and even characterizes it as a failure (ibid.). In light of how similar the fragmentary reflections on ecclesiology that Boonhoeffer makes in his imprisonment are to Phil 2 and the role that humility has in the two situations of imprisonment, this evaluation of Bethge can possibly be revised.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne

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