Creation and Fall by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Creation and Fall comes from lectures given by Bonhoeffer in 1932-1933 at the University of Berlin. The chapters of the book take the reader through the first three chapters of Genesis. In the introduction, he writes that the Church reads the Scriptures from the point of view of Christ’s ending of the old order and bringing of the new order. The Church ought to read the Bible from the point of view of the whole canon, and not only in a narrow sense that isolates a text from the rest of the Bible:

When Genesis says ‘Yahweh’, historically or psychologically it means nothing but Yahweh. Theologically, however, i.e. from the Church’s point of view, it is speaking of God. God is the One God in the whole of Holy Scripture: the Church and theological study stand and fall with this faith. (8)

I don’t know enough about the German intellectual scene in Bonhoeffer’s time, but this seems to be Bonhoeffer pushing back against the higher criticism that had become prominent in Germany and other places that focused on identifying different authors in the Torah. To some extent, it seems that Bonhoeffer is comfortable with the methods of higher criticism, but he also believes in the unity of Scripture and the importance of theological interpretation that views the Bible as a whole and as a revelation of God’s salvation. This is not his original point of view, of course, but it helps the reader to understand his method of interpretation.

Bonhoeffer’s writing on the fall was on the whole more compelling than his writing on creation. The section on creation didn’t seem to dig into the text as much as his analysis of Genesis 3 did.

Following Catholic commentators and Martin Luther, he suggests that the serpent is not identified as Satan in the text of Genesis 3 because that would make man the devil’s “first victim” rather than the one at fault for the sin (65-66). That’s an interesting way to look at it.

Bonhoeffer’s analysis of the serpent’s question, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” (RSV) was intriguing. He writes that the question (which is in truth “godless”) is a powerful temptation precisely because it brings God in.

This is the question that appears innocuous but through it evil wins power in us, through it we become disobedient to God. If we met this question in its real godlessness we should be able to resist it. But that is not the way to attack Christians. They must be approached with God himself, they must be shown a better, prouder God than they seem to have, if they are to fall. What is the real evil in this question? It is not that it is asked at all. It is that the false answer is contained within it, that within it is attacked the basic attitude of the creature towards the Creator. Man is expected to be judge of God’s word instead of simply hearing and doing it. (68)

The trap, for Bonhoeffer, is that the serpent’s modification of God’s command (he asks if all trees are off limits) allows Eve “to feel, for the first time, the attraction of making judgments about the World of God” (69). Since Christians are often tempted to save God, the Christian faith, and the Bible from themselves by showing that they actually support whatever trendy trends are out there, this seems to be an observation that is always timely.

The last insight that I want to note is the contrast between imago dei (the image of God, in which man is created) and sicut deus (like God, what the serpent promises to Eve if she eats the fruit). Bonhoeffer sees man in the image of God as a creature, created by God to be free like God, but within the limits of being a creature. Being “like God” is a rejection of the status of creature. He believes that being like God now makes man a creator as well, although I think that we were intended to be creators like God from the beginning (although of course not in the ultimate sense).

Creation and Fall is not a perfect book. He has a rather dismissive view of the creation narrative (prompting a previous reader to write in the margins “So you got the key (infallibility) to decide what is true in the Bible/You’re all wet, it’s all true!”). There’s a strange sentence that says that the Word of God is where “God himself draws his own power” (67). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it put that way before. But on the whole, there were some good insights. I think that I would benefit from reading it again sometime to better understand what he says about the trees in the middle of the the garden and the Hebrew words for good and evil.

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