On Temptation (Versuchung) in Bonhoeffer (I)

The reading from the New Testament on Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, comes from Luke 4:1-13. This pericope concerns the temptation of Christ by the devil while he was in the wilderness. On reading commentaries about this passage, I came across multiple references to Bonhoeffer’s essay, “Temptation,” found in various places and translated in at least two editions. I myself used the translation offered in the English edition of Bonhoeffer’s Works (vol. 15, pp. 386-415). Reading the text for the first time, I was surprised by the controversial claims Bonhoeffer makes. His essay is in many respects an extension of a radical Lutheran epistemology. The very word temptation receives a thoroughgoing redefinition.

For both the “natural human being” and the “ethical human being,” the deep resonance of the soul is a stoic existentialism: “lead me into temptation in order that I may prove the power of goodness in myself.” The common-sense framework through which we normally think about temptation—as some sort of endurance competition where we demonstrate our virtue or sanctification—is far afield from what Bonhoeffer has in mind: this view “has nothing to do with the temptation Jesus is speaking about,” when, in Matt. 6:13, we recall the famous injunction: “Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Temptation, for Bonhoeffer, in its biblical sense, means that “all my strengths are turned against me.” In fact, “even before I can test my strength, I am already robbed of my strength.” The hard truth Bonhoeffer is trying to express is that temptation is a real situation and not a vague abstraction or theoretical possibility. Temptation means being forsaken—being abandoned. It means a forsakenness that extends to my inner being to other people, and most controversially of all, to God himself. “The self is nothing. The enemy is everything.

In contrast to the “vital” and “ethical human beings,” it is the Christian who knows that “his strength will desert him each time in the hour of temptation.” Under no circumstances is the Christian to ask God for strength to face temptation, rather, he prays “do not lead us into temptation.” For Bonhoeffer, “temptation does not mean: testing of strength, but the loss of all strength, the defenseless deliverance into Satan’s hands.”

Both the “vital human being’ and the “ethicist” hold to abstract notions about life as a constant struggle or every hour as a time of temptation. The Christian, on the other hand, knows “hours of temptation” and “hours of gracious protection.” There is a time for everything. For Bonhoeffer, “The Christian’s concern is not life as such but how God is dealing with me now,” and, “the Christian lives by God’s appointed times and not from his own notion of life. The Christian does not claim to live continually in temptation or continually in probation, but one prays in the time of safekeeping that God will ward off the time of temptation.”

Anticipating criticism of his perspective, Bonhoeffer argues that the kind of thinking that leads one to pray for strength to overcome temptation is rooted in a presumptuous attitude, where one sees temptation as inevitable, bound to come. Bonhoeffer goes so far as to argue that even if temptation is inscribed in an “ineffable divine must,” then “Christ, the most tempted of all, summons us to pray against this divine must.”

The Bible provides us with two case studies to make sense out of the problem of temptation: that of Adam and Eve, and that of Jesus. There are profound ontological implications in this observation, for we are either tempted in ourselves or something else altogether is happening. For Bonhoeffer, “Either Adam in us is tempted, then we are the ones who fall, or Christ in us is tempted, then Satan must fall.”

What does the temptation of Adam and Eve teach us? Most importantly, it reveals that the devil, for whatever he is or represents in our various theologies, is a liar. He has been a liar and an accuser from the very beginning. It is not evident from whence the devil comes. We do not see a fiery demon making his origin transparent to the couple in paradise; rather, “the denial of the origin belongs to the essence of the tempter.” Bonhoeffer writes that the “tempter is always already present where there is innocence.” Remarkably, we learn that the devil is only present where there is innocence, “for where there is guilt, he has already won the power.” In the “real situation,” the concrete expression of the hour of temptation for Adam and Eve, there was an “unspeakable anxiety,” which was the “anxiety of innocence.” It is not a question of “mustering courage for the struggle” or a question of a “free decision for good or evil.” Rather, “Adam is defenselessly at the mercy of the tempter. He lacks any insight, strength, or knowledge that might have enabled him to struggle with his enemy. He is completely forsaken.” The only hope Adam had was that “in the midst of this abyss, he [was] held by God’s hand, by God’s word.” Adam could “only close his eyes and let himself be held and borne by the grace of God in the hour of temptation.” But Adam fell, destroyed by the Satanic question, “Did God say?” Bonhoeffer sees this question as that which “causes all flesh to fall.” “Adam’s temptation entails death and rejection for all flesh.”

This rather gloomy portrait of our situation under Adam, of the “real situation” of Adam and Eve, must be understood against the backdrop of the incarnation and subsequent temptation of Jesus Christ. “The Son of God, Jesus Christ, our Savior, came to earth, however, in the flesh of sin.” Following Heb. 4:15, Bonhoeffer reminds us what was at stake in the incarnation and temptation of Christ. He had to “completely take upon himself the flesh’s susceptibility to temptation.” Bonhoeffer argues that what Jesus endured was “inexpressibly more difficult than the temptation of Adam.” This is because, in his person, “Christ bore with him the entire burden of the flesh under the curse and condemnation, and yet his temptation was intended to obtain future help and salvation for all flesh that was to be tempted.”

Here we arrive at the textual discussion of the temptation of Jesus. Once again we are called to pay close attention to the text. The Father does not lead Jesus into a battle, “armed with all the strength and weapons he will need to endure the struggle.” No. For instead we read that the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert, “to be alone, to be forsaken.” We are reminded: “God leaves the human being alone in temptation.” Bonhoeffer explains the significance of the three temptations of Christ. The first: the temptation of the flesh. The second: the temptation of God. And the third: the temptation into sin against the Holy Spirit. Satan asks Jesus to turn stones into loaves of bread, in the first temptation. What’s happening here? Jesus is suffering hunger: “if Jesus were to withdraw from the suffering in the flesh through the power of his divinity, then all flesh would be condemned. The path of the Son of God on earth would come to an end. The flesh would belong again to Satan.” In Jesus’s response to Satan, “One does not live by bread alone,” where he indicates that the response comes from scripture, we are shown a few things. “[Even] the Son of God stands under God’s word and that he does not have to nor want to have his own right beside this word.” We also see that Jesus wants to “abide by this word alone.” Both the Son of God and the flesh belong under God’s word.

Between the gospels, it should be noted that the order of temptations differs. Turning stones into bread is the first in Matthew, followed by the pinacle of the temple, and finally the very high mountain. Bonhoeffer’s essay uses the Matthew order as his point of departure for narrating the theological meaning of these temptations.

In the second temptation, Jesus is to tempt God by demanding a sign from God. The response of Jesus to Satan demonstrates that Jesus’s sole desire is to “abide alone by the word of his Father.” Bonhoeffer writes that “the faith that desires more than the word of God in commandement and promise becomes the temptation of God.” In the third temptation, Satan demands “open apostasy from God,” which Jesus plainly refutes. The three temptations of Christ, “in flesh, in faith, and in his divine sonship,” are in reality but one temptation: “to tear Jesus away from the word of God: Satan pits the nature of the flesh against the divine commission.”

We know that the temptation of Jesus was much more severe than the temptation of Adam. But how are we to understand the nature of Jesus’s temptation in light of these scriptural reflections? Bonhoeffer writes,

Even Jesus’s temptation is not a heroic struggle of the human being against evil forces, as we gladly and lightly would like to understand it. Even Jesus is robbed of all his own strengths in his temptation; he is left alone; he is forsaken by God and human beings; even he must endure the assault of Satan in anxiety; he is held in complete darkness. Nothing is left for him except the saving, enduring, and uplifting word of God that holds him, fights, and wins the victory for him. The night of Jesus’s last words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” has begun. This night must follow the hour of this temptation as the ultimate, bodily-spiritual, consummate temptation of the Redeemer. In that Jesus suffers this total abandonment by God and humankind, God’s word and judgment are for him. As he succumbs defenselessly and powerlessly to Satan’s power, the temptation is overcome. He was tempted as we are—and yet without sin.

Thus, in Jesus’s temptation nothing truly remains other than God’s word and promise, not in any strength and delight of his own in fighting evil. Rather, God’s power and victory alone remain, God who holds me in his word and through this word robs Satan of his power. Temptation can be overcome only through the word of God.

It may be useful to pause here and reflect on what Bonhoeffer has written above. We are not speaking of atonement, but rather of Bonhoeffer’s theology of temptation. Jesus is forsaken, both by humanity and by God, and must “endure the assault of Satan in anxiety.” God’s word and judgement are for Jesus in his temptation. It is ultimately the word of God through which temptation can be overcome.

What are the consequences of Jesus’s temptation for us? On this, Bonhoeffer has quite a lot to say. And what he relates to us is good news—very good news! “Adam’s temptation has been brought to an end through the temptation of Jesus Christ.” Christ was tempted, and he overcame, and because he has overcome, we implore God to not lead us into temptation. “For temptation has already come and been overcome; he has done it in our stead.” The church shall no longer be led into temptation because “all temptation that still now happens is the temptation of Jesus Christ in his members, in his church community. It is not we who are tempted, but Jesus Christ who is tempted in us.” The temptations that we experience are but the “aftermath of Jesus’s temptation on earth, for the power of temptation is broken in the temptation of Jesus.” Further, it is only in my participation in his temptation that I find help in my temptation.

Bonhoeffer spends time writing about the source(s) of temptation. I will not review that discussion here, please feel free to reference it in the “Temptation” essay (p. 397ff). We must now approach the question, however, of the “concrete temptation of the Christian.” That is, what are we to do in the “real situation” of our temptation in light of the fact that the temptations we experience occur in the “aftermath” of Jesus’s very own temptations? I will address this question in a subsequent blog post.

One response to “On Temptation (Versuchung) in Bonhoeffer (I)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: