What does one do with Dietrich Bonhoeffer? This heroic and learned man, who was hanged by the Nazi’s in 1945 is everybody’s darling. We are familiar with his words about “cheap grace” and his words about “God being edged [or even pushed] out of the world and onto a Cross.” We may know about his unflappable demeanor in his prison cell, and the assurance in the last words for his friend the Bishop of Chichester: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.” And we may have been moved at his fervent prayers to God just prior to his death. We might have read the testimonies of those who studied under him or who were with him to the last. Surely, this man was a true saint?
1. The Problem Stated
The trouble is, when one begins to ask the probing questions about Bonhoeffer; the sort of questions evangelicals like to ask and want clear answers to, this man’s standing before his Maker becomes, like a lot of his theology, quite ambiguous.
It ought to be said that one can be all at sea on many points of doctrine and still be saved. The content of saving faith is trust in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for our sin and in His Resurrection from the dead (See Rom. 4:23-25; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). At the end of the day, if Bonhoeffer depended upon these aspects of the merits of Christ alone for his salvation he was indeed saved. And if he was truly saved, we should surely be able to dig up some clear professions of faith and one or two plain statements about the necessity of sinners believing in Jesus Christ in order to be rescued from under the just wrath of the Almighty.
On the other hand, despite any nobility we might wish to accord him in his life and death, and despite any agreement we might come to in reference to his teaching about discipleship and his compassionate work among the dying, it should be stated with emphasis that these acknowledgments by themselves do not constitute him a child of God.
Why is it that Bonhoeffer did not leave the liberal Union Theological Seminary in disgust after he found students “laughing out load when a passage from Luther was quoted on sin and forgiveness”? (Dallas M. Roark, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 16). Why did he find the early Barth so appealing? Why do his works find a comfortable perch on the bookshelves of theologically liberal scholars? Why was his work taken as the inspiration for the “Death of God” theology of the 1960’s and 1970’s? Why do Bible rejecting pseudo-christians love him? Conversely, we might ask, if he is difficult to pin down as an evangelical in any real sense, why do evangelicals love him?
The Modern Martyr?
A good place to begin would be his death at the hands of the Nazis. In his new biography of Bonhoeffer, evangelical Eric Metaxas (Forward by Timothy Keller), as is common with regard to Bonhoeffer and his death, calls him a martyr. His book, for example, bears the title, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Why should we refer to him as a martyr?
A martyr can die in the cause of many things. Muslims and Mormons and freedom fighters have their martyrs. But it has been standard practice to reserve the esteemed class of Christian martyr for those true saints who have endured death for the cause of Jesus Christ and His Truth. But even the author of this new biography admits that Bonhoeffer, “was executed for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler.” (Ibid, 4). If a Christian dies while planning to kill another individual, however deserving that individual might be, is the Body of Christ bound to include that man among the roll of its martyrs?
Even if his motive for the assassination of the Fuhrer was to insure “that Christian civilization could continue to live” (Hans Schwarz, Theology in a Global Context, 318), we forcefully resist any suggestion that such a goal gives a green light to his right to a Christian martyr’s crown. We wish evangelicals would stop referring to Bonhoeffer as a martyr as if he belongs alongside Hugh Latimer, Anne Askew, Michael Sattler, or John and Betty Stam. He was not killed because he was a Christian, but because of his involvement to overthrow the Nazis. In a world wherein more believers are being tortured and put to death for their belief in the Gospel than perhaps at any other time in history we are in no need of filling out the ranks with political activists, whatever their religious beliefs.
2. Theological Beliefs
The next question which comes to mind is, “just what were the nature of Bonhoeffer’s theological beliefs?” In reviewing his theology one wishes that Bonhoeffer had clearly stated exactly what he believed regarding the Biblical doctrines. It takes some effort to ferret them out, and we are still in doubt as to whether we have fully understood him.
Although his career was cut short by his death as a political revolutionary it is not apparent that, had he lived longer, we would be much the wiser on this score. How ironical it is that one of the foremost theologians of the 20th Century did not simply state his theological views on so many basic issues.
A big problem for the reader of Bonhoeffer is his terminology. It is not that he always used obtuse wording. It is that one has to continually ask oneself what he meant when he used such terms as “Son of God,” “secular” “religion” “the world come of age,” “the word of God,” etc. But having said that, there are some things which are very clear regarding Bonhoeffer’s beliefs: his rejection of some central tenets of Scripture.
a. Creation and Inspiration:
In the first place, Bonhoeffer did not believe that the crucial opening chapters of Genesis were historical. Roark states that, “In writing of the second day of creation, Bonhoeffer rejects its ‘ancient world picture in all its scientific naivete.'” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 51). He held Genesis 2 to be older than Genesis 1 (Ibid, 52). Thus, much of his interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis appears to be allegorical. One thinks of his well known comment on the tree in the middle of the Garden bespeaking of God’s belonging at the center of man’s existence. Similarly, his constant stress upon the communal aspects of the Church as Christ (who is a “collective person”) is paired incongruously with fallen man’s communal relationship to Adam. For whereas Bonhoeffer believed in the historicity of Jesus, he did not believe in the historicity of our first parent. As is always the case when the Bible’s account is discounted as literal, something has to be supplied to take the place of the empty space created by the rejection of its historicity. How, one might ask, did the Fall happen if Adam never existed? Bonhoeffer doesn’t say, preferring to concentrate on the disunity and disharmony produced by sin. In fact, reading Bonhoeffer can become irritating because of his inattention to the historical claims of the text (and related texts) in favor of its allegorical application.
He certainly does not hold to any “god of the gaps”, but because he also does not believe that the beginning chapters of Genesis are actual history, but are instead a kind of Church myth, he cannot believe that Adam was a real person (in fact he speaks of Adam being us and us being Adam). But if Adam was not a real person then where and when does the Word of God come to man? In the Genesis account the Word comes from God to Adam to tell him who he is and what he is to do. Thus the Word is for man and has specific objective content for man. This in turn provides the basis for God’s verbal communication to mankind and, after the Fall, explains why a written Word (Holy Scripture) has been given.
But Bonhoeffer rejected verbal inspiration (Roark, 42), believing, like Barth, that it somehow brought God under man’s control. He rather characteristically did not explain how man can control a God-breathed Word, but in his rejection of the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture Bonhoeffer denied to himself the Scriptural explanation, not only for human language and its intent, but also the adequacy of verbal revelation to convey objective truth to us about God and the world.
Once one has divested themselves of the doctrine of inspiration and has refused to take the Genesis creation account literally, one has to look around beyond the Bible for final explanations of God, man, and the world. Whether men like Bonhoeffer and Barth like it or not, this reintroduces the human intellect as the final determiner of “Christian” theology and truth. Thus, it should not surprise us that despite the occasional devotional gem in Bonhoeffer’s oeuvre, the preponderating discussions become excessively philosophical and sound most unlike either biblical or orthodox propositions; the text of Scripture being used now and again to launch or sustain a conversation which sounds decidedly esoteric and mystical.