What To Think About Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt.1)


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.

Part Two

18 thoughts on “What To Think About Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt.1)”

  1. Well, if he is/was “promoted….by calvinists” he’s surely suspect! Nevertheless, I think you’re on the right track Dr H by understanding that what Bonhoeffer actually believed and what warped theology has developed and been laid at his feet might be two different things. Actually, he was young and, if not immature, his views were in flux and growing when he was killed.

    And I hope this does not turn into another episode of the on-going saga “Doctrinal Regeneration”….where one’s salvation is judged by his precise alignment with what we consider our “perfect theology”……if saved, Bonhoeffer was saved by the merciful act of a sovereign God to the benefit of a hell-deserving sinner….and to the great glory of that God.

    1. Ed,

      What I want to do is to look at his statements as a theologian and try to piece together a representative picture of him and then ask, “where does he fit on the theological landscape?” I do not want to enter into the question of his personal salvation. As one who is familiar with non-fundamentalist expressions of faith I hope that I shall be a little more understanding of his spiritual standing.

      God to hear from you!

  2. Paul,

    I recently saw a documentary on Bonhoeffer; very recently, where his students were interviewed. It is simply called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister. In the film his students express what they were taught by Bonhoeffer about the Bible, Christ, God, and of course his thoughts on the Nazis.

    Yes, he was a follower of Barth who influenced him, but he also taught in New York where he was even more influenced by the evangelical movements of the African American Churches and pastors of the time as attested to by his friends and contemporaries. I worry that we come to close to judgement when we attempt to look at whether or not an individual is “saved” based on the subjective. Yes, we should discern circumstances where we can see the evidence that one is lost, but we do not have Bonhoeffer to look at thoroughly, because there is simply not enough information out there to say whether he was or wasn’t.

    I also think that to claim or suggest that because a particular group follows a person’s theological thought that it somehow reveals the individual’s “saved” state is over reaching a little. Especially when, as you have stated, we have so little information about the man’s faith. Bonhoeffer should certainly be a person to study as a historical figure, but I don’t know that we can honestly adopt his theological thought based on what is available to us.

    The following statement, “But Bonhoeffer rejected verbal inspiration (Roark, 42), believing, like Barth, that it somehow brought God under man’s control”, is directly disputed by one of his contemporaries in the documentary by the way. I could take Roark to task in his implication of this.

    A very well written article. I look forward to Part 2.


    1. Mike,

      As I said to Ed, I will not delve into the subjective matter of Bonhoeffer’s salvation. I just don’t know about it. I will say that it is unclear. His time with the Harlem church is important, and I have something to say on it, but please understand my main concern. It is that a man like Bonhoeffer is quite able to state his meaning, even if we have to treat his statements as incomplete in many areas. What DID he say and how does that match up with biblical Christianity? That is my burden.

      Roark is not the only writer to claim Bonhoeffer rejected verbal inspiration. i shall try to express this more in Part Two.

      Thanks for the comment brother.

  3. Glad you’re finally touching on Bonhoeffer. From what I’ve read by and about him, he seems to have been deeply influenced by Barth’s Christology in particular. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he is so appealing. Christ is the centerpiece of his thought. His “Life Together” is stunning. One of those books where you read 3 pages and have to put it down to digest it. All the recent hype over him aside, I’m very intrigued by the man. His decision not to concede to most of Von Harhack’s conclusions is admirable, even though the man was his teacher from an early age and they road the train together each day. It seems that unlike us, the religious climate that he lived in and was exposed to in Europe was not a fundamentalism by any means. So I think he is to be respected to falling on the “Conservative” side of the theology that he was exposed to and that was prevalent in his day. It seems that the black churches in America had such a powerful, positive impact on him partially due to his inexposure beyond any German or Swiss continental theology. Perhaps if he would have picked up something from the Dutch… Anyhow, at this point, I am fairly sympathetic towards him, given what he was trying to accomplish in the Lutheran church and the liberal options he could have gone with that were at his fingertips. I’m not however so sympathetic towards the modern day movement that seem to have made them their golden boy. But, there is much to be admired about him and, I think, learned from him. Perhaps the current trendiness toward Bonhoeffer is much like the one toward C.S. Lewis – neither apparently evangelicals.

    1. Jeremy,

      Yes, I think his rejection of the teaching of Harnack and Troelsch (both family friends) is commendable. At Berlin he was surrounded by rampant liberalism of the worse kind. That he did not wholly capitulate to it is surprising. Perhaps one reason for this is that liberalism stripped away the transcendent, and hence held nothing for such a man as Bonhoeffer, who felt for others.
      The comparison with Lewis is helpful.

      God bless you and yours (esp. the new one)


  4. Looking forward to reading more of this. I’ve been a fan of Bonhoeffer for quite some time now, in a very novice kind of fashion. However, as I was reading “Ethics” one day, I began to feel an absurd amount of ambiguity for the terms he was using. A kind of uncomfortable confusion about what he was really saying. I tried to cross reference much of what he was talking about, and found his use of allegory a little stretched. The more I researched him, the more wary of him I became. I’ve still not come to any solid conclusions. I have become increasingly skeptical of his teachings pertaining to Christianity. As I was reading through “Reasonable Faith” by Bill Craig, new light was shed upon the Liberal Protestant views of the historical Jesus. The idea that whether Jesus was in fact historical was not important to someone like Barth. What was important was how we encounter Jesus existentially. How much of this is bleeding over into his “Ethics”? I’m glad someone else is asking the same questions I was asking. I wouldn’t even think to question his salvation. But I am intensely interested in what the man actually believed and taught.

  5. Some of Bonhoeffer’s writing is obscure but there are places where he was much more outspoken than many realize. In “Christ the Center” he openly expressed doubt about the virgin birth of Christ and about the historicity of the resurrection. He also clearly stated there that scholarship had shown some parts of the 4 gospels to be historically false. Plain comments about the mythology of Genesis are easily found in “Creation and Fall.”

    An accurate but brief overview of problems with Bonhoeffer can be seen in this book review http://www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart/metaxas.htm

    Weikart also has two in depth studies of Bonhoeffer’s “neo-orthdox” theology, which he considers to be merely another form of liberalism (rightly I think). They can be found on his homepage: http://www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart/

    I explore this in a 3 part blog at http://hitlerandchristianity.com/erich-metaxas-or-richard-weikart-whos-right-about-bonhoeffer-part-1-of-3/633.html

    Eric Metaxas’ biography states that von Harnack denied that the biblical miracles occurred and also denied that canonicity of the gospel of John, yet Bonhoeffer respected him, publicly praised him as a companion in the search for truth, but disagreed with some of his conclusions. I think it is safe to say that Bonhoeffer’s neo-orthdoxy was merely a form liberalism that used more biblical sounding language.

      1. The most revealing comments in Bonhoeffer’s book “Christ the Center” all occur towards the end of the book. As Shannon said above there is a lot of ambiguity and confusion in the book.

  6. Very insightful and well written. I just read Bonhoeffer’s biography by Metaxas and read his “The Cost of Discipleship” years ago, but I didn’t pick up on many of the arguments you posit about Bonhoeffer. However I believe your perspicacious assertions are warranted.

    1. Metaxas does not mention these things – I think specifically avoided them – but there were a few red flags in his book. On p. 86 (the last page of chapter 5, “Barcelona”), Bonhoeffer states in a letter written while serving as an assistant pastor that “all who loved each other on earth – genuinely loved each other – will remain together with God, for to love is part of God.”

      This might be excused as a youthful error, but surely an assistant pastor should have at least some idea of salvation. Shortly before this statement that to sincerely love someone is enough to get to heaven, Metaxas refers to Bonhoeffer’s “orthodox theological foundation” (p. 84).

      More significantly, we read on p. 59 (chap. 4, “A Student in Berlin”) that Bonhoeffer’s theology professor Adolf von Harnack was a “living legend” whose “textual and historical-critical analysis” led him to believe that “the miracles in the Bible never happened, and that the Gospel of John was not canonical.”

      We read on this same page that Bonhoeffer “rarely agreed” with Harnack’s conclusions and “contradicted again and again,” but nevertheless “esteemed the venerable scholar greatly. What Bonhoeffer disagreed with is not mentioned, but Metaxas further relates (p. 61) that “Bonhoeffer was not against doing historical and critical work on biblical texts; indeed he had learned from Harnack how to do it.”

      What Bonhoeffer might have learned from Harnack is not explained, but at Harnack’s funeral Bonhoeffer lauded him publicly, saying among other things “we saw him as the bulwark against all trivialization and stagnation, against the fossilization of all intellectual life” (chapt. 6, “Berlin,” p. 95).

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s