What To Do About Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt. 2)

In the first part of this article I asked why Dietrich Bonhoeffer is hailed by liberals, neo-liberals and conservatives alike as a great Christian theologian and martyr.  I am definitely not the first person to ask this.  One can easily find the same sort of question asked by representatives of all three of the above groups.

I should add here that I am not going to enter into the matter of the man’s personal salvation.  There are a number of things in his life and testimony which might lead us to conclude that he was saved by grace: among these are his confession that he had no relationship with Jesus Christ when he entered the ministry (a change of some sort occurred in 1933).  Another possible indicator would be the not insignificant fact that his favorite professor at Tubingen was the great Adolf Schlatter (Edwin Robertson, The Shame and the Sacrifice, 40) – a truly believing man!  Still another we might mention would be some parts of the Bethel Confession of 1933 of which Bonhoeffer was one of the chief writers.

That said, we must keep in mind that similar sounding terminology does not automatically carry the same meanings from one context to the next.  A clear example would be the term “evangelical”, which in the USA identifies those who basically would claim to be “born-again” and hold to be inerrancy of Scripture and the classic fundamental tenets of classical orthodoxy.  But in Bonhoeffer’s Germany the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the German Evangelical churches were in our sense evangelical only in name.  The word simply denoted a denomination, not the alignment of its  beliefs with American Evangelicalism.

b. History and Revelation

I think this accounts also for certain misunderstandings of Bonhoeffer’s theological commitments stemming from Martin Doblmeier’s 2003 movie “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister,” where his conservatism is filtered through American evangelical lenses rather than through the eyes of those non-evangelicals who were interviewed.

Bonhoeffer was a member of the Confessing Church, whose declaration of faith was the Barmen Declaration, penned by Karl Barth.  Few Bible-believers would agree with that document.

As Richard Wiekart, in his essay “Scripture and Myth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (2) writes,

Evangelicals often misread Bonhoeffer because they are unaware of the theological and philosophical context of his work. Words that mean one thing to Bonhoeffer can mean something quite different to evangelicals.

Bonhoeffer employed the term “Geschichte”, meaning non-verifiable, transcendent time, to depict the Christ event.  (See e.g. Christ, the Center, New York: Harper & Row, 1966, 40).  This meaning, when applied to “the historical Jesus” in Bonhoeffer, should not be misconstrued as him teaching about the Jesus of actual time-space history (“Historie” in German), but rather about a Jesus who exists today, and not necessarily as a historical person who performed miracles and rose from the dead in our historically verifiable sense.

Wiekart says there are two instances in The Cost of Discipleship which betray Bonhoeffer’s critical stance towards the historicity of the Bible:

Only two passages in The Cost of Discipleship clearly reveal Bonhoeffer’s view on the unhistorical character of the Bible. One is only part of a sentence: “We cannot and may not go behind the word of scripture to the real events…. “(citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nachfolge, ed. Martin Kuske and Use Todt, in Werke, vol. 4 (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1989), 75 (English trans., The Cost of Discipleship [hereafter CD], trans. R. H. Fuller [New York: Macmillan, 1959], 93).

Wiekart continues, quoting a Bonhoeffer footnote:

The confusion of ontological statements with proclaiming testimony is the essence of all fanaticism. The sentence: Christ is risen and present, is the dissolution of the unity of the scripture if it is ontologically understood…. The sentence: Christ is risen and present, strictly understood only as testimony of scripture, is true only as the word of scripture.  (The Cost of Discipleship, 254-256)

“The footnote is enlightening,” Wiekart writes,

because it occurs in a passage in which Bonhoeffer affirmed the truth, reliability and unity of the scriptures in the strongest possible way. To avoid misunderstanding he added a clarifying note denying the literal resurrection of Jesus in the past. Scripture and Myth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (9)

If we analyze the Bonhoeffer quote we can see some problems.  An “ontological statement” is a proposition about the “being” or existence of the thing in question.  Bonhoeffer is saying, therefore, that Christ’s real-time existence should not be proclaimed (from the pulpit).  Understood as a statement of a historical and scientific state of affairs (its ontology), “Christ is risen and present” overloads the capabilities of Scripture.  This can only be so if Scripture is believed to be reporting veridical historical facts, which, in this instance, may not be the case.  Thus, for Bonhoeffer, as opposed to evangelicalism, preaching the historical reality of Christ’s resurrection would be a sign of fanaticism.

More next time….Part Three

7 thoughts on “What To Do About Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt. 2)”

  1. I’m looking forward to reading more of your analysis on Bonhoeffer. No other online source has presented the problems with his theology (in terms of Christianity) as clearly as you have.

  2. You write: “This meaning, when applied to “the historical Jesus” in Bonhoeffer, should not be misconstrued as him teaching about the Jesus of actual time-space history (“Historie” in German), but rather about a Jesus who exists today, and not necessarily as a historical person who performed miracles and rose from the dead in our historically verifiable sense.”

    but Bonhoeffer wrote,

    “We have so far spoken of the present Christ; but this present historical (geschichtliche) Christ is the same person as the historical (historische) Jesus of Nazareth. Were this not so, we would have to say with Paul that our faith is vain and an illusion. The church would be deprived of its substance. There can be no isolation of the so-called historical (historische) Jesus from the Christ who is present now.” (same edition you cited). Also, pay attention to the footnote on p. 40 before you make too much of the difference between historie and geschichte in Bonhoeffer…

    1. Sam,

      Thanks for the comment. With Bonhoeffer there is always going to be difficulty and some misreadings. I am definitely not the last word. However, my point was not that he denied that Jesus was a historical person. It was that Christ as He exists in the Church community is his real emphasis and goal. Hence, the “abstract” reality of the Incarnation is not for him as crucial as it is for evangelicals. I do think in this case it is important to note the difference between the two German words for history since the space-time Geschicte is not central to Bonhoeffer’s working Christology.

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