What To Think About Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt.3)

Part One, Part Two

Eric Metaxas, in his new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (136-137), includes this quote from him about Scripture:

If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New but also in the Old Testament . . . .

[Not wishing to stall the reading, but I must point out that the Sermon on the Mount never does mention the Cross!]

And I would like to tell you now quite personally: since I have learnt to read the Bible in this way – and this has not been for so very long – it becomes every day more wonderful to me. I read it in the morning and the evening, often during the day as well, and every day I consider a text which I have chosen for the whole week, and try to sink deeply into it, so as really to hear what it is saying. I know that without this I could not live properly any longer.

Would that many evangelicals in the pews expressed the same longing about reading the Bible!  But a love for Bible-reading is not always indicative of soundness in any degree.  Edgar Cayce read his Bible daily for many years, but this habit did not evince spiritual health at all.  Such testimonies as these are so malleable as to be of service to any user, be they evangelical or no.  So Bonhoeffer’s words here do not carry us any further along the road to a conclusion about the man’s actual beliefs.  In fact, statements such as these are just the sort of thing which, in our zeal for our own cause, we might clothe in our own regalia because we think we have heard the sound of our own shibboleths.  But consideration of the fact that parties quite at odds with an evangelical view of Scripture read such words and are unperturbed by them might point us in a direction we would rather not care to look.

3. Associates

If the old adage is true that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep then Bonhoeffer does not come out well.  The Apostle declares that for the true Christian, “old things have passed away…all things have become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17).  This is one way of describing the change wrought on a person by the Holy Spirit in the new birth.  From this point on our duty is not to “be conformed to this world, but [to be] transformed by the renewing of our mind.” (Rom. 12:2).  If a man calls himself a pastor and a theologian he had better express himself on the chief matters of the Word of God clearly so as to both declare the truth and expose error (Cf. Tit. 1:1-4, 9).  He had also better watch his company (e.g. Eph. 5:8-11).

a. America 1930-31

Even though Bonhoeffer was stunned at the lack of theological nous of the student body at Union Theological Seminary (Metaxas, 101-107), this did not provoke him to search out the writings of the best American evangelical theologians, Warfield (d. 1921), or Machen (who had studied in Germany and whose Christianity and Liberalism was published in 1923).  If the biographers I have read are reliable indicators it would appear that the evangelical voices in America and Britain passed him by. Instead we find Bonhoeffer attending Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, whose preacher at the time, Dr Adam Clayton Powell Sr, was a well-known preacher of the Social Gospel.  I do not find anything in the accounts which I have read which convinces me that this was what we would call an evangelical church.

Although Metaxas  assures us that Bonhoeffer heard an unvarnished gospel from Powell, one has to wonder at this.  For one thing, what sound evangelical pastor would have “the most convinced disciple of Dr Barth…” (106, cf. also 329) teaching their young boys’ Sunday school class (108)?  And in the second place, can we have confidence in an author who identifies Frank Buchman as an evangelical (199, 289)?  Perhaps, but here is a differing opinion:

Two movements in particular were in vogue…in British ministerial circles in the 1930’s and in both of them Dr Lloyd-Jones became involved as an opponent…The first was the so-called ‘Oxford Group Movement’, later better known as ‘Moral Re-Armament’, inspired largely by the influence of Frank Buchman…The Oxford Group…offered Christian renewal, not on the basis of a recovery of Christian faith in truth, but rather in terms of the ‘Christian ethic’ and ‘Christian experience'” – Iain H. Murray, D. M. Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, 289.

b. Great Britain 1934-35

While in Britain in the mid-Thirties Bonhoeffer befriended Bishop George Bell.  Apart from his association with Bonhoeffer, Bell is known as a major player in the early inter-faith movement.  His dream was to bring together representatives from all the major world religions to speak with a united voice in support of the ethical charter of the League of Nations.  It was through Bell that Bonhoeffer made contact with Gandhi.  But Bell was also a custodian of the Arts, often inviting and even commissioning playwrights and artists to contribute dramas and scenery for Canterbury Cathedral.  Contributions were solicited even when the artist was a known infidel, such as when Charles Ricketts, a “robust unbeliever” (to quote Rowan Williams from his 2008 “Bishop George Bell Lecture”), was asked to do set designs for a play Bell had commissioned.

The plain fact is Bonhoeffer’s friends and associates all have larger question marks over them than he does himself.  Bonhoeffer was at home among the likes of Professor Niebuhr, Pastor Powell and Bishop Bell.  And one would not expect a man in such company to do anything other than glance over at true evangelicals.  His last words were for Bishop Bell, not for anyone whom an American evangelical would recognize as one of them.

As stated previously, I am not entering into the debate about the man’s salvation.  The peace and joy of his last days, witnessed by his fellow prisoners; the heroic way he met his death (though not, I think, as a Christian martyr), testify to in inner assurance of  “something.”  I am not prepared to say it wasn’t grounded in the real Savior.  But as far as permitting Bonhoeffer entrance into the “School of God’s Prophets” is concerned, I would have to declare him unfit to occupy the office.

3 thoughts on “What To Think About Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt.3)”

  1. Very Good. I wish there were more. As I’ve read much of DB, I’m always asking “what do you mean by that”? There are many admirable things about Bonhoeffer, but when I encounter any teacher, in whom I cannot find clarity and a straight forward answer upon certain issues, I get more than a little skeptical. If I continue to read him, I will do so with an informed mind. Thanks so much.

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