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. Continue reading “What To Think About Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt.1)” →