Bonhoeffer Posts

Quite a lot of folks have been reading some posts I did about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and what Evangelicals should make of him.  To make things a bit easier for future readers I’ve grouped them together below:

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

What To Think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt.2)

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

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. Continue reading “What To Think About Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt.3)”

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. Continue reading “What To Do About Dietrich Bonhoeffer? (Pt. 2)”

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