Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theology

Bonhoeffer As Reliable Guide?

dietrich_bonhoefferI seem to have made it something of a pastime explaining to others things about Lutheran belief, and often this pertains to discussions of Bonhoeffer. Almost everyone is trying to make Bonhoeffer in their own image. Whether it is the notion of calling Bonhoeffer an evangelical, or recruiting him to various other schools of thought, Bonhoeffer is enduring a kind of celebrity right now. That celebrity comes with its share of difficulties, including pushback. Some evangelicals have labeled Bonhoeffer dangerous. A recent article by William Macleod questions whether Dietrich Bonhoeffer may be a “reliable guide” when it comes to Christianity: Bonhoeffer – A Reliable Guide? That blog post levels a number of criticisms at the Lutheran theologian, and I would like to respond to this article, which I think misrepresents Bonhoeffer in many ways. I’ll not respond to every point, because Macleod overlaps points I’ve responded to before.

Methodological Notes

At the outset, I must point out a major problem with the article is that there is a distinct lack of citation throughout. Indeed, the only footnote is a reference to an article about Bonhoeffer, not a reference to Bonhoeffer’s works at all. Moreover, though many assertions are made about what Bonhoeffer wrote–as well as a few quotations–no references are provided, which makes it at many points impossible to easily track down the reference and so provide a full response. It is disturbing to me to see such lack of citation in an article that purports to correct evangelical thought on this theologian. How are we to evaluate an article that makes it difficult to even double-check the facts?

Second, Macleod does not define evangelical in this article, or provide a clear reference to what he means. Because there is great difficulty with the definition of “evangelical” in its modern and historical usage. Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s German Lutheran church historically simply referred to itself as evangelical–a tradition carried on to this day in my church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The problem is that the term “evangelical” often means different things to different people, a problem acknowledged in many circles. The article would have been helped had Macleod provided exactly his meaning of evangelical to compare his statements to.

Bonhoeffer as Liberal Theologian?

Macleod alleges, “Far from being an evangelical, Bonhoeffer was more liberal than Barth. He considered himself a ‘modern theologian who still carries the heritage of liberal theology within himself’.” Here we already see a difficulty with the methodology–where is this quote from Bonhoeffer to be found? A search online turned up other blog posts that give this same quote, but this one, for example, writes a citation [5] in brackets but then there is no referent for [5]. I finally managed to possibly track down a reference on a different article, but don’t have the book in front of me at this point so I can’t confirm it. However, even granting he said that, I’d love to see the context. After all, he could have been saying it in the sense of saying that he has been influenced by liberal theology, which was certainly found all around him in Germany. But of course Bonhoeffer himself, at the end of his life, explicitly argued against liberal theology at multiple points.

Bultmann seems to have somehow found Barth’s limitations, but he misconstrues them in the sense of liberal theology, and so goes off into the typical liberal process of reduction – the ‘mythological’ elements of Christianity are dropped… My view is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must be kept… this mythology (resurrection etc.) is the thing itself… (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 328-329)

Those are Bonhoeffer’s words, written in 1944 from prison. Does that look like an acceptance of liberal theology? Bonhoeffer does engage liberal theologians, of that there is no doubt, but he explicitly notes the deficiencies of their theology and argues the opposite position. Macleod’s attempt to poison the well here fails.

Bonhoeffer as Martyr

Macleod, amusingly, questions whether Bonhoeffer was a martyr:

When we think of Christian martyrs we think of the early Christians thrown to the lions for refusing to worship Caesar. We think of Reformers like Patrick Hamilton and William Tyndale burnt at the stake for preaching the gospel and for translating the Scriptures into the language of the people. In no sense were these men involved in conspiracies against the state. Bonhoeffer died for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler… his death was not because of his beliefs, but rather for his ‘crime’ of conspiracy to murder.

I actually found myself chuckling here. I don’t know Macleod, and I know nothing about him. What I do know, and have seen many times, is a lack of understanding of church history among those broadly identifying themselves as evangelicals (I’m not the only one who bemoans this, on a different end of the spectrum than me stands James White, who I’ve heard on his podcast multiple times speak of the lack of knowledge of church history in evangelical circles). I preface that remark because Macleod’s comment about martyrs shows a bit of ignorance. If he wants to say Bonhoeffer’s not a martyr because he died for political reasons, perhaps he should go back and see that the worship of Caesar for which Christians were killed was, itself, a political killing. Virtually every book I’ve ever read on this early period of Christianity confirms this. For just one reference, check out the interplay between pagan and Christian apologists found in Apologetics in the Roman Empire.

Moreover, Macleod’s comment is amusing because the separation of belief from action is a very modernist/postmodernist separation, and one that could just as easily be used to say “the early Christian martyrs weren’t killed for their beliefs, they were killed for refusing to worship Caesar, a political act.” But of course that refusal is based on belief, just as Bonhoeffer’s ethical stance regarding Hitler was based on belief. Belief put into practice remains belief. The attempt to tarnish Bonhoeffer’s legacy as, yes, Christian martyr here bespeaks both lack of historical awareness and the overall tone of the article.

The Cross

Macleod accuses Bonhoeffer of decentralizing the cross because, according to Macleod, he did not believe in substitutionary atonement. More damningly, Macleod charges Bonhoeffer with seeing the cross as “an example and an inspiration.” I was astonished to read this from Macleod. Aside from the fact that Bonhoeffer wrote an entire book about Jesus Christ being the center not just of our faith but as the center of human history (Christ the Center, 59ff), he also repeatedly emphasized this in his other writings. Macleod stated, “For evangelicals the cross is at the centre of their faith.” I’m not at all sure why he thinks he should disagree with Bonhoeffer here, unless he just hasn’t read Bonhoeffer’s body of work.


I’ve responded to this elsewhere, but Macleod’s words about conversion regarding Bonhoeffer are deeply troubling to me:

As a Lutheran he embraced the doctrine of baptismal regeneration – you are automatically born again when you are baptised. Around 1931 Bonhoeffer experienced a ‘conversion’, when he, as he puts it, discovered the Bible… Yet it was not what evangelicals normally call conversion, or what the Scriptures describe as the new birth. He rarely referred to it… He wrote, ‘We must finally break away from the idea that the gospel deals with the salvation of an individual’s soul’.

A number of things are problematic here. First, Macleod blatantly misrepresented the Lutheran view of baptismal regeneration by couching it in terms borrowed from Baptist theology. Baptismal regeneration is not about “automatically” being born again; it is about the gift of God that has been promised through baptism, even to infants. I’m not going to debate this rather obvious point here, but the fact that Macleod effectively dismisses Bonhoeffer simply because he’s Lutheran says something disturbing about his view of what it takes to be evangelical–apparently a view that excludes Lutherans entirely.

Moreover, Macleod once again conforms to modern American evangelicalism (not even sure if he’s from the United States, but the ideas he has are) by emphasizing the individual over the community. Any number of theologians have shown time and again that the evangelical focus on individual salvation is something born, historically, from a rather American emphasis on the individual rather than being something directly derived from Scripture. Not saying that individual salvation is not there, but as the primary theme? N.T. Wright, among others, has done some correction in this regard, and Bonhoeffer himself did in works like Life Together.

Universalist Bonhoeffer?

Macleod writes:

Bonhoeffer was a universalist, believing in the eventual salvation of all. He wrote that there is no part of the world, no matter how godless, which is not accepted by God and reconciled with God in Jesus Christ. Whoever looks on the body of Jesus Christ in faith can no longer speak of the world as if it were lost, as if it were separated from Christ. Every individual will eventually be saved in Christ.

There’s no citation here, or even a quote, so it is very hard to track down what he is referencing in Bonhoeffer’s writings. Of course, what he’s written here is not universalism, but rather a denial of limited atonement and, actually, the Lutheran view of incarnation. Luther himself emphasized that Christ is present in all of creation. With the incarnation, God is present with us. Macleod, again, doesn’t give a reference to track down, but based on the rest of the article I think he is just misunderstanding Bonhoeffer again. The Lutheran perspective denies limited atonement, and whether that is correct are not is hardly a specific accusation against Bonhoeffer. Of course, without a citation, all we can do is trust Macleod not to have misrepresented Bonhoeffer–something that, at this point, I’m unwilling to do. I haven’t read everything Bonhoeffer wrote, though I’ve read about 75% of his collected works at this point, and some of his books twice, and I don’t know of any reference that could be shown to be universalism explicitly rather than a denial of limited atonement. I await a citation.


Macleod again reveals how much he is reliant upon his presuppositions when he writes:

The Sabbath was given to man at creation. The command to keep the one day in seven holy was reiterated on Mount Sinai and written with the finger of God on tables of stone. Jesus kept the Sabbath and said that the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath. Bonhoeffer, however, is quite happy to play table tennis on Sunday or to attend the theatre.

So, again, we have Bonhoeffer critiqued for being Lutheran. This is a pretty clear example of Macleod showing his stripes. It’s not so much Bonhoeffer that’s the problem; it is anyone who isn’t some kind of Reformed Baptist that’s the problem. Bonhoeffer was just a convenient target because people know who he is. Besides all that, Macleod’s words show very clearly that according to him, humans were made for Sabbath, not the other way around. But of course that makes gospel into law–and the proper distinction of law and Gospel is one of the central teachings of Lutheranism. But again, this is a debate for a different place. It’s fair enough to point out that Macleod’s argument here relies on a very specific presupposition, one that certainly not all evangelicals share, let alone Lutherans.


I have already written about twice as much as I meant to, and more could be said. It is clear that Macleod’s article is little more than a hit piece. There are no explicit citations to Bonhoeffer’s works (even when he is directly quoted, allegedly!), Macleod constantly condemns Bonhoeffer for clearly Lutheran views, and the whole article is based upon Macleod’s theological convictions, many of which I doubt he could demonstrate all evangelicals share. The pot shot at Bonhoeffer alleging he’s not a martyr shows the overall attitude Macleod has towards those he disagrees with, but it also–like many other points in the post–demonstrates a lack of historical awareness that pervades much of the church. Perhaps we can use his article in one positive way: rather than as a warning against Bonhoeffer–a faith-filled, Lutheran, courageous–yes–martyr–we can see it as a warning of the dangers of not taking history seriously.


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Bonhoeffer’s Troubling Theology?- A response to an article on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological perspectives– I respond to a different article on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We again see numerous misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Bonhoeffer and Lutheranism.

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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