Today is the anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by the Nazis, April 9, 1945. As I hope to do each year, I’d like to share a brief thought on Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy on this date.
Bonhoeffer and Evangelicalism(s)
One of the ways that Bonhoeffer is most frequently abused is by the assumption or argument that he was an evangelical, particularly of the American variety (eg. inerrancy and the like). In honor of the day of his death, I’d like to continue to disabuse people of that notion and instead note that he was actually a 20th century German Lutheran influenced by (but not uncritically accepting of) Neo-Orthodoxy. Here are some of his words about the creation account, specifically Genesis 1:6-10, from “Creation and Fall”:
Here the ancient image of the world confronts us in all its scientific naivete [my fault for lack of correct letters]. To us today its ideas appear altogether absurd. In view of the rapid changes in our own knowledge of nature, a derisive attitude that is too sure of itself is not exactly advisable here; nevertheless in this passage the biblical author is exposed as one whose knowledge is bound by all the limitations of the author’s own time. Heaven and the sea were in any event not formed in the way the author says, and there is no way we could escape having a very bad conscience if we let ourselves be tied to assertions of that kind. The theory of verbal inspiration will not do. The writer of the first chapter of Genesis sees things here in a very human way. [DBW 3:47-48].
Of course, as always, Bonhoeffer’s words must be understood in a much wider context than they are presented here. It is almost never a good idea to read even whole paragraphs from Bonhoeffer in isolation, because his thought is so dense that it cannot adequately be presented in sound bites. Those quotes which often are used as sound bites are either fabrications (eg. the “Not to act is to act…” quote that has yet to have an actual source found) or the exceptions (and even then I’d be very careful). Bonhoeffer throughout this work demonstrates that the Genesis is God’s Word but he means it in a sense that is very aligned to Luther, though not necessarily Lutheranism: that it is God’s Word because it ultimately teaches us about God and Christ. He strongly argues that God remains God and that God’s Word creates and brings life, but he does not demand that the text of Scripture meet his own modern standards of scientific accuracy and even suggests that yes, it would be silly to think it could.
So no, Bonhoeffer is not a modern evangelical, though he certainly was evangelical in the sense that it was used before the modern use: that of the evangelical Lutheran church. Though many (conservative) Lutherans would reject much of his thought, I’ve yet to encounter a thinker as wholly Lutheran among modern thinkers to date. He was a wonderful–dare I say, beautiful–man who applied his incredibly deep theology to his life, even unto death.
I thank God for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
(February 4, 1906- April 9, 1945)