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Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: Points of Fracture (Part 1): Science as a Child

I have written about why I am writing this series as well as my history within the LCMS. Now, it is time to turn to what I’m calling points of fracture. For several posts, I will be writing about specific things that came up while I was within the LCMS–that is, at its schools, churches, and university–that made me start to think that the LCMS way of things didn’t align with some aspect of reality, something I learned in the Bible, or something else.[1]

Points of Fracture: Science as a Child

Here, I’ll be sharing the points of fracture that I experienced related to science at a young age. At the outset, I want to point out that much of these points of fracture were discovered by me over time. So, for example, when I talk about my young childhood, it’s not as though I was immediately aware that something was off about what I was learning. Instead, it was a realization that came over time, and the memory of when I was young was something that I recall as an important stepping stone to get to where I am now.

Some of my first memories of conflict between what I believed and what others believed was as a child getting library books. I don’t remember how far we had to go to drive to the library from our tiny town, but I remember it seemed like forever, and that I would consume books on the way home, often falling asleep in the car before arriving at home. I, like many kids, was obsessed with dinosaurs.[2] That meant I raided the library’s section on dinosaurs. I’d memorize the names and facts about them, pore over images of them, and imagine what life would have been like alongside them. If the cover of a library book had a T-Rex ripping apart its prey, that was the book I was going for. But those dinosaur books talked about when dinosaurs lived. Those dates were given as the best scientific approximations based on various dating techniques, ranging from about 66 million years ago to 200 million or more for dinosaurs’ first appearance on Earth.

Those dates, I was told, were wrong. Whenever I saw “millions,” I was told to ignore it. As a young kid, I didn’t press back very hard on that. After all, I had no reason to do so. I knew that I could get facts wrong about all sorts of things, so the notion that basically every book I read about dinosaurs was wrong about how long ago dinosaurs lived wasn’t terribly mind-bending for me. I learned to just run my eyes over any time it said “millions of years,” because that was wrong. The rest of the facts, though, were basically unquestioned. I didn’t have the capacity at the time to put those two things into disharmony. That is, I didn’t realize how odd it was that the books and scientists seemed to be right about, say the ecosystem the dinosaurs lived in, or their diets, or debates about coloration while simultaneously being totally wrong and even untruthful about how long ago they lived.

That last bit is important. I used the word “untruthful” because part of what I was taught, whether directly or through creationist literature I would be exposed to a year or so later, was that scientists weren’t just wrong about the age of the Earth or when dinosaurs lived. No, instead, they were actively lying about it. I want to sit with this for a moment because it is an extremely important distinction. There’s a huge difference between someone being wrong while reporting something they think is factual and someone deliberately deceiving you about something they say is factual. That I came to believe that scientists were actively lying about the age of the Earth would temper my interest in science for more than a decade once it became fully engrained in me. Sometimes I genuinely think I would have ended up in geology or paleontology as a field of study and employment if I hadn’t come to be taught that, because of my deep interest in these topics. But I didn’t, at least in part because I thought scientists were liars.

No small part of that belief came from some of the approved dinosaur books I was gifted during my dinosaur obsession. These dinosaurs books portrayed a different history of the world, with humans walking alongside long-necked dinosaurs and feeding them fruits by hand. I distinctly remember a photograph of an alleged plesiosaur (see below) that had been caught by a fishing boat in one of them. These books didn’t have the same exciting illustrations of T-Rex or Deinonychus (my personal favorite) shredding their prey. Instead, I was taught that they had something more precious–the truth about dinosaurs. These books confronted head on topics like evolution and the age of the Earth, saying in no uncertain terms that evolution was a lie and scientists who taught millions of years were liars as well. I didn’t even understand what evolution was supposed to be at this point, but I knew it was a lie. Again, this disjunction between being mistaken and being liars was something that sucked away my enjoyment of science over time, and also would make it extremely difficult for me to fairly examine evidence.

Alleged photograph of a plesiosaur captured by a fishing boat. The photograph is genuine, though it is of a rotted carcass of a shark, not a plesiosaur. Even Creationist organization Answers in Genesis shares reasons to doubt its authenticity as a plesiosaur. I couldn’t find the exact photo credits for this image, but use it under fair use.

Later, I remember talking to a child a few grades above me at my LCMS grade school. When I mentioned that I liked dinosaurs, she told me quite sincerely that dinosaurs had never existed. I was incredulous, asking “What about all the bones!?” Her answer surprised me: she said something to the effect of “Those bones were put there by God to test people’s faith.” The total somberness with which she expressed this sentiment took me off guard, but I do remember laughing at her because I thought it was so ridiculous to think that (I wasn’t the kid with the best manners). I would later recall the incident when I was studying more about these topics because it specifically showed me I could see beliefs about science that seemed obviously false and reject them, and that was okay. Even more importantly, it was a time my younger self was given an idea about God that did not seem to align with what I believed about God. Even as a child, the notion that God would be actively trying to deceive people seemed obviously, even hilariously wrong. That God doesn’t deceive us with nature, but that nature rather declares the glory of God (Psalm 19) would be hugely important to me as an adult.

Another topic I remember was about Adam and Eve. I specifically remember learning that all boys and men had one fewer rib than women. This was seen as evidence for the biblical account of Adam having been formed from Eve’s rib. I don’t remember my first source of hearing of this, but I do remember I heard it from more than one adult in my life. It wasn’t actually until college as I was searching online for various science-related things that I learned this was false. To this day, even typing that it’s false has me second-guessing myself, so firm was my belief that men had fewer ribs than women. It’s one of those things that is incredibly easy to disprove, to the point that when passed along, no one thinks to question it. It was honestly a shocking revelation to me when I discovered it wasn’t true, and it spurred me on to search for other things I could disprove or couldn’t confirm.

I believe it was in 6th grade, again at an LCMS school, that I had a single day in which we talked about plate tectonics. It was in a geography class, and we were learning quite briefly about how the map was formed. I recalled some of the maps I’d seen in dinosaur books of Pangaea and asked about that, noticing it appeared as though Africa and South America fit together. I don’t remember the exact answer, but what I got was enough for me to excitedly talk about plate tectonics later, only to be told by a pastor that they don’t exist. How did earthquakes happen, then? I asked. The answer was that God made them happen. I was disturbed even then by this answer. More, I was confused in getting entirely different answers about what caused earthquakes and how continents moved–or whether they moved at all–from two approved sources. Which should I believe? In the moment, I just bracketed it and stopped thinking about it. That was largely my answer for when things like this happened. I assumed others knew more than me, and it would become clear later.

One year in middle school at an LCMS school (I think it was 8th grade), we were super excited to be taking part in a science curriculum that would be shared by schools all over the country. The curriculum used the Hawaiian islands as a touch point for learning all sorts of things about science–whether geology by learning about volcanoes, biology by learning about ecosystems, and the like. I distinctly recall opening the binders we received and flipping through to see the contents. In among the thrilling sections on volcanoes and wildlife, I saw that there was a section about evolution on the islands. I had only the vaguest idea of what evolution meant. I knew it meant something like animals turned into other animals because of seeing it in some dinosaur books I’d read years before. I recalled learning that evolution was a lie, but seeing it show up in a text in my LCMS school made it feel safe… but only for a moment. When I turned to the pages indicated to see what might be said about this intriguing topic, I discovered the pages had been removed. I opened to the page, and found I was flipping from page 55 to page 75. It’s hard to fully capture my feelings at that moment. It was a truly disturbing incident for me. I believe I mentioned it to the teacher and was told that we wouldn’t be covering that topic. I remember flipping back and forth a few times, stunned. It was one of the clearest moments as a kid that I realized something was genuinely being covered up. It wasn’t just that scientists were wrong or lying. That, I could, in my childlike trust, accept. This was a revelation: what scientists taught was being actively covered up or suppressed, as if it would be dangerous to even know about it.

Earlier, I said this was one of the points of fracture that led me to think that maybe the LCMS way of things wasn’t accurate. I want to briefly address a possible objection here. I say “the LCMS view of things,” not necessarily to mean that they have specific teachings on everything I touch upon here or in other posts. For example, it is very clear that the LCMS holds that young earth creationism in some form is the view that ought to be taught to and held by its members. This view, however, is not codified in LCMS official positions. Indeed, according to the LCMS’s official web site about their views, they do not have an official position on the age of the earth. Thus, one could technically take issue with my pointing out that the LCMS’s view of things is a young earth creationist perspective.

However, this would indeed be nothing but a technicality, because in application and practice, no other views are allowed broadly in the LCMS. As one example, one pastor confidentially told me about how some of their peers attempted to introduce a resolution at a pastor’s conference to simply discuss the possibility of views apart from young earth creationism. This pastor approvingly told me that those pastors were literally shouted down by the rest of the pastors at this conference for their attempt. From my own experience, I know of at least 3 different LCMS pastors who questioned the faith of LCMS members who did not hold to a young earth creationist view. Additionally, tying belief in a young earth together with trust in the Bible is ubiquitous in LCMS leadership. In preparing this post, one classmate of mine pointed out that an LCMS professor who was a pastor explicitly taught an old Earth in a class we shared. This experience was perhaps the lone exception to an otherwise uniform experience that I and others have shared related to the LCMS’s views on the age of the Earth.

All of these final points are to say, just because something isn’t explicitly codified on the LCMS web site, for example, doesn’t mean that it’s not part of the DNA of the LCMS. Young Earth Creationism is absolutely integral to the overwhelmingly vast majority of LCMS belief and practice related to any questions about science and faith.

See also my post, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and Creationism: An unnecessary match, in which I go over the 2019 convention’s affirmation of Young Earth Creationism, including a link to the official LCMS blog.

Next: Points of Fracture, Part 2

[1] I debated internally a bit about how to organize my thoughts related to the specific fracture points that led me to see that my views did not align with those of the LCMS. Should I organize them topically, chronologically, or in some other order? I ultimately settled on doing them topically, because it allowed me to arrange each topic chronologically and show how some of these built on themselves over time. I thought it would be less disjointed to present it this way, rather than skipping around.

[2] I say “was obsessed” but I truly remain obsessed with dinosaurs, and find learning about them is still one of my greatest joys.

Links

Formerly Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Synod (WELS)– A Facebook group I’ve created for people who are former members of either of these church bodies to share stories, support each other, and try to bring change. Note: Anything you post on the internet has the potential to be public and shared anywhere, so if you join and post, be aware of that.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

What’s Wrong with Apologetics? – I take a look at some of the issues I’ve found to be broadly true in apologetics-related circles.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: A short history of my time in the LCMS

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I was born into the LCMS, baptized not long after my birth. My dad was an LCMS pastor. I was in LCMS parochial schools through 8th grade, went to public high schools, and went to college at an LCMS university.

The teachings of the LCMS were in my veins, and they still are. I memorized parts of Luther’s Small Catechism, recited memory verses, and answered dozens of questions about the catechism when I was confirmed. I went to church weekly. I was involved in several activities within the church, such as being the president of the Youth Group at my church and class president in 8th grade at my LCMS school. I had and still have multiple settings of the liturgy memorized, and frequently sing them to calm myself down or just sing praise when they pop into my mind.

Many of my earliest memories involve being in church or church-related things. For example, I remember being at a children’s sermon (my dad was my pastor, as he was for my whole life until college) in which my dad held up a wood block with “JESUS” silhouetted on it. He asked if anyone knew what it said. Confidently, I raised my hand and said we couldn’t know because it was in a different language! I’d mistaken the raised wood for the letters and assumed it was Hebrew or another language my dad had studied–he loved languages. I can’t tell you the number of memories I have of being with my dad on pastoral visits, sitting and drawing Star Trek ships or sharks as he spoke with members. I went along to several funerals as well.

Whenever the group came through town, I participated in Ongoing Ambassadors for Christ (OAFC), an LCMS ministry group that worked to train Lutherans to share their faith with others.[1] This included going door-to-door in my community and others nearby to tell people about Jesus and invite them to church. We hosted them at our church, and several of the leaders of the OAFC group would stay in our home. I remember a few nights where there’d be teenagers sprawled across multiple couches on the lower floor of the parsonage we lived in, and I’d stay up as late as I’d be allowed talking to the “cool kids” who were in my house. I wanted to be one of them.

I’d participated a few times in the youth group at my friend’s LCMS church. This was also where I went to middle school, as in the LCMS there is an emphasis on private schooling. They had a bigger group due to having a school and more populous community, and it was fun to connect with even more LCMS people my age and do things like the 30 Hour Famine, in which we fasted for 30 hours for solidarity with hungry people worldwide to raise money. These events had a different feel from much of my other church-related life, and for good reason. The events were sponsored by World Vision, a broadly evangelical service organization. It was one of the rare instances in which I participated in broader Christianity with a slightly different flavor from my own.

I went to the LCMS Youth Gathering the year I was eligible. This wasn’t some small event: the event attracted more than 30,000 youths from all over the country. It was an incredible experience at which I remember connecting to bands, meeting interesting people, and staying with a best friend. We’d sing songs, pray, praise, give thanks, and talk with other youths from all over the United States.

I also spent some time on forums debating theology and talking to other Christians. This was back when such things were pretty new. Instant messaging was pretty novel. I remember a relative proudly talking to church members about how I’d debate Lutheran theology with non-Lutherans in a chatroom. There was a darker side to it, though. I had an alarming experience with one of the adult members in the chatroom propositioning me, a minor. Nothing happened beyond that, but I was deeply shaken. It was the first real memory for me of a time in which I truly felt adults were unsafe. But it went beyond that. It was the first memory–an extremely vivid one–of when I discovered faith could be unsafe. It meant people could use an allegedly shared religion to try to go after a kid. Religion could be used, I’d discovered, for evil. I think I was about 10-11 years old. It’s a lesson I’d never forget.

In the first public high school I was at, it was a small town. There were many churches and it ended up that there were 4 other PKs (pastor’s kids) in my class. It was a small school and we’d frequently end up in classes together. I distinctly remember debating doctrine with some of these other PKs. One of them told some good friends of mine they were all going to hell. One of those friends came to me an asked what I thought. “J.W.,” he said, “am I going to hell because I smoke weed? Steve[2] says I will.” I was taken aback for a moment. “No,” I answered. I had no interest in any kind of drugs or underage drinking. Like I said in the first post, I’m a people pleaser, but I’m also a major rule follower, and those things didn’t really have any appeal for me. “No,” I answered. “He’s just wrong.” Steve overheard this, because we were all in a free period and he was just across the classroom. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but I know he challenged me back on it and ended up questioning my salvation, too, because I believed in infant baptism. It was all very serious, but I ended up laughing at that final note. I wasn’t laughing because it was silly to think someone would be going to hell for a different view of baptism (at the time, I wasn’t sure exactly how right you had to be to go to heaven, after all); no, it was silly because the other person was so obviously wrong. The LCMS just was right; it just was the true church; it just taught the true way to believe. At this point, of course, my group of friends was entirely forgotten. The discussion was on a level that only PKs or other theologically-interested people could follow. I wasn’t just right, though, I was righteous. It was a feeling that was engrained into me from hundreds of times I’d been taught that the LCMS doctrines just were facts. Everyone else was mistaken no matter what.

When I went to college, I initially thought I would be an LCMS teacher. While there, I started to get more involved in acting on my faith. I also became interested in Christian apologetics. But a major turning point was still coming. One night, I was praying out under the stars. It was a cold night, but I was outside all on my own with my coat near the river that ran alongside the campus, begging God to end some of the wrongs in the world. I had an intense religious experience. That night, I went back to my dorm, wrote about the experience, and discovered a new and total devotion to God. I already believed in God, and I already was committed to following Christ, but this experience had reinvigorated me and convinced me that God was there and listening. I still believe this was a genuine experience from God.

This experience led me to rethink some of my life. Around this time, my then-fiancée broke up with me. It wasn’t a great time, but it also led me to refocus my life. It was around Thanksgiving that it happened, and when I contemplated what I had to be thankful for on a weekend over which someone I thought I would marry broke up with me, I realized the answer was: a heckuva lot. I decided around then that I wanted to change what I was studying and be a pastor instead. The reason wasn’t because I was particularly enamored with being a pastor. Rather, it was because when I thought of the question “What can I do to dedicate my life to God?” the answer that came most quickly to my mind was “be a pastor.” Clearly, my sense of vocation wasn’t entirely developed at that point (shout out here to Lutherans who get this).

I kept my major and minor, but shifted to the pre-seminary program, enrolling in Hebrew, some theology classes, and Greek. It was a whole different experience, in several unexpected ways. Deciding to become a pre-seminary student may be marked as one of the most major turning points in my life. College featured a number of turning points. What I thought when I decided to become a pastor is that I’d find a group of like-minded men (yes, only men, because only men are allowed to be pastors in the LCMS; women may be deaconesses, but not preach or lead worship). I did find several like-minded men, but I also found some of the most inward-looking, doctrine-obsessed, orthodox-rabid, self-righteous, and, unfortunately, misogynistic people I’d ever run into. I was one of them for a while.

All of this is to say that I was not an incidental layperson within the LCMS. I was fully involved for the majority of my life. This is important, because I believe that it gives some credence to the critiques I will share, and it should also give pause to those who want to simply dismiss my story as someone on the margins of the LCMS. I was in the LCMS from birth through adulthood. I wanted to be an LCMS teacher or pastor. I debated doctrine in favor of the LCMS, working to convince others to join. But the reasons to doubt my convictions about the LCMS were there. It took until I was in college for me to finally depart, and it was then only because I was forced to truly examine what I believed.

It should also be clear that many of these memories are pleasant. Where they aren’t pleasant, many were formative in beneficial ways. Within the LCMS, I developed a love of the Bible and was encouraged to read it continually, a practice I continue and which I believe brings spiritual growth. I made many friends and was encouraged by many mentors, some of whom I still remain in contact with and whom I admire. But even at a young age, the occasional thing would strike me as “off” about the experience and my beliefs. It would take many of these points of fracture for me to consider leaving the LCMS.

Next in series: Points of Fracture.

[1] I’m unsure of when/how it became an official LCMS ministry, as it says they are on the website. It’s been quite a while, so my memory might be foggy, but I remember some discussion about whether or not this group was Lutheran (read: LCMS) enough for us to participate with. There was some skepticism that I remember hearing from more than one LCMS-employed person about their practices and expressions of faith. Looking back, the group as I experienced it 20+ years ago felt like the closest thing to what many describe in mainstream evangelical churches from youth programs. While there were no altar calls, for example, the canvassing of the community, reading other people’s names into John 3:16, asking whether people knew if they’d go to heaven or hell, and the like are all similar to what I’ve heard described in those settings.

[2] Name amended, as will pretty much all the names used in this series.

Links

Formerly Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Synod (WELS)– A Facebook group I’ve created for people who are former members of either of these church bodies to share stories, support each other, and try to bring change. Note: Anything you post on the internet has the potential to be public and shared anywhere, so if you join and post, be aware of that.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

What’s Wrong with Apologetics? – I take a look at some of the issues I’ve found to be broadly true in apologetics-related circles.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Today in (Theological) History: The Death of Martin Niemöller

Today in history, Martin Niemöller died in 1984. Niemöller was an early supporter of Adolf Hitler and anti-Semite. When the Nazis worked to take over the churches in Germany, he became a founder of the Confessing Church in Germany which opposed the Nazification of the churches. He was outspoken against the so-called Aryan Paragraph which was an explicitly anti-Semitic rule the Nazis implemented in the state church.

He was imprisoned by the Nazis, and during his imprisonment at two different concentration camps, he came to deeply regret his earlier beliefs. Some have tried to lionize him as a hero of the Jews in Germany, but this is false. He himself never denied his guilt for his early support of the Nazis and his anti-Semitism.

He penned the famous “first they came” statement, which is featured at the United States Holocaust Memorial: “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

After the War, he committed himself to pacifism, he helped develop the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, in which the Evangelical Church in Germany confessed its guilt for not resisting the Nazis. One part of that Declaration reads:

“Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”

The Declaration did not, however, explicate the specific wrongs the church had done, and was seen by some Germans as a gesture to capitulate the Allied powers after the War.

Niemöller’s life is a complex study in how Christians participate in horrible atrocities. It is also a study for how Christians can confess their guilt and come to throw themselves on grace. Niemöller remains an important figure for understanding the Church Struggle in Germany.

More on his life at the Holocaust Encyclopedia.

Book Review: “Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologians for a Post-Christian World” by Wolf Krötke

Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologians for a Post-Christian World by Wolf Krötke is a formidable interpretation of both Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Specifically, this collection focuses on how each of these theologians sought to relate to what they viewed as a post-Christian world.

Karl Barth is the subject of the first half of the book, and Krötke offers a range of topics engaging with Barth’s theology at multiple points. Krötke begins with an essay that highlights the challenges of engaging with Karl Barth to begin with. Then, he moves into Barth’s attack on “religion” itself as unbelief. Of course, what is meant by “religion” is key in this and many other essays, and the exact meaning of the term is notoriously difficult to pin down. Thus, much of the discussion here and elsewhere is spent drawing out what is being critiqued as “religion” vs. how Christianity can offer a better way forward.

Election, for Barth, is the “sum of the gospel,” and Krötke spends one essay discussing what is meant by Barth’s doctrine of election. In this doctrine, Barth sees that many major theological problems can be reconciled through Christ’s “Yes” to humanity (86).

Krötke’s interactions with Bonhoeffer are insightful and sometimes surprising, even to the point of being stunning (a word this reviewer used when taking notes on a few of the pages). In particular, the final essay on Bonhoeffer about Bonhoeffer’s “Nonreligious Interpretation of Biblical Concepts” alongside the “Missionary Challenge of the Church” was fascinating. Therein, Krötke notes that Bonhoeffer was extremely against any concept of God as a God available to us at our whim. God is not the kind of being who is available at the push of a button. Additionally, Krötke interprets Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity as putting forth the idea that God in Christ chooses to become powerless for us, such that in Christ, God leads us to the suffering of the cross (242-244). Rather than a God who could right all wrongs and does not, or one who cannot do so, the God of religionless Christianity, as Krötke reads it, is God in Christ who enters the world and, in doing so, intentionally gives up power in order to lead humanity to God. It’s a fascinating look at Bonhoeffer’s work, and a somewhat alarming interpretation in some ways, but also one that takes the notion of deity and makes it squarely within Christian theology.

Other essays on Bonhoeffer are equally fascinating, whether its when Krötke notes that Bonhoeffer’s life itself has become a theological resources for his interpreters or when he turns to the question of Bonhoeffer’s letters to his fiancee. On the latter point, Krötke reflects on his own attempts to look at Bonhoeffer’s letters to Maria von Wedermeyer. Ultimately, he found himself deciding that it was a kind of voyeurism–the theologian moving into an intensely personal scene in order to try to find any resource. It was a kind of question about biography and finding the past that this reader hadn’t considered before.

Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologians for a Post-Christian World is a fascinating, engaging, and challenging read. I highly recommend it to those interested in the legacy of either one (or both) of these fascinating individuals. Krötke consistently presents startling insights and fascinating ways to move research forward. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther” by Michael P. DeJonge

Michael P. DeJonge’s thesis in Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther may be summed up as saying the best interpretative framework for understanding Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and thought is by understanding him as a Lutheran theologian specifically engaged in Luther’s thought.

DeJonge supports his thesis primarily through two strands of evidence: first, by showing Bonhoeffer’s close readings of and interactions with Luther; and second, by demonstrating that Bonhoeffer’s perspective on important controversies was a Lutheran perspective.

Bonhoeffer’s interactions with Luther outpace his interactions with any other theologian. DeJonge cites a statistic: Bonhoeffer cites or quotes Luther 870 times, “almost always approvingly”; “The next most frequently cited theologian is a distant second, Karl Barth with fewer than three hundred” (1). This alone may serve to demonstrate Bonhoeffer’s concern for interacting with Luther, but DeJonge goes on to note that Bonhoeffer also strove to correct competing interpretations of Luther, and affirm specifically Lutheran doctrine. For instance, in his interactions with Karl Holl, one of his teachers, he goes against Holl’s interpretation of Luther’s view of religion, arguing that Luther’s Christology saves one from idolatry of the conscience, which he felt Holl may have slipped into. Bonhoeffer also affirmed the emphasis on Christ’s “is” statements when it came to the Lord’s Supper, defending the position that “this is my body” means Christ is truly present in the Supper (70ff).

DeJonge’s argument expands to a demonstration that Bonhoeffer aligned with a Lutheran understanding on important issues. The Lord’s Supper has already been noted, but it is worth pointing out that in regards to this, Bonhoeffer explicitly sided with Luther against Karl Barth and the Reformed tradition, which argued that the finite could not contain the infinite. Instead, Bonhoeffer affirmed that, by virtue of the infinite, the infinite could be contained in the finite; allowing for a Lutheran understanding of real presence in the Supper. Another major controversy DeJonge notes is that of the interpretation of Luther’s “Two Kingdoms.” DeJonge argues that Bonhoeffer has been misunderstood as rejecting Luther’s doctrine in part because Luther’s doctrine itself is misunderstood. Thus, DeJonge engages in a lengthy section in which he traces the influence of Troelsch on the understanding of Luther’s Two Kingdoms and how often it is Troelsch’s understanding rather than Luther’s that is seen as “the” doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. Going against this, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on the Two Kingdoms are closer to Luther’s position than many have argued.

DeJonge also interacts with other interpretations of Bonhoeffer, such as an understanding of Bonhoeffer as a pacifist, which has been a common understanding among some. Utilizing his deep analysis of the Two Kingdoms doctrine, DeJonge counters that Bonhoeffer’s comments about resisting the Nazis align with this doctrine much more closely than they do to a pacifist understanding. Like Stephen R. Haynes’s The Battle for Bonhoeffer, DeJonge notes that Bonhoeffer’s resistance cannot be linked explicitly to the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Though it is clear that Bonhoeffer detested this treatment, DeJonge argues he did so not through a broadly humanitarian theology (going against some interpreters here), but rather due to his understanding, again, of the Two Kingdoms. When the Nazis sought to attack the Jews, particularly by separating them from the so-called German Christians, they issued a direct assault on the body of Christ–the church. Thus, Bonhoeffer’s resistance to these ideals, again, springs from a Lutheran understanding of the Two Kingdoms. (As an aside, it is worth nothing DeJonge also acknowledges the contributions some aspects of Martin Luther’s own writings had to the Nazi ideology. However, DeJonge here shows how Bonhoeffer’s understanding of his theology set him against these anti-Semitic notions.)

Finally, DeJonge demonstrates that Bonhoeffer’s view of justification–certainly a vastly important doctrine for Luther and Lutherans–ought to be properly understood as Lutheran rather than anything else. Time and again, throughout the book, DeJonge carefully demonstrates how an interpretation of Bonhoeffer suffers when not understood in a Lutheran lens. Over and over, readings of Bonhoeffer that make sense in one context are shown to fail when compared to the whole of his writings. DeJonge also manages to offer a coherent account of Bonhoeffer’s theology that does not set an “early Bonhoeffer” against a “late Bonhoeffer” nor does it read the whole of his thought through any one work. As such, DeJonge offers a truly compelling reading of the totality of Bonhoeffer’s work.

Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther is an incredibly important work for understanding the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Anyone who is interested at all in the theology of Bonhoeffer and understanding it fully would do well to read and digest it. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those who wish to understand the theology of this man.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian of Reality” by André Dumas

André Dumas’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian of Reality is a deep look at the theology and philosophy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, offering the thesis that Bonhoeffer’s primary aim was to show that God is reality and really interacts with the world. Though this may seem a rather mundane claim, Dumas’s point is that “reality” is rather strictly defined for Bonhoeffer, and, as he argues, this leads to some intriguing insights into Christian theology and philosophy.

One side note before reviewing the work: this book was originally published in French in 1968 and in English in 1971. Dumas is, in part, responding to the “death of God” movement that turned Bonhoeffer into a kind of secular saint Nevertheless, this work is highly relevant to today’s theological and philosophical inquiry as well, particularly due to the keen interest in Bonhoeffer’s life and work.

Central to Bonhoeffer’s thought, argues Dumas, is the struggle between objective revelation and existential interpretation. Alongside this is the question of reality, which, for Bonhoeffer, was this-worldly. Christianity is not to be reduced to a religion, in this case meant to denote a faith that points to the other-world or beyond this world to a different and disconnected reality. Instead, it is about this world, the very one we are in. Dumas notes that “Bonhoeffer was… drawn to the Old Testament, because the living God within it becomes known only in the here-and-now of human life. The absence in the Bible of any speculation about the beyond, about the abode of the dead, about inner feelings, or about the world of the soul, strongly differentiates the faith and anthropology of Israel from the various religions that surround it. For Israel [and Bonhoeffer], God can only be encountered in the reality of this world. To withdraw from it is to find oneself beyond his reach” (144). Alongside this is the need to avoid either total subjectivism about the word of God while also not falling into the danger of objectification.

In order to combat these difficulties, Dumas argues that Bonhoeffer sees Christ as the structure of the world, God entering reality to structure it around himself. Thus, for Bonhoeffer, Christ is “the one who structures the world by representing its true reality before God until the end” (32). This is important, because this means that Bonhoeffer is not encouraging a Christianity that sees the ultimate goal as “salvation” from the world. “When biblical words like ‘redemption’ and ‘salvation’… are used today, they imply that God saves us by extricating us from reality, blissfully removing us from any contact with it. This is both gnostic and anti-biblical” (ibid). Christ is the true center of all things, and the structure which upholds the true reality, one with Christ at the center.

These central aspects of Bonhoeffer’s thought are then the main force of Dumas’s arguments when it comes to “religionless Christianity” and the questions of realism and idealism. Regarding the latter, Nietzsche remains a major force in philosophy as one who also argued for a kind of realism. But Nietzsche and Bonhoeffer, though having similar influences, came to utterly different conclusions and interpretations of that “realism.” Nietzsche “cannot get beyond the terrible ambiguity of loneliness in the world, against which Bonhoeffer rightly affirms the reality of co-humanity, willed by God in his structuring of the world, and embodied by Christ in his life and death for others” (161). Thus, “Bonhoeffer… agrees with Nietzsche on the primacy of reality… But Bonhoeffer disagrees with Nietzsche about the nature of that reality” (ibid). And Bonhoeffer’s vision of reality is concrete as well, but one which avoids the stunning loneliness and hopelessness of Nietzsche.

The non-religious church is a major question in Bonhoeffer’s later thought, but one which must be viewed holistically with the rest of Bonhoeffer’s ideas, as Dumas argues. Thus, the non-religious church is not an atheistic one or a “secular Christian” one. Instead, it is one which “will then rediscover a langauge in speaking of God [that] will not release one from the earth… The resurrection will not re-establish the distance between God and man that was overcome by the cross… Instead, [the community of the church] will be nourished by its participation here on earth in the task of restructuring everyday life, just as Jesus Christ did earlier on its behalf” (209). This cannot be interpreted as a call to go against faith in Christ but rather as a radical call to make Christ the center once again. This is the linchpin of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics as well, for it calls to make Christ the center, a re-structuring and ordering of the world which will change everything, and an order which Bonhoeffer died following.

Dumas is an able interpreter of Bonhoeffer, and one who avoids entirely the danger of separating Bonhoeffer’s work into distinct eras or prioritizing some works over others. Dumas argues instead that Bonhoeffer’s thought is unified, though of course it does develop over time. Therefore, Dumas finds Sanctorum Communio just as important as Letters and Papers from Prison for understanding Bonhoeffer’s thought. His book demonstrates the ability of Bonhoeffer not simply as theologian or martyr but also as philosopher, drawing from Hegel and others to create a systematic view of the world with Christ as the center, as the structure of reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian of Reality is a fascinating work that ought to be read by any looking to understand the works of Bonhoeffer.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Remembering Bonhoeffer, 2018: Bonhoeffer was Not an [American] Evangelical, but he was an Evangelical Lutheran

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)

-4/9/1945
-4/9/2018

Ecumenism and Lutheranism – Reformation 500

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of what is hailed by many as the start of the Reformation: Luther’s sharing his 95 Theses. I’ve decided to celebrate my Lutheran Protestant Tradition by highlighting some of the major issues that Luther and the Lutherans raised through the Reformation period. I hope you will join me as we remember the great theological (re)discoveries that were made during this period.

Ecumenism and Lutheranism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franz Hildebrand, two German Lutherans in the early 20th Century, wrote a catechetical statement in response to the question: “Why are there so many churches?”-

We are really supposed to be one church. In the midst of our incredible divisions we urgently seek communion among all Christians. It will only be possible for us humans ever to have it if we keep waiting and believing [in Christ] who is faithful to his church. (Cited in Schlingensiepen, 80, cited below)

Bonhoeffer and Hildebrand’s response is brief, but shows key aspects of ecumenism that we can continue to seek today. The first point is to realize that the true church of Christ ought to be one both in spiritual and in temporal reality. The second point is that we remain divided, but seek such unity. The third point is eschatological: we must realize that no human efforts will succeed in uniting the church; instead, we hope for Christ’s return to bring about the ultimate unity of His Church.

Elsewhere, Bonhoeffer points out that ecumenical movements must never disregard that real differences in belief and doctrine and practice exist among the present day church. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer followed his own catechetical statement and urgently sought unity and communion among all Christians. Ecumenism does not mean ignoring all differences or agreeing they don’t matter; instead, we acknowledge our differences and seek to find unity where it does exist.

The church body to which I belong, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has recently made an ecumenical statement that both acknowledges continued difference and shows points of unity with the Roman Catholic church: the Declaration on the Way. I believe this document is an important one, particularly as we continue to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The ultimate prayer for ecumenism, I believe, is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

Sources

Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance translated by Isabel Best (New York: Continuum, 2010).

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

The Church Universal: Reformation Review–  What makes a church part of the Church Universal? What makes a church part of the true church? I write on these topics (and more!) and their origins in the Reformation.

The Continuing Influence of the Reformation: Our lives, our thoughts, our theology– I note the influence that the Reformation period continues to have on many aspects of our lives.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Indulgences are Worse than Useless: Reformation 500

Martin Luther2017 marks the 500th anniversary of what is hailed by many as the start of the Reformation: Luther’s sharing his 95 Theses. I’ve decided to celebrate my Lutheran Protestant Tradition by highlighting some of the major issues that Luther and the Lutherans raised through the Reformation period. I hope you will join me as we remember the great theological (re)discoveries that were made during this period.

Indulgences are Worse than Useless

Luther’s critique of indulgences was a typical (for him) combination of insight and invective. He sought to clearly condemn not just the sale of but also the use of indulgences, which means parts of his critique remain quite relevant today. Here we will draw primarily from Luther’s explanations of his 95 theses.

Luther argued that the pope actually has no power over purgatory and, moreover, that if the pope did have this power, he ought to exercise it:

If the pope does have the power to release anyone from purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish purgatory by letting everyone out? (81-82, cited below)

The question cuts straight to he heart of the system in which the pope is exalted as having power over souls in purgatory. It is clear that Luther did not at this point denounce the doctrine of purgatory. What his point is directed at instead, is the claim that the pope does have such power. After all, if the pope does have such power, then why would he not simply release all the souls from purgatory immediately, thus granting a most generous and wonderful reprieve? The fact that the pope of Luther’s time did not do so and was in fact selling indulgences for coin spoke volumes about the doctrine itself and the need for reformation.

But the point still has relevance today, as one might ask the question: if the pope today currently has the power over purgatory, why does he not simply release all those who are suffering there? One possible answer might be because it is just that people undergo such suffering or bettering of themselves in purgatory that they might truly be, er, reformed. But then the question of the two kingdoms comes to mind. After all, such a response effectively strips the pope of the power that has allegedly been granted him, for if the spiritual benefits of purgatory are so great, why does he ever exercise the power he is said to hold? The argument can proceed indefinitely in a circle, which seems to show that the initial point is valid.

Luther, however, did not stop there. Rather than questioning the power of the pope to grant indulgences, he also noted the great spiritual harm such indulgences do:

Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security… Indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation. Those persons are damned who think that letters of indulgence make them certain of salvation. (82)

Indulgences, by granting pardon from sin or the consequences thereof, produce a false sense of security of salvation that may lead rather to damnation. For once one believes that because someone else has told them future or past sins are paid for by some collection of merit of others, they may believe that they are forgiven, when they have not confessed and repented of that sin to God. Thus, a false sense of security is gained, but in reality the person may be condemned, not having received full and free forgiveness of their sins.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

The Church Universal: Reformation Review–  What makes a church part of the Church Universal? What makes a church part of the true church? I write on these topics (and more!) and their origins in the Reformation.

The Continuing Influence of the Reformation: Our lives, our thoughts, our theology– I note the influence that the Reformation period continues to have on many aspects of our lives.

Source

Quotes from Luther are from Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon, 1950). It appears as though Bainton was either translating directly from a German edition or paraphrasing Luther.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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.

Conversion

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.

Sabbath

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.

Conclusion

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.

Links

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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!

SDG.

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