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)
Recently, Richard Weikart wrote an article entitled “The Troubling Truth About Bonhoeffer’s Theology.” Not surprisingly, this article called attention to some aspects of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology which would be considered, well, troubling to evangelicals.
The article has much to commend it: it shows that we ought not to make any theologian into an idol or endorse everything anyone writes. Indeed, the conclusion of the article has little to question in it: “What then should we make of Bonhoeffer? While recognizing his many admirable traits—compassion, courage, commitment, and integrity—we should be wary of many elements of his theology.” I think this kind of critical perspective is something evangelicals–and Christians generally–ought to take to heart. We should always test theologians by what Scripture teaches us.
All of that said, there are some aspects I wanted to respond to in the article, particularly to give some more context for Bonhoeffer as well as his Lutheran theology. I’m sure Weikart is more studied on Bonhoeffer than I am, and I don’t claim to be an expert on Bonhoeffer’s thought. What I do know, however, is a good amount about Lutheran theology, and what I have read of and about Bonhoeffer. And all of that, I think, is enough to allow me to offer some areas of criticism regarding the article.
The Bible and Apologetics
There is no question that Bonhoeffer’s view of the Bible was heavily influenced by Karl Barth. Weikart is correct to note that this means that, for Bonhoeffer, Scripture is not inerrant. Indeed, he believes the Bible scientifically silly at points (see his Creation and Fall, for example). Scripture was, for both Barth and Bonhoeffer, important more for conveying truths about Christ than it is for being verbally inspired. Scripture conveys the revelation of Christ, rather than itself being revelation, according to both. This is, indeed, a weakness in their theology.
Later, Weikart critiques Bonhoeffer for his view of apologetics: “[Bonhoeffer] thought that the historical accuracy of Scripture was irrelevant. Barth (and Bonhoeffer) considered apologetics misguided, because it transgressed the boundaries separating the empirical and religious realms.”
I’m not sure about the first part of this claim. If, by “historical accuracy,” Weikart means the individual details of how events happened, or specific views of creationism and the like, then the statement is true. But the brush seems to be a bit too broad here; given Bonhoeffer’s view of the importance of Christ, the cross, and the Resurrection, to broadly say that none of these were seen as historical or were in fact irrelevant is to speak too strongly. Did Bonhoeffer think things like the length of creation days, the exact words spoken by the serpent at the Fall, and the like were historically irrelevant? Yes, pretty much. But that doesn’t mean he thought there was nothing of historical value therein, nor does it mean he rejected the usefulness of Scripture. This is a common error evangelicals make regarding the views of Christians who do not affirm inerrancy. Admittedly, it’s one I have made at times. Just because someone doesn’t affirm a form of verbal inspiration does not entail they think everything in the Bible is false or questionable.
Regarding the second part of the claim, it is easy to assume someone like Barth or Bonhoeffer completely rejected apologetics, and indeed each makes statements to that effect; but what they mean by apologetics largely means a kind of apologetics that puts humanity in judgment of God. Barth and Bonhoeffer would not completely reject any form of defense of the faith, but they would reject those that rely on natural theology and the like. Bowman and Boa’s book, Faith Has Its Reasons categorizes Barth as a “fideist” apologist. Delving into those issues would take too long, but it is safe to say that Bonhoeffer would not have been completely against any form of apologetics whatsoever. His own apologetic would have been personal and existential, and apologists ought not to dismiss this aspect of a holistic view of Christianity.
Weikart writes, “Though he experienced some kind of conversion around 1931, he hardly ever mentioned it. Later he expressed distaste for Christians talking or writing about their conversions.” Later, he makes his aversion to Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism plain: “Aside from his faulty view of Scripture, Bonhoeffer’s doctrine of salvation was also problematic. As a Lutheran he embraced baptismal regeneration.”
The multiple mentions about Bonhoeffer’s “conversion” reveal more about the author of the article than about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was, like myself, a Lutheran and ought to be evaluated as such. Unless Weikart wants to dismiss all Lutherans as unsaved heretics–or at least as affirming “troubling” theology–he cannot simply dismiss Bonhoeffer’s view because he didn’t talk about his “conversion experience.”
The fact that Weikart continues to emphasize this makes me wonder just how inclusive his definition of “evangelical” is supposed to be. Lutherans do not have an emphasis on finding some specific event, date, or time that signify we converted to Christianity. Because of the emphasis in Lutheran theology on predestination and baptism, such language seems to us to imply a kind of work of conversion being done by the individual rather than by God. Indeed, for many Lutherans, if pressed to pick a moment of conversion, that would be whatever time they were baptized as an infant. This is not the place to delve into the debate over baptism, infant baptism, and the like. Instead, I’m giving context to Bonhoeffer’s theology and experience. Martin Luther himself affirmed vehemently that infants can have faith, and however absurd this might seem to many non-Lutherans, the reason is because faith is the act of the Holy Spirit–it is pure grace, not tied to some specific synergistic act or affirmation by a human. To critique Bonhoeffer because he wasn’t speaking to the expectations of whatever brand of evangelicalism Weikart subscribes to is to decontextualize his theology and, indeed, to effectively dismiss Lutheran confessions of faith.
Weikart most likely does disagree with much of the Lutheran Confessions, but this does not mean it is acceptable to critique someone like Bonhoeffer as though he is some kind of mainstream evangelical instead of being a Lutheran.
Weikart quotes the somewhat infamous passage Bonhoeffer wrote of his resistance to “everything ‘religious.'” Such words tend to rile those who adhere to a narrative of a “culture war” between Christianity and… everything else. But, like Kierkegaard, who gets lumped in by Weikart along with other apparently “troubling” theologians, Bonhoeffer’s comments on religion must be read contextually. Eric Metaxas writes about this very same quote in his lengthy biography (and sometimes controversial) on Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy:
The most tortured interpretations [of Bonhoeffer] have fixed on his reference to “religionless Christianity”… [Bonhoeffer] saw a situation so bleak… that he was rethinking some basic things and wondered whether modern man had moved beyond religion. What Bonhoeffer meant by “religion” was not true Christianity, but the ersatz and abbreviated Christianity that he spent his life working against. This “religious” Christianity had failed Germany and the West during this great time of crisis…. and he wondered whether it wasn’t finally time for the lordship of Jesus Christ to move past Sunday mornings and churches and into the whole world. (466-467, cited below)
The crisis, of course, was Germany in World War II–the same Nazi Germany which executed Bonhoeffer shortly before the end of the war. Weikart’s warnings about Bonhoeffer’s comments on “religion,” it seems, fall into the same trap that many fall into when discussing Kierkegaard–failing to take the historical context and particular usage of the term seriously. Though some have objected to Metaxas’ portrayal of Bonhoeffer, the historical context provided here can hardly be questioned, because it is exactly what Bonhoeffer was rejecting against.
Evangelical Lutheran Hero?
Did Bonhoeffer have some aspects of his theology that evangelicals will find troubling? Absolutely, and Weikart does a good job highlighting some of these. But the point I’m trying to make is that none of this means that Bonhoeffer needs to be rejected or thrown out as an evangelical (and/or Lutheran) hero. Indeed, for the Lutheran in particular, Bonhoeffer’s theology shows us how true it is that we are all but sinner-saints. Though chosen by God and saved by grace alone, that does not mean we will be perfect now, and it means that we may have ideas that will be mistaken throughout our lives.
Many of the greatest theologians of all time have aspects of their theology that evangelicals will find troubling. Obvious examples would include Calvin (who would be troubling to Arminians) and Arminius (whose theology is troubling to Calvinists). But, alas, no human is perfect, and even greats like Augustine, Aquinas, Mother Theresa, and the like will not withstand scrutiny to determine whether they were perfect or affirmed a perfect theology.
Go ahead, enjoy Bonhoeffer’s works, note how he was a hero, and talk about his legacy. But read his works as you would any others: with a critical eye. As far as this article is concerned, as a Lutheran I found it somewhat troubling myself. Does Weikart genuinely mean to imply that all Lutherans must be excluded from the fold of evangelicalism? I’m not sure, but at least some of his criticism leveled at Bonhoeffer would just as easily be applied to Lutheran theology, generally speaking. And that, as I said above, seems to reveal more about the author than about Bonhoeffer.
Richard Weikart, The Troubling Truth about Bonhoeffer’s Theology (http://www.equip.org/article/troubling-truth-bonhoeffers-theology/) accessed 1/24/16.
Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyrd, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).
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