Bonhoeffer: Approaching His Life and Work
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Faith Baptist Theological Seminary
Bonhoeffer: Approaching His Life and Work
Andy Stearns, Th.M.
Many evangelical Christians today seem fascinated with the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and hold him up as a hero of the faith. Others, however, do not hold him in such high regard. Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Is he someone Bible-believing Christians should look to as a hero or ideal? In this article Prof. Andy Stearns of Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary examines the life and work of Bonhoeffer. In the second article Stearns evaluates Bonhoeffer’s teachings and his view of the Scriptures.
Early Years and Education Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 in Breslau, located in modern-day Poland. He was a twin and the sixth of eight children.1 Bonhoeffer grew up in a household that was not particularly religious. Rather, “the predominant atmosphere was one of tolerant empiricism.”2 His father, a renowned professor of psychiatry and neurology, was more at home with science and empirical data than myth and religion. His mother, however, had grown up a pastor’s daughter and therefore gave her children three years of religious education in the home.3
The Bonhoeffers were a scientifically inclined family, though Dietrich would not become a scientist or a doctor. Rather he made the unexpected decision to become a theologian. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen explained the family’s reaction:
For a young person from an academically inclined upper middle-class family, which was ‘Christian, but no longer in the church’, to decide to study theology was as rare then as it is nowadays. . . . His father was surprised, and his brothers could be openly scornful. It didn’t fit the family image. The children had lots of other opportunities open to them.4
Bonhoeffer, however, would remain determined and followed this course, entering the University of Tübingen in 1923 and transferring a year later to the University of Berlin. There he would learn from the giants of theological liberalism, foremost among them the legendary Adolf Von Harnack.5
Bonhoeffer completed two theology degrees by his 25th birthday. In 1927 he wrote Sanctorum Communio, a doctoral thesis in which he engaged philosophers and sociologists regarding the nature of the church. In 1930 he completed Act and Being, his habilitationsschrift.6 In this second work Bonhoeffer interacted with two views on the form of knowledge.7 Both of these papers dealt heavily in the philosophical and sociological realm. Neither relied significantly on Scripture.8
From September 1930 to June 1931 Bonhoeffer studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He greatly disliked the American liberal theology he encountered.9 During that year he also made trips to Cuba and Mexico. When he returned to Germany in July of 1931, he spent two weeks in Bonn meeting the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer had been an avid reader of Barth and had interacted with his works in Act and Being.10
In Bonn he attended lectures given by Barth as well as discussion groups in the evening. At one point Bonhoeffer offered a quote from Luther which Barth greatly enjoyed.11 This exchange led to a personal invitation for Bonhoeffer to visit the theologian’s home. Bonhoeffer, already an admirer of Barth, began a close relationship with the theologian who would become a mentor of sorts.12 Barth’s influence can be seen and felt in Bonhoeffer’s later writings.
Teaching and Writing For the next few years Bonhoeffer served in the ministry, while at the same time working in the University of Berlin. During this time Bonhoeffer gave a series of lectures on the first three chapters of Genesis and on Christology. Both of these lecture series turned into books: Creation and Fall (1932) and Christ the Center (1933). These writings were works of a scholarly nature and more fully showcased Bonhoeffer’s theology.
From 1933 to 1935 Bonhoeffer pastored a church in London. In 1934 Mahatma Gandhi personally invited Bonhoeffer to visit him. Bonhoeffer had been trying to make a trip to India for some time to visit Gandhi and to learn about community life and spiritual techniques that could be applied to the church in the West.13 In a letter to his grandmother he confessed that it seemed “there’s more Christianity in their ‘paganism’ than in the whole of our Reich Church. Of course Christianity did come from the East originally.”14 Bonhoeffer was unable to make this visit, which grieved him.
Rather than traveling to India, in April of 1935 Bonhoeffer accepted a position to lead a new seminary to train preachers. Bonhoeffer wrote of this experience in his work Life Together (1938). His purpose, in contrast to his earlier works, was not to discuss a philosophical system but to detail the methods of preparing for ministry and living in community with others. During these years Bonhoeffer began to think through his next work, The Cost of Discipleship. Stephen Haynes noted the devotional writing style in both The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, calling these works “homiletic” and “inspiring” compared to Bonhoeffer’s later works.15
From its inception, the seminary was illegal under German law at the time. Though the classes were small, the seminary was full of men training to go into the pastorate. It, however, survived for only two years before the Nazis found it and shut it down. After its closing, Bonhoeffer wrote what was perhaps his most widely read work, The Cost of Discipleship (1937). Countless Christians have read this work, and some think it is one of the most influential books for Christians in the twentieth century.16
With the Nazi threat increasing every day, Bonhoeffer began to work with a secret resistance group. Eventually he lost his teaching position and was banned from speaking in Germany. After a Jewish safe-house was discovered by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was implicated as one of the collaborators. He was arrested and spent the next two years in prisons and prison camps.
Imprisonment During this time Bonhoeffer corresponded with his closest friend, Eberhard Bethge. These letters had to be smuggled in and out of the prison. Bethge saved the letters and eventually published them as a book, Letters and Papers from Prison (1943–1945, published 1951). We can learn much about Bonhoeffer’s final days in these letters.
Bonhoeffer spent the rest of his days in German concentration camps under difficult conditions. Eventually Hitler was apprised of new information implicating Bonhoeffer and others in an assassination attempt. As Schlingensiepen reported, Hitler, having worked himself into a “frenzied rage,” gave the order to liquidate the conspirators. On April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was hanged, a mere two weeks before the Allied forces arrived.17
Bonhoeffer’s Recent Popularity
Bonhoeffer was raised in the typical theological liberalism of the time. He turned to Barth’s teachings and accepted much of his neo-orthodoxy. Bonhoeffer spent a long time secretly working against the German government, even playing a role in an assassination attempt on Hitler. In the end, many believed that he died on account of his belief in Christ. Bonhoeffer wrote a book on the cost of being a disciple of Jesus, and then almost prophetically lived what he likely thought was the direct outworking of that teaching. Ultimately, the cost of being a disciple of Christ was his death in a Nazi prison camp.
Bonhoeffer’s writings and manner of death are inspirational to many Christians today. Who would not be stirred to hear a story of a man who lived out his belief in Christ to the point of death? We desperately want to hear a story to inspire us to stay the course as Christians.
Some Evangelicals, when they read Bonhoeffer’s writings and learn of his manner of death, cast him as a hero, an icon, and an archetype for the church today. They ask, “Would you like to see what a committed Christian looks like? Look to Bonhoeffer. Would you like to know what it’s like to follow Christ and resist the political machine of the day? Look to Bonhoeffer. Do you want to become a disciple of the Savior? Look to Bonhoeffer.”
Perhaps the best example of this excitement about Bonhoeffer was the recent biography by Eric Metaxas. In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy Metaxas offered a vision of Bonhoeffer as a present day evangelical hero.18 His biography has received praise from evangelicals19 and even held the top position on the New York Times’ best-seller list.20
In spite of Bonhoeffer’s recent popularity, some scholars, who have spent their lives reading and studying him, offer a strong voice of dissent. While agreeing that Bonhoeffer was a noble and courageous man who stood up to the Nazis, these scholars point out that Bonhoeffer’s theology was not evangelical.21
Some scholars not only deny Bonhoeffer was evangelical, but they even find in his works the basis for their own variant, left-leaning theology. For example, in 1966 Harvey Cox authored a book titled The Secular City. In this work he set forth a Christianity which was wholly secular. He based his work in part on comments Bonhoeffer made while in prison regarding the world that had “come of age.” Cox saw Bonhoeffer as accepting the belief that religion is just a myth and that we must continue our lives without it. In essence, Cox reinterpreted the Bible based on Bonhoeffer’s themes.22 For this reason, at the very least, the Bible-believing Christian should use great care in reading Bonhoeffer’s works. Cox is not alone in his use of Bonhoeffer.23
What to Do with Bonhoeffer?
So in the end, what are we to do with Bonhoeffer? First, we should take a cautious and critical approach to reading his works. If you want to read a biography, start with Eberhard Bethge’s work. It is long, but he was Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, and his perspective is most reliable. If this book is too daunting, then pick up Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s biography. He worked with and was asked by Bethge to make Bonhoeffer more accessible to the masses and has written an excellent biography.
Second, remember that noble actions do not equal Christian behavior. Many noble people are not believers. Just because people perform noble deeds does not mean we ought to assume they are Christians. Rather, remember that while Bonhoeffer did courageously resist the Nazis, he also said some shocking things that people from various theological perspectives have taken to support their own positions.
In the next article we will look specifically at how Bonhoeffer used and interpreted Scripture. Such an examination reveals the true nature of his theology. Evangelicals have always been a “people of the book.” The question of the next article is whether this statement was also true of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
1 Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Revised Edition, Rev. and ed. by Victoria J. Barnett (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 3.
2 Ibid., 36.
3 Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906–1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, trans. Isabel Best (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 16.
5 Bethge, 45–91.
6 A habilitationsschrift was a postdoctoral dissertation written to qualify as a university lecturer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928–1931, ed. Clifford J. Green, vol. 10 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 46–47.
7 Schlingensiepen, 56–58.
8 Bonhoeffer’s use of Scripture will be discussed in the following article.
9 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, ed. John W. De Gruchy, The Making of Modern Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 10–11.
10 Schlingensiepen, 38–75.
11 Ibid., 76-77. Bonhoeffer noted that Luther said, “For God, the cursing of a godless person can be more agreeable than the hallelujahs of the pious!”
12 Bethge, 175–177.
13 Ibid., 406–409. Note especially Karl Barth’s response to Bonhoeffer’s plans.
14 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelley and F. Burton Nelson (HarperCollins, 1995), 23.
15 Stephen R. Haynes, “Between Fundamentalism and Secularism: The American Love Affair with Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffers Theologie Heute: Ein Weg Zwischen Fundamentalismus Und Säkularismus?, ed. John W. De Gruchy, Stephen Plant, and Christiane Tietz (Gütersloher Verl.-Haus, 2009), 221.
16 The Cost of Discipleship was listed as the second most influential book in Christianity Today’s list of the top 100 books of the last century (“Books of the Century,” Christianity Today, April 24, 2000), http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/april24/5.92.html (accessed January 7, 2013). It was also the nineteenth book on its list “The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals” (Christianity Today, October 2006), http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/october/23.51.html (accessed January 7, 2013).
17 Schlingensiepen, 371–378. See also, Bethge, 921–993.
18 Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).
19 “Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer 2011 Christian Book of Year,” crosswalk.com, News/Commentary, (May 6, 2011), http://www.crosswalk.com/news/metaxas-bonhoeffer-2011-christian-book-of-the-year.html, (accessed January 7, 2013); “Bonhoeffer Reviews,” Eric Metaxas, n.d., http://www.ericmetaxas.com/blurbs/bonhoeffer-reviews/ (accessed January 7, 2013); Joseph Loconte, “Belief in Action,” The Wall Street Journal: Bookshelf, (April 23, 2010), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303491304575189132952513158.html (accessed January 9, 2013). Also notice the many recommendations at the beginning of Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, ii–vi.
20 “Best Sellers: E-Book Nonfiction,” The New York Times, (September 25, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/best-sellers-books/2011-09-25/e-book-nonfiction/list.html?src=tp (accessed January 7, 2013).
21 For scholarly critique of Metaxas’ work, see Nancy Lukens, “Agenda-Driven Biography,” Sojourners, n.d., http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj1102&article=agenda-driven-biography (accessed January 7, 2013); Richard Weikart, “Metaxas’s Counterfeit Bonhoeffer: An Evangelical Critique,” n.d., http://www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart/metaxas.htm (accessed January 7, 2013); Clifford Green, “Hijacking Bonhoeffer,” Christian Century 127, no. 21 (October 19, 2010): 34–35.
22 Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. (New York: Macmillan, 1966).
23 For another example of this use, see John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, 40th Anniversary Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). Stephen R. Haynes offers an especially helpful work which looks at Bonhoeffer from various theological perspectives in The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
Bonhoeffer and the Scriptures
Bible-believing evangelical Christians hold a high view of the Scriptures. Many evangelicals also see Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a Bible-believing Christian. Bonhoeffer, however, accepted the prevailing historical-critical views of the Bible in his day. Therefore, we should be wary of calling Bonhoeffer a “Bible-believer.” The following three examples from his writings support this position.
Creation and Fall
In Creation and Fall (1932), an exegesis of Genesis 1–3, we find clear examples of Bonhoeffer espousing the historical-critical view of the Bible. In this work he referred to the Biblical author as the “Yahwist.”1 The “Yahwist” is a reference to the historical-critical reading of the text in Bonhoeffer’s day. John de Gruchy, who edited an edition of Creation and Fall, included an explanatory footnote at Genesis 2:4 to alert the reader that Bonhoeffer held Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis view.2 For Bonhoeffer, the Bible was subject to the prevailing views of historical criticism.
Commenting on Genesis 1:6–10, Bonhoeffer pointed out that the Scriptures contain errors in regard to the creation account.
Here we have before us the ancient world picture in all its scientific naïveté. While it would not be advisable to be too mocking and self-assured, in view of the rapid changes in our own knowledge of nature, undoubtedly in this passage the biblical author stands exposed with all the limitations caused by the age in which he lived. The heavens and the seas were not formed in the way he says: we would not escape a very bad conscience if we committed ourselves to any such statement.3
Notice that Bonhoeffer defined “scientific naïveté” as believing that God spoke the heavens into existence as Genesis 1 describes. Bonhoeffer then asserted, “The idea of verbal inspiration will not do. The writer of the first chapter of Genesis is behaving in a very human way.”4
In reference to the whole created order, Bonhoeffer said, “In accordance with eternal, unchangeable laws the days, years and seasons come into being in the firmament. Here number rules and its inflexible law. What does it have to do with our existence? Nothing—the stars go their way, whether man is suffering, guilty or happy.”5 When it comes to the Bible, Bonhoeffer saw existential value as more important than scientific accuracy.
By reading Creation and Fall, we learn that Bonhoeffer believed that the Bible was subject to historical criticism, contained errors in the creation account, and was not verbally inspired. These statements, however, presented no problems for Bonhoeffer, as the value of Scripture lies in human existence, not scientific data. This position raises a question: Did Bonhoeffer think the portions of Scripture that do not deal with science are accurate? Did Bonhoeffer believe the Bible was inerrant in nonscientific matters?
Christ The Center
In the summer of 1933 Dietrich Bonhoeffer conducted a series of lectures on Christology. Later, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, Eberhard Bethge, reconstructed a set of these notes,6 which he subsequently published under the title Christ the Center.7
In that writing Bonhoeffer agreed with the scholarship of his day that classified some portions of the Bible attributed to Jesus as legendary accretions, i.e., statements not really spoken by Jesus.
We are first concerned with a book which we find in the secular sphere. It must be read and interpreted. It will be read with all the help possible from historical and philosophical criticism. Even the believer has to do this with care and scholarship. Occasionally we have to deal with a problematic situation; perhaps we have to preach about a text, which we know from scholarly criticism was never spoken by Jesus. In the exegesis of Scripture we find ourselves on thin ice. One can never stand firm at one point, but must move about over the whole of the Bible. As we move from one place to another we are like a man crossing a river covered in ice floes, who does not remain standing on one particular piece of ice, but jumps from one to another . . . .
There may be some difficulties about preaching from a text whose authenticity has been destroyed by historical research. Verbal inspiration is a poor substitute for the resurrection! It amounts to a denial of the unique presence of the risen one. It gives history an eternal value instead of seeing history and knowing it from the point of view of God’s eternity. It is wrecked in its attempt to level the rough ground. The Bible remains a book like other books. One must be ready to accept the concealment within history and therefore let historical criticism run its course. But it is through the Bible, with all its flaws, that the risen one encounters us. We must get into the troubled waters of historical criticism.8
First, observe once again that Bonhoeffer denied verbal inspiration. This time he equated verbal inspiration with a denial of the unique presence of Jesus Christ. Second, notice that Bonhoeffer saw the words attributed to Christ in the Bible as containing errors. He believed that if historical criticism showed the text to be untrue, the answer was simply to “jump” to another section of Scripture in the same manner one might jump from one floating piece of ice to another to cross a river. Finally, Bonhoeffer also called the Bible a book like any other book in the “secular sphere.”
On the matter of historical criticism and the inerrancy of the Bible, Bonhoeffer clearly saw the Bible as a human book fraught with errors, and the historical and philosophical research of the day was true and reliable. When a person encountered these errors, Bonhoeffer’s position was simply to move on in the text, ignoring the errors as though they did not really exist.
The Cost of Discipleship
The Cost of Discipleship is perhaps Bonhoeffer’s most widely known work and is popular with evangelical Christians today. What will surprise many readers is that in this book Bonhoeffer denied the resurrection as a historical event.
In The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer defended the unity of the person of Christ. To Bonhoeffer and others of his time, the picture of Christ in the synoptic Gospels was at odds with the picture of Christ in the Pauline epistles. Though the texts paint completely different pictures, Bonhoeffer assured the readers that they could trust the pictures of Christ in all these texts. In a footnote Bonhoeffer got to the heart of why he could reconcile these passages though they appeared inconsistent with each other.
The direct testimony of the Scriptures is frequently confounded with ontological propositions. . . . For example, if we take the statement that Christ is risen and present as an ontological proposition, it inevitably dissolves the unity of the scriptures, for it leads us to speak of a mode of Christ’s presence which is different e.g. from that of the synoptic Jesus. The truth that Jesus Christ is risen and present to us is then taken as an independent statement with an ontological significance which can be applied critically to other ontological statements, and it is thus exalted into a theological principle. . . . The proclamation of the scriptural testimony is of quite a different character. The assertion that Christ is risen and present, is, when taken strictly as a testimony given in the scriptures, true only as a word of the scriptures. This word is the object of our faith. There is no other conceivable way to approach this truth except through this word. But this word testifies to the presence of both the Synoptic and the Pauline Christ.9 (italics mine)
Bonhoeffer appeared to say that whether Jesus really arose from the dead was not the point. The resurrection was not an empirical fact of history.10 I would suggest that Bonhoeffer spoke in the veiled language of a philosopher and believed the resurrection and other truths in the Scriptures were only existentially true. Richard Weikart’s comment is most helpful:
Couched in philosophical language, and, while
comprehensible to those having studied theology or philosophy, it is probably unintelligible to the average non-philosophically inclined evangelical reader. The footnote is enlightening, because it occurs in a passage in which Bonhoeffer affirmed the truth, reliability and unity of the scriptures in the strongest possible way. To avoid misunderstanding he added a clarifying note denying the literal resurrection of Jesus in the past. . . . According to Bonhoeffer, the resurrection and other events in the Bible are thus not true as empirical facts of history.11
Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship after many years of church ministry. In it he wrote about following Christ and about suffering as He did. And yet he still sides with historical criticism and denies the resurrection as a historical fact. To Bonhoeffer the resurrection was a myth.12
When we understand Bonhoeffer’s view of scripture, we understand who he really was—a theologian who denied verbal inspiration, inerrancy, and the resurrection. Evangelical Christians who want to call Dietrich Bonhoeffer an evangelical or Bible-believing Christian must question in what sense Bonhoeffer can even be considered a “Bible-believer” since he held such a low view of the Scriptures.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Temptation (London: SCM Press, 1966), 65. This work was printed under multiple titles in various editions including, Creation and Fall, as well as being bound with a study produced by Bonhoeffer on temptation titled, Temptation: Creation and Fall.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 71.
3 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Temptation, 27–28.
4 Ibid., 28.
5 Ibid., 28–29.
6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 118.
7 Ibid., 22.
8 Ibid., 73–74.
9 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 255–56.
10 “It is neither possible nor right for us to try to get behind the Word of the Scriptures to the events as they actually occurred.” Ibid., 93.
11 Richard Weikart, “Scripture and Myth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in Fides et Historia, 25, 1 (1993), 20, http://www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart/Scripture-and-Myth-in-Dietrich-Bonhoeffer.pdf (accessed January 8, 2013).
12 Note Bonhoeffer’s statement, “My view is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must be kept—the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection etc.) is the thing itself.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 329.