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Bonhoeffer – A Reliable Guide?

Date September 23, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is increasingly being quoted by evangelical writers and theologians. Eric Metaxas’ recent highly-acclaimed biography presents him as an evangelical martyr of the twentieth century. Stephen Nichols, President, Reformation Bible College, with a PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary, in his book, Bonhoeffer on the Christian life, states: ‘We can even lay claim to Bonhoeffer as an evangelical’. Bonhoeffer’s book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Cost of Discipleship, is being read by many Christians and is widely described as a modern Christian classic. There is no doubting the brilliance of Bonhoeffer’s mind, nor his passion for the oppressed, nor the original way that he had of stating his beliefs. However, his theology is very different from orthodox evangelical theology and he is certainly far from being a reliable guide in presenting the Christian faith and in interpreting the Scriptures. This editorial is a warning. Don’t take Bonhoeffer as your teacher!

His life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in liberal, theological circles in Germany in a relatively-wealthy, intellectual family. His father was a professor of Psychiatry and Neurology. His oldest brother became a famous scientist and another brother a top lawyer. His mother, a grand-daughter of liberal theologian Karl von Hasse, was a teacher and insisted on family religion though they were not regular in their attendance in church. It was a surprise to all when, at the age of fourteen, Dietrich announced his decision to devote his life to theology. He studied in Berlin under the famous liberal, Professor Adolf von Harnack, but rejected liberalism. The great influence in his thinking was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth who developed what became known as neo-orthodox theology. 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’.

Having completed his studies in Berlin, including his Doctor of Theology, and still too young to be ordained, he went to Union Seminary in New York and did post-graduate studies under Reinhold Niebuhr. Returning to Germany in 1931, he became a lecturer in Systematic Theology in the University of Berlin. The rise of Hitler brought a dramatic change in his life. He rejected Nazism with its antisemitism. One of his sisters was married to a Jew. He helped form the Confessing Church as a protest against the germanisation (nazification) of the national Church. An underground seminary was set up in Finkenwalde and Bonhoeffer taught students for the Confessing Church there. Eventually it was closed by the Nazis. He was involved in helping Jews to escape from Germany and later in a plot to assassinate Hitler. After spending some time in prison he was hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945 just before the end of the war.

Was he 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. Now, one might rightly argue that he was justified in resisting the evils of Nazism, but his death was not because of his beliefs, but rather for his ‘crime’ of conspiracy to murder. So, if we regard him as a martyr it is in a very different sense from the usual Christian martyrs. We admire his love for the Jews and for all who were oppressed and down-trodden, and his willingness to lay down his life for others.

View of the Bible

Critical to evangelicalism is our view of the Bible. The word of God was certainly very important to Bonhoeffer but in a very different sense from evangelicalism. He rejected the liberalism of Harnack with its idea of Scripture as merely man’s thoughts about God. Bonhoeffer believed in revelation and that God speaks through the word. However he did not believe in the Bible as scientific (empirical) truth and he certainly did not believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. His view, like that of Barth, was that the word can become the word of God to you when you are reading it. It is not in itself the word of God but God can speak through it. So, for example, he taught his students to spend a half hour each day meditating on a verse of Scripture, not looking at it in the original, not consulting commentaries, not concerned about what it literally meant in the Bible, but simply concentrating on what God had to say to them at that point that day. It can become the word of God to the meditating individual.

Bonhoeffer stated, ‘The Holy Scriptures alone witness to the divine revelation, which occurred as a one-time, unrepeatable and self-contained history of salvation’. There is a huge difference between the Scriptures being a witness to divine revelation and being divine revelation. He happily accepts the so called ‘findings’ of higher (destructive) criticism. He rejects for example the biblical account of creation in favour of evolution. Bonhoeffer on one occasion told his congregation unequivocally that the Bible is filled with material that is historically unreliable. Even the life of Jesus, he said, is ‘overgrown with legends’ (myths) so that we have scant knowledge about the historical Jesus. Bonhoeffer concluded that the life of Jesus cannot be written. He followed Rudolf Bultmann in finding the New Testament full of myths which have to be ‘demythologised’. Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘My opinion of it today would be that he (Bultmann) went not “too far” as most people thought, but rather not far enough. It’s not only “mythological” concepts like miracles, ascension, and so on … that are problematic, but “religious” concepts as such’.

The Cross

For evangelicals the cross is at the centre of their faith. Bonhoeffer did not believe in substitutionary atonement – Christ suffering as a substitute for our sins, dying in our place to earn eternal life for us. The cross of Christ certainly is important to him, but in a very different way – it is as an example and an inspiration. He is concerned that we live cross-centred lives and by that he means that we take up our cross and follow Christ, living lives of self-denial. Yes, as with Barth, there is a great emphasis on grace, but the idea of Christ as the Lamb of God taking away our sins by his suffering hell for us is missing. To evangelicalism that is a critical omission. Indeed Bonhoeffer would argue that we are saved by the incarnation – Christ taking our nature – rather than by His atoning death. He taught that in the body of Jesus Christ, God is united with humanity, all of humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled with God. In the body of Jesus Christ, God took upon Himself the sin of the whole world and bore it.

Conversion

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. From then on he began to read it daily and meditate upon it. Yet it was not what evangelicals normally call conversion, or what the Scriptures describe as the new birth. He rarely referred to it. He criticises conversion testimonies and sees the New Testament as not being about individual salvation. He wrote, ‘We must finally break away from the idea that the gospel deals with the salvation of an individual’s soul’.

Universalism

Bonhoeffer was a universalist, believing in the eventual salvation of all.

For the rest of the post…

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Earlier this month, I post that on June 17, 1940 (the day France surrendered to Germany), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his close friend Eberhard Bethge “in the Baltic village of Memel. They were relaxing in an “open-air café when suddenly a special announcement came over the loudspeaker that France had surrendered. Bethge wrote:

The people around the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up, and some even climbed on the chairs. With outstretched arms, they sang “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” and the Horse Wessel song. We stood up, too Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. “Raise your arm! Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later: “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!”  

This was a turning point for DB! Bethge “asserts that Bonhoeffer’s ‘double life’ truly began. This Confessing Church pastor and theologian became deeply involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazis.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1-2.

Wow! I have had numerous discussions with people over the years about why a Christian like Bonhoeffer could take an active role in the resistance. Many are troubled because Jesus said to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43).

I have struggled other it was well. Yet, we were not there. DB was! And somehow, he joined the resistance to stop a mad-man from murdering innocent people. Somehow, DB reconciled being a disciple of Jesus and plotting to kill Hitler.

In June of 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was safe and sound in the United States. He could have remained there but on June 20, 1939, he made the “fateful decision” to return to Nazi Germany. Why? In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, he gave the following explanation:

I have made the mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make this choice in security.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1.

Five Timeless Quotes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Who’s the most quotable Christian writer you’ve encountered? Last year, I nominated C.S. Lewis and Charles Spurgeon as candidates and shared five memorable quotes from each as evidence.But since then, I’ve been forced to acknowledge another candidate: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous World War 2 pastor and martyr. Bonhoeffers’ writing style doesn’t lend itself to punchy quips like those of Lewis and Spurgeon, but he had a remarkable gift drawing practical advice out of complex or potentially vague subjects.

Here are five of my favorite Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotes, drawn from the 40 Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoefferdevotional.

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Discipleship

“Those who follow Jesus’ commandment entirely, who let Jesus’ yoke rest on them without resistance, will find the burden they must bear to be light. In the gentle pressure of this yoke they will receive the strength to walk the right path without becoming weary.…Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy.”

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Intercessory Prayer

“A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner. That is a blessed discovery for the Christian who is beginning to offer intercessory prayer for others. As far as we are concerned, there is no dislike, no personal tension, no disunity or strife that cannot be overcome by intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day.”

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Virtue of Listening

“We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening.”

4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Worry

“Do not worry! Earthly goods deceive the human heart into believing that they give it security and freedom from worry. But in truth, they are what cause anxiety. The heart which clings to goods receives with them the choking burden of worry. Worry collects treasures, and treasures produce more worries. We desire to secure our lives with earthly goods; we want our worrying to make us worry-free, but the truth is the opposite. The chains which bind us to earthly goods, the clutches which hold the goods tight, are themselves worries.”

For the rest of the post…

Bucket List Books: Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship

By RACHEL LYNN ALDRICH

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a controversial figure on many counts. I wrote a research paper on him one semester in college hoping to come to a conclusion. The only conclusion I came to was that, while I wasn’t sure what I thought about all of his theology and actions, there was one thing I respected greatly about him: Bonhoeffer decided what he believed about something and then acted on it without reserve, regardless of the cost.

It is on this backdrop that his book The Cost of Discipleship becomes even more powerful.

As a book it stands easily on its own merits. The book essentially takes on the format of a sermon, moving passage by passage through the Sermon on the Mount and drawing Christian living principles from it.

As one might expect from a character such as Bonhoeffer, he wastes no words and stands firmly on his points. In the very first chapter he makes his distinction between the “cheap grace” he sees as a significant problem in the church and the “costly grace” that is consistent with the Bible.

“Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has … such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it call us to follow Jesus Christ.”

Bonhoeffer presents some controversial ideas, and it is certainly a book that will make you think. I read it with a notebook on one side and a Bible on the other, following along with his logic and writing down quotes. Some were marked with an all-capital “THIS” and others with question marks and concerns. Some stand on their own. All that to say, the book is well worth your time.

For the rest of the review…

We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our important daily tasks, just as the priest–perhaps reading the Bible–passed by the man who had fallen among robbers. When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised in our lives to show us that God’s way, and not our own, is what counts.

     … Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Life Together

 

By 

In the new volume of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, Vol. 14: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-37, there are some very interesting (to me) observations made by Jürgen Henkys in the “Editor’s Afterward to the German Edition”.

In particular, I note five particularly interesting observations Henkys’s makes about what emerges from the present collection.

(1) Finkenwalde was a protest and a prophetic discipleship against and in relationship to the dramatic take over of the German Church by the Nazis and the response of the Confessing Church. The Preachers Seminary was founded in response to the Confessing synods of Barmen and Dahlem in 1934. As the Seminary opened with its second of five sessions it was declared illegal by the state in a statement called the Fifth Implementation Decree published on 12/2/1935. The seminary opened its doors in April 1935 and was closed in September 1937 by the Gestapo.

(2) The Bible was the primary resource for Bonhoeffer in the Finkenwalde years. Particularly as everything was being reconsidered by the Confessing Church in response to the challenge of the Third Reich.

It is no accident that the Bible stands at the beginning and the end of this enumeration . . . Everything that had to be justified anew here—with respect to pastoral care, ecclesiastical politics, ecumenical and dogmatic issues—could not be addressed adequately at the level of traditional academic theological deduction (975).

(3) But the Bible is read anew in light of the present experience. There is an important hermeneutical approach Bonhoeffer takes as evidenced in his lectures and sermons. He sees that there is a need for something in addition to historical-critical exegesis. The Church Struggle becomes a hermeneutical lens for reading the Bible aright.

His writing, teaching, proclamation, and admonitions were all guided now by a new manner of reading the Bible, a manner with which not even he had much familiarity yet; the Bible was now to be read with an eye on the decisions—both imminent and past—that affected the church’s concrete present (975).

Bonhoeffer allowed the contemporary theological and ecclesiastical conflicts to shape the lecture’s task (984) Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutics pointed him in the direction of exegesis substantively shaped by the church’s own contemporary experience rather than exegesis somehow removed from time. As he reminded his candidates, academic theological departments were not the ones carrying the Church Struggle and were thus unaware of this question regarding the space of the church; those carrying that struggle were instead the pastors and congregations themselves. Bonhoeffer concludes, ‘the theology and question of the church develops from within the church’s own empirical experience and encounters. It receives blows and realizes: the body of the church must take this or that particular path. (985)

In the Bible study (“The Reconstruction of Jerusalem according to Ezra and Nehemiah”), the path to a contemporary statement or position does not emerge from any comprehensive examination of the biblical textual material nor from any enumeration of the results of historical scholarship regarding that material. What moves the exegete instead is the urgent question already on the table, concerning the church dispute and the theological assessment he has already made about this issue. The edifying elements and orientation solicited from the text itself emerge not by way of exegetical derivation and historical considerations. Rather, it is discovered, recognized anew, welcomed as confirming challenge by an exegete who reads Scripture with the assurance of the truth of the struggling church itself, which has already decided in favor of the understanding of its confession required by the contemporary situation (998).

(4) The New Testament was the primary textbook for the training of the seminarians.

The most distinctive feature of Bonhoeffer’s teaching at Finkenwalde is his exegesis of the New Testament in session after session (982).

For the rest of the post…

For the Christian serves the fellowship of the Body of Christ and he cannot hide it from the world. He is called out of the world to follow Christ.

Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship1961 edition, 289-290.

According to Stephen R. Haynes and Lori Brandt Hale in their book, Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, writes that there are five themes that bind Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works together…

1) Christ existing as community

2) Costly grace

3) Stellvertretung (“vicarious representative action”)

4) Ethics as formation

5) Religionless Christianity

(77-78)

Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 1) (Hardcover)

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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