Does Dietrich Bonhoeffer belong on the pedestal many people have placed him on? (part 2 of 2)
|July 19, 2012||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
Many Christians have a high opinion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (one man told me Bonhoeffer was his “hero”) – but they don’t know what he really believed. Is this a good idea? Didn’t many Americans also vote for Obama without knowing what he represented?
Similarly, just as some Americans voted for Obama partly because of image, because they thought it would make America look good by showing the world America isn’t a racist country, isn’t part of Bonhoeffer’s appeal due to the fact that he supposedly makes Christians look good? So many Christians did nothing to stop Hitler and even supported him – doesn’t one pastor who was involved even at the outer edges of the conspiracy to stop Hitler show that Christianity is not completely irrelevant?
That, however, has nothing to do with Bonhoeffer’s Christian doctrines – and since he was a pastor and a theologian whose books are influential today, to inquire about his doctrines is valid and necessary. To be ignorant of his teachings even as we admire him and read his books is foolish.
Concerning Bonhoeffer’s dismissal of the creation account in Genesis as unscientific mythology, some Christians are aware of that but really don’t care (or don’t know but wouldn’t be concerned if they did learn of it). After all, if because of Christ’s sacrifice we can have forgiveness of sins and eternal life, what difference do a few chapters in the Old Testament make? C.S. Lewis is widely admired and quoted, and he also denied the historicity of Genesis.
There are two problems with denying the literal truth of the account in Genesis. First, Christ referred to the creation of Adam and Eve. If he was talking about legends or myths, this stamps a question mark over every single page of the Gospels. If Paul’s account of how sin came into the world is not literally true, how can we take seriously the remedy he presents for sin? Atheists at least have no difficulty understanding that basing the Bible on a foundation of mythology is a major defeat for historic, biblical Christianity.
A second problem is that a little leaven leavens the whole loaf. When we allow modern science to set the boundaries of what we may or may not believe; when we subordinate scripture to our human intelligence – then we have begun a process that works to our spiritual harm. Thus Bonhoeffer was able to doubt the virgin birth of Christ, his resurrection from the dead, and other parts of the Gospel narratives.
But how can someone write so many deep and profound and seemingly biblical statements as Bonhoeffer did in The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, and yet at the same time be so unorthodox in his approach to essential parts of Christian teaching? As I look at those books I find many things that, taken at face value, are biblical, true, and personally helpful. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant man, deeply thoughtful and spiritual – but his thought and spirituality was something other than it first appears.
It is unfortunate that so many people in the Bible-believing churches today have been so out of touch for so long with so many things that have been happening all around them. Isn’t this one of the reasons America has steadily and surely gone from bad to worse morally, spiritually, economically, and politically, while the Christians sat idly by, not even understanding what the issues were, or who they were up against?
This is particularly true in the church itself, where of all places the Christians should have been the most vigilant and the most effective. If we can’t even see the threats and dangers in the churches and take effective measures against them, how in the world can we even think of trying to reform society as a whole?
In the 19th century, so-called liberals in the Protestant churches decided that traditional Christianity was no longer credible, and had to be updated to meet the demands of modern man. The Bible was reduced to a merely human book full of myths, legends, and errors. In the end, Christianity became nothing more than ethics, personal feelings, and social action.
In the early 20th century, a German theologian named Karl Barth tried to recover important aspects of traditional Christianity that had been lost, while at the same time retaining the liberal foundation of disbelief in the historical truth of the Bible. “Religious truth” was separated from “historical truth” and such comforting and familiar terms as “revelation,” “grace,” “salvation,” and “faith” were used, but with very different meanings. This presented the illusion of Christianity without the factual base.
Bonhoeffer writes in this tradition, which I would describe as German idealistic philosophy dressed up in religious language. It is the belief that there is some sort of higher spiritual reality which we can explore and seek to express in biblical terms, but which is detached from the real world and becomes in the end a matter of personal experience only.
Christ told the parable of the good Samaritan – has anyone ever wondered if that story actually occurred, where or when? Such questions are unnecessary – the parable conveys a spiritual truth without any necessary historical connection – and this is how modern theologians such as Bonhoeffer look at the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ, the creation of the world, and other biblical events – they cannot be, and should not be linked to specific historical events. To try and do so is to limit them and to miss the point.
This approach to scripture is to me is best described by Colossians 2:8. People who have religious language without a sure foundation in historical and factual reality will continue to drift toward the same collapse before the forces of secularism that the German Christians experienced, and that now seems so baffling to us.
This blog originally stopped with the preceding sentence, as I wanted to keep my blog to not more than 1,000 words, but I have received an email that expresses the new theology that Bonhoeffer pioneered so well that I would like to quote it:
The narratives and sayings recorded in the four gospels seem to express a genuine effort to capture the mystery of Christ Jesus. I cannot be sure they are completely accurate in any objective sense but then again I don’t believe their objectiveness is a necessary requirement for them to convey profound truth.
It is my firm belief that the recorded narratives and sayings are not meant to convey a historically accurate and objective account of what the “you are Jesus” Jesus said and did, but instead they are meant to convey a subjective understanding of what the “I am Christ” Jesus could have said and done. The recorded narratives and sayings are meant to encourage each individual to subjectively alter their own worldview in such a way as to envision how Jesus the Christ could have said and done these things in a reality that is far different from the old reality associated with their previous worldview.
To achieve truly abundant life may require recognizing the power of faith, the Faith of Christ. If faith is as powerful as Jesus seemed to believe it was then living our lives to their fullest extent may only be possible by living them with and through the Faith of Christ.