Does Dietrich Bonhoeffer belong on the pedestal many people have placed him on? (part 1 of 2)
|July 6, 2012||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
In his book Hitler, God and the Bible, Ray Comfort praised the “incomparable” Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Promotional comments published in Erich Metaxas’ biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy refer to Bonhoeffer as a martyr; a true Christian hero; one of the world’s greatest contemporary theologians; a deep Christian who submitted to nothing but God; one of the twentieth century’s leading lights; a man who looks a lot like an American evangelical.
Professor Richard Weikart, however, has raised some questions about Metaxas’ description of Bonhoeffer’s theology. Author of From Darwin to Hitler and Hitler’s Ethic, Weikart has examined Bonhoeffer’s views of Scripture and salvation, and come to some conclusions very different from popular evangelical ideas of Bonhoeffer. In a short review of Metaxas’ book Weikart shows that Metaxas’ depiction of Bonhoeffer as an orthodox Christian is profoundly inadequate.
Weikart demonstrates that Bonhoeffer was not sure about the virgin birth of Christ; that he was deeply influenced by Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bultmann, and by the neo-orthodox (I would prefer to say “semi-orthodox”) Karl Barth. He quotes Bonhoeffer to show he did not read his Bible regularly (“Once again I’m having weeks when I don’t read the Bible much”); that he accepted much liberal historical criticism of the Bible; and that he had a high opinion of Rudolf Bultmann (whose attempt to demythologize Scripture completely denies all of the most fundamental aspects of Christ’s life and work).
Weikart also wrote a couple of lengthy articles exploring Bonhoeffer’s theology and its background in modern philosophy. They are too long and involved to be covered fully in a blog, but I’ll mention some points here:
- Metaxas deals with very little of what Bonhoeffer taught and wrote, and does not present Bonhoeffer’s situation ethics accurately (Bonhoeffer thought it was in some cases permissible to commit sin if it brought a good result).
- Evangelicals have been undiscerning in their approval of Bonhoeffer and misread many of his statements as they do not understand modern theology.
- Bonhoeffer accepted liberal criticism of the Bible and did not believe in verbal inspiration or in the historical accuracy of the Bible. Scripture’s religious truth is possible without and does not require historical truth.
- Bonhoeffer often “masked his views on biblical criticism” to avoid giving offense.
- Bonhoeffer, like Barth, believed in universal salvation.
- Bonhoeffer stated that “God isn’t a strong God to whom we turn in our hour of need, but is a weak God, who we stand by in his hour of need.”
So, does one have to study a lot of theology before one can evaluate Weikart’s critique? Not necessarily. Weikart says in one of the articles cited above that “One cannot understand Bonhoeffer without understanding the intellectual context of early twentieth century Germany,” but I don’t completely agree. There is much about Bonheoffer that does require background knowledge, but much that does not.
Some years ago I was curious about Bonhoeffer. I knew next to nothing about him and had also read little or nothing of thinkers that Weikart names as being important in Bonhoeffer’s thought. Anyway, I went to the library of a nearby seminary and found some books by Bonhoeffer. One of them was Creation and Fall, another was Christ the Center.
Looking at Creation and Fall, it took me about ten minutes to locate such statements as “Here we have before us the ancient world picture in all its scientific naïveté.” This was after a complete quotation of Genesis 1:6-10. Then a quotation of Genesis 2:7 (God’s creation of Adam) was followed immediately by “The language is extremely childlike . . . The anthropomorphisms become more intolerable . . . This can surely not produce any knowledge about the origin of man!”
Christ the Center was considerably more difficult. There, some knowledge of modern liberal theology and secular philosophy is necessary for deeper understanding, but even without that, one can grasp such statements as: “If Jesus Christ is to be described as God, we may not speak of this divine being, nor of his omnipotence, nor his omniscience; but we must speak of this weak man among sinners, of his manger and his cross.” “All that we know today only through the encounter with the humiliated one. It is with this humiliated one that the Church goes its own way of humiliation . . . The Church gazes always only at the humiliated Christ . . . ”
About the virgin birth, we read “The question, ‘How?’, for example, underlies the hypothesis of the virgin birth. Both historically and dogmatically it can be questioned. The biblical witness is ambiguous.”
About the empty tomb and resurrection of Christ: “Empty or not empty, it remains a stumbling block. We cannot be sure of its historicity. The Bible itself shows this stumbling block, when it makes clear how hard it was to prove that the disciples had not stolen the body. Even here we cannot escape the realm of ambiguity.”
The following is more ambiguous, at least in the last part: “. . . perhaps we have to preach about a text, which we know from scholarly criticism was never spoken by Jesus . . . 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.” To put it another way, “Some parts of the New Testament are not authentic, but we don’t need a verbally inspired and inerrant Bible – Jesus is risen from the dead!” That sort of thinking will seem incredible to those who do not understand that calling the Bible spiritually true but not historically true is one of the fundamentals of modern liberal and neo-orthodox theology.
 Scripture and Myth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Fides et Historia 25 (1993): 12-25 and “So Many Different Dietrich Bonhoeffers,” Trinity Journal 32 NS (2011): 69-81, both at http://www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart/ .
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall and Temptation: Two Biblical Studies, trans. John C. Fletcher (New York 1997), p. 30.
 Ibid., p. 50.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (New York 1978), p. 104.
 Ibid., p. 113.
 Ibid., pp. 104-105.
 Ibid., p. 112.
 Ibid., p. 73.