Erich Metaxas or Richard Weikart – Who’s right about Bonhoeffer? (part 1 of 3)
|September 1, 2012||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
Eric Metaxas, author of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, was quoted in Crosswalk.com as saying “The singular thing about Bonhoeffer that recommends him to this generation is that he calls us to a closer, authentic walk with Jesus, not just a merely religious walk, but one of true obedience to Jesus Christ . . . ”
On the other hand, Richard Weikart, a professor of history at California State University and author of From Darwin to Hitler, sees Bonhoeffer much differently. In a review of Metaxas’ biography, Weikart asserts that Metaxas’ presentation of Bonhoeffer as a Bible-believing evangelical is inaccurate . In two lengthy articles that explore Bonhoeffer’s theology in greater depth than the short review, Weikart raises important questions about what Bonhoeffer believed .
Explaining that Bonhoeffer’s theology was deeply influenced by philosophy, including that of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Nietzsche and Hegel, as well by the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth, Weikart asserts that Bonhoeffer was not sure about the virgin birth of Christ; that he did not always read his Bible regularly as Metaxas claimed (“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).
In the two articles footnoted below, Weikart further states that
• 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, who is right, Metaxas or Weikart? Merely because Weikart is a scholar does not mean we have to accept his critique. On the other hand, Weikart’s scholarship in my view, based on books and articles of his that I have read, is constructive. His comments merit consideration, the more so as he shows a close familiarity with Bonhoeffer’s writings that Metaxas (writing what is a popular biography) does not.
How then do we decide who is right? Do we need to take a course in theology at a seminary or spend a great deal of time researching many books, learning about Barth, Bultmann, Heidegger and others? Not necessarily. If we let Bonhoeffer speak for himself, that might clarify things. Therefore, as my own small contribution to this topic, I would like to present some quotes from Bonhoeffer.
First, in Letters and Papers from Prison, we find: “I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote. I discovered later, and I’m still discovering it right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith”.
When he wrote his well-known book, Bonhoeffer did not understand faith. Later he came to a different understanding, but even that later understanding seems to place undue emphasis on man and his efforts, not on God’s gift (though of course we do grow in the faith God has given us, and living in the world is part of that growth).
How could a book like The Cost of Discipleship, which contains so many sound and even inspiring biblical insights, possibly have been written by a man who did not, by his own admission, have a proper scriptural understanding of faith as a gift of God?
Cicero, Seneca, Plato, and others wrote many wonderful things by the light of natural reason. Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling has many profound insights and questions that at one time challenged me to re-examine my own faith and helped me to grow spiritually – yet Kierkegaard seems to have had very unbiblical ideas of faith. For example, Kierkegaard wrote:
“. . . all that can save him is the absurd; and this he grasps by faith.”
“The movement of faith must be made continually on the strength of the absurd . . . ”
“. . . faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.”
“The knight of faith has only himself . . . in cosmic isolation, [he] hears never a voice but walks alone” .
Because we are made in the image of God, our minds can range far and deep and discover many truths. When philosophy adopts Christian language it can be very profound, even if faith is lacking.
Significantly, in his biography Metaxas omitted Bonhoeffer’s admission that he had written one of his major books without really understanding faith. The quote in Metaxas’ book begins with “I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment . . . ”. Here at least, he is unquestionably editing Bonhoeffer to make him more appealing to an American evangelical audience.
Erich Metaxas, “Why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Why now,” Crosswalk.com; http://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/eric-metaxas-on-why-dietrich-bonhoeffer-why-now-11632688.html
Richard Weikart, “Metaxas’s Counterfeit Bonhoeffer: An Evangelical Critique,” Author’s homepage, http://www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart/metaxas.htm.
Weikart, “So Many Different Dietrich Bonhoeffers,” Trinity Journal 32 NS (2011): 69-81, and “Scripture and Myth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Fides et Historia 25 (1993): 12-25, both at http://www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart/
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York 1997), p. 369 (July 21, 1944).
Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (London 2005), pp. 53; 41; 61; 94, 95-6.
Erich Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville 2010), p. 484.