Who owns Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Liberals or evangelicals?

My wife and some other friends have enjoyed reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. There have been some negative reviews of Metaxas (see this post), and it seems it can be boiled down to one thing:  certain Liberal critics believe that Bonhoeffer belongs to them, that he is part of their heritage: he is a liberal like them, so evangelicals find inspiration in Bonhoeffer only illegitimately because he believed, among other things, in biblical criticism.  Therefore, Metaxas portrayal of Bonhoeffer is wishful thinking, a reading into the history of Germany his own sentiments.

Why are they saying this?  And why are liberals, who don’t hardly even believe in Jesus, claiming the author of The Cost of Discipleship as one of their own, when they hardly even desire to be disciples of Christ and mock those who do?  My hunch at this point is that liberals are running from their terrible legacy in Nazi Germany and they want to hold up Bonhoeffer as their own because he is the most famous theologian that opposed Hitler.

Liberal theologians are largely distinguished from orthodox Christians by their questioning of tradition:  this includes both scriptural (the Bible) and ecclesial traditions (the creeds).  They also have a tendency to insist upon evolution as the only means to explain the origin of the species, and they also tend to believe in human progress and the ability of government to provide solutions to social problems (statism, socialism, etc.).  Well it doesn’t take much research to see which side the liberals were on in Nazi Germany.  They were often anti-semitic–since they themselves belonged to the more evolved Arian nation race–and generally supporters of the Third Reich.

Against them, the more conservative Christians with whom today’s evangelicals can mostly identify–affirmed the reliability and authority of Church tradition, including both the Bible and the historic creeds.  Bonhoeffer signed the Barmen Declaration which claimed the exclusivity of Christ and opposed both the liberal church and the Nazi state; he belonged to the Confessing Church which remained faithful to the authority of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, against the liberal German Christian Movement which denied it.  Then, Bonhoeffer went further and was involved in a plot against Hitler.  If Bonhoeffer wasn’t an American evangelical, he wasn’t an 21st century liberal either.  But the liberals of today, who constantly question the reliability and authority of the Scriptures stand closest not to Bonhoeffer, who affirmed these basic truths, but to the Harnacks and the Wellhausens, the anti-semites, whose theology led to the support of Hitler and the genocide of the Jews.  This is a terrible legacy and it is no wonder that some liberals would want to revise history and expropriate Bonhoeffer for themselves.

HITLER’S THEOLOGIANS: The Genesis of Genocide
by Stan Meyer

Was Bonhoeffer an Evangelical?

Belief in Action review by Joseph Loconte in WSJ

Bonhoeffer: Liberal, Evangelical, or None of the Above?

Appendix: I made the following comment at the City of God to Dan’s post:  News flash:  Non-evangelicals are non-evangelical, which suggested that Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis were not evangelicals, depending on the definition, and which occasioned my above reflexions:

I studied in Europe and maintain my ties with scholars there. It is wrong to assume that Europeans should or even could be evangelicals in the North American sense of the term. That is something that is shaped by our own context and even British evangelicals are not like American evangelicals in every regard–especially on the issue of inerrancy (a favorite subject here). While in Europe, I met South African “evangelicals” who would never think of rejecting the theory of evolution. But then the question really becomes, “What is an evangelical?” Well, there may be some narrow interpretations, but there are also some better ones. When I heard my own thesis supervisor describe his faith and conversion on the local Swiss cable Christian TV, I was very impressed that he was an evangelical–though in his life he probably never used that term of himself–except in the German sense, “Evangelisch” means “Lutheran”–”Evangelikal” (I’ve never seen this one spelled out, so I’m guessing) refers normally to what we call “Fundamentalist”–my prof was a “pasteur reformé”(Reform pastor–i.e., mainstream Protestant, state church). But when he talked about his conversion and his pilgrimage, it was in terms that I could relate to, and I realized that he was a genuine believer who had submitted his life to Christ, something that came out in all of his dealings with me in any case–here is a man who lived out his faith and it showed. So I think the same is true of Bonhoeffer. Metaxas responded to the question you ask in a CT interview:

Would you describe Bonhoeffer as an evangelical? What distinguished his views from the prevailing liberal theology of his professors, including Adolf von Harnack?

That is what’s so amazing. Bonhoeffer is more like a theologically conservative evangelical than anything else. He was as orthodox as Saint Paul or Isaiah, from his teen years all the way to his last day on earth. But it seems that theological liberals have somehow made Bonhoeffer in their own image, mainly based on the fact that he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and that he wanted to visit Mahatma Gandhi, and that he used the phrase “religionless Christianity” in a letter.
But if you look deeper, you’ll see that this view is somewhat misleading. For example, by the phrase “religionless Christianity” Bonhoeffer meant only that the dead religion that was passing for Lutheran Christianity in Germany before the war had failed [his generation]. Bonhoeffer knew that for Christianity to be more than religion—more than a fig leaf—it had to declare Jesus as Lord over everything, not just the religious sphere.

I haven’t read the corpus of Bonhoeffer, but that which I have read has never caused me to think that this man was not a genuine believer.

As for C. S. Lewis, well it is simply laughable to consider him as a non-evangelical, unless you just want to take a extremely narrow view of what is an evangelical, and then in that case, I’m not one either. Nor was Paul or Jesus for that matter–or Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, or St. Francis, Irenaeus, or Augustine.

By the way, you wrote that Bonhoeffer was “a German swimming in German textual criticism”; now I want to point out that “textual criticism” is also called “lower criticism”, and this type of criticism is accepted by evangelicals of all types except the most extreme fundamentalist like Jack Chick or something.

I guess it finally comes down to the question of why it is that liberals find it so objectionable that evangelicals could find inspiration from a believer from another side of the Protestant tradition. Perhaps, it reveals their own tendentiousness more than anything else: See for  example this post. For me the jury is still out and deliberating. Perhaps it is not Metaxas but the liberals who have expropriated Bonhoeffer, and made him into their own image.

11 thoughts on “Who owns Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Liberals or evangelicals?

  1. Hello,

    the christian doctrine in Germany is under attack. On the one hand the EKD ordains homosexuals to pastors and on the other hand there are a lot of re-baptizing sects (Bonhoeffer and Luther teached that re-baptism is strictly prohibited). Homosexuality is damned by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 1.

    The publics gaze in Germany is fixed or focused on the “agent” Bonhoeffer. However Bonhoeffers main aim was not the resistance against Hitler, but the renewal of the German Evangelical Church (former DEK, today EKD).
    Everybody must admit that the Third Reich is over but the EKD still exist with her big problems thus it would be adviceable to turn gaze on the theologian Bonhoeffer who has a lot of solutions for ecclesiastical problems.

    There are evil powers in Germany trying to keep the publics gaze on the “agent” Bonhoeffer and trying to prevent that Bonhoeffers theology gets well know because this would mean their sure downfall and would bring disaster upon them. They don’t want the problems of the EKD to be solved.

    I have started a website concerning this issue:

    Bonhoeffers best book: “The Cost of Discipleship”.
    A good book of Luther: “The Catechism”
    A good book of C. S. Lewis: “Mere Christianiy”

    Kind regards,
    Rainer Braendlein (Munich, Germany)

  2. Bonhoeffer said we need to accept the scriptural testimony about Christ “myth and all.” Also, he wanted to formulate new Christian beliefs/creeds for the modern world. Moreover, all of his theological education was liberal. So, while broadly evangelical, he was no conservative. And I think the argument is the other way around. Since conservative evangelicals have never produced the kind of Christian the world respects most (Bonhoeffer, MLK Jr., Mother Teresa et al), they are always looking for some figure to adopt. Finally, I find it appalling that the article links liberal Christians and Nazis given the historic realities that conservatives so supported slavery and anti-civil rights sentiments that they often broke off to form denominations of their own. And the very idea that liberals support regress rather than progress (contra conservatives [whose very name means conservation of the status quo]) is the kind of thing only a North American Evangelical could dream up.

    Side note: You mention that liberals accept evolution but want to claim CS Lewis as a thorough-going evangelical. But, he accepted evolution as well as biblical criticism. In other words, neither Bonhoeffer or Lewis would be allowed to join conservative evangelical denominations without given peculiar latitude. But again, that’s the game you people play when who you perceive to be your best allies are actually not much like you at all.

    • Well, I am also broadly evangelical–but not fundamentalist. I accept biblical criticism but not many of the ways that liberals apply it nor most of the conclusions that they come to. Having a theological education in a liberal setting does not make one a liberal–even today in Germany a few manage to finish their Halibitation without losing their faith. In addition, there are not a few fundamentalist denominations where I would be unacceptable as well.

      And it is pretty ridiculous to claim that evangelicals have no heros that the world respects: first, I could care less what the world respects.

      Secondly, throughout all history, there are many non-liberal Christian heros with whom true Christians can identify. Start with the millions of martyrs who died for their faith (Polycarp, Perpetua–and many more today), or the members of St. John’s Shaughnessy who just lost their buildings to the liberal bishop of New Westminster in a long legal battle–this is a form of persecution of evangelical faith that makes them great heros in my eyes, and the Bishop Ingham a great villain.

      I set out to say that true believers in Christ who wish to submit to his Lordship will identify with Bonhoeffer not Harnack or Wellhausen. Liberals today are much more likely to fit into the liberal stream of theology that in Germany accepted the Nazis. Indeed in liberal OT studies, Wellhausen’s theories are still today accepted. And what are they? Well in his view, it takes a modern German scholar to show the Jews that the sources JEPD which make up their holy Scriptures–because the Jews were too stupid to figure out that their Pentateuch, e.g., could not have been written by Moses, etc., but had many authors from four disparate traditions that were separated by many centuries from one another. Seems pretty anti-Semitic to me. The liberals today stick to such views even though more recent scholarship (e.g., Cyrus Gordon) has shown them to be refuted by contemporary records of the ancient near East. Is it any surprise that the most anti-Israel context today is often Western universities, which are great bastions of liberalism?

      Finally, to blame slavery on evangelicals is just nuts. One of our major heros, William Wilberforce, was instrumental in the banning of slavery in the British Empire. I too am evangelical, and my great grandfather and my great-great grandfather both fought to free slaves. So I don’t identify at all with the Southern fundamentalists who were in favour of slavery.

      And you won’t get very far in saying that conservatives are wanting to preserve the status quo. You are confusing the issue with an etymological fallacy. Otherwise, liberalism would be “liberal”, which is not at all the case–generally speaking and more to the point in our contemporary setting, liberals are leftists who want to destroy tradition and to put in its place a socialist ideals.

  3. Bonhoeffer questioned the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, denied the authenticity of parts of the gospels, and had very many liberal ideas concealed behind biblical language.

    This review by Richard Weikart is accurate and substantive, and more than confirmed by my own studies. http://www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart/metaxas.htm

    Two further articles on Weikart’s homepage explore Bonhoeffer’s “neo-orthodox” theology in depth. http://www.csustan.edu/history/faculty/weikart/

    Has anyone actually read Bonhoeffer’s “Christ the Center”? It is there he refers to the liberal ideas referred to above. In “Creation and Fall” he denies the literal truth of Genesis. Is that “evangelical,” to say the bible is founded on myth?

    Metaxas has presented en extremely inaccurate picture of Bonhoeffer and his claim that Bonhoeffer was orthodox is demonstrably false.


    • Bonhoeffer was a pastor and a theologian. Do his ideas about scripture, Christ, and salvation have any importance?

      Many people bravely died fighting for Stalin and Hitler, the willingness to sacrifice one’s life has nothing to do with Christian teaching.

  4. I came across this post while researching for a post of my own on Metaxas’s book. Your assessment of Bonhoeffer is fundamentally wrong, but the primary blame lies with Metaxas. I explain why here: http://newchristianity.blogspot.com/2013/06/liars-for-jesus-eric-metaxas-in.html. Joe Keysor’s comments above are basically correct as well.

    By your definition I’m one of those despised “liberals,” so I don’t expect you to be swayed, but I can hope.

    • Thanks Jim, for your comment.

      Your calling Metaxis a liar seems very unfair to me. Wouldn’t it be better to criticize his failure to take into account all the relevant sources and information, than to attribute his alleged failings to an attempt to deceive? In any case, you do no better than I in this post, for you never cite a single line from Bonhoeffer, not even out of context, to prove that he is a liberal.

      Why bother hoping that I will be swayed? If you are liberal, as you say, wouldn’t it be better just to allow me to be happy in my position? Would that be the “liberal” thing to do. As I say above, “liberal” today does not mean magnanimous; it is represents position which is diametrically opposed to what are classic traditional points of view. As a traditional Christian, however, it is often necessary to point out another’s error and attempt, if possible, to bring him back to the truth. Thus, many passages of Scripture would suggest.

  5. Petros,

    I’m sticking with the “liar” designation until Metaxas explains how it turns out that every supposedly accidental or unintentional omission or misrepresentation (that’s what you are implying, isn’t it?) happened to make “liberal” or “modernist” Christians look bad or Bonhoeffer appear to be more “evangelical.” AFAIC, Metaxas is grinding an axe here, so overlooking relevant information is deception by omission.

    I am not trying to convince you that Bonhoeffer was “liberal.” He was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” They are both inappopriate categories for his views. I am not trying to claim Bonhoeffer for “my side” either. While I admire his sacrifices to bring down Nazism, I think his theology sucked, pretty much like just about every other Christian theology sucks. They just suck in different ways.

    I hope you will be swayed because it’s usually better for people to believe things that are true, factual, accurate, etc. Metaxas’s book is pretty good. If it weren’t for the intellectual gerrymandering he engaged in to polish evangelicalism and Bonhoeffer’s evangelical credentials, it would be a great book. Like I said in my post, if you really want to understand Bonhoeffer, read Bethge’s biography.

    • I suggest that if you really want to understand Bonhoeffer you should look at the last part of his book Christ the Center, where he says that some parts of the gospel record have been shown by modern scholarship to be not authentic, and where he says that Christ so far partook of our humanity as to be fallible and make mistakes. He also says that we are only to look at Christ the humiliated one, as if Christ were not now reigning in glory. He states that the biblical accounts are ambiguous about the virgin birth, and also about the resurrection. Some page numbers and quotes can be found in my blog here:

      Comments about Bonhoeffer as a Christian existentialist are here.

      In my view, Metaxas does present a very distorted and inaccurate picture of Bonhoeffer – whether deliberately or because he took Bonhoeffer’s religious language at face value without understanding it, I have no idea.

      Like Barth and Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer felt that historical fact was not relevant to the Christian message, which was spiritual.

  6. Pingback: The Ongoing Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer - DashHouse -

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