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.
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.