Reading Bonhoeffer

I do not pretend to be an expert on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but the little I know of him gives me both cause for admiration and concern. Of course I, like most people, admire his courageous stand against Adolf Hitler that ultimately resulted in Bonhoeffer’s execution. I also admire him as a powerful thinker whose writings have served to greatly influence twenty- and twenty-first-century theology. His popular books such as Cost of Discipleship and Life Together have long been sources of encouragement for Christians as works of devotion. But my concern lies in the fact that Bonhoeffer was not an evangelical (in the North American sense of the term) and his theology does not square with evangelical theology. Yet, in spite of this, evangelicals have adopted Bonhoeffer as one of their (our) own and have thus read him both uncritically and uncharitably.

Lately I have had some discussions about this with a friend who knows Bonhoeffer much better than I do (this friend, also, does not profess to be an expert) and the conclusion is that many evangelical works on Bonhoeffer, including the recent biography by Eric Metaxas, do not seem to understand their subject. This has bothered me, even more-so as I have read through a large number of reviews of Metaxas’ work by evangelicals–including many scholars who should know better–to find very little in the way of criticism both of Bonhoeffer or Metaxas.

Now, I am all for reading someone with whom I have severe disagreements in order to glean some good from their writings (see my “Reading and Error“). So this is not a screed against reading anything outside of our tradition. But I am saying that it is patently wrong to read someone with whom we differ so vastly as if they held to our view to serve an agenda. We must read Bonhoeffer with the goggles of his own day and context–namely dialectical theology, liberalism and continental philosophy–rather than with the goggles of conservative evangelicalism.

Clifford Green writes on this trend to misinterpret Bonhoeffer in Christian Century, an essay aptly titled “Hijacking Bonhoeffer.” I recommend it to any evangelical who wants to see in Bonhoeffer a super-hero who supports their own theology (alongside dispelling the myths, Green notes the numerous factual errors in Metaxas’ book that also go unnoticed in reviews). Read Bonhoeffer, yes; but do so sympathetic to his own situation and thought. To do any less is to actually do harm to the legacy of this Christian hero.



Filed under articles, books, church history, dietrich bonhoeffer, history, hitler

4 responses to “Reading Bonhoeffer

  1. Ian,

    I agree. While there are valuable things to study about Bonhoeffer, his life, ministry, and theology, but there is much too we must be very careful about. Read discerningly!

  2. Ken Davis

    I wonder if the problem sometimes is that we have such small boundaries regarding who really is Christian, that we force ourselves to overlook some people’s theological or practical errors. We like them or agree with the stand they took and so we ignore certain things about them to make them look like us. Perhaps if we realized that a true believer can believe and do a lot of strange things, we wouldn’t have to read and write with blinkers on. Just old fashioned hagiography (or its opposite, whatever that would be – luciferography ??)isn’t it?

    • Luciferography! Brilliant!
      I’m definitely not questioning whether Bonhoeffer was a believer–but whether he was a conservative evangelical. I can say with confidence that he was not the latter! And the attempts to mold him into one are disingenuous at best.

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