Will the Real Bonhoeffer Please Stand Up? Part 1

Within a year of my profession of faith I came into contact with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The owner of the local Christian bookstore gave me a copy of The Cost of Discipleship. After giving me a brief biographical introduction he sent me away to read. Knowing about the man I had an instant admiration for him. What is more, The Cost of Discipleship resonated with my newfound zeal to give up everything for Christ. I was hooked.

However, my contact with Bonhoeffer centered primarily on his most evangelical works until I had to choose a thesis topic for the Master of Sacred Theology degree. I finally decided on the Christological substructures of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It was a topic that forced me to read wider in Bonheoffer’s corpus. And while working on that thesis I found myself face to face with what appeared to be two different Bonhoeffers; one that was very warmly pietistic and evangelical and the other a liberal German theologian.

Let me give you an example. In his 2010 Bonhoeffer biography, Eric Metaxas puts the warm pietistic Bonhoeffer on display. He records one memory by a student of Bonhoeffer in 1933:

[He said] When you read the Bible, you must think that here and now God is speaking with me…He [Bonhoeffer] wasn’t as abstract as the Greek teachers and all the others. Rather, from the beginning, he taught us that we had to read the Bible as it was directed at us, as the word of God directly to us. Not something general, not something generally applicable, but rather with a personal relationship to us. He repeated this to us very early on, that the whole thing comes from that.[i]

One can find similar evangelical quotes in Bonhoeffer. In a 1936 letter to his brother-in-law, Bonhoeffer wrote, “First, I want to confess quite simply that I believe the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we only need to ask persistently and with some humility in order to receive the answer from it.[ii]

But what about other quotes that do not make their way into Metaxas’s biography; quotes that appear in lectures given at the University of Berlin in the winter semester of 1932–1933, the same year as the Metaxas quote above. The lectures, now published as Creation and Fall, are introduced with words similar to what we find in Metaxas. An evangelical sounding Bonhoeffer writes,

The church…is grounded upon the testimony of Scripture…. Therefore it reads all Holy Scripture as the book of the end, of the new, of Christ. What does Holy Scripture, upon which the Church of Christ is grounded, have to say of the creation and the beginning except that only from Christ can we know what the beginning is? The Bible is nothing but the book upon which the Church stands or falls.[iii]

However, in the same work, when commenting on Genesis 1:6–10 Bonhoeffer writes, “Here we have before us the ancient world picture in all its scientific naivete.[iv]

What is more, after telling us that we, as interpreters, should not be too cocky and self assured he goes on to say, “The heavens and the seas were not formed in the way he says…” that is, in the way the Biblical author says. And then to knock away any evangelical footing that one might claim, he writes, “The idea of verbal inspiration will not do.”[v] According to Bonhoeffer, “The writer of the first chapter of Genesis is behaving in a very human way.” That is why he can also say with regard to the Lord’s creation of man from the dust of the earth in Genesis 2:7, “This can surely not produce any knowledge about the origin of man! To be sure, as a narrative this story is just as irrelevant or meaningful as any other myth of creation.”[vi] Let me state him again. The Biblical story of creation is as irrelevant or as meaningful any other myth of creation.

You see the difference. But these battle lines are not new. In fact, to line up Bonhoeffer quotes is not a new strategy in this war. So, if stringing quotes together will not help us to determine which is the real Bonhoeffer, then what will? That my friends is for our next post.

[i] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 128.

[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1986), 43.

[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall & Temptation (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 10.

[iv] Ibid. 30.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., 50.

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5 years ago

Not to steal your thunder, but this just seems to be unmysterious run-of-the-mill neo-orthodoxy (or later theological liberalism). It uses “traditional” historic Christian and biblical language, but doesn’t actually mean it. It’s all a cypher.

Benjamin P. Glaser

5 years ago

Thanks for pointing out the deficiencies of the Metaxas biography. In reading that book I always got the feeling that Metaxas was writing about the Bonhoeffer he wished existed, the Bonhoeffer who would fit in well at Baylor or a “evangelical” think-tank in D.C. rather than the historical Bonhoeffer who would be teaching at Fuller or Pittsburgh Theo Sem.

Blake Reas

5 years ago

Is piety contrary to having a view of scripture that is in some sense deficient? I would agree that Bonhoeffer’s view of scripture is less than satisfactory, but it seems to me that a person can believe that much of scripture is true, but not inerrant, and still be in some sense conservative when it comes to their personal faith and even many theological positions. I think of someone like F.F. Bruce or Adolf Schlatter. Neither man, as far as I know, held to inerrancy, but their view of scripture was still conservative. Does that in some way devalue the true things Bonhoeffer said (or these other writers)? I guess for me the question arises: Could Bonhoeffer be as liberal as a Von Harnack or a Bultmann and still say some of the things that he says about following Christ? I have read a few of Bultmann’s works and I never get a sense of piety from him, nor for that matter from what little of Von Harnack I have read.

In Christ,


5 years ago

I remember a few years back reading an article in Christian Century which criticized the book by Metaxas. It was written by Clifford Green, a man who seems to know what he’s talking about when it comes to Bonhoeffer.

Just search in Christian Century or do a web search for Clifford Green or “Hijacking Bonhoeffer” and you’ll find the article.


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