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Will the Real Bonhoeffer Please Stand Up? Part 5

Speaking theologically, what was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Was he a German liberal or might we label him a conservative evangelical Christian? Bonhoeffer’s use of Kantian Transcendentalism as a theological beginning point seems to disqualify the latter. However, some remain unconvinced. For example, some contend that Bonhoeffer was a conservative Christian and could even be described as an evangelical. So, in this, our last post, I want to examine Bonhoeffer’s views which touch upon conservative and evangelical Christianity.

The Nature of Scripture

All believers are concerned with how Christ and history relate because our faith is rooted in history. Benjamin B. Warfield once wrote, “… Christianity is a supernatural religion and the nature of Christianity as a supernatural religion, are matters of history …”[1] For Bonhoeffer the matter was not so easily settled. He had been influenced by Hegel, Lessing, and Troeltsch all of whom believed in one way or other that a big nasty ditch separated the contingent facts of history from absolute meaning.[2]

In his 1933 lectures on Christology, now printed as Christ the Center, Bonhoeffer illustrates the influence of these men, saying, “Historical research can never absolutely deny, because it can never absolutely affirm.”[3] And again, “Absolute certainty about an historical fact is in itself never attainable.”[4] According to Bonhoeffer, the Bible is no different from any other flawed history book.[5] In fact, he says, this is of particular importance for the preacher. Why? Because, says Bonhoeffer, “There may be some difficulties about preaching from a text whose authenticity has been destroyed by historical research.” Bonhoeffer offers help to the pastor in this situation; don’t stand on that destroyed text for long but like a man crossing a river covered in ice floes move about over the whole Bible![6]

But to make matters even worse Bonhoeffer says that verbal inspiration will not prop up a historically flawed Bible.[7] In fact, it’s quite the reverse. According to Bonhoeffer, the doctrine of Scripture’s verbal inspiration actually “amounts to a denial of the unique presence of the risen one.”[8] So, whatever pietistic sounding Bonhoeffer quotes we might be able to marshal about Scripture we must also take these into account.

The Nature of the Person of Christ

Bonhoeffer’s view of history also affected his Christology. He wrote, “As a subject for historical investigation, Jesus Christ remains an uncertain phenomenon; his historicity can neither be confirmed nor denied with the necessary absolute certainty.”[9] What, according to Bonhoeffer, does this mean for something like the empty tomb? Is the Bible’s account of the historical fact of the resurrection in question? Bonhoeffer says of historicity of Christ’s tomb, “This is and remains a final stumbling block, which the believer in Christ must learn to live with in one way or another. Empty or not empty, it remains a stumbling block. We cannot be sure of its historicity.”[10] Not surprisingly, Bonhoeffer says that since there is no absolute ground for faith that can be derived from history “the historical approach to the Jesus of history is not binding for the believer.”[11] Bohoeffer says, “We have Christ witnessing to himself in the present, any historical confirmation is irrelevant.”[12] And of course, Christ’s witnesses to me in the present is found in my brother who is Christ pro me.

The Nature of Justification

The doctrine of Christ pro me naturally leads us to think of the Gospel. For Bonhoeffer, humanity is either in Christ or in Adam. This means, for Bonhoeffer, that a person is either turned inward upon one’s self and alone (that is, in Adam) or he comes to recognize Christ in his self–consciousness and his need for others in community (in Christ). According to Bonhoeffer, this turn means that a man no longer seeks justification in himself but in Christ alone.[13] To continue, “The Christian no longer lives of himself, by his own claims and his own justification, but by God’s claims and God’s justification.”[14] The Christian is, says Bonhoeffer, justified by an alien righteousness.[15]

However, this raises an important question. From where does this declaration of justified come? For Bonhoeffer, it comes from outside oneself. But from where does it come? It is from the lips of my neighbor.[16] For when I go to my brother to confess, I go to God.[17] He speaks the message of salvation to me, speaks forgiveness to me, and brings me assurance. According to Bonhoeffer, in the presence of another Christian and “there alone in all the world the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ rule.”[18] I am justified by my brother’s word spoken to me, for in him, Christ stands for me.

What was Bonhoeffer? The truth is plain.

When Warfield described the Ritschlian school of thought he said that there was a strong tendency in evangelical circles to look upon this neo–Kantianism with favor. Warfield continued, “Such a tendency was, indeed, little creditable to either head or heart; and can be esteemed merely a fresh example of that shallow charity which ‘thinketh no evil,’ only because it lacks the mind to perceive or the heart to care for the evil that is flaunted in its face.” Let us admire Bonhoeffer insofar as we are able and, yes, we are able. However, let us also keep a careful and caring eye on what is being flaunted in our face.

[1] B. B. Warfield, “The Church Doctrine of Inspiration” reprinted in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948), 121.

[2] Cf. pages in 78, 83, 910 in Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).

[3] Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (NY: Harper San Francisco, 1978), 72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 73–74.

[6] Ibid., 73.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 72.

[10] Ibid., 112.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 31.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.,

[16] Ibid., 32.

[17] Ibid., 109.

[18] Ibid.


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