Answering Bonhoeffer's Critics

by Berit Kjos

"...always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience... " 1 Peter 3:15-16

Bonhoeffer: Nazi Religion versus "Religionless" Faith



Our recent article "Nazi Religion versus 'Religionless' Faith" brought an interesting blend of positive and negative responses. Dozens of accusations against Bonhoeffer were sent by readers who strongly believe that he laid the groundwork for today's liberal and "emerging" churches. I disagree, and I'm asking God to guide me as I attempt to answer all their points -- starting with the four below.

"...they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed." Acts 17:10-12

Bold letters have been added for emphasis below

#1. "Dietrich did not die for his faith in Christ, but rather for his participation in one of the plots to assassinate Adolph Hitler."

Berit's response: Actually, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for two minor reasons: (1) rescuing Jews during Hitler's deadly purge and (2) helping young pastor in the Confessional Church get military exemptions from Hitler's mandatory draft.

While in prison, Bonhoeffer served as a pastor and an encourager to all around him. His friends, including some appreciative guards who trusted and cared about him, planned an escape that would have brought him safely out of Hitler's reach. But he chose to remain a prisoner rather than risk endangering the lives of his family and friends. In other words, he preferred to "lay down [his] life" in order to save many others. His loving purpose and courageous actions seem to justify calling him a martyr. As Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends." (John 15:13) 

It's hard for many of us today to identify with the struggles that God's faithful people faced in Germany as Hitler exercised his tyrannical powers. What would you do if your neighbor was about to be executed, not for a crime or sin, but simply because of his race. Would you turn your back as most Germans did? Or would you try to help even if it meant prison and death? What would God want us to do?

The next three accusations are followed my answers and quotes from Bonhoeffer's books, which show the true context. But first, prayerfully read this section from The Cost of Discipleship. It actually answers the last point, and it reveals Bonhoeffer's heart: his love for God's Word, his emphasis on the true gospel, his understanding of the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, his concern for the Church with its tendency to trade Biblical grace for shallow counterfeit that he calls "cheap grace." 

"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.... Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.[45, 47]

"Costly grace... calls us to follow... It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God."[48]

"The Son of God becomes man. The Word is made flesh. He who had existed from all eternity in the glory of the Father, he who in the beginning was the agent of creation (which means that the created world can be known only through him and in him), he who was very God (I Cor. 8.6; II Cor 8.9; Phil. 2.6 ff; Eph. 1.4; Col. 1.16; John 1.1 ff; Heb. 1.1 ff) accepts humanity by taking upon himself our human nature, 'sinful flesh' as the Bible calls it, and human form (Rom.8.3; Gal. 4.4; Phil. 2.6 if).

"God takes humanity to himself... in the Body of Jesus. Of his mercy God sends his Son in the flesh, that therein he may bear the whole human race and bring it to himself. The Son of God takes to himself the whole human race bodily, that race which in its hatred of God, and in the pride of its flesh had rejected the incorporeal, invisible Word of God. Now this humanity, in all its weakness, is, by the mercy of God, taken up in the Body of Jesus in true bodily form."[264]

"God sends his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8.2 f). God sends his Son—here lies the only remedy. It is not enough to give man a new philosophy or a better religion. A Man comes to men.... The Incarnation, the words and acts of Jesus, his death on the cross, are all indispensable parts of that image.... Here is God made man." [340]

#2. "In his book, Creation and the Fall, he held that both [biblical Creation and the Fall of mankind] were myths and fairy tales.

Berit's response: That's not true. But the words, "myths and fairy tales" are indeed mentioned three times in Creation and the Fall -- first by a former student, then by Bonhoeffer to illustrate the opposite of what this allegation implies. Finally, Bonhoeffer uses the two words to show the contrast between popular fairy tales and the reality of God's Word:

[1] "...Floter [a student who attended Bonhoeffer's lectures] recalls: "Already in his first lecture he struck me -- and thereafter the impression was reinforced -- as a man who dug deeply...[who] found in the text new things of basic importance for life and understanding....It preceded in all seriousness and without compromise.... It was thus no usual lecture course in dogmatics...." Albrecht Schonherr, who also attended these lectures as a student, confirms Floter's impressions. By contrast, Hilde Enterlein...could not go along with [what she called] Bonhoeffer's 'fairy tales'; she regarded the lectures as unphilosphical." [p. 3, Editor's Introduction]

[2] "Erich Kapproth gives an impression of how the lecture course itself started on November 8, 1932: [Bonhoeffer explained that] 'The Word of God [is] neither fiction nor fairy tale nor myth; on the contrary one must read it word for word like a child and learn to rethink completely what the historical critical commentaries teach us. One can never hear it, if one does not at the same time live it -- and this involves especially exercitium [practice]. For us the word of God always lies hidden like a treasure in a field [Matt. 13:44], for we always have to come to the knowledge of God via the cross of Christ....We must place ourselves under the same Lord under whom the Bible stands."
[p.23, footnote 11]
[3] Bonhoeffer wrote: "...the German fairy tales about Sleeping Beauty and about the swirling flame differ from what is reported here in that no one encroaches beyond the whirling naked sword of cherubim and remains alive. The tree of life is guarded by sentinels of death; it remains inviolable, divinely unapproachable. But Adam's life outside the gate is a constant attack on the kingdom from which he is shut out. It is a flight, a search to find upon the ground that is cursed what he has lost...."

The original Introduction to Creation and the Fall was written by Bonhoeffer himself; the current introduction is written by the editor of this particular version. This new editor explains that, as a theological teacher, Bonhoeffer would have been prompted to present teaching from a liberal "scientific" rather than a Biblical perspective. It seems to me (though I have not read the whole book) that Bonhoeffer chose a style of teaching that enabled him to bypass a certain amount of  mandatory compromise. Here is a glimpse of the theological setting to which Bonhoeffer would have been pressured to conform:

" the 1930's when the 26-year-old Bonhoeffer was lecturing, many biblical scholars and other people, especially in Germany, regarded the first chapters of Genesis as primitive tales of little relevance for modern people. This resulted in confusion in the church....

"Biblical scholars at that time wished above all to be wissenschaftich, that is 'scientific,' in the sense of applying one's scholarship in an objective, unbiased way so as to produce work that was acceptable to the academic world.... They made little or no attempt to wrestle with the text in order to understand and interpret its message theologically, so as to enable that message to address contemporary people in their contemporary cultural, philosophical, social and political situation."
[p. 6-7]

"Bonhoeffer faced two challenges. One was to provide an exposition that showed itself to be genuinely scholarly. The other challenge was much more profound. Throughout the course he was above all intensely concerned with the question: How can these words live? How can they once more be heard... as God's word to humankind in the twentieth century, in all its sin and confusion?... As his later writings and his work for the church show, he was now to be more and more concerned with the witness of the church to the world...."

[P.76 makes the creation account personal]: "On the one hand, it expresses the physical nearness of the Creator to the creature.... On the other hand, it expresses also the omnipotence, the utter supremacy, with which the Creator fashions and creates me... That is the true God to whom the whole Bible bears witness."

With these lectures and their publication behind him, Bonhoeffer apparently abandoned this topic and never returned to it. He would soon go through a time of spiritual growth and understanding in his own life, leading to The Cost of Discipleship.

#3. "Bonhoeffer followed Karl Barth in claiming that in the Incarnation God assumed not the flesh of man but the human 'form,' that is, humanity collectively:"

"The Son of God takes to himself the whole human race bodily, that race in its hatred of God and in the pride of its flesh has rejected the incorporeal, invisible Word of God.  Now this humanity, in all its weakness, is, by the mercy of God, taken up in the Body of Jesus in true bodily form (Cost of Discipleship, p. 213).

The result of this argument is universal justification and reconciliation:

"All men are 'with Christ' as a consequence of the Incarnation, for in the Incarnation Jesus bore our whole human nature (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 215).

Berit's response: "The result" which Bonhoeffer anticipates is not universal justification. While Jesus died for all, Bonhoeffer rightly adds that only those who believe His message -- who are "baptized into Christ Jesus" -- are saved. He put more emphasis on the collective Body of Christ (the oneness and fellowship of true believers) than I do, and that's probably my error. I need to understand this more clearly.

Here is the actual context for the quotation in #3: (The page numbers in my edition of The Cost of Discipleship differs from the edition cited above):

"The whole purpose for which the Word came was to restore lost mankind to fellowship with God. ... But men rejected the Word, refusing to be accepted by God. They offered sacrifices and performed works which they fondly imagined God would accept in place of themselves [what Bonhoeffer referred to as mere man-made religion]....Then the supreme miracle occurs. The Son of God becomes man. The Word is made flesh. He who had existed from all eternity in the glory of the Father, he who in the beginning was the agent of creation... he who was very God (I Cor. 8.6; II Cor 8.9; Phil. 2.6 if; Eph. 1.4; Col. 1.16; John 1.1 if; Heb. 1.1 if) accepts humanity by taking upon himself our human nature, 'sinful flesh' as the Bible calls it, and human form (Rom.8.3; Gal. 4.4; Phil. 2.6 if)." [264]

"The Son of God takes to himself the whole human race bodily, that race which in its hatred of God, and in the pride of its flesh had rejected the incorporeal, invisible Word of Cod. Now this humanity, in all its weakness, is, by the mercy of God, taken up in the Body of Jesus....

"The Body of Jesus Christ, in which we are taken up with the whole human race, has now become the ground of our salvation. It is sinful flesh that he bears, though he was himself without sin (II Cor. 5.21; Heb. 4.15).... 'Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.'”[265]

"How then do we come to participate in the Body of Christ, who did all this for us? It is certain that there can be no fellowship or communion with him except through his Body.... Baptism incorporates us into the unity of the Body of Christ.... We are 'baptized into' Christ (Gal. 3.27; Rom. 6.3); we are 'baptized into one body' (I Cor. 12.13). Our death in baptism conveys the gift of the Holy Spirit, and gains the redemption which Christ wrought for us in his body."

"For the rest of mankind to be with Christ means death, but for Christians it is a means of grace. Baptism is their assurance that they are 'dead with Christ' (Rom. 6.8), 'crucified with him' (Rom. 6.6; Col. 2.20), 'buried with him' (Rom. 6.4; Col. 2.12), 'planted together in the likeness of his death' (Rom. 6.5). All this creates in them the assurance that they will also live with him (Rom. 6.8; Eph. 2.5; Col. 2.12; II Tim. 2.11; II Cor.7.3). “We with Christ'—for Christ is Emmanuel, 'God with us.' Only when we know Christ in this way is our being with him the source of grace. The Christian who is baptized into Christ is baptized into the fellowship of his sufferings...

"They are no longer 'under the law' (Rom.2.12; 3.19)... but are henceforth 'in Christ' in the totality of their being and life, whatever form it may take."[268]

"...if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again." 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

"...we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." Romans 6:3-4

#4. "He [Bonhoeffer] refused to discuss the origin of Christ, His relationship to the Father, His two natures, or even the relationship of the two natures. Bonhoeffer was adamant in his belief that it was impossible to know the objective truth about the real essence of Christ's being-nature (Christ the Center, pp. 30, 88, 100-101)."

Berit's response: That's a deceptive twist of Bonhoeffer's words. Unlike his liberal contemporaries, Bonhoeffer breaks through the theological perplexity and claims the authority of God's Word [logos] and the absurdity of man's demand for scientific proof. He implies that man's foolish questions are rather ridiculous in light of God's eternal certainties, many of which are still a mystery to us. As the apostle Paul wrote,

" we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known." 1 Corinthians 13:12

 Notice how Bonhoeffer exposes the error and arrogance of liberal theologians:   

"In the Church, where Christ has revealed himself as the Word of God, the human logos [man's word] puts the question: 'Who are you, Jesus Christ, Word of God, Logos of God'?...
       Two questions therefore must remain forever excluded from Christological thought:
       [1] the question of whether the answer [from God's Word] already given and the Church's corresponding question, 'Who?' can be justified or not. This question has no basis, because the human logos can have no authority to doubt the truth of ...[God's] Logos. The testimony of Jesus to Himself stand by itself, self-authenticating....
       [2] the question of how the truth of the revelation can be conceived....
       "...the Christological question is fundamentally an ontological question. Its aim is to work out the ontological structure of the 'Who?', without plunging on the Scylla of the 'How? or the Charybdis of the question of the 'truth of the revelation. The early church foundered on the former; modern theology since the Enlightenment and Schleiermacher, on the latter. The New Testament, Paul and Luther sailed through the middle."

That last sentence makes me smile! In light of the authority of the God and His Word, man's arrogant challenges to that Word are absurd. It's clear that Bonhoeffer takes his stand with God's faithful disciples, not with liberal theologians. He, like all of us, made mistakes, but He kept on pursuing God and His narrow Way! His accusers remind me of Job:

"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:
Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall answer Me.

"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding..." Job 38:1-4

Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“I know that You can do everything,
And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.
You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." Job 42:1-3

See also Bonhoeffer - Part 1: Nazi Religion versus "Religionless" Faith

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