Sunday, December 25, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christian Martyr or Courageous Liberal

Bonhoeffer’s books (e.g. Letters from Prison, Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, Essays from Gen 1-3) are becoming increasingly popular among Christians today. In some ways he sounds like an man of exemplary faith. He believes the law of God should be obeyed. He believes Christians should transform culture. He believes Christianity is not just a private affair of our heart, as did many Germans of his day and Americans of our day; he understood we have to be Christians in the marketplace and not just on Sunday morning. Hence his denunciation of religion (i.e. Christianity) that was only an inner religion. However his Christianity is not the Christianity of the Bible.

He is a liberal – in the technical theological sense of the word. That means he uses the same words as Biblical Christians, but means something very different by them. Because he uses the same words, at times he can sound very orthodox. But as one can see from what he says below, he is anything but orthodox.

Liberals do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Neither do they believe that Christ’s death was a penal substitutionary atonement that expiated the guilt of our sin and propitiated the wrath of God. That doesn’t stop them from saying many wonderful things about Christ, his resurrection, and our need to cleave to him. But when one parts all the verbiage about what salvation is, the heart of the gospel is completely missing. According to Bonhoeffer,

It is not some religious act that makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.[1]
We might agree that is it not some religious act that makes man a Christian. And we might agree that as Christians we suffer in this world even as Christ did. But we have to vehemently disagree that our sufferings do anything to merit our salvation or in any way are the basis of our salvation. There are a number of martyrs that have died for good causes that won’t be in heaven.

Liberals do to the scriptures what old earth creationists do to the Genesis account of creation. They claim that the scriptures are true, maybe even inerrant (once all the errors are removed from the text), but they do not believe that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish. They might allow that understanding as one theory of interpretation that a few “less informed” people might hold, but not one that is necessary if one is to believe the Bible. They view the Bible like any other ordinary book, something which is evidenced in Bonhoeffer’s comment to a friend [Eberhard Bethge] about Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane,

I have often wondered how the Evangelist came to record this prayer, which nobody can have heard. The suggestion that it must have been revealed by Jesus during the great forty days is only a subterfuge. Have you any explanation to offer?[2]
Liberals in his day thought we had to separate the myths in the scriptures from the Word of God which was also in the scriptures. Referring to Rudolf Bultmann’s paper on demythologizing the New Testament, Bonhoeffer writes in another letter to the same friend,
My view of it today would be not that he went too far, as most people seem to think, but that he did not go far enough. It is not only the mythological conceptions, such as the miracles, the ascension and the like (which are not in principle separable from the conceptions of God, faith, and so on) that are problematic, but the “religious” conceptions themselves. You cannot as Bultmann imagines, separate God and miracles, but you do have to be able to “interpret” and proclaim both of them in a “non-religious” sense.[3]
He writes in a later letter to the same friend,
Bultmann would seem to have felt Barth’s limitations in some way, but he misconstrues them in the light of liberal theology, and hence goes off into the typical liberal reduction process (the ‘mythological’ elements of Christianity are dropped and Christianity is reduced to its ‘essence’). I am of the view that the full content, including the mythological concepts, must be maintained.

The New Testament is not a mythological garbing of universal truth;[4] this mythology (resurrection and so on) is the thing itself – but the concepts must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a precondition of faith (cf. circumcision in St. Paul). Not until then will liberal theology be overcome, and at the same time, the question it raises be genuinely answered – which is not the case in the positivism of revelation maintained by the confessing church.
[5][emphasis added]
Positivism of revelation is his language for the Christian and Biblical doctrine that the Scriptures are the word of God. They do not merely contain truth that we have to separate from myth. They are not myths that somehow communicate a “truth.” They are not merely the words of men, but revelation “breathed out” (2 Tim 3:16) by God himself. I think it almost goes without saying that to call the resurrection a myth is to deny Christ and make the gospel meaningless.

Bonhoeffer is rightly critical of liberals for wanting to demythologize the scriptures. He is rightly critical of Christians who make God into nothing more than a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge.[6] But his solution to these errors is just as bad as the errors he’s criticizing. He wants to leave God out entirely because that’s what God wants us to do and that’s what God teaches us to do in the scriptures. He goes on to define “interpret in a religious sense” as meaning, “to speak on one hand metaphysically, and on the other individualistically. Neither of these is relevant to the Bible message or to the man of today. Is it not true to say that individualistic concern for personal salvation has almost completely left us all? Are we not really under the impression that there are more important things than bothering about such a matter? Is there any concern in the Old Testament about saving ones soul at all?" [7]

This more detailed explanation of what he means by "define in a religious sense" adds a whole new dimension to his earlier comment that we have to interpret and proclaim God and miracles in a "non-religious way." Whatever else the scriptures may mean, Bonhoeffer's God has nothing to do with personal salvation. He makes this point again when he writes a little later,

To resume our reflections on the Old Testament. Unlike the other Oriental religions, the faith of the Old Testament is not a religion of salvation.[8]
He goes on to write,
There is no longer any need for God as a working hypothesis, whether in morals, politics, or science. Nor is there any need for such a God in religion or philosophy. In the name of intellectual honesty these working hypotheses should be dropped or dispensed with as far as possible.

At this point nervous souls start asking what room there is left for God now. And being ignorant of the answer they write off the whole development which has brought them to this pass. As I said in an earlier letter, various emergency exits have been devised to deal with this situation. To them must be added the salto mortale back to the Middle Ages, the fundamental principle of which however is heteronomy in the form of clericalism. But that is a counsel of despair, which can be purchased only at the cost of intellectual sincerity. It reminds one of the song:

It’s a long way back to the land of childhood
But if I only knew the way.

There isn’t any such way, at any rate not at the cost of deliberately abandoning our intellectual sincerity. The only way is that of Matthew 18:3, i.e. through repentance, through ultimate honesty. And the only way to be honest is to recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus daretur. And this is just what we do see – before God! So our coming of age forces us to a true recognition of our situation vis a vis God. God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along very well without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who makes us live in this world without using him as the working hypotheses is the God before whom we are ever standing. Before God and with him we live without God.[9]

God allows himself to be edged out of this world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us. Matthew 8:17 makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and suffering.

This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses him as a Deus ex machina. The Bible however directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness. This must be the starting point for our “worldly” interpretation.[10]

His view of Scripture is also closely aligned with classic liberalism. In a book recently translated into English he rejects the Biblical idea that the Scriptures are the Word of God, the self revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became flesh and dwelt among us, suggesting instead that we must glean what truth we can from a fragile and broken book.

As illustrated by the form of the Bible, this procedure means that the concept of the canon must he rejected as meaningless. Text criticism and source analysis are applied, sources are identified, form criticism and history-of-religions approaches fragment the text into its smallest units. After thoroughly reducing the text to rubble, the critics depart from the battlefield, leaving behind debris and shavings, their work apparently done.

In terms of its content, the biblical picture is smoothed out to correspond to the spirit of its time, miracle stories are paralleled, and yes, even the person of Jesus himself is stripped not only of his divine but of his human splendor and disappears without any distinguishing marks into the lists of rabbis, sages, and religious enthusiasts. Of course, the reflective historian will also recognize that this book deals with particularly strange and profound things, that one catches sight of figures of outstanding magnitude, and so forth—otherwise he would surely he a poor historian. But he would be no better a historian if he believed that with such observations he could show that the Bible is the word of God.

There is no historical access to the person of Jesus that would be obligatory for faith. Access to the historical Jesus must come by way of the Resurrected One, by way of the word of the resurrected Christ, who testifies to himself. It is the Risen One who himself creates faith and opens up access to historicity.

From this point of view, the historian’s word, whether it claims to affirm or deny Christ, is irrelevant. In faith, history is seen to be what it actually is from the point of view of eternity, not in terms of itself, from within. At the same time it must he maintained that the testimony of Jesus as the Risen One is nothing else than what is presented to us by the Bible.

We remain also clear headed and objective as believers. We must read this book of hooks with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One.[11]
His death at the hands of Hitler has been called a martyrdom. But I think from the few quotes above, taken from letters written in the last year of his life, it is clear he is not a martyr for the gospel. Many people heap praise on him for his courage and leadership; but many people also heap praise on Dr. Tiller, a prolific murderer of babies murdered by a less prolific murderer. One comment from a NYT article on him at his assassination serves as a representative example.
Thank you for this brilliant article. Of all the pieces I have read about Dr. Tiller and his medical practice, this is the most accurate. He was a decent man and a caring medical professional who cared deeply about his patients. His death is a loss for his city, his state, and our country. We are diminished by this tragic, senseless murder. –Bob Martin
Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Albert Switzer are other examples of people who, though they were outside of Christ, captivated many hearts by their selfless dedication to humanitarian causes.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Letters and Papers from Prision, (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1953), p223
[2] Ibid, p125
[3] Ibid, p 167.
[4] The standard liberal notion
[5] Ibid, p 199-200.
[6] Ibid p 190.
[7] Ibid, p 167-168.
[8] Ibid p 204.
[9] This is classic liberal doublespeak!
[10] Ibid, p 218-220.
[11] Bonhoefer, Dietrich, Reflections on the Bible: Human Word and Word of God. Translated from Dietrich Bonhoefier, Die Antwort auf unsere Fragen: Gedanken zur Bibel, edited by Manfred Weber, © 2002, Gütersloher Verlagshaus GmhH, Gütersloh, Germany by M. Boring. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, 2004). p14-15 ISBN 1-56563-988-X , P. O. Box 3473, Peabody, Massachusetts 01961-3473

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - Christian Martyr or Courageous Liberal?

Reposted here.