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Bonhoeffer – A Reliable Guide?

Category Articles
Date September 23, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is increasingly being quoted by evangelical writers and theologians. Eric Metaxas’ recent highly-acclaimed biography presents him as an evangelical martyr of the twentieth century. Stephen Nichols, President, Reformation Bible College, with a PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary, in his book, Bonhoeffer on the Christian life, states: ‘We can even lay claim to Bonhoeffer as an evangelical’. Bonhoeffer’s book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Cost of Discipleship, is being read by many Christians and is widely described as a modern Christian classic. There is no doubting the brilliance of Bonhoeffer’s mind, nor his passion for the oppressed, nor the original way that he had of stating his beliefs. However, his theology is very different from orthodox evangelical theology and he is certainly far from being a reliable guide in presenting the Christian faith and in interpreting the Scriptures. This editorial is a warning. Don’t take Bonhoeffer as your teacher!

His life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in liberal, theological circles in Germany in a relatively-wealthy, intellectual family. His father was a professor of Psychiatry and Neurology. His oldest brother became a famous scientist and another brother a top lawyer. His mother, a grand-daughter of liberal theologian Karl von Hasse, was a teacher and insisted on family religion though they were not regular in their attendance in church. It was a surprise to all when, at the age of fourteen, Dietrich announced his decision to devote his life to theology. He studied in Berlin under the famous liberal, Professor Adolf von Harnack, but rejected liberalism. The great influence in his thinking was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth who developed what became known as neo-orthodox theology. Far from being an evangelical, Bonhoeffer was more liberal than Barth. He considered himself a ‘modern theologian who still carries the heritage of liberal theology within himself’.

Having completed his studies in Berlin, including his Doctor of Theology, and still too young to be ordained, he went to Union Seminary in New York and did post-graduate studies under Reinhold Niebuhr. Returning to Germany in 1931, he became a lecturer in Systematic Theology in the University of Berlin. The rise of Hitler brought a dramatic change in his life. He rejected Nazism with its antisemitism. One of his sisters was married to a Jew. He helped form the Confessing Church as a protest against the germanisation (nazification) of the national Church. An underground seminary was set up in Finkenwalde and Bonhoeffer taught students for the Confessing Church there. Eventually it was closed by the Nazis. He was involved in helping Jews to escape from Germany and later in a plot to assassinate Hitler. After spending some time in prison he was hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945 just before the end of the war.

Was he a martyr?

When we think of Christian martyrs we think of the early Christians thrown to the lions for refusing to worship Caesar. We think of Reformers like Patrick Hamilton and William Tyndale burnt at the stake for preaching the gospel and for translating the Scriptures into the language of the people. In no sense were these men involved in conspiracies against the state. Bonhoeffer died for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Now, one might rightly argue that he was justified in resisting the evils of Nazism, but his death was not because of his beliefs, but rather for his ‘crime’ of conspiracy to murder. So, if we regard him as a martyr it is in a very different sense from the usual Christian martyrs. We admire his love for the Jews and for all who were oppressed and down-trodden, and his willingness to lay down his life for others.

View of the Bible

Critical to evangelicalism is our view of the Bible. The word of God was certainly very important to Bonhoeffer but in a very different sense from evangelicalism. He rejected the liberalism of Harnack with its idea of Scripture as merely man’s thoughts about God. Bonhoeffer believed in revelation and that God speaks through the word. However he did not believe in the Bible as scientific (empirical) truth and he certainly did not believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. His view, like that of Barth, was that the word can become the word of God to you when you are reading it. It is not in itself the word of God but God can speak through it. So, for example, he taught his students to spend a half hour each day meditating on a verse of Scripture, not looking at it in the original, not consulting commentaries, not concerned about what it literally meant in the Bible, but simply concentrating on what God had to say to them at that point that day. It can become the word of God to the meditating individual.

Bonhoeffer stated, ‘The Holy Scriptures alone witness to the divine revelation, which occurred as a one-time, unrepeatable and self-contained history of salvation’. There is a huge difference between the Scriptures being a witness to divine revelation and being divine revelation. He happily accepts the so called ‘findings’ of higher (destructive) criticism. He rejects for example the biblical account of creation in favour of evolution. Bonhoeffer on one occasion told his congregation unequivocally that the Bible is filled with material that is historically unreliable. Even the life of Jesus, he said, is ‘overgrown with legends’ (myths) so that we have scant knowledge about the historical Jesus. Bonhoeffer concluded that the life of Jesus cannot be written. He followed Rudolf Bultmann in finding the New Testament full of myths which have to be ‘demythologised’. Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘My opinion of it today would be that he (Bultmann) went not “too far” as most people thought, but rather not far enough. It’s not only “mythological” concepts like miracles, ascension, and so on … that are problematic, but “religious” concepts as such’.

The Cross

For evangelicals the cross is at the centre of their faith. Bonhoeffer did not believe in substitutionary atonement – Christ suffering as a substitute for our sins, dying in our place to earn eternal life for us. The cross of Christ certainly is important to him, but in a very different way – it is as an example and an inspiration. He is concerned that we live cross-centred lives and by that he means that we take up our cross and follow Christ, living lives of self-denial. Yes, as with Barth, there is a great emphasis on grace, but the idea of Christ as the Lamb of God taking away our sins by his suffering hell for us is missing. To evangelicalism that is a critical omission. Indeed Bonhoeffer would argue that we are saved by the incarnation – Christ taking our nature – rather than by His atoning death. He taught that in the body of Jesus Christ, God is united with humanity, all of humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled with God. In the body of Jesus Christ, God took upon Himself the sin of the whole world and bore it.


As a Lutheran he embraced the doctrine of baptismal regeneration – you are automatically born again when you are baptised. Around 1931 Bonhoeffer experienced a ‘conversion’, when he, as he puts it, discovered the Bible. From then on he began to read it daily and meditate upon it. Yet it was not what evangelicals normally call conversion, or what the Scriptures describe as the new birth. He rarely referred to it. He criticises conversion testimonies and sees the New Testament as not being about individual salvation. He wrote, ‘We must finally break away from the idea that the gospel deals with the salvation of an individual’s soul’.


Bonhoeffer was a universalist, believing in the eventual salvation of all. He wrote that there is no part of the world, no matter how godless, which is not accepted by God and reconciled with God in Jesus Christ. Whoever looks on the body of Jesus Christ in faith can no longer speak of the world as if it were lost, as if it were separated from Christ. Every individual will eventually be saved in Christ.


Bonhoeffer moved happily in ecumenical circles. When in Rome he greatly enjoyed the masses held in the Roman Catholic churches there. He worked happily with the liberal leaders of the World Council of Churches, forming close friendships with many of them and regarding them as true Christians. He greatly admired Mahatma Gandhi and had planned a visit to India to study under him and learn from him.

Cheap Grace

‘Cheap grace’ is one of the distinctive phrases of Bonhoeffer. He uses it as a challenge to the antinomian position of those who think that because they believe in Jesus they can live the way they like and yet all their sins will be forgiven. His emphasis is good in one sense, but it is not a helpful term. The implication is that what changes grace from being cheap to being costly is our obedience and sacrifice. However the expensive nature of grace is not increased by anything we do. Grace is not cheap because it cost God the death of His Son. Thus, although it is free to us, it is very expensive to Christ. God requires good works of us but it is His irresistible grace in our lives which transforms us so that we cannot but produce good works.

Situation Ethics

The Sermon on the Mount receives great attention. ‘In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer called fellow Christians to radical discipleship, to follow Jesus with abandonment. However, most evangelicals miss one of his key points: Discipleship does not, according to Bonhoeffer, involve learning the content of Jesus’ teaching and following it. Rather, what is said about the content of discipleship is, ‘Follow after Me, run along behind Me!’ That is all. To follow Him is something completely empty of content.’1 He picks up Luther’s strange phrase ‘sin boldly’ and draws a distinction between trying to keep the law, which he regards as ‘legalism’, and obeying God. For example he argues that trying not to tell lies is legalism. He held to a form of situation ethics. What is right and wrong depends on the circumstances and not on the absolute law of God. However God’s law is an expression of God’s character and He is unchangeable. The only way to know the will of God is by studying the Scriptures which contain the law of God. There can never be a contradiction between God’s law and God’s will.


The Sabbath was given to man at creation. The command to keep the one day in seven holy was reiterated on Mount Sinai and written with the finger of God on tables of stone. Jesus kept the Sabbath and said that the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath. Bonhoeffer, however, is quite happy to play table tennis on Sunday or to attend the theatre.


Bonhoeffer stated that all sermons should have a shot of heresy in them. This is certainly effective in stirring interest and shocking the audience. However in the long run it is counterproductive because it shakes confidence in the truth. It desensitises congregations to error. It numbs the horror that God’s people should have to false doctrine and even blasphemy.


Bonhoeffer rejected apologetics. Like Barth, he divided knowledge into two separate realms — religious and empirical (scientific), and the Bible is religious truth, not empirical truth. Bonhoeffer never embraced biblical inerrancy and readily admitted that higher biblical criticism was a legitimate study. He thought that the historical accuracy of Scripture was irrelevant. The Bible was true religiously though not scientifically or historically. Thus Bonhoeffer like Barth considered apologetics misguided, because it transgressed the boundaries separating the empirical and religious realms.


While Bonhoeffer is often quoted today many of his statements meant to him something quite different from what evangelicals think. His books are often read without discernment, which is dangerous. His Letters and Papers from Prison reveal his views more clearly than some of his other works. It is not for us to judge any man; the Lord does that. However let us beware of being led into heretical neo-orthodoxy by statements which appear sound.


  1. Christian Research Institute, feature article JAF5356 by Richard Weikart

Taken with permission from the Free Church Witness, September 2016

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