Where does anti-Hitler hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer fit?

JOHN ASKS:

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer] was a hero and martyr for the faith, but is it possible evangelical Christians in America have lionized someone whose theology is not actually in sync with theirs?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Books by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) sell without letup, including no less than seven biographies since 2010, plus novels, plays, films, unending articles and even an opera. The German Lutheran pastor is one of the past century’s most revered authors with must-read titles like “The Cost of Discipleship,” “Life Together” and the posthumous “Ethics” and “Letters and Papers from Prison.” Moreover — yes — he’s lionized as a Christian martyr.

Everybody wants to claim this complex thinker as an ally, but where does he really fit? Was his theology “liberal” or “evangelical” or “neo-orthodox” or some mixture? Would he align with today’s political Left or Right? With absolutists or relativists in morals? Was he a pacifist or not? And, the latest fuss, was he gay or straight?

A quick rundown of his eventful life: Brilliant student trained in academically fashionable liberalism. Inspired to a different and deeper faith by African-American Christians during study in America. Fierce foe of Nazi anti-Semitism in the Protestant “Confessing Church.” Teacher in a close-knit underground seminary. German military intelligence officer working secretly as a double agent. Part of the anti-Hitler conspiracy and executed as a political prisoner days before Allied troops arrived.

Ample Bonhoeffer buzz results from the much-purchased and much-debated biography “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” Author Eric Metaxas is an evangelical successor to Charles Colson on “Breakpoint” radio commentaries and leader of Manhattan’s intriguing “Socrates in the City” lecture series. He previously wrote “Amazing Grace,” a biography of William Wilberforce, the devoutly evangelical Member of Parliament most responsible for abolishing the slave trade across the British Empire.

Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer continues that theme of uplifting Christian activism. It also typifies John’s concern, since this biography is criticized for playing up Bonhoeffer’s problems with liberal theology and his affinity with evangelical piety. (Metaxas did not answer a “Religion Q and A” e-mail seeking his response to critics.) Bonhoeffer was conservative enough that Theo Hobson at the Episcopal seminary in New York City calls him “fumbling,” “faltering,” and “dubious” in a history of liberal theology. Yale University poet Christian Wiman, author of “My Bright Abyss,” says Bonhoeffer’s story distinguishes him “from the watery — and thus waning — liberal Protestantism that has emerged since the 1960s.”

But Clifford Green, who organized the 16-volume edition of Bonhoeffer’s works, savaged Metaxas in the liberal “Christian Century,” charging that he “hijacked” Bonhoeffer by falsely portraying him as a conservative. In a 1993 evangelical journal article, historian Richard Weikart said the theologian was no conservative and followed up with the 1997 book ”The Myth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Is His Theology Evangelical?” Weikart, now teaching at California State University, Stanislaus, thinks Metaxas’s “counterfeit Bonhoeffer” ignores liberal thinking that breaks with conservative evangelicalism, for instance doubts that Jesus rose bodily from the grave or that the Bible presents literal history otherwise.

As for politics, David Timmer, religion chair at Central College, chides yet another biography for “using Bonhoeffer as a club to bash Republican policies.” Problem is, he says, the man’s actual political views “were far too complex to be easily assimilated to either the contemporary left or the right.”

Then we have this patheos.com headline: “Bonhoeffer Was Flamingly Gay — Deal With It.”

[Read more...]

Agnus Dei: Presbyterian hymnal fight makes news

Before we look at a news story from The Tennessean, a little background. Last week I read a fascinating piece in First Things about a particular kerfuffle in one denomination’s hymnal development. It began:

In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”

Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath. Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.  The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.

What followed was a fascinating discussion of atonement theories and God’s love, featuring Protestants, Pope Benedict XVI and church fathers alike.

You could also read about this hymnal debate in Christianity Today and throughout the Christian press and blogosphere. It was huge news and a major point of discussion.

Everywhere, that is, except for in the mainstream media.

The thing is, as anyone who regularly worships God with the aid of a hymnal can tell you, liturgy and song are major issues. They define our relationship to God and our understanding of hymn. They convey the doctrine of the church with amazing efficacy. Martin Luther called music theology’s handmaiden. One of the most exciting stories of my church body’s recent history was the assembly, production and widespread acceptance of our latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book “proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness, life, and salvation; celebrating Christ and all His benefits; giving voice to the people’s thanksgiving and praise”). Even if my church body’s worship wars aren’t quite as dramatic as other denominations, developing a hymnal used by millions is no small feat. I know a little bit about that story and it involved some hard-fought battles over theology and practice.

Some readers had noted the lack of mainstream media discussion about an interesting story from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s hymnal development project. And it is interesting that 100% of all stories related to anything involving same-sex attraction are greenlighted for the front page of metro dailies (or so it seems) while a really interesting theological debate isn’t even covered.

So major props to The Tennessean for not just reporting the story but adding some helpful depth to it as well. It begins:

Fans of a beloved Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction in a new church hymnal.

[Read more...]


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