Bonhoeffer for Today

If every evangelical read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, evangelicalism would be nobler. The book is theologically profound, overtly Lutheran, and a seminal study connected to a heroic figure. In uncompromising ways Bonhoeffer’s book assaults the easy-believism of Western evangelicalism and exposes its gospel as too often a caricature.

It is always encouraging to see more and more evangelicals looking into Bonhoeffer’s work. I suggest that folks read not only his famous discipleship book, but also Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5).

Why do you think evangelicals are so big on Bonhoeffer today? Which of his books do they read? Which of his books do they not read? Speculative: If Bonhoeffer were alive in the USA today, where would he attend church?

There have been two recent attempts to bring Bonhoeffer alive for evangelicals. Jon Walker, Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, sketches central themes of discipleship through the lens of Bonhoeffer’s famous study, and Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, has a biography on Bonhoeffer that most would say leans him toward the evangelical side of his writings and beliefs.

Bonhoeffer was no evangelical. He was closer to Barth than to any evangelical alive at his time, and history tells us that evangelicalism was dead-set against Barth. Bonhoeffer was European, Lutheran, pietistic, and a theologian-pastor. His pietism and his boldness when expounding Scripture make him attractive to evangelicals, but any full reading of his stuff — especially his dissertation or habilitation or his stuff from prison — will reveal that he would have been quite uncomfortable among most evangelicals today.

Evangelicalism will do well, however, to embrace Bonhoeffer and to learn from him. He will broaden its vision and he will deepen its theology.

But his discipleship stuff won’t go away, and that is why so many evangelicals read him today. In fact, it was my reading and complete absorption by Discipleship in college that gave me the vision for my most recent book, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow. But this post is about Jon Walker’s new book…

In Rick Warren-like fashion, Walker sketches discipleship in twenty eight chapters (read it in a month, skipping two or three days) with pointed themes, like learning that trust can be measured by how much we need to control life, that Jesus must always be given the higher priority, that the gift of righteousness does not excuse us from righteous living, that trust can be measured by our desire to get even, that it can be measured by our love of enemies — well, you can see that Walker’s theme is obedient trust.

He’s right. At the heart of Bonhoeffer’s famous study and at the heart of discipleship is obedient trust — not just the simple acceptance of Christ and not the strenuous discipline of obedience, but the kind of obedience that proceeds out of trust and is consistent with trust.

What unites each chp is the theme of “becoming like Christ.” Each chp concludes with two patterns of thinking: fallen thinking and kingdom thinking.

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  • There is another book I have read recently that brings Bonhoeffer back into the forefront. It’s not a book overtly about Bonhoeffer, but it is quoted enough and used enough to really be a book about him. Andrew Root’s Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry is a great idea book about relational ministry free from agendas and much of it is based on Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship.

  • MatthewS

    I would speculate that he would spend a good amount of time in Black churches, based on his involvement with them when he was in the States. I don’t think he would be afraid to speak out to some of them, though, if he perceived them as falling short of their own ideals.

    I think part of his appeal is his complexity. In the incident with the Hitler salute, he figured that refusing to salute was not worth the risk yet he proved willing to give his life for the resistance. His thinking was deep but it was worked out in the most difficult of practical circumstances.

  • I would recomend that people interested in Bonhoeffer skip the revisionist evangelical version of Bonhoeffer told by Metaxas and instead read Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr,Thinker, Man of Resistance,” T&T Clark, 2010) — my review is here:

    Bonhoeffer is neither the evangelical of Metaxas’ portrayal nor the far left secularist of the God is Dead folks. But someone in the middle — devout, committed, but a critical scholar nontheless.

  • Jim

    I started reading Bonhoeffer back in the mid-70s. That should not imply that I am any closer to him in practice but he has never ceased to evoke a deeper, higher and broader vision for me in terms of discipleship. I think that part of what makes him so appealing is that he lived a life that squared with this teaching…even though (and perhaps because) there are aspects that are puzzling.

    Maybe the answer is to be found in the word “elegance”. He lived an “elegant” life in the sense that he defined discipleship so well and lived into so deeply himself, even at the cost of his own life. However, some of his choices leave us with mystery enough to last us a life time. He calls us back. he calls into the present. he calls us into the future.

    Just so happens I started “Life Together” early, early this morning…I will read it for the first time all over again.

    Thanks for consistently bringing him up…one of my heroes.

  • I will say that popularity has not brought down the price of the books. The Kindle edition of Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible get more expensive every time I look at it. It is up to $18.70 right now. I wonder who holds his copyright now?

  • Looks like an interesting book. The only Bonhoeffer I have read is his “Life Together”.

  • Larry James

    If he wouldn’t be comfortable in Evangelical churches today, that should give such churches great reason to pause.

  • Bonhoeffer is an outstanding theologian/practitioner that has lasted through time because he lived his thinking thoroughly but with enough eccentricities to make us keep asking questions.

    He was not an evangelical, but rather more Barth-ian with a sociological twist.

    After reading Discipleship (as “The Cost of Discipleship”) and “Life Together” in my earlier years, I continually return to his works.

    I would agree with Bob Cornwall’s assessment of much evangelical ownership of Bonhoeffer. For those wanting an in-depth and personal look at Bonhoeffer, you really should read Eberhard Bethge’s biography which, though long, is written by someone who journeyed with him through many of his pivotal and productive years.

    For five “must read” statements about the church by Bonhoeffer from “Life Together” visit here:

  • What draws me to Bonhoeffer’s work is his empahsis on the centrality of Jesus Christ; relationally known, and in community with one another.

  • Scott Eaton

    Scot, it sounds like you (and others here) would discourage people from reading Metaxas biography. True? In your opinion is it as revisionist as Bob #3 suggests? I believe Christian Century thought this as well.

    I have not read any Bonhoeffer. Maybe I’ll start soon!

  • steve_sherwood

    I have always considered myself to be an Evangelical and have been significantly influenced by Barth. I now have to redefine myself?

  • Andrew Root

    Bonhoeffer is no doubt a Barthian…but even this read is not completely right. What is sooo often missed in the American reading of Bonhoeffer is any understanding of Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross). Bonhoeffer stands opposed to both liberals and conservatives because his core theological more is to discuss the concreteness of God’s revelation in ontological categories (i.e. his book Act and Being). Liberals and conservatives have thought of Christianity too much thru the categories of epistemology (what must be known), but Bonhoeffer is more concerned with the ontological. Seeking for the encounter of God’s being in the being of our neighbor…in the active living being of Jesus Christ who lives as the suffering one, the one for the other. Holl in Berlin was recovering Luther during DB doctrinal work and this had a huge impact on DB…to understand him you have to understand something about Luther and the early Barth’s use of Luther…i.e. the otherness of God’s revelation (Barth) in the suffering/hiddenness/opposite of the cross (Luther).

  • I can’t get enough of Bonhoeffer, and Cost of Discipleship was the primary text that helped me frame Christianity when I first came to Christ.

    That said, I’m rather curious about the way you put him in opposition to Evangelicalism. Your claim that Bonhoeffer would be “quite uncomfortable” among evangelicals is read by me as a bit of a slam against that house, but you don’t explain here how you define evangelical. I happen to think the term has become so overused and misused by the media that it has little meaning left, and it has also become so overloaded with political associations that it fails to say anything about the actual beliefs and practices of those who are given that label.

    I realize this is off topic and perhaps addressed elsewhere in your writing, but I would appreciate a working definition of what comes to your mind when you use the term.

    Having just finished Metaxas’ biography, I consider it a required reading for anyone who wants to understand the horrific historical context in which Bonhoeffer struggled to discern and live out God’s will and an authentic Christian faith.

  • hdiehl

    I’m not so sure about DB as a Pietist. In his Nachfolge, he reacts rather strongly against the Methodimus, which is not a reference to Methodism, but to the Pietists, according to a fried of mine who is a Bonhoeffer scholar. As for being an evangelical, I think he understood the core of the gospel and lived it accordingly, but I wonder what would have become of his theological legacy if he had survived WW2? His martyrdom froze his theology and praxis at a point in time, but a little reading around the margins show that he was already distancing himself from Barth, and was not that uncomfortable with Bultmann. But for all that, he should be read by anyone who embraces an evangelical theology and practice, even if one disagrees with him (which I don’t).

  • John

    As far as Bonhoeffer being Barthian, I wonder how far we can press that. He does call himself a Barthian, but it seems he uses the phrase as one who believes the Bible is the Word of God in a time when Germany was a liberal wasteland. Some of Bonhoeffer’s letters show him unhappy with Barth in areas. I don’t know if we can call him “closer to Barth than anyone else at his time.”

    He distances himself from Barth in some significant areas to Barth’s system – most notably his christology. Bonhoeffer was doggedly orthodox (from his letters to the confessional church) and we’d be hard pressed to call Barth a chalcedonian theologian.

    Also, while Metaxas may be ambitious to claim Bonhoeffer as an evangelical, he does do a superb job in his research to show that in Bonhoeffer’s time in New York, he sides with the “fundamentalists” in much of the controversies. We don’t know on what particulars he may have disagreed with the moderate/liberals, but I think the burden of proof is on the side of that claims Bonhoeffer was not an evangelical to show that he disagreed with central evangelical doctrines.

  • Scott Lyons

    Not to digress, but couldn’t we ask the same thing of the high Anglican C.S. Lewis? Evangelicalism is drawn to these men because these have what they want, and it is quite comfortable taking what it likes and leaving the rest – both a strength (analogical to the success of the English language) and a weakness.

  • Scott Lyons

    Actually, I take my assertion back (#16). It’s not even a question of theology. We like Bonhoeffers and Lewises because they give us the Gospel and give it to us fresh. We do this regardless of our faith tradition. I do it as a Catholic. We recognize the truth being presented and grow from straw men to real men as we become thoughtful about and more complex in the understanding of our own faith. And this is good. On the other hand, I don’t think we are particularly challenged by the things that a Bonhoeffer and a Lewis says that are discordant with what we already believe – unless we are already living in the margins and straining to be elsewhere.

  • Josh Meller

    Reading Bonhoeffer’s books, his biography and especially his letters from prison, one cannot escape the conclusion that he was a committed follower of Christ and at the same time, like all of us, a human being with doubt, struggles and questions regarding his true identity.

    Whether he would feel comfortable with the evangelical label or whether others would see him as part of their camp, seems not only pointless to ask but also detrimental to the deeper question what it actually means to love and follow Jesus. We’d all be better off asking THAT question than quibble about secondary issues of differences of interpretation and feelings of tribal belonging within the body of Christ.

    The latter has a tendency to become a litmus test of orthodoxy and “true” Christianity rather than a better understanding of theological nuances, especially among evangelicals who reject the big tent idea.

  • Scott Eaton

    Scott Lyons (#16) – CS Lewis was not a “high Anglican” at all. I agree that many evangelicals would be uncomfortable with some of his theologian, but he was definitely not a “high Anglican.”

    But we digress.

  • Josh Meller

    On a more humorous note, when I look at the picture of Bonhoeffer in the post and Scot’s profile picture on facebook, they almost appear like twin brothers!

    I guess that would make Bonhoeffer an evangelical with deep emergent sympathies! 😉

  • Scott Lyons

    Scott Eaton, forgive me if I’ve misappropriated an ecclesial term for Lewis’s beliefs – what I meant, as you said, is that his theology included certain beliefs – praying for the dead, purgatory, and confession to a priest, to name a few – completely discordant w Evangelicals, yet that neither tempers most Evangelicals love of him, nor challenges their theology.

  • John (#15), I know this is not a post about Barth, and rather Bonhoeffer, but could you elaborate how it is that we would be hard pressed to call Barth a chalcedonian theologian? George Hunsinger, one of the most respected and recognized Barth scholars alive, argues precisely the opposite – namely that Barth’s theology has a basic chalcedonian character. And, to Andy Root’s point (#12), Bonhoeffer follows Barth in many ways through Christology. I’m simply confused by your comment.

  • smcknight

    The point about Bonhoeffer as a pietist — yes, I agree, he’s not with Francke and Spener and that kind of pietism; he’s profoundly intellectual etc.. But his basic pietistic practices of prayer and Bible reading and reading in community and reverence about preached sermons — that sort of pietism resonates deeply with American evangelicals. I don’t want to pretend to knowledge of Bonhoeffer’s technical relations to the technical forms of German Lutheran Pietism.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect Bonhoeffer would be about as comfortable in American evangelical churches as Barth would have been. Making Bonhoeffer an evangelical is a form of colonizing.

    On Metaxas, I’ve not said anything on that book because I’ve not read it; I hoped to read it last summer can got sidetracked, and now I have every intention of reading Schlingenspeisen over Christmas break — a book I got two months ago and haven’t been able to read. Can’t wait.

  • Scot,

    Please post on the Schlingenspeisen bio after you read it. Would love to hear your thoughts on it in comparison to Bethge, Metaxas, and more.

  • Andy Cornett

    Like Matt (11), I read Bonhoeffer early (college)’ drawing heavily on the Cost of Discipleship and Life Together (though I couldn’t quiet get into Ethics at the time). I’ve since returned to those time and time again for their clarity of vision and presentation of a costly gospel. but whT really hooked me was the warmth, depth, crisis, and theological imagination I found in “Letters and Papers from Prison” (read in a lit class) that has stuck with me the most. It put flesh on the man, so to speak.

    And Steve (16) – I’m with you – let’s keep it up!

    Grace and peace, Andy