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  • Micah Coate

Dietrich Bonhoeffer And The Questionable Theology of Christian Heroes

Updated: Apr 27

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” — Hebrews 13:7

In my collection of signed paraphernalia mostly comprised of books, photos, and pictures of people I admire, a signed flyleaf inside Eric Metaxas’ best-selling biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, sits on my shelf. A photo of me and the famed author is just one of the few photos among thousands on my iPhone waiting to be printed, framed, and strategically placed on my wall.


When I was young in the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became an instant hero of mine when I heard about his bravery in not only standing up to Hitler but playing an integral part in his attempted assassination. Years before Metaxas’ biography of the German theologian was first published in 2009, I printed a photo of Dietrich with one of his well-known quotes from The Cost of Discipleship “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (1) But I didn’t know anything about his theological positions.


I think professor of history at California State University Stanislaus, Richard Weikart, speaks for many Christians when he wrote, “As an undergraduate in the late 1970s, I (like many other evangelicals) first encountered Bonhoeffer by reading The Cost of Discipleship. Brimming with admiration for this theologian who sacrificed his life to oppose the evils of Nazism, I enthusiastically recommended his book to my friends. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of radical discipleship and self-denial resonated with me. I also esteemed him for rejecting racism and anti-Semitism, and for his works of compassion for the poor and oppressed. Bonhoeffer was my hero.” (2)


As such, many Christians extolled Bonhoeffer for his martyrdom while unknowingly embracing much of his theological views even if they remained largely vague. For better or worse, celebrating certain figures of the faith without being aware of their theological convictions is something we do all the time. I have written of numerous Christian martyrs, known and relatively unknown. While I use their courageous lives as examples for us to follow today, I’m embarrassed to admit that I know very little of the particulars of their faith. For instance, while I admit I’m not very astute, I am in my mid-forties, have been a Christian for over 20 years, love history, and have incurred much school debt to become a professional theologian, only to recently begin to understand the theological positions that the famed German Theologian seemed to have held.


Like me, you might be surprised at what Bonhoeffer actually believed. Let’s just say Metaxas’ description of him in Christianity Today as being “a theologically conservative evangelical … as orthodox as Saint Paul or Isaiah” is far from accurate.


For the sake of time, I’ll just list a few aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology I think we should all consider. While I’ll cite Bonhoeffer in his own words a few times, they should really be read in their context. And because he never wrote systematically on theology, it's unsure to know exactly what he held to without becoming a Bonhoeffer scholar. Thus, after perusing various authors more literate in historical theology than myself and Eric Metaxas, I thought I’d list a few topics and let the reader use this as a platform to delve deeper into the subject.


Being a Lutheran theologian, Bonhoeffer was greatly influenced by Karl Barth’s dialectical theology or neo-orthodox theology. While being a great mind, Barth’s theology cannot be considered evangelical. As such, Bonhoeffer did not believe in biblical inerrancy. While he viewed scripture as being inspired, he, along with many other liberal theologians, also held that it was inaccurate. As Weikart notes, “He even remarked late in life that he considered himself a ‘modern’ theologian who still carries the heritage of liberal theology within himself.” (3) Furthermore, Bonhoeffer did not believe the Bible held universal truths for all times. When reading the Bible, he wrote, “…we may no longer seek after universal, eternal truths.” (4)


As a Lutheran, Bonhoeffer also embraced baptismal regeneration and seemed very disinterested in people's stories of conversion. This might be due to his belief that salvation was not so much for individuals but for nations and people groups. “We must finally break away from the idea that the gospel deals with the salvation of an individual’s soul.” (5) Bonhoeffer has also been accused of holding to universalism. In Ethics, he wrote:


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. There is no part of the world, be it never so forlorn and never so 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. (6)


Like Barth, Bonhoeffer also separated knowledge and truth into two realms, one scientific and the other religious. Thus, Bonhoeffer downplayed the importance of apologetics which sought to harmonize the truths of the Bible with natural and scientific revelation. This could have been due to his lack of confidence in believing that the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus were historical and physical realities. Bonhoeffer’s view of resurrection was much more metaphorical than historic orthodox Christianity allows.


So what can we gather from this quandary of admiring one’s application of faith while knowing or suspecting that their beliefs regarding the essential doctrines of the Bible, salvation, and the person and work of Jesus are dubious?

Namely, that actions speak louder than words. The persecuted, poor, and needy care little for one’s beliefs on inerrancy, or eschatology. Please don’t misunderstand me. All doctrine is important. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (7) Although I believe this and hope my life reflects it, the point is that history knows very little of what Bonhoeffer truly believed yet rightly knows what he did and what he died for.

When we ask ourselves: What then should we make of Bonhoeffer? Richard Weikart concludes:


While recognizing his many admirable traits—compassion, courage, commitment, and integrity—we should be wary of many elements of his theology. He imbibed large doses of Continental philosophy, including Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger—that profoundly influenced his worldview. His theology reflected Barth’s neo-orthodox theology, which called Christians to get back to Scripture as the source for religious truth, but without believing that Scripture is historically true. Bonhoeffer always considered himself a follower of Barth, though most Bonhoeffer scholars rightly consider Bonhoeffer more liberal than Barth. In 1944, toward the end of his life, Bonhoeffer admitted that he was a theologian who "still carries within himself the heritage of liberal theology. (8)


After reviewing Bonhoeffer’s theological views and praising his courageous actions under the Third Reich, Rev. William Macleod, frankly advised, “Don’t take Bonhoeffer as your teacher!” (9)


Christian, we must know that the same author of Hebrews who wrote, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” just after this, also warned that we should “…not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.” (10) Dietrich Bonhoeffer might be the peculiar Christian hero whom we want to imitate his selfless faith without embracing his theological conclusions.


But what do you think?


Micah Coate, President and Host of Salvation and Stuff

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p.99.

  2. Richard Weikart https://www.equip.org/articles/troubling-truth-bonhoeffers-theology/ © 2022 The Christian Research Institute

  3. Richard Weikart https://www.equip.org/articles/troubling-truth-bonhoeffers-theology/ © 2022 The Christian Research Institute, quoting: Bonhoeffer to Bethge, August 3, 1944, in Widerstand und Ergebung, 257.

  4. Bonhoeffer to Rüdiger Schleicher, April 8, 1936, in Gesammelte Schriften, 3:28.

  5. Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften, 4:202.

  6. Bonhoeffer, Ethik, 53.

  7. 2 Timothy 3:16, NIV.

  8. Richard Weikart, © 2022 The Christian Research Institute, https://www.equip.org/articles/troubling-truth-bonhoeffers-theology/accessed, August 6, 2023.

  9. Macleod, William, © Copyright 2023 Banner of Truth. https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2016/bonhoeffer-reliable-guide/, accessed, August 6, 2023.

  10. Hebrews 13:7,9 NIV.

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