It is an exceptionally courageous writer of theology who does not today sprinkle his pages generously with quotations from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The influence of the martyr at Flossenbürg upon current theology may be estimated by the frequency with which his name appears in the indexes of today’s religious volumes.

It is not only the quantity of these references that is impressive. More revealing is the selection of materials, and way they are used. Evangelicals will do well to cast a continuing discerning eye over these matters.

Bonhoeffer’s influence has been enhanced, of course, by the fact that he was martyred by a vicious, totalitarian government. Not only has this affected his image among theologians; his brutal imprisonment also greatly influenced those writings that have been most influential in shaping subsequent thought.

The critical thinker who reads today’s avant-garde theological writings will at once recognize that there exists a “Bonhoeffer problem.” Able and discerning students frequently ask me how Bonhoeffer’s most quoted statements from his Letters and Papers From Prison can be reconciled with many of the positions taken in his earlier works, notably his Cost of Discipleship.

These students have in mind, of course, the “standard” quotations, centering in the expressions “a world come of age,” “religionless Christianity,” “Jesus, man for others,” “a non-religious interpretation of the Gospel,” and “a this-worldly transcendence.” These have unfortunately gained popular currency, to the neglect or exclusion of the settings in which they occur.

The conventional wisdom thus confines its excerpting to a very narrow range of sources. The quoted statements are all too often made to function within a context of security in which the answers to all problems are sought solely in terms of the world and its categories. It was precisely this mood of secularity that responded with such eagerness to Bonhoeffer’s attack upon the position he ascribed to historic Christianity, that its God was a problem-solver, a “God of the gaps.”

It is perhaps time for evangelicals to point out that this is a caricature of the God of the Bible. No responsible evangelical portrays God as a mere need-filler, a kind of universal anodyne for the aches of humanity. Bonhoeffer probably misunderstood historic Christianity, or at least saw it through lenses that distorted his vision. Could it be that his alienation from the Church served to condition his attitude toward the Gospel until he could see little or no good in its historic proclamation?

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In any case, it seems clear that the “secular” theologians have selected from his writings those which came largely from times in which he sustained great inner shock. And the selection seems to have been tendentious in the extreme.

No less open to question than the choice of quoted materials is the use of those materials. Seldom in recent times has the scholarly world seen a larger reliance upon the proof-text than here. The excerpts from the Letters have been quoted in an Olympian tone until it has become virtually a mark of theological irreverence to question them.

The impression prevails that quoting a statement such as “modern man must learn to live without God” settles conclusively all questions of theism. Seldom in recent times have we witnessed such an authoritarian use of proof-texts.

Certainly a man who helped plot to destroy one of the worst tyrannies of our century, and who lost his life in the process, has a right to be heard. I would in no case sit among Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s detractors—although I would personally find it difficult to imagine myself participating in a plot involving the methods used unsuccessfully on July 20, 1944. What may be questioned here is whether even a course of conduct involving such an agonizing decision and such courage entitles a man to the definitive hearing that Bonhoeffer enjoys today. Would not the Christian world do better to evaluate the man’s deeds by themselves, and his words by other standards?

In addition to the manner in which avant-garde theologians of our decade have resorted to an uncritical form of proof-texting, and have shown an almost servile deference to Bonhoeffer’s statements, they can be faulted at a third point. Despite all the emphasis upon Sitz im Leben in today’s hermeneutics, theologians seem to bypass this motif in the present case. The Letters, especially those dated from April 1 to August 30, 1944, are taken as the major theological source, without much regard for the circumstances surrounding the writing of them.

It has been left to the biographers of Bonhoeffer to grapple with this problem. One thinks of the words of Mary Bosanquet in her in-depth study entitled Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Speaking to the point of the use of parts of the Letters, she writes, “In the years which have followed his death many have been appropriated and carried away, like stones from a half-built church, to be used as a foundation for theological superstructures for which he would have disclaimed any responsibility” (p. 256).

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Dr. Eberhard Bethge, a companion of Bonhoeffer who is recognized as his authentic biographer, gives a careful analysis of the Letters in his work Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Usually, writes Dr. Bethge, Bonhoeffer sketched a projected new work as much as three years in advance before he gave it final shape. This suggests that the Letters were aphoristic, set forth tentatively and as a basis for discussion, and “not, indeed, the mature fruit of a new branch in Bonhoeffer’s work …” (p. 766).

Dr. Bethge further points out that Bonhoeffer’s references to an Arkandiziplin (arcane discipline), which stood as something of a counterweight to his concept of a “religionless Christianity,” have been largely avoided by those who quote other passages from the Letters. This may be due to the greater attractiveness of such motifs as “worldly interpretation,” and “coming of age.” In any case, Bonhoeffer’s biographer believes that had his life not ended at Flossenbürg, he would later have written a theology that would bear little similarity to the more venturesome statements in the Letters.

Finally, Miss Bosanquet (in op. cit., p. 279) quotes Eberhard Bethge as saying in his address at Coventry Cathedral on October 30, 1967: “The isolated use and handing down of the famous term ‘religionless Christianity’ has made Bonhoeffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all that he wanted to tell us about the living God.” Is it possible that such evaluations from those close to Bonhoeffer himself may ultimately penetrate the area of thought now so thoroughly dominated by catch-phrases?

The superficial use of proof-texts is in this case very congenial to the modern temper. But if at some time in the future a more basic way of interpreting Bonhoeffer gains currency, it just might precipitate a theological disaster equal to the collapse of the “God is dead” movement.


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