by Mark Devine
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story has, understandably, piqued the interest of Christians and non-Christians alike, including evangelicals. However, Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian before he joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, and use of his writings has been decidedly more attractive to theological liberals and progressives than to evangelicals.
The typical explanation for this state of affairs tends to run something like this: Bonhoeffer was influenced by liberals such as his neighbor, the great Adolph von Harnack, and especially by Swiss theologian Karl Barth, the so-called father of neoorthodoxy, which is, well, liberalism lite or perhaps, liberalism in disguise—the liberal wolf decked out in evangelical sheep’s clothing.
My view is that there is some truth in all of this but not very much. Evangelical critiques of both Barth and Bonhoeffer have often been a little too quick and dirty by my estimation. Still, it will not be my purpose to make either Karl Barth or Dietrich Bonhoeffer walk and talk like American evangelicals. They were not. From the perspective of the evangelical, both men display certain glaring weaknesses and blind spots.
So why bid evangelicals come sit at the feet of Bonhoeffer? Because what Bonhoeffer got right belongs to all Christians and has, I believe, particular relevance for evangelicals. We evangelicals have our own blind spots to dispel, and sometimes the critique most needed cannot come from within our own ranks.
Was Bonhoeffer a liberal? My short answer to this question is no. Bonhoeffer studied under the star proponents of Protestant liberalism at the University of Berlin—Harnack, Holl, and Seeberg. But during the 1924–25 winter semester, he encountered the theology of Karl Barth, which involved an onslaught upon original, Schleiermacherian liberalism. For Bonhoeffer, liberalism never recovered. Ten months before his execution, writing from his prison cell, Bonhoeffer continued his exploration of the failures of liberalism:
The weakness of liberal theology was that it conceded to the world the right to determine Christ’s place in the world.
Barth’s fingerprints are obvious. My short answer to the related question of whether Bonhoeffer is neoorthodox is that the term neoorthodoxy lacks clarity and proves largely unhelpful to those wishing to understand Bonhoeffer’s views and significance. Within his own contexts he certainly belongs to a back-to-the-Bible movement of sorts initiated by Karl Barth and he understood better than some contemporary evangelicals the essential nature of the Protestant liberalism he opposed. Without question, in his life we are confronted with a follower of Jesus prepared to die rather than abandon his Lord.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has much to teach us, and we evangelicals need not put our heads in the sand to sit at his feet for a spell.
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