Friday, March 11, 2011

Was Bonhoeffer an Evangelical?

Eric Metaxas' biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer made my top ten list for books last year. It is actually the best biography I've read in a long time. (Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand comes in a close second.) Metaxas has been criticized for presenting Bonhoeffer as too evangelical. Here is his reply, in classic Eric Metaxas style.

Critics have said that you paint Bonhoeffer as "too evangelical." I thought that you portrayed the whole of Bonhoeffer's theology, even quoting lengthy excerpts from his books. How do you respond to this criticism?

I find the criticism hilarious on the one hand and tragic on the other. Bonhoeffer and any other serious Christian is less concerned with being an "evangelical"—whatever that really means—than with being a Christian, a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. One thing I have said over and over: I never set out to paint any portrait of Bonhoeffer other than what I saw, for good or for ill. That some seem to think that I have put some English on the ball seems to say more about their expectations than about the reality of his life.

The facts are what they are: Bonhoeffer thought of the Bible as the living "Word of God" and prayed every day and pointedly criticized the regnant theological liberalism of his era (both in Berlin and at Union Theological Seminary in New York), called abortion "murder," advocated a traditionally biblical view of sexuality, called for the Lordship of Jesus Christ over every realm in history and culture, advocated obedience to God under all circumstances and spoke against mere "religion"... so, yes, he tends to look pretty "evangelical." But that really is a label that is unhelpful when trying to understand him. Bonhoeffer was a devout disciple of Jesus Christ. That, I think, should suffice.

Not that some ideologues on the left and right haven't been annoyed, as you mention. But they are annoyed at reality, not at my depiction of reality.

It really is rather funny, though. It has to be noted that theologically liberal Bonhoeffer scholars have kept deadly quiet for decades while chest-beating humanists like Christopher Hitchens and "Bishop" John Shelby Spong have claimed Bonhoeffer as one of their own. But when Bonhoeffer is portrayed as the robust and serious Christian that he was, they have howled with all their might and main and have practically scampered up palm trees to cast down their coconuts of bitter fury. One wonders where their priorities lie.

Fussy theological conservatives, on the other hand, who have accepted this false theologically liberal view of Bonhoeffer, are another story, no less tragi-comic. They bring to mind the guy on the beach with the metal detector and headphones, oblivious to the staggering beauty of the sand and sea and sky. They seem bent on discovering any scrap of evidence that "proves" Bonhoeffer was neo-orthodox, and if not that, then something else unpalatable—anything! I think even a cigarette butt in the sand would thrill them. They sometimes seem to be worshiping an idol of theological purity.

But to have perspective on it all, we must remember that both types, left and right, have always been with us. As a friend of mine once said: "They are like the children in the marketplace who say, 'We played the pipe and you would not dance; we played a dirge and you would not mourn!'" Quel dommage.

You can read the entire article here.

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