July 24, 2017

Counteracting Hero Worship: reevaluating Bonhoeffer

Don Johnson

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a figure often touted by evangelicals as a Christian martyr. He was the German pastor who was executed by the Nazis for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Certainly some aspects of his biography are heroic. No one should criticize him for his character.

Yet there is much more to the story. Evangelical writers tend to gloss over Bonhoeffer’s theological flaws and elevate him to the status of a Protestant saint. Eric Metaxas published a biography not long ago that followed this approach. He has been roundly criticized, both from the right and from the left, for portraying a false picture in his work. We will include links to two prominent criticisms of Metaxas in the links below.

We offer these critiques because so many evangelicals refer to him positively in their writings, citing him as a spiritual authority. We believe that his writings are dangerous and Christians should be warned.

To start with, here are the two prominent critiques of the biography by Metaxas:

  • Metaxas’s Counterfeit Bonhoeffer: An Evangelical Critique – this critique is from the theological right, by an evangelical who warns of Bonhoeffer’s theology.
  • Hijacking Bonhoeffer | The Christian Century – as the source of this critique indicates, it is from the theological left, The Christian Century is a liberal publication. The author complains that Metaxas has stolen Bonhoeffer from them.

It should be noted here that both of these critiques are by men who are Bonhoeffer scholars: Richard Weikart on the right and Clifford Green on the left. Their criticisms are very significant.

In fact, these reviews shook Tim Challies so much that he published a sort of retraction of his earlier favorable review of Metaxas’ bio: Counterfeit Bonhoeffer.

The next two links are from fundamentalist writers, obviously very theologically conservative, but I think these men are quoting Bonhoeffer accurately and their criticisms reveal much:

Last on my list is an article by an evangelical who spends a good deal of time writing about misconceptions about Nazi Germany and its relationship to Christianity.

Conclusion:

These links are not exhaustive, there are many more that can be found across the web. Critiques like these are easily found. We should note that plaudits for Bonhoeffer can be just as easily found as well. However, we offer these as a sampling of analysis that every serious Christian should take to heart. These critiques are not simply the ravings of ultra-right conservatives. The criticisms are consistent and come from a range of theological perspectives. One of our links comes from a liberal perspective that criticizes evangelical hagiography of Bonhoeffer.

The fact is that Bonhoeffer, for whatever good he may seem to utter in some of his writings, is a dangerous theologian with many unbiblical views. As such he shouldn’t be trusted and certainly shouldn’t be put on any kind of pedestal.

UPDATE: A friend reminded us of articles by Andy Stearns on Bonhoeffer. Since this also gives us an opportunity to plug Faith Baptist Bible College in Ankenny, Iowa, we are happy to add a link here.

Bonhoeffer: Approaching His Life and Work and Bonhoeffer and the Scriptures (scroll past the footnotes of the first article for the second one)


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.


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