• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

The Bible texts are not just historical sources, but [as] agents of revelation, not merely specimens of writing, but sacred canon.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ph.D. thesis (1927)

As we approach New Year’s Day 2012, I am continuing my reading of a revelatory biography on one of my favorite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. April 9, 1945), who, although a pacifist, became a Christian martyr who from the beginning of Germany’s love affair with madness fought tirelessly and gallantly against Hitler’s fascist government and Nazi genocide: a demonic, unquenchable bloodlust that martyred him at Flossenbürg concentration camp just two weeks before liberation by U.S. forces. The book is titled, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” (2010) by Eric Metaxas.

Bonhoeffer’s main reason for studying at Berlin University was its world-renowned theology faculty, which had included the legendary Friedrich Schleiermacher whose Weltanschauung (worldview) still dominated the theology department. When Bonhoeffer arrived in 1924 the theology faculty at Berlin University was headed by Schleiermacher’s disciple, Adolf von Harnack, who was one of the champions of the historical-critical method, or liberal theology of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Harnack’s approach to the Bible was restricted to textual and historical-critical analysis, which had led him to conclude that all of the miracles described in the Bible are myths and that the Gospel of John was not canonical.

Bonhoeffer attended Harnack’s popular seminar for three semesters and respected the venerable scholar greatly, though he seldom agreed with his theological conclusions. Helmuth Goes, a classmate of Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of those great debates at Harnack’s seminar:

What really impressed me was not just the fact that he [Bonhoeffer] surpassed almost all of us in theological knowledge and capacity but hearing a young fair-haired student contradict the revered historian, his Excellency von Harnack, contradict him politely but clearly on positive theological grounds. Harnack answered, but the student contradicted again and again.

Besides Harnack, there were other Berlin University professors which had a particular influence on Bonhoeffer including Karl Holl, the greatest Luther scholar of his generation; Reinhold Seeberg, who specialized in systematic theology and under whom Bonhoeffer wrote his doctoral thesis; and Adolf Deissman, who exposed Bonhoeffer to the ecumenical movement and later provided the means by which he became involved in the conspiracy against Hitler.

However, it was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth of Göttingen who was Bonhoeffer’s greatest teacher and a friend. Barth was arguably the most important theologian of the century. In 1934 Barth would be kicked out of Germany for refusing to swear his allegiance to Hitler and who in response would become the principal author of the Barmen Declaration, in which the Confessing Church boldly repudiated Hitler’s ghastly intent to synthesize Nazi philosophy with German church doctrine.

Regarding the existential battle between conservative and liberal Christianity in 1920s Germany, Metaxas wrote:

The debate during Bonhoeffer’s time between the neo-orthodox Barthians and the historical-critical liberals was similar to the contemporary one between strict Darwinian evolutionists and advocates of so-called Intelligent Design. The latter allow the possible involvement of something “outside the system” – some Intelligent Creator, whether divine or other – while the former reject this by definition. Theological liberals like Harnack felt it was “unscientific” to speculate on who God was; the theologian must simply study what is here, which is to say the texts and the history of those texts. But the Barthians said no: the God on the other side of the fence had revealed himself through these texts, and the only reason for these texts was to know him.

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.