Volume 37 - Issue 2

Bonhoeffer as Bible Scholar

By Robert W. Yarbrough


What is a Bible scholar? What does or should one look like? That is a question being asked today, as these three books indicate...

What is a Bible scholar? What does or should one look like? That is a question being asked today, as these three books indicate:

  1. Stephen Moore and Yvonne Sherwood, The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011).
  2. Ben Witherington III, Is There a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story on Becoming a Bible Scholar (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
  3. Andreas Köstenberger, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

Not only is Scripture a front-burner matter at present;1 so is how we should approach Scripture academically.

Scripture and what to do with what it seems to demand of the believer were certainly front-burner issues for Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), as his sadly truncated career teaches us. Many studies have explored Bonhoeffer’s ways of reading Scripture.2 We cannot interact in detail with Bonhoeffer’s exegesis here. I will content myself rather with (1) calling attention to today’s lively interest in Bonhoeffer, (2) conducting a brief thought-experiment highlighting Bonhoeffer’s steadfast Christian consciousness, and finally (3) noting a few features of Bonhoeffer’s legacy that perhaps challenge us in our resolve to uphold robust faith in God’s Word written in a time when such faith is not necessarily easy, popular, or highly prized in many circles.

1. Current Resurgence of Interest in Bonhoeffer

Published works by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the wake of his death go back into the early 1950s. In 1953 there appeared Eberhard Bethge’s edition of Bonhoeffer’s correspondence and musings entitled Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison. 3 Since that time there has been a continual ebb and flow of interest in Bonhoeffer. Currently we are witnessing something we might call not just a flow but a spike in Bonhoeffer studies, particularly of a biographical nature. Some of us have read Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.4 In addition to Metaxas, nearly a dozen other books on Bonhoeffer have appeared just since about 2004:

  1. Stephen Haynes, The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint (2004)
  2. Larry Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (2005)
  3. John Matthews, Anxious Souls Will Ask . . . : The Christ-Centered Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2005)
  4. Mark Devine, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs (2005)
  5. Keith Clements, Bonhoeffer in Britain (2006)
  6. Sabine Dramm, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance (2009)
  7. Jeffrey Pugh and Martin Marty, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times (2009). Wrestles with why Bonhoeffer is of interest today.
  8. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (2010)
  9. Jon Walker, Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (2010)
  10. Martin Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (2011). A biography not of Bonhoeffer but of his book we call Letters and Papers from Prison.

This spate of publications has grown out of a pair of more seminal sources. There are, first, critical editions of the Bonhoeffer corpus as these make their way into English; Letters and Papers from Prison, for example, just appeared in its full English edition in 2010. Second, there is Eberhard Bethge’s definitive biography of over 1,000 pages edited, revised, and published by Victoria J. Barnett in 1998. The book is called simply Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography.

These publications all point to fascination with Bonhoeffer that clamors for reflection. They repay close attention by any who share Bonhoeffer’s concern for the knowledge of God and devotion to God through faith in Christ in times where evil and suffering and rank unbelief seem on the rise at an alarming rate at every hand.

2. A Brief Thought-Experiment

An obvious point of attraction to contemplating Bonhoeffer is his martyrdom. The formal charge against him involved the conspiracy of which he became part to assassinate Hitler. But as a German Protestant pastor, he would not have had the conviction to join in had he not been deeply grounded in Christian convictions that gave him an unusual vision and force of character. Due to these convictions, for a very long time before the conspiracy in the middle of World War II, he was moved to oppose the Nazi movement. He was speaking out and acting when a troubling percentage of German theologians and clergy were either complicit in the Nazi movement or too passive in their opposition to it. Even the Confessing Church, die Bekennende Kirche, was too docile and collaborative for Bonhoeffer’s theological outlook and ethical scruples.

You would like to think that under those circumstances you would have been on the side of the angels as many think Bonhoeffer was. But others fiercely debate the morality of the conspiracy involvement for which some admire Bonhoeffer. Martin Marty points out that an SS colonel named Walter Huppenkothen was tried three times in the 1950s for sentencing Bonhoeffer and consigning him to the gallows. But Huppenkothen was never convicted for this apparent war crime. In the eyes of most Germans, including German Protestants, Bonhoeffer had broken the law and deserved that law’s penalty. Apparently the counter-argument carried little weight that not stopping Hitler on his way to slaughtering millions might condemn you before a higher tribunal. As a result, it was 1995 “before a German court saw clear to declare posthumously that Bonhoeffer had been innocent.” 5 In the eyes of his countrymen and many fellow churchmen, he was a criminal for a full half-century after he laid down his life for the sake of what he thought was faithfulness to Jesus.

The state of the world and of Germany in 1945 was so complex and fractured that it is idle for us to wonder what we would have done in Bonhoeffer’s setting. We can scarcely reconstruct it adequately to settle the question. But perhaps a more modest query might give us a more feasible instrument for at least a measure of self-diagnosis.

As this readership consists largely of a fellowship ascribing to Christian belief, it is reasonable to assume that most of us believe in and would publicly affirm the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth following public execution under Pontius Pilate was bodily raised from the dead. That death and resurrection stake an ethical claim on our lives, such that we must be willing to do Jesus’s will as Scripture reveals it even if it cost our lives. Here we have something in common with Bonhoeffer, who not only confessed this belief but validated his belief with his life. I wonder if we would have wielded our belief for the same reason, in the same way, and with the same result as he did.

Imagine it is April 8, 1945. Imagine you are an ordained minister who has been in jail in recent years, without a “pastorate” in the usual sense for over a decade. You have the appearance of being an inactive minister. Moreover, you have been a prison inmate for many months now, incarcerated for a capital crime against the state.

It is the first Sunday after Easter. You are one of a small number of inmates being schlepped around Germany in a decrepit wood-burning utility van to avoid Allied bombs as desperate guards try to transport you from one prison to the next. Would a motley group of largely Catholic fellow inmates and also an atheist ask you to perform a service of worship? They did Bonhoeffer in this setting. Imagine they did so in your case.

What kind of worship leadership could you provide? Would you have a clear enough mind, would you have a stomach, for leading worship with your execution imminent? Bonhoeffer did. To this disparate and desperate bunch he preached on that week’s lectionary readings, including Isa 53 and this from 1 Pet 1: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Eyewitness, fellow prisoner, and I think non-believer Payne Best recalls that Bonhoeffer “spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words . . . .”

Recently in The Christian Century, author and activist Bill McKibben displayed the jailhouse mentality I would have been tempted to adopt had I been in Bonhoeffer’s place. McKibben was arrested in Washington D.C. last summer at an anti-oil pipeline demonstration on a Saturday. After just one night in jail, McKibben looked around on Sunday morning and thought this: “I could feel my own courage flagging a bit along with that of the 40 or so other men up and down our cell block. I knew we represented a very wide range of faiths, including a pretty good showing for ‘none at all,’ so a regular church service was not in order.”6

For Bonhoeffer, though, a regular church service was in order, at least as regular as he could make it. He read and preached from the church lectionary readings set for that day. Equally in order was his brave response when he finished the closing prayer and two Gestapo agents entered the room. “Prisoner Bonhoeffer,” they intoned. “Get ready to come with us.” Everyone knew that meant the scaffold. Payne Best recalls that at that harrowing point Bonhoeffer drew him aside and said, “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”7

We may be seminary professors, or pastors, or lay teachers of Scripture, or students in college or seminary. If not Bible scholars, then we are at least advanced Bible students. Would we have been looked to for leadership regarding reassurance relating to Scripture in such a setting? Would we have found words of promise to utter? Would we have displayed resurrection hope when the hangman called? Bonhoeffer’s memory is hallowed. Yet his example haunts.

3. Bonhoeffer’s Legacy for the Bible Teacher

Some might protest this essay’s sympathetic attention to Bonhoeffer in an evangelical publication. The criticism of Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer biography has been withering at times because Metaxas reads Bonhoeffer as too sympathetic to evangelical convictions. 8 Many prefer to see Bonhoeffer as a champion of communist or liberal or postliberal or even atheist thought. Evangelical Christians have neither part nor portion in his legacy, the argument goes.

We may concede that Bonhoeffer hailed from a setting and inhabited a culture and era that contained profound built-in dislocations between his times and convictions and many of ours today, 106 years after he was born. How could it be otherwise? Yet Martin Marty’s account of Bonhoeffer’s latest and most radical writings, his Letters and Papers from Prison, establishes to my satisfaction that continuity, not discontinuity, best accounts for his convictions overall. Marty documents widespread “creative misuse”9 of Bonhoeffer by interpreters who highlight and twist Bonhoeffer statements to support post- and non-Christian agendas. The staunchly confessional and increasingly biblicist Bonhoeffer did not jettison Christian faith at the end, Marty shows.

There lies point one for us to affirm: confessional courage. Whatever our gifts and calling, Bonhoeffer’s example surely challenges us to live faithfully to the end, even if the price be death. For many of our peers in kingdom service in other, less privileged realms, death or at least bitter hardship is turning out to be the going price. For examples, simply google “Voice of the Martyrs.” Fairly recent Southern Baptist history contains comparable examples, like the shootings in 2002 at the Jibla Baptist Hospital in Yemen (since renamed). Medical workers William Koehn (age 60), Kathleen Gariety (53), and Dr. Martha Myers (57) did not count their own lives dear but laid them down for their witness to Christ.

Marty also shows, following Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge, that the pivot of Bonhoeffer’s work, outlook, and service was Christology.10 This should hearten most Themelios readers, as we surely share with Bonhoeffer a robust affirmation of Christ’s incarnation, divinity, humanity, and present reign over all. Call Bonhoeffer, call us, what you will: we appear to be united in our common exaltation of and personal commitment to the Son of God of historic Christian confession. If that is true, much criticism of Metaxas is beside the point.

We might note that Bonhoeffer seemed to have an eye for what one could call the apocalyptic dimension of his era in the run-up to Axis hegemony (recall, e.g., the rape of Nanking in 193711) and World War II. It is in tragic hindsight of what he glimpsed and what most denied that his work takes on special poignancy. Surely we are not on the cusp of some analogous international cataclysm? We could wish for Bonhoeffer’s prophetic instincts; it might put fire in our bones when we are prone to be at ease.

Might this help? It has been plausibly estimated that since the early 1920s, around the world there have been nearly 1 billion abortions-about 950 million, actually.12 At current rates we will have reached 1 billion very soon. I wonder if that alone constitutes enough of an affront to God to justify Bonhoefferian radicality in our work, if I may coin a term. This would be in response, not to political usurpation in one nation most relevant to us, as terrible as the Nazis were and the Holocaust was, but because we realize how richly this world as a whole deserves divine retribution. Six million Jews is horrendous, but 950 million is about 158 times the Holocaust. Scripture seems to indicate that God is slow to anger, not bereft of the capacity. If justice exists in or around this cosmos, how short the time may be for us to extend the good news of redemption in whatever ways granted to us! (And to be quite clear: I have in mind here radical and engaged gospel-ministry and legal political activity where warranted, not physical aggression of any kind against abortion clinics or doctors.)

Bonhoeffer wrote to his betrothed Maria von Wedemeyer, “I live in a great, unseen realm of whose real existence I’m in no doubt.” 13 Bonhoeffer’s greatest legacy for us in the sense of an example to follow may be that his resonance with this unseen realm moved him to concrete acts of ultimately public fidelity to the God who spoke so powerfully to him as he pored intensively over Scripture while his life drew to a close. Bonhoeffer’s dedication to Scripture at this time is implied by Bethge’s claim that in Bonhoeffer’s later years, “no writer, apart from Luther, was so fully represented in Bonhoeffer’s library . . . or was so frequently consulted” as Adolf Schlatter. 14 Few would dispute that Luther and Schlatter were Scripture-centered interpreters, Bible scholars of the highest order.15 So, it turns out, was Bonhoeffer. 16

1 Editor’s note: See Robert W. Yarbrough, “The Embattled Bible: Four More Books,” Them 34 (2009): 6-25.

2 As the merest of examples spanning the last half century, see Walter Harrelson, “Bonhoeffer and the Bible,” in The Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems and Possibilities in His Thought (ed. Martin Marty; New York: Association Press, 1962), 115-39; Jay Rochelle, “Bonhoeffer and Biblical Interpretation: Reading Scripture in the Spirit,” CurTM 22:2 (April 1995): 85-95; Stephen Plant, “‘In the Bible It Is God Who Speaks’: Peake and Bonhoeffer on Reading Scripture,” Epworth Review 33:4 (2006): 7-22.

3 Martin Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011), 248.

4 Nashville: Nelson, 2010.

5 Marty, Dietrich, 187-88.

6 Bill McKibben, “Pipeline to Disaster,” Christian Century 128:21 (October 18, 2011), 10.

7 The story is told in Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 528.

8 See for example Richard Weikart, “So Many Different Dietrich Bonhoeffers,” TJ 32 (2011): 69-81; idem, <a href= ””>Metaxas’s Counterfeit Bonhoeffer: An Evangelical Critique” (accessed November 8, 2011)</a>.

9 Marty, Dietrich, 75.

10 Ibid., 49. Cf. 155, 224.

11 See Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking (New York: Basic, 1997).

12 (accessed November 8, 2011).

13 Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 496.

14 Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (New York: Harper &Row, 1970), 34.

15 Editor’s note: On Schlatter, see Werner Neuer, Adolf Schlatter: A Biography of Germany’s Premier Biblical Theologian (trans. Robert W. Yarbrough; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); Adolf Schlatter, Do We Know Jesus? (trans. Robert W. Yarbrough and Andreas J. Köstenberger; Grand Rapids: Kregel: 2005); Robert Yarbrough, “Adolf Schlatter’s ‘The Significance of Method for Theological Work’: Translation and Commentary,”The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 1:2 (1997): 64-77; idem, “Adolf Schlatter,” in Biblical Interpreters of the Twentieth Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices (ed. Walter Elwell and J. D. Weaver; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 59-72; idem, “Schlatter Reception Now: His New Testament Theology,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3:1 (1999): 52-65; idem, The Salvation Historical Fallacy? Reassessing the History of New Testament Theology (History of Biblical Interpretation Series 2; Leiden: Deo, 2004), 81-114; idem, “Witness to the Gospel in Academe: Adolf Schlatter as a Teacher of the Church,” Perichoresis 4:1 (2006): 1-17; idem; “Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938),” in Dictionary of Major Bible Interpreters (ed. Donald McKim; Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 881-85.

16 The author wishes to thank audiences at the Tyndale Fellowship breakfast in San Francisco in November 2011, at Phoenix Seminary in January 2012, and at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in March 2012, for critically interacting with earlier recensions of this essay. I have also benefited from comments by students from the Covenant Seminary Theological Society.

Robert W. Yarbrough

Bob Yarbrough is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, an editorial board member of Themelios, co-editor of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament as well as the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Broadman & Holman), and past president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

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