Bonhoeffer and the Scriptures

From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2013. Used by permission. All rights reserved. See Part 1, Bonhoeffer: Approaching His Life and Work.

Bible-believing evangelical Christians hold a high view of the Scriptures. Many evangelicals also see Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a Bible-believing Christian. Bonhoeffer, however, accepted the prevailing historical-critical views of the Bible in his day. Therefore, we should be wary of calling Bonhoeffer a “Bible-believer.” The following three examples from his writings support this position.

Creation and Fall

In Creation and Fall (1932), an exegesis of Genesis 1-3, we find clear examples of Bonhoeffer espousing the historical-critical view of the Bible. In this work he referred to the Biblical author as the “Yahwist.”1 The “Yahwist” is a reference to the historical-critical reading of the text in Bonhoeffer’s day. John de Gruchy, who edited an edition of Creation and Fall, included an explanatory footnote at Genesis 2:4 to alert the reader that Bonhoeffer held Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis view.2 For Bonhoeffer, the Bible was subject to the prevailing views of historical criticism.

Commenting on Genesis 1:6-10, Bonhoeffer pointed out that the Scriptures contain errors in regard to the creation account.

Here we have before us the ancient world picture in all its scientific naïveté. While it would not be advisable to be too mocking and self-assured, in view of the rapid changes in our own knowledge of nature, undoubtedly in this passage the biblical author stands exposed with all the limitations caused by the age in which he lived. The heavens and the seas were not formed in the way he says: we would not escape a very bad conscience if we committed ourselves to any such statement.3

Notice that Bonhoeffer defined “scientific naïveté” as believing that God spoke the heavens into existence as Genesis 1 describes. Bonhoeffer then asserted, “The idea of verbal inspiration will not do. The writer of the first chapter of Genesis is behaving in a very human way.”4

In reference to the whole created order, Bonhoeffer said, “In accordance with eternal, unchangeable laws the days, years and seasons come into being in the firmament. Here number rules and its inflexible law. What does it have to do with our existence? Nothing—the stars go their way, whether man is suffering, guilty or happy.”5 When it comes to the Bible, Bonhoeffer saw existential value as more important than scientific accuracy.

By reading Creation and Fall, we learn that Bonhoeffer believed that the Bible was subject to historical criticism, contained errors in the creation account, and was not verbally inspired. These statements, however, presented no problems for Bonhoeffer, as the value of Scripture lies in human existence, not scientific data. This position raises a question: Did Bonhoeffer think the portions of Scripture that do not deal with science are accurate? Did Bonhoeffer believe the Bible was inerrant in nonscientific matters?

Christ the Center

In the summer of 1933 Dietrich Bonhoeffer conducted a series of lectures on Christology. Later, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, Eberhard Bethge, reconstructed a set of these notes,6 which he subsequently published under the title Christ the Center.7

In that writing Bonhoeffer agreed with the scholarship of his day that classified some portions of the Bible attributed to Jesus as legendary accretions, i.e., statements not really spoken by Jesus.

We are first concerned with a book which we find in the secular sphere. It must be read and interpreted. It will be read with all the help possible from historical and philosophical criticism. Even the believer has to do this with care and scholarship. Occasionally we have to deal with a problematic situation; perhaps we have to preach about a text, which we know from scholarly criticism was never spoken by Jesus. In the exegesis of Scripture we find ourselves on thin ice. One can never stand firm at one point, but must move about over the whole of the Bible. As we move from one place to another we are like a man crossing a river covered in ice floes, who does not remain standing on one particular piece of ice, but jumps from one to another….

There may be some difficulties about preaching from a text whose authenticity has been destroyed by historical research. Verbal inspiration is a poor substitute for the resurrection! It amounts to a denial of the unique presence of the risen one. It gives history an eternal value instead of seeing history and knowing it from the point of view of God’s eternity. It is wrecked in its attempt to level the rough ground. The Bible remains a book like other books. One must be ready to accept the concealment within history and therefore let historical criticism run its course. But it is through the Bible, with all its flaws, that the risen one encounters us. We must get into the troubled waters of historical criticism.8

First, observe once again that Bonhoeffer denied verbal inspiration. This time he equated verbal inspiration with a denial of the unique presence of Jesus Christ. Second, notice that Bonhoeffer saw the words attributed to Christ in the Bible as containing errors. He believed that if historical criticism showed the text to be untrue, the answer was simply to “jump” to another section of Scripture in the same manner one might jump from one floating piece of ice to another to cross a river. Finally, Bonhoeffer also called the Bible a book like any other book in the “secular sphere.”

On the matter of historical criticism and the inerrancy of the Bible, Bonhoeffer clearly saw the Bible as a human book fraught with errors, and the historical and philosophical research of the day was true and reliable. When a person encountered these errors, Bonhoeffer’s position was simply to move on in the text, ignoring the errors as though they did not really exist.

The Cost of Discipleship

The Cost of Discipleship is perhaps Bonhoeffer’s most widely known work and is popular with evangelical Christians today. What will surprise many readers is that in this book Bonhoeffer denied the resurrection as a historical event.

In The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer defended the unity of the person of Christ. To Bonhoeffer and others of his time, the picture of Christ in the synoptic Gospels was at odds with the picture of Christ in the Pauline epistles. Though the texts paint completely different pictures, Bonhoeffer assured the readers that they could trust the pictures of Christ in all these texts. In a footnote Bonhoeffer got to the heart of why he could reconcile these passages though they appeared inconsistent with each other.

The direct testimony of the Scriptures is frequently confounded with ontological propositions…. For example, if we take the statement that Christ is risen and present as an ontological proposition, it inevitably dissolves the unity of the scriptures, for it leads us to speak of a mode of Christ’s presence which is different e.g. from that of the synoptic Jesus. The truth that Jesus Christ is risen and present to us is then taken as an independent statement with an ontological significance which can be applied critically to other ontological statements, and it is thus exalted into a theological principle…. The proclamation of the scriptural testimony is of quite a different character. The assertion that Christ is risen and present, is, when taken strictly as a testimony given in the scriptures, true only as a word of the scriptures. This word is the object of our faith. There is no other conceivable way to approach this truth except through this word. But this word testifies to the presence of both the Synoptic and the Pauline Christ.9 (italics mine)

Bonhoeffer appeared to say that whether Jesus really arose from the dead was not the point. The resurrection was not an empirical fact of history.10 I would suggest that Bonhoeffer spoke in the veiled language of a philosopher and believed the resurrection and other truths in the Scriptures were only existentially true. Richard Weikart’s comment is most helpful:

Couched in philosophical language, and, while comprehensible to those having studied theology or philosophy, it is probably unintelligible to the average non-philosophically inclined evangelical reader. The footnote is enlightening, because it occurs in a passage in which Bonhoeffer affirmed the truth, reliability and unity of the scriptures in the strongest possible way. To avoid misunderstanding he added a clarifying note denying the literal resurrection of Jesus in the past…. According to Bonhoeffer, the resurrection and other events in the Bible are thus not true as empirical facts of history.11

Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship after many years of church ministry. In it he wrote about following Christ and about suffering as He did. And yet he still sides with historical criticism and denies the resurrection as a historical fact. To Bonhoeffer the resurrection was a myth.12

When we understand Bonhoeffer’s view of scripture, we understand who he really was—a theologian who denied verbal inspiration, inerrancy, and the resurrection. Evangelical Christians who want to call Dietrich Bonhoeffer an evangelical or Bible-believing Christian must question in what sense Bonhoeffer can even be considered a “Bible-believer” since he held such a low view of the Scriptures.


1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Temptation (London: SCM Press, 1966), 65. This work was printed under multiple titles in various editions including, Creation and Fall, as well as being bound with a study produced by Bonhoeffer on temptation titled, Temptation: Creation and Fall.

2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 71.

3 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Temptation, 27-28.

4 Ibid., 28.

5 Ibid., 28-29.

6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 118.

7 Ibid., 22.

8 Ibid., 73-74.

9 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 255-56.

10 “It is neither possible nor right for us to try to get behind the Word of the Scriptures to the events as they actually occurred.” Ibid., 93.

11 Richard Weikart, “Scripture and Myth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in Fides et Historia, 25, 1 (1993), 20,… (accessed January 8, 2013).

12 Note Bonhoeffer’s statement, “My view is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must be kept—the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection etc.) is the thing itself.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 329.

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Wayne Wilson's picture

I am having a hard time understanding the quote from The Cost of Discipleship as denying the historical resurrection.  I went back and read it in the full context as well, and I don't see what you're seeing.  It could be read that way when he says "true only as a word of the Scriptures," but that can be read in an orthodox way as well.  He seems to be arguing against a notion that the risen Christ of the synoptic gospels is different than the risen Christ in Paul.  "...both have to be interpreted in the light of the Scriptures as a whole," he says.  The subject he is discussing in the note doesn't seem to be the historicity of the resurrection.


If he is, indeed, denying the resurrection, then surely somewhere in Bonhoeffer's many writings, there is something a little clearer about this most important point? 

Don Johnson's picture

Neo-orthodoxy gives its own meanings to words. They are the Humpty Dumpty's of theology. When Bonhoeffer says "true only as a word of Scriptures", he gives a hint of his real meaning. To him the resurrection is true in the realm of faith, but in space-time reality it doesn't have to be true.

You will search in vain for a clear statement on anything from Bonhoeffer. He is a very deceptive man.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture


Adding to my someday list: read Bonhoeffer. I've read enough of him to know there is value there, despite his serious problems. But the reason I want to read him isn't just because 'there is value there,' but because I'd like to try to get a feel for what he means we says things like the resurrection quote above. I'm sure there are place in Bonhoeffer where he affirms the resurrection with zeal, warmth and--based on what I've seen--eloquence. But what does he really mean?

Don't misunderstand--I'm no fan of neo-orthodox theology. It's just that there are places where it's clear to me that there is something there that is very real for them. There is a faith in resurrection, confused though it may be.

I'm not saying it very well. Label this one "not quite half baked yet, but in the oven at least." Biggrin

Edit: I guess what I'm saying is that I'm wanting to believe some of them were redeemed, despite being so wrong about so much. Maybe it's a fool's hope.

Andy Stearns's picture


Bonhoeffer does not think of the scriptures like you or I would. He sees the the Scriptures as the physical documents and writings of the Bible. However, he also speaks of a "word of the Scriptures." This is a distinct concept. This an existential idea, much like Barth's idea that Scripture can at times become God's Word to us. We think of the Scriptures as being God's word. Bonhoeffer and Barth would say that the scriptures could become a word from God to us. So in this quote, when Bonhoeffer references the resurrection as true only as "a word of the Scriptures," he might mean that, while untrue historically, the statement is true existentially.

Don is right, neo-orthodox often redefine terms. This makes understanding their theology difficult because, though they are using the same words, they are signifying different ideas with these words. Whether this is purposely deceitful or simply the results of his existential Christology I can't say. 

As far as other places where Bonhoeffer is clearer about the resurrection, I don't know of any. He might often speak as though it is true, but he may not mean "true" the way you or I mean "true." 

I agree that this is a difficult statement to decipher. In light of the earlier quotes, as well as Weikart's comment, I believe this should at least cast doubt on him having an orthodox view of Scripture. And hopefully this information cautions us all to read Bonhoeffer very carefully.





JVDM's picture

So, let me get this straight, Andy...

Bonhoeffer's "word of the Scriptures" is about the same as Metaxas' word on Bonhoeffer?

Bonhoeffer believed in the resurrection even though it never actually happened and we can believe in Metaxas' Bonhoeffer even though he never actually existed? 


Am I on the right track??

Charlie's picture

When B. says that the resurrection is myth rather than history, he isn't necessarily consigning it to the realm of fiction. He's saying that one could not prove it using the empirical canons of history, and that it's significance is not in raw factuality. Karl Barth is a good comparison here:

Likewise, how does one experience the presence of the risen Christ? Through the Scriptures and the preaching that witness to it. The risen Christ (arguably) would not be doing people any good if he were not proclaimed to them. 

B.'s statement that one does not go behind the myth to history, that the myth is the real thing, signals the distinction between classical liberal theology and neo-orthodoxy. (Contemporary proponents of that approach are called post-liberal, narrative, or Yale theologians.) Having recognized that the Gospel writers did not simply record Jesus like a video camera, but rather shaped and edited the source material for theological purposes, B. goes on to assert that it is in fact precisely in this editing and shaping that the theological significance of Jesus for the early Christians lay. The intention is to affirm the canon, not deny it.

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Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

JobK's picture

That is, people who were looking for a way to maintain and be connected to historical Christianity for reasons of tradition and spirituality without actually having to believe in it. They didn't want to be liberals who denied and rejected everything because that would mean giving up everything that they saw as being "good" and "useful" about the religion. But they also did not want to adopt high view of scripture, meaning that it is inerrant and infallible based on its being inspired by the Holy Spirit, because that would have run contrary to the scientific, rationalistic context that they were in. So, according to them, some things were true - or mostly true - because they were eyewitness accounts, which means that they are true according to facts or history. But other things were true because they were shared, deeply held ideas that were very important to the people who hold them. In other words, they could be true in a spiritual, metaphysical or religious sense without being true in a factual or historical one. 

For example, consider the term "prophet." We believe that prophets are people who speak for God in God's name and power by virtue of the Holy Spirit speaking through them. Someone from this school would instead regard a prophet as someone who for whatever reason exhorts and leads people to improve themselves ethically, religiously, spiritually etc. So Jesus Christ becomes someone to be emulated and modeled because He encouraged social, political and religious reform as well as personal piety, and was willing to do so in a manner that caused him to offend the powers that be and brought about His death. Now believing this is not problematic, because one can assert that there was a historical person named Jesus Christ who opposed injustice, promoted fidelity to the moral core of the Jewish religion, obtained a band of followers and died for it without opposing any prevailing scientific beliefs. In other words, it is OK to take what the gospels say about Jesus Christ's actual existence as a human being, his parables, the sermon on the mount etc. because science says that those things are OK. But when the gospels talk about the virgin birth, the miracles, his being the Word of God and God's unique Son, His resurrection and ascension, etc. even though the gospels are as clear and explicit about those as they are his parables, since science says that those things are impossible, the neo-orthodoxy school must account for them in another way. However, they do not do as the liberals did, which was reject those things outright, because the neo-orthodoxy people knew that doing so would make the religion worthless, a total waste of time, and they also did not want to dislocate themselves from the Christians of ages past who because of their faith did a lot of difficult, inspiring things and suffered death, imprisonment, etc. Liberalism made it seem as if the martyrs, persecuted, and those who dedicated their lives to help the poor and oppressed did so on the basis of lies and myths and therefore were to be pitied and despised rather than emulated.

So they solved the problem by A) refusing to outright reject such things as the resurrection but only saying that those things could not be proven or demonstrated to be factually true because of their unscientific nature and Cool affirming them to be true because people believed it - if only in a sense - and this belief was very important to the religious and spiritual life of people. So, it was a hedge and a redefinition. According to them, Jesus Christ may not have - and likely did not - actually rise from the dead, but whether he did or not factually is of little consequence. What matters is that believing that Jesus Christ rose from the dead inspired the apostles to carry on his message of social, religious and political reform. So if we believe the same - even in a qualified, contextualized way, we can use this belief to inspire us, strengthen us, reassure us, give us spiritual, mystical metaphysical individual and corporate religious experiences etc. also. So, in this way religious people can make something real and true in a manner that is truly meaningful to them even if it is not real and true to others. Basically, it separates scientific, historical, factual etc. truth from religious truth, making it possible for something to be false in one sense but true in another. So, things that are scientifically true can be false in a religious sense and therefore worthless or harmful in the religious realm, so they should be simply ignored in the religious context. Meanwhile, things that are scientifically false but true in the religious context should be affirmed because of its importance to religious tradition. That is how in their eyes they achieved orthodoxy and remained within the Christian tradition: essentially saying "the virgin birth didn't happen in reality but it happened spiritually", "the second coming won't be a literal event but can be realized in spiritual manner through social and political progress", etc.

You can't say that they were deceiving people, because really there was no one to deceive. They didn't really care about the opinions of what can now be called fundamentalists in their day. They were defining or redefining their own terms for their own purposes. Still, when a neo-orthodoxy guy says that something is true according to scripture, you have to recognize that neo-orthodoxy people reject the idea that the Bible is absolute truth in every way. They believe that science/reason is absolute truth in every way, and that where the Bible deviates from science/reason, it is only true in a religious way. So what they are doing is affirming the religious value of the canon, not the absolute truth of it. For us, we have faith in these things because they are true. For them, their faith isn't because of its truth, but rather because of how it inspires them, gives them religious experiences, and unites them with other Christians throughout history. 

Evangelicals want to claim Bonhoeffer only because the world - and liberals in particular - esteem him. If Bonhoeffer wasn't famous because the world made him so, they'd have no interest in him. Instead of trying to co-opt those that the world esteems, Christians would do better to focus on the Christ that the world hated and rejects, and on those who truly confessed and followed that same Christ.

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura

Marsilius's picture

Andy has done a good job of presenting Bonhoeffer's views. I still have a tussle with the paragraph quoted. The first time I read in in Bonhoeffer's book, it didn't strike me as anything other than typical difficult formulation. But Weikart's comments give one pause.


Bonhoeffer's theology leaned heavily on philosophy: including Hegel and Nietsche. He likewise was highly influenced by Barth. Barth was highly influenced by Kierkegaard (who, for what it is worth hated Hegel's ideas). Kierkegaard was likely a genuine believer who raged against insincere religion. Kierkegaard was against trying to prove faith or the Bible. This concept helped Barth to form his own theology. While he rejected classic Liberal theology, he accepted the premises of the Enlightenment. So man becomes a critic of the Bible. But on the other hand, Barth continually turns this around so that the Bible is a critic over man. And as for Apologetics, well Barth did not see that as altogether important. He was certain we can not assert the existence of a creator by looking at creation (not just because man is a sinner, we just can't do it). And here Bonhoeffer departed from Barth. He believed in an apologetic for the Christian faith.


But all these thinkers: Kierkegaard, Barth, and Bonhoeffer accepted the enlightenment idea of no miracles as fact (see my article above). Since the Bible taught miracles, Barth put them in another dimension. Still true, but not true in space-time history. This is helps one comprehend these writers. Enlightenment ideas were for them established ideas (perhaps verities). This, of course is nothing close to how Bible writers perceived miracles (including the resurrection). The reason these men could re-intepret Scripture is because again, the Enlightenment taught them man's capacity to comprehend truth had surpassed that of the Bible writers. Among theologians in their lifetimes, almost no one of much importance made consistent literal interpretation of the Bible. We all tend to believe what others around us that we trust have to say. For me, this explains a great deal of why Barth and Bonhoeffer could not break out of the idea that the Bible had lots of errors.


After he wrote his Christ the Center Bonhoeffer was hugely impacted by the church of Adam Clayton Powell in NYC. He thought differently about Christianity afterward. Among these people, the Bible was more literally to be believed. When he returned to Germany and set up his independent Pastors' school, he told them plainly, "When you hear the Bible, you hear the Word of God." He gave no qualifications. But in fact, he could never break away from philosophy in his writings.

SBashoor's picture

Marsilius wrote:

After he wrote his Christ the Center Bonhoeffer was hugely impacted by the church of Adam Clayton Powell in NYC. He thought differently about Christianity afterward. Among these people, the Bible was more literally to be believed. When he returned to Germany and set up his independent Pastors' school, he told them plainly, "When you hear the Bible, you hear the Word of God." He gave no qualifications. But in fact, he could never break away from philosophy in his writings.

I've heard something to this effect before, even the claim that his time in the States provided a kind of evangelical moment for Bonhoeffer. Would be interested in hearing more about that. But even if true, that doesn't mean he should automatically get a pass on everything.

M. Scott Bashoor Happy Slave of Christ

Jay's picture

SBashoor wrote:
I've heard something to this effect before, even the claim that his time in the States provided a kind of evangelical moment for Bonhoeffer. Would be interested in hearing more about that. But even if true, that doesn't mean he should automatically get a pass on everything.

Bonhoeffer's 'evangelical moment' is described in chapter seven of Metaxas' work.  I would post some of the more intriguing quotes, but Kindle for PC does not allow copying and pasting...there is a brief blurb on it at Wikipedia, and all the standard caveats apply.  Whether Metaxas is writing a hagiography or a biography, I will leave to others to decide.

It does seem like Bonhoeffer was horrified at the thin theological gruel served at Union and sided more with the fundamentalist side during the '30s, but that's all I know about it.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Marsilius's picture

Scott, I'm sorry for the slow response. Had not visited SI for a few days. I have not read Metaxas' book. However, I watched a video in German, in which former students from Bonhoeffer's Finkenwalder pastor's school testified exactly the way I have cited. If you can understand German, I can let you know how to get the video.


As to Bonhoeffer's "evangelical moment," I would call it rather his real moment of faith. But note, I do not call him an Evangelical. Here is what he said, "(While in England in 1932) for the first time in my life I began to read the Bible. This is really terrible to have to admit. I had already preached often, was very familiar with the church, had spoken and written much. Yet I was still not a Christian, but rather my own lord: completely wild and unchained. And in this abandonment I was very pleased with myself. The Bible, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from all of this. Since then, everything is different. I have sensed it clearly and others have sensed it in me. And this has brought me great freedom." From Eberhard Bethge's Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 574. I have made my own translation for this post.


The Cost of Discipleship was written after this time. If you have read it, you will note that it sounds like the sermons of a newly-converted youth pastor. Among other things he says there is no true forgiveness without repentance.

Jay's picture

I noticed what seemed to be a difference in Bonhoeffer after the Union Seminary / NYC as well in Metaxas, and I believe that Metaxas actually commented on the changes as well in his book.  Just adding some more fuel to the discussion.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

dcbii's picture


Marsilius wrote:

Scott, I'm sorry for the slow response. Had not visited SI for a few days. I have not read Metaxas' book. However, I watched a video in German, in which former students from Bonhoeffer's Finkenwalder pastor's school testified exactly the way I have cited. If you can understand German, I can let you know how to get the video.

Es wurde mich wirklich interessiern dieses Video zu sehen, wenn es "online" ist.

Dave Barnhart

Marsilius's picture



ich bezweifle ob es Online zuzuschauen ist aber ich werde mich bemühen dies herauszufinden.

dcbii's picture


Marsilius wrote:



ich bezweifle ob es Online zuzuschauen ist aber ich werde mich bemühen dies herauszufinden.

Vielen Dank!

Wenn es nicht "online" ist, wo kann ich es kaufen? Ist es sehr teuer?

Dave Barnhart

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.