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

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The Illiberality of Liberalism

NickImageThis edition of In the Nick of Time was originally published on May 26, 2006.

Last weekend I had occasion to attend a commencement exercise at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. St. Thomas is, as you might guess, a Catholic institution of higher learning. About half of the students are non-Catholics, however, and the professors are all over the ideological map. Even the theology department has room for liberal Protestant feminism.

At each commencement, the university designates one senior as “Tommie of the Year.” This student, selected for academics, leadership, and character, is given the opportunity to deliver one of the two main addresses at the commencement ceremony. The “Tommie of the Year” for 2006 was Mr. Benjamin Kessler, a football star, philosophy major, and student in the undergraduate seminary affiliated with the University of St. Thomas.

For his commencement address, Kessler chose to focus on the profound selfishness that pervades American society. He began by referencing an episode in which a campus activity had turned into a food fight that had to be broken up by the St. Paul police. Then he named a campus controversy in which some unmarried couples (both hetero- and homosexual, including some faculty couples) protested a ban on cohabitation during official university trips. Finally, he branded birth control as a selfish practice that undermines the best interests of women, men, and children.

When Kessler talked about the food fight, the atmosphere of the commencement became noticeably charged. When he labeled the protests against cohabitation as a form of selfishness, he began to get catcalls from the crowd, and several professors and students exited the stadium. When he stated that birth control was selfish, much of the assembly erupted into derision. Calls rang from across the stadium to “pull him down,” and “get him off the stage.” Factions within the crowd made repeated attempts to drown out Kessler’s remarks with shouts and jeers. Someone even touched off a siren.

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