Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood what it was to take up the cross and follow Jesus, even if it meant stepping out of the norm of what Christians were expected to do. As a young pastor and seminary professor in Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer knew that Hitler’s regime was setting up an idol to be worshipped, realizing that the German Christian community was getting hookwinked by the Nazis. Why did this Christian pacifist turn into a co-conspirator attempting to assassinate Hitler?

The following blog post from our church’s Lenten series reflects on the cost of discipleship that Bonhoeffer had to calculate. Granted, I am painting the standard portrait of part of Bonhoeffer’s life. Questions still abound: Was Bonhoeffer right in what he did in trying to assassinate Hitler? (One of my theological heroes, T.F. Torrance, says “NO”, biographer Eric Metaxas says “YES”). At least one historian disputes that Bonhoeffer ever gave up his pacifist beliefs at all! Did he abandon his evangelical faith in the Tegel prison, accusing the evangelical church with being complicit with genocide? Or was he strengthened in his faith through his ordeal for the sake of the Gospel? The definitive answers to these questions remain buried in some unmarked grave at the Flossenburg concentration camp.

As an introduction, author Jim Belcher gives us a glimpse of a trip he took with his family to visit the concentration camp at Flossenburg, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his final twelve hours…

Lessons in Lent

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the Tegel military prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the Tegel military prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not able to sleep very well for nights.

Bonhoeffer had just arrived in New York in 1939. At the urging of
friends, the young German evangelical theologian was able to cross the
Atlantic ocean, giving him sanctuary from the impending doom that
would become World War 2, as instigated by Hitler and the German Nazi
movement. In the safety of good fellowship, Bonhoeffer would have
been spared the terrors of war and enjoy a life of relative ease.

Yet Bonhoeffer was troubled in his soul.

The difficulty was that Bonhoeffer knew that the lives of European
Jews were in dreadful danger. Two years earlier, he had written a book
entitled, The Cost of Discipleship. This book was an
extended exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5-7, part
of the focus of our sermon…

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About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

5 responses to “Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship

  • Clarke Morledge

    Just as a commentary on my introductory note, much as been made of the “liberal” trajectory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology. Bonhoeffer was the darling of the infamous “Death of God” movement by radical Methodist theologians (and others!) in the 1960s, citing Bonhoeffer’s phrase from Letters and Papers from Prison advocating a “religionless Christianity”. Granted, to some extent, Bonhoeffer, like Karl Barth, does not fit into nice, neat American evangelical categories. I will clearly concede that.

    However, such an appropriation of Bonhoeffer’s theology in the direction of “liberalism” is completely out of context. Sadly, I find that there are some evangelicals who fall for this type of tripe. For example, in the Richard Weikart post that I linked to, Weikart states Bonhoeffer’s view:

    …in a footnote to Cost of Discipleship [where] he warned against viewing statements about Christ’s resurrection as ontological statements (i.e., statements about something that happened in real space and time).

    You mean, there is no bodily resurrection? This sounds pretty damming, does it not? Wow. When I first read the footnote of pages 255-256 of the Macmillan printing of Cost of Discipleship that I have, it sounded that way, too:

    The confusion of ontological statements with proclaiming testimony is the essence of all fanaticism. The sentence: Christ is risen and present, is the dissolution of the unity of the scripture if it is ontologically understood…. The sentence: Christ is risen and present, strictly understood only as testimony of scripture, is true only as the word of scripture.

    Unfortunately, if you read the footnote within its proper context, Bonhoeffer’s message is just the opposite of what Weikart contends. Bonhoeffer is critiquing those like Rudolph Bultmann who would drive a wedge between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. By “Christ is risen and present“, Bonhoeffer has in mind Bultmann’s claim that Christ is risen and present in the heart of the believer in an existential sense and that this has nothing to do with the eyewitness testimony as found in Scripture grounded in history. In other words, Bonhoeffer in contrast argues to say that Christ is risen and present is true only as the word of scripture; i.e. grounded in the apostolic eyewitness testimony accepted in faith. Weikart has simply confused the context of the footnote.

    What makes the Bonhoeffer quote that Weikart references here enigmatic is that elsewhere Bonhoeffer shares with Karl Barth a certain skepticism regarding the ability of historians to somehow “prove” the Bodily Resurrection of Christ. Historians can neither “prove” nor “disprove” the Resurrection. Ultimately, belief in the Resurrection is bound up with a statement of faith grounded in the confident witness of Scripture. I think where perhaps Barth and Bonhoeffer might fall short is that according to folks like N.T. Wright and recently Michael Licona, historical method actually lends support for the history of the Resurrection in terms of its plausibility, offering the best explanation possible in light of the available evidence. Fair enough. I would agree. But the danger in saying that the Resurrection could be “proved” scientifically would tend to minimalize the role of faith, which in my view, was Bonhoeffer’s concern. But it hardly warrants the charge of “liberalism” implicit in Weikart’s critique.

    Excuse me for being perhaps a little snarky here, but I looked back at Weikart’s CV and learned that, lo and behold, he works for the Discovery Institute. I do not know why, but it seems like (almost) every time I run into some sophisticated analysis by someone with an evangelical background that strikes me as misguided, that I can find some reference to the Discovery Institute behind it. Why is that? Those folks sometimes make me want to rip the little hair I have left out of my head!

    Surely, Weikart is right to show that Eric Metaxas has made Bonhoeffer sound too much like an American evangelical than can be supported by history. Bonhoeffer did not accept the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture, but I would contend that Bonhoeffer conceded this not because of a desire to undermine Biblical authority. Instead, he sought to argue for it. He lived in an era when a modernistic approach to history threatened the very possibility of miracle. The German 19th and 20th century overconfidence in the power of human reason was something that Bonhoeffer struggled against. Little did he know that half a century later a postmodernist approach to history would render the older modernistic approach as being captive to culture. Much of what he was getting at in his writings on these contentious issues could have been stated more clearly. Fortunately or unfortunately, I still contend that getting at the “real” Bonhoeffer remains a mystery at best. Nevertheless, at least on this particular point regarding the Bodily Resurrection, I will take Metaxas as being more reliable than Weikart any day.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer surely wrestled with questions of historicity like so many scholars have had in the past couple hundred years, but so far as I know, he believed in Jesus Christ crucified and risen in history, in real space and time!


  • Clarke Morledge

    I neglected to mention that Eric Metaxas’ book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is the most extensive and popular of the Bonhoeffer biographies to date:

    I have yet to read Metaxas (except for some Internet essays, like the one linked to from the blog post intro above), but apparently, aside from Richard Weikart noted above, I found another review by Clifford Green that takes issue with the historical method used by Metaxas:

    Clifford Green comes across as a lot more measured than Weikart’s thoughtful yet more ideologically driven piece linked into the introduction to the main blog post above. I tend to think that Green writes with more authority considering that Green served as editor of the recent definitive collection of Bonhoeffer Works. Though I think Green mutes too much Bonhoeffer’s disagreement with Union’s neo-orthodox/liberal theology by noting an appreciation for the friends Bonhoeffer met at Union. Being that he published his essay in Christian Century, Green’s bent is probably less conservative than either Weikart or Metaxas.

    I have Metaxas’ book as an audiobook. After doing the research for this blog post, I look forward to reading it in light of the controversy it has generated.

    Perhaps we need a new intellectual movement: the Quest for the Historical Dietrich Bonhoeffer!! 😉


    • John Paine

      Outstanding job on this post (and in presenting it in church)! You not only summarized Bonhoeffer’s story, but you hit the high points of his integrity and gave us a feel for the man and his times and circumstances. I am so impressed. Thank you!


    • Clarke Morledge

      It is amazing what I miss out on by not having cable TV…. and that is not much frankly.

      I saw a clip with Eric Metaxas (I keep pronouncing his name wrong, it is “meh-tåks-us”, I believe now) being interviewed on a popular conservative political TV show, and I can understand more why some evangelicals and liberals alike have felt that Metaxas has co-opted Bonhoeffer for his own polemic narrative. I do look forward still to reading the book and drawing my own conclusion, but I find the following review by Victoria Barnett, one of the general editors of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works, to be one who calls out Metaxas’ misinterpretation of his subject:

      If Barnett is correct, and from my studies in Bonhoeffer in the past, I am inclined to believe her more so than not, then the portrait of Bonhoeffer is far more complex than what Metaxas paints.

      But the different perspectives on Bonhoeffer are still good, just as long as we keep in mind that it is really impossible to do history without some form of bias creeping in. We need the dialogue, if for no other reason than to keep us humble.


  • Clarke Morledge

    Here is yet another new look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory by UVA historian Charles Marsh. Marsh drops a bombshell on those who are probably enamored with Eric Metaxas’ narrative appealing to evangelicals. I have some serious doubts regarding Marsh’s bombshell, but it surely sounds provocative. If someone reads Marsh, I would like to know what you think. If Bonhoeffer is being “hijacked,” who is the one doing the hijacking? It all just goes to show that the study of history (which includes the Bible) can be perilous business.

    Here is an interview with the author that catches your attention:

    But here is a review at the Wall Street Journal that reveals the bomb:


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