It is remarkable how much attention there is in our time for the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). This spring, guest lectures about Bonhoeffer are being given in various places in the Netherlands by Prof Dr B Kamphuis (Kampen) and Prof Dr G C de Hertog (Apeldoorn). In the week in which I write this, the Dutch daily, Nederlands Dagblad, organised a ‘Bonhoeffer tour’ to Germany led by these two professors. Moreover, a book edited by Dr G C den Hertog and Dr B Kamphuis has been published titled Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The challenge of his life and work for today.
Apparently the authors find it very important for ‘the tradition’ to acquaint readers with the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is seen by many theologians as a ‘guide for the churches’ today. He’s even called the ‘prophet of the 21st century’. Extensive references to Bonhoeffer are also given in the recently published book by Dr G Dekker titled, The Continuing Revolution, about the developments in the (liberated) Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (the GKV). Dr Dekker chooses to provide Bonhoeffer’s angle in his evaluation of developments within the GKV.
Why is Bonhoeffer considered to be so important for today? I read in a newspaper article the following:
‘Bonhoeffer lived during the first half of the twentieth century in a totally different situation than we find ourselves in today. Yet his texts have an electrifying effect. Read a few sentences from him and you feel that he provides a depth of insight and firm direction. That is probably the most important conservative power of Bonhoeffer: his incisive, illuminating, poignant style.’
It should not surprise us that Bonhoeffer as person also attracts attention. Although he died relatively young he not only left an impressive theological legacy but, young as he was, he made the right choice in Hitler’s Germany: with all his might he opposed the Nazi regime. He was still quite young when he died as a resistance hero at the hands of the Gestapo executioners. Shortly before the liberation, on the 9th April 1945, upon personal instructions from Hitler, he was hanged.
But why should reformed people receive instruction from the works of Bonhoeffer? Well, it is said, because Bonhoeffer so aptly saw how things would go in the world after the war. And because he showed that, ‘God is relevant for day to day life, even for modern people who can determine the course of their own lives.’
The reason I am telling you about all this attention to Bonhoeffer is because there has been a major change in GKV circles about the value of the work of this German theologian. In the past, theologians in Kampen [GKV theological university] warned against the theological views expressed in Bonhoeffer’s works. I am thinking, for example, of articles by Prof Dr C Trimp in De Reformatie (Vol. 40, No. 31 et seq.).
Today, however, ‘Kampen’ encourages us to explore the works of Bonhoeffer. They make it sound as if it’s to your detriment if you haven’t read any of Bonhoeffer’s works. Well, you never know.
Recently my attention was drawn to a 1991 article by the ‘Kampen’ dogmatic lecturer Prof Dr B Kamphuis (Radix, Vol. 17, 1 July 1991) in which he discusses a book by Dr G Huntemann about Bonhoeffer. I pass on some passages in which Prof B Kamphuis writes about Bonhoeffer’s views on the Bible as the Word of God.
‘More crucial is Bonhoeffer’s view of Scripture. Huntemann openly concedes that Bonhoeffer was a loyal son of the historical-critical theology, in which the Bible is read as a bundle of human writings and not as God’s permanently-reliable Word…
The trouble is that Bonhoeffer’s biblical criticism has dominated his thinking from the outset. On the one hand he does indeed want to be a revelation- theologian: the way of revelation runs from God to man, from top to bottom. Therein he is fully a student of Karl Barth. But on the other hand, Bonhoeffer sees the Bible as writings from below. Thereby he shows himself to be fully a student of the Liberal theologians who taught him at the University of Berlin…
Where do we find God’s revelation in Christ in this world? Bonhoeffer answers: in the congregation … or: in the persecution of the Christian … or: in the godlessness we experience in this world… These are all attempts to give in this world concrete expression to God’s revelation in Christ, in whom Bonhoeffer believes. But all those attempts are fundamentally flawed. Because God’s revelation in Christ has come down to us concretely in the Gospel: ‘Near you is the Word’ (Rom. 10.8). The word of the Scripture is the word of God himself that testifies of Christ. Bonhoeffer’s lifelong and impressive search for the concrete application of God’s revelation illustrates all the more how impossible it is to give up the reformed faith. His problems were insoluble because they could find no rest in the answer that God himself has given. It is therefore my belief that you cannot put aside Bonhoeffer’s historical-critical views regarding the Bible and then think that you have a more or less reformed Bonhoeffer left over. That there is much that reformed people could learn from Bonhoeffer I concede with Huntemann. But ultimately the content of Bonhoeffer’s theology is far from being reformed.’
‘This is also what makes Bonhoeffer the precursor to a theological modernism that has sought to master his works, for example in the 1960s. Since the actual issue for Bonhoeffer is, “Where does God’s revelation manifest itself concretely in the world?” he struggled with the question of how we can still speak about God from our reality.’
In the course of his argument, Prof Kamphuis states that
‘Bonhoeffer is actually more modern than someone like Bultmann, who via his ‘demythologizing’ of the Gospel tried to translate that into the language of today.’
The article ends with the words:
‘The answers of modern theology are not those of Bonhoeffer. But the methodology is the same. Using that methodology you can only speak about faith in the God who spoke through Holy Scriptures as being unacceptable. In this Bonhoeffer’s views are far from being ours, much further than is evident from Huntemann.’
As I read this entire article Prof Kamphuis wrote 22 years ago, this question is all the more pressing: How is it possible that today Prof Kamphuis can be so positive about Bonhoeffers theology?
Had we not understood that Bonhoeffer’s perspective on Scripture is decisive for his whole theological outlook?