In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Author Eric Metaxas has written a massive new biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. In some ways, Metaxas’s book is as intimidating as its subject. Skillfully written, thoroughly researched and comprehensive in its scope, it is a work that is worthy of someone who was larger than life.
For many evangelicals, Bonhoeffer has been elevated to near sainthood. And it is easy to see why. Bonhoeffer stood fast in his opposition to the Nazi regime when many in the church did not. Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s opposition was so strong that he was eventually arrested, imprisoned and executed at a concentration camp in Flossenburg for being involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler.
However, Metaxas gives insight into Dietrich Bonhoeffer before he was the Bonhoeffer of legend. Even then it was clear that he, like Moses, was “no ordinary child” (Acts 7:20). Yet many of his early ministry experiences leading a small youth group in a church were so much like that of my own students, that I could not help smiling. The group was small and Bonhoeffer was anxious to see it increase in numbers. His early teaching too was marked by the kind of zeal often sees in young ministers, an eagerness to share the ideas they have learned in the classroom that sometimes outstrips their own ability.
As I read about Bonhoeffer’s early days in ministry, I was reminded of his colleague Helmut Thielicke’s advice published under the title, “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.” In it Thielicke explains why the “ordinary Christian of a live congregation” fears theology. Their aversion is often the sad result of personal experience. Thielicke describes the young theological student who: “Under a considerable display of the apparatus of exegetical science and surrounded by the air of the initiated…produces paralyzing and unhappy trivialities.”
However, while Bonhoeffer may have tried to say too much in those early days, nobody would have accused him of dealing with trivialities. If anything, one can’t help thinking that “trivial” is exactly the word Bonhoeffer would use to describe the church in the United States. In fact, this was exactly how he assessed the theological liberalism of this country in his day. After Bonhoeffer visited New York’s famous Riverside Church and heard Harry Emerson Fosdick preach, he summed up the experience this way: “The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God. Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, indifference.”
Bonhoeffer’s critique not only correctly assessed the flaw that lay behind Fosdick’s considerable talent but looked into the future and diagnosed the soul of the modern church. I fear that while Bonhoeffer might commend us for resisting liberal theology, he might take us to task for adopting its chief vices. We thank God that we are not like that theological liberal over there but we suffer from our own conservative brand of egotism and indifference. The worship of the contemporary evangelicalism is just as prone to be self indulgent, self-satisfied and self-congratulatory as the liberalism Bonhoeffer condemned. We may have avoided the theology of liberalism but not its pride.