Bonhoeffer: A Biographical Sketch
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906—1945) was a brilliant Christian theologian and writer whose life was tragically cut short when he was executed by the Nazis near the end of World War II for his alleged involvement in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. For many years, Bonhoeffer served as spokesperson1 for the Confessing Church (made up of German Christians who opposed Hitler and Nazism) and also promoted pacifism.2 He fervently spoke against the anti-semitic Aryan Clause and defended the Jews,3 because for him, “What is at stake is . . . the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God.”4 Bonhoeffer is widely admired as a 20th century Christian martyr.
Bonhoeffer had a reputation of being a brilliant theologian even before his martyrdom. His genius attracted the attention of many famous theologians, including the great Karl Barth, who admired Bonhoeffer’s works. Many believe that if Bonhoeffer had lived longer, he may have numbered among the greatest theologians of all time. Several of Bonhoeffer’s most influential books were published posthumously, such as his magnum opus Ethics. Even in its draft form, the influence of Ethics has been massive. Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison were also published posthumously; they contain his personal writings during his Nazi imprisonment, and have received similar admiration.
Bonhoeffer wrote many other books which are now beloved by Christians everywhere, such as The Cost of Discipleship, which contains Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between costly grace and cheap grace. Bonhoeffer was also a gifted pastor, and his book Life Together has been a foundational text for many on the importance of Christian community. A friend recently said to me that this book is “one of the most beautiful and pastoral works ever.” To learn more about Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, written by Eberhard Bethge—Bonhoeffer’s student and close friend who was responsible for the posthumous publication of Bonhoeffer’s works.
Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on Christianity and modern science are less well known, but no less important. Bonhoeffer’s older brother Karl Friedrich was a physicist and his older sister Christine studied biology.5 Although he was not a scientist himself, Bonhoeffer appreciated the natural sciences and wished that he had more opportunities to study them. In a 1944 letter written from a Nazi jail cell, he said: “It’s a matter of great regret to me that I’m so ignorant of the natural sciences, but it’s a gap that cannot be filled now.“6 His writings on Genesis and modern science offer deep wisdom for today’s debates about origins.
Bonhoeffer on Creation and Science
In 1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer drafted a “Lutheran Catechism” with his friend and practicing clergyman Franz Hildebrandt7 that included a question about whether the biblical creation stories contradict science. Bonhoeffer provides a Barthian answer: that Genesis and science are trying to understand the origin of the world in two very different ways, and thus we cannot not speak of their harmony or contradiction. Bonhoeffer then reproves anyone who mandates that science must conform to a literal six-day origin of the cosmos. Here’s an excerpt from the Catechism on the subject:
Question: Doesn’t the creation story contradict science?
Answer: To engage in scientific research and to have faith are two different things. Science has its own full and distinctive authority. Every child knows that the earth did not come about simply in six days. Yet not everyone knows that God creates the world through his Spirit and human beings according to God’s own image.8
Bonhoeffer on Creation and Fall
Bonhoeffer wrote a short commentary on Genesis 1-3 based on his 1933-4 lectures titled Creation and Fall. In this book, Bonhoeffer explained that Genesis reflected the pre-modern, pre-scientific cosmology of the ancient Near East (ANE) and thus it cannot be harmonized with what science has made known about the structure of the universe today. The Bible accommodates the revealed Word of God in plain language that the original recipients of that revelation would have understood. To mandate that Genesis revealed science beyond the understanding of the ANE people to whom it was revealed calls into question whether God has really spoken in a way that humans have heard and understood. Bonhoeffer expressed this as follows:
Commentary on Genesis 1:6-10: 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. The idea of verbal inspiration will not do. The writer of the first chapter of Genesis is behaving in a very human way. Considering all this there is apparently very little to say about this section. And yet something completely new occurs on this next day of creation. The world of the fixed, the firm, the unchangeable, the unliving comes into being.9
Bonhoeffer on the “Days” of Genesis 1
Bonhoeffer is a “non–concordist” interpreter of Genesis. That is, he believed that the days of Genesis 1 are not computable in hours or millions of years or any chronological unit whatsoever. Before Genesis was written, Bronze Age peoples of the fertile crescent believed that pagan gods were responsible for the motion of the sun, moon, and stars and attributed the rhythms in nature like day and night to these demiurges, and not to the laws of physics as we do today. So, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion it is equally wrong to define the days of Genesis as literal 24-hour periods, as young-earth creationists do, or as long ages, as old-earth creationists do. Genesis is dethroning the pagan gods of the ancient Near East—not revealing the scientific origin of the Earth!
Commentary on Genesis 1.4b-5: The day … is not the rotation of the earth around the sun—which can be understood physically—or the calculable change of light and darkness; the day is … what is called a mythological quantity. The gods of day and night who, according to pagan belief, inspire and animate the world rule are here totally dethroned … When the Bible speaks of six days of creation it may well have been thinking of the day of morning and evening, but in any case it does not mean this day in a computable sense; … The physical problem … in which the “day” is being considered … does not disparage biblical thought, whether the creation occurred in rhythms of millions of years or single days, and we have no occasion to protest the latter or to doubt the former. But the question as such does not concern us. To the extent that his word is the word of man the biblical author was limited by his time and his knowledge, and we dispute this as little as the fact that through this word only God himself is speaking to us of his creation. The days God created are the rhythms in which the creation rests.10
Bonhoeffer on the “Historical” Adam: We are All Adam
Bonhoeffer believed that, for the Christian, Genesis 2-4 teaches that man and woman is the original form of the Church in community. Like Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer sees the story of Adam as a story of all of us, and Genesis 2-4 thus cannot not be reduced to the story of two individuals from humanity’s distant past. It is a story of the community of love between a man and women in its truest form, and therefore, of the Church glorifying and worshiping God the Creator (as is confessed in the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed).
Commentary on Genesis 2:24: It could be said that here the narrator is obviously stumbling. How can Adam, who knows nothing of a father or a mother, say such a thing? We could also say this is the narrator’s practical application of the story, or something of the kind. Really, though, we recognize a basic fact here which has so far been hidden and which has now, as it were unintentionally, come to light. We ourselves are the Adam who speaks … Here the community of man and woman is the community derived from God, the community of love glorifying and worshiping him as the Creator. It is therefore the Church in its original form. And because it is the Church it is a community eternally bound together … [the] abysmal destruction of the original state does not abolish the fact that, in the truest sense, the community of man and woman is intended to be the Church (Eph 5:30-32).11
Bonhoeffer does not directly address Darwin, Darwinism, or evolutionary science in his major works, but it is easy to discern from Bonhoeffer’s writings that he considers it dangerous to use the Bible to oppose the clear findings of modern science. The afterword to Creation and Fall, written by the editor, confirms this conclusion:
Bonhoeffer stated during his lecture course in 1931-32 that “against certain conclusions of natural science” theology had produced “only rearguard actions” and indeed what were frankly irresponsible, unsound apologetics. This applied particularly to the way in which theology had dealt with Darwin’s demonstration that humankind was descended from the animals. Bonhoeffer was not interested at all in the rejection of scientific knowledge. The reconstruction of the empirical world by the exact sciences and the reality that this scientific construct represents, in which heavenly bodies and atoms as well as living creatures are to be found, he saw embraced by the one who is most real of all. All that mattered to him was to witness to the revelation of this one God.12
Anytime someone says that the Christian faith or the Bible opposes modern science, remember that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is here to defend you. And when people equate modern science with atheism, remind them that they are calling one of the most famous and beloved Evangelicals, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an atheist by doing so—the very same Bonhoeffer who died in a Nazi prison for his faith on April 9, 1945.