Bonhoeffer and Anonymous Evangelicals

Bonhoeffer and Anonymous Evangelicals

Over at Tim Challies' place, a minor storm is brewing about whether Bonhoeffer was an evangelical (whatever that might mean) or not.   Here are some thoughts:

First, I am no Bonhoeffer scholar, but have enjoyed reading him over the years and found him often helpful and always provocatively stimulating.  Further, many of his letters from prison are deeply moving -- rare in works of theology.

Second, I have noticed a general tendency in American evangelical circles to claim anybody who is helpful or admirable as an evangelical of some sort. It is our equivalent of Rahner's `anonymous Christians' -- except we have `anonymous evangelicals.'   To put it in the idiom of the English class system, many theologians are `decent sorts of chaps who, if they had only known, would have been evangelicals, don't you know.'    The great example of this reception/appropriation/transformation at American evangelical hands is C S Lewis (high church Anglican, believer in purgatory, advocate of the Devil ransom theory of atonement -- these being only the three most obvious of his non-evangelical credentials).   Now, I am not sure why this is, why we need to make somebody a member of the club.  Maybe because there is a general cultural difficulty with finding people who are different to be helpful?   Thus, by making them like us, the problem is overcome.   That is one possibility.

Certainly, when I was at university, DB was the hero of the radical theological left within the Christian world, a world that was the legacy of J A T Robinson and company.  That liberals held this position on Bonhoeffer does not, of course, mean  that this was necessarily a correct reading, any more than the conservative evangelical one must be true because it is endorsed by leading evangelicals; but, in reading DB then, I never found him particularly `evangelical' in the conservative, Protestant sense of the word; nonetheless, I enjoyed his writings, found them stimulating, and was deeply impressed by his stand against the Nazis. Who could not be?  Yet his thought world seemed much closer to that of Barth (who, inevitably, has also had the evangelical make-over in America) than Schmid or Mueller or Warfield or Bavinck or even Berkouwer.  Thus, it has been something of a surprise to me to find him increasingly functioning as a hero of evangelicals in the USA. 

I can understand the need to make our heroes like us.   I am a huge fan of Lawrence of Arabia.  Faith aside, he represents everything I would wish to be and am not.   But, much as I would like to do so, I cannot make him into a Reformed Presbyterian.  At best he was an agnostic.  Thus, I think, it is with Bonhoeffer -- even as an amateur reader of his works, I would be very surprised if we can make him `one of us' without fundamentally twisting his life and thought.   

Sometimes the problem derives from us asking a fundamentally wrong-headed question.  Of more value than `Was he an evangelical?' is surely `How can I learn from him how better to be a Christian?'