Bonhoeffer on Scripture: God’s True and Sufficient Word for Christians

BonhoefferA few weeks ago I started what I hope will be a series of posts developing a robust theology of Scripture. The first two articles looked at the writing of John Calvin: firstly challenging those who set their opinions about God above what he has revealed about himself; and, secondly, correcting the common error of separating the Spirit’s ministry from biblical truth. In this post I am going to do little more than quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer at length and append a few comments. But if the name Bonhoeffer is unknown to you then I encourage you to put this article aside until you have read a little about his life and writing. Below I have arranged four quotations from Bonhoeffer under three headings, two attributes of Scripture and our approach to it.

The Bible is true

Bonhoeffoer wrote, ”We have become accustomed to seeing religion as something that corresponds to a need of the human psyche, something that then satisfies this need. Something that is supposed to lead from the restlessness of our existence to calm, from the mad rush of our lives to tranquility. Something in which, quite removed from our jobs, professions and everyday lives, we can come to our true selves. Then we say religion is something beautiful, something valuable, something necessary for a good life. It is supposed to be the only thing that can make one truly happy in the depths of one’s being. Meanwhile we tend to forget the one decisive question, whether religion is also something true, whether it is the truth. For it could be, of course, that while religion is a beautiful thing, it is not true, that it is all a nice, pious illusion—but still an allusion. And the most furious attacks on religion have been sparked by the fact that people in the church itself have often talked as though the question of truth were only  a secondary question. But whoever so speaks only sees religion from the perspective of human beings and their needs, not from that of God and his claims.”

The Bible is sufficient

“We want to keep this firmly in mind: the word of God, as found in the Bible and as it sounds forth to us in the proclamation of the gospel, needs no decoration. It is its own decoration, its own glory, its own beauty. This is certainly true. But as is especially true of human beauty, the word of God cannot withdraw itself from the decoration of those who love it. As is true of decorating that which is truly beautiful, the decoration of the word of God can only consist of making its own inner beauty shine forth all the more gloriously—nothing alien to it, nothing false, nothing artificial, no kitschy trinkets and no cosmetics, nothing that covers up its own beauty but only what reveals and brings it to light.” Throughout the ages churches have been tempted to update the gospel message (you can read what Paul says about that). Christians have also sought innovative methods to reach people. But I have to agree with Bonhoeffer: Bible teaching has and always will be God’s means of growing his church, numerically and spiritually. The word of God needs no decoration, just faithful proclamation and a commitment to and confidence in the truth.

The Bible nourishes Christians

DevotionalIn an exposition on parts of Psalm 119, Bonhoeffer said, ”There is no standing still. Every gift, every increment of knowledge and insight I receive only drives me deeper into the word of God. For God’s word I need time. To rightly understand the commands of God, I must often ponder their meaning for a long time. Nothing could be more wrong than the kind of intense activity or emotional high that denies the value of hard thinking and reflection. Such engagement with the Bible is also not just the business of those who are especially called to this vocation but the business of anyone who wants to walk in God’s ways. Admittedly, it is often the case that God calls us to act quickly with no delay; but God also calls us to quietness and meditation. So I am often both permitted and required to halt for hours or days over one and the same word until I am enlightened with the right insight. No one is so advanced that he or she no longer needs to do this. No one may believe that he or she has been excused from this because of too many other active responsibilities. God’s word claims my time. God himself has entered into time and now wills that I give him my time. To be Christian is not something that can be handled in a moment, but demands time. God has given us the Scripture, from which we are to discern God’s will. The Scripture wants to be read and thought about, every day afresh.”


The Bible is true and sufficient, able to make us wise for salvation and also shape us for service (2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Bible is God’s means for maturing believers, strengthening faith and correcting error. If we have understood this then it will show in our treatment of the Bible, for we will search and meditate on what God says. An unread Bible is not a sign of being too busy but a statement that hearing from God registers low, if at all, on your list of priorities. It is no wonder that our spiritual growth is stunted. The woman who refuses to refuel her car is not surprised when she has to stop on the side of the freeway. Listen to Bonhoeffer once more, “And those who love this word of God that has sounded forth for two thousand years have not let themselves be talked out of contributing the most beautiful thing they could make as its decoration. And their most beautiful work could be nothing else than something invisible, namely, an obedient heart, but from this obedient heart there springs forth the visible work, the audible song in praise of God and Jesus Christ.”

Christian Responsibility in the Public Sphere

Dietrich BonhoefferSome time ago I posted on whether Christians should care about politics. The answer I came to was, yes – we should care about the public sphere. The question of what we should do though, was left hanging. I’ve stolen my answer to this question from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor before and during WW2, he lived in Germany during the rise of Nazism and he fought it’s influence over the church. He’s one of Christianity’s most significant thinkers when it comes to ethics because he had to work out whether it was okay to do what the government said when it started denying equality and oppressing Jews and blacks and homosexuals. He had to figure out whether the church should be rebelling against the state, whether you could lie about hiding Jews in your basement when the Gestapo come knocking and he actually ended up getting involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler (read about Bonhoeffer in this awesome, though perhaps not entirely accurate, biography). So he did a fair bit of thinking about how the church is supposed to relate to the government and he writes the following:

“…there are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state: First, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e. it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Second, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. “Do good to all people.” In both these courses of action, the church serves the free state in its free way, and at times when laws are changed the church may in no way withdraw itself from these two tasks. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”

Hold the state accountable

Blame CartoonThe church’s first responsibility is to be a watch dog. That is, the church should decry injustice when it arises but also praise the state in its strengths. The SAPS have caught a cyber-criminal network recently that was robbing the Road Traffic Management Council. The government rightly recognised the advantages of hosting a world cup in terms of national unity. For all it’s weaknesses, the state is doing many things right.

This, I think, is where prayer features. Praying for our leaders as Paul exhorts Timothy, “I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, even kings and all who are in authority” (1 Tim 2:1). These are people acting under God’s authority and when they do foolish things they denigrate God but when they act wisely it is to his glory. So pray for, respect and honour them and when it is time for critique do so in that same spirit.

Often the Christian witness in the public sphere is undermined simply by the fact that we only complain, we never have anything positive to say or anything in defense of the government. Our complaints are not characterised by respect and not actually worthy of being heeded. As much truth as they may contain, they totally lack love.

Aid victims of the state

No matter the political systems, some people are undermined. There will always be minority groups, there will always be poverty, there will always be people to whom the state is blind. Our critique and our prayers don’t absolve us of responsibility towards those people.

Justice Definition A while ago I worked through Tim Keller’s Generous Justice with my Bible study. Keller does incredible job of making clear the responsibility of the Christian towards the downtrodden. It’s rooted ultimately in the character of God who comes to us when we are totally undeserving of love and shows us mercy. So mercy in our lives is a reflection of the God who redeems us who shows us unfathomable generosity “he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?” So now as Christians, recipients of God’s mercy and grace, we need to realise that reflecting the image of God is going to look something like that. The ideal is that no one should live in poverty, no family break-down or perhaps in terms that have been used before, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain”. Yes we wait for the old order of things to pass away but in this order, we show what we look forward to.

Jam a spoke in the wheel

Sometimes the state’s action is irredeemable. It doesn’t attempt justice, it attempts injustice. There is nothing that can be redeemed about killing Jews. Closer to home, there is nothing that can be redeemed about segregation of races so the responsibility of Christians is not just to critique it but to fight it. If that means sitting in non-whites seats so be it, if that means sheltering people who don’t have their passes in your house, so be it. The system itself is evil.

Of course, this is the most interesting response of the church because it’s surprising to find an institution that is normally docile reacting in rebellion but it is rooted in the fact that the state’s authority comes from God. So when the state deviates from God’s rule and calls for injustice – not just inadvertently allows injustice – then the response is to reject the rule of the state because, and this is the way Bonhoeffer argues it, they’ve lost that authority from God, they’ve forfeited it. So it stems also from the fact that our authority is God, and God is a God of justice, and if we promote justice, we will oppose the state’s call for evil.

Bonhoeffer on the Cost of Discipleship

Photo of BonhoefferEarlier this year I was asked to preach at the first of our quarterly youth rallies. After deliberating for a few days, I decided to preach on discipleship and the cost of following Christ. In my preparation I planned to frame the talk with writings from and references to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death. This was not to be, since wisdom told me most 15 year old South Africans would simply switch off at the mere mention of World War 2. That is a pity, because fewer stories from history epitomise the cost of Christian discipleship more than Bonhoeffer’s.

At the age of 31 he wrote his outstanding Nachfolge (German for ‘Discipleship’). Largely a critique of the nominal and secularised Christianity rife in Germany, this work is legendary, and should never be forgotten, for Bonhoeffer’s illuminating distinction between costly and cheap grace. Read it. In the preface Bonhoeffer asks where answering the call to discipleship will lead, what decisions and partings it will demand. And his answer is that we need to go to Christ, for only he knows the answer. “Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy” (p40, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4).

Flossenberg concentration campFor anyone who does not know the rest of his story: Bonhoeffer died 8 years later in a Nazi concentration camp for plotting to assassinate the Führer. When Bonhoeffer penned the words above he had no inkling that faithfully following Christ’s call to discipleship would lead to his own death. Did he still consider it joy when he sat in Flossenbürg concentration camp awaiting that fateful hour? Did he wonder where Christ’s mercy was in his latter life and execution? I think Bonhoeffer would tell us that the costliness of the call is unavoidable, yet full of God’s wondrous grace. Perhaps the most famous quote from his Nachfolge is this, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ” (p45). Note how he saw God’s grace and Christian cross bearing as inseparable, and far from divergent.

Bonhoeffer bookApparently the last thing Bonhoeffer said to anyone was a relayed message to George Best, through a fellow inmate at Flossenbürg: “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life.” But Bonhoeffer approached that end as he had lived his entire Christian life, well acquainted with the intertwining of grace and cost, discipleship and death, and was not deterred from trusting his God’s sovereignty. A doctor at the camp wrote of Bonhoeffer’s last moments, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (Quoted in Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p531).

Jesus said this about such disciples, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” While Bonhoeffer undoubtedly gained life, I fear many of us consider loss to be incongruent with faith in Christ. We all long for cheap grace. In our age of consumerism we spend eagerly and enthusiastically. But when discipleship becomes costly we shake our heads. Many Christians today are unwilling to be disciples who know and experience the cross to be part of our discipleship. To these Bonhoeffer would pose this question, ‘How can we cheapen something that was so very costly to God?’