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Critical Evaluation of Bonhoeffer on Discipleship (Part 2)

Bonhoeffer’s book on Discipleship is basically an attack against cheap grace using unqualified contradictions, eisegesis, a literal hermeneutic, legalistic standards and unhelpful advise. In my last post, I began my critique with a look at his doctrine of the situational precondition, and noted that it was an unqualified contradiction. In this unusually long post (at least, unusually long for me), I will attempt to ground my bold criticism of Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship. Although I agree that grace is not cheap, and that discipleship should be radical, I don’t think Bonhoeffer has led us in the right direction. Rather than giving us a dependable paradigm of costly grace, I’m afraid Bonhoeffer bamboozles his readers with confusing rhetoric.

Hermeneutical Creativity: Convenient Eisegesis

Because Bonhoeffer is so eager to denounce cheap grace (which he associates with mere confessional Christianity and abstract principles) he finds a way to link almost every passage to this topic. At several points he simply reads too much into the text in order to create an occasion to scorn his arch enemy: cheap grace. He believes the solution to cheap grace is his doctrine of the situational precondition (see previous post). He sees support for this doctrine in many of the texts. In other places his motives are not clear, but the fact that he sees something in the text which is not there is obvious enough.

For example, Bonhoeffer believes that one of the main points of Mark 2.14 is that the disciples followed Jesus without having any previous relationship with him (57). He believes Mark intended to underscore this very point. According to Bonhoeffer, these disciples followed Jesus before they really had “faith” in Him as the Christ: “The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus” (57). He makes the following conclusion from this misinterpretation: “It was not as though they first recognized him as the Christ and then received his command. They believed his word and command [for them to follow] and [then] recognized him as the Christ—in that order” (226, emphasis mine).

While it is true that this text itself does not give an account of any such “confession,” (Levi does not recite the Chalcedonian or Nicene creed as the climax of the encounter) this observation should not lead us to any of Bonhoeffer’s brash conclusions. Both the horizontal and vertical contexts to Levi’s following not only imply that Levi, at that moment, put his faith in Christ—but it demands it. The disciples did not follow Jesus out of ignorance but confident expectation. It is true that some followed for the wrong reasons, but such is not the context in this passage.

The similar accounts in John’s gospel reveal that the following of the earliest disciples is based on their understanding of the identity of Jesus. It was when the disciples “heard” John the Baptist’s message about Jesus that they began to follow him (Jn 1.37). Though it is not made explicit in verse 36 that the disciples followed because they believed Jesus to be the Messiah (the text only emphasizes John’s proclamation of him being “the Lamb of God”), verse 40-41 reveals that this is exactly why they followed him. “One of the two who heard John speak and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah‘” (Jn 1.40-41, emphasis mine).

The same connection is made with respect to Phillip. In the account of Phillip’s initial following, there is not necessarily a “confession of faith in Jesus,” but the next verse reveals that Phillip followed precisely because he believed Jesus to be “Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1.45). The confessions seem to become more explicit in each account of Jesus’ first followers. Just a few lines later, Nathanael confesses, “You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (Jn 1.49). Perhaps Levi had never met Jesus in person before, but there is no reason to believe he had not heard of the testimony of John the Baptist.

There is no reason to believe that Levi—in contrast to all the other accounts— followed out of something other than faith in Jesus as the Christ. The way Bonhoeffer camps out on his point that Levi followed merely “for the sake of the call” is misleading in this regard (58). He makes this same mistake when he notes concerning Mathew 10.1-4 that “it is not a word or a doctrine they receive, but effective power, without which the work could not be done” (204). He fails to comment, however, that in the following verses Christ indeed gives the disciples commands to preach doctrine: even the word of the kingdom (Matt 10.7, 14, 20). It is not either/or (either word or power) but both/and (they receive both the word of the kingdom and the power to demonstrate its authority).

Moreover, confessions of faith have a place of prominence in the scriptures (Mt 10.32, 16.13-20, Jn 20.31, Phil 2.11, 1 Jn 4.3). Our “confession” of Jesus as Lord goes hand in hand with our believing in him in our hearts (Rom 10.9). Our “confession” of Christ cannot be separated from and pitted against “acts of obedience.” Confessions can be a means of proclaiming the gospel and thus a vital part of fulfilling our commission. Not only is Bonhoeffer’s downplay of confessions and abstract principles reactionary and unhelpful in this regard, but his commentary proves to be the result of eisegesis rather than exegesis. Wanting to remedy cheap grace with his doctrine of situational precondition (ironically, itself an abstract doctrine), he sees things in the gospels which are far from the original intention of the authors who wrote them.

The “Literal” Hermeneutic

Not only is he hermeneutically creative in his approach to the text, but in addition to this, Bonhoeffer’s “literal” hermeneutic is exceedingly crass. He believes that Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler to sell all his goods must be applied to all Christians. He calls this the “literal interpretation” (84). Any other interpretation does violence to the scriptures “by interpreting them in terms of an abstract principle” (84). His best textual support is to suggest that this is an implication of the disciples question, “Who then can be saved?” (85).

The author’s crass approach to interpretation especially sticks out in his comment on Luke 10.29. He concludes that asking questions is wrong (77-78). Why? Because that is what the lawyer did who was trying to justify himself. He interprets Jesus’ parable as Jesus’ way of saying “You must not ask questions—get on with the job!” (78). He gives further unqualified application to the reader: “Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions” (78). This position hardly seems to be the point of the parable.

This crass approach is common to all the author’s interpretations.

He thinks Christ condemns anger without qualification: all anger is wrong (127). What about Jesus’ anger when he drove the people out of the temple? What about Ephesians 4.26?

He also takes “literally” the command of Jesus in Matthew 5.29-30 to tear out our eyes and cut off our hands if ever we find ourselves using them to lust (132).

He believes it is wrong for a Christian to participate in any governmental retribution because of Jesus’ commands to resist evil (143). What about Paul’s endorsement of the government’s God-given right to execute precisely this kind of retributive justice (Rom 13.1-7)? Bonhoeffer lands contrary to the New Testament when he argues “there is no inner discord between private and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all” (148).

Also, according to Bonhoeffer, we are not to rejoice in any of God’s “good gifts” to us if they are not spiritual “because the world and its goods make a bid for our hearts” (176). In addition, he argues that anytime we use our possessions “as an insurance against the morrow we are dethroning God and presuming to rule the world ourselves” (178-79). What about the example of Paul who sold tents so that he might have money to live without being a burden to the Corinthians?

The author does not seem eager to test his conclusions by the analogy of faith.

In short, Bonhoeffer ultimately gives a serious indictment against all whose approach to the scriptures do not apply the call of Christ given to people in the New Testament in this literal way (225). If one does not see all Christ’s imperatives—regardless of context—as imperatives for every Christian, then Bonhoeffer beleives such a person actually denies that Christ is still alive (225). For him, there is no such thing as discerning which commandments were contextually specific. As far as the author is concerned, all such hermeneutical principles are based on “a complete misunderstanding of the situation of the disciples” (227). However, through and through, Bonhoeffer’s approach lacks clear bridges from the text to his specific interpretations—from which come all his confident conclusions. His “literal” interpretations and creative insights help him to preach against cheap grace, but they do little to help the reader get a grasp on the actual intent of the biblical author. To summarize, one might coin his approach as contextually insensitive, systematically uninformed, and implausibly crass.

Legalistic Standards and Unhelpful Advice

The author is also often guilty of his own harsh criticisms. For example, he tells us that the “third would-be-disciple” in Luke 9.57-62 thought that “certain conditions” must be fulfilled in order to be a disciple—as when people say “first you must do this and then you must do that” (61). He criticizes this as a way of reducing “discipleship to the level of the human understanding” (61). Ironically, he insists on the very next page that “if we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps”! (62). He then proceeds to give us the first step and tells us how we might make discipleship possible! In another place he criticizes anyone who would place a chronological gap between faith and obedience: “If, however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other,” yet he does precisely this with his doctrine of the situational precondition (64)! The only difference is that he reverses the chronological order, making obedience a chronological prerequisite to learning faith (63,75).

These unqualified contradictions abound throughout the book.

Men are called to “decide” to follow Christ “willy-nilly,” “and that decision can only be made by themselves” (94). Yet, somehow this “willy-nilly” choice which they must make only “by themselves” is at the same time “no arbitrary choice” nor is it a “choice of their own” (94-95). Huh?

He is not concerned with “ideals, duties or values,” but he is, on the other hand, concerned with the “virtue of discipleship” and the “quality” of being “extraordinary,” (96, 153, 159, 190).

Obedience to God and obedience to the OT law were never meant to be “divorced from one another,” yet following God in the person of Christ might demand the neglect of obedience to the law since Christ emerges as an opponent of the law (61, cf. 60, 121-22, 125).

Bonhoeffer expresses his pre-meditated plan of action for true discipleship—which is nothing more than that all his actions be “un-premeditated” (159-60)! All our prayers are to be unpremeditated and entirely spontaneous, yet he helps us pre-mediate the very words which we are to pray, namely the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer (163, 165)!

It would be “pseudo-theology,” not to take Jesus’ imperative for the rich young ruler as “literally” applying to all who wish to follow Christ, but at the same time “Jesus does not forbid the possession of property in itself” (84, 174). Can someone say Hermeneutical schizophrenia?

In addition to incoherency and bad hermeneutics, much of Bonhoeffer’s teaching and advice are unhelpful. He creates many false-dichotomies. For example, Bonhoeffer defines self-denial as “to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us” (88). Though we are to make it a priority to follow Christ down a certain road, we can never focus our attention on that road. Though disciples are to make it a priority to be “extraordinary” people, the moment one would try to reflect on what all this extraordinary lifestyle might include, Bonhoeffer’s says “he would no longer be following Christ” (159). This is because “if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path” (190-91).

On the contrary, it would seem that where a certain “road” or lifestyle (such as an “extraordinary” one) overlaps with following Christ (since he is the one who commanded such roads and lifestyles) it is not only helpful to focus on such particulars, but it indeed becomes necessary. Bonhoeffer seems unaware at this point that his whole book has just this aim: to help us focus on what discipleship really is, and what specific things it might entail! Even his doctrine of the situational precondition for faith is an in-depth analysis of the initial stage or “road” of discipleship. His advice to follow the road but never look at it, or to be “extraordinary” but never focusing on the “extraordinary” is unhelpful because it is impractical and impossible. If we are not to focus on the “extraordinary” why does he set apart so much of his book to get us thinking about it? I could imagine how Bonhoeffer would feel if he were to find me pitting his focus on “discipleship” itself as only a distraction from focus on Jesus and his will alone.

In a similar fallacy, Bonhoeffer teaches what I would call the doctrine of oblivious discipleship. What Christ means by our making sure we do not display our righteousness “before men, to be seen of them” is that we are to hide our good works from ourselves (158). In fact, this includes our being unaware of our good deeds: “We must be unaware of our own righteousness” (158). All of our good deeds must be “entirely spontaneous and unpremeditated” (159, emphasis mine). We are to be “unreflective” in all our actions (160). For Bonhoeffer, just the concept of faith “excludes all reflection and premeditation” (163, emphasis mine). Bonhoeffer seems unaware that his doctrine of oblivious discipleship is self-contradictory, for in the very act of teaching us that all our works must be done in this specifically defined way (in a state of oblivion) he has caused us to pre-meditate a grand plan for discipleship! It seems obvious that he has spent an unusual amount of energy thinking, reflecting, and pre-meditating about this himself, as he gives much of his book to this theme of oblivious discipleship.

Bonhoeffer also continually juxtaposes all standards of Christian living and patterns of righteousness against single-minded obedience to Christ. There is no “standard of living that separates a follower of Christ from the unbeliever” (184). The Christian duty is “not some eccentric pattern of Christian living, but simple, unreflecting obedience to the will of Christ” (153). Similarly, he forbids us to interpret or apply any texts of Scripture because we should rather do and obey them (197). “If we start…offering interpretations, we are not doing his word” (197). In this manner, he sets interpretation along with any textual reflection against obedience: “The word we had was not Christ’s, but a word we had wrested from him and made our own by reflecting on it instead of doing it” (197, cf. 225-226).

The author remarks that people are not converted through “unquenchable longing for a new life of freedom,” but rather by that which was affected by the cross and is affected by Christ (231). However, it is my conviction that part of repentance (which is necessary for conversion) is a longing for Christ and a longing to be delivered from bondage to our sin. Our conversion is part of that which was affected by the cross and is affected by Christ—and this would include our faith and repentance. This is an important truth which his false dichotomy undermines.


In conclusion, though I sympathize with his desire to present a radical paradigm for the Christian life, I found Bonhoeffer’s five pronged attack on cheap grace to be unhelpful. There were two reminders in Bonhoeffer’s book which stand out to me as worth reading. The first was a reminder that suffering is part of the Christian life—even of the essence of Christianity (90-92). The other was his description of conversion as a relinquishing of all our assumed rights (95-96, 141-42). Apart from these two reminders and several miscellaneous one-liners, Bonhoeffer’s book was frustrating. Most of his book is full of self-contradiction, hermeneutical hyper-crassism, legalistic standards and unhelpful exhortation. In general, though his book presents a challenging and radical paradigm for the Christian life, it was surprisingly disappointing.


  1. Aaron says:

    I wonder if similar arguments could be made in reference to Oswald Chambers. Don’t shoot me for saying it, but its always been a concern of mine that OC is elevated to near canonical status in especially the Baptist denomination when many times I find his devotionalizing of Scripture very out of touch with its context.

  2. Bradley says:

    BANG BANG BANG!!!! (you’ve been shot)

    No….actually Aaron, your right. Oswald is guilty of the same sort of thing.

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