Bonhoeffer On the Christian Life: A Review

I recently found out about (and read) Stephen Nichols’ book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and theology called Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013).  At just over 200 pages, it is quite a bit shorter and more accessible than Metaxas’ similar book.  In fact, there is a lot of overlap between the two books, although Nichols focuses a bit more on theology than Bonhoeffer’s life.

The book is structured well.  There are five main parts: 1) Intro, 2) Foundations (Christ and community), 3) Disciplines (word, prayer, confession), 4) Life (worldliness, freedom, love), and 5) Literature (suggestions for further reading).  Nichols writes in a clear and readable way; the book wasn’t too difficult to read or understand.  There was some repetition in the book, but overall it was well written.

However, I hesitate to recommend this book.  Why?  Well, to put it simply, because Nichols intentionally reads and interprets Bonhoeffer as a conservative, orthodox evangelical with a high view of Scripture (see chapter 4).  In his reading, Nichols sees Bonhoeffer as a conservative who believed in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and who held to an orthodox Christology.  Nichols also worked hard to distance Bonhoeffer from Barth (see footnote 15 in chapter 4).  These issues have been debated for quite a few years; many good scholars have showed that Bonhoeffer was not a conservative evangelical in today’s sense of the term.  In my own reading, I have found places where Bonhoeffer questioned the historicity of Genesis 1-3, where he seemed to have a higher-critical view of the OT, and where he echoed Barth in Christology.  I believe Nichols did not accurately summarize Bonhoeffer’s theology.

In fact, when I was about halfway through this book I could easily guess where it was going: in the direction of evangelical theology (evangelical views on preaching, prayer, devotions, church, love, etc.).  By the end of the book I didn’t feel like I was learning Bonhoeffer’s views, but reviewing evangelical theology.  I was hoping that there would be some constructive criticism of Bonhoeffer’s views, that there would be explanations of how Bonhoeffer developed and/or changed in his theological views, and how we should view Bonhoeffer’s language and theological constructions (in a Barthian way?  In a Lutheran way? etc.).  There was no significant critique of Bonhoeffer in this book.

In summary, I was disappointed with Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life because it paints too evangelical a picture of Bonhoeffer.  I love reading Bonhoeffer, I’ve learned much from him, I’ll keep reading him, but I also see several serious problems with his views and writings.  Nichols’ account flattened Bonhoeffer’s views and took the excitement and “strangeness” out of them.  I like to run across a passage in Bonhoeffer that makes me upset, challenges me, and forces me to read it again (and put an exclamation point or question mark by it!).

If you want a book that wrestles with Bonhoeffer’s theology in a critically constructive and accurate way, you’ll want to pass on this one.

shane lems
hammond, wi

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2 comments on “Bonhoeffer On the Christian Life: A Review

  1. twiga92 says:

    Thank you! You saved me $1.99 for buying this on Kindle.

  2. Ron says:

    “Nichols’ account flattened Bonhoeffer’s views and took the excitement and “strangeness” out of them.”

    Isn’t this the current behavior in Evangelicalism? To take the power and sting out of Scripture and conversely deny there is anything wrong with man-centered theology?

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