Bonhoeffer vs “hyper-Lutheranism”

Josh has a great post about the tendency of some “confessional” Lutherans to “say things that flatly contradict most of what the Lutheran Confessions say about repentance, good works [and] the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life”, let alone the teachings of Jesus or St Paul.

Josh ascribes this tendency (one I’ve occasionally described as “hyper-Lutheranism”) to the results of defining one’s theology as a negation of the teachings of other Christian traditions. However, his post has some strong parallels with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s criticisms of “cheap grace” in the opening chapter of The Cost of Discipleship.

For example, where Josh observes that “it’s sort of trendy these days to say that … the life of a Christian is at best indistinguishable from that of an unbeliever except when he is participating in the liturgy”, Bonhoeffer writes:

The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world, in fact, in being prohibited from being different from the world for the sake of grace. The upshot of it all is that my only duty as a Christian is to escape from the world for an hour or so on Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are forgiven.

And where Josh argues that “‘properly distinguishing Law and Gospel’ … has been in our era largely defined as a negation of everything that Catholics, evangelicals, and Reformed have to say about the Christian life”, Bonhoeffer makes a similar point in even harsher terms:

We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcase of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ … To be “Lutheran” must mean that we leave the following of Christ to legalists, Calvinists and enthusiasts – and all this for the sake of grace. We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ.

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22 Responses to Bonhoeffer vs “hyper-Lutheranism”

  1. Rob says:

    This was helpful. Thank you, John.

  2. Bror Erickson says:

    Quite frankly, I think the “Cost of Discipleship,” was Bonhoefer’s worst book. I have reluctantly had to read a couple others for class assignments and he has done better. But that book turned me off from him.
    His coining the phrase “cheap grace” is almost unforgivable for the confusion it has caused through out all Christendom, not only Lutheran circles. Grace is free or it isn’t grace. You can’t pay for a gift. The gift itself isn’t cheap though. Jesus payed a large sum to be able to give it to you. Don’t cheapen it by trying to give him five bucks for it in the Salvation Army Kettle.

  3. John H says:

    Bror: I suspect the problem with Discipleship and “cheap grace” is that it has been read out of its Lutheran context. Throw a term like “cheap grace” at a certain type of liberal Christian looking for a stick with which to beat evangelicals, or at an evangelical of legalistic bent, and you do indeed have problems. Certainly I had grave difficulties getting to grips with Discipleship prior to becoming a Lutheran.

    However, bearing in mind the Lutheran context and taking the book as a whole (including the final chapters where Bonhoeffer ties the first half of the book to the current life of the church in word and sacrament), I do think many of the criticisms of Bonhoeffer are misplaced. For example, there is not the slightest suggestion that Bonhoeffer is saying we “pay” for our salvation or that we are to “try to give [Jesus] five bucks for it”, or whatever.

    While I haven’t subjected this idea to rigorous analysis, as a rule of thumb I’d say that one can solve a lot of the difficulties of Discipleship by reading it as a call to live out the model for Christian living described in the Small Catechism.

    To take “cheap grace” as an example, Bonhoeffer explicitly and repeatedly rejects the suggestion that he is promoting salvation by works. The point about “costly grace” is not that we have paid for it or earned it, but that it is grace whose consequences for us are costly. Cheap grace is grace which attempts to forget that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” – but if you read the later chapters, the death to which Christ calls us is the death of baptism. Bonhoeffer isn’t calling us to works-righteousness, but to return to our baptisms as in the fourth Q&A on Baptism in the Catechism.

  4. Bror Erickson says:

    John H,
    That may be, the problem is you have to wade through a horrible mixing of Law Gospel to get to the end of the book. He may have just worded it better to begin with.
    The if as Luther says the Christian righteousness is a passive righteousness, then beating a Christian over the head with the law is not going to get the Christian to lead the Christian life, which would also be passive. It is worked on us from the outside. I have no problem with the idea that we are to use our freedom in service to one another. But it is a question of motive here. The law motivates in a way the Gospel doesn’t. But the Laws motivation is self defeating. The Christian life will not be an easy one, but it still isn’t a life we can choose to live. We can’t make our life a Christian life by making it hard on ourselves. Christ calls us by putting us to death with him when He baptizes us. He kills our old Adam. He doesn’t bid us do anything. It is out of our hands to do that.
    I won’t lie, I have abused my Christian Freedom in the past, and probably will do so in the future. (Not that I want to, I’m just facing reality here.) I haven’t always used it in service to others. But being a Christian has exacted it’s pound of flesh a few times, in ways I never would have thought. We don’t choose our crosses, we may end up picking them up, but we don’t choose them. It is not for us to decide where in life being a Christian is going to become costly to us in this life. It will probably be a little more painful than foregoing the third pint of beer though.

  5. John H says:

    Bror: I think you’d find the distance between what you’re saying and what Bonhoeffer is saying is not great. For example, in the chapter on taking up the cross, Bonhoeffer’s argument is precisely that “We don’t choose our crosses, we may end up picking them up, but we don’t choose them”, and that our motivation for following Jesus (i.e. “discipleship”) is grace and not law.

    The problem is that Bonhoeffer has been read (by both critics and admirers alike) as saying that Christians should seek out the cross or pursue holiness as a matter of self-willed decision, whereas in fact the object of his critique is the view which says Christians should actively avoid suffering, rejection or the pursuit of holiness, that they should just melt into the background and become indistinguishable from the world.

    And his argument against that is no more legalistic than is St Paul’s argument in Romans 6. Both Bonhoeffer and Paul turn, not to the law as a motivator, but to baptism and the call of Christ to die and be reborn in him.

  6. Thomas says:

    Ah, yes, the witless ‘Bonhoeffer mixes Law and Gospel and is Bad, very Bad’. I’m so sick of it that I no longer seek arguments with which to refute it – it deserves nothing but mockery. Discipleship is, at least in the newer translation, so very clear as to just what ‘cheap grace’ is all about that one must be culpably muddle-headed not to see it. What’s more, the Lutheran Confessions themselves offer nothing of the current ‘radical Lutheranism’, with its Totus-Totus interpretation of the so-called ‘Simul’, and it’s rejection of sanctification as a necessary manifestation of the life of the New Adam. This so-called ‘radical lutheranism’ bears such a strong resemblance to the ideological bs spouted by those who like to bash Bonhoeffer with the stick of ‘works righteousness’, that it’s just uncanny. Need I say that this is one reason why, in my particular time and place at least, what passes for Lutheran is repugnant to me? It’s either vaguely and moralistically pleased with its piety (yes, that too is a manifestation of *cheap grace*!), or it’s comfortably gliding along on a diet of justification apart from anything that resembles something new and different in the lives of Christians. As I often say, it seems to me that mostly folks believe they are justified because they believe in Justification By Grace Through Faith, and not by the costly death and resurrection of Jesus, and our union to him in that death and resurrection through baptism, a union that results, as it were naturally, in good works.

    In short, to throw yet another strand of polemic out of the blue, James and Paul go together, and it’s not particularly ‘evangelical’ to think otherwise. It’s for that reason that Bonhoeffer, whatever his real faults, cannot be rejected as mixing law and gospel or preaching the dreaded ‘works righteousness’.

  7. Jeremy says:

    I don’t have a position on this question since I’ve never read the entire book, but I was surprised to discover that Bonhoeffer was aware of the potential problems with some of the things he said in the book:

    I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.

    Letter to Eberhard Bethge, 07/21/1944

  8. John H says:


    Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.

    Which is probably a fair assessment. The book certainly does have dangers if read in the wrong way, but overall I think Bonhoeffer was right to stand by it.

    Thomas: I’ve not really encountered “hyper-Lutheranism” or “radical Lutheranism” in real life, only on the internet, so I tend to assume that (like its parallel in the Reformed universe, hyper-Calvinism) it is something found more in what people say online than in how they actually live as Christians. If your experience is different then I’m sorry to hear that.

    And you’re spot-on about the Lutheran confessions. If a contemporary Lutheran writer came out with something like Luther’s exposition of “the close of the commandments”, he’d get no end of grief.

  9. Josh S says:

    Hyper-Lutheranism is a gift to us from the Gospel reductionists that left during the whole Seminex ordeal. That whole school of thought has had a lot of influence on certain Lutherans. There were a couple profs at the Ft Wayne sem who definitely were far more eloquent in denying what everyone else said about discipleship than actually affirming anything about it except that one must first and foremost realize that Jesus is the only true disciple, or something like that.

    Not only does James go with Paul, but so does Paul. To hear the reductionists, Paul never wrote Ephesians 5 or Romans 12. Of course, they have their own exegetical principles: “The Epistles aren’t sermons,” they say, so while it’s all well and good for Paul to speak that way, if we were to say the same thing, we’d be confusing Law and Gospel. Also, dontcha know that Luther only wrote the section on the 10 C’s to terrify you? If you were to respond to them by actually not sleeping with your neighbor’s wife, you’d be missing the point.

    I agree 100% with Thomas. Anyone who claims to be confused by “cheap grace” either has horrible reading comprehension, is just trying to pick a fight, or is horrified at the thought that believing in Christ might have consequences.

  10. Bror Erickson says:

    Josh S.
    “Anyone who claims to be confused by “cheap grace” either has horrible reading comprehension, is just trying to pick a fight, or is horrified at the thought that believing in Christ might have consequences.”
    I tend to think the people that are confused by the phrase “cheap grace” are the ones trying to defend it. Some times I do like to pick a fight, but more so I like to discuss the issue. I think I have read the quote Jeremy picked up before, and that does warm me a little bit towards Bonhoefer. Though I wish he would have addressed the dangers more seriously and rewrote the book. (Maybe that wasn’t possible by the time he came to understand the dangers.) Here in the states there is a little volume pastors like to use for adult ed. It has a glaring paragraph full of decision theology. The pastor, who wrote the book, apologizes for it, but never corrects it. I don’t think his apology is worth the time of day it takes to hear it.
    I am not at all afraid that being a Christian will have consequences. Standing up for what is right according to God’s law has exacted a heavy price on me and my family. But in many ways my family is also fairly indistinguishable from the rest of the public around us. Well maybe it is distinguishable, none of us have blue hair or guages in our ears.
    There is no doubt in my mind that Bonhoefer was trying to address a very serious problem with in Lutheranism, especially in a state church Lutheranism. In many ways it was the same problem Luther addressed with his “Ninety Five Theses.” If there is anything beneficial to his book it is the calling of attention to the problem. It is his answer to the problem that I have trouble with. The answer to unrepentance is the law, unvarnished law. It is not to mingle the law with the gospel, and attach a price to grace. It is not to praise the monastic movement as the keeper of true Christianity.

  11. Jeremy says:

    Bror Erickson touches on a point I have had occasion to discuss with a couple of friends – one not a practicing Christian and the other an ex-Christian. What difference does it make in this life to be a Christian (excluding for the moment the rather large issue of the life of the age to come)? I do not live differently than my two aforementioned friends. Most of the people I know are, like me, typical middle class Midwesterners who have conformed to what is expected of folks like us. The worst things most of us do – Christian or not – are on the level of parking infractions or drinking too much while cheering on the Colts. Back when I was a crazed legalist at least we could point to the differences in people’s lives: they quit drinkin’ and cussin’; they quit wearing jewelry; they quit watching the one-eyed demon television. Now as a Lutheran I live pretty much like everyone around me.

    Josh cites not sleeping with your neighbor’s wife – but I know plenty of people who aren’t Christians who would think adultery is wrong. N.T. Wright talks about building for the Kingdom of God – yet a lot of the things he seems to include in that activity end up being political actions that aren’t specifically Christian. It seems to me that Christianity doesn’t offer anything new as far as morality goes. I’m not trying to be contrary here; this is something I have had genuine problems with.

  12. Bror Erickson says:

    Exactly right, Christianity offers nothing new as far as morality goes. the law is written on the hearts of men. So are morality will probably not be what distinguishes us from others.

  13. Josh S says:

    That is such a line of bullcrap. The farther you get away from the influence of Christianity, the more you find divorce, extramarital sex, porn, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, greed, etc viewed as normal and OK. What you claim is a natural tendency of humanity to live an outwardly moral life is little more than the cultural inertia of 15 centuries of Christianized civilization. Not only that, you don’t find the world giving up its life for the sake of Christ. Ever.

    Read I Cor 6:9-11. I’ll believe you really mean that your lives are no different from the world when a practicing homosexual can become a member–no, get ordained in your church, it doesn’t bug you when your daughter sleeps around, and your life is controlled by your wealth.

    Lutherans love to talk about Romans 1 and the Law written on the heart, but they forget what Paul says about people who have the Law written on their hearts, but deny the one who authored it:

    “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

    I know, I know. “But we’re all like this, simul iustus et peccator! Jesus is the only person who isn’t like this?” Like I said, I’ll believe you actually mean it when you ordain a homosexual.

  14. steve martin says:

    Josh S.

    We are all sinners. But we don’t flaunt our sin or advocate it. Ordaining openly gay homosexuals is doing just that.

    Gays are welcome in my church just as much as people who hoard their money and don’t help the poor.

    Neither are welcome if they openly flaunt their sinful behavior.

    – Steve Martin, Lutheran (and a bigger sinner than you’ll ever dream of being)

  15. Jeremy says:

    And true to form, here’s Josh, sworn foe of antinomianism, becoming obnoxious when someone asks an honest question arising out of a real life struggle. Thanks a lot, brother.

    Now if someone has something constructive to say I would really appreciate it.

  16. Bror Erickson says:

    Josh S,
    It’s not a line of crap, and not everyone in Rome was a sodomite when Paul wrote Romans. Your knowledge of history is somewhat lacking if you believe that to be true. There have always been those virtuous men who knew right and wrong and lived it, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurious would probably have put you to shame for his self denial, Cicero. And these were more or less the shining lights after whom many, many people modeled themselves. The Christians, when compared to these people weren’t much different on the outside. But the Stoics were scandalized by the gospel.
    Your claim that the farther you get away from Christianity the more divorce you find is Evangelical myth. In fact, this myth drives many hurting and repentant people who need the Gospel away from the church.
    Not every non-Christian, even in today’s world, is a total immoral swine. I happen to live amidst a large population of Mormon’s. Every once in a while one becomes Christian. At that point the only change you see in them is a relief that they can drop the pretenses. The fact that I don’t sleep with my neighbor’s wife, and sodomize young boys does not at all distinguish me from these people. The fact that I have a scotch on the Rocks with my neighbor down the street, the one know one will talk too because he’s not mormon, whilst smoking a cigar on the front lawn, does.

  17. Josh S says:

    There is something telling in the fact that, when asked where are all these unbelievers with this outward conformity to God’s statutes that makes them indistinguishable from Christians, you pointed to an abusive cult and their forbidding of what God has declared clean. Overthrowing the word of God for the sake of your tradition isn’t good; it’s bad. Condemning people for drinking coffee or having a beer when God hasn’t forbidden it is evil, especially with the hypocrisy about “cold caffeine.”

    Also, the list of philosophers is interesting. I know that Plato considered homosexuality superior to normal sexual relations, and a lot of Greek philosophers considered matter evil. Despising what God has created is bad, not good. I would hope Christians would be different! Even regarding Aristotle, even Aquinas said that while reason theoretically can bring you to a right knowledge of good and evil, it is “only with great difficulty” and with “many errors.” The evidence of the world bears that out.

    I never said “every non-Christian is a total immoral swine,” or really anything like it, so that’s a straw man.

    I also didn’t say you find “more divorce” when you get away from Christianity. I said that it’s “viewed as normal.” It’s also not a myth. As Western civilization unmoored itself from the basically Christian view of morality (even if that notion of morality was filtered through the Enlightenment to begin with), we instituted no-fault divorce, and our divorce rate skyrocketed as a consequence.

  18. L P Cruz says:


    I call it Lutheran Fundamentalism in my blog rather than Hyper-Lutheranism but I think both terms illustrate extreme or edge wise nature of the position.


  19. C Lynn says:

    I wonder if that is a valid categorization- Lutheran Fundamentalism for Hyper-Lutheranism? I have heard of the distinction between Canonical Lutherans and Organic Lutherans before. Canonical Lutherans represent the “by the book” Lutherans who resoundingly agree with the Confessions and the traditional Liturgy without hesitation. An example would be that a Canonical Lutheran, in response to a question or given problem might say… “the Formula of Concord says…” or even “Luther states…” An Organic Lutheran might see the deeper roots presupposing the Confessions as well as Lutheranism in its entire import. He might see the varied “matrices” that guide and form the discussion. In other words, he may not demonstrate this by quoting the Formula or the Apology, but rather by assessing given problems in light of a Lutheran framework such as, but not limited to: Theology of the Cross, Active and Passive Righteousness, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Coram Deo/Coram Hominebus and so forth.

    I tend to think that Lutheranism today needs the latter kind of Lutheranism as opposed to the former. Many of the assertions and overall arguments in the Book of Concord are what one can say, “Historicallly Circumscribed”; they are addressing issues from an historical vantage point that essentially does not exist anymore. And many of the doctrines proposed in the Confessional documents are simply incomplete because they were attacking a Roman Church that essentially does not exist anymore.

    But overall, if conclusions are based on arguments and all arguments are conditioned by the problems of their particular time or situation, then that means that all conclusions are conditioned by particular situations at particular times. Does this mean the Confessions should be regarded as static? If so, what does that say about the relevancy and ability of those who are Confessional to speak to the modern world? Should we be importing 16th century problems and issues to the 21st? Are all problems 5 centuries ago the same as today?

    When I think of Lutheran Fundamentalism I either think of the Canonical Lutheran approach or the ‘Baptist-Lutheran’ approach. Some Lutherans approach things with a Baptist mindset where they mistake sola Scriptura for ‘iso-Scriptura’ or isolating Scriptural interpretation from the historic community and privatizing their interpretation unto themselves.

  20. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » “Canonical” and “organic” Lutheranism?

  21. John H says:

    Thanks for the comment, C Lynn. I’ve posted some further thoughts on this here.

    As I’ve said in my post, I think Lutheranism needs both tendencies rather than one “as opposed to” the other. Also, while I agree that the Book of Concord needs to be read in its historical context – rather than simply translating every 21st century question into 16th century terminology and declaring it to be fully and finally answered by the BoC – I’d say that calling it “historically circumscribed” and doctrinally “incomplete” is going further than I’d want to. Historically conditioned, yes.

  22. C Lynn says:

    Incompletion in the Confessions. I wonder if you really think, John H., that the Lutheran Confessions are “complete”? What about its statements about saving faith for example? It really does not talk about the necessity of believing in the divinity of Christ, at least not explicitly. And, I do not fault the Confessional Authors for doing so- it was not the object of contention at the time. The object of contention during the Reformation was over the Work of Christ and not His Person.
    But that is all the more reason why the Confessions are Historically Circumscribed and incomplete. Today, one needs to explicitly address the issue of faith’s object in Christ, Himself, particularly the need to believe in His divinity (cf. John 8:24ff). During the 16th century it was not as prevalent since mostly everybody were theists and sects such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses did not exist.
    Overall, the Confessions simply do not talk about the necessity for saving faith to lay hold and believe in the Divinity of Jesus Christ. I am historically sympathetic as to the reason behind this, but calling attention to the fact that not only are the Confessions conditioned by their historical circumstances, but also should be subjected to continual re-interpretation. They are not complete and therefore need to be re-evaluated for their limitations.

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