Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
October 5, 1967

Bonhoeffer - The Qualified Disciple

Kent Ellis

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian whose public career spanned the second quarter of the present century. That career was cut short in April, 1945 when he was executed for anti-Nazi activity inside Germany. However, before his death he wrote several books which have had, and are having great influence on the thinking of theologians today. This article is not meant to be a discussion of Bonhoeffer's theology." It is an exposure of the attitude of "new guard" in the church toward Bonhoeffer and his life.

The August issue of Mission carries a review of Bonhoeffer's book, The Cost of Discipleship, by William C. Martin, an ex-student of ACC, and currently "a candidate for the Ph. D. degree at Harvard Divinity School." Among other things, Martin characterizes Bonhoeffer as "a man whose life and death fully qualify him to advise us concerning the cost of following Christ." Further: "To the end, he walked in the steps of his Lord." And, in conclusion: "One may disagree with his theology at points, but one can scarcely fail to recognize that his life, his cross, and his death were those of a disciple of Jesus." In the same issue, Ray F. Chester, "Minister of the College Church of Christ, Searcy, Ark. ," states the "Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a great example of one taking up the cross."

As noted above, Martin concedes that we "may disagree with" Bonhoeffer's "theology at points," but insists that we "can scarcely fail to recognize" him as "a disciple of Christ." In order to limit the discussion and to form a clear and concise issue, let us set aside most of Bohnoeffer's views for the moment and ask one simple question. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran who was sprinkled as an infant, and contends for such in the book reviewed. Our question is: Can a man be afully qualified disciple of Christ and never be baptized?

Martin says that he can. Jesus says that he can not (John 3:5). Here the issue is formed; here the battle is joined. Bonhoeffer's discipleship is not determined by whether we agree with his theology or not. It is dependent on whether his life agrees with Christ's teaching or not. How can one walk "in the steps of his Lord" "to the end," who did not walk in them at the beginning?

But my real purpose in this article is not so much to determine the statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as it is to point out the attitude of William Martin and men in the church of like-mind. If we can dispose of one of the first principles of Christ's teaching, why not another (Heb. 6:1.2; Eph. 4:4-6)? Why not all? What sort of a man presumes the authority to annul a commandment of Him who has all authority? Who can do so and still claim to be Christ's disciple and servant? "And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46) It seems that a Ph. D. candidate could understand such simple words and comprehend their obvious implication. If not, Jesus puts the same truth in a positive statement in Matthew 7:21.

On infant sprinkling and true baptism these men are in a dilemma similar to that posed by Jesus in Matthew 21:25. One is from man and the other from God. If they accept one, they must reject the other. But they cannot please everybody either way. They desperately want the recognition of their fellow-theologians as broad-minded scholars. But to insist on Christ's teaching marks them as narrow and ignorant bigots in the modern schools of divinity. They crave to be a part of the "ecumenical movement," but to be accepted they must give up the truth concerning baptism. Selling the truth is a hard price to pay for the recognition of the world.

William C. Martin apparently believes that: (1) infant sprinkling is baptism; or (2) baptism is not necessary to being a disciple of Jesus; or, (3) that immersion of believers is what Christ commanded and that baptism is necessary to discipleship according to Scripture, but that we have the right to change Christ's commandments. The men of Mission profess to be vitally interested in "dialogue" on religious differences. I personally would be happy to enter into one on this subject with Martin or any other man of the same persuasion either orally or in writing. Would the editors of Mission carry such a discussion in their paper? Or, are they indeed interested only in a "monologue"; that is, in propagandizing the brethren with their one-sided "theology"?

If it be charged that the position herein set forth is the "legalism" which these men so abhor, then I plead guilty. I fail to see how loyalty to Christ and true discipleship can be maintained otherwise. I agree with that part of Bonhoeffer's theology, as summarized by Martin, which contends that "Jesus' statements must not be watered down..." "...they must be taken with absolute seriousness. To do less is to turn aside from following Christ."