Is Bonhoeffer really the ideal role model for youth ministers?

Recently I wrote a critique of Andrew Root’s approach to incarnational youth ministry, to which he graciously responded.

In many ways, however, Root’s understanding of the Incarnation is not his own. The ghost of Dietrich Bonhoeffer walks each and every page. Even the phrase Root uses, place-sharer, is Bonhoeffer’s (Stellvertreter). Root said that Bonhoeffer’s part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was driven by the belief ‘that it was the only way that he could truly (truly = in the imitation of Christ) share the place of those crushed by the wheels of the Nazi political machine’ (2007:85). This would have been the ideal place for Root to have added some words of caution about using Bonhoeffer as a de facto position on Christology, however we are left wanting.

With this in mind I think it’s worth taking a minute to ask whether Bonhoeffer really is the best role model for youth workers. As much as I respect him as both a compassionate minister and a deep thinker, there is another side that is rarely discussed.

Bonhoeffer’s Christology was born out of a very turbulent life experience. He emphasised the this-world focus and concrete nature of Jesus becoming flesh which was then very heavily outworked in a strongly social gospel.

Abstract or internal knowledge of God was almost entirely dismissed by Bonhoeffer. He intended that ‘all Christian doctrines be reinterpreted in “this world” terms… The only way to find God, then, is to live fully in the midst of this world. Christians must participate in Jesus’ living for others’ (Godsey, 1991). This affected his approach to both prayer and worship.

Bonhoeffer, during the later period of his life, also discontinued his daily Bible reading, denying that Scripture contained any timeless principles. He said, ‘we may no longer seek after universal, eternal truths’ by reading the Bible (Bonhoeffer and Krauss 2010:71). Further, as someone who leaned towards universalism, Bonhoeffer also lacked a coherent theology of the atonement or even of salvation itself (Weikart, 2015).

Although Bonhoeffer brings much needed humanity to a sometimes very overly ‘functional’ and ‘formulaic’ evangelical Christianity, his work cannot and should not be used uncritically. Yet this is precisely what Root and others in the modern youth work world do by building on his theology of incarnation. It is little wonder then that Root deemphasises the divinity of Jesus, rarely speaks to any experience of Him outside of concrete relationships with people, and expresses a muddy view of salvation.

What is continually missing from Bonhoeffer is any sense of ‘it is finished‘. There is little to no talk of victory, glory, heaven, Jesus as divine, or the eternal nature of salvation. These have no real presence in his work leaving a heavily dis-balanced gospel.

Bonhoeffer is an inspiration personally, but I don’t think he makes a great role-model theologically when it comes to the practice of youth work. At least, I’d like to see him used more critically.

References (in order of appearance)

Root, A. (2007) Revisiting relational youth ministry: from a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books

Godsey, J. (1991), Bonhoeffer’s costly theology. Available at

Bonhoeffer, D. and Krauss, R. (2010). Letters and papers from prison. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.

Weikart, R. (2015), The Troubling Truth About Bonhoeffer’s Theology. Available at

1 reply
  1. youthworkhacks
    youthworkhacks says:

    Someone asked me for a little more details, so here’s a longer whack of stuff that I sent to them…

    First, don’t get me wrong, I’m actually a huge fan of Bonhoeffer. I read much of Bonhoeffer’s works when I first went to Bible College 13 years ago. And I recently revisited him in a postgrad course where I wrote a critique of Andrew Root’s methodology. I do love Bonhoeffer, especially his compassion, his social focus, his love of creation, and his academic superhuman powers!

    I am happy to colour outside the orthodox lines… as long as we’re not being duped into thinking someone is inside the lines because they’re sneakily redrawing them. Bonhoeffer never pretended to be orthodox, but I think Andrew Root (along with a few others) is guilty as framing him that way. Bonhoeffer is not inside the lines – I’m pretty sure that’s well established, but I’ll have a go at pointing out why I think so. I do think we can learn a lot from his theology, and I think he got a lot right, but I don’t think for one second that I can claim him as a member of my particular theological camp.

    I wouldn’t, therefore, throw the baby out with the bathwater. Bonhoeffer is heavily discussed in academia, but in youth ministry there is very little critical engagement with him. Dr. Root does well, but he reads Bonhoeffer with a very strong bias, partially because he is working from translations. I think Glassford is quite helpful on this (Glassford, DK 2016, ‘Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together’, Christian Education Journal, 13, 2).

    If we place the measure of orthodoxy on the classical, broadly accepted evangelical creeds (Nicene, Apostles, and Caledonian), then – by that standard – I believe Bonhoeffer is not orthodox. I’ll do my best to add a few sources, but it’s been a while and I don’t have all my notes. It would take a wee bit more to do more digging, and as my own study develops I’m sure we could have much more fruitfully in depth conversations – but frankly there are many, and far better critiques than mine out there – by people far far smarter than me! 😛

    ****On the Bible
    Early in his life Bonhoeffer saw the Bible is useful, but not infallible or inerrant. He was similar to Barth in that he saw the Word in the reading experience but not in the words themselves. He called the Bible a witness to revelation, but not revelation. (Bonhoeffer’s Works as translated by Nicolaisen & Scharffenorth, 2009., Volume 12, pp.375-377).

    He started off as a literary critic, then accepted (a la Bultmann) that many of the stories and words of Jesus in the Gospels were ‘mythology’ and didn’t see them as accurately recorded history. (Gütersloher Verlagshaus 5:137-138). By the end of his life (certainly by ‘Letters from Prison’), he had rejected the Bible as a source of ultimate truth. He said that ‘we may no longer seek after universal, eternal truths’ from the Bible. (Bonhoeffer, D. and Krauss, R. (2010). Letters and papers from prison. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press. p.71 – see also GS, 3:28 for the original).

    There’s more on this in Walter Harrelson’s piece “Bonhoeffer and the Bible,” in ‘The Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems and Possibilities in His Thought’, that ME Marty edited.

    So – to start with, Bonhoeffer doesn’t have a conservative evangelical view of the Bible.

    ****On Jesus
    Bonhoeffer denied the virgin birth. He said ‘The question ‘how’ for example, underlies the hypothesis of the Virgin Birth. Both historically and dogmatically, it can be questioned. The biblical witness is ambiguous. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is meant to express the incarnation of God, not only the fact of the incarnation. But does it not fail at the decisive point of the incarnation, namely that in it Jesus has not become man just like us’ (‘The Cost of Discipleship’ translated by Fuller, 1995:215).

    He also denied the sinless nature of Jesus. ‘He who assumed the flesh with its tendency to sin and self will’ (GS 3. Not sure page). See also the translation of ‘Christ the Centre’ (1978:109).

    Bonhoeffer overplayed the ‘this world’ and human nature of Jesus (really of everything) over the divine. This was helpful to some degree, but with it comes a denial of the orthodox view of the person of Jesus.

    ****On the atonement
    Bonhoeffer doesn’t accept substitutionary atonement as the means of salvation and rejects penal substitution. He said the cross was a place of empathy and inspiration, but not atonement.

    Bonhoeffer’s version of salvation came from the incarnation lived out, not the death or resurrection. This is what he compares as ‘cheap’ rather than ‘costly grace’ in ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ translated by Fuller, 1995:45-49). Incidentally, this is an amazing piece of writing that contains a lot of truth. It would be fabulous if he didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by replacing substitution with empathy). See also ‘A Testament To Freedom’ and see ‘Letters from Prison’, p. 185.

    Although there are many versions of atonement theory in evangelical theology, none of them are compatible with the purely empathetic version Bonhoeffer uses. I think the most modern versions of it would be found in people like Greg Boyd (open theism).

    ****On salvation by grace alone
    One of his most well known quotes on this is: ‘We must finally break away from the idea that the gospel deals with the salvation of an individual’s soul.’ (GS 4:202).

    As much as he loved his particular version of grace, Bonhoeffer believed in regenerational baptism. So you need faith, but also must be baptised in order for salvation to be effectual. (Letters from prison, 142-143; Way to freedom, 1971:93, 151). He also added to this the taking of communion and attendance at church (ibid. p115). As he commonly referred to the regenerational qualities of these actions, this, realistically, is salvation by works.

    I’m pretty sure this changed in his later years as he grew more into a universalist. He said this in lots of ways, but the best quote I can dig up is: ‘God has reconciled in Christ the whole world to Himself. All of mankind is included, and the world is reconciled with God… Now there is no longer any reality, any world unreconciled or not at peace with God’ (Works as translated by Nicolaisen & Scharffenorth, 2009., Volume 6, pp.64-65).

    Because Bonhoeffer rejects the orthodox positions on the Bible as revelation; the divine, sinless person of Jesus; the method of atonement; and on salvation by grace alone, it’s tricky to believe him to be orthodox. At least if we use the orthodox creeds as a measure, or (as has been done), dramatically broaden his language.

    So – there’s a whole whack of stuff.


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