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Was Bonhoeffer an evangelical? – or, Why you need multiple perspectives when reading history

Eric Metaxas‘ well-known biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has received quite a number of very positive reviews from prominent evangelicals. By all accounts, it’s well written, accessible, engaging, and presents Bonhoeffer as someone evangelicals can identify with and learn from. (In the interests of full disclosure, though I’ve read several reviews, I have not yet read the book itself.)

The problem is that the book has received significant criticism from a number of Bonhoeffer experts. As Clifford Green states in probably the most widely-read critique of Metaxas’ work, “Hijacking Bonhoeffer,”

I will not linger over the numerous factual errors, including problems with the German words sprinkled throughout the text….I will not fret about the problems infecting the copious endnotes, especially the missing, incomplete and garbled sources. I will not dwell on the fact that a critical assessment of sources is absent…..

And, he then launches into all of those problems that he will discuss – overly simplistic argumentation, lack of scholarly research, dismissal of aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology that don’t fit neatly into Metaxas’ presentation, and more. Green’s general conclusion, echoed by others, is that Metaxas has tamed Bonhoeffer in order to present him as someone palatable to contemporary evangelicals.

As Tim Challies, who has written a very positive review of the book, commented earlier today:

I did not want to believe what those authors (and authors) are saying about Metaxas and his biography. But I am inclined to believe them as they bring the weight of scholarship and experience. They may well be right in suggesting that…the true Bonhoeffer was simply too unorthodox to appeal to the likes of me—the kind of person who read, enjoyed and enthusiastically recommended the book.

Now, I’m not actually commenting on this to engage Bonhoeffer himself or even Metaxas’ biography. I’m a baby when it comes to Bonhoeffer and I am far from qualified to address the particulars of these critiques. I’m sure this is a discussion that is just getting going and it will be interesting to see how Metaxas (and maybe others) respond to these arguments.

My real point was to comment on the need to be careful with biographies. Biographical writing, like all historical writing, is a necessarily limited and subjective exercise. Each historian uses the subject matter to tell a particular story – leaving out some details and highlighting others. Thus, every biography shapes the subject according to the interests of the historian. That is unavoidable. The solution is not to avoid biographies (or history in general), but to recognize the subtle shaping  that accompanies  any particular “telling” of history and make sure that you engage the subject matter from multiple perspectives. Of course, even if you do this well, you won’t necessarily end up with “the whole story” either. You are also a part of the shaping process, molding the subject matter to fit your own subjective interests. But, it does mean that you’re more likely to develop a more adequate understanding of the whole than otherwise.

All this to say, if you really want to understand a historical figure, you can’t read just one biography. Come at the person from several directions and see how they look from different vantage points. When you’re done, you’ll find that you think some of those perspectives were more faithful representations of the person than others, but you’ll have learned from them all.

Flotsam and jetsam (12/27)

This article challenges that belief by questioning some of Dembski’s assumptions, pointing out some limitations of his analysis, and arguing that a design inference is necessarily a faith-based rather than a scientific inference.

I conclude that most if not all of Foucault’s condemnatory remarks concerning the subject are not intended as a death sentence for the subject per se; rather, his objective is to lay to rest a particular socio-historical construction of the subject and subjectivity. That is, Foucault’s critique is directed expressly at themodern construction of an ahistorical, autonomous subject as sovereign originator of meaning, one untainted by his own particular historical and socio-political context.

Pride – Plagiarism is driven by the refusal of limitation. A student comes up against their own intellectual limits, the time allotted in a busy semester, etc., and, unwilling to accept limitation, compensates by deception.

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

Guest Post by Danielle Kahut (Western Seminary Student)

A critical dimension in the theological discussion, whether emphasis shall be placed on the objective study of Scripture or the subjective experience of the individual, has its roots in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Diogenes Allen and Eric O. Springsted only loosely allude to this philosophy-to-theology link in their later chapters. It is of such importance that it needs to be emphasized.

Allen and Springsted do highlight the clear connection between Hume’s philosophy and Kant’s categories. Hume had used the fact that there is no observable link between ‘causes’ and ‘effects’ to say that the entire empiricist enterprise (the philosophical endeavor to ground knowledge on the foundation of experience) was fruitless and would therefore never produce any ‘true knowledge.’ This view, referred to as Humean skepticism, Kant felt a burden to answer.

Unlike the philosophers who had come immediately before him, Kant did not believe that experience was the source of knowledge; however, he did believe that knowledge begins there. The external sensations (touch, taste, smell, etc.) are significant because they arouse our thinking; Kant calls this first stage on the way to knowledge experience. Our reason, Kant said, cannot go beyond these experiences and arrive at true knowledge on its own; instead, our reason categorizes and makes sense of our experiences. Kant posits twelve categories that shape and filter man’s understanding of his experiences (for a good chart on these categories visit the following link: http://bcresources.net/app-Docs/Kant_TwelveCategories.pdf). This second stage, in which our categories process and interpret our experiences, Kant calls conception. The third state, knowledge, comes as a result of the forming of the raw data of experience via our categories.

This discussion of the twelve categories, and how they interact with our sense-experiences, is significant because it shifts the center of knowledge from the external world to the mind. Thus knowledge is no longer ‘objective’ in that it is independent of man, but ‘subjective’ in that it is wholly dependent on man and his processing of his experiences. This aspect of Kant’s philosophy soon had a major impact on theology. Friedrich Schleiermacher was primarily responsible for shifting the source of dogmatics from the objective study of Scripture to the subjective study of Christian religious feeling. He perceived the traditional subjects of dogmatics—God, Creation, Preservation, Salvation, Regeneration—through the subjective lens. Although the return to objective theology began on the continent over 100 years ago (cf. Hermann Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics) the shift has yet to take hold in the United States. To understand theology, especially to understand the cultural constructs which shape the current theological climate, we must understand that this turn to the subject (individuals feelings being a source of knowledge) began back in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.