Bonhoeffer on Protestantism without Reformation…


“Protestantism without Reformation” is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the Protestant segment of the American church in the early 1900s.  This description was mentioned by Stanley Hauerwas in “The End of American Protestantism,” the essay introduced in the previous post.  As Hauerwas pointed out, the church still needs to heed Bonhoeffer’s advice to dialogue with “the churches of the Reformation.”  Even more so today than in the early 1900s, we need to pay special attention to the person and work of Christ which, in Bonhoeffer’s words, is “the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.”


God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God. Anything of the churches of the Reformation which has come to America either stands in conscious seclusion and detachment from the general life of the church or has fallen victim to Protestantism without Reformation. …


American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of ‘criticism’ by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics. But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness. The decisive task for today is the dialogue between Protestantism without Reformation and the churches of the Reformation.



“Protestantism without Reformation” is included in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures, and Notes, 1928-1936, from the Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, volume 1, Edwin H. Robertson, ed. (Harper & Row, 1965), p. 117-118.



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