The Idealist’s Dilemma

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1932

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1932

In 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about his strong opposition to German Nazis and, as a result, his opposition to the German Christian Church that had capitulated to them (or in some cases eagerly gone along with them):

I find myself in radical opposition to all my friends; I became increasingly isolated with my views of things, even though I was and remain personally close to these people. All this has frightened me and shaken my confidence so that I began to fear that dogmatism might be leading me astray—since there seemed no particular reason why my own view in these matters should be any better, any more right, than the views of many really capable pastors whom I sincerely respect.1

He wrote that in a letter to Karl Barth––usually considered the greatest theologian of the past few centuries. Barth was one of the people who disagreed with Bonhoeffer’s stance, or at least found it too extreme.

Almost all of us would look back in history and say that Bonhoeffer was right. His beliefs led him to properly oppose the Nazis while many other “really capable [and respectable] pastors” were swept up by the current of the day, failing to see the injustice and heresy the German Church was permitting and promoting.

Bonhoeffer stood alone. In this, he wasn’t far different from Martin Luther before him. Nearly every voice around them told them to stand down, yet their consciences and beliefs wouldn’t allow it.

But for every Bonhoeffer and Luther, there are thousands of people whose dogmatism has truly led them astray. The voices around them are telling them to stand down––and those voices are right.

The idealist’s dilemma: how does one know if (s)he is another Bonhoeffer or Luther or one of the thousands who truly should stand down? The odds tell each idealistic, would-be reformer that (s)he is likely the latter. Stand down.

But if everyone listened to that advice, we would have no Bonhoeffers and no Luthers. That creates a dilemma for us all.

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  1. from Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition, 2010), 197.

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4 thoughts on “The Idealist’s Dilemma

  1. Appreciate both Luther and Bonhoeffer. Both very idealistic. Bonhoeffer was sadly less than effective. Luther does not suit the tastes of moderns, yet his long term results endure to this day. There is a place ofr idealism. But as with Whitefield and Wesley, one must be more than earnest and ideal to get lasting results. Finally as to standing down… No. Period. Let a man study Scripture and let him seek the face of God in prayer. Then, let him act. If others object, let them. But let him act. Nehemiah is a very good pattern.

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