On a Sunday in 1939, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to a service at Riverside Church in New York City where he heard the eminent liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick. The sermon was about "'accepting a horizon'," how one gets a horizon, namely God as man's necessary horizon. Bonhoeffer's reaction was that "the whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration." It was the "sort of idolatrous religion" which "stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God" (The Way to Freedom, Harper& Row, 1966, p. 230).
While Bonhoeffer was visiting America for the first time, he wrote an essay on "Protestantism Without Reformation." It is an astute assessment of American Protestantism at that time (with relevance, I think, to the enduring character of American Christianity). In that essay, he explained why he would later have such a negative reaction to Fosdick's sermon. He wrote, "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." By this he meant that Christianity in America consists of "religion and ethics" by which "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 for radical judgment and radical forgiveness" (No Rusty Swords, Harper & Row, 1965, Pp. 117-118).
Bonhoeffer was under the spell of Karl Barth's early theology, which emphasized that the church was created by God in history to witness to God's divine revelation, and, while the church has taken the external form of human religion, the church must not become a religion of human and cultural ideas and values, but it must be a community committed to Jesus Christ as Lord of the church and the world.
We do not know if Bonhoeffer would have revised his view of American Christianity if he had lived longer instead of being executed by the Gestapo at the end of WWII. Perhaps also he would have moved beyond his enthrallment with the neo-Reformation "crisis theology" led by Barth in the 1930's just as Barth's own thought advanced. Bonhoeffer's letters and papers he wrote in prison before his execution are provocative, but also ambiguous.
Nevertheless, I have often pondered Bonhoeffer's critique of the church in America. I think the church must be critiqued not only by the prophetic insights of the Reformation, but also by the norms of the larger apostolic and universal Christian faith and community. And, I think American Christianity has proven that it offers its own unique gifts to the whole church which are needed today, such as its emphasis upon personal faith in Christ. Still, Bonhoeffer's main concern seems to me to be valid, namely the weakness of the church's engagement with Scripture and Christology.
Today it is "evangelicals" who use the methods of old-fashioned liberals. Preaching is sometimes self-help therapy with a Christian patina of "biblical principles" in a way which subverts the prophetic message of the Word of God by the values of a egoistic and consumerist culture.
The primary concern of the Protestant Reformation was the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the revealed Word of God coming to us from beyond ourselves to break our deception and enslavement by the power of sin and to liberate us for forgiveness and dependence upon the grace of God. The "Protestant principle" is that the church needs continual reform so that Jesus Christ, not "religion" or "ethics," is the center of the church's life.
We go through a succession of "renewals," but can there be renewal without Reformation of the church by the Word of God? We can embrace creative techniques, but can they build up the church as the body of Christ without theological Reformation?
This is still a question we must ask over and over. Just asking the question will remind the church who we are and why God called us into being as God's witness in history.