Protestantism without Reformation

Bonhoeffer wrote an essay and characterized American Christianity as ‘Protestantism without Reformation’:

“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 detachments 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.”

He wrote the essay when he was contemplating to return to Germany after arriving in New York in 1939, just before the war started. Comparing his own situation with the Americans, he wrote:

“Perseverance to the end can be necessary; to flee may be permissible, and even necessary. The flight of Christians under persecution does not of itself signify apostasy and disgrace, for God does not call everyone to martyrdom. Not to flee, but to disavow one’s faith, is sin; that is to say, that there can be a situation where flight is equivalent to renunciation, just as on the other hand flight itself can be a part of martyrdom. The Protestant refugees who journeyed to the unknown country America did not find themselves in a paradise, but in a situation that called for hard labor. They accepted the struggle of building colonies for the sake of living out their faith in freedom, without struggle. This sheds light on the destiny of Christian refugees as such. They claimed for themselves the right to forgo the ultimate suffering, in order to be able to worship God in quietness and peace.”


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