Archive for June, 2014

As we look back on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we can see three substantial changes, one each in his heart, his mind, and his work. While I believe the continuities are more important than the changes for Bonhoeffer, it can also be instructive for us to ponder those points at which he faced a fork in the road and had to choose one way over another.

He himself looked back from his prison cell and asked about the changes. On 22 Apr 1944, he wrote to Eberhard Bethge, “There are people who change, and many who can hardly change at all. I don’t think I have ever changed much, except perhaps at the time of my first impressions abroad, and under the first conscious influence of Papa’s personality. It was then that a turning from the phraseological to the real ensued.”

He seems almost to discount the change yet we can see that he is pointing to something very important with significant ramifications. We might say he is pointing to a shift from an ideological to a personal way of thinking. That is, he turned from the academy and its view of theology as a form of philosophy to a commitment to knowing and following the living — not just the theoretical! — Jesus Christ.

In fact, some years earlier he had pointed to this same change and described it in just a bit more detail. (He never described personal things in any detail whatsoever. He was too reserved. To his friend Elizabeth Zinn, reflecting on the period of his first American sojourn and the period immediately following, he wrote on 27 Jan 1936:
    “I plunged into my work in a very unchristian way. An . . .ambition that many noticed in me made my life difficult. . . .
    “Then something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible. . . I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it – but I had not yet become a Christian. . . .”

These two changes of mind and heart, from the phraseological to the real and from academy to Bible and Christ are but two sides of the same coin. The third change was something quite different. It was his decision to participate in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. From 1939 this dominated his work and thought. He was acting neither as scholar nor as pastor but as an activist in seeking to bring about radical social and political change in his beloved Germany.

How could he undergo three such important changes yet think he had not changed much over the years? Perhaps by hindsight he could see that each was in fact a natural progression along the path he had been following since childhood. He knew that he had always loved God and that each step along the way, while marking a change at one level was simply a movement along his path as a follower of Jesus Christ.

And I find myself appreciative of both continuity and change within Dietrich. He was, simply put, a man of God.


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One of my favorite lines in Bonhoeffer was written when he was only 22 and a pastoral assistant in Barcelona. “Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church,” he claimed.

I like that!

The church, whatever may be its foundations in the Word of God, is a dynamic movement within human history and culture. It repeatedly follows a familiar pattern: A refreshing burst of life is quickly institutionalized in a vain attempt to capture and preserve the glory of the new joy. We make policies to encase the freedom of the Holy Spirit. How foolish of us. Yet we cannot quite see what else to do.

Jesus burst the old wineskins of Judaism and even today we thrill to read of the freedom he brought to those who heard his call. But it did not take long for the wlldness to be tamed into a dreary and oppressive church. Martin Luther set fire to the old structures and called us back to a life responsive to the living God, but his exciting work was soon declawed by a creedal mentality. John Wesley broke the bonds of a stale Anglicanism, only to have the resulting fellowship called “Methodism,” as if the life were in the methods.

Yet the Spirit of Jesus Christ will not be bound. God soon enough will call new people to follow his Spirit anew and the policies and stiff theologies will creak and groan and eventually give way.

Christianity — the following of Jesus Christ — will always challenge and sometimes unravel the church. But, like a community rebuilding itself after a tornado, we will restructure our policy manuals, dampening the enthusiasm, making stale the freshness, and setting ourselves up for the next tornado. Thanks be to God!

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