Archive for the ‘Bonhoeffer: Middle Years’ Category

I don’t know that Dietrich read Mark Twain’s masterpiece, though he did study the situation and history of the Black Americans when he was in New York in the early 1930s. But in an odd way, thanks to PBS and Ken Burns,* I now see that Bonhoeffer and Huck are very close in spirit.

Huck Finn, a white boy running away from a harsh father in the era before the American Civil War (which resulted, among other things, in the freeing of the slaves in America), is befriended by Jim, a runaway slave. The two become good friends, though Huck remains troubled by his conscience. Everything he has been taught about right and wrong says he should turn in his new friend. He even writes a letter to Jim’s “owner,” telling her where Jim can be found.

He pauses to consider the letter on the table before him.

“I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ — and tore it up.”

There are times when people who are deeply honest know what’s right, even when everything in their culture says otherwise. Perhaps it is that remnant of the image of God in us. It is something deeper than culture or circumstances can reach.

As early as 1932, Bonhoeffer was becoming aware that the growing crisis in Germany was going to require great sacrifice — even martyrdom — on the part of Christians. Yet he could see that the sacrifice would not be an act of purity and innocence. Innocence, he was sensing, was not an available option.

In a sermon in June of that year, he said:

“. . .we should not be surprised if for our church, too, times will come again when the blood of martyrs will be required. But this blood, if we really still have the courage and honor and faithfulness to shed it, will not be as innocent and untarnished as that of the first witnesses. On our blood would lie great guilt of our own: the guilt of the worthless slave, who is thrown into the outer darkness.”

Those who heard that message in Berlin that day would probably have thought Bonhoeffer meant no more than that we have all lost our innocence through our sinfulness. Maybe Bonhoeffer himself was thinking no more but Bethge, his friend and biographer, heard in these words a “premonition” of what was to come.**

Bonhoeffer’s whole understanding of ethics, which took years for him to learn to articulate, was centered around his simple conviction that we follow a living Christ, whose Spirit cannot be captured in words or rules or commands.

Mark Twain, who like many in his day rejected the harsh and legalistic portrait of God taught by many a stern Christian, glimpsed at least for that moment in Huck Finn’s story, that there is a goodness which lies deeper than and sometimes contrary to all that churches and cultures tend to teach.

But that “deep” truth is hidden in very plain sight. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

*PBS in Minnesota is currently showing Burns’ series on Twain. I’m thankful for the reminder of Huck Finn’s great moral decision.
**Costly Grace, Bethge’s first biography of Bonhoeffer, p. 56.


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During the period 1928 (when Dietrich was in Barcelona as something of a pastoral intern) until the mid-30s (when he wrote Discipleship and Life Together), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was developing an understanding of Christian life and faith that is a model of nearly all that modern Evangelicalism could desire. He emphasizes the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ and the complete trustworthiness of Scripture as the Word of God.

What does seem to be missing, or at least minimalized, during this time is a concern for Jesus specifically as Savior. Personal salvation is a topic seldom noted by Bonhoeffer, in this period or any other. His ideas about salvation (called “soteriology” in theological circles)are always lurking in the background, however, as we can see in his very unusual letter to his brother-in-law, Rudiger Schleicher, dated 8 April 1936 (DBWE 14:166ff).

Dietrich is attempting openly to persuade Rudiger to read the Bible will a full expectation that God will meet him in those pages. Toward the end of the letter he writes:

“Resurrection – this is anything but a self-evident notion or an eternal truth. Of course, I am referring to it the way the Bible intends – as resurrection from real death (rather than from sleep) to real life, from alienation from God and abandonment by God to new life with Christ in God.”

Obviously, he sees the resurrection of Jesus Christ quite as do we modern Evangelicals: the key to eternal life. We would want to emphasize, of course, that this is true specifically for all who believe.

But this is a long letter and that sentence is only a small part of it, hardly the center at all. What really concerns Bonhoeffer in this persuasive letter is that Rudiger learn to listen for God in Scripture.

“Hence,” he says, “all that remains is the decision whether to trust the word of the Bible, whether to allow it to sustain us as does no other word in life or death. And I believe that we will genuinely become happy and at peace only after making this decision.”

We can see that Bonhoeffer is not indifferent to the benefits we receive from entrusting ourselves to God and his Word but there is something a bit different here. We Evangelicals tend to make those benefits the heart of our understanding of evangelism. We must tell people — we seem to think — how much good they will derive from entrusting themselves to God. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, is more concerned with the faith itself and with the God to whom we are to entrust ourselves. He has a God-centered understanding of the Gospel, not a self-centered interpretation.

Listen to these strong words:

“Thus do I read the Bible. I ask every passage: what is God saying to us here? And I implore God to show us what he wants to say. Hence we are no longer even permitted to seek universal, eternal truths, that might correspond to our own “eternal” nature and that might be demonstrable as such. Instead, we seek the will of God, who is utterly alien and repugnant to us, whose ways are not our ways, and whose thought are not our thoughts, the God concealed beneath the sign of the cross, where all our ways and thoughts come to an end. God is something entirely different from so-called eternal truth. The latter is still merely our own self-conceived, desired understanding of eternity. By contrast, God’s word begins by showing us at the cross of Christ where all our ways and thoughts – including so-called eternal ones – ultimately lead, namely, to death and judgment before God.”

The way of Christ is the way of the Cross, which is costly, difficult, demanding. . .and fatal. Bonhoeffer, in his teaching and in his very life, show us the way of the Cross, that is the way to the Cross and beyond the Cross. We, on the other hand, want to dwell only on what lies beyond, on the blessing, the joy, the fulfillment. Our evangelism, as a result, tends to be little more than showing people a shortcut to happiness. For Bonhoeffer, evangelism is calling people to give up their lives for Christ and the Gospel.

Does he not sound like Jesus in such a call?

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I’m delighted that at last Volume 14 of Bonhoeffer’s Works in English has arrived. The publication of all 16 volumes has been a major, multi-year, and very successful venture. The standard of editorial and translation excellence has been sustained throughout the project and the result is simply outstanding.

This volume covers the Finkenwalde years of 1935-37, a critical period in Bonhoeffer’s life. With great happiness he had found a role that allowed him to be all he had ever dreamed: pastor, educator, friend. Yet the Nazi machine took away the school and from that point on Bonhoeffer’s work was increasing centered on resisting the demonic evil of Hitler.

Every seminarian, every seminary professor, and every seminary administrator ought to consider this book necessary reading as they consider the way in which the modern Western church prepares its pastors. As always, Bonhoeffer was ahead of his time and therefore speaks to our day as if he were our contemporary.

Just dipping here and there to get acquainted with the book, I easily found numerous ideas to underline and contemplate. Some are minor in appearance yet important in implications. This evening, for example, I looked through Dietrich’s note to his seminarians in the school newsletter of May 15, 1937 (p. 303).

He wrote, “‘You will be my witnesses (Acts 1:8) — that is the Lord’s promise to us.” Such a simple sentence that we might well overlook something very profound about it. In all my 53 years of experience in the Evangelical churches of America, I have heard hundreds of references to Acts 1:8, always with the idea that it is a command. Bonhoeffer hears it as a promise. What a difference!

Conservative Christians in the West hear lots of commands in the Bible and end up being barely distinguishable from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They stood firmly on Torah, conceived as law and command, much like religious and political conservatives today boast of “standing on principles.”

Much of what we tend to hear as command, however, is really promise. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul wrote to the Colossians. If that is a command, what are we to do with it? Shall we instruct Christ to send his peace into our hearts and our fellowships? Of course not. We merely stop trying to make ourselves and our communities into what we think they should be and let our peaceful Lord have his way with us.

“You will be my witnesses” is simply a promise of how our Lord will use us, not a command we must train ourselves to obey. We’ve turned “witnessing” into a verb, into something we are to do, rather than recognizing it is a noun with simply tells us who we are. We are who we are in Christ Jesus and that is our testimony. Yes, of course, there are times for words to be spoken ass we tell others who Jesus is, but these words come after our friends have seen who we are in Christ. The words are not the testimony; we are!

Thanks, Dietrich, for reminding me. . .

(By the way, the Pharisees in the next few centuries after Jesus became much like him in many way and proved essential to sustaining and shaping Judaism after the destruction of the Temple.)

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The new volume of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (vol. 14, the final publication of the full set of 16 volumes) is devoted to the three years in which Bonhoeffer founded and led an underground seminary at Finkenwalde in northern Germany.  We Evangelicals think of these years (1935-1937) as of great importance because our two favorite Bonhoeffer books (Discipleship and Life Together) come from this time and specifically from the Finkenwalde experience. We applaud Bonhoeffer because he sounds in these books more boldly evangelical than most of us dare to be.

To understand Bonhoeffer, however, we very much need to take into account that his battle against “cheap grace” was only one of three great struggles in which he was engaged in the middle 30s.

Since at least as early as February 1, 1933, when Dietrich spoke on the radio to warn the German people that their desperate hunger for somebody, anybody to fix the economic mess in Germany, his opposition to Hitler was clear, strong, and well known. Bonhoeffer’s resistance to to evil Hitler brought to the world came to dominate his life not many years later and in time cost him his life.

Just as importantly in the Finkenwalde years, Bonhoeffer was struggling with the church, both the Confessing Church (which was having difficulty becoming a coherent force against Nazi domination) and the ecumenical church with which he had been deeply involved during the early 30s. The very extensive correspondence now published in Volume 14 shows us how deeply disappointed Bonhoeffer was in the churches outside Germany, nearly almost all of whom followed the common western tack of appeasement to the bellicose Hitler.

Even in 1935, when Hitler was being quite open about violating the Versailles Treaty by building a major military force, Western politicians and church leaders chose a willful ignorance of Hitler’s aims and downplayed any suggestions that he had any aggressive ideas against other nations or against non-Aryans. Western cowardice is finely, though inadvertently, expressed in a long letter to Bonhoeffer from Leonard Hodgson, a British ecumenical leader and Oxford professor of theology. It is a response to Bonhoeffer’s stand against attending a particular ecumenical meeting if German (i.e., Nazi) Church officials were also welcomed.

Hodgson argues that “it is necessary for us to guarantee to every church, when we invite it to send representatives, that it will not find itself in any way compromised by action taken by the conference at which it is represented” (DBWE 14:77). In other words, all churches were invited and were promised no action would be taken against them. . . no matter what they might deserve. That sounds graciously ecumenical but Bonhoeffer was not shaken in his conviction that Hitler’s evil — including the German Church which he now dominated — could only be opposed, not appeased.

How ironic and sad that we Evangelicals celebrate the inward Christianity of Discipleship and Life Together without realizing that for Bonhoeffer these were meant to be foundational in the much broader task of challenging the cultural and political environment. He was not inviting Christians to escapism but to strengthening their walk with Jesus Christ so that they could stand before God, the German people, and all the world with a clear testimony to the Lordship of Christ.

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A third letter from Bonhoeffer, written in April of 1936, reveals still more about this great change which had taken place about four years earlier. It was written to his brother in law Rudiger Schleicher, husband of Ursula Bonhoeffer and father of Renate, who became the wife of Eberhard Bethge. The letter can be found in Bethge’s biography at page 206.

 Is it . . .intelligible to you if I say I am not at any point willing to sacrifice the Bible as this strange word of God, that on the contrary, I ask with all my strength what God is trying to say to us through it? Every other place outside the Bible has become too uncertain for me. I fear that there I will only bump into my own divine Doppelgänger. . . .
    And I want to say something to you personally: since I learned to read the Bible this way – which has not been long at all – it becomes more wonderful to me with each day. . . .
    You wouldn’t believe how happy one is to find the way back from the wrong track of some theologies to this elemental thing.

Dietrich recognized that much of what passes for Bible study is merely projecting our own beliefs onto the Scripture, so that we end up creating a Bible which is but a mirror image of what we already believe and what our own attitudes and values are.

Rather than seeking in the Bible confirmation of what he wants to believe, Bonhoeffer says he wants to hear “what God is trying to say to us through it.” The Bible for Dietrich is not a magic book that has God’s personal self-revelation woven into its very words and letters (as the Fundamentalists seem to think). Nor is it just an old record of yesterday’s religious activity (as the Far Left tends to treat it). Instead, it is more like a window through which we can see the character of God and – just as importantly – through which God can see us. This makes for an imprecise definition of the Bible as the living Word of God but sharpens immeasurably our sense that in dealing with Scripture, we are being met by the living God.

As he put it in Life Together, written shortly after this letter, we are to address ourselves to Scripture until it addresses us. We examine the text deeply and extensively and prayerfully until we come to sense that it is, in effect, examining us, turning the spotlight back on us.

We do not know Dietrich Bonhoeffer until we grasp how deeply he was devoted to Scripture and with what great personal vulnerability he approached it every day for the final 13 years of his life. He sought with great determination to hear the voice of the Spirit of Jesus Christ in the Word of God.  That is a way of reading which can include but goes far, far beyond merely studying the Bible in order to understand it.

May you and I listen for our Lord’s voice with the same burning desire to hear and to heed.

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In late January of 1936, Bonhoeffer in the midst of his first year leading the new seminary at Finkenwalde, reflected on the path that had taken him thus far. He wrote to a former girlfriend, Elizabeth Zinn, a letter which is one of the most personal self-revelations of all that he wrote. (See the posting from June 29 for an extended excerpt from the letter.)

He tells her that he had plunged into his work in a very unchristian way, a way marked by ambition. He was quite accustomed to being outstanding in everything that he did and certainly could have become one of Germany’s premier academic theologians. Clearly this was a real temptation to him yet integrity kept drawing him in a different direction.

When he went to New York on a graduate fellowship to study at Union Seminary, he found no challenge in American education but was deeply influenced by four friendships. One was with a French student named Jean Laserre, a pacifist who helped him see that the Bible – and especially the Sermon on the Mount – was to be lived, not merely studied as an historical document or as a set of impossible ideals.

In this letter he seems to refer to that period, though he gives no details and we cannot be certain. Whenever it was, “Something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible. . .” That of course is not literally true. He had long been a good student of the Bible, had learned Bible lessons from his mother throughout all his childhood, and had even sensed that contemporary biblical scholarship was failing to appreciate the Bible adequately.

What he discovered was that the Bible is a living document, still being breathed out by the Spirit of God. It was not merely yesterday’s word but today’s, still being spoken into the hearts of the listeners and still providing realistic guidance for living as God’s people. Learning to hear the Bible afresh as a love letter from God, as he later put it, was so transforming that he looked back on the time as having been the time when he became a Christian.

He had been devoted to the idea of Jesus Christ but suddenly found himself called to be a follower of the living Christ. Jesus Christ is a person, not a doctrine. “It was a great liberation,” he wrote.

Rather than seeing this following in a merely personal, inward way as that exemplified by the Pietists (and by most modern Evangelicals like myself), Bonhoeffer saw immediately that “the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church.” To be a servant of Christ means to be a servant of the fellowship of believers.

As an idea of the church, this was not entirely new thinking. His doctoral dissertation in 1927, entitled “The Communion of Saints,” had set forth the idea that we meet Jesus Christ in the community of believers. Now, however, the priority was reversed. He was following not a Christ intermingled into or lost in the church, but who was the living Lord of the church.

Two years after Dietrich returned from New York, Hitler came to power. Most than most, Bonhoeffer realized that this marked a dramatic and disastrous change for Germany. He began to see the church as being the bulwark against the evils he was sure would quickly follow. And they certainly did. Hitler’s demonic ways were quickly made apparent as he intimidated Parliament, struck out against the Jews, enticed the university scholars, and overpowered the church – all within six months.

With a few others, Bonhoeffer began to see that “the revival of the church and of the ministry” was the primary need of the day. This was only a first step, of course, in the longer process of seeing that he was responsible not just to protect the church but Germany itself and, eventually, all the world from Hitler and all he represented.

At the early period of which he is writing, he already knows that the path will be long and difficult, though he cannot yet imagine the lengths to which he would be called in challenging evil. “If only we can hold out,” he wrote, realizing in however vague a way that the battle to come was of monumental proportions.

The little boy who had once promised his mother that he would protect her from the wild creature (a dragonfly!), would eventually give his life to protect the world from a true monster.

Years later, writing while sitting in prison for his part in the failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, Dietrich wrote that there had been a point when he “turned from the phraseological to the real,” a time when he deepened his inner commitment from words to the reality God was presenting to him. It seems clear that he was referring to the same period as he had in his letter to Zinn. Discovering that Jesus Christ is a living person, rather than a doctrine, made all the difference in Bonhoeffer’s seldom-traveled road.

As I think back to the early lessons I was taught when I became a Christian at age 20, I can see that I was expected to learn that Jesus was alive and present during my Quiet Time, my daily devotions, but that, having “spent a little time with God,” I was then free to live my life on my own, calling on God only to help me when I got into situations over my head. Later, while engaged in campus ministry, I saw three kinds of Christian students. The first (to use just one issue as an example) asked God to bless the marriage they were choosing. The second asked God to lead them to the right person to marry. And a small handful asked, “Lord, do you want me to marry?”

Alas, it seems it will always be but a small handful who entrust every decision to the Lord. Few will realize that we are called to walk Jesus’ path with him rather than expecting him to walk and bless the path we feel like walking for ourselves.

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In the last post we looked at the first of three letters which give us a special glimpse into what made Bonhoeffer tick, what made him as a person. The second letter, written to a former girlfriend named Elizabeth Zinn (later the wife of theologian Gunther Bornkamm) in January of 1936. It is long but so fascinating that I cannot resist quoting it fairly extensively. Because of its length, I’ll refrain from comment until the next post. He is telling her about the period some four years earlier when he committed himself to Jesus Christ with a transforming new depth.  (The letter is found in the biography by Eberhard Bethge on page 204. It will appear in full in the forthcoming Volume 14 of the series Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works in English.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


1/27/1936, to Elizabeth Zinn (Bornkamm) (DB 204)
“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. . . .
“I know that at that time I turned the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage for myself. . . I pray to God that will never happen again. Also I had never prayed, or prayed only very little. For all my loneliness, I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people about me. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became clearer to me how far this must go.
“Then came the crisis of 1933. This strengthened me in it. Also I now found others who shared this purpose with me. The revival of the church and of the ministry became my supreme concern..
“I suddenly saw the Christian pacifism that I had recently passionately opposed as self-evident – during the defense of my dissertation, where Gerhard [Jacobi] was also present. And so it went on, step by step. I no longer saw or thought anything else. . . .
“My calling is quite clear to me. What God will make of it I do not know. . . .
“I must follow the path. Perhaps it will not be such a long one. Sometimes we wish that it were so (Philippians 1:23). But it is a fine thing to have realized my calling. . . .
“I believe that the nobility of this calling will become plain to us only in the times and events to come. If only we can hold out!”

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