Archive for the ‘Introduction to Bonhoeffer’ Category

This is the eighth in the series “Ten theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer” by Fuller Professor Ray Anderson. The article was written in 2007 for a guest spot on Ben Myer’s blog  ( http://faith-theology.blogspot.com ).


John Maverick was a nineteenth-century Texas rancher and legislator who received a herd of cattle in payment of a bill and turned them loose on the range without a brand. When one of the turned up without a brand, it was assumed to be one of Maverick’s. Many have tried to mark “Dietrich with their own brand, to no avail! He slipped away from the death of God theologians when they realized that the same man who wrote from prison about living in a world without God was the one who invited a Russian atheist fellow prisoner to participate in a final communion service just before being executed. Pacifists put a claim on him but felt betrayed by his admission that he would kill Hitler himself if the lot feel to him as a member of the conspiracy. Evangelicals like his talk about Jesus but wish Bonhoeffer had been more concerned about his unsaved relatives and friends. Social activists applaud him for his concern for the oppressed but are embarrassed by his orthodox Christianity. Even in death, as in life, he remained unbranded.


Those who knew Ray Anderson know that he was always a maverick. It mattered a great deal to him that he not ever follow tried and true paths toward explaining biblical faith and biblical theology. He thought his own thoughts without ever seeking a foundation other than Scripture. In an informal book of his musings, published by Fuller in 2001, Ray specifically labels himself a “maverick theologian.” (The book is called “Dancing with Wolves While Feeding the Sheep.” The wolves with whom he danced? That would be the professional theologians, a herd of which he chose to be only a fringe member.

It is no surprise, then, that Ray Anderson liked and identified with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in whom he saw the same characteristic. Bonhoeffer fits into no one else’s category, not even that of Barth, the theologian most like him in spirit. Ray could have mentioned that Evangelicals really like two of Bonhoeffer’s books — “Discipleship” and “Life Together” but are at best baffled by “Ethics” and “Letters and Papers.” When you’ve got the answers mastered, it is hard to read the questions raised by a maverick. Perhaps that’s why Eric Metaxas, who has written a popular biography of Bonhoeffer, dismisses his later writings as poorly thought through. Metaxas, no theologian himself, fails to see the amazing consistency of Bonhoeffer from his earliest days to his last.

The problem which Evangelicals tend to have with Bonhoeffer, I believe, stems from the fact that Bonhoeffer, while sharing the biblical foundations of faith with Evangelicals, builds a structure of mature thought on those foundations. We Evangelicals like to remind each other that Jesus called us to become like little children, which we take — for no reason I can discern — to mean he doesn’t want us to grow up. Bonhoeffer became a grown up Christian and few Evangelicals know what to do with such a character.



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This is the sixth in a series of ten posts written by Fuller professor Ray S. Anderson in 2007. They first appeared as guest entries in the blog by Ben Myers:


Postmodern ethics was anticipated by Bonhoeffer when he turned the “modern” basis for ethics (as advocated by Kant) on its head. He wrote: “In the sphere of Christian ethics it is not what ought to be that effects what is, but what is that effect what ought to be” (Communion 1963, 146). The problem of Christian ethics, said Bonhoeffer, is the same as the problem of Christian dogmatics, the realization of the reality of revelation in and among God’s creatures in the form of concreteness, immediacy, and obedience. In a world where good and evil are mixed, and where ambiguity conceals the divine commandment, the Christian’s ethical responsibility is to follow and obey Christ, not merely to adhere to abstract ethical principles. There is no place for “self justification” by virtue of reliance on predetermined principles for action. “Principles are only tools in God’s hands, soon to be thrown away as unserviceable” (Ethics 1995, 71).


I would add two comments to Ray’s observations. First, those who disagree with Bonhoeffer and wish to proclaim a life of righteousness by way of principles must find a way to distinguish themselves from the first century Pharisees with whom Jesus clashed. The problem between Jesus and the Pharisees was that they both cared deeply about personal righteousness before God but understood that righteousness in mutually exclusive ways. For the Pharisee, righteousness was an achievement, an accomplishment to be worked towards. For Jesus, it was a gift to be received at the beginning. Righteousness comes not by effort but by faith. It comes not by self-cleansing but by forgiveness.

Second, to say that principles are “soon to be thrown away” means, as Paul argues in Galatians, they have a place in the beginning but are meant to be temporary until we learn to follow Christ himself. They are guidelines for those learning the life of obedience but are outgrown as we mature in our responsiveness to the continual revelation of the character and will of God. Unlike what happened in the “situation ethics” of the 1960s, we do not live by ignoring or violating the principles but by maturing beyond the point of needing external reminders of the right, the good, and the true. We live in Christlikeness of character, responding moment to moment to the Spirit of God, as did Jesus.

As Bonhoeffer realized, Nietzche was on to something when he called for us to live “beyond good and evil” but failed to understand that the sphere beyond the categories is not mere emptiness, awaiting our own choices to create the good life. Beyond good and evil is the revelation of God. In the early 20th century, two young men in Chicago — Loeb and Leopold — wanted to take the leap into being Nietzche’s ubermann. So they randomly chose a victim to murder. Whatever may have been going on in their heads, their act was just plain murder and it was wrong.


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This is the fifth part of a series called “Ten theses about Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” written by Fuller Professor Ray Anderson and first appearing in the Ben Myers blog: < http://faith-theology.blogspot.com >


He was one of the first to recognize and point out the disastrous consequences of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. In June 1933, when the church struggle erupted over the National Bishop (Ludwig Muller) and the opposing General Superintendents were suspended, Bonhoeffer urged an interdict upon all pastoral services (baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.) as a way of confronting the German Christians with their unholy alliance with Hitler. But he could not arouse sympathy for this drastic action. In fact, Barth advised against this radical proposal, suggesting that “we should let the facts speak for themselves.” In September, following the Brown Synod, Bonhoeffer urged the formation of a new Free Church and even wrote to Barth requesting his support. But here again Bonhoeffer was disappointed at Barth’s counsel to wait until the present leaders “discredited themselves” (Bethge 2000, p. 292). It was in April 1933 in his article on “the Church and the Jewish Question” that he suggested that the only way to act responsibly would be by “throwing a spoke in the wheel” of the national government. Prophets often die by their own words; theologians seldom do.


Earlier in this series (entry #2) Anderson had noted that “Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a lonely theologian.” In this entry he shows us another dimension of Bonhoeffer’s loneliness. He respected Karl Barth above all other theologians, in part because of Barth’s courageous move to set theology on a new course after his liberal teachers proved morally inept in resisting the popular ultra-nationalism which marked Germany’s eager entrance into WW I. Now, when Bonhoeffer could see that the evil of Nazi ideology was even greater than the nationalism surrounding WW I, Barth seemed cautious almost to the point of being timid.

A prophet, we have been told, is not without honor except in his own country and kin. Bonhoeffer’s life bears this out. He cried out against Hitler, calling the church to action, but was dismissed as too young, too radical, too un-patriotic. In the essay mentioned by Anderson (“The Church and the Jewish Question”) Bonhoeffer seems at first almost to be thinking on paper, trying to find his way through the barriers of the German political perspective but suddenly his famous trio of responses to state-sponsored evil emerge. We hold the state accountable, we aid those who are wounded by the state, and — if necessary — we do whatever we can to stop the state. Such talk was shocking to the vast majority of German pastors but for Bonhoeffer the conclusion was inescapable: Doing nothing to stop evil makes us complicit in that evil and in its guilt.

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We continue today looking at “Ten Theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer” by Ray Anderson, late Fuller professor. These ideas were written as a guest blog for Ben Myers in 2007 ( http://faith-theology.blogspot.com ).


While the “worldliness of Christianity” became a dominant theme in his Letters from Prison, underlying this perspective was his conviction that the God who became human in Jesus Christ abolished the distinction between religion and the world. In his earliest writing he stated that religion is dispensable, God is not. “Not religion, but revelation, not a religious community, but the church: that is what the reality of Jesus Christ means” (Communio 1963, 112). Later, having witnessed the utter failure of the church as a religious institution to act on behalf of the oppressed Jews, he followed Christ out of the church into the world. Only those who live fully in the world have a claim to follow Christ, he wrote from prison. The God of religion whom we seek to call into the world on our behalf, has already entered the world in the form of a suffering God. “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God” (Letters, 360). The “worldliness” of Christianity is not our invention, but our calling. The ambiguity of this situation, he asserted, is precisely what the incarnation created for us. It is ambiguity that creates prophets.


Anderson, himself a careful student of Kierkegaard, has no trouble with the seeming paradoxes that mark some of Bonhoeffer’s most creative passages. In the 1960s, as Bonhoeffer was becoming known in the US, some theologians tried to follow Bonhoeffer’s thought by proclaiming that we are to live without God. Bonhoeffer himself, however, is careful to say “Before God and with God we live without God.” He is not proclaiming our independence from God but our responsibility before God.

We are not responsible in the sense that slaves and servants are. That is, we are not responsible for merely following orders. Jesus no longer calls us servants but friends because servants do not know what the Father is doing. We are in on God’s plans and responsible for carrying our share of the load, however small a share that may be. To live before God is to be continually accountable to God. To live with God is to live in a power and wisdom whose source is God but whose fruition takes place in and through us. To live responsibly without God is to become godly persons, imago dei, persons marked by Christlikeness of character. We do not hide behind God or our religious cliches and traditions but stand in our own strength (God-given though it must be) in the world and for the world.

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We continue today looking at “Ten Theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer” by Ray Anderson, late Fuller professor. These ideas were written as a guest blog for Ben Myers in 2007 ( http://faith-theology.blogspot.com ).


Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a conflicted theologian. While others perceived in Dietrich self-assurance and even a bit of arrogance, he often experienced self-contempt and even periods of depression in his own soul, or what Bethge, who perhaps knew him best, call accidie or tristitia. These periods often followed times when he had been particularly effective in preaching, teaching, or leading others. However, as Bethge recalls, after his arrest and imprisonment in 1943, he no longer experienced these times, as he was gripped by a sense of duty. In spite of enforced inaction, he had finally achieved the concrete discipleship that he long for (Bethge 2000, pp. 506 and 833).


The experience of Elijah, becoming depressed after a great demonstration of God’s power (I Kings 19), is still common today among those who are devoted to God. Though the Spirit of God is with us continually, only at certain times does he move in an especially powerful way. When that certain time is passed and the work of the day is done, we feel as limp as a sail in the calm after a storm.

As Bethge notes, such times of power and ensuing depression left Bonhoeffer in prison, in part I suppose because there were no more times of power for him. Yet he still bore within himself something of the conflict Anderson mentions. His poem “Who Am I?” is a perfect expression of that conflict. Bonhoeffer, with his heart always tuned to ministry, offered strength and peace to both guards and prisoners around him, yet he often felt weak. He wrote, “Am I really what others say of me? / Or am I only what I know of myself? / Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird, / Struggling for life breath. . .”

The strength by which we give ourselves in service to others is never our strength, never our possession. It is always and only a gift from God and it is given only when we need it.

Interestingly, if ever I knew a man who seemed immune to such fluctuations of the soul, it was Ray Anderson himself. Before becoming a theologian and professor, he was a farmer, working the soil of South Dakota. A farmer learns to say in the good years, “Better not get too excited about this good crop; next year may be tough.” And in the bad years, “Better not get too worried; next year may be a good year.” Ray carried with him to his last days a remarkable strength of spirit., yet he knew that such stability was itself a challenge to maintain and so he appreciated knowing that Bonhoeffer had struggled with it in very extreme circumstances.

Waxing and waning strength is not a sign of feeble faith but of the work of the Spirit of God. When we are in times of strength, we need to say, “Thank you, Lord, for the amazing grace by which you use even a lowly vessel such as I am.” And when we are in the times of weakness, we need to say, “Thank you, Lord, for giving me a time of rest.”

C. S. Lewis taught us through that old devil Screwtape that human feelings are like the waves of the sea, with peaks and troughs both being quite normal. The trick, said the devil, is to make people think only the peaks are normal and the troughs are some sort of problem. ‘Tain’t so! Each and every day we live and are satisfied by whatever strength God gives us for that day. “This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” That is the commitment of faith.

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We continue today looking at “Ten Theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer” by Ray Anderson, late Fuller professor. These ideas were written as a guest blog for Ben Myers in 2007 ( http://faith-theology.blogspot.com ).

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a lonely theologian. Though he had a twin sister, was home-schooled by his mother, and was raised in a highly interactive social environment, his decision to become a theologian was met with curiosity and even scorn. He was caught between his mother’s piety and his father’s contempt for religion. Kenneth Morris says that in his decision to become an academic theologian, Dietrich’s “father pitied him and told him so (1986, 75). For all his analysis of the social aspect of the self, Dietrich grew increasingly isolated in the midst of his activity. “With some exaggeration it might be said that because he was lonely he became a theologian, and because he became a theologian he was lonely” (Bethge, 2000, 37). When a theologian writes (in Discipleship, DBWE IV, 87) “Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads to death” . . .we know that the door to life has become so narrow that only one can pass through at a time. Perhaps Bonhoeffer had already read the bleak observation of the nineteenth-century German underground theologian G. J. Hamann: “In a world of fugitives / One who moves in the opposite direction / Will appear to run away.”

It seems strange in the minds of many people that a Christian would be lonely, especially one who was so deeply and extensively engaged with a large number of people who loved him. But Dietrich was always aware that he was different from others. His mind was sharper and he found that to be a burden. This reminds me of Edward John Carnell, a Fuller professor who had a great impact on Ray Anderson (and on me). His intelligence made him uneasy in ordinary human relations because he felt and thought so differently from those around him.

It also reminds me of Ray himself. Though working in the world of academic theology, he never felt nor wanted to be part of the club. He was at heart a South Dakota farmer like his father and his grandfather. His thinking was a unique blend of farmer, Kierkegaard, Barth and Bonhoeffer, yet it was always solidly grounded in Scripture. Sometimes, because he had such great commonsense and seemed so grounded in reality, others wanted to label his work “pastoral theology.” He rejected that label simply because he believed there was no other kind of theology.

As Bonhoeffer began to find his life shaped to an ever-larger degree by his response to Hitler, he became even lonelier. Few others in the Lutheran churches of Germany shared his conviction that Hitler was truly evil. It was discouraging for the young Bonhoeffer, so much so that at one point he simply retreated from his homeland, becoming pastor of two small German congregations in England for a time. Yet he did return, of course, and became increasingly involved in the resistance. Eventually he became part of the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, yet he did so not as part of a movement of Christians but a somewhat disparate group with whom he had little else in common beside his opposition to Hitler.

And that must have been a very lonely place to be.

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Some years ago a friend of mine, Professor Ray Anderson from Fuller Seminary, wrote a guest blog for Ben Myers ( http://faith-theology.blogspot.com ) called “Ten Theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” With Ben’s permission, I’m going to copy these ten ideas of Ray’s, one at a time, and add a few comments of my own.

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian. Rather, one should say that he became a Christian theologian. Eberhard Bethge, his former student and biographer, notes the year 1933 as a “transition from theologian to Christian.” In 1936 Dietrich wrote to a [former] girlfriend and confessed: “I plunged into work in a very unchristian way. . . .[T]hen 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” (Bethge 2000, 203-5). By his own admission, his two most scholarly writings, Sanctorum Communio (1927) and Act and Being (1930), were written by a theologian who was not yet a Christian. I take the word “Christian” here to mean “disciple” — one who does not merely believe in Christ, but experiences Christ.

Under the influence of Enlightenment rationalism, “objectivity” is a high value in academia. Theology, however, is a subject so unique that in many ways it simply doesn’t fit into the academic world. As Bonhoeffer came to see, theology without a personal entrusting of oneself to the Lord is actually impossible. The words are just words, no more (The emperor has no clothes!), unless they reflect what God has revealed of himself to us. And if God has revealed himself to a person, that person is grabbed, confronted, changed by that revelation. We either hide from the word of God, as did Adam and Eve in the bushes in Genesis 3) or we are claimed by it.

Unlike philosophy, which is the examination of ideas, theology is personal. It is the examination of persons, in part our examination of God but just as importantly his examination of us. We know and we are known. . .or we do not know and are not known.

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