Posts Tagged ‘Jesus Christ’

Writing in 1942, when the full horrors of Hitler and his henchmen were fully apparent for all to see, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of “mini-essays,” reflecting on what he and his friend had learned during their ten years of resistance to the Nazis.

One of those essays was entitled “Sympathy” but, interestingly, his first sentence is about wisdom. I miss hearing the word “wisdom” in our public discourse these days. It seems we may have despaired of becoming a people of wisdom, probably because we have lost hope that such as thing as wisdom even exists. It is my prayer that the Church will rise to the occasion and begin to fill that great gap in our Western — or is it only the American? — culture.

Wisdom, Bonhoeffer notes, is usually only learned through experience, through what we in the US have often called “the college of hard knocks.” One implication of that fact is that few people can see the right course of action in advance, only in the middle or even after the situation that so needed wise intervention. A second implication, says Bonhoeffer, is that few people have a genuine capacity for sympathy.

Lacking wisdom, we tend to underestimate the suffering that various situations bring to the human spirit until those situations begin to impinge on our own lives. Bonhoeffer lists several rationalizations by which people tend to keep the sense of threat at a distance as long as possible, and thus keep sympathy from developing very fully.

He writes:

From a Christian perspective, none of these justifications can blind us to the fact that what is decisively lacking here is a greatness of heart. Christ withdrew from suffering until his hour had come; then he walked toward it in freedom, took hold, and overcame it. Christ, so the Scripture tells us, experienced in his own body the whole suffering of all humanity as his own – an incomprehensibly lofty thought! – taking it upon himself in freedom.

Greatness of heart, he is suggesting, means walking toward suffering, not fleeing from it. We do not believe, of course, that our own suffering will have the universal implications which marked Jesus Christ’s suffering. Yet there is an essential dimension to the suffering of the Christian which does in fact have meaning beyond itself.

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “if we want to be Christians it means that we are to take part in Christ’s greatness of heart. . .” That is the key, that is the factor which transforms Christian suffering into something more than merely personal pain. This is a familiar theme in Bonhoeffer: our participation in Christ’s reality. When we choose to walk toward suffering, our own or someone else’s, we do so as followers of the Christ who goes before us. We walk his path with him into the sacrifice that unites us with those in pain.

I’ve not written much in this blog in the last month because my attention has been captivated by our presidential elections here in the US. I am horrified at the results and believe trump will do serious harm to our nation and to other nations which have some connection to us. One of the many ways in which I find him to be antithetical to the Christian way is that he wants to protect Americans from the suffering that might come from welcoming refugees into our country. he does not care much that their suffering is widespread and intense. All he cares about is that we Americans ought to be sheltered from suffering on their behalf.

How very, very deeply our president-elect is unlike Jesus Christ. . .



, in the responsible action that in freedom lays hold of the hour and faces the danger, and in the true sympathy that springs forth not from fear but from Christ’s freeing and redeeming love for all who suffer. Inactive waiting and dully looking on are not Christian responses. Christians are called to action and sympathy not through their own firsthand experiences but by the immediate experiences of their brothers, for whose sake Christ suffered.


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This is a short blurb about the sovereignty of God in our lives. It is one of those many passages in Bonhoeffer that makes us wish we could sit down with him and ask lots of questions.

I quote it in full:

I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For that to happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best. I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need. But it is not given to us in advance, lest we rely on ourselves and not on God alone. In such faith all fear of the future should be overcome. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.

These are the words of a man who knows his life is in danger, whose family and country are already suffering under Hitler, the Nazis, and the war machine they have put into action. Bonhoeffer trusts the promise of Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good for those who love God. . .”

Notice that he is also aware, however, that human cooperation is a part of the story. It is not as if we can simply do whatever we want whenever we want and God will somehow magically guarantee a positive outcome. The devil had tempted Jesus to believe in that illusion (Matthew 4) and had been rebuffed by Jesus. We are not to test God but cooperate with him, using the strength — and wisdom! — he gives us day by day, moment by moment.

The worst thing, in Bonhoeffer’s mind, would be for us to “rely on ourselves and not on God alone.” That’s offensive for those people infected by hubris who in fact want very much to rely on themselves alone and not need the “crutch” of faith at all.

As a new Christian more than a few decades ago, I puzzled over the relation between doing things without actually having a sense of being directed by God and doing nothing without a certainty of God’s will. I quickly decided, of course, that were I to wait for definite leading, I would simply sit in a dark room motionless for a long time. It is to posit a false dichotomy to say we must choose being doing and waiting.

Isaiah 30:21 was very helpful for me. “When you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” The Lord’s guidance normally comes as we step out in faith, not before.

There is something else in Bonhoeffer’s words which grabs my attention. God, he says, “waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.” Surely this is the most amazing idea of all: The omniscient,omnipresent, never-changing Creator of the Universe responds to the prayers and responsible (=faithful) actions of his children.

Take this sentence and chew on it for a few weeks: Our Lord and his children are in a mutually responsive personal relationship.

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In his set of mini-essays entitled “After Ten Years,” written in 1942, Bonhoeffer reflects on the lessons learned in a decade of active resistance to Hitler. The section entitled “Immanent Justice” is one of the most profound parts of the whole piece and it begs to be expanded. Many of its ideas, in fact, do receive a broader attention in the book Ethics, of which “After Ten Years” was originally a part

Bonhoeffer’s first assertion here is that “evil . . . proves itself to be stupid and impractical.” That is, evil is neither wise nor pragmatic. It is unwise because (to supply an image which Bonhoeffer does not use) evil is a boomerang. It will always return to strike the one who sent it flying. It is not pragmatic because ultimately it becomes harmful to the very ends for which it was chosen in the first place.

Hitler’s hubris had such strength that it was the basis of the Thousand Year Reich he began to establish in 1933. After ten years, with the failed defeat of England and the disastrous and futile attempt to conquer Russia, it was clear that there would not be a Third Reich much longer. The Thousand Year Reich was to fall 988 years short of Hitler’s dream. It was killed by Hitler’s hubris: Had he listened to his generals, rather than thinking he knew more than they, things might have turned out in a vastly different manner. Hitler was killed by his own boomerang.

There are, argues Bonhoeffer, certain “laws” of the human community with cannot be broken with impunity and immunity. “In the fullness of the concrete situation and in the possibilities it offers, the wise person discerns the impassable limits that are imposed on every action by the abiding laws of human communal life. In this discernment the wise person acts well and the good person acts wisely.”

Bonhoeffer is not saying there are some sort of mystical rules built into the universe but that God has his ways of protecting us from the worst of our foibles. We may at times wish he would be more strict with us. After all, we cannot count the number of millions who lost their lives by the twin evils of Hitler and Stalin.

At the time Bonhoeffer was writing these ideas, he was already deeply involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Did he think murdering Hitler was somehow exempt from the Law of the Boomerang, that the assassination was a purely innocent deed?

For years people have combed Bonhoeffer’s writings, hoping to find there some claim of innocence because they cannot envision a theologian and ethicist engaging in a non-innocent action. They have searched in vain. Bonhoeffer made no such claim. He did argue, however, that “it makes a decisive difference whether such trespasses against the established limit are viewed as their abolishment in principle and hence presented as a law of its own kind, or whether one is conscious that such trespassing is perhaps an unavoidable guilt that has its justification only in that law and limit being reinstated and honored as quickly as possible.”

The action, though guilty, may be unavoidable for the ultimate preservation of the moral law being violated. He was willing to take on the temporary guilt of participation in the conspiracy because it was the only way to stop the monstrously murderous ways of Hitler. trying to imagine myself in Bonhoeffer’s position as he writes these words, I find myself experiencing a certain twisting in my own heart. And that is just the point. Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators took on a temporary guilt on behalf of all Germans, who were having a load of guilt on them to the degree that they condoned – or at least did not resist — the Nazi atrocities.

There are two relevant historical examples to help us understand this. The earliest and least profound is the example of Socrates, who willingly paid the legal price for resisting the Athenian laws. He did so because succumbing to those laws would have caused him to sit by idly while Athens proceeded to destroy itself from within. And we have been applauding Socrates for 2500 years.

A vastly more important example of someone incurring guilt to save others from their guilt, of course, is Jesus Christ on the Cross. Think about it: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).



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One of my favorite New Testament words is stoicheia, which refers to the fundamental elements of any social or intellectual system.In some ways we can see it as meaning simply common sense, those ideas which seem obvious to everyone and don’t need elaborate defense or explanation.

For Bonhoeffer, one of the stoicheia is the idea of responsibility. He refers to it often, obviously assumes it to be of fundamental importance in the Christian life, and leaves it undefined. He intends the word to convey the fact that we are held accountable to God for our responses to him. To live as Christians we must be responsive to Word and Spirit and we are accountable for being just that.

We sometimes slip into thinking God is satisfied with us if we simply live decent lives. that’s not true at all. We are accountable for being followers of Jesus Christ, our living and present Lord.

I remember a friend saying, “I don’t know why people try to make Christianity sound so complicated. It’s just a matter of learning some principles from the Bible and living by them.” Nope, that’s what the Pharisees tried to do and it blinded them to Jesus Christ.

For Bonhoeffer, it is crucial that we distinguish between being obedient to the Law and being responsive to Jesus Christ. If we merely live by law, we are loving God indirectly. Bonhoeffer sees that Jesus Christ is calling us to follow him directly, to hear him and to heed him directly.

Our Lord is worth nothing less.

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Fools rush in, they say, where angels fear to tread. ‘Tis true, true of many individuals (think of the deadly “extreme sports” in our day) and true of humanity as a whole. How many times have we let our minds wander into that “time” before time began? How many times have we asked about what moved God to create the universe, as if we could know the mind of God before the beginning of everything we know as reality?

Bonhoeffer, in his 1932-33 lectures on Genesis known as “Creation and Fall,” writes:

“The place where the Bible begins is one where our own most impassioned waves of thinking break, are thrown back upon themselves, and lose their strength in spray and foam.”  “Where the beginning begins, there our thinking stops; there it comes to an end.”  (DBWE 3:25)

That is a picturesque way of insisting that our imaginations cannot penetrate back beyond the barrier of the beginning. If there is any meaning at all to the phrase “before the beginning,” it is a meaning totally beyond our perception, understanding, imagination. Only hubris would try to push further back than the beginning.

While delivering these Berlin lectures on Genesis, Bonhoeffer was deeply disturbed by Hindenburg’s appointment of a new Chancellor for Germany: Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer knew that Germany, already in dire straits economically, was now being plunged into a level of chaos more disastrous than the extreme political and economic disorder of the day. Yet none of this made a direct appearance in the Genesis lectures.

The christology lectures in the summer of 1933, delivered while Bonhoeffer and others were composing the Bethel Confession in opposition to the nazification of the church, are also without direct reference to the German crisis.

What we do find in these lectures is the same beginning point in Bonhoeffer’s thinking: The deepest, most fundamental realities are beyond the reach of human words. [That, it seems to me, is the raison d’être of poetry, our attempt to use words to point beyond the mere meaning of the words themselves. That’s a topic for some other day.]

Bonhoeffer writes:

The silence of the church is silence before the Word. In proclaiming Christ, the church falls on its knees in silence before the inexpressible, the arreton [unspeakable, cf. II Corinthians 12:4]. To speak of Christ is to be silent, and to be silent about Christ is to speak (DBWE 12:300). The logos became flesh and therefore cannot be restricted to the realm of mere words (DBWE 12:301).

When we stand before the incomprehensible, the inexpressible, we can only be silent in humility, not letting hubris drive us to speak which which are hopelessly inadequate.

When I think about this silence, my mind always goes to Peter and two stories which tell us a great deal abut his heart. . .and mind . . . and yours. In the first, Peter, James and John are with Jesus, Moses and Elijah in some sort of spiritual uber-reality. Mark 9:5 say, “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

Poor Peter! He had no idea what to say yet somehow thought he had to say something.

Later, after he has denied Jesus just as Jesus has predicted, Peter at last realizes that there are no words. He simply breaks down in tears. That was the only option left for him. A step in any other direction would have been a step away from Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer notes that Christ is called by John the logos, a Greek term indicating the meaning behind and beyond words. In Athenian thinking, this logos was the rational structure of all reality. For John, the logos is not rationality but personal reality.”I am the truth,” said Jesus. The logos cannot be captured by mere words both because it is deeper and broader than words and because it is not an idea but a person, Jesus Christ himself.

So we stand in silent awe before the opening scene of all reality and we stand in silent praise before the unspeakable, indescribable beauty and majesty and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!!!

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Not long after returning from his year of study at Union Seminary in New York, Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend, expressing some of his observations about the American churches. We know from many other things he wrote that these remarks do not apply to his experiences in Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which he enjoyed immensely. Instead, here Bonhoeffer is commenting on the so-called “mainline” churches.

On October 18, 1931, Dietrich wrote to Helmut Rossler:

The huge project of American mission is hollow on the inside. The mother church itself is dying. And yet it is certain that our current understanding of the gospel simply cannot be heard over there. (DBWE 11:54)

When he refers to “our current understanding of the gospel” he means that understanding shared by just a handful of young men in Germany, those who would just a few years later become the core of the Confessing Church. It was a sense of the gospel as centered in “the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life” of Jesus Christ (DBWE 10:313, formal report on his year in America).

In Bonhoeffer’s view, a church without this gospel is “hollow on the inside.” That was his view of mainline American churches 85 years ago. Today we see those churches rapidly and drastically in decline and no one seems able to identify the reason. I think Bonhoeffer gave the reason long ago.

Evangelical churches, of which I am a part, have done much better at staying centered in the gospel. Many, if not most, of them are growing. Does that mean all is well in Evangelical circles? Not at all. In the first place, the term “evangelical” is being badly abused by the American press to refer to people who are essentially political in nature, with one or two key ethical issues by which they measure all else. The
Evangelical world is far richer than American journalists seem to know and that is skewing the picture badly.

In the second place, the Evangelical churches which are growing most rapidly are placing themselves in grave danger of following the same path as the mainline churches, trying so hard to fit into American culture that the message gets obscured. Now the problem is such reliance upon shallow entertainment that the serious claim of Jesus Christ as Lord  is simply drowned out by the amplified volume of the “worship” music and the view of the Cross is blurred by ten thousand videos.

Bonhoeffer would be quite uncomfortable in an American Evangelical church today. Simply not enough substance, not enough gospel.


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Eric Metaxas, in his very readable but poorly informed biography of Bonhoeffer, says that Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to find us today taking his letters and papers from prison seriously. They contain too many wild fantasies, too many ideas not yet thought through, to suit Metaxas.

Metaxas is a good writer but a very poor reader and a worse theologian. Oddly, he seems not even to have read his own material. In the first half of the book, he points out that some of Bonhoeffer’s early ideas will show up again later but when Metaxas finally gets to a discussion of those later writings, he has forgotten his earlier observation. He calls Bonhoeffer’s prison writings “inchoate,” which means premature, immature, undeveloped.

As I have continued to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that, like many men of genius, Bonhoeffer knew his mind very early and then spent the rest of his lifetime exploring and expanding his insights.

I will mention just three of his early convictions which stayed with him throughout his days. First, his view of the Bible.Though he never articulated a formal “doctrine of inspiration,” Bonhoeffer knew even while still a university student that the Bible is the Word of God which gains its power from the Holy Spirit. This did not mean for Bonhoeffer that the Bible was always to be taken literally or that it was infallible. It did mean that to hear the Word of God spoken into our hearts, we must listen first to the Spirit speaking in and through Scripture. We learn Bonhoeffer’s view first in his 1925 (age 19) paper for Professor Seeburg entitled “The Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture” (Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 9, pp. 285ff.).

Second, the living and present Jesus Christ is the center and circumference of all life. Bonhoeffer never let the doctrine of the Bible or even the doctrine of Christ become the center. It was always and only the living person of Jesus Christ that commanded his utmost loyalty and devotion. This was first articulated (so far as we have record) in a lecture the 22 year old Bonhoeffer delivered in Barcelona, Spain, in the fall of 1928. It was entitled “Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity.” That letter is as radical as anything he wrote from prison 16 years later. It is found in Works, 10:342.

Third, in another Barcelona lecture delivered a few days after his 23rd birthday in 1929, Bonhoeffer insisted that Christian ethics consists solely in being responsive to the living Christ, never in rules and regulations. There is, therefore, no such thing as a “Christian ethic” which can prescribe the rules of right living. If you grapple with this lecture, you’ll then find no surprises in his later book Ethics. This lecture is also in volume 10, page 359.

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