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In the new volume of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, Vol. 14: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-37, there are some very interesting (to me) observations made by Jürgen Henkys in the “Editor’s Afterward to the German Edition”.

In particular, I note five particularly interesting observations Henkys’s makes about what emerges from the present collection.

(1) Finkenwalde was a protest and a prophetic discipleship against and in relationship to the dramatic take over of the German Church by the Nazis and the response of the Confessing Church. The Preachers Seminary was founded in response to the Confessing synods of Barmen and Dahlem in 1934. As the Seminary opened with its second of five sessions it was declared illegal by the state in a statement called the Fifth Implementation Decree published on 12/2/1935. The seminary opened its doors in April 1935 and was closed in September 1937 by the Gestapo.

(2) The Bible was the primary resource for Bonhoeffer in the Finkenwalde years. Particularly as everything was being reconsidered by the Confessing Church in response to the challenge of the Third Reich.

It is no accident that the Bible stands at the beginning and the end of this enumeration . . . Everything that had to be justified anew here—with respect to pastoral care, ecclesiastical politics, ecumenical and dogmatic issues—could not be addressed adequately at the level of traditional academic theological deduction (975).

(3) But the Bible is read anew in light of the present experience. There is an important hermeneutical approach Bonhoeffer takes as evidenced in his lectures and sermons. He sees that there is a need for something in addition to historical-critical exegesis. The Church Struggle becomes a hermeneutical lens for reading the Bible aright.

His writing, teaching, proclamation, and admonitions were all guided now by a new manner of reading the Bible, a manner with which not even he had much familiarity yet; the Bible was now to be read with an eye on the decisions—both imminent and past—that affected the church’s concrete present (975).

Bonhoeffer allowed the contemporary theological and ecclesiastical conflicts to shape the lecture’s task (984) Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutics pointed him in the direction of exegesis substantively shaped by the church’s own contemporary experience rather than exegesis somehow removed from time. As he reminded his candidates, academic theological departments were not the ones carrying the Church Struggle and were thus unaware of this question regarding the space of the church; those carrying that struggle were instead the pastors and congregations themselves. Bonhoeffer concludes, ‘the theology and question of the church develops from within the church’s own empirical experience and encounters. It receives blows and realizes: the body of the church must take this or that particular path. (985)

In the Bible study (“The Reconstruction of Jerusalem according to Ezra and Nehemiah”), the path to a contemporary statement or position does not emerge from any comprehensive examination of the biblical textual material nor from any enumeration of the results of historical scholarship regarding that material. What moves the exegete instead is the urgent question already on the table, concerning the church dispute and the theological assessment he has already made about this issue. The edifying elements and orientation solicited from the text itself emerge not by way of exegetical derivation and historical considerations. Rather, it is discovered, recognized anew, welcomed as confirming challenge by an exegete who reads Scripture with the assurance of the truth of the struggling church itself, which has already decided in favor of the understanding of its confession required by the contemporary situation (998).

(4) The New Testament was the primary textbook for the training of the seminarians.

The most distinctive feature of Bonhoeffer’s teaching at Finkenwalde is his exegesis of the New Testament in session after session (982).

For the rest of the post…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer stressed the value of meditating on God’s Word when he was the Director of the underground seminary at Finkenwalde. Students were required to meditate 30 minutes per day on a passage selected by Bonhoeffer.

Today, I have focused on Lamentations 3:26…

“It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (ESV).

With the pressures of ministry, I found peace when I waited quietly (No phone, no Facebook, no TV, etc.) on the Lord through prayer and meditation.

How is your meditation coming? I still have a long ways to go!


“I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” 

― Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community


Seminary in Nazi Germany

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazis in 1933, a select group of leaders within the church formed an ecclesiological resistance movement, what came to be called the Confessing Church. Soon they founded five new seminaries to train up the next generation of ministers. They tapped a young Berlin University theology professor to head the seminary set up briefly at Zingst, then at Finkenwalde.

The prevailing model for theological education in Germany was largely academic, as universities dominated ministerial education. German pastors since the Enlightenment (Aufklarung in German) had scratched and clawed for respectability alongside doctors and lawyers—professionals in the more “respectable” disciplines. Biblical scholars and theologians had to do the same over and against their colleagues in the academy. After a handful of terms lecturing future ministers and theologians at Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sensed this kind of educational ethos was wrong—and ultimately harmful—for the church at large.

So the new seminary at Finkenwalde gave Bonhoeffer an opportunity to chart a different course for ministerial education. He would focus his school on Scripture, prayer, and theological confession, and as Herr Direktor, Bonhoeffer could uphold these three pillars as he saw fit. But not all agreed. For example, the towering Karl Barth protested, among other leaders in the Confessing Church. Many students followed suit by bucking Bonhoeffer’s innovations. Too formidable to be dismissed, however, he stood his ground, eventually winning over both his students and also his critics.

Unfortunately, the story of Finkenwalde doesn’t end with success—at least as “success” is often defined with the requisite metrics of numbers and prowess. Most of Bonhoeffer’s students never made it to pastoral ministry. Twenty-seven were arrested. The seminary as a whole was short-lived, shut down by the Gestapo after a mere two years.

That said, what was accomplished there during those two years deserves notice. So let’s consider Bonhoeffer’s three pillars of seminary education: Scripture, prayer, and theological confession.

Built on the Word

After a few months in operation, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to the supporting churches explaining the mission of the seminary:

The special character of a seminary of the Confessing Church derives from the difficult situation in which we have been placed by the church struggle. The Bible forms the focal point of our work. It has once again become for us the starting point and the centre of our theological work and of all our Christian action. (1)

That this biblical focus was “special” shows why the German Lutheran Church wilted under Nazi rule. The church as a whole had long since drifted from its biblical moorings. Without a solid biblical foundation, the church simply lacked the wherewithal to engage the ethical issues of the 1930s, which then tragically led to the atrocities in the 1940s and World War II.

Bonhoeffer’s words also reveal his conviction that the Bible must hold center court in ministerial education and the church. Scripture as the focal point at Finkenwalde meant students would be trained in Hebrew and Greek. They’d receive instruction in Bible content. “The congregation,” Bonhoeffer once said, “is built solely on the Word of God.” (2) Bonhoeffer required students to practice the lectio divina, reading a psalm and chapters from the Old and New Testaments each day. Students also had to meditate on a select passage each week. He was intent on helping them form the right habits.

Finkenwalde student and future Bonhoeffer biographer Eberhard Bethge got the message. Years later, Bethge testified, “Because I am a preacher of the Word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the Word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.” (3)

Prayer Makes a Pastor

Bonhoeffer’s courses on prayer used the Lord’s Prayer and Luther’s catechism for instruction. He also required students to pray, as a sort of homework. Critics charged he was being legalistic; one even told him the time was too urgent for prayer and meditation. Bonhoeffer responded to these criticisms forcefully: “This either shows a total lack of understanding of young theologians today, or a blasphemous ignorance of how preaching and teaching come about.” (4) As Bonhoeffer once told his London congregation, “A congregation that does not pray for the ministry of its pastor is no longer a congregation. A pastor who does not pray daily for his congregation is no longer a pastor.” (5).

For the rest of the post…

During the early phase of his imprisonment, nothing helped Bonhoeffer more than his acquaintance with the monastic life and his own experience of it in Finkenwalde and Ettal.

A monk also lives in “cell”, and knows life in two modes, the vita activa and the vita comtemplativa, the active life and the life of contemplation and prayer.

Bonhoeffer had been torn from his active life from one day to the next, He had not chosen to live in a cell as he now obliged to do, but he succeeded in transforming the vita comtemplativa that had been forced upon him into one that could affirm with his inner being, and thus overcome the “prison shock”.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 325)

Bonhoeffer‘s ability to keep his mouth shut was not the least of the reasons why he was chosen for this responsibility (as an agent). 

None of the Finkenwaldians, with whom he had shared everything he knew about the church struggle, was allowed to know everything about his new assignment.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 247).

In 1938, all Protestant pastors were ordered to swear an oath to Adolf Hitler on his 49th birthday. Since Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an “illegal pastor”, he was not on the list to take the oath. However, he worked hard to help others not to take the oath…

Bonhoeffer and his ordinands traveled from one pastors’ meeting to another, trying to prevent the clergy from taking the oath…but they had no success with their arguments. The whole matter became one of the most shameful defeats of the Confessing Church, for, after the great majority of pastors had taken the oath…

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 212-213).

At the end of 1938, Bonhoeffer invited all the former seminarians to a retreat at Zingst, back where it all started. Forty-five young pastors came, and Bonhoeffer was especially happy that some had even made the long journey from the Rhineland, or from East Prussia (today divided between Russia and Poland). It was the time when the Confessing Church was truly at its lowest ebb, and Bonhoeffer made passionate efforts to ensure that his former students remained loyal to it.

The collective pastorates, in turn, lasted until after Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The final period of Bonhoeffer’s work as a teacher took place during one of the most depressing times of his life.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 211-212).

Bonhoeffer and Bethge took a holiday in Bavaria. On the way back at the end of September (1937), they were at Bonhoeffer’s twin sister’s home in Gottingen when they received a telephone call from Stettin. The Gestapo had arrived at Finkenwalde, served orders to quit on the housekeeper, Erna Struwe and the inspector of studies, Fritz Onnasch, the successor of Wilhelm Rott, and then sealed the doors of the seminary rooms. There were many appeals. The old Field Marshal August von Mackensen sent a handwritten letter of protest to Minister Kerrl, but the order was not rescinded. “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” says the New Testament. On this basis, despite the ban by the government, Bonhoeffer did not consider his mission to train pastors for the Confessing Church to be at the end.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 209).

Bonhoeffer…felt personally obligated by Jesus’ commandment to peace to refuse military service whenever war broke out, and he was certain that it would. But he wanted neither to discuss this idea with ordinands not to challenge them to follow him on a course which would end in a death sentence.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 208).

April 2014
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