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“On April 5, 1943, when Bonhoeffer called (brother-in-law) Hans von) Dohnanyi’s home, a strange voice answered the phone. Bonhoeffer hung up. He then knew that the Gestapo had finally caught up with them. They were searching Dohnanyi’s house right that very minute. His parent’s house would be next.

Calmy he went next door, where his sister Ursula lived. He told her the Gestapo would soon arrive and arrest him.

She made him a hearty lunch.

It was the last home-cooked meal he would ever have!”

~ Patricia McCormick, The Plot to Kill Hitler121.

bonhoefferblog

This morning (Saturday) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, I sat down with Dr. Haddon Robinson and Dr. Sid Buzzell to defend my thesis on the impact of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on twenty-first century preaching and preachers.

I am thankful to the Lord to pass it.

I am also thankful to everyone who offered feedback of some kind to the bonhoefferblog. Your contribution helped me to complete my thesis.

I plan to continue to add posts to this blog. It has become part of my life and routine.

Bryan

I am on D.Min. display table at Gordon-Conwell!

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer “was thoroughly disillusioned  by the cowardice of his fellow clergy. Now he had a decision to make. To do nothing against Hitler was a sin, he had reasoned. But to kill was also a sin. How could a pacifist, a man of God, justify what he was about to do? The answer was one that had first been articulated by Martin Luther, the founder of the church Bonhoeffer had loved. Sometimes, Luther said a true believer must ‘sin and sin boldly.’ Bonhoeffer would break the Commandments he vowed to uphold and renounce his cherished philosophy of nonviolence. He would lie, cheat, and plot murder. And he would do it by using the church as his camouflage.”

~ Patricia McCormick, The Plot to Kill Hitler97.

“Music… will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” 

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Psychoneurologist and founding member of the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) organization, Denise Buchanan, right, and member Leona Huggins, second from right, participate in a protest outside the St. Anselm on the Aventine Benedictine complex in Rome on the second day of a summit called by Pope Francis at the Vatican on sex abuse in the Catholic Church on Feb. 22, 2019. Pope Francis has issued 21 proposals to stem the clergy sex abuse around the world, calling for specific protocols to handle accusations against bishops and for lay experts to be involved in abuse investigations. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

These scandals stand alongside abuses by prominent male church officials that have occurred in independent Christian communities, such as Harvest Bible ChapelWillow Creek Community Churchand Mars Hill Church.

Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.

Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.

Traitors during Christian persecution

Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.

The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.

While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.

Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”

Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.

Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.

The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.

In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.

The Donatist schism

Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.

They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.

They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.

In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.

Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.

Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.

In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.

Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.

Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”

By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.

Donatist beliefs

The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.

“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.

In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.

Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.

What can be learned today

Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.

This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.

Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.

However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities…

For the rest of the post…

“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.” 

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A student writing on a notepad in Turkish with copies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's works next to her.

As a young girl growing up in Turkey, Debora Haede had heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She’d seen a documentary about the theologian and German pastor’s life, and had become fascinated by how people, like him, remained faithful, even to the point of death.

But her admiration was personalized, when, in 2007, her uncle and two other men were martyred for their Christian faith inside the publishing house where they worked.

“Having an uncle who did that made Bonhoeffer’s life a reality in a way,” said Haede, a junior studying international relations at Calvin College.

Writing justly

A decade later, Haede is honoring her uncle by doing something for her home country of Turkey that has never been done before: translating Bonhoeffer’s works into their language.

The publishing house where Haede’s uncle worked had approached her dad, who is German, asking if he knew of anyone who could translate Bonhoeffer’s work “Life Together.” Knowing his daughter knew both Turkish and German, he suggested she give it a try, and so with no prior translation experience, Haede took on the challenge.

Discerning meaning in every word

“First time I read the book before I knew I was going to translate it—it was hard to understand. I know I skipped parts that were too complicated.”

She knew the next time through, she couldn’t skip a word. She re-read the book, cover-to-cover, sentence-by-sentence.

“Bonhoeffer has such a strong language, the words he uses. The German he uses isn’t everyday German from today, so as I’m translating I want the Turkish words to be as detailed as the German, which is hard to do,” said Haede. “There were times where I compared it with the English translation as well, because I didn’t know what he meant in the German one. But even there it was interesting to see the changes they made while translating into English … I personally got to understand way more because I had to focus on one sentence for so long.”

For the rest of the post…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Quote

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