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…Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like his brothers and sisters, grew up to be a citizen of Berlin, despite the Swabian, Thuringian, and Silesian influences. His eventful life cannot be considered apart from this background. All the other places that were important to him in the course of his life–Breslau, Tubingen, New York, London, or Finkenwalde–certainly influenced him. The decisive influence, however, was Berlin and its complex diversity… 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 23.

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by Richard Beck

One of my favorite parts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is the spiritual transformation he underwent in the early 30s. Prior to these years, Bonhoeffer had mainly pursued theological studies as an academic, intellectual endeavor. The Bonhoeffer family was Christian, but they weren’t particularly devout by way of church attendance or personal devotion.

And while it may be strange to think of someone pursuing theology in a purely academic way, just attend AAR/SBL. Theologians and biblical scholars who have no faith in God are a dime a dozen.

That was Bonhoeffer before the early 30s. But then something happened to him. As Eberhard Bethge describes it, the theologian became a Christian.

What caused the change? Bonhoeffer’s time in America seemed to have played an important part. Bonhoeffer spent a post-doctoral year in 1930 studying in New York at Union Theological. During that time, two critical things happened.

First, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the black church. During his year in New York, Bonhoeffer attended and taught Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Second, through his relationship with the Frenchmen Jean Lasserre, who was also studying at Union, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the Sermon on the Mount as the Word of God. Prior to this time, Bonhoeffer had used his Lutheran theology to keep the Sermon on the Mount in a box. But after 1930, Bonhoeffer began to see the Sermon at a command to be obeyed.

And beyond his experiences in America, I also think Bonhoeffer’s pastoral work with churches, like his confirmation class in the Wedding parish, also had a profound impact upon his faith.

All these experiences changed Bonhoeffer profoundly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a Christian. Here’s how his best friend Eberhard Bethge describes the change:

He now went regularly to church…Also he engaged in systematic meditation on the Bible that was obviously very different from exegetic or homiletic use of it…He spoke of oral confession no longer merely theologically, but as an act to be carried out in practice. In his Lutheran ecclesiastical and academic environment this was unheard of. He talked more and more often of a community life of obedience and prayer…More and more frequently he quoted the Sermon on the Mount as a word to be acted on, not merely used as a mirror.

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bonhoefferToday’s guest post is by Prayson Daniel. Prayson, who blogs at With All I Am, has been using Faithlife Groups since 2012, and created the Natural Theology group. Prayson is from Tanzania, and he earned his BA at Harvest Bible College. He is currently pursuing his graduate studies at Aalborg University in Denmark. Prayson’s greatest desire is to inspire others to admire God through critical thinking.

“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We have approached a “religionless” age. Some call it a post-Christian world. Ethics and politics are no longer directly influenced by religious beliefs. For many self-describing Christians, their lives show no visible difference from unbelievers.

“What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?” was the question that persistently bedeviled Bonhoeffer during his solitary confinement ward at Berlin-Tegel Military Detention Center. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his participation in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Tegel was where he spent his last eighteen months in the world he saw coming of age. He was executed on April 8th, 1945.

During his time in Berlin-Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote his final letters to those closest to him, and explored the most pressing questions in his final days. These writings are available to us as Letters and Papers from Prison. In his letters and notes, the question arose, what is Christianity today? In his correspondence with his best friend, Eberhard Bethge (April-July 1944), Bonhoeffer offered some of the most bewildering and exciting questions and ideas to help Christians faithfully engage with a “post-Christian” world.

Bonhoeffer asked, “How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?” and, “Is there such a thing as a religionless Christian?” He answered these questions with “the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.”

What is religionless Christianity?

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Bonhoeffer’s bourgeois heritage and keen intellect could easily overpower others. Measured by almost any index he was a rich man. His father was an esteemed professor at Berlin University. The child Dietrich lived in the luxurious Grunewald district at Berlin, attended by a cadre of household employees: a tutor, a nanny, a housemaid, a cook, a receptionist for his father, and a chauffeur. His family had contacts at the highest levels of German society. But he was perceptive enough to know that earthly riches make one less secure, not more. He suspected God is nearer to those who have need. And so his heritage became a kind of burden to be overcome. If he were to live a life devoted to Christ, pride and power would have to be monitored on a continual basis.

 (Craig J. SlaneBonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment19)

Now, since there was only a single toilet for all the prisoners, and one bathroom at the end of the corridor where several had to wash at once, there were opportunities to communicate. Talking was of course strictly forbidden, but they could whisper to each other while the cold shower was running. There were even guards who no longer believed in Germany’s “final victory: and may have looked the other way now and then…The best opportunities for sustained conversations among the inmates came during the air raids which now occurred more frequently.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 364).

Not really!

In Berlin in 1933 there were about a thousand boys in the Hitler Youth, but 2500 secondary school pupils in Protestant Bible study groups alone and many more in the YMCA, the Boy Scouts and various other groups.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 149)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught at Berlin University on the day after Hitler came into power.

On 31 January 1931, the day after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer came, in his lecture course to Genesis 3:4, the promise made by the serpent in Eden: ‘You will be like God’ (if you eat the fruit of the tree which God forbidden you to eat). And the students, who passed through a forest of swastikas flags in order to enter the university building in Unter den Linden Boulevard, heard his exegesis of the serpent’s promise:

Sicut deus [to be like God] – for Adam that can only be a new, deeper kind of creaturely being. This is how he is bound to understand the serpent. To be sure, Adam sees that the new, deeper kind of creatureliness must be won at the cost of transgressing the commandment. And this very fact must focus his attention. Adam is in fact between God and God, or better, between God and a false god [Gotze], in a situation in which the false god portrays itself as a true God…

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 113).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer took over a boy’s confirmation class at the Zion Church in the Prenzlauer Berg district of East Berlin. The boys basically drove the former teacher away. Bonhoeffer eventually won the trust of the boys and had an impact on them. This came our decades later…

In 1985 a pensioner from Berlin made the 75-kilometre journey eastward to the holiday resort of Hirschluch, because he had read in the newsletter of the East German Christian Democratic Union that an international Bonhoeffer Congress was being held there. He told them that he been confirmed by Bonhoeffer in 1932. More than 50 years later, his encounter with Bonhoeffer remained one of the unforgettable experiences of his life.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 105)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon four weeks after Hitler’s election. It was proclaimed at the Trinity Church in Berlin. Here are a few statements from that message…

The church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty…before which all creatures must kneel…whoever seeks something other than this must keep away; he cannot join us in the house of God…

The church has only one pulpit, and from that pulpit, faith in God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will than the will of God, however well-intentioned.

(Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 144).


The father of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was Karl Bonhoeffer. He was the chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at the Charité Hospital. Years after Hitler’s election, he offered his thoughts on the victory…

From the start, we regarded the victory of National Socialism in 1933 and Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor as a misfortune–the entire family agreed on this. In my own case, I disliked and mistrusted Hitler because of his demagogic propagandistic speeches…his habit of driving about the country carrying a riding crop, his choice of colleagues–with whose qualities, incidentally, we in Berlin were better acquainted than people elsewhere–and finally because of what I heard from professional colleagues about his psychopathic symptoms (Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 143).

Certainly, history backs up Dr. Bonhoeffer’s analysis of the Fuhrer!

 

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