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What does it mean to call Dietrich Bonhoeffer an apocalyptic ethicist or theologian? Philip Ziegler, in his new important study on apocalytpic theology, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology, contends against the grain that Bonhoeffer (=DB) was an apocalyptic ethicist.

Is Bonhoeffer’s moral theology apocalyptic? This question is unsettled from L front to back. The texts that constitute Bonhoeffer’s Ethics are unsteady though well-worked fragments of the actual theological ethics he hoped to write. More unsettled still is the meaning of “apocalyptic,” whose popular and scholarly valences are as many as they are divergent and contested. Even if one could steady the question, prospects for a positive answer appear remote. Readers of the Ethics have not been led to the idea of “apocalyptic”: quite the opposite. One possible exception here is Larry Rasmussen, who does associate Bonhoeffer with apocalyptic eschatology. Yet even he considers the association forced: turning to apocalyptic means diverging from Bonhoeffer, who was “almost immunized” against such an eschatological perspective by Lutheran confessional and German academic traditions, says Rasmussen.” [SMcK: Criticism of Rasmussen was clear on this very point.]

Undeterred in going against the grain of DB scholarship, which is formidable, Ziegler says,

I want to argue that in draft upon draft of his Ethics manuscript, Bonhoeffer is definitely working out a theological ethic whose intent is to conform to the contours of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel.

He is undeterred because of the rise of apocalyptic Pauline theology that fits more with Barthianism (and some would say is Barthianism) and therefore with DB.

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“Consecutive reading of Biblical books forces everyone who wants to hear to put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for the salvation of men. We become a part of what once took place for our salvation.”

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together53.

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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With remarkable frequency the Scriptures remind us that the men of God rose early to seek God and carry out His commands, as did Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua (cf. Gen.19.27, 22.3; Ex.9.13, 24.4; Josh.3.1, 6.12, etc.). The Gospel, which never speaks a superfluous word, says of Jesus himself: “And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1.35). Some rise early because of restlessness and worry; the Scriptures call this unprofitable: “It is vain for you to rise early… to eat the bread of sorrows” (Ps. 127.2). But there is such a thing as rising early for the love of God. This was the practice of the men of the Bible. 

~ Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together43-44.

“For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work. At the threshold of the day stands the Lord who made it. All the darkness and distraction of the dreams of night retreat before the clear light of Jesus Christ and his awakening Word.

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together, 43.

“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison

“’Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’–this is the Scripture’s praise of life together under the Word. But now we can rightly interpret the words ‘in unity’ and say, ‘for brethren together through Christ.’ For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. ‘He is our peace.’ Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together39.

“The community of the Spirit is the fellowship of those who are called by Christ; human community of the spirit is the fellowship of devout souls. In the community of brotherly service, “agape”; in the human community of spirit there glows the dark love of good and evil desire, “eros”. In the former there is orderly, brotherly service, in the latter disordered desire for pleasure; in the former humble subjection to the brethren, in the latter humble yet haughty subjection of a bother’s to one’s own desires.”

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together31-32.

Jim Gray: The Best Book I Read Last Year

I have just finished reading “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas. The book is superb. It is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a pastor of the “Church of Luther” during the rise and reign of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

This man of Christ conducted a principled fight against what Hitler and the corrupted Church of Germany were doing, and eventually was imprisoned and executed for his efforts and beliefs. But he was unafraid, because he was doing what knew his God wanted him to do. Regardless of our religious faith or beliefs, how many of us can genuinely say that we are standing up for our principles and Liberty for ourselves and others anywhere near to this degree? This is an inspirational book, and I strongly recommend it to anyone.

There are many lessons from the book for liberty lovers

Many insightful comments permeate the book, which all people who treasure Liberty should be aware of – today and every day. Here are some of them:

  • For Hitler, ruthlessness was a great virtue, and mercy, a great sin. This was Christianity’s chief difficulty, that it advocated meekness. (Meekness has its place but, as stated in the musical Camelot: “I find humility means to be hurt.  It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.”)
  • Bonhoeffer believed it was the role of the church to “speak for those who could not speak.” (Thus he saw Jesus Christ as a “man for others.”)
  • One of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts was “Absolute seriousness is never without a dash of humor.“ (We should never lose the ability to laugh at ourselves.)
  • The Nazi regime always cast their aggressions as defensive responses to actions against them and the German people. (Virtually always the justification for war.)
  • Bonhoeffer was the principal point of connection between his new “Confessing Church” and the Ecumenical movement, seeing the best and the worst in both. But each saw the best in itself and the worst in the other.  (Is this not how the various politically “warring groups” see themselves and others in our country today?)

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“When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament. But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together29-30

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