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“Because Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ, it is a spiritual and not a psychic reality. It this it differs absolutely from all other communities…Christian brotherhood is not an ideal that we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which wee may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship in is Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together.

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“The Christian, however, must bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother. It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated. The burden of men was so heavy for God Himself that He had to endure the Cross. God verily bore the burden of men in the body of Jesus Christ.”

“The prayers of the psalms and the reading of the Scriptures should be followed by the singing together of a hymn, this being the voice of the Church, praising, thanking, and praying. “Sing unto the Lord a new song,” the Psalter enjoins us again and again. It is the Christ-hymn, new every morning, that the family fellowship strikes up at the beginning of the day, the hymn that is sung by the whole Church of God on earth and in heaven, and in which we are summoned to join.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together, 57.

“It might be asked further: How shall we ever help a Christian brother and set him straight in his difficulty and doubt, if not with God’s own Word? All our own words quickly fail. But he who like a good “householder…bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old” (Matt. 13.52), he who can speak out of the abundance of God’s Word, the wealth of directions, admonitions, and consolations of the Scriptures will be through God’s Word to drive out demons and help his brother. There we leave it. “Because from childhood thou hast known the holy scriptures, they are able to instruct you unto salvation” (II Tim. 3.15, Luther’s tr.). 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together55

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must still be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ. It is far more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus died is more important that the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too shall be raised on the Last Day.”

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together54.

By Matthew D. Hamilton

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spiritual disciplines

Dietrich Bonhoeffer largely derives his fame from his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazi regime. Under immense stress, Bonhoeffer’s religious convictions prompted him to fight for the true good of the German people against genocidal tyranny. Understandably so, less attention has been paid to his theology and his understanding of private Christian faith. However, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings demonstrate a vital nuance to personal, spiritual practices that ought to inform our private faith today.

Before his involvement in the assassination plot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer retreated to relative obscurity and operated an underground seminary in the German town of Finkenwalde. Here, removed from the political activities of his day, Bonhoeffer gives us the best glimpse of his expectations for personal spirituality.

Practicing spiritual disciplines

To prepare his seminarians for ministry, Bonhoeffer mandated disciplines very familiar to us.

Bonhoeffer required his students to read Scripture privately, writing, “We are not permitted to neglect this daily encounter with Scripture.” Bonhoeffer intentionally uses the word “encounter” here as he disallowed that this time would be an academic or pastoral pursuit: The ministers-to-be were not allowed to search for sermon material or use a Greek New Testament; rather, Scripture study was meditative, or prayerful, and enabled the Finkenwalde seminarians “to encounter Christ in his own word.” Thus, the “goal [of Scriptural meditation] is Christ’s community, Christ’s help and Christ’s guidance.”

Bonhoeffer also insisted that his seminarians fasted. Arguing that it reminded them of their “estrangement” from the world, he regarded this practice as nonnegotiable. Just as prayerful Scripture reading ultimately looks to encounter God, Bonhoeffer does not see fasting as an end in itself but rather a response to faith in Christ, a means of orienting one’s life to God.

However, Bonhoeffer appears to speak out of both sides of his mouth, paradoxically railing against retreat from the world. In Ethics, he writes firmly, “For the Christian there is nowhere to retreat from the world, neither externally nor into the inner life.” In After Ten Years, he develops this criticism a little further:

In flight from public discussion and examination, this or that person may well attain the sanctuary of private virtuousness. But he must close his eyes and mouth to the injustice around him. He can remain undefiled by the consequences of responsible action only by deceiving himself… He will either perish from that restlessness or turn into a hypocritical, self-righteous, small-minded human being.

Developing a moral backbone

How then are we to make sense of Bonhoeffer’s actions and commands?

While condemning withdrawal from the world, Bonhoeffer appears to do the very thing he hates, retreating to Finkenwalde and exhorting his students toward inward-focused, privatistic practices

In her essay “Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of Church, State and Civil Society,” Victoria J. Barnett, director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Programs on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust, notes Bonhoeffer’s awareness of this exact contradiction: “The Finkenwalde experiment opened up the risk inherent in any kind of internal exile, which is that it becomes a flight into a privatized kind of discipleship.” Barnett thus indicates that while the Finkenwalde period may appear apolitical, Bonhoeffer understood this apparent contradiction.

However, his other writings—as well as more insight from Barnett—provide a fascinating dimension to Bonhoeffer’s personal spirituality which resolves this tension. Rather than seeing spiritual disciplines as a retreat from the world, Bonhoeffer understands spirituality as the necessary foundation for Christian political action.

Retreating to Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer was not neglecting or refusing the world. Rather, Barnett’s essay highlights how he here sought “the creation of moral backbone and the establishment of the discipline his students would need if they were to stay on the right path” under the attractive Nazi regime.

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“The world is overcome not through destruction, but through reconciliation. Not ideals, nor programs, nor conscience, nor duty, nor responsibility, nor virtue, but only God’s perfect love can encounter reality and overcome it. Nor is it some universal idea of love, but rather the love of God in Jesus Christ, a love genuinely lived, that does this.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by Sarah Clarkson

Since just about my first day at Wycliffe, I’ve wanted to find a good format for passing along some of the theological treasure I discover all the time in my studies here. I spend most of my days intensively reading theologians of every stripe, many of whose words invest my study here with an aura not only academic, but profoundly devotional and often wildly adventurous in nature.

Whether its Luther thundering down the centuries about grace, or Hans urs von Balthasar casting his splendid vision of a theology founded on beauty, I almost daily stumble over words that seem to reset my understanding of, oh, everything, or grip me with a challenge to faith, or simply refresh my eyes so that I perceive Christ at play in the world in countless ways.

I rarely have the time to write a full post about these gems. I’m too busy turning in research papers on them instead. But the need to share their soul-shaping splendor endures.

Thus, I welcome you to a new series of weekly(ish) posts: Theological Thursdays.

They won’t be long or involved, but each will feature a theologian I’m loving (or wrestling with, or perhaps even questioning) with a few brief facts, a snippet or two of my own thoughts, and the main fare: my favorite quotes culled from the reading of that week.

In this way, I hope to begin to give out a little of the richness I have been so generously offered here. You know, when I came to Wycliffe, I didn’t intend to stay more than a year. But within two weeks of delving into the core ideas of my own faith, I realized that theology changes everything. In studying the creeds, I realized how easy it is to embrace half heresies without even knowing it. In studying Incarnation, I felt as if I had come to faith all over again as I realized the all-encompassing redemption of Christ invading every aspect of human existence. (This is the book I want to write next!) In reading Rowan Williams on theology and language, I encountered a realm of study in which mystery met imagination, reason tangoed with revelation, all of it expressed through the artistry and diligence of people who gave their whole lives to learning about God, I was hooked. I was revived. I felt called afresh to Christ. I just can’t keep that splendor to myself.

So welcome to Theological Thursday. (And let me just say I’d be tickled if the posts spark conversation. Your comments and thoughts and favorite theologians will be most welcome in return. Just sayin’.)

bonhoeffer-1We’ll begin with the subject of my essay this week: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, writer, and martyr. He is best known for his book The Cost of Discipleship in which he condemns the ‘cheap grace’ of churches that define grace as justification for sin, rather than total renewal and transformation ‘of the sinner’. Bonhoeffer looked at the Sermon on the Mount and saw Christ’s commands as a ‘call’ that every single person is required to encounter in the individuality of their own soul. That call provokes decision; we obey or we turn away, and if we obey, we are called into a moment by moment encounter of Christ who calls us afresh to action, to love, to work in every moment of our lives.

I must be honest and confess that when I first read Discipleship I didn’t love it. I found it convicting, immediate, but somewhat blunt, sere, hard. I recognized its power, and knew it was the passionate plea of a pastor resisting the coming darkness of the Nazi regime, but I felt a bit intimidated by this ‘tyrannical’ (Bonhoeffer’s own word to describe himself) German. Until I started this research paper and delved into the letters and papers Bonhoeffer wrote while in a Nazi prison, condemned to death for a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (I’m afraid I don’t have time to get into the ethics of a pastor plotting murder- but read Discipleship or his Ethics and you’ll have somewhere to begin in understanding his thought). The Bonhoeffer I encountered there was a profoundly sensitive, insightful, compassionate man whose deep passion for Christ and determination to act rightly drove him to radical and ultimate conclusions.

In prison, Bonhoeffer questioned everything he knew, not in a despairing way, but in such a way as to test every idea he’d held about Christ before. He made his prison cell into a monastic cell, keeping prayer times daily, reading constantly, writing to those he loved, caring for other prisoners. Even as he wrote a poem in which he questioned who he was – the doubter who feared loss or the man whom everyone saw as strong and full of faith – he was described by a fellow prisoner almost as seeming to have ‘a halo of light round his head – his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison’ (S. Payne Best).

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