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by Richard Penaskovic

In a letter on July 21, 1944, to his longtime friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in prison, recalled a conversation he had some years ago with a young French pastor. They discussed what they both wanted out of life.

The pastor opined that he aspired to eventually become a saint. Bonhoeffer disagreed, stating that he would like to have faith by attempting to live a holy life. It’s possible that both men were on target with their desires, though we’ll never know that will be the case. (See “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” edited by Robert Cole, Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books, 1998).

Who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Dietrich, born in 1906, one of seven siblings, came from a prominent aristocratic family in Breslau, Germany, that moved to Berlin. Dietrich studied theology at Tübingen University and then at Berlin University where he received the doctoral degree in theology with a dissertation on “The Communion of Saints.” He was an outstanding student who played the piano brilliantly and was an excellent tennis player, to boot.

In 1928, Bonhoeffer took a position as a curate in a Lutheran church in Barcelona where he enjoyed taking care of the spiritual needs of blue-collar workers. They loved the talks he gave because they were thoughtful and punctured with biblical verses. For example, he once stated that Christ had been left out of a person’s life, if that person only gave to Christ a tiny part of his/her spiritual life. Bonhoeffer told his audience that one needs to give one’s life entirely to Christ, if they wanted to really understand their spiritual life.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan as a Sloan Fellow where he gained the respect of outstanding theological faculty like Paul Lehmann, with whom he developed a close friendship. After the year was up, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin University as a lecturer in theology, while working on his second doctorate. 

Two days after Hitler rose to power as German Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer railed against Hitler and the Nazi party on the radio, when suddenly he was cut off in the middle of his remarks. That same year, inspired by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer again spoke out against Nazi rule. Many members of the Lutheran Church, including bishops and pastors supported Hitler and some even wore brown Nazi shirts, to the dismay of Bonhoeffer and Pastor Niemoeller who helped organize the “Confessing Church” that opposed the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer had to leave Berlin in 1938, and in 1941, the Nazi government forbade him to write. He then became part of an anti-resistance movement, along with six military officers who tried to overthrow the Nazi government by force. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer became a prisoner at the Tegel Prison and then at Flossenbürg, a small village in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria.

Flossenbürg had a barracks that held 1,000 prisoners, but was built to hold 250 prisoners. Both Jews and special enemies of the state were housed in Flossenbürg. Special enemies like Bonhoeffer received “special treatment’ such as interrogation, torture and execution. Bonhoeffer was hanged in this prison — witnessed by Dr. H. Fischer who said that Bonhoeffer knelt on the floor and prayed before he was hanged.

What made Bonhoeffer a special person?

For the rest of the post…

Introduction:

The third reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact is his emphasis on a non-compromising faith. This was known as “costly grace,” Bonhoeffer spoke against the “cheap” grace within the church. His classic statement is found in the Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[1] To Bonhoeffer, this was basic Christianity. It was impossible to be a follower of Jesus and not live a self-sacrificing life out of obedience and love to him.

John de Gruchy, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, writes that Bonhoeffer first began to explore Christ’s radical call to follow him while he was an “unpaid lecturer” at the University of Berlin[2]:

During his two years (1931-33) at the university he became a ‘minor sensation’, attracting a significant number of students to his lively seminars. Many of the insights which later found expression in The Cost of Discipleship were first explored in the informal discussions which Bonhoeffer had with the circle of students who gathered around him.[3]

Bonhoeffer’s chief concern in the The Cost of Discipleship is that “grace…has become so watered down that it no longer resembles the grace of the New Testament, the costly grace of the Gospels.”[4] Bonhoeffer called this a “cheap grace”[5] and it had “been the ruin of more Christians than any other commandment of works.”[6] Bonhoeffer defined “cheap grace” as:

…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.[7]

“Costly grace”, on the other hand, is:

…is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.[8]

Of all the works of Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship is certainly his “angriest book—possibly his one ‘angry’ book…none of Bonhoeffer’s early works reveal him inflamed and vehement, as this book does. The tone throughout the book is entirely serious, rarely speculative, often rhetorically powerful—but always angry.”[9] There is an idea of Bonhoeffer’s anger in the first chapter of the book:

We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcase of cheap grace, and there we have a drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ…To be “Lutheran” must mean that we leave the following of Christ to legalists. Calvinists and enthusiasts—and all this for the sake of grace.

We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship. The price it was called to pay was all too cheap. Cheap grace had won the day.[10]

There was urgency for Bonhoeffer to complete the book because he believed that true discipleship was the only hope for Germany:

The conditions Bonhoeffer faced are simple reason enough why. He wrote the book between 1935 and 1937, while directing the seminary at Finkenwalde. Hitler by now had roused the German people to a nationalistic furor and an utter blindness to social responsibility.

The imprisonment and terrorization of Jews raged through the large cities. Any outspoken criticisms of the Nazi regime, including those from the Confessing Church, were quickly squelched. Germany had been, not too long ago, a “Christian” nation; now men and women continued to attend church services, but the real spirit of Christianity had dimmed to a darkness.

At this time Bonhoeffer wrote his strongest book, a challenge to Christian discipleship, because he believed that only a real return to the Christian faith could save Germany.[11]

Biblical Foundation:

Jesus said in Luke 9:23-25: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”

Robert H. Stein comments that three conditions for following Jesus are laid out in this passage:

The first involves a need to deny oneself. This is much more radical than simply a denial of certain things. This mandates a rejection of a life based on self-interest and self fulfillment. Instead a disciple is to be one who seeks to fulfill the will and the teachings of Christ.

The second condition involves the need to take up one’s cross…Jesus’ own crucifixion reveals more fully to Luke’s readers that this call is a commitment unto death. There needs to be a willingness to suffer martyrdom if need be.

The final condition is the need to follow Jesus. In contrast to the other two conditions, indicating that following Jesus must be continual[12]

Jesus made it clear later in Luke chapter 9 that following him could actually mean sacrifice to the point of homelessness. In verse 57, a man came to Jesus and boldly declared: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Most people have a home to go to, but Jesus made it clear that some of his followers will be kicked out of their homes because of their commitment to him.

It was this commitment that Bonhoeffer wrote about. He wrote that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church.”[13] To Bonhoeffer, grace should be “costly” because it cost Jesus Christ his very life. Grace is also costly because it costs people their very lives if they follow Jesus. Yet cheap grace had reduced discipleship to mere doctrine. Following Jesus has been cheapened by deemphasizing repentance, baptism, church discipline and the Lord’s Supper.

It is grace without biblical discipleship, that is, without the renouncing of personal ambition in order to follow and obey Jesus. The way of the cross means that we give up everything to be a Christ follower (Luke 14:25-35).

The Apostle Paul described it this way: But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that, I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). It was Paul’s desire to discard everything that was once important and meaningful so he could be a better follower of Jesus.

Gerald F. Hawthorne interprets Paul’s words: “…were Paul to place the whole world with its wealth and power and advantages, its prestige and accolades and rewards in one scalepan of the balance and Christ in the other, Christ alone would overwhelmingly outweigh everything else in terms of real worth. Hence, from the standpoint of simple logic Paul cannot afford to gain the whole world if it means losing Jesus.”[14]

Bonhoeffer saw discipleship much like the Apostle Paul did. His own commitment to Jesus was tested in 1939, when professors Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Lehmann asked Bonhoeffer to come to New York City to assume a teaching position at Union Seminary and thus, escape the perilous situation in Germany. This would certainly keep Bonhoeffer out of harm’s way. With great hesitation, Bonhoeffer accepted the position. So in June of 1939, Bonhoeffer and his brother Karl-Friedrich made the voyage to the United States.

However, he quickly realized that it was a mistake. His time in America was short-lived. He explained his decision to return to Niebuhr:

It was a mistake for me to come to America…I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulation of this time with my people…Christians in Germany are faced with the alternatives either of willing their country’s defeat so that Christian civilization may survive, or of willing its victory and destroying our civilization. I know which of the alternatives I have chosen but I cannot make the choice from a position of safety[15]

To Bonhoeffer, true and biblical discipleship had to be costly and self-sacrificing. There really was no other way to follow Jesus. He returned to Germany because he was a “German and a Christian.”[16] As a Christian, he had to follow Jesus regardless of the cost to his own safety and position. If he had to suffer, then so be it in order to follow Jesus.

In the Cost of Discipleship, he wrote: “Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his Master…If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him.”[17]

Application:

While twenty-first century followers of Jesus are not threatened by Hitler and Nazism, they do face the possible threats of materialism, pride and cheap grace. Thus, preachers must make doubly sure that their own commitment to Jesus is non-compromising and that their preaching and teaching does not side-step the costly demands of Jesus.

Further, the New Testament is clear that suffering will be experienced by the followers of Jesus. James 1:2-4 assumes that Christians will suffer: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

J.A. Motyer writes that “trials of many kinds” is a “true picture of life!”[18] Trials often bring distress and discouragement. Yet, according to James, since they are interwoven into the very fabric of our lives, they should be seen as a reality of life. Motyer continues: (James) “appeals, therefore, not for the adoption of a superficial gaiety in the face of life’s adversities, but for a candid awareness of truth already known.”[19]

Life’s adversities will result in the development of a perseverance that can lead to mature Christian character. That is, the faith of the Christian will be refined through the “slow and painful” process of testing. This refining through testing will lead to a “new facet of the believer’s character that could not exist without testing.”[20]

Suffering, to James, can result in true joy when trials are seen as essential tests for our faith. Joy can be experienced even at the onset of “various trials” because they can lead to positive results. The trials will vary from believer to believer depending on one’s circumstances. Yet, there will always be a cost in following Jesus.

***************************************************************************************************************

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 89.

[2] De Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, 13.

[3] Ibid., 13-14.

[4] http://www.probe.org/history/history/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html#text2

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 43.

[6] Ibid., 55.

[7] Ibid., 44-45.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 81.

[10] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 53.

[11] Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 81-82.

[12] Robert H. Stein, The New American Commentary: Luke, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 279.

[13] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 43.

[14] Gerald H. Hawthorne, Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 139.

[15] Quoted in Mark Devine, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2005) 19-20.

[16] Ibid., 20.

[17] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 91

[18] J.A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of James (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 30.

[19] Ibid., 30.

[20] Peter Davids, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Commentary of James (Grand Rapids, 1982), 68, 69.

How Would Bonhoeffer Vote?

LESS THAN A MONTH before the 2016 presidential election, evangelical journalist and biographer Eric Metaxas made the case in The Wall Street Journal that, though they might find his morals odious and his behavior unconscionable, American evangelicals had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump. Metaxas admitted that Trump’s lecherous Access Hollywood hot-mic audio comments, which the Washington Post had made public five days before, might be a deal-breaker for some religious voters. But Trump’s opponent, he argued, had “a whole deplorable basketful” of deal-breakers, and, purity be damned, Christians were obligated to stop her from reaching the Oval Office.

To make his point, Metaxas needed a weighty moral example, a name that had currency among churchgoers. Attentive observers of American Christianity could almost have predicted his choice. “The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by,” Metaxas wrote, implying that pulling the lever for Trump was analogous to conspiring against Hitler’s regime, while voting for Hillary Clinton was roughly equivalent to joining the brownshirts. As everyone knows, evangelicals bought what Metaxas was selling.

This was far from the first time the Berlin theologian and pastor’s name was used to gain leverage in American politics. The Bonhoeffer of Metaxas’s 2010 best seller, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, had all the theological orthodoxy and manly grit an evangelical could want. Conversely, though Charles Marsh’s 2014 biography, Strange Glory, was exquisitely crafted and meticulously researched, his Bonhoeffer looked suspiciously like an American liberal Protestant with some inclination toward activism and progressive politics. He even spent the years he was incarcerated in the Nazi military prison at Tegel (1943–1945) suffering from unrequited love toward his best (male) friend, Eberhard Bethge, rather than pining for his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.

More recently, both conservative and progressive journalists, pastors, and academics have entered the fray, claiming that either the Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize gay marriage (the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ronnie Floyd) or the election of Donald Trump (Sojourners magazine) constitutes a “Bonhoeffer moment,” one in which Christians must resist cultural or governmental authority in order to obey God. The debate about who has the right to claim Germany’s most famous resistance figure has become so fierce that last year Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes penned The Battle for Bonhoeffer to address the United States’s recent reception of his theology.

With so many American Christians wielding his name in this cultural proxy war, one might assume Bonhoeffer’s political commitments were common knowledge among college-educated believers. One would be wrong. Books on Operation Valkyrie and Bonhoeffer’s association with the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler are a dime a dozen. English-language studies that touch on Bonhoeffer’s work on behalf of the Jews or his interest in the American Black church appear frequently enough. But if one sets out to peg Bonhoeffer as an ally of either American Democrats or Republicans, only a deep dive into current scholarship will offer any clarity.

That, of course, is because Bonhoeffer lived in a very different time and culture. He grew up among the Berlin Bildungsbürgertum — the city’s cultural elite — in the western suburb of Grunewald. Many academics lived in this upscale neighborhood. Dietrich’s childhood ambition to pursue a doctorate would not have seemed entirely abnormal in that environment. By his teenage years, his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, had become one of Germany’s most famous psychiatrists; the eminent church historians Ernst Troeltsch and Adolf von Harnack were regulars at neighborhood gatherings. However, these were hardly liberal, American-style academic circles. Most found themselves in agreement with their government’s bellicosity when war broke out in 1914. In fact, many were passionate advocates of imperialism; Harnack even acted as a speechwriter for Kaiser Wilhelm II.

A different political mood prevailed in the Bonhoeffer family. Dietrich’s older brother, Karl-Friedrich, joined the Social Democrats after a conversion to socialism during the war. The other siblings drifted toward the German People’s Party and similar parties. Theirs was a bourgeois politics sympathetic with the more open and liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, a stance that may help explain why so many in the Bonhoeffer family would later play active roles in the resistance.

Dietrich, however, stood mostly aloof from wranglings over political ideology. His friend Eberhard Bethge has written that in the 1932 elections Dietrich supported the moderate, lay Catholic Center Party because he thought their international ties — that is, partly ties to the Vatican — could provide “stability and independence” in a rather unstable time. This was an extraordinary step for a German Protestant minister, yet in one sense it fits Bonhoeffer perfectly. His foremost political concerns were never about economics, war and peace, or even the treatment of minorities, though obviously these things were not unimportant to him. Above all else, Bonhoeffer cared about the preservation of the gospel message and the freedom of the Christian church from political and cultural entanglements that might obscure its message. The intricacies of politics, he firmly believed, were not the business of the Protestant pastor or theologian.

“There is no doubt that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” “The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state. Instead, it has to affirm the state as God’s order of preservation in this godless world.” There were rare exceptions to this rule of nonintervention, of course, and the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany was clearly one of them. That was not, however, simply because the Nazi government was engaging in morally repugnant deeds and implementing unjust laws, but because those deeds and laws had driven the church into a status confessionis, a situation where the very truth of the gospel was at stake.

Republicans more anxious about safeguarding religious freedom than President Trump’s peccadillos may read these lines and believe they have found a kindred spirit. When they encounter Bonhoeffer’s conclusion in his Ethics that abortion is “nothing but murder” and discover his intense impatience with American liberal theology, they might feel themselves justified in christening the Obergefell decision a status confessionis — roughly what today might be called a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Perhaps those who are potential targets of an anti-discrimination lawsuit feel especially justified in doing so.

Yet when Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary in New York for the 1930–’31 academic year and, again, for the summer of 1939, he had some harsh words for those obsessed with religious liberty. “The American praise of freedom is more a tribute to the world, the state, and society than it is a statement concerning the church,” he wrote. “But where the gratitude for institutional freedom must be paid for through the sacrifice of the freedom of [gospel] proclamation, there the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.”

Bonhoeffer, it would seem, may have found the conservative panic over Obergefell more faithless than politically feckless. He may have thought their “Bonhoeffer moment” more about self-preservation and power politics than gospel proclamation.

American progressives might feel even more justified in appropriating Bonhoeffer’s legacy. After all, the first thing most people learn about the Lutheran theologian is that he resisted a tyrannical government that systematically oppressed minorities. And, as many on the American left argue, the Trump administration has at least tried to do just that. These progressive believers might buttress their case by lauding Bonhoeffer’s courageous philosemitic efforts or citing the Sundays in 1931 he spent with the Black community at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And when they read the blistering criticisms of “otherworldly” faith in his essay “Thy Kingdom Come!” or discover his hope for the future development of a “religionless Christianity” in his final letters, enthused Democrats might be ready to enlist Bonhoeffer’s help in the 2020 election. Those “Bonhoeffer moments,” after all, will come in handy on the campaign trail.

Yet letters and documents from his year in the United States reveal a Bonhoeffer at odds with the progressive American version as well. The historical Bonhoeffer was sometimes appalled by the oppression of African Americans, but he spent much more of his time filling letters and essays with criticisms and even contempt for American liberal Protestantism and progressive politics.

“God is not the immanent progressive ethical principle of history; God is the Lord who judges the human being and his work, he is the absolute sovereign (God’s kingdom is not a democracy!),” Bonhoeffer fumed in a memo about American Christianity. “The ideal of international, democratic, collectivist life together on the basis of the value of individuals (notice the inner contradiction!) is not identical with the kingdom of God.”

For Bonhoeffer, American liberals had misunderstood an essential part of Christianity: no matter how hard we try, human beings cannot inaugurate the kingdom of God. The best believers can do before that bright day in which Christ returns is preserve human rights, political stability, and a modicum of justice and proclaim the gospel message whether or not they find it politically expedient.

So how would Dietrich Bonhoeffer vote in 2020? Which side would he back in the United States’s vituperative, divided political landscape, and which would he think has the right to claim their political program as a righteous reaction to a “Bonhoeffer moment”?

For the rest of the article…

 

In a letter on July 21, 1944, to his longtime friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in prison, recalled a conversation he had some years ago with a young French pastor. They discussed what they both wanted out of life.

The pastor opined that he aspired to eventually become a saint. Bonhoeffer disagreed, stating that he would like to have faith by attempting to live a holy life. It’s possible that both men were on target with their desires, though we’ll never know that will be the case. (See “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” edited by Robert Cole, Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books, 1998).

Who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Dietrich, born in 1906, one of seven siblings, came from a prominent aristocratic family in Breslau, Germany, that moved to Berlin. Dietrich studied theology at Tübingen University and then at Berlin University where he received the doctoral degree in theology with a dissertation on “The Communion of Saints.” He was an outstanding student who played the piano brilliantly and was an excellent tennis player, to boot.

In 1928, Bonhoeffer took a position as a curate in a Lutheran church in Barcelona where he enjoyed taking care of the spiritual needs of blue-collar workers. They loved the talks he gave because they were thoughtful and punctured with biblical verses. For example, he once stated that Christ had been left out of a person’s life, if that person only gave to Christ a tiny part of his/her spiritual life. Bonhoeffer told his audience that one needs to give one’s life entirely to Christ, if they wanted to really understand their spiritual life.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan as a Sloan Fellow where he gained the respect of outstanding theological faculty like Paul Lehmann, with whom he developed a close friendship. After the year was up, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin University as a lecturer in theology, while working on his second doctorate. 

Two days after Hitler rose to power as German Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer railed against Hitler and the Nazi party on the radio, when suddenly he was cut off in the middle of his remarks. That same year, inspired by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer again spoke out against Nazi rule. Many members of the Lutheran Church, including bishops and pastors supported Hitler and some even wore brown Nazi shirts, to the dismay of Bonhoeffer and Pastor Niemoeller who helped organize the “Confessing Church” that opposed the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer had to leave Berlin in 1938, and in 1941, the Nazi government forbade him to write. He then became part of an anti-resistance movement, along with six military officers who tried to overthrow the Nazi government by force. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer became a prisoner at the Tegel Prison and then at Flossenbürg, a small village in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria.

Flossenbürg had a barracks that held 1,000 prisoners, but was built to hold 250 prisoners. Both Jews and special enemies of the state were housed in Flossenbürg. Special enemies like Bonhoeffer received “special treatment’ such as interrogation, torture and execution. Bonhoeffer was hanged in this prison — witnessed by Dr. H. Fischer who said that Bonhoeffer knelt on the floor and prayed before he was hanged.

What made Bonhoeffer a special person?

For the rest of the post…

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.

For the rest of the post…

The Cost of His Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)

On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.

But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.

Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:

At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.

As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.

Young Professor in Berlin

He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.

As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.

Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.

Life Together

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.

Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “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.”

The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwaldeab, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.

Letters from Prison

The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.

Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark on. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.

The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.

In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.

Cost of Discipleship

In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.”

For the rest of the article…

“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer born FEB 4, 1906

Dietrich BonhoefferAmerican Minute with Bill Federer

The National Socialist Workers’ Party leader, Adolph Hitler, became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, and began implementing a plan of universal healthcare, with no regard for conscience.

The New York Times reported October 10, 1933:

“Nazi Plan to Kill Incurables to End Pain; German Religious Groups Oppose Move…

The Ministry of Justice…explaining the Nazi aims regarding the German penal code, today announced its intentions to authorize physicians to end the sufferings of the incurable patient…in the interest of true humanity…”

The New York Times continued:

“The Catholic newspaper Germania hastened to observe: ‘The Catholic faith binds the conscience of its followers not to accept this method.’…

In Lutheran circles, too, life is regarded as something that God alone can take…

Euthanasia…has become a widely discussed word in the Reich…No life still valuable to the State will be wantonly destroyed.”

When Germany’s economy suffered, expenses had to be cut from the national healthcare plan, such as keeping alive handicapped, insane, chronically ill, elderly and those with dementia.

They were considered “lebensunwertes leben”-life unworthy of life.

Then criminals, convicts, street bums, beggars and gypsies, considered “leeches” on society, met a similar fate.

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger had been the editor of The Birth Control Review, a magazine that published in April 1933 an article by Ernst Rudin, one of the ‘fathers of racial hygiene.’

Ernst Rudin advised the Nazi Socialist Workers Party to prevent hereditary defective genes from being passed on to future generations by people considered by the State to be inferior mankind – ‘untermensch’.

Labeling the Aryan race ‘ubermensch’ (super mankind), the National Socialist Workers Party enacted horrific plans to purge the human gene pool of what they considered ‘inferior’ races, resulting in 6 million Jews and millions of others dying in gas chambers and ovens.

U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop stated in 1977:

“When the first 273,000 German aged, infirm and retarded were killed in gas chambers there was no outcry from that medical profession… and it was not far from there to Auschwitz.”

British Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge explained:

“We have…for those that have eyes to see, an object lesson in what the quest for ‘quality of life’ without reference to ‘sanctity of life’ can involve…

The origins of the Holocaust lay, not in Nazi terrorism…but in…Germany’s acceptance of euthanasia and mercy-killing as humane and estimable.”

Then there was an event of domestic unrest and violence.

The German Reichstag (Capitol Building) was set on fire in 1933, under suspicious conditions.

Hitler declared an emergency, suspended basic rights, arrested his political opponents and had them shot without a trial.

Hitler forced old military generals to retire, thus purging his administration of any who might resist him.

He swayed the public with mesmerizing speeches.

Then Nazis confiscated weapons.

An SA Oberführer warned of an ordinance by the provisional Bavarian Minister of the Interior:

“The deadline set…for the surrender of weapons will expire on March 31, 1933. I therefore request the immediate surrender of all arms…

Whoever does not belong to one of these named units (SA, SS, and Stahlhelm) and…keeps his weapon without authorization or even hides it, must be viewed as an enemy of the national government and will be held responsible without hesitation and with the utmost severity.”

Heinrich Himmler, head of Nazi S.S. (“Schutzstaffel”-Protection Squadron), stated:

“Germans who wish to use firearms should join the S.S. or the S.A. Ordinary citizens don’t need guns, as their having guns doesn’t serve the State.”

When a suspected homosexual youth shot a Nazi diplomat in Paris, it was used as an excuse to confiscate all firearms from Jews.

German newspapers printed, November 10, 1938:

“Jews Forbidden to Possess Weapons By Order of SS Reichsführer Himmler, Munich…

‘Persons who, according to the Nürnberg law, are regarded as Jews, are forbidden to possess any weapon. Violators will be condemned to a concentration camp and imprisoned for a period of up to 20 years.’”

The New York Times, November 9, 1938, reported:

“The Berlin Police…announced that…the entire Jewish population of Berlin had been ‘disarmed’ with the confiscation of 2,569 hand weapons, 1,702 firearms and 20,000 rounds of ammunition.

Any Jews still found in possession of weapons without valid licenses are threatened with the severest punishment.”

Of the Waffengesetz (Nazi Weapons Law), March 18, 1938, Hitler stated at a dinner talk, April 11, 1942 (Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-44: His Private Conversations, 2nd Edition, 1973, p. 425-6, translated by Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens):

“The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing…

So let’s not have any native militia or native police. German troops alone will bear the sole responsibility for the maintenance of law and order.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt stated of Hitler, December 15, 1941:

“Government to him is not the servant…of the people but their absolute master and the dictator of their every act…

The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which seemed to the Founders of the Republic inalienable, were, to Hitler and his fellows, empty words…”

FDR continued:

“Hitler advanced: That the individual human being has no rights whatsoever in himself…no right to a soul of his own, or a mind of his own, or a tongue of his own, or a trade of his own; or even to live where he pleases or to marry the woman he loves;

That his only duty is the duty of obedience, not to his God, not to his conscience, but to Adolf Hitler…

His only value is his value, not as a man, but as a unit of the Nazi state…”

FDR stated in his State of the Union Address, January 6, 1942:

“The world is too small…for both Hitler and God…

Nazis have now announced their plan for enforcing their…pagan religion all over the world…by which the Holy Bible and the Cross of Mercy would be displaced by Mein Kampf and the swastika.”

Churchill, in From War to War, (Second World War, Vol. 1, ch. 4, p. 50) described Hitler’s Mein Kampf as:

“…the new Koran of faith and war: turgid, verbose, shapeless, but pregnant with its message.”

Originally, Hitler was going to allow Jews to be deported to Palestine, but the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husseini, convinced Hitler to pursue another solution.

Mufti al-Husseini attempted to follow Hitler’s example by expelling Jews from Palestine, as the Muslim Brother would also do in Egypt.

He recruited 30,000 Bosnian Muslims to join Hitler’s Waffen-SS.

Hitler gave al-Husseini financial assistance, and then asylum in 1941, with the honorary rank of an SS Major-General.

During the final battle in Berlin in April of 1945, around Hitler’s bunker, making their last suicidal stand, were 100 Muslims of the Mufti’s Arab Legion.

Hitler’s view was the Nazi’s had the right solution but the wrong religion, stating:

“Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers…then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies the heroism and which opens up the seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world.”

Hitler stated:

“The peoples of Islam will always be closer to us than, for example, France.”

According to Albert Speer, Third Reich’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Hitler stated in private:

“The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity…with its meekness and flabbiness?”

Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels confided in The Goebbels Diaries 1939-41, that in reality Hitler “hates Christianity, because it has crippled all that is noble in humanity.”

Though early in his career Hitler pretended to be a Christian in order to get elected, once in power he revealed his nazified social Darwinism and became openly hostile toward Christianity.

Franklin D. Roosevelt stated December 15, 1941:

“To Hitler, the church…is a monstrosity to be destroyed by every means.”

Ministers who resisted Hitler’s attempt to “nazify” the German Protestant Church were imprisoned, such a founder of the Confessing Church, Rev. Martin Niemöller, who wrote:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me-and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Another Confessing Church leader who resisted Hitler was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born FEBRUARY 4, 1906.

He studied in New York in 1930, where he met Frank Fisher, an African-American seminarian who introduced him to Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

He was inspired by African-American spirituals and the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., who helped Bonhoeffer turn “from phraseology to reality,” motivating him to stand up against injustice.

Bonhoeffer helped found the Confessing Church in Germany, which refused to be intimidated by Hitler into silence.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer rebuked nominal Christians:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

Bonhoeffer stated in a 1932 sermon:

“The blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith.

On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant.”

For the rest of the post…

In June of 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was safe and sound in the United States. He could have remained there but on June 20, 1939, he made the “fateful decision” to return to Nazi Germany. Why? In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, he gave the following explanation:

I have made the mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make this choice in security.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1.

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