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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…

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“Most parents today are too spineless. For fear of losing their children, they devalue themselves into their friends and cronies, and end by rendering themselves superfluous to them. I abhor that type of upbringing, which is not an upbringing at all.”

~Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote in Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 16.

By present-day standards the Bonhoeffer household was conducted on an inconceivably lavish scale; but, at the same time, the parents strongly disliked personal boasting or pretension. Money was never discussed in front of the children. The country house in Wolfelsgrund was spacious and airy, but its furnishings were Spartan; later, after they have moved to Berlin, the family’s summer home in Friedrichsbrunn was wired for electricity only in autumn of 1943.  If one of the children dropped a toy on the dirty floor of the railway compartment on the way to the country, their mother was capable was dropping it straight out of the window, but suggestions for improving amenities in the country were ignored. There was never any question of fashionable extravagance, either in dress or in the home.   

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 16.

The rich world of  his ancestors set the standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own life. It gave him a certainty of judgement and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation. He grew up in a family that believed that the essence of learning lay not in a formal education but in the deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical obligation and intellectual tradition. To Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this meant learning to understand and respect the ideas and experiences of earlier generations It could also lead him to decisions and actions that conflicted with those of his ancestors–and, precisely  in this way, to honor them. Ultimately, it might even mean voluntarily accepting history’s inevitable judgement on the world of his ancestors–while not allowing this to distract from delight in its amicable representatives.   

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 13.

Julie Tafel (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Grandmother)…had inherited the alert critical sensibilities of  her ancestors. She actively participated in discussions on women’s issues and devoted herself to practical and organizational matters, like establishing a home for older women or vocational centers for girls.   

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 12.

Friedrich Bonhoeffer’s wife Julie (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Grandmother) was the direct link between a long history and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life. Born on 21 August 1842, she could talk about the days of Eduard Mörike and Justinus Kerner. But it was just as characteristic of her that, at the age of ninety-one, she marched past the S.A. (Nazi Storm Troppers) cordons promoting the boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933, to shop at the Jewish-owned “Kaufhaus des Westens” on Tauentzienstrasse in Berlin.  

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 10-11.

Grandfather Karl Alfred von Hase died on New Year’s Day 1914. The Bonhoeffers no longer lived in Breslau, but the progressive stages of his cancer were not hidden from the grandchildren. The reports that their grandfather had continued his work until it was not longer possible left a last impression on them.

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 8.

Karl August von Hase (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s grandfather) was interested in the early dialectical theologian Christoph Blumhardt and visited him at Bad Boll.

(Christoph Blumhardt)

Following the invasion of France in the years 1870-1871, he became a division chaplain in Hannover and, in 1876, was made senior military chaplain in Königsberg.

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 7.

The great-grandfather (Karl August von Hase) was a very successful theological teacher and writer; his books went through many edition. Hutterus Redivivus, a textbook on the history of dogma, was still a respected examination aid during Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time as a student. 

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 6.

His grandfather (Karl Alfred von Hase) was devoted to cultivating the memory of his famous father, Karl August von Hase, professor of church and dogmatic history in Jena. The figure of this great ancestor influenced Dietrich, although he did not follow the same theological direction. At the same time, the story of his life fascinated Dietrich. 

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 5.

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