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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?

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In my previous post, we began to answer the question if Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be considered a “martyr” in the traditional way that Christians understand martyrdom?

Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrwrites about the “ambiguity” surrounding the death of Bonhoeffer…

The ambiguity was immediately recognized by his own church of Berlin-Brandenburg when, after the war, it refused to embrace him as a martyr once the facts of his inspirational activities  were known. On the first anniversary of the plot’s failure, Paul Schneider (Lutheran pastor at Dickensheid who refused to comply with the Nazi order not to preach and, after several years of torture in the Buchenwald camp, was given a lethal injection of Strophantine on 18 July 1939) was presented to the churches as “a martyr in the full sense of the word” while Bonhoeffer’s name was not even mentioned. The refusal to name Bonhoeffer was neither a personal rejection of Bonhoeffer nor a repudiation of his conspiratorial activities per se.

Rather, it was a theological statement about martyrdom and its limits  (30).


Seminary in Nazi Germany

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazis in 1933, a select group of leaders within the church formed an ecclesiological resistance movement, what came to be called the Confessing Church. Soon they founded five new seminaries to train up the next generation of ministers. They tapped a young Berlin University theology professor to head the seminary set up briefly at Zingst, then at Finkenwalde.

The prevailing model for theological education in Germany was largely academic, as universities dominated ministerial education. German pastors since the Enlightenment (Aufklarung in German) had scratched and clawed for respectability alongside doctors and lawyers—professionals in the more “respectable” disciplines. Biblical scholars and theologians had to do the same over and against their colleagues in the academy. After a handful of terms lecturing future ministers and theologians at Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sensed this kind of educational ethos was wrong—and ultimately harmful—for the church at large.

So the new seminary at Finkenwalde gave Bonhoeffer an opportunity to chart a different course for ministerial education. He would focus his school on Scripture, prayer, and theological confession, and as Herr Direktor, Bonhoeffer could uphold these three pillars as he saw fit. But not all agreed. For example, the towering Karl Barth protested, among other leaders in the Confessing Church. Many students followed suit by bucking Bonhoeffer’s innovations. Too formidable to be dismissed, however, he stood his ground, eventually winning over both his students and also his critics.

Unfortunately, the story of Finkenwalde doesn’t end with success—at least as “success” is often defined with the requisite metrics of numbers and prowess. Most of Bonhoeffer’s students never made it to pastoral ministry. Twenty-seven were arrested. The seminary as a whole was short-lived, shut down by the Gestapo after a mere two years.

That said, what was accomplished there during those two years deserves notice. So let’s consider Bonhoeffer’s three pillars of seminary education: Scripture, prayer, and theological confession.

Built on the Word

After a few months in operation, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to the supporting churches explaining the mission of the seminary:

The special character of a seminary of the Confessing Church derives from the difficult situation in which we have been placed by the church struggle. The Bible forms the focal point of our work. It has once again become for us the starting point and the centre of our theological work and of all our Christian action. (1)

That this biblical focus was “special” shows why the German Lutheran Church wilted under Nazi rule. The church as a whole had long since drifted from its biblical moorings. Without a solid biblical foundation, the church simply lacked the wherewithal to engage the ethical issues of the 1930s, which then tragically led to the atrocities in the 1940s and World War II.

Bonhoeffer’s words also reveal his conviction that the Bible must hold center court in ministerial education and the church. Scripture as the focal point at Finkenwalde meant students would be trained in Hebrew and Greek. They’d receive instruction in Bible content. “The congregation,” Bonhoeffer once said, “is built solely on the Word of God.” (2) Bonhoeffer required students to practice the lectio divina, reading a psalm and chapters from the Old and New Testaments each day. Students also had to meditate on a select passage each week. He was intent on helping them form the right habits.

Finkenwalde student and future Bonhoeffer biographer Eberhard Bethge got the message. Years later, Bethge testified, “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.” (3)

Prayer Makes a Pastor

Bonhoeffer’s courses on prayer used the Lord’s Prayer and Luther’s catechism for instruction. He also required students to pray, as a sort of homework. Critics charged he was being legalistic; one even told him the time was too urgent for prayer and meditation. Bonhoeffer responded to these criticisms forcefully: “This either shows a total lack of understanding of young theologians today, or a blasphemous ignorance of how preaching and teaching come about.” (4) As Bonhoeffer once told his London congregation, “A congregation that does not pray for the ministry of its pastor is no longer a congregation. A pastor who does not pray daily for his congregation is no longer a pastor.” (5).

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May 2020


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