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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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   February 4, 2006, was the centenary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his role in the resistance which sought, unsuccessfully, to assassinate Hitler, bring the crimes of the Third Reich to an end, and establish a new, morally legitimate, government in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s role in the resistance grew out of a theological worldview that was at once profoundly rooted in the Lutheran tradition in which he grew up and shaped by his friendships with such people as the French pacifist Jean Lasserre, an American black friend named Franklin Fisher, and the Anglican Bishop George Bell. One of the most brilliant theologians of his day, Bonhoeffer was not satisfied to pursue theology as a purely academic enterprise. He recognized that a divinity which is not homely, a theology which is not incarnate, is not Christian. The time in which he lived provided a dramatic, and costly, opportunity not only to articulate his faith, but to live it in an exemplary way.
In 1937, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge, which first appeared in English translation (by Anglican scholar Reginald Fuller) as The Cost of the Discipleship, in 1949. Bonhoeffer wrote this book as he was wrestling with the competing claims of his pacifist convictions and his responsibility for his neighbor, particularly the Jews and others who were being persecuted and murdered by the Nazis. In this personal struggle, Bonhoeffer found himself at odds with the leaders of his own church who were more than willing to subordinate the demands of the Gospel to the policy of the state. For them, the peace of the church within a warring nation was more important than the peace of the world, and loyalty to the state a higher value than the protection of a neighbor in need. It was most certainly to them that the opening lines of The Cost of Discipleship were addressed:
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace…. Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In                                                                                
such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God….. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

By this time, Bonhoeffer was already coming to the conclusion that he could not stand on the sidelines and that public statements were an insufficient response to the crisis at hand. He had been speaking out for years against the regime and its abuses from the pulpit and in other forums at home and abroad. But soon after the publication of The Cost of Discipleshiphe accepted a post in the German intelligence service where he became actively involved in high-risk efforts to save Jews and, eventually, to assassinate Hitler.

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August 2019
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