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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.”

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 Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at 9Marks.

The chime rang out from the bell tower. Time to gather for Mass.

Yet this was not a regular Sunday. Someone told us we would hear a homily. Usually we only heard homilies at Lent or Advent, as well as on the feast day of our church’s namesake. But this was October, and we weren’t sure why we would hear a homily in October.

Then Jonas, the cloth merchant, explained. Last week’s business took him to the town across the ridge. All his customers there were still reeling from what they had heard last Sunday. Their priest read a homily that could only be described as a tale of horror. He described dead relatives screaming out in pain in purgatory. He put his hand to his ear and bent down toward the ground as if he could hear the groans. He depicted flames so real that everyone in the pews thought they felt the temperature rising. One customer told Jonas that women had actually swooned. Afterward, no one dared to utter a single word. All shuffled out in silence.

All this happened last Sunday, Jonas said. Then on Monday a monk named Tetzel pulled into the same town in a grand wagon. Trumpets blew and banners unfurled. The archbishop’s own guards surrounded him. In the shadow of the steeple in the middle of the town square, his attendants set up a table. They piled a stack of parchment high on the one side and cautiously placed a chest on the other. The chest had three locks. Everyone knows that if a chest has three locks it’s owned by three people who don’t trust each other.

Then Tetzel cried out, “Friends of this town, you have heard how your loved ones suffer in purgatory. You have heard their cries. The flames have reached up and licked your very own boots.”

“How shamefully,” Tetzel continued, “you go about your business. You spend your money on every little trifle. And, oh, how your loved ones suffer. Enough. Step forward. Leo X, the Pontifex Maximus, Vicar of Christ on earth, has been gracious and merciful to you and has affixed his seal to this indulgence. Now come and do your duty. And now you have a very special deal reserved for you. For a little extra guilder you can free yourself from purgatory. Yes, God be praised, give to the church your mite and the gracious Holy Father in Rome will see to it that you and all your dead relatives will be in Paradise itself, not enduring for a moment the purging flames of purgatory.”

Then he added with a rhythm in his voice:

Every time a coin in the coffer rings,
A soul from purgatory springs.

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Summary:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer died a martyr’s death at the age of 39 but remains one of the most influential and challenging theologians of our time. His writings teach us the value of cross-centered theology, and his courageous actions against the Nazi regime compel us to consider the cost of discipleship.

To purchase the book…

Matthew Levering—a Roman Catholic theologian who teaches at the University of Saint Mary on the Lake in Illinois—has a number of books to his credit. His newest book, Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical, was written at the invitation of Zondervan. Levering offers an introduction then nine chapters on the following doctrines: Scripture, Mary, the Eucharist, the seven sacraments, monasticism, justification and merit, purgatory, saints, and the papacy. Each chapter consists of two parts, “Luther’s Concern” and “Biblical Reflection.” A lengthy response by Kevin Vanhoozer, titled “A Mere Protestant Response,” closes out the book.

On the first page of the introduction, Levering gives his answer to the book title’s question: “I do not call the Reformation a mistake,” (15, all page references to advanced reading copy). He adds that he’s grateful for many of the Reformation’s theological emphases. He contends, however, that “the [r]eformers made some doctrinal mistakes” (15).

In his rebuttal of the reformers, with Luther as the main focus, Levering seeks to show Roman Catholic doctrine is “not unbiblical.” It’s worth noting that isn’t the same as being biblical. It’s also worth noting Levering’s theological method or, as he puts it, his “mode of biblical reasoning.” He writes, “Rather than presenting his twelve disciples with a list of doctrinal truths, the Lord Jesus made clear that his disciples would need to learn the truth about him in a communal and liturgical way, by living with him over a period of time and by being intimately related to him” (21).

He further speaks of a “liturgically situated mode of reasoning about the realities described in the Bible” (25), adding that “the Holy Spirit may guide the church in Spirit-guided modes of biblical reasoning” (27).

Reasoning on Doctrine

This mode of reasoning is immediately pursued in chapter one on Scripture. Levering posits that “the church is the faithful interpreter of Scripture” (35), adding that if the church fails in being faithful, then “Scripture itself would fail in its truth” (35). Of course, for Levering the Bible can’t fail so, therefore, it must be true that the church can’t fail as interpreter. Levering does admit that church leaders err, but he maintains they are “preserved . . . from an error that would negate the church’s mediation of the true gospel to each generation.”

Now the reader can decide. Was Luther making a mistake at the Diet of Worms in 1521 when he claimed popes and councils may err and that his conscience was captive to the Word of God? Levering needs to reconcile his pronouncement of de facto gospel fidelity on behalf of Rome against the data of the 16th century (and other centuries for that matter).

Would Levering endorse the systemic abuse of indulgences as practiced in the church at the time of the Reformation? The fact that Levering doesn’t address this challenge to his thesis in a book on the Reformation is a serious gap, if not a death blow to his argument. At the very least, this chapter demonstrates clearly the distinction between sola scriptura and the Roman Catholic view.

Levering then turns to eight Catholic doctrines. He makes the point that Mary’s suffering was “uniquely united with her Son’s suffering,” and from there asks, “Did Mary receive a unique share in his exaltation?” (71). He then employs “typological reasoning” to see Mary in many exalted roles and places—including as the “Queen Mother” in Jeremiah 13:18.

On the saints, Levering acknowledges that Paul uses saints to refer to all Christians, but then notes how Rome identifies certain individuals as “saints in a particular sense” (157). Levering ends the chapter by declaring, “To love the saints and to ask regularly for their prayers is to love Christ and the Father who sent him” (171).

On the papacy, he offers no attempt to show the evidence of apostolic succession from Peter onward. He simply states, “The form that this Petrine ministry takes in the church develops over the centuries under the guidance of the Spirit” (186). That’s not an argument; it’s a supposition. Given the role of the papacy in the Roman curia, Levering is going to have to do better.

Shared Gospel?

As important as these doctrinal differences are, the central issue is the gospel. At various points Levering speaks of Catholic and Protestant communion around the gospel, but such communion doesn’t exist. Regarding purgatory, Levering says, “Christ has paid the penalty of sin and has perfectly forgiven us, but we nonetheless must go through the penitential experience of suffering and death so as to be fully configured to him in love” (154). The “but” there is damning. The gospel is Christ’s finished work plus nothing, yet Levering here holds to Christ’s finished work plus something: extra suffering after death if life’s sufferings didn’t fully purify you.

But Luther’s fear wasn’t purgatory; he feared the final judgment on the last day. Purgatory is actually a distraction from the real threat to humanity: eternity in hell under the just wrath of God. Either Christ removed the curse from us and we’re reconciled to a holy God and will be with him at the moment of our death, or the curse isn’t removed and we’ll be separated from God in this life and forever. Purgatory isn’t only unbiblical; it’s an affront to the gospel.

In chapter six on justification and merit, Levering rejects imputation. He asks if it’s possible that “we are made truly just and not merely imputed to be just?” (133). This is a crucial distinction. If we’re made just, then we work with the grace God gives us, and our justification is a result of both God’s grace and our works. There could be no more crucial place for a distinction than between justification and sanctifciation. The doctrine of imputation is key to that distinction. Justification is apart from works, apart from merit—and apart from penitential suffering in purgatory.

Necessary Reformation

Was the Reformation a mistake? No, it wasn’t, for there are clear and crucial differences between Rome and the reformers on Scripture and the gospel, not to mention the other seven doctrines in this book.

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