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When he went to the university at the age of seventeen, Bonhoeffer left home for the first time. The world of independent thought and action opened before him; he greedily absorbed what the philosophers and the theologians had to offer. His parents wholeheartedly supported his goals. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter Two: Student Years: 1923-1927, 45.

Bonhoeffer’s path to theology began–despite the Christian foundation of his parent’s home–in a “secular” atmosphere. First came the “call,” in his youthful vanity, to do something special in life. Then he plunged with intellectual curiosity into theology as a branch of knowledge. Only later did the church enter his field of vision. Unlike theologians who came from families that were active in the church and theology, and discovered the existence of the “world” only later. Bonhoeffer embarked on his journey and eventually discovered the church.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 44.


In the new volume of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, Vol. 14: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-37, there are some very interesting (to me) observations made by Jürgen Henkys in the “Editor’s Afterward to the German Edition”.

In particular, I note five particularly interesting observations Henkys’s makes about what emerges from the present collection.

(1) Finkenwalde was a protest and a prophetic discipleship against and in relationship to the dramatic take over of the German Church by the Nazis and the response of the Confessing Church. The Preachers Seminary was founded in response to the Confessing synods of Barmen and Dahlem in 1934. As the Seminary opened with its second of five sessions it was declared illegal by the state in a statement called the Fifth Implementation Decree published on 12/2/1935. The seminary opened its doors in April 1935 and was closed in September 1937 by the Gestapo.

(2) The Bible was the primary resource for Bonhoeffer in the Finkenwalde years. Particularly as everything was being reconsidered by the Confessing Church in response to the challenge of the Third Reich.

It is no accident that the Bible stands at the beginning and the end of this enumeration . . . Everything that had to be justified anew here—with respect to pastoral care, ecclesiastical politics, ecumenical and dogmatic issues—could not be addressed adequately at the level of traditional academic theological deduction (975).

(3) But the Bible is read anew in light of the present experience. There is an important hermeneutical approach Bonhoeffer takes as evidenced in his lectures and sermons. He sees that there is a need for something in addition to historical-critical exegesis. The Church Struggle becomes a hermeneutical lens for reading the Bible aright.

His writing, teaching, proclamation, and admonitions were all guided now by a new manner of reading the Bible, a manner with which not even he had much familiarity yet; the Bible was now to be read with an eye on the decisions—both imminent and past—that affected the church’s concrete present (975).

Bonhoeffer allowed the contemporary theological and ecclesiastical conflicts to shape the lecture’s task (984) Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutics pointed him in the direction of exegesis substantively shaped by the church’s own contemporary experience rather than exegesis somehow removed from time. As he reminded his candidates, academic theological departments were not the ones carrying the Church Struggle and were thus unaware of this question regarding the space of the church; those carrying that struggle were instead the pastors and congregations themselves. Bonhoeffer concludes, ‘the theology and question of the church develops from within the church’s own empirical experience and encounters. It receives blows and realizes: the body of the church must take this or that particular path. (985)

In the Bible study (“The Reconstruction of Jerusalem according to Ezra and Nehemiah”), the path to a contemporary statement or position does not emerge from any comprehensive examination of the biblical textual material nor from any enumeration of the results of historical scholarship regarding that material. What moves the exegete instead is the urgent question already on the table, concerning the church dispute and the theological assessment he has already made about this issue. The edifying elements and orientation solicited from the text itself emerge not by way of exegetical derivation and historical considerations. Rather, it is discovered, recognized anew, welcomed as confirming challenge by an exegete who reads Scripture with the assurance of the truth of the struggling church itself, which has already decided in favor of the understanding of its confession required by the contemporary situation (998).

(4) The New Testament was the primary textbook for the training of the seminarians.

The most distinctive feature of Bonhoeffer’s teaching at Finkenwalde is his exegesis of the New Testament in session after session (982).

For the rest of the post…

Should Dietrich Bonhoeffer be considered a “martyr”? Well, it depends what kind of martyr we are talking about? Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrwrote that…

… Detlev Daedlow… stipulates that while Bonhoeffer may be a political-secular martyr he is not an ecclesiastical one–a distinction dating at least to the time of the Reformation, and a provocative one coming from someone who himself a member of the Confessing Church (31-32).

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).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We also know from the testimony of a British officer (Payne Best), a fellow-prisoner, of the last service which Dietrich Bonhoeffer held on the day before his death and which “moved all deeply, Catholics and Protestants alike, by his sincere sincerity.” When trying afterwards to keep the imprisoned wives of men executed for their leadership in the plot against Hitler from depression and anxiety, he was taken away. We know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who never tried, went steadfastly on his last day to be hanged, and died with admirable calmness and dignity.

God heard his pray and granted him the “costly grace”–that is, the privilege of taking the cross for others and of affirming his faith by martyrdom. 

Memoir by G. Leibholz in  Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship1961 edition, 26.

Wes Middleton says Christians shouldn't fear death.......addresses group at First Presbyterian Church in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Wes Middleton says Christians shouldn’t fear death…….addresses group at First Presbyterian Church in Wichita Falls, Texas.

“We as Christians are not afraid to die,” Wes Middleton told the men’s Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church of Wichita Falls, Texas today, Sunday, April 21, 2013

The theme of this lesson was lived by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who defiedHitler before World War II and was executed in a German concentration camp only days before the Allies freed prisoners of the camp. Bonhoeffer, known as one of the most brilliant pastors and theologians of the 20th Century, seemed to know Hitler embodied evil long before other people in Germany did.

He risked his death on several occasions because he did not fear death. He rejected a good job offer in the United States at Union Seminary in New York to return to Germany becaue he felt God wanted him there to fight evil. Not only did he continue preaching in defiance of Hitler’s decrees, he also was involved in the plotting to stop Hitler.

When the plots failed and Bonhoeffer’s role in the planning became known to Hitler, the brave theologian’s fate was sealed.

Bonhoeffer made the famous quote, “To do nothing in the face of evil, is to do evil.”

Bonhoeffer’s courageous life is a great example of what Middleton told the class Sunday.

For the rest of the post…

May 2, 2013 @ 0:11 By  

Those Americans who know Bonhoeffer tend to think about the church and theology under Hitler through Bonhoeffer’s experience. That is, harassed, spied upon, arrested, secretly tried, and eventually murdered. Bonhoeffer’s experience was not the norm for German theologians and pastors though neither was it atypical. Other kinds of experiences are known:

Some capitulated to National Socialism, to racism, to German culture as a relentless machine of superiority, to technology as the future, to human life as utilitarian, economic success regardless of its implications, shutting down alternative voices, and the destruction of nature. Some turned their theology into a tool for the National Socialists, led by the “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen, and some turned their academic work into the same (Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch). On this read R.P. Ericksen,Theologians under Hitler and S. Heschel, The Aryan Jesus.

Some capitulated by refusing to withstand and so became complicit. Some later confessed complicity; some didn’t.

Some resisted and died, like Bonhoeffer. Some resisted and escaped, like Karl Barth. Some were stained by sins under Hitler and then resisted and were imprisoned but confessed, like Martin Niemöller, while others were stained and survived, but never confessed, like Martin Heidegger. On philosophers under Hitler, see Hitler’s Philosophers by Yvonne Sherratt, a book I have not yet read.

Others resisted and survived. It is perhaps my ignorance of all the machinations or my familiarity of the stories of Bonhoeffer and Niemöller but I have always wondered how anyone could survive under Hitler without complicity in National Socialism. The story of Rudolf Bultmann is one such story, and Konrad Hammann’s full biographical study of the development of Bultmann’s theology is a singularly important achievement. The book is called Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography.

Do you read Bultmann? What do you think his seminal contributions were?

For the rest of the post…

Jon Walker in his book, In Visible Fellowship: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s Classic Work:  Life Together writes in chapter 35 about the dangers of confession. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote…

Only the person who has so humbled himself can hear a brother’s confession without harm.

Walker writes that The Big Idea of the chapter is…

And we’re not qualified to hear the confessions of others of special insight or training or unique spiritual training on our part. We’re qualified to hear each other’s confessions because we are sinners who know sin and its destructive power, and we now know Jesus and his redemptive power.

Walker added:

Bonhoeffer says there are two dangers to watch for as our community practices biblical confession.

First, we should never designate one person as the only person to hear confessions. Confession isn’t about setting up some special, spiritual leader who acts as a mediator between God and us. Jesus is already our mediator and he paid a bloody price so that we could have a direct and intimate relationship with the Father. 

…Second, we should guard against turning confession into a pious work. In other words, we don’t confess to impress. We don’t confess in order to appear spiritual. 

…Jesus is…The blood of Jesus purifies us from every every sin and brings us into fellowship with him.

To be like Jesus…Because we are in fellowship with Jesus, we are authorized to help bring one another into the light, where God purifies us from our wrong doing and where we can “have fellowship with one another.” 

(Jon WalkerIn Visible Fellowship: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s Classic Work: Life Together, Chapter 35)

There is not a place to which the Christian can withdraw from the world, whether it be outwardly or in the sphere of the inner life. Any attempt to escape from the world must sooner or later be paid for with a sinful surrender to the world.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Ethics 

May 2020


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