Archive for April 9th, 2011

“Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.

Biographical Introduction:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on Feb. 4, 1906, in Breslau, the sixth of eight children, along with his twin sister, Sabine.  His father Karl  was a leading professor of neurology and psychiatry; his mother was the granddaughter of a distinguished church historian. When Dietrich was 6, his family moved to Berlin. He was educated at the universities of Tübingen (1923-1924) and Berlin, where he was awarded a doctorate in 1927 at the age of only 21.  He surprised his family by his choice of theology and becoming a pastor as his vocation.

Early Career

Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation, The Communion of Saints(1930), introduces some of his most characteristic emphases: a passionate concern that Christianity be a concrete reality within the real world of men; a wholly Christ-centered approach to theology, grounded entirely in the New Testament; and an intense preoccupation with the Church as “Christ existing as community.” (see 1 Corinthians 12:27)

After a year as curate of a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain (1928-1929), Bonhoeffer spent the academic year 1930-1931 in the United States as Sloane fellow at Union Theological Seminary. In fall 1931 he became a lecturer in theology at Berlin University, and his inaugural dissertation was published that year as Act and Being. Two collections of his lectures were later published: Creation and Fall (1937), an interpretation of chapters 1-3 of Genesis; and Christ the Center, published posthumously from student notes. The latter work foreshadows the central idea of his last writings–Christ’s whole being is His being-for-man, and His powerlessness and humiliation for man’s sake are the fullest disclosure of the power and majesty of God.

Resistance to Nazism

Bonhoeffer was one of the first German Protestants to see the demonic implications of Nazism. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer helped organize the Pastors’ Emergency League, which became the nucleus of the Confessing Church of anti-Nazi German Protestants. While serving as minister to a German-speaking congregation in London (1933-1935), he sought support from international Christian leaders for the German Christians who were protesting Nazism.

In 1935 Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and founded a clandestine seminary to train pastors for the illegal anti-Nazi church. The seminary, located chiefly at Finkenwalde, continued despite Gestapo harassment until 1937. Bonhoeffer organized the seminary as a living workshop in Christian community and developed close relationships with his students. Out of Finkenwalde came The Cost of Discipleship (1937), a clarion call to active obedience to Christ based on the Sermon on the Mount, and Life Together (1939), a brief study of the nature of Christian community.

As war became increasingly inevitable, friends arranged an American lecture tour for Bonhoeffer with the hope that he would remain in the United States indefinitely. But only 6 weeks after his arrival in New York, he decided to return to Germany to suffer with his people.

Bonhoeffer became a member of the German resistance movement, convinced after much soul searching that only by working for Germany’s defeat could he help save his country. From 1940 to 1943 Bonhoeffer worked on a study of Christian ethics, which was grounded in the biblical Christ as the concrete unity between God and the world. The sections he completed were later published as Ethics (1949).

In January 1943 Bonhoeffer became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, a longtime acquaintance. In April, however, he was arrested; while incarcerated he wrote the correspondence that later appeared as Letters and Papers from Prison (1951). In these fragmentary but highly original writings he developed his earlier ideas into a highly positive evaluation of modern secular thought and life, and a strongly negative judgment on traditional religiosity.  These last writings had an inordinate influence on post-war liberal Protestantism.  Generally speaking, his two books, Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, are the tomes he is most remembered.  After the abortive attempt on Hitler’s life by the resistance (July 20, 1944), evidence came to light that incriminated Bonhoeffer, and he was hanged at Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945.

A Brief Reflection:

I am currently reading Eric Metaxas’ 2010 Biography:  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I find this bio edifying.  During the Nazi years, the Nazis developed the “German Christian Church” which fused Nazism and Christianity, or more precisely:  the neo-paganism of the “blood and soil” mythology loved by the Nazis under the name of Christianity. (See:  2 Timothy 3:4-6) Two of the phrases used by the German Christians were  “practical Christianity” and “positive Christianity”.  At the risk of using the “N” word, Nazism, as in political discourse:  so-called practical and positive Christianity espoused  in many quarters today and is the grist of much Christian publishing and even given those titles.  These folks say that  such preaching should be about, for instance, “real life” and practical living, not  the real life we have in Christ Jesus, and most decidedly not the Cross and true repentance.  They say that this fills pews and sadly it does. I am not saying these folks are Nazis.  But the Old Adam does not want to die but live and fluorish.  So any Christianity, liberal or conservative, which says that the Lord’s call is not to repentance, but evil/sin is some “them” out there (for the Nazis it was Communists, for socialists its capitalists, etc. etc.), the Old Adam is left untouched and loves it.  If Christianity and the Church is about moral uplift, a positive message and the like, then  it is like putting a band-aid on a corpse.  Our Lord faced our sin and death and died that we might live.  We also must so serve in His Word from Pulpit, Podium, Prayers and Sacrament in face of  the death and horrors of our times.  No band-aids, only the Cross. (see  1 Corinthians 2:2) Bonhoeffer knew that and by God’s hard as nails grace, lived it with many others in the minority in the Truth which alone sets us free (see John 8:30-32).–Pr. Schroeder


On Preaching in American Churches during Bonhoeffer’s Year at Union Seminary, NYC, 1930-1931

As at Union Seminary…”Things are not much different in the church. The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in general I’m increasingly discovering greater reli­gious power and originality in Negroes). One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity … There’s no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached. But then what becomes of Christianity per se?” Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

On the Two Types of Love

“Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake.”

“…spiritual love does not desire but rather serves, it loves an enemy as brother. It originates neither in the brother nor in the enemy but in Christ and His Word.  Human love can never understand spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above; it is something completely strange, new and incomprehensible to all earthly love.”

“…this spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ.”

“We are bound together by faith, not by experience.”

From Life Together

On Being Pious

In matters of piety, the “I will” can cause the greatest harm…”

“God alone knows our good works; all we know is His good work.”

On Being a Pastor

The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.  Not in the former but in the latter is the lack.  The Church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and human conceit, but by the Word of the Good Shepherd.

The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents he possesses.  Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, whom himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word.

From Life Together

On Life Experience

How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to thy word. It is very presumptuous and wrongheaded to think that a man has to become entangled deeply in the guilt of life in order to know life itself, and finally God.  We do not learn to know life and guilt from our own experience, but only from God’s judgment of mankind and his grace in the cross of Jesus Christ.”

On Marriage

In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than some­thing personal – it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. As you first gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God. As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.

From “A Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell”, May 1943, Letters and Papers from Prison

On Confession and Absolution

In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person the more destructive will be the power of sin over him,  and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart.  The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass bars of iron (Ps. 107: 16).

From Life Together

On Building up the Church

“It is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess—he builds. We must proclaim—he builds. We must pray to him—that he may build.  We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.  It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess…, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don’t ask for judgments. Don’t always be calculating what will happen. Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Church, stay a church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds” (No Rusty Swords, [New York: Harper and Row, 1965] 216-217 On the Cross and the Bible

“Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where He will be found. If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature. But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me. That place is the cross of Christ. And whoever will find God there must draw near to the cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires. That does not correspond to our nature at all; it is, in fact, completely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only the New Testament but also the Old. (Is. 53!) In any case, Jesus and Paul understand it in this way — that the cross of Jesus fulfills the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The entire Bible, then, is the Word in which God allows himself to be found by us. Not a place which is agreeable to us or makes sense to us a priori, but instead a place which is strange to us and contrary to our nature. Yet, the very place in which God has decided to meet us.”

From Meditating on the Word

On the Cross and the Bible

“God is completely other than the so-called eternal verities.  Theirs is an eternity made up of our own thoughts and wishes. But God’s Word begins by showing us the cross. And it is to the cross, to death and judgment before God, that our ways and thoughts (even the ‘eternal’ ones) all lead.  Does this perspective somehow make it understandable to you that I do not want to give up the Bible as this strange Word of God at any point, that I intend with all my powers to ask what God wants to say to us here?  Any other place outside the Bible has become too uncertain for me.  I fear that I will only encounter a divine double of myself there.”


From Pr. Bonhoeffer’s Poem, “Who am I?”, the last stanzas (Letters and Papers from Prison)

“Whom am I?  This of the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once?  A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am Thine.”

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: