Lesson 1: Life

When Paul suggested we do something on a Lutheran theologian and mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my ears went up. A number of my other friends have named him recently when discussing how the church should relate to government activities they think are unchristian. Lutherans have special problems, because Luther’s two kingdoms theory makes obeying the ruling authorities a Christian duty. God supposedly rules his creation using his right hand, the Church, to spread love and his left hand, the State, to hold back evil. Bonhoeffer offers us an example of a decent Lutheran theologian who opposed an indecent government.

Most people only know him as someone involved in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. However, he is also worth studying, because he interprets other parts of Luther’s 16th century theology for our own time and situation.

Many of us Lutherans appreciate Luther’s teaching about the authority of scripture, justification by grace through faith, and the priesthood of all believers. However, we have some questions about his two-kingdom theory and are truly embarrassed with his attacks on the Jews and peasants. Bonhoeffer offered helpful critiques on all of these based on his real life experiences.

Bonhoeffer grew up in an academic environment and seemed destined to be an ivory tower intellectual. However, Hitler’s rise to power forced him to practice what he taught. Right from the start in the early 30s he urged Christians to be more forceful in their opposition to the Nazis. He used the radio as well as the lectern and pulpit to attack their Jewish policy that constantly used Luther’s writings to promote their programs. He was at the front of all sorts of organized movements from opposing efforts to remove the Old Testament from the German Bible to smuggling Jews into Switzerland.

His resistance included participation in the Pastors’ Emergency League and the Confessing Church that arose in response to Hitler’s takeover of the German National Church. The confessors endorsed the Barmen Declaration written by Karl Barth that affirmed Christ as known in the scriptures, not the Fuhrer of the nation, was head of the Church. Its call for separation of church and state meant disobeying the government.

By February 1938, he was involved with a secret group seeking to overthrow Hitler. During this period he spent time in London and New York hoping to use his international contacts to benefit the resistance. However, he always returned to Germany citing his responsibility to suffer with his people. After Bonhoeffer was eventually prohibited from speaking or writing, he continued teaching in an underground seminary. Arrested in April 1943, he was hanged in April 1945, only two weeks before the liberation of the camps. Significantly, during the same time period a number others of his family were also executed.

His books reflect these life experiences. His best known, The Cost of Discipleship written in 1937, uses the Sermon on the Mount to show Jesus taught a costly grace that the Church has corrupted by preaching a cheap grace that excuses just about everything. It does not take long to realize he offers a necessary critique of Luther’s justification by grace through faith.

His Ethics was meant to be his major work was never finished. It also calls for Christian action, claiming following Christ means taking responsibility for acting on behalf of those who suffer. He speaks of representing Christ in the midst of the real world by looking at things from the bottom.

The Papers and Letters from Prison reveals Bonhoeffer suffering for others. His musings about the need for a religionless Christianity to deal with humanity come of age are the best-known passages.

In the next three weeks, I’ll examine these three works in more depth, especially asking how they speak to our situation.

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  1. John Myers says:

    “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Bonhoeffer. Words to live by. I am challenged and inspired by these words every day. I often measure my response to a situation with these words.

    “I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something he will to die for, he isn’t fit to live.” “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” – MLK. I think it is fair to say that MLK was inspired by Bonhoeffer as well, and he says he was in his writings. What a profound downstream impact Bonhoeffer has had on others.

    Reading Bonhoeffer’s words, and studying his concepts has changed me as a Christian. Living in a very broken world, a world that may not be on the other side of Nazi gun, but a world that assaults our Christian beliefs just as desperately, we need the clarity and example of this man. Born to a middle class family, this brilliant theologian could have easily sat out WWII in the US, where he was, at Union Theological in NYC. I wonder how many of us would take his path? He knew he would give his life, and he did willingly. But this marked his life – there was Tubingen, and the spy work – at every turn, no hesitation to sacrifice.

    As Jesus reminds us in John 15:12-14 – “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you”

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