Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Spell

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Bonhoeffer was in the unenviable position of trying to break a spell. The spell was the Nazi crisis, where the totalitarian state threatened the church, and yet to many, seemed to be saving the culture and nation from mortal dangers.

What does the gospel have to say to a culture bewitched by a spell?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life began in Breslau, Germany on the fourth of February, 1906, and ended in a concentration camp on the ninth of April 1945, when he was sentenced to death by hanging for his role in Von Stauffenberg’s attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler. This death, timed so shortly before the war ended, emphasized his uncompromising nature. He was set to follow where he saw his Lord leading him whatever the cost.

American evangelicals tend to love Bonhoeffer for his book The Cost of Discipleship, which seems to confirm much of what is taught in Wesleyan and holiness churches. In Bonhoeffer’s own words, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He thought that his own generation had been using St. Paul’s statements about grace to sidestep the hard teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Bonhoeffer countered by contrasting “cheap grace” which was destroying the church with “costly grace” which was life-giving. He was trying to challenge the church’s unspoken assumptions about what was necessary for salvation. He faced an uphill fight as his words seemed to clash with central Lutheran teachings of “grace alone” and “faith alone.”

Bonhoeffer attacked long held assumptions and argued that Luther would have agreed with him. Surely Luther’s “faith alone” doctrine didn’t make discipleship optional! Luther’s life confirmed the truth of Bonhoeffer’s approach, as Luther had to leave church and monastery to follow Jesus, risking life and limb for the gospel. Bonhoeffer’s shift from looking at Luther’s doctrine to Luther’s life might have some plausibility to it until we remember that Luther explicitly told his followers to focus on the true doctrine and not argue about whose life was better. “When the Word remains pure, then the life (even if there is something lacking in it) can be molded properly (Luther’s Works, Volume 54, p. 110).” But even when Bonhoeffer’s answers prove unconvincing, his questions seem worth asking.

Despite grave concerns over his treatment of law and gospel (1), the more years I have had to ponder the life and writings of Bonhoeffer, the more sympathy I have developed for him. But not his most famous book. The reader who is familiar with (or scorched by!) The Cost of Discipleship finds a much friendlier companion in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Meditating on the Word, and Letters and Papers from Prison. This other Bonhoeffer makes me more willing to wrestle with the frustrating one.

Bonhoeffer was in the unenviable position of trying to break a spell. The spell was the Nazi crisis, where the totalitarian state threatened the church, and yet to many, seemed to be saving the culture and nation from mortal dangers. The churchgoers of his time were slow to admit to themselves all the questions this raised for the church. While the gravest humanitarian crises were happening, the church was talking about liturgical revival and moral re-armament, focusing on ritual, individual piety, and moral trifles. Academic theologians would make accommodations to the state to retain coveted academic posts instead of helping pastors preach against the new situation. Many just wanted to live through the times so that there would be an institutional church for people after Hitler. They couldn’t accept the idea of failing as custodians. Bonhoeffer was ready to walk away from the Old Prussian Union Church to help start a new Confessing Church. He insisted this was the “true church.” His detractors ridiculed Bonhoeffer’s talk by suggesting he was teaching that anyone who didn’t have a red membership card carried by many Confessing Church members wouldn’t go to heaven (2). (You could almost picture angels rummaging through filing cabinets to figure out who was saved.) But for Bonhoeffer, this emphasis on the visible church was about having the church remain a prophetic institution speaking truth to power.

Bonhoeffer early on decided to preach “discipleship” as the cure. That was the original title of his German book Nachfolge, or “Following After.” The title The Cost of Discipleship was given to an English edition in 1948. What Bonhoeffer thought was missing from German church life was a “following.” At the very least, following the pattern of Christ. In his own life that would mean he had to leave a comfortable academic track to start an illegal institution. He thought other Germans had to be willing to risk their secular positions when obedience called for it, rather than having a comfortable bourgeois secular existence. The authorities knew they could make membership in all sorts of social institutions dependent on absolute loyalty to the state. Germans would wish to remain members in good standing so they would have an opportunity to do their duty.

For Bonhoeffer, this emphasis on the visible church was about having the church remain a prophetic institution speaking truth to power.

As the war between church and state got more heated, Bonhoeffer and his circle had to come to terms with shifting loyalties. In the early days of the church struggle, some were quick to join the Confessing Church. They thought it was necessary to show faithfulness to their old confession. But how much? At a certain point, it became clear that the state would not relent. Persecutions were going to be increasing. The church had permanently lost protected status. At this point, an unexpected thing happened. While some decided that loyalty was good but nothing was worth dying for, others decided that this really was a fight of good against evil, and they would side with good come what may. Old allies suddenly became enemies and old enemies allies.

Yet Bonhoeffer did not want crisis to end all continuity with the church’s best standing practices. At a time when so many of the discussions in his circles were about desertion and loyalty, it was hard to send someone away for a year of quiet study. But Bonhoeffer resisted cliché thinking here. “He argued that if the Confessing church were no longer in a position to pull someone out of the fight for the purpose of academic study or to give them special tasks, it would be all over for the church”(3). Bonhoeffer’s argument was persuasive, and his student, Gerhard Ebeling, was sent to Zurich for his doctoral work and became a noteworthy theologian in the postwar period.

A large part of Bonhoeffer's concept of discipleship could be expressed in his title, Life Together. Christians would be enabled to stand against the world in part by their support of one another. His seminaries emphasized common life, or "the day with others," even down to prescribing that directors would spend time walking with students, so that they could talk together. Bonhoeffer was right about the power of this kind of practice. Yet some of the culture was so deeply ingrained even in students who had sacrificed to go to an outlaw seminary that his broader teaching hadn't made a dent in their thinking about certain matters. When Germany started to militarize, and it was announced on the radio that men would soon be called up, many of Bonhoeffer's students wanted to volunteer early, to show that Confessionals were also patriots. If this is true among those in a discipleship program, how would it fare with the rest of the students in the country?

The authorities closed Bonhoeffer’s seminary, and he entered government service as an intelligence agent. In one case, he made use of his position to sneak Jews out of the country. He got caught and argued his way out of it, insisting that these people were themselves involved in the war efforts and their travel was necessary. Later, as previously mentioned, he became involved in the planning plots to assassinate Hitler. The Von Stauffenberg plot came the closest to success, but many of the parties involved were caught and imprisoned. As the war was drawing to a close, Hitler gave the order to have Bonhoeffer executed. He was killed by hanging in a courtyard outside his prison. He was able to partially avoid the bewitchments of his age and help his friends see through the lies his country was telling itself. Ultimately, what was wrong will only be finally put right by the only One who was able to go through death into life.

(1) Bonhoeffer was deeply familiar with Lutheran teaching, and there were explicit discussions on law and gospel at his seminary. Personally, I believe he falls guilty of confusing the two in The Cost of Discipleship which is not accurate, doctrinally.

(2) Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), trans. by Eric al. Ed. by Edwin Robertson, page 520.

(3) Bethge, p. 567.