The letters and papers from prison reveal much about Bonhoeffer’s spiritual life and vocation, and these served a new generation of collegians and seminarians who were looking for models of witness and courage. They tell of his spiritual life and vocation, as for instance in the first letter, when Bonhoeffer asked his friend, who had served as his pastor back when they were studying theology and pastoral practice together, now, through letters, again to be his pastor, since he had not been allowed to see one in prison. He pleaded to his friend: “After so many long months without worship, confession and the Lord’s Supper and without consolation fratrum—[be] my pastor once more, as you have so often been in the past, and listen to me.” Then came a revelation about Bonhoeffer’s psyche: “You are the only person who knows that ‘acedia,’ ‘tristitia’ [sadness in the face of spiritual good, medievalists called it] with all its ominous consequences, has often haunted me.” But, he resolved, “neither human beings nor the devil” would prevail.
As Gruchy notes negative responses to the alleged martyrdom of Bonhoeffer centre around the political nature of Bonhoeffer’s death, as indeed do my reservations. The response of Meiser and Bender is representative of this response:
Bishop Meiser of the Lutheran Church, though he was himself imprisoned by Hitler in the early days of the Third Reich, refused to attend a memorial service for Bonhoeffer at Flossenburg because he regarded his death as political – not Christian martyrdom. Harold Bender, an influential leader among post-World War II Mennonites, was initially strongly attracted to Bonhoeffer by his call in The Cost of Discipleship, but he changed his mind on discovering that Bonhoeffer had forsaken pacifist principles and participated in the conspiracy on Hitler’s life. (P. 16).
What is interesting is that both Meiser as a Lutheran and Bender as a Mennonite (it was Bender you will remember responsible for the characterisation of anabaptism as an uniformlyy pacifistic – and schleitheimic – movement); although in different ways both affirm a two kingdom theology whereby the political and the spiritual are demarcated.
Quite rightly De Gruchy criticises some of the assumptions such an approach can often exhibit by questioning this political/religious demarcation:
Moreover, the cause of Bonhoeffer’s death and his testimony in dying cannot be separated. His death resulted in the name of Christ to the denomic power of Nazism and his struggle to restore a just social order in Germany. Yet the full significance of this political involvement can be appreciated only when read in the light of his witness in his prison cell and before his fellows prior to his death … the decision [Bonhoeffer] made to become involved in the plot [to assassinate Hitler] cannot be separated from his Christian Commitment. (P. 17).
In other words, politics and theology cannot be separated into different spheres. As Rasmussen (Reality and Resistance) has shown this conviction of of the gospel’s import for the whole of life resonates throughout Bonhoeffer’s oeuvre. It is also an irrelevant. There is not doubt Bonhoeffer’s actions were consistent with his developing theology, in particular his ecclesiology and christology, the latter taking prominence over the former. No one so far as i am aware seriously thinks there was for Bonhoeffer a conscious change in mode of operation from theology to politics.
It is not that Bonhoeffer died as a result of his attempted furtherance of a political aim that casts doubt on his status as a martyr of the Church, it is the manner of that action, namely the resort to violence that should provoke pause for reflection ( I wrote about this in more depth and still by and large agree in this PDF file). The clearest analogy is that of Martin Luther King, in my view undoubtedly a martyr of the Christian Church. Why? Because MLK witness was one that resounded with the politics of Jesus without the ambiguity of Bonhoeffer’s complicity in murder (although, as has been pointed out before although I forget by whom MLK’s success was partly attributable to the violence of some who shared the aims of the Civil Rights Movement that the failure of MLK could have brought to the foreground).
I’d like to thank Richard for asking me to contribute to The Bonhoefferian. My name is R.O. Flyer and I blog at Rain and the Rhinoceros. At the moment, I’m writing a Master’s thesis on the ecclesiology of Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder. As I study for my thesis and work through Bonhoeffer, I’ll be posting reflections on here periodically. The following is a crosspost of something I wrote a few weeks back reflecting on the legacy of Bonhoeffer:
I’m beginning to realize that part of what I find intriguing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the mysterious character of his legacy. Out of all the great figures of twentieth century theology no one is perhaps more well-known, and therefore also probably more misunderstood, than Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is an iconic figure all over the world for his involvement in the Confessing Church, his participation in the resistance against the Nazi-regime, his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler, and his execution by the German state. Like other iconic figures, Bonhoeffer’s life story has been told in a variety of different media from biographies, plays, and films. Bonhoeffer has become one of those kind of figures–like MLK or Gandhi–that you simply must appreciate and honor regardless of your political or theological persuasion.
At first glance, this seems like a good thing, but I wonder if this type of widespread popularity doesn’t come at a great cost. I wonder if such symbolic popularity actually has the obverse effect of deadening a powerful message, of softening it–or better, of “cheapening” it. Does everyone love Bonhoeffer because no one understands him? To the popular imagination, why does his witness transcend politics? Let me just say out front that I am almost always skeptical of stuff that seems to help us transcend our differences. One of the reasons I’m skeptical is because this a characteristically liberal maneouver–a maneouver that has the effect of stifling the confrontation of real difference.
Think of the MLK example. MLK is an almost universally recognizable icon for good, so much so that the U.S. takes a day to celebrate his witness. Whether your a republican or democrat you must honor King and all that he represents. What is silly about this is that King was decidedly not republican or democrat. Not that he somehow “transcended” these differences, but rather he was highly critical of both parties. MLK was critical of the American project altogether–in fact, in his later years he even became quite vocal in his opposition to capitalism. Of course, the divisiveness of King’s message must be fully downplayed in order for it to adequately transcend, and so we uphold this vague, but powerful image, of a figure that represents America’s great struggle for racial justice. Thus, King’s legacy binds us together precisely because he reinforces the notion that we are at heart a good nation, a light on a hill–a nation that has overcome racism. What King’s legacy does not do is break us and divide us. In short, King’s legacy doesn’t do what it should: expose us as racist liars.
I think that Bonhoeffer’s popular legacy is similar in this way. What is interesting to me is how Bonhoeffer’s theological legacy is so appreciated by so many theologians of differing persuasions. To some, Bonhoeffer represents a sort of political realism akin to Reinhold Niebuhr. For others, he exposes the weaknesses of pacifism and demonstrates why it is sometimes necessary to kill. Thus, Bonhoeffer has been in employed to bolster support for the war on terrorism. To others, at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s work is a commitment to radical discipleship and Christianity community. Or, for those who read Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison out of context, he becomes the quintessential advocate of a ‘secular’ or religionless Christianity. To be fair, Bonhoeffer’s work is extremely difficult–something that I am keenly aware of at the moment–which is partially at the root of the differences in the way people have chosen to take him. But, Bonhoeffer can’t be everything for everyone–if we all love him, perhaps we don’t understand him. Perhaps we’re all in some way “cheapening” his message in advance, in order to avoid confronting the real cost that his message demands of us.
Heinz Eduard Tödt. Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007. 291 pages.
If the ideas articulated and life lived by Dietrich Bonhoeffer have captivated your thinking and challenged your soul, then you would do well to take the time to read thoughtfully and reflectively this collection of Professor Tödt’s essays on Bonhoeffer’s theology, ethics and resistance. First published fifteen years ago in his original German, this compilation of Tödt’s insightful scholarship spans the latter half of his academic career as professor of systematic theology, ethics and social ethics at the University of Heidelberg and as the chairman of the editorial board of the German edition of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Tödt’s student, Glen Harold Strassen, captured the tenor of his writings when he stated: “Tödt’s publications have an analytical sharpness, an ethical incisiveness and a genuine truthfulness that is rare even among the best.” Strassen served as the editor of the English edition of Tödt’s essays on Bonhoeffer published here in the United States in 2007. It is this new edition that is the subject of this review.
This collection of essays by Tödt makes a significant contribution to the ever-growing corpus of Bonhoeffer scholarship. Unlike that of many who have come before and after him, though, Tödt’s analysis expounds the major dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s ethics by examining the political, ecclesiastical and family context in which Bonhoeffer wrote. His essays, however, reach an even deeper level of profundity as Tödt subjects himself to scrutiny of Bonhoeffer’s ideas by transparently wrestling with issues of guilt and forgiveness about his own experience of the German context during the Third Reich when he served as a soldier at the front during the Second World War and then was subjected to detention as a prisoner-of-war in a Russian camp for five years. Above all, in his engagement with Bonhoeffer, Tödt sought an ethic that can provide wise guidance in the face of contemporary schemes to manipulate faith for ideological ends.
Fourteen of Tödt’s essays are presented. The earliest essay dates from the 1970’s, and the latest to one year before his death in 1991. A deepening of both insight into the underlying essence of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as well as an appreciation for the authenticity of his faith-inspired actions is evident. The first eleven essays analyze themes in Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics. For example, Tödt tackles the ever-perplexing notion of “religion-less Christianity” that marks Bonhoeffer’s later letters to Eberhard Bethge from his Tegel prison cell. In contrast with those progressive theologians who have latched on to Bonhoeffer’s language only to fill it with a self-conceived meaning inconsistent with the whole of Bonhoeffer’s thought and life, Tödt finds that Bonhoeffer was here conceiving a Christianity not confined to ideals for merely private life or to the gaps where we cannot solve problems, but rather a Christian faith that gives concrete guidance in the center of life.
In other essays, Tödt focuses attention on an important question that has not been examined by other scholars of Bonhoeffer. He asks what was about Bonhoeffer’s ethics that enabled him to discern so clearly and speak out for the Jews and against war more decisively than other theologians and church leaders even from the very onset of Hitler’s chancellorship. In his exploration of this question, Tödt demonstrates Bonhoeffer’s insights in naming the sources of evil and self-deception as well as warning against the ways and means by which the leader becomes the misleader. Tödt also clarifies Bonhoeffer’s articulation of the vocation of the churches in speaking concretely and the vocation of groups in acting concretely as an assertion of checks and balances against authoritarianism not only in the context of Nazi Germany but also with application for responsible action in the midst of contemporary expressions of authoritarianism. Tödt’s extensive analysis of the social, theological, and ethical characteristics of the resistance movement, in which Bonhoeffer and family members played integral roles, provides both information and insights that go well beyond what can be found in other scholarship to date. This comprehensiveness in his treatment of Bonhoeffer’s resistance is the product of thoroughgoing research project that Tödt led at the University of Heidelberg.
The final three essays in this collection address contemporary history, in which Tödt examines, with an authenticity born out of Bonhoeffer’s ethics, the guilt and responsibility of Christendom in Germany. What particularly marks Tödt’s approach and the insights he offers is his resolve not to be devoted to merely an interpretation of past positions, but instead to find in Bonhoeffer avenues that advance both the present tasks of theology in the church and a better understanding of our own way of life. In 1985, Tödt himself expressed the force of Bonhoeffer’s life and words upon him in this way:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has come nearer and nearer and become more and more important for me – not merely with one single flash of light – but in a continuing process over twenty years. Of his many remarkable character traits and abilities, the concentration with which he exposed his faith in Christ to the tests that life brought, all the way to the extreme situations of resistance, and then thought through theologically what happened him and those involved, occupies me most of all. I perceive this theology as deeply authentic and as showing the way for me as a theological teacher . . . . Bonhoeffer is not right in all things, but from no theologian am I now learning so much as from him, and, to be sure, with my intellect and with my heart.
Tödt, though, was greatly distressed by those self-proclaimed scholars and would-be theologians who did not follow the whole way through Bonhoeffer but would rather “tear out individual elements of life and thought and [either] progressively instrumentalize them or conservatively distort them,” and then advocate that the guilt for the deficits in the modern churches lies in Bonhoeffer’s guidance. In an effort to expose and counter these misuses and abuses, Tödt presents a thoroughly studied and attentively perceived exposition of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics both in the context of his life experiences and for application in our own.
Although some portions in the English translation occasionally render the complexity of Tödt’s German syntax in stilted and strained constructions, the substance of the insights and analyses of Bonhoeffer offered by Tödt make any extra time required to slow down and re-read such passages abundantly rewarding. No other book has more opened my eyes or deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s guidance in living responsibly in the concrete realities of life than Tödt’s.
Cordell P. Schulten, M.A., J.D. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Lecturer, Contemporary Studies
Saint Louis, Missouri
Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs
Mark Devine, Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005.
179 pages, $19.99
Most people familiar with the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer likely gained that familiarity through his provocative book, The Cost of Discipleship, or his Letters and Papers from Prison, published posthumously by his best friend and student, Eberhard Bethge. Since his untimely death at the end of a Nazi noose in April 1945, Bonhoeffer’s life and ideas have become the subject of hundreds of books and countless more articles and dissertations, not be mention plays and films. The scope of scholarship on Bonhoeffer is virtually all-encompassing. Yet, Professor Mark Devine’s recent contribution to the corpus accomplishes a long-overdue advancement. By reaching beyond the multitude of nuanced academic inquiries, Devine has produced a brief work that will readily serve to re-introduce the broader evangelical Christian community to this saint and martyr of the Church.
Through the ease and accessibility of his prose, Devine achieves what his book’s title promises: Bonhoeffer speaking today. His words speak with particular clarity and challenge to the all-too-comfortable 21st Century American evangelical church that has in many obvious ways succumbed, as had the German church of the early 20th Century, to the lure of cheap grace. As a Southern Baptist professor and pastor concerned for the ailing condition of the evangelical church, Devine undertakes his task with the purpose of demonstrating the relevance of both the Lutheran Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas and his concrete application of those ideas through his exemplary life to the realities of contemporary life that confront Christians today.
In his opening chapter, Devine succinctly charts the formative influences and choices that embodied within Bonhoeffer the beliefs he expressed in his writings and through his actions. In the remaining four chapters, the author provides a helpful introduction for his readers into the extensive works of Bonhoeffer under the themes: “Knowing and Doing the Will of God” (Chapter 2); “The Community of Believers” (Chapter 3); “Witness and Relevance” (Chapter 4); and finally “Freedom, Suffering, and Hope” (Chapter 5).
Drawing heavily from Eberhard Bethge’s authoritative biography, Devine unfolds Bonhoeffer’s life by depicting with keen insights the familial relationships and educational experiences through which he heard God’s call and was formed for ministry. For example, Devine notes the almost prophetic significance of the 14-year old Bonhoeffer’s words in reply his older brothers’ urgings that he not waste his life in such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the Church.” To which the young Dietrich responded: “If what you say is true, I shall reform it!” (5). His account then moves with relative swiftness through the complexities of Bonhoeffer’s service as a lecturer in theology and emerging leader of the Confessing Church.
Devine, however, slows his pace when describing Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany from the safety and security of America in the summer of 1939. That decision would prove to be one of the most significant turning points in a life spent not merely talking about the cost of discipleship, but one that authentically paid the price. Bonhoeffer’s unreserved commitment to the cause of Christ prompts Devine to conclude that “risky, self-sacrificing service to the church and to the world, in the name of Jesus Christ, belongs organically to Christian obedience.” (20) From this decisive event through his clandestine service as a double-agent for the Resistance, his subsequent arrest by the Gestapo, two-year imprisonment and ultimate execution by hanging at Flossenbürg, Devine demonstrates the consistent character of Bonhoeffer’s courage that sustained him in the face of evil. Having thus laid the foundation of a proven life, he proceeds to engage Bonhoeffer’s theology as it was both conveyed through his extensive writings and embodied in his practice.
Although some evangelicals and fundamentalists within this book’s intended audience have been quick to conclude that Bonhoeffer was a liberal theologian, or at least an early expression of a “neo-evangelical,” Devine makes a strong case that Bonhoeffer’s view of the Scriptures was much more in keeping with the “Back to the Bible” movement than with the higher critics who had been among his teachers. While acknowledging their influence, Devine notes that Bonhoeffer clearly recognized the limitations and even dangers of the higher critical view. In contrast, Bonhoeffer’s view of the Scriptures is succinctly set forth in a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher upon which Devine founds his case. In that letter, Bonhoeffer wrote: “I want to confess quite simply that I believe the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we only need to ask persistently and with some humility in order to receive the answer from it.” (43). With such a high view of Scripture, it is no surprise that Bonhoeffer took seriously the call of Christ upon his life and so sought to know and do the will of God as his singular purpose.
For Devine, it is Bonhoeffer’s single-minded devotion to Christ that renders his voice so relevant for followers of Christ today. In an age where popular preaching and contemporary “how-to” literature approaches the Christian life more as a strategy for personal happiness and success, Devine urges his readers to listen carefully to the one who insisted that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (66) Taking that call seriously, as Bonhoeffer did, will lead the follower of Christ to an “others-focused” service that may often be accompanied by suffering because it will prompt the disciple to take up the burdens of others. This theme becomes pervasive throughout Devine’s survey of Bonhoeffer’s ideas on both community and witness. It culminates in his final chapter through a demonstration of the integral role of suffering in the life of a disciple who lives in the freedom from self that Christ enables and lives for the hope of the resurrection that Christ entrusts to his own.
Each chapter includes Devine’s applications of Bonhoeffer’s thinking and practice to contemporary challenges facing evangelicals through both internal struggles over doctrine and external battles in the boarder culture wars. While some of his applications are limited to his experiences within the Southern Baptist Convention, on the whole, Devine’s insights demonstrate conclusively how a young Lutheran pastor and scholar’s life and ideas may speak volumes into the hearts and minds of every serious follower of Christ in the 21st Century. This book joins the ranks of other recent works, such as Stephan Plant’s Bonhoeffer and Elizabeth Raum’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Called by God, and should be read by both those familiar with Bonhoeffer and especially by those who desire to be introduced to this exemplary saint and martyr who counted and paid the cost of discipleship.
Cordell P. Schulten, MA, JD
Lecturer, Contemporary Studies