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Bonhoeffer the Martyr?

Is Bonhoeffer a Christian martyr? In the introductory chapter to his Bonhoeffer and South Africa John W De Gruchy answers in the affirmative, I am not however convinced.

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).

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The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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.

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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.

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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.

Guest Review: Bonhoeffer Speaks Today

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

Fontbonne University

without knowing good and evil :: Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology

Flipping pagesAt long last, I put the final touches (and blows) to the thesis today, and it is ready to be shipped off for grading. Quite a relief to have this monkey off my back and to be on to other projects. Below I’ve posted the abstract to the thesis; if you are interested in a copy of the whole thing then drop me an email.

Knowing the difference between good and evil seems central to any account of ethical thought. Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Christian ethics’ “first task” is to supercede this knowledge. Rejecting the knowledge of good and evil, Bonhoeffer regards modern ethics as continuous with Adam and Eve’s illegitimate meal in the garden of Eden. Grasping at wisdom apart from God, the earliest humans brought death and division into the world. Bonhoeffer’s account of Christian ethics is inimical to the self-justification, judgment of others, and autonomous notions of individual freedom that the knowledge of good and evil provides. Human beings employ their knowledge of good and evil in efforts to unify their lives and communities, but Bonhoeffer sees that these actions spring from the divided state of fallen humanity. Yet if Christian ethics really involves “un-knowing” good and evil, on what basis can Christians confront the complex and difficult decisions that they face daily? How are Christians to respond to violence, destruction, and immorality—both in their own lives and in the acts of people around them? How are Christians (and others) to teach their children how to behave without recourse to some conception of good and evil? This thesis explores the knowledge of good and evil in Bonhoeffer’s writings and traces the development of his ethics as an alternative account of moral knowledge. The ethics of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, is grounded in the knowledge gained through being incorporated into the body of Jesus Christ, through extending his mission, and through proclaiming his gospel.

Originally posted at: a few words.

Bonhoeffer Blog Conference

Halden announced yesterday the beginning of what is sure to become a long and illustrious tradition—a Bonhoeffer blog conference. The profundity of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics lies in its insistence on pushing theological meditations toward the most concrete expression possible. Unlike many, his drive toward concreteness was not the result of an insipid focus on the “practical,” falsely contrasted to the abstract and theoretical; rather, he saw that proper theological work underlay the faith that leads to action. He is a tremendously attractive figure to so many of us because we have a sense that his life held together with a unity and integrity that most of us only strive to imagine.

In the last couple of years we have witnessed a substantial rise in collaborative theological scholarship via the blogosphere. The recurring Karl Barth Blog Conference promises to be an excellent staple among theo-bloggers, as does the forthcoming Balthasar Blog Conference. In the spirit of fostering further substantial theological scholarship in the blogosphere, I am happy to Bonhoefferannounce the First Annual Bonhoeffer Blog Conference. The topic for this conference will be: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Contemporary Theology. The aim of this conference is to foster sustained reflections on Bonhoeffer’
s last major theological work, Ethicsand to explore its implications within contemporary theological, ecclesial, and political contexts. While some spots are already filled (which will be announced later), there is plenty of room for submissions and proposals. Any submission related to this general focus would be open to consideration. Creative approaches to the work of Bonhoeffer is encouraged.

This conference will likely take place in early November, 2008. Submissions can be emailed to Halden at halden-at-wipfandstock-dot-com. Halden encourages you to promote this event on your own blog, if you are so inclined.

ground beneath our feet: Bonhoeffer and Lewis on ethical roots

C.S. Lewis makes several impassioned pleas for the universality of moral instinct in his writings. I’m most familiar with his appeal to the sense of “fairness” in an argument for God’s existence in Mere Christianity, along with his defence of what he calls the “Tao” in The Abolition of Man. At any rate, in both locations, Lewis is appealing to something like conscience or intuition as the ground of ethics. Ethics are built-in. Right and wrong find their foundation in some innate sense within us. That sense is God’s gift, and is ultimately grounded in God’s own moral character.

Of course, acknowledging the lingering wastes of sin in humanity, Lewis argues that our consciences, as well as our inclination to listen to them, are “bent.” We are not whole and healthy, but twisted and shadowy representations of what we were meant to be.

Working on Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology, it struck me how different the picture that he describes is. For Bonhoeffer, conscience is only the voice of self-defence. Conscience is the tool by which we usurp God’s judgment, and employ it against ourselves and others. With our consciences–our personal knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3)–we alternately declare ourselves righteous and then cast ourselves on to the dung pile. Either way, this is an attempt to shield ourselves from God’s voice rather than God’s voice itself. The natural knowledge of good and evil, is nothing less than captivity to death in Bonhoeffer’s estimation.

For Bonhoeffer, the root of legitimate ethical thought is spoken rather than implanted. Ethical life is obedience to God’s command, and God’s command comes to us as fallen creatures. God’s voice is not innately present to creatures in any reliable way, it requires a reorientation of our being. Ethics is obedience, following Jesus. The command of God is to be found in Christ, not in each of us. Only in Christ is the command of God to be found unsullied in the world.

Bonhoeffer encountered Lewis’ argument in a twisted form in the settled liberal theologians who were his professors at the University of Berlin. Further twisted and coupled with Lutheran theology gone haywire, it was part of the worldview that enabled the majority of German Christians to dutifully serve Hitler. Bonhoeffer regarded the notion of an innate ethic to be theologically naive–and subject to disasterous perversion.

But, four years after writing the hyper-rigorous Discipleship (originally “Cost of…” in English), Bonhoeffer found room for “noble pagans,” and argued that the church must work together–for Christ’s sake–with all the promoters of peace, security, and well-being. This was not based on any re-evaluation and more positive assesment of natural knowledge of good and evil. Rather, Bonhoeffer expected to see Christ in strange places, at work for the good of the cosmos he joined himself to in love. Working side by side with atheists in the conspiracy, he found the project viable not on his own estimation of good and evil, but out of a theological intuition that this was where he might be most likely to find Jesus.

The ground of ethics is a crucial question. Locating the origin of our sense of right and wrong is a difficult and contentious task. The choice to legitimate it as it stands or distrust it and look to another model determines the entire shape of our ethical discussions, the shape of our culture, and the way we treat one another. While Lewis’ account is apologetically attractive, and very compelling, I wonder if it is grounded concretely enough in God’s self-revelation in Christ to avoid the kinds of abberations that the National Socialists and thier sympathizers were able to foist on Germany.

I’d be very interested to hear someone take the other side.

Originally posted at: a few words I want to thank the administrator of this illustrious blog for a generous invitation to leave a reflection here every now and then.

Book Notice

Earlier this year Eerdmans published the late Heinz Eduard Tödt’s account Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics, Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context. Eerdmans summarises the book as follows:

Since Heinz Eduard Tödt’s death in 1991, much effort has been put forth to comprehensively publish his important theological works. This volume collects a number of Tödt’s writings rising out of his decades-long study of Bonhoeffer. With that study comes an appreciation of and respect for Bonhoeffer, clearly seen in these pages.

Tödt first discusses Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics and then focuses on contemporary history. He especially concerns himself with the present tasks in theology and in the church, clearing a path for understanding our way of life through theology’s eyes.

One of the twentieth-century’s best theological ethicists, Tödt said that the further he went, the closer he got to Bonhoeffer. In Authentic Faith, he shows an understanding of Bonhoeffer’s spirit that makes this book a must for the shelves of any Bonhoeffer scholar and all students of social and theological ethics.

If you visit the link above you will also be able to find a table of contents. I have just received a copy today which I will post a review on in due course.