Reading Bonhoeffer: The End! (Of Religion)

This is it: tomorrow is the last day of class, and I’ve just finished my last required chapter of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (chapter 13, “Christianity in a world come of age” by Peter Selby), which discusses Bonhoeffer’s notion in Letters and Papers from Prison of a “religionless Christianity” in “a world come of age.” (See LPP, letters from May 5-6, 1944, and especially June 8 and 30 1944)

A World Come of Age

When Bonhoeffer talks of “religion” in this context, he’s not talking about Christianity itself, but rather a certain notion of religion in general that nobody would aspire to, yet nevertheless existed quite strongly in the German Evangelical (Protestant) Church: outward proclamation combined with inward piety, and generally without much of an ethic or a politic at all. In a word, irrelevant, perhaps even hypocritical. But of course, Bonhoeffer had been answering this kind of empty religion his entire life: when as a child he told his family that he would be a theologian, and they were unimpressed due to the bourgeois nature of the institutional church, his answer was “then I will reform it!” His radical ecclesiology, stemming as it does from his robust christology, certainly was answer enough to a church that simply lacked engagement with the world.

The problem, though, was not simply that the church had lost relevance; rather, it was that the world (at least the world of modern intellectual Germany) no longer needed it. In the modern age of science, art, and social thought, the boundaries of knowledge had been continually pushed back, and with them, society’s reliance on God.

It’s not that God himself is irrelevant, but rather that “religion” tended to only present God as a deus ex machina, a God of the gaps, the answer to all things mysterious. In Bonhoeffer’s time, science was believed to have prevailed almost entirely, answering all of life’s questions. Without gaps in human knowledge, the God of the gaps was unnecessary. Humanity needed no intellectual crutch to lean on: it had come of age, and was now independent of God.

Religionless Christianity

Bonhoeffer recognized that the world had come of age, and was no longer dependent on the notion of God. Rather than rail against this, he embraced it, seeing it as something that God himself demanded of them. Rather than seeking God in unanswered questions, as “religion” did, Bonhoeffer held that we should seek God precisely in the answered questions. Rather than having a church that required people to come to it, and required people to lean on it, Bonhoeffer had already proposed a church that was radically “missional” (to use today’s language – see yesterday’s post for clarification), sent out into the world to exist on its behalf.

Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” still had a church – the type of community he proposed in all of his works, but particularly Sanctorum Communio, Discipleship, and Life Together, infused with the responsibilities outlined in Ethics. It also still had the necessity of a strong faith, discipleship, and spiritual disciplines. What it didn’t have, what it had given up, was proclamation: the proclamation of “religion”, and even of the Confessing Church who had held true to the gospel in the face of the Reich Church’s misuse of it to support Nazi ideology, had failed entirely. He held out hope that someday the time for proclamation would return, but in the meantime he suggested that Christianity in a world come of age would be a hidden church. In place of proclamation, which under “religion” had often been empty moralising, would be the radical existing-for-others ethic which required incredible discipline and spiritual/ethical formation. This church would bear witness through its actions, through its being-for-others, through its devotion to the God who had allowed himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross in order to be weak and suffer along with his creation. This suffering would be the mark of Christianity in a world come of age.

I sense in Bonhoeffer here a notion of progress (though perhaps that word is too loaded with conceptual and historical baggage): the world had begun to become self-sufficient, building societies and making discoveries and having laws and justice and occasionally peace – all “as if God didn’t exist.” We were getting along just as well without the notion and motivation of the existence of God as we were when we were shackled to religion, and this itself could be a testament to God at work in the world, allowing Himself to be pushed out of it while still upholding it, for the sake of our maturity. If the world can get by without being beholden to religion, should not also the church? It seems to me that Bonhoeffer is suggesting that we should be able to grow up to the point where we are good to one another, not because piety demands it or to avoid the hypocrisy of having proclaimed it without acting upon it, but instead because we have been shaped into the form of Christ and have actively chosen to participate with him in caring for others out of our own maturity in Christ. Rules are for children; continued dependence on laws even when we already know not to break them is thus infantile, or else legalistic (Bonhoeffer compares “religion” to Paul’s discussion of circumcision as legalism). We should no longer go through the forms of religion upon which we used to rely, when we are instead capable of living in a state of Christ-likeness to which those old forms were to point!

Now, I should be clear that Bonhoeffer never really set out a design for the church, he only worked out a theology of the church. The actual form of the church, I’m sure he would say, would depend on the context and people involved. He was definitely not a fan of uncontextualized principles, urging instead that people live out of their basic convictions, which of course were to be theologically informed. In Letters and Papers from Prison he was engaged in the task of dreaming about a Germany after the war, a Germany he never saw; he was not dreaming of Canada in 2013.

That’s up to us.

I haven’t seen this one before…might have to pick it up.

p.s. I’ll be back tomorrow with some final reflections, but this is the end of my summaries from the Cambridge Companion. Don’t go away!

Reading Bonhoeffer: Politics and the Aryan Paragraph

Finally, the moment I’ve been waiting for: Bonhoeffer’s political theology! This can be hard to define, because almost all of Bonhoeffer’s writings are rich with political implications and veiled references to Nazi ideology and policy, but the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer collects his political ideas and attitudes in chapter 10, “Church, state and the ‘Jewish question'” by Ruth Zerner.

The Givens: Bonhoeffer’s Inherited Views

Bonhoeffer was raised in a nation that had a very strong sense of tradition and heritage, not least of which was the legacy of Martin Luther. In fairness to Luther, the views of Bonhoeffer’s day were mostly twisted versions of Luther’s ideas, but nevertheless they found their roots in Luther. Two views in particular are relevant here: antisemitism, and the “two kingdoms” theology.

It’s a bit shocking for Bonhoeffer fans of today (like me) to see him write about the “Jewish problem” or refer to and seemingly affirm notions such as Jewish guilt for deicide (the killing of Christ) and God’s punishment for it. Though he also wrote that there is no justification for a state who takes the task of this punishment on itself, the idea that he even used those terms is shocking, especially when he was usually so careful and clever to avoid using Nazi-esque language in other settings. Bonhoeffer himself was involved in rescuing 14 Jews, and it was evidence of this act that later caused his arrest, which eventually led to his execution, so clearly he wasn’t antisemitic. But even so, it makes me wonder if his vehement arguments against the Aryan paragraph, which excluded all non-Aryans from holding any public service positions including pastorates, was not a sticking up for the Jews as much as it was sticking up for the independence of the Church. At least initially, it seems like his arguments are based on the principle of the matter – not that he was indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, but that they were of secondary importance after the freedom of the Church. Bonhoeffer’s later statements, including “only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant!” shows that he felt strongly about the treatment of the Jews. In the worst case, I suppose this shows that his theology made him a better person and overcame his inherited prejudices; may we also be so affected by our theology!

The other view that Bonhoeffer inherited that had a profound impact on his political theology and activism was Luther’s theology of Two Kingdoms. Luther’s view was (very basically) that God had ordained two different kingdoms to order reality, the Church and the State. Each of these two separate realms were given authority over different aspects of human life, reflecting their different purposes. By Bonhoeffer’s time, this notion of their separation and different purposes had morphed into the notion that they were mutually independent, and could not even criticise each other. As such, Bonhoeffer felt that it was not the place of the Church to criticise the State, much less demand certain policies or elements of justice. Bonhoeffer also used this doctrine to argue that the State had no right to apply the Aryan paragraph to the Church, as pastors were not servants of the State (even though they received government salaries in Germany) but of the Church. To Bonhoeffer, this meant that the Nazi regime had overstepped a sacred boundary, which it did increasingly (eventually requiring all pastors to pledge allegiance to Hitler!), prompting Bonhoeffer to suggest that salvation was of the Confessing Church (as opposed to the Reich Church), implying that those who gave in to Hitler’s demands were cutting themselves off from the true church.

A New Political Theology

I wonder what Bonhoeffer would have (or could have) done if he had not assumed and supported Luther’s theology of Two Kingdoms. (Jurgen Moltmann picks the Two Kingdoms view apart quite nicely in On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, though in Bonhoeffer’s time Moltmann was reading the Bible for the first time in a British POW camp). As it was, he got around the apparent prohibition against the Church criticising the State by saying that individual Christians could still do so (though he generally avoided emphasis on individualism in all other respects).

In Ethics he subverted this doctrine further still when he replaced the doctrine of the orders of creation (the notion that things such as “blood and soil” – or race and nation – were the givens of creation, orders created by God) with the notion of divine mandates: church, work, family, and government (sometimes there was a fifth mandate, “culture”, but it is not always mentioned). Note that he says “government” instead of “State”. He draws a distinction between government and State, with State remaining a God-ordained institution, while government describes a particular instance of it, which is fully capable of falling and is open to critique. In fact, the purpose of the divine mandate of Church is to critique the other mandates, drawing them back to their purpose under God. This gave the Confessing Church not only the license to critique the Nazis, but the responsibility to do so!

There are times when obedience to the State requires resistance to the government.

New Directions

Where would Bonhoeffer’s political theology have gone, if he hadn’t been executed? His ethic and notions of discipleship and Church were highly political, and the implications of them are still being worked out in political theology today. A few notable directions his thoughts lead include:

Human rights: his notion of theological anthropology, his inclusive and active-for-others notions of Church, and his speaking out for the Jews were all forerunners for the notion of universal human rights. Zerner points out that it was some of Bonhoeffer’s friends and students who had a hand in building our notion of human rights, so it’s not hard to imagine that he would have been part of it himself had he lived.

A theology of the Powers and Principalities: his notion of divine mandates sounds incredibly similar to later scholars’ definition of the Powers and Principalities, and his ethic of fighting or restoring the mandates as a duty of the Church is very similar to today’s ethics of the Powers (which I’ve been writing about for a while now; see most of my posts from the past six months for more info!). I’d love to find a way to work Bonhoeffer into my thesis on this subject, but alas, his theology is just different enough that I can’t justify it.

Christian anarchism. Bonhoeffer himself would NOT have supported this movement – he was still too committed to the Two kingdoms theology – but his incredibly robust ecclesiology combined with his powerful criticism of his government certainly lend themselves well to the concept. His “religionless Christianity” would do rather well as the foundation for a new world order, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it has been used as such to some extent.

I can’t wait to study this some more in class tomorrow!

Reading Bonhoeffer: A Missional Ecclesiology

I feel like my posts are getting shorter, and of lower quality, as the week goes on. For this I apologize!

As the last reading for tomorrow’s class was written by my professor and thesis advisor, and because it’s already late, I’ll be brief.

Missional Church

Missional ecclesiology has arisen relatively recently, drawing largely from the works of Lesslie Newbiggin. The basic notion is that mission is not something that the Church does, but is something that ought to be essential to its very nature. Dr. Franklin, in MJTM 9 (2007-2008), 96-128, a journal of McMaster Divinity College, argues that Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology is essentially missional, and thus way ahead of its time. Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology is missional in the following ways:

The Church Proclaims and Embodies the Gospel

The proclamation and embodiment of the gospel are not things that the Church does, they are the essential and defining features of the Church, without which it would cease to be the Church. Bonhoeffer was quite critical of the notion that mission or evangelism was something peripheral to the nature of the Church, something that the Church does against the world: “To try and force the Word on the world by hook or by crook is to make the living Word of God into a mere idea, and the world would be perfectly justified in refusing to listen to an idea for which it had no use” (Discipleship). To proclaim without embodying the gospel would be speech without actions, cheap grace.

The Church Practices Religionless Christianity

When Bonhoeffer talks about “religionless Christianity” we must be aware that to him, “religion” refers to the Lutheran church of his context, which was largely based on inward pietism. He thus draws a distinction between religion and faith, with the latter including everything Christianity depends upon and the former being an empty and inward ritual that places conditions on grace and compartmentalizes our lives into the sacred and the secular (and the two rarely meet!). In critiquing this false dichotomy, Bonhoeffer insists that there is no reality outside of Christ, and thus such dichotomies are impossible. Religion is inward piety, but faith provides an outward witness; religion treats God as a deus ex machina or God of the gaps to be employed where other theories fail or where God meets their needs and desires, while faith knows that God is there through our worst suffering and trials, and even demands that we go through them for His sake and for the sake of others. Religion makes people dependent upon the Church, while faith brings them into concrete and mutual relationships. Religion draws people into the Church, while faith “leads to a transformative encounter with the real world” (Franklin, 113). “Christian life is participation in the encounter of Christ with the world” (Ethics, 132).

“In essence, religionless Christianity means life re-oriented to the reality of God and subject to the lordship of Christ in a holistic or integrated way” (Franklin, 119).

The Church Exists-for-Others

“In his Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus shows us that the true nature of both God and humanity (in the imago Dei) is being-there-for-others” (Franklin, 117). True transcendence, Bonhoeffer argues, is not found in the unreachable and ethereal, but rather in the concreteness of relationship with my neighbour. With this as foundational to the nature and character of Christ, and thus of the Church, it’s impossible for the genuine Church to be anything but missional.


Bonhoeffer’s insights are also helpful correctives to certain ideas coming out of the missional movement today, such as his definition of a society or club over against community: missional movements are vulnerable to being united by the common mission, rather than by Christ himself, and thus are better described as a society. A society is a means to an end, but a community is both a means to an end and an end in itself, in Bonhoeffer’s thought.

In the end, “Bonhoeffer locates mission within the essence of the Church without thereby reducing the latter to instrumental or functional categories” (Franklin, 124). Truly a man ahead of his time!

Reading Bonhoeffer: The New Christianity

In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, that the time for a Church that proclaims is over, at least for the time being. Words had become useless, irrelevant. In its place would rise a “religionless Christianity”, characterized by its secret nature and its vicarious action on behalf of the “least of these” – in his case, the Jews.

Words are Useless

Bonhoeffer was many things, but first and foremost he was a preacher and a writer – a man of words. When faced with a political crisis, he wrote theology; when faced with an ethical crisis, he wrote theology. Through his preaching and theological writings, he criticized the corrupt and lawless regime in the language he knew best (theological) while at the same time presenting the good news that God had reconciled the world to Himself in Christ, a claim that itself was a clear challenge to Hitler’s regime. His critiques were sharp, his view penetrating, his logic sound, and his tone passionate.

And nobody listened.

Part of the problem was that Bonhoeffer was being too radical in his message to get much of a hearing from those who were against him, pointedly moderate or deliberately uninvolved, or just plain afraid. The other part of the problem was that he didn’t have the support of most of the Church; and not only did they not support him, but they gave their own voices and language over to the side of the Nazis.

It’s not that all pastors or theologians were Nazi supporters. The problem was that they allowed Hitler to use theological language and concepts in his nationalistic propaganda. So while Bonhoeffer was talking about the concrete ethical demands of Jesus Christ, Hitler was talking about the divine orders of creation that demanded obedience to the State. How was a Christian to tell the difference between them? According to the official church, the Reich Church, it was the Christian duty of every German to love and support the Reich, including in its policies of war (which God would certainly grant victory in) and genocide (as God was surely judging the Jews). Bonhoeffer’s voice, even with all of the voices of the Confessing Church (which made up less than one third of the pastors in Germany), was drowned out by the proclamations of a competing gospel with similar language.

Odd, to think that this hated symbol and visage was once a symbol of hope for so many Germans…

The Church’s lack of integrity in regard to the Aryan paragraph, the fact that they stood by as Jews were fired, deported, imprisoned, and executed, also robbed them of any credibility to preach. What good were words, if they were not accompanied by actions? No, the time for proclamation had, for the time being, passed.

Religionless Christianity

Scholars who read the Letters and Papers from Prison without first reading the rest of Bonhoeffer’s works assumed from this language that he meant a Christ-less Christianity, reading him along with the liberal theologians of his time and philosophers like Nietzsche who claimed that God was dead. This could not have been farther from the truth.

What Bonhoeffer really meant was a Christianity that, rather than spreading through open proclamation, was hidden and secret. Rather than wasting words, which could be co-opted by the State and twisted into unspeakable horrors, this new type of Christianity would focus on embodying Christ in the world. This Christianity would focus on the areas of prayer and social action.

Vicarious Action (Solidarity)

A key concept in Bonhoeffer’s theology, going all the way back to Sanctorum Communio, is that the Church is “Christ existing as community” and that this community must “exist-for-others and with-others”.

Christ loved the world, and took on the guilt of the world so that he could die on behalf of the world. He exists-for the world. As the worldly embodiment of Christ, the Church is to also to exist-for-others, which means acting on their behalf, or vicariously. We do this through confession, repentance, and seeking absolution before God on behalf of the world, as a type of priestly service in Christ.

We also do this through suffering. In times of great suffering, theologians and critics have long asked “where was God in this suffering?” The answer, of course, is that God was suffering along with them. We wonder why God allows suffering, and what his response to suffering is, but Bonhoeffer noted clearly that God’s response to human suffering was to become a human being and suffer not only with us, but on our behalf. Suffering is a clear example of how Christ exists-for- and exists-with-others, and the Church is to participate in this vicarious action of suffering with him.

Now, we don’t suffer in the sense that we flagellate ourselves, or something like that. We suffer along with those who are suffering by taking action for their sake, working for social justice (Bonhoeffer himself was a peace activist on an international level through ecumenical societies, not to mention conspiring to overthrow or assassinate Hitler for the sake of the victims of the Nazis). This vicarious action in solidarity with the “least of these” stems from Christian ethics.

Ethical Training

Today in class we discussed the basis for ethics. In any given situation, we are guided in what to do by up to four things: 1) a decision made in the moment, which usually depends on either our particular feeling in that moment or the influence of one of the deeper levels of ethical thought; 2) a rule or law, which is usually very black and white and universal, such as “don’t steal”; a principle, which explains and provides nuance in a rule, such as “respect other people’s property”; and our deep convictions, the worldview out of which we derive our principles, laws, and hopefully, our actions in the ethical moment of decision.

Bonhoeffer hated principles, as they were usually abstract and didn’t take context into account, and one rarely had time to recall the correct principle in the moment of ethical decision. Rules were even worse, as they also didn’t take context into account and offered no purpose for their demands. No, the response in the ethical moment must come out of the deep conviction, which for Bonhoeffer was: “God has reconciled the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.” This prompted him to ask “What is Jesus Christ doing in the world,” and “how can I participate in that?” These are the true ethical questions the Christian must ask, which of course leaves them with no firm rules to rely on for that critical ethical moment. So what does a Christian do to ensure that they are acting correctly in this ethical moment, especially because Bonhoeffer has identified vicarious ethical action as the primary purpose of the new, religionless Christianity?

The answer is for Christians to be conformed to the image of Christ – which, of course, is the purpose of the Church. If one is increasingly like Christ, then acting like Christ in the ethical moment will come naturally to the disciple. Ethical formation of this sort occurs through spiritual disciplines, the primary discipline being prayer, which not only forms the disciple into the likeness of Christ, but also sustains them in their being-for-others. We see Bonhoeffer’s notion of spiritual disciplines and devotional practices clearly in Life Together, The Prayerbook of the Bible, and Discipleship. Far from being a side project of devotional writings, or an aside from his more serious theological and ethical work, these writings provide the form and practice of the Church of tomorrow, the Church that exists and acts for the sake of the World that God loves.

Next on my to-buy list…

Reading Bonhoeffer: The Necessity of Ethics

Ethics is how I was introduced to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which means that I’ve been working backwards, as he intended it to be his ultimate book. Since I started this blog by working through the unfinished manuscripts that make up what Bonhoeffer was able to write before he was imprisoned and executed, I won’t go into any particular chapter here. What I will do is, following chapter 11 of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sketch out the milieu in which Ethics was inspired and written.

Fantastic book. Go read it, right now.

The Failure of Western Ethics

In 1935, Bonhoeffer was almost ready to head out to India in order to learn from Ghandi. This is not only because Ghandi was a major figure of non-violent resistance at that time, but also because the Western world was ethically bankrupt. Bonhoeffer had been aware of this for a long time, and for a shorter time he had lived admist the unmistakable evidence of this sorry state. We can see how it failed by looking at Bonhoeffer’s critiques of his own situation, but also from examining Bonhoeffer’s theological and practical writings, because everything that Bonhoeffer wrote was written in and for his context.

Traditional Western ethics had no foundation in the Church. When Bonhoeffer was a child, his parents didn’t take him to church. It was a club in which all Germans were members by default, but attendance wasn’t considered necessary. Christianity was to some extent assumed, but it was rarely vital for most Germans. The German church was increasingly tied up in the State in Bonhoeffer’s time, which became the basis for all ethical action: ethics became defined as unquestioned obedience to the Fuhrer, as even pastors were required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler.

Even aside from institutional or structural issues, Christianity in that context had no firm foundation for ethics either. The academy was largely liberal in theology, and modernism was at its height, with all of its individualism or atomism. In this context, the notion of relationship with Jesus Christ was a strange one. Theology was used largely to justify the powers and policies of the State, which was theological ethics…of a sort (!). Even theological language had been co-opted by Hitler, making it very difficult to critique the Nazis theologically. Aside from this, Christianity in that context suffered from many of the issues it still does in our context today: Christianity was expressed largely as inward pietism with little outward action, and many Christians were concerned more with the issue of their own otherworldly salvation than with the plight of their neighbour in the world today.

Christianity also had plenty of competition as a source for ethics: not only was theology being used to support nationalism, but it was being used as such by two opposing and equally radical groups: the far-right, fascist Nazi party, and the far-left communists. It was this intense polarization in Germany that helped Hitler to gain power in the first place, as part of a coalition of right-wing parties that was made in an attempt to overcome the rising socialist and communist leanings in Germany.

But even aside from having no Christian foundation for ethics due to the weakness of the German church, its being co-opted by the State, and the competing interests of the Nazis and communists, Western ethics were based on faulty assumptions.

Bonhoeffer’s Answers

All of Bonhoeffer’s writings address these issues. I should also note that Bonhoeffer’s thought did not run in a straight line from Sanctorum Communio through to Ethics, but was more of a spiral, as the same themes appear over and over again throughout his writings. Let’s take a look at how they all lead to Ethics.

Early Works

Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer’s first doctoral dissertation, established foundational issues: what is a person, and what is the Church? Both can only exist in relationship: I am only a person when I exist-for-others, and the Church is defined as Christ existing in community (for-and-with-others). With this more robust notion of humanity and Church, Bonhoeffer was able to set the stage for later Christian ethics by defining the context of ethics: in relationship with the Other, the neighbour – the Jew.

Act and Being, his second doctoral dissertation, deals extensively with sin, guilt, and conscience. Conscience was largely thought of as being God’s voice; Bonhoeffer corrected this, noting that a conscience can lead us astray (as we saw in the Holocaust and the trials which followed, in which Nazi officers defended themselves by saying “I was just following orders”).

In Creation & Fall, Bonhoeffer critiqued the notion of “orders of creation”, states of affairs that were natural, and therefore ordained by God, and therefore good and assumed. The primary order of creation in Germany at that time was loyalty and obedience to the State, to nation, and to race. Bonhoeffer instead said that these were “orders of preservation”, which, rather than being part of the created order and therefore eternal, were part of Christ’s intervention in the fallen world and therefore must be done away with as soon as they in any way interfere with the proclamation of Christ. (This book was also controversial for the time because in it Bonhoeffer dared to exegete Genesis, a Jewish holy book, in a time when Jewish books had already been banned).

Bonhoeffer’s lectures were only published much later, but his 1933 lectures on Christology were radically different from the historical Jesus or mythical figure described by the liberal theology of his time. Liberal theology was entirely anthropocentric, or focused on human beings, but this created a paradox: the anthropocentrism of liberal theology was largely focused on Jesus as a human being only (without deity), and thus only a moral teacher or an ideal; and once he was only a moral ideal, Jesus himself became redundant, since one only needed to remember the ideal. Thus anthropocentric Christian theology excluded Jesus almost altogether, and placed human values at the centre instead. Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures remind us that Christ is the centre, a position which did not allow for radical manipulation of theology to suit Nazi ideology. As was pointed out in class a few times this week already, Bonhoeffer’s own views were in many ways quite radical, but his consistent and incredibly robustly orthodox Christology allowed him to get away with a lot of other radical thoughts. I would add that if our picture of Jesus is correct, it necessarily leads to radical thoughts!

Later Works

Now, having established a more robust concept of the Church and human personhood, and having developed in alignment with that a less corrupted notion of guilt and conscience, and having demolished the theological underpinning of radical devotion to race and nation (or “blood and soil”, as it was referred to at the time) and established a Christology so robust that it could not be manipulated, Bonhoeffer returned to the notion of Christian community, but more than that, to Christianity itself as it is practically lived. His years living and teaching at the seminaries at Finkenwalde and Pomerania had given him an opportunity to apply the theology he had already written, and when the seminary was shut down by the Gestapo, he wrote about it in Discipleship and Life Together and The Prayerbook of the Bible.

In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer develops a more robust notion of Christianity. Rather than being concerned with whether or not one was going to heaven when they died, he applied the gritty reality of Christ in the world today (existing as community for the world, from Sanctorum Communio) and the call that Christ puts on us all to follow him in this radical way of living. At this time he was already considering that following Christ might mean dying, in a context in which it might occur at any time. The discipleship that Christ calls us to has nothing to do with inward pietism, and everything to do with being-for-and-with-others, to the death.

In regard to pietism, Bonhoeffer was not against piety itself; in Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, he explores the forms of worship and righteous living in community that occurred at the seminary. He famously said at one point that “only he who cries out for the Jews can sing Gregorian chant!” And he did sing (though he was more prone to negro spirituals than Gregorian chant!), and was an excellent musician, and practised spiritual disciplines with a Moravian leaning (proto-Pentecostals of a sort!). Empty pietism had been a weakness in the German church, just as empty Christology and Ecclesiology had been. But the answer to bad theology is not no theology, but good theology; and the answer to weak and empty pietism is not a cold intellectual faith, but rather a faith expressed in devotion that spills over from good theology and practice.


So Bonhoeffer had broken down the theological assumptions in which the Nazis had found footholds, and replaced them with more robust theology that was not so easily manipulated; and he had brought pietistic devotion back into a fuller alignment with theology and ethics. Orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopathy (right motivations, or piety) had been re-established; all that was left was orthopraxis (right actions), which of course he had been dealing with piecemeal as he went, but still needed a full and concentrated treatment.

He began by pointing out the fundamental flaw of traditional Western ethics, which usually ended up being lists of values and priorities for hypothetical situations: they consisted entirely of asking “what is good and evil”, which is entirely the wrong question (remember, that was the question that Adam and Eve were asking when they started this mess!). The right question is, “What is Jesus Christ doing in the world today” and “how can I participate in that?” He also talks about fundamental issues such as the difference between the “penultimate” (what is before the ultimate, i.e., right now) and the “ultimate” (the fullness of God’s plan for the earth coming to fruition), and how that relates to ethics today. He was one of the first theologians to talk about universal human rights. An throughout, he critiques his own context through the lens of cultural critics such as Nietzsche, Barth, and Dostoevsky. He wrote about his context, but used it as a way to bring out foundational issues. Because ultimately, foundational issues are all that we can draw from the ethic of another context; our own ethical application depends upon hearing Christ in our own context, acting in obedience to and participation with him, and hoping for his mercy when we do so erroneously, or when doing so causes us to bring guilt upon ourselves. It’s beautiful, and challenging, and hard to hear, and oh so necessary.

Bonhoeffer wrote his Ethics manuscripts while he was awaiting missions for military intelligence (i.e. meetings with fellow conspirators and supporters abroad), so he was interrupted often, and had not finished when he was arrested. Rather than continuing to work on it in prison (which was probably too risky), he tried his hand at a novel and a play, not finishing either. In his letters to Eberhard Bethge, smuggled out of the prison by guards who had become his friends, he began to develop the idea of “religionless Christianity.” The time for religious words is past, he said; the religion of the future will be about action. In this we can see that he was still thinking in terms of Ethics, but at the same time, it seems to me, we can see a type of resignation in this. I don’t think that Bonhoeffer was nostalgic for the religious language that had been stolen by the Nazis, or for the inward pietism of Church life before, and he certainly had long been saying that the Church had failed; but the way he talks about the end of religion speaks, finally, that the Church has failed.

But Christ has not!

Reading Bonhoeffer: An Ecumenical Pacifist

Day two of class, and my backside is getting sore. Whoever thought up one-week classes never sat in those chairs.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known for plotting to assassinate Hitler; he is less well-known for his role as an international ecumenical activist and pacifist, even though his work in this regard spanned more of his life than any of his other endeavours and even provided the context for his journeys abroad as an agent of the Abwehr.

The Background

Being a German Lutheran, perhaps especially in that era, there was absolutely no reason for Bonhoeffer to be an ecumenicist, let alone a pacifist. Pacifism was looked down upon or ignored in the Lutheran church, which had a notion (from Luther’s doctrine of Two Kingdoms) that the affairs of the State (including war) were no business of the Church; this meant that Christians who preached the “gospel of peace” had absolutely no problem picking up the weapons of war when they were called upon to do so by their nation. And to fight for one’s nation was a matter of deep pride and honour; even at Finkenwalde, the illegal Seminary, many of the students were excited when war broke out because it meant a chance to show their national pride.

National pride was not in short supply in Germany in that era, either. Germany had fought World War I on the notion that they were being attacked by their surrounding neighbours (who were inferior to them) out of jealousy; the treaty of Versailles, which the defeated Germany had been forced to sign in 1918, insisted that Germany take all of the blame for the war, and also pay reparation payments to their affected neighbours. If Germany had felt picked on before, their attitude toward the international community was even more frustrated now. When the Great Depression hit, and Western nations started calling in the massive loans that they had made to help Germany rebuild after WWI, Germany was hit with a financial double blow which was easy to blame on those same “jealous” Western powers, which many in Germany still felt were inferior to Germany, which was believed by Germans to be the height of culture and power. Hitler promised to return his Volk (people) to the place of a world power, and was incredibly popular for it.

In light of this situation of nationalism and suspicion of the outside world, the idea of going abroad to meet with representatives from all over the world was not only considered foolish, but somewhat suspicious. Ecumenicism was a growing phenomenon after WWI, but the groups that were meeting were still small, just getting off the ground. But why did Bonhoeffer go at all?

According to Keith Clements, who wrote “Ecumenical witness for peace” (ch. 8 in the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer), Bonhoeffer wasn’t much different from the average German in these regards until he went to study in New York. He wasn’t particularly impressed with the social gospel movement there, but he was deeply impressed by the institutional racism he saw  against African Americans, which showed him the necessity for Christian response to social issues. He was also deeply impressed with his new friend Jean Lasserre, a French student also studying at Union Theological Seminary. They went on a road trip to Mexico, and Lasserre’s pacifist theology rubbed off on Bonhoeffer, so that by the time they reached their destination, they tag-teamed sermons on peace for their Mexico audience. A German and a Frenchman, preaching together on peace!

At the heart of their discussions was the Sermon on the Mount, which Lasserre insisted was actual ethical instruction. For Bonhoeffer, who was raised on the Lutheran idea that the Sermon on the Mount was an idealistic passage intended to make Christians aware of their inability to earn their salvation, this was revolutionary. And of course, the Sermon on the Mount includes powerful instruction in non-violence. The rest of Bonhoeffer’s life would be marked by Lasserre, for Bonhoeffer spent it in non-violent resistance to Nazism and in international ecumenical discussions of peace.

Theology of Nationalism

German Nationalism wasn’t just a grass-roots movement of angry people; it was supported by the intellectual elites as well, including theologians. They proposed a theology of the “orders of creation”, which identified certain things as self-evidently part of the way God designed the world to function. Part of this was Luther’s Two-Kingdoms theology, which established the State as a divinely appointed order of creation, as well as other orders such as marriage, race, and nationality. These last two so-called orders of creation fed German nationalism and Aryan superiority complexes in particular, because German theologians had elevated them to the highest prominence among the orders of creation. To serve one’s race and nation unquestioningly was taken for granted as being one’s Christian duty.

In response to this theology, Bonhoeffer suggested (primarily in Creation and Fall) that there are no orders of creation, but rather “orders of preservation.” God may have ordained such institutions as orders, but they were not to be taken for granted as God’s intention for the world, but rather seen as a part of Christ’s intervention and rescue of the post-fall world. As such, if they in any way were not open to the proclamation of the gospel, they must be abandoned. Bonhoeffer delivered a speech on this at an ecumenical council, right after another German delegate had delivered a speech about the nation as one of the orders of creation.

On Ecumenical Councils

Shortly after he returned from New York, Bonhoeffer was asked to be a youth delegate to an international ecumenical meeting (the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches, in Cambridge, England). There, he was made one of two youth secretaries for the movement. He was later also involved in a similar group, the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work; both of these groups had some overlap between them, and were predecessors to the World Council of Churches, which still exists today.

From early on, Bonhoeffer was critical of these groups for having weak or no theology. As differences of doctrine are largely responsible for the division between different churches in the first place, the slogan of Life and Work was “doctrine divides, service unites.” These groups were working for international peace in spite of doctrinal differences, pushing theology to the background so that they could focus on calling for political peace. This frustrated Bonhoeffer, who felt that they had no basis on which to call for peace, because they had no theology to justify such a call: “Because there is no theology of the ecumenical movement, ecumenical thought has become powerless and meaningless” (Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, vol. 1, p. 159).

Bonhoeffer was also critical of calling for peace without proper theological justification, because it was not clear to him that peace was the default theological position. There should not be peace for the sake of peace, but rather for the sake of Christ:

There shall be peace because of the church of Christ, for the sake of which the world exists. And this church of Christ lives at one and the same time in all peoples, yet beyond all boundaries, whether national, political, social, or racial. And the brothers who make up this church are bound  together, through the commandment of the one Lord Christ, whose Word they hear, more inseparably than men are bound by all the ties of common history, of blood, of class and of language. – Ibid., p. 290

In this way, the Church was the answer to nationalism’s claims, and Bonhoeffer’s theology pitted him against Nazi ideology from the beginning. But the councils’ work calling on world governments for peace was fundamentally flawed:

How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security….Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. – Ibid.

Here we can see the impact of non-violence on Bonhoeffer’s thought; he was already counting the cost of pacifism, which ultimately ends on a cross. And once again, peace is not necessarily always called for by the gospel, and thus should not be called for without due thought:

The broken character of the order of peace is expressed in the fact that the peace commanded by God has two limits, first the truth and secondly justice. There can only be a community of peace when it does not rest on lies and injustice. Where a community of peace endangers or chokes truth and justice, the community of peace must be broken and battle joined. – Ibid., p. 168ff.

Keep in mind that the Western powers did nothing when Germany broke the treaty of Versailles and started re-arming. They did little when Germany started expanding, annexing its neighbours. They gave up the freedom of those nations to Germany under a policy of appeasement, in order to preserve peace. To Bonhoeffer, peace with the Nazis was peace for peace’s sake, and was antithetical to the gospel.

Pacifist, Conspirator, Spy, Martyr

When asked what he would do if conscripted, Bonhoeffer had once said “I pray that God will give me the strength not to take up arms”, knowing that this would mean execution (Germany had no concept of conscientious objection to military service, and those who refused were traitors). He had planned to visit India in 1935 to learn about non-violent resistance from Ghandi, but was asked to run the seminary at Finkenwalde and so put the trip off; shortly thereafter, conscription started, and Bonhoeffer suggested that his students think carefully about pacifist options.

Bonhoeffer had already pastored in London for a time, perhaps hoping that if war broke out while he was away he would be spared execution for refusing to fight. He was criticised by Barth, who called him back to Germany, but he remained there for 18 months. War did not actually break out until much later, but in anticipation of the war some of his friends had arranged for Bonhoeffer to take up a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York. He went there, but stayed only a few days, feeling compelled to return to his people. War broke out shortly after he returned.

Because of his contacts with the ecumenical community, Bonhoeffer had a cover for his involvement in the Abwehr, or German Military Intelligence, where his brother-in-law Hans von Donanyi worked. In order to avoid Bonhoeffer’s conscription, he was made a spy of sorts for military intelligence, citing his excellent network of international contacts which could theoretically be used to the benefit of the Nazis. In reality, Bonhoeffer was using his contacts to report to the outside world about the atrocities that were occurring inside Germany, and to advocate for the Confessing Church to be recognized as the only legitimate German Evangelical church (as opposed to the official Reich Church).

Because of Bonhoeffer’s theology, which called for peace to be set aside in the face of injustice and lies, he was not overly concerned when the plots to overthrow the government became plots to assassinate Hitler. Because of his involvement in these plots, he was executed in April 1945. His last recorded words were a message to Bishop Bell, an English lord and head of one of the ecumenical councils, who was the greatest friend to the Confessing Church and the Resistance movement:

Tell him, that with him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests and conflicts, and that our victory is certain. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Reading Bonhoeffer: Discipleship

Tomorrow afternoon we’ll be covering Bonhoeffer’s soteriology (doctrine of salvation). The required reading for this section is chapter 9 of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Costly Discipleship” by Haddon Wilmer, along with an excerpt from Act and Being. I don’t yet see how these two readings are related, and Act and Being is even more difficult to comprehend than Sanctorum Communio, so we’ll see how far I get into it tonight.

The Cost of Discipleship

After the Gestapo shut down the seminary at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer wrote a few books: Life Together, The Prayerbook of the Bible, and Discipleship. The original German title of the latter meant literally “Following”, but when translated into English it was given the name The Cost of Discipleship. This is because Bonhoeffer spends some time in the opening chapters discussing two types of grace: cheap grace and costly grace.

Grace is cheap when the demands of God are silenced by trading on God’s kindness….Cheap grace arises when grace is universalised as a principle, for if God does anything universally, it can be taken as a given, existing reality and as automatically available to human beings. They do not need to seek it, or to get themselves into any place where they will receive what is in God’s gift. When grace is not automatically available, when it has to be asked for, the person apprehends himself as one who is exposed to God’s freedom to give or not to give. This is a true encounter with God, the essential element of a right relation with God. – CCBD, ch. 9.

So then what is costly grace? Wilmer also describes that rather well:

Bonhoeffer wanted costly grace – real grace which cost God the death of his Son and would be powerfully significant for human beings. And grace becomes costly to people as they respond to the call to discipleship. It is discipleship, as such, which is the cost of grace; and discipleship involves suffering because it means following Jesus, breaking with the world and therefore being vulnerable to rejection by the world. – Ibid.

The cost of discipleship is thus on both sides: if God gives grace too freely, it is spent too freely; but if it is rare and precious, and recognized as having cost God his Son, then it calls us into discipleship, which means following Christ into the same ministry that cost him his life. The cost of grace is shared, then, between God and those he calls, even though it is offered freely (see my last post to see how freedom is only truly freedom when we are free-in-obedience; I think in the same way, freely receiving grace from God involves freely sharing in its great cost).

Discipleship as Mediated

Disciples are separated from the world, as they give up their families, work, wealth, and land to follow Jesus. It’s a trade: Jesus for the world (the New Testament says that this is a very good trade). As such, discipleship involves “a breach with the world”, as the disciple gives up all direct relation to the world and accepts all relation to the world as mediated by Christ. In my last post I mentioned that, to Bonhoeffer, all human relationship, not just to God but to everyone and everything else, is mediated by Christ. As I see it then, the conscious choice of the disciple to give up all immediate relation to the world and accept all relation as mediated by Christ is really just a decision to live in reality, recognizing how it really is.

The Demands of Discipleship

Discipleship requires both “extraordinariness and hiddenness.” First, Jesus tells his disciples that they must have a greater righteousness than the Pharisees, that they go above and beyond what is expected. The Sermon on the Mount takes all of the commandments and pushes them further. While studying in New York at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer became friends with another exchange student, a French student named Jean Laserre, who believed that the Sermon on the Mount was to be taken literally as ethical instruction. This was a huge shift for Bonhoeffer, because German theologians had long interpreted it to be an impossible ideal that was written only to make us aware of how dependent we are on God’s grace. Lasserre and Bonhoeffer borrowed a car and took a road trip to Mexico – always a great way to have deep conversations – and talked about pacifism and the radical ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, and this had a profound impact on Bonhoeffer’s ethics and notion of discipleship. No longer could his notion of following Jesus involve only inward decision (though decision was very important to his theology as well!); it must also be outward, visible, concrete obedience.

Somehow, this visible discipleship must also be hidden: Matthew 6 (part of the Sermon on the Mount) demands that works of righteousness be done in secret, so that the disciple’s reward will come from God alone, and they will be motivated by love of God rather than seeking praise from people. “Our activity must be visible, but never be done for the sake of making it visible” (Discipleship). The trick, then, is that one’s actions are done out of spontaneous and reflective obedience. (He talks in Ethics about how judging and acting are mutually exclusive; we cannot act while we are judging others, and so if we are acting out of obedience to Christ, we are precluding judgment of others. This involves listening to the voice of Christ and obeying without question. I think that what he’s talking about here is similar: acting spontaneously and without question to the demand of Christ not only precludes judging others, but also precludes judging ourselves as righteous due to our visible actions, and in this way we can keep them hidden from ourselves).

Discipleship in Community

Disciples live in community as mediated by Christ, having given up the right to direct relation to one another. That of course doesn’t mean that they never talk to each other, but only that their life together is ordered around Christ, down to the way that they talk to and about one another. At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer had a rule that students would only talk about someone else in their presence. Social pecking orders are hard to form when you can’t put others down or raise yourself up with words or visible actions! Time together was balanced by time apart, sometimes by design (as with times of meditation followed by times of corporate worship or work or sports) and sometimes by necessity (the “illegal” pastors of Finkenwalde and the seminary that followed in Pomerania spent a lot of time alone on the road between lonely parishes).

Confession is important to life together:

‘In confession there takes place a breakthrough to community’ and ‘to the cross’, thus ending both the loneliness and the pride of sin. There is the breakthrough to new life and to assurance. Without confession, community rests on what pious believers have in common, but not on the reality of what people are, as sinners. Christ’s presence ends pretence – but it is not presence as idea or feeling. Christ is present in the action of one person with another….Confession to a brother is an action in which community is both made (at the point of confronting what unmakes community) and comes into the light to be understood. – CCDB, ch. 9.

Talking to God

The voice of God, to Bonhoeffer, was the Bible (not particularly Pentecostal!). His students would meditate on a verse or passage short enough that they would not be tempted to exegete it or write a sermon from it; meditation in the Bible was something that was to be an end in itself, with no goal beyond seeking to hear God. Prayer also came from the Bible, talking to God with the words of Christ (to whom Bonhoeffer attributed the Psalms via David), so that the disciple’s relationship with God is fully mediated by Christ.

The Politics of Discipleship

Bonhoeffer’s anti-Nazi politics were the direct result of his discipleship, and took the form of pacifism. Rather than arguing that pacifist politics could actually overcome anything, he said that such political forms of discipleship would ultimately result in the Church sharing in and fulfilling the suffering of Christ, which would be a victory of a different sort. I’m not so pessimistic as that; non-violent resistance in Scandinavia was very effective against the Nazis.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer did have a plan for taking on the Nazis: he conspired to assassinate Hitler. The justification for this in his discipleship was that, if the genuine guilt of murder was acknowledged as such, the one who committed it and broke the law while acknowledging the cost was still paying due respect to that law, and thus not relying on cheap grace. Bonhoeffer was thus willing to take guilt upon himself for the sake of the other (the Jews, in this case), in an active sense.

Part of his theology of confession was that the Church was to take on the guilt of the world, confessing on behalf of of the world, and in so doing follow the vicarious action of Christ who took on the sin of the world. This is not very controversial. What is much more controversial is Bonhoeffer’s willingness to become personally guilty by actively breaking laws in the service of others, and throwing himself on the mercy of Christ. I think he’s only potentially wrong in underestimating less violent forms of resistance, but that’s easy for me to say, and I don’t blame him for opting for stronger means.

“His pacifism was not a political programme or device, but a correlate of faith, which came into play in a discipleship to which all are called, and in which they may live by not resisting the evil they are caught up in as agents” (CCDB, ch. 9). I don’t think this notion of pacifism is very helpful, nor do I think that it’s what Bonhoeffer was doing; after all, he resisted until the end, and was willing to pay the price for doing so, but even so sought the mercy of God. To me, that sounds like what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

Looking forward to reading this, but can’t decide if I want to write the major paper on this or on Letters & Papers from Prison.