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.


4 thoughts on “Reading Bonhoeffer: Discipleship

  1. I would question that it is “not very Pentecostal” to hear the “voice of God” in Scripture. While we as Pentecostals may sometimes may overextend our understanding and appreciation of some claimed pneumatic message, we are classically trained to determine whether indeed such “words” are the words of THE Spirit or some other spirit…and this is accomplished by its relation to Scripture. More often than not, the problem isn’t in giving an overappraisal to the pneumatic message, but to misinterpreting or misapplying Scripture in relation to such messages. I would actually say that Bonhoeffer’s inward compulsions toward certain action as response to the word of God is far more akin to a Pentecostal appreciation of the role of the Spirit in illumination than perhaps to many Protestant understandings.

    • Thanks for all your comments Rick – it’s good to have you back 🙂

      You’re right, of course. I need to be more careful with my tongue-in-cheek criticisms of my own tradition, because I’ve clearly missed an opportunity to explore it positively in relation to a major thinker like Bonhoeffer. Thanks for rectifying that!

      • I have a brief interaction with his notion of speaking the “word” to one another wherein I somewhat approach it from a Pentecostal perspective (in my STILL to be published essay on N.T. Wright due out ANY DAY NOW…one can hope). 😉 Actually, I’ve been working for some time on an essay considering Bonhoeffer’s theology of the Spirit and how this might intersect with Pentecostal understandings of the Spirit.

  2. Pingback: Reading Bonhoeffer with Jeff Wheeldon « I Heart Barth

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