Dietrich Bonhoeffer Rediscovered

by Rebecca Bynum (April 2010)

The exemplary life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been brought to the attention of the world by Eric Metaxas (author of Amazing Grace: William Wilburforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery). Like his earlier book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich) is likely to be made into a compelling movie as well as a bestselling book. Bonhoeffer was the son of a prominent German family who was raised in the traditional German aristocratic liberal tradition. He became a pastor and theologian and then a key leader of the Christian resistance to Nazism, working in Germany, London and America. Eventually, his faith led him to join the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler which culminated in the failed von Stauffenberg plot. Bonhoeffer, in turn, was executed on Hitler’s orders on April 9, 1945 (just three weeks prior to the Fuhrer’s own suicide at the end of the war).

Several recent reviews of the Metaxas’ biography accuse him of attempting to pitch Bonhoeffer to American conservative evangelicals. Most notably, Victoria Barnett, Richard Weikart and Jason B. Hood make this accusation, citing the failure of Metaxas to include material in which Bonhoeffer questions the virgin birth and the corporeal reality of the resurrection as examples of his liberal theology. These quotes are cited as proof that Bonhoeffer was no conservative, despite his views on abortion and other modern conservative matters. They also contend Metaxas’ portrayal of Bonhoeffer’s fight with fellow Christians over the Nazification of the Church (and creation of the Reich Church which actually attempted the re-writing of the Sermon on the Mount), in which the actions of those Christians who capitulated to the Nazi government is portrayed as less than principled, is incomplete. The overall criticism seems to be that Metaxas portrays Bonhoeffer too simply and that Bonhoeffer was in fact a liberal.

Norman Berdichevsky’s forthcoming book, The Left is Seldom Right explains in great detail how the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are actually quite fluid and that attempts to apply those terms in their current usage to the past (even the recent past) can be very misleading. In this instance, both sides accuse the other of selective quoting. In an interview with Christianity Today, Metaxas states:

Bonhoeffer is more like a theologically conservative evangelical than anything else. He was as orthodox as Saint Paul or Isaiah, from his teen years all the way to his last day on earth. But it seems that theological liberals have somehow made Bonhoeffer in their own image, mainly based on the fact that he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and that he wanted to visit Mahatma Gandhi, and that he used the phrase "religionless Christianity" in a letter.

But if you look deeper, you'll see that this view is somewhat misleading. For example, by the phrase "religionless Christianity" Bonhoeffer meant only that the dead religion that was passing for Lutheran Christianity in Germany before the war had failed [his generation]. Bonhoeffer knew that for Christianity to be more than religion—more than a fig leaf—it had to declare Jesus as Lord over everything, not just the religious sphere.

After reading Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, which admittedly doesn’t make me an expert on his work, nevertheless, I believe Metaxas’ portrayal of Bonhoeffer’s overall thought is basically accurate. Bonhoeffer was nothing if not a very serious Christian. And unlike many modern mainstream Protestants, his politics was molded from his commitment to Christ, not the other way around. He did cling to simple principles, but that certainly didn’t make him a simple minded right-winger, nor does Metaxas portray him as such. For example, his response to the Aryan Paragraph which stripped Church membership from Jewish converts, allowing them to be processed by the state as Jews, was simple. “What is at stake is by no means whether German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with Jews. It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God, here is the proof of whether a church is still the church or not.” The fact that he tried and failed to make this principle the rock of resistance for the German Church is neither conservative nor liberal, but simply the right thing to have done. The rock of his faith was not dry intellectualism, but the reality of his own spiritual experience.

“’Who stands fast?’ he asked. ‘Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue,  but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to the question and call of God.’”[1]

The evidence that he took the call of God seriously and counted the cost in advance is all through his life and work. His death, of course, is the final testament. There is simply no other way to explain the fact of his return to Nazi Germany when he could have remained safely in America, other than that he was following the call of God.

“For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”[2]

His obedience was not a formulaic adherence to doctrine, but the response of his soul to the gentle guidance of the divine. The theme of self-forgetfulness and self-effacement is woven throughout. For Bonhoeffer, the call of God was immediate and an all or nothing proposition.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[3]

Bonhoeffer realized that man has nothing of value to offer God except his free will. The fact that he was able to cleave so closely to the will of God is due to the fact that he seemed to keep the reality of Christ’s spiritual presence always before him. For Christians, this is the “pearl of great price” for which everything else is willingly sacrificed, even life itself. Bonhoeffer had no illusions about the difficulty and the cost of devotion to the spirit.

“The path of discipleship is narrow and it is fatally easy to miss one’s way and stray from the path even after years of discipleship. And it is hard to find. On either side of the narrow path deep chasms yawn. To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way…The way is unutterably hard and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray.”[4]

The question put forward by Metaxas’ book is: can a human being follow righteousness and truth all the way to the end without faith? Certainly many of our soldiers fight valiantly in war without sustaining faith and make the supreme sacrifice for the American ideal rather than for something higher. However, soldiers are not fighting alone and they are fighting for their friends standing right beside them. Many millions gave their lives in the last century fighting for ideals, but those who lay down their lives alone and in ignominy, for values neither perceived nor understood by their executioners, have throughout history been, in the main, men and women of religious faith.

“No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of heaven, no one has heard about his realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence…Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.” – from a sermon Bonhoeffer delivered in London, November, 1933 [5]

Bonhoeffer’s fellow prisoner, Payne Best, described what happened when the SS came to take him to Flossenberg prison where he was hanged:

He [Bonhoeffer] had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said,

“Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.” Those words “Come with us” – for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only – the scaffold.

We bade him good-bye –he drew me aside –“This is the end,” he said. “For me the beginning of life.”[6]

Dr. H. Fischer-Hullstrung gave the following description of Bonhoeffer’s last moments:

On the morning of that day, between  five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster, General Thomas and Reichgeritsrat Sack were taken from their cells and the verdicts of their court martials were read to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God. [7]

It is not an idle question, the question of standing fast to the end, giving all one has and all one is for a higher and greater reality. Jesus admonished his followers to count the cost before they begin.

And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?

Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him,

Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?

Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.

So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.

Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned?

It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; but men cast it out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. [8]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a faithful disciple who met his death nobly. The precious salt of his life is still serving as an inspiration and example. It does not do to put such people in ideological boxes and thus diminish their influence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer does not belong to the left or the right. He belongs to a higher realm.

[1] Metaxas, Eric Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN.) 2010, pg. 446
[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone a subsidiary of Simon and Schuster, New York) 1995 originally published in 1959, pg. 64
[3] Ibid. pg. 89
[4] Ibid. pg. 190
[5] Metaxas, Eric Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN.) 2010 pg. 517
[6] Ibid. pg. 528
[7] Ibid. pg. 532
[8] The Bible, Luke 14: 25-35 (King James version)


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