Friday, February 18, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

BONHOEFFER, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010.

How could the Church of Luther fall from grace? How involved should the church be in politics? Questions of ethics and discipleship led Bonhoeffer to leave us two written volumes which the world has since read as The Cost of Discipleship (literally Discipleship) and Ethics.

From the time he was thirteen, the young Bonhoeffer knew he would study theology. He received his doctorate in 1927 at age 21, writing his thesis on “Sanctorum Communio: A Systematic Inquiry Into the Sociology of the Church.” He identified the church as neither a historical entity nor an institution, but as “Christ existing as Church-community.” It prepared him well for the life he would soon follow and the decisions life would forced him to make.

Early in his academic career, the young Cleric preached at Berlin University from II Chronicles 20:12: “We don’t know what to do, so we look to you for help” (emphasis added). It was May 1932 and Bonhoeffer was watching Hitler rise to power. He saw warning flags that signaled danger for the church and the nation. The text reveals an uncertain Jehoshaphat seeking a word from God as to how to face the future.

Jehoshaphat followed the word of the Lord as did his father (Asa) before him and Bonhoeffer determined to walk as an uncompromising disciple of Christ, as opposed to the State’s politicized Churchanity. That text would mark numerous occasions throughout his life when he would walk in faith seeking the wisdom of Christ’s Word as he walked. At his death, his close companion, Eberhard Bethge, used this same scripture to highlight the life Bonhoeffer had lived among them.

From Bonhoeffer’s London congregation in 1933, he initiated the break with the State Church of the Third Reich, which he saw being transformed by Hitler’s Henchmen into an apostate instrument of Satan. The decade following led Bonhoeffer on a discipleship journey that found him leading the Confessing Church (born in 1934 with the Synod of Barmen). Metaxas tells the story splendidly as he chronicles the evolution of Bonhoeffer’s theological and sociological journey that defined Bonhoeffer’s biblical discipleship and led him from civil cooperation to criminal resistance.

Mataxas suggests “Bonhoeffer thought of Ethics as his magnum opus” (468), a work he never quite finished, a work he tweaked throughout his prison years, finally at Tegel.

While making his journey, Bonhoeffer wrote his friend Bethge describing life in Christ as being less about avoiding sin and more about actively doing God’s will. Death, he told his friend “is the supreme festival on the way to freedom” (486).

Henning Van Treskow spoke to Schlabrendorff just before committing suicide (to prevent betraying fellow plotters against Hitler under torture) and concluded “a human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions” (487).

Regarding death, Bonhoeffer wrote, “In life with Jesus Christ, death as a general fate approaching us from without is confronted by death from within. Those who live with Cshrist die daily to their own will. Christ in us gives over to death so that he can live within us. Thus our inner dying grows to meet that death from without, Christians receive their own death in this way, and in this way our physical death very truly becomes not the end but rather the fullfillment of our life with Jesus Christ. Here we enter into community with the One who at his own death was able to say, ‘It is finished’” (384).

Death for Bonhoeffer became an intentional act after the arrest of Admiral Canaris and the disclosure that Bonhoeffer was involved in the espionage to rid Germany of Hitler. On Saturday night of 4-8-45 Canaris, Oster, Dr. Sack, Strunck, Gehre, were tried, with Bonhoeffer tried in absentia when officials discovered they had left him at the Schonburg School (prison).

Dispatching two men to Schonburg to bring Bonhoeffer on to Flossenberg, he had hardly finished his last prayer for a service he was conducting at the school for other prisoners when to evil looking men in civilian clothes came in and said “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, Get ready to come with us.” Before the Monday morning sun, Bonhoeffer hung from the hangman’s noose.

Payne Best describes the parting this way: “Those words “Come with us” for all prisoners 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.” Bonhoeffer also asked to be remembered to Bishop Bell.

H. Fisher-Hullstrung the Flossenberg prison doctor, and a doctor of almost 50 years experience, described the final moments. “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to God … so certain that God heard his prayer … I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (237).

Bonhoeffer’s biography is more than a life-story; it is a journey of faith. Following WWII, I read Martin Niemoller’s story and was happy to further update on Bonhoeffer. I found this volume greatly worthwhile, but I do not recommend it for the faint-hearted, or the frivolous minded. Bonhoeffer’s story calls us to mature spirituality, deeply anchored in Scripture, and singularly focused on Jesus Christ as God’s revelation of Himself.

This is Warner’s World,

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