Introductory Note:

Here at Renovaré, we’ve been thinking a lot about Lent as we’ve been revisiting our own Lenten guides (Engage and Less is More) and choosing some other authors’ seasonal devotionals for our Lenten Resources page. One of those is God is on the Cross, a 40-day journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer through the themes of repentance and reflection. Lent and Bonhoeffer seem a natural combination.

Knowing Bonhoeffer’s personal story cannot help but affect the way the reader receives his words. Is he a Lenten sort of man because of his suffering, or would his words ring with the same authority had he never been arrested, imprisoned, and condemned to die? The latter must be true, as his words stretch from start to finish with the same sober, probing integrity. Richard Foster chose him as an exemplifier of the Holiness tradition for his book, Streams of Living Water.

As we prepare for Lent, we can find much to inspire us from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose last words reportedly were these: “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”

Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

Cost­ly Grace” 

The out­line of Bonhoeffer’s sto­ry is well known. In 1927 he was a stu­dent earn­ing a doc­tor­ate in the­ol­o­gy from Berlin Uni­ver­si­ty at the age of twen­ty-one. In 1930 he was a debater cross­ing the­o­log­i­cal swords with the lib­er­al estab­lish­ment at Union The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, New York. In 1931 he was a teacher exeget­ing issues of Chris­t­ian ethics and the nature of the Church at Berlin Uni­ver­si­ty. Bon­ho­ef­fer, it seemed, was des­tined for the life of an aca­d­e­m­ic. But the omi­nous storm clouds of the Third Reich changed everything.

By 1933 Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer was an activist attack­ing the idol­a­trous Aryan Clause,” which exclud­ed Jews from civ­il ser­vice. By 1934 he was a leader in the new­ly formed Con­fess­ing Church,” prophet­i­cal­ly denounc­ing the hereti­cal defec­tions of the Ger­man Chris­tians”.* By 1935 he was a pro­fes­sor estab­lish­ing a clan­des­tine sem­i­nary at Finken­walde — an insti­tu­tion where pure doc­trine, the Ser­mon on the Mount, and wor­ship can be tak­en seri­ous­ly.”2 By 1937 he was an author attack­ing cheap grace” — that is, grace with­out dis­ci­ple­ship, grace with­out the cross, grace with­out Jesus Christ, liv­ing and incar­nate.”3

By 1939 he was a dou­ble agent seek­ing the defeat of his own nation and deeply involved in the con­spir­a­cy to assas­si­nate the Führer. By 1943 he was a pris­on­er liv­ing out the days of mis­for­tune equably, smil­ing­ly, proud­ly, / like one accus­tomed to win,” and at the same time feel­ing rest­less and long­ing and sick, like a bird in a cage.”4 By 1944 he was a the­olo­gian from a prison cell, search­ing, ever search­ing, for a reli­gion­less Chris­tian­i­ty” in which man is sum­moned to share in God’s suf­fer­ings at the hands of a god­less world.”5 And final­ly, in the gray dawn of Sun­day, 8 April 1945, Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer became a mar­tyr, whis­per­ing to his fel­low pris­on­ers as he left his cell to be hanged on the Flossen­bürg gal­lows, This is the end — for me, the begin­ning of life.”6

Christ the Center”

Bonhoeffer’s life as a church­man in Ger­many and in broad­er ecu­meni­cal cir­cles is a mod­el of courage and com­pas­sion. His work in the resis­tance move­ment is end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. His death is mov­ing beyond words. But why would I con­sid­er him an exam­ple of the Holi­ness tra­di­tion? He was far from per­fect. He made mis­takes, some of them seri­ous. What is it that makes me sin­gle him out as a mod­el for the vir­tu­ous life? Six things. The first three are tied to his con­vic­tion that Christ is the absolute cen­ter of all things.

First, Bon­ho­ef­fer took Jesus seri­ous­ly. It is hard to over­es­ti­mate how ful­ly the chris­to­log­i­cal ques­tion affect­ed every­thing for him. If Jesus tru­ly lived, died, rose, and is among his peo­ple today, it makes all the dif­fer­ence in the world. We sim­ply can­not con­sid­er the earth apart from Christ’s foot­steps imprint­ed upon it. Christ’s manger stands on the earth, his cross is rammed into the earth, his grave is dug into the earth.”7 This being so, the com­mu­ni­ty of faith must come to rec­og­nize Christ’s per­son­al pres­ence in the world today and set out to fol­low him in all things.

Sec­ond, Bon­ho­ef­fer took Jesus’ call to dis­ci­ple­ship seri­ous­ly. He felt this call most pow­er­ful­ly com­pressed in Jesus’ robust and prophet­ic Ser­mon on the Mount. Through­out his life he stout­ly refused to do what is so com­mon today — name­ly, to see Jesus’ Ser­mon as an impos­si­ble ide­al,” or mere­ly as nice words that are not meant to be obeyed, or per­haps as instruc­tions for some future dis­pen­sa­tion. No, he under­stood the Ser­mon on the Mount to be Jesus’ uni­ver­sal call to obe­di­ence — a call issued to all peo­ples, at all times, in all places. In a let­ter to his broth­er Karl-Friedrich he wrote, I have begun to take seri­ous­ly the Ser­mon on the Mount. That is the only source of pow­er capa­ble of blow­ing up the whole phan­tas­mago­ria** once and for all.”8

Third, Bon­ho­ef­fer took spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline seri­ous­ly. It is no acci­dent that his lec­tures often returned to the dis­ci­plina pietatis. He was train­ing for a life in which the pow­ers of body and soul are placed entire­ly in the ser­vice of Christ. His life was built on a new kind of monas­ti­cism … a life of uncom­pro­mis­ing adher­ence to the Ser­mon on the Mount in imi­ta­tion of Christ.”9

Action in the World 

The remain­ing three rea­sons for hold­ing Bon­ho­ef­fer up as a mod­el of the vir­tu­ous life are tied to his con­vic­tion that Chris­t­ian faith must, of neces­si­ty, result in action in the milieu of con­tem­po­rary society.

Fourth, Bon­ho­ef­fer took free, respon­si­ble, obe­di­ent action seri­ous­ly. He reject­ed all legal­is­tic sys­tems for defin­ing moral norms. He refused to reduce Christ and Scrip­ture to eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples and rules. Instead, he stressed the ongo­ing, rela­tion­al dialec­tic of encoun­ter­ing God’s will, often against our will, and, in Christ, receiv­ing the free­dom to act respon­si­bly in any giv­en sit­u­a­tion. When the cen­ter is clear, the bound­aries of respon­si­ble action can be open to meet the demands of the present moment. It is there­fore impos­si­ble,” he wrote from prison, to define the bound­ary between resis­tance and sub­mis­sion on abstract prin­ci­ples: but both of them must exist, and both must be prac­tised. Faith demands this elas­tic­i­ty of behav­iour.”10

Fifth, Bon­ho­ef­fer took the puri­ty of the Church seri­ous­ly. Con­sis­tent­ly he called the Church to be the Church. His was a puri­fy­ing voice warn­ing the Church against vio­lat­ing the First Com­mand­ment to have no oth­er gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Two days after Hitler became chan­cel­lor of Ger­many, Bon­ho­ef­fer gave a radio address in which he warned against the pos­si­bil­i­ty of Ger­many slip­ping into an idol­a­trous cult of the Führer (leader), who might very well turn out to be a Ver­führer (mis­leader) mock­ing God him­self.11

Sixth, Bon­ho­ef­fer took the world seri­ous­ly. What he saw so clear­ly was the need for right­eous­ness in action in the midst of a sec­u­lar and sec­u­lar­iz­ing world. The real­i­ty that gripped him so total­ly was that we must live in exis­tence for oth­ers.” Jesus,” he wrote, is there only for oth­ers.… Our rela­tion to God is not a reli­gious’ rela­tion­ship … but our rela­tion to God is a new life in exis­tence for oth­ers,’ through par­tic­i­pa­tion in the being of Jesus.… The church is the church only when it exists for oth­ers.”12

This bio­graph­ic sketch of Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer is excerpt­ed from Streams of Liv­ing Water by Richard J. Fos­ter (San Fran­cis­co: Harper­San­Fran­cis­co, 1998). Bon­ho­ef­fer is includ­ed in Streams as an exam­ple of the Holi­ness Tra­di­tion, but note the bal­ance in his spir­i­tu­al life and how many of the six Ren­o­varé Tra­di­tions are represented.

* Ger­man Chris­tians” was the term used for Protes­tants who sup­port­ed Hitler. The Con­fess­ing Church,” of which Bon­ho­ef­fer was a key fig­ure, arose as a wit­ness to Chris­t­ian faith­ful­ness and became the chief oppo­si­tion to the Ger­man Christians. 

** Translator’s note: i.e., Hitler and his rule.” 

[2] Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer, Gesam­melte Schriften, I, 2nd ed. (Munich: Kaiser Ver­lag, 1958 – 74) as cit­ed in A Tes­ta­ment to Free­dom, p. 25

[3] Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer, The Cost of Dis­ci­ple­ship, trans. R. H. Fuller (New York: Macmil­lan, 1963), p. 47

[4] Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer, Let­ters and Papers from Prison (Lon­don: Collins/​Fontana, 1953), p. 173

[5] Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer, Let­ters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed., ed. Eber­hard Bethge, trans. R. H. Fuller, John Bow­den, et al. (New York: Macmil­lan, 1971), pp. 361 – 62

[6] Bon­ho­ef­fer, Let­ters and Papers from Prison, p. 11

[7] Albrecht Schoen­herr, Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer: The Mes­sage of a Life,” Chris­t­ian Cen­tu­ry (27 Nov. 1985), p. 1091

[8] Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer, Gesam­melte Schriften, III, 2nd ed. (Munich: Kaiser Ver­lag, 1965 – 69), pp. 24f., as cit­ed in Bethge, Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage, ed. Edwin H. Robert­son, trans. Eric Mos­bach­er et al. (New York: Harp­er & Row, 1970), p. 155.

[9] Bon­ho­ef­fer, Gesam­melte Schriften, III, p. 25, as cit­ed in Bethge, Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer, p. 380.

[10] Bon­ho­ef­fer, Let­ters and Paper from Prison, enlarged ed., pp. 217 – 18

[11] At this point in the talk Bon­ho­ef­fer was cut off the air in what may have been the Third Reich’s first gov­ern­men­tal action against free speech (Bethge, Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer, pp. 193 – 94).

[12] Bon­ho­ef­fer, Let­ters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed., pp. 380 – 83.

Text First Published March 1999

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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