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.”
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
* “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.
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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.