Editor's 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.

Originally published March 1999

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