Bonhoeffer: the prophet against the culture-controlled church

Apr 9, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Today (April 9th) is the 74th anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Nazi guards in Flossenburg camp, just a month before the end of the war. A doctor witnessing the hanging later said “I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God”.

Eric Metaxas’ masterful account of Bonhoeffer’s life shows clearly how he was formed by insights gained during the early years of his ministry. The brilliantly talented young theologian-pastor-musician completed his doctorate on the sociology of the Church in only 18 months while maintaining a full social and cultural life; by age 24 he was qualified as a university lecturer and was spending the second of his years abroad (the first was in Barcelona). But while he knew how to master his profession and enjoy life, Bonhoeffer was consumed, hemmed-in perhaps, by a desire to see Christ glorified, to see the church operating as it should with devoted disciples of Christ living seriously for him, and for the gospel to confront evil in the world and change it for the better.

Interestingly, his prophetic concerns about the lukewarm church, liberal theology and social injustice which were to drive his ministry in Germany in the last third of his life did not originate there, but in America, where he was based at the famous Union Seminary in New York. While Bonhoeffer had often taken issue with the famous German liberal theologians back home, at least they were concerned about truth, and used reason to come to their conclusions. Bonhoeffer felt that liberal theology in America was not using the mind in the same disciplined way: “There is no theology here”, he wrote; “they become intoxicated with humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not up to their level”. Students did not seem interested in the biblical themes of sin and salvation, only the latest political and psychological theories. They entered the pastorate with a secular mindset, with the result that “the sermon has been reduced to parenthetical remarks about newspaper events”.

If wealthy, white, mainline Protestantism was being gutted by revisionist theology in 1930, proper gospel preaching and serious discipleship could be found in the black churches. Bonhoeffer was thrilled at the biblically-based and Christ-centred preaching in the Baptist church he often attended in Harlem, and was also influenced by the music, completely different to the stuffy hymns of his own tradition. A few years later this would bear fruit as trainee pastors in the Confessing Church movement would listen to Bonhoeffer’s gospel music record collection and be urged to worship God in a similar way!

But of course this was a time of severe racial discrimination and segregation in America. Bonhoeffer was appalled, and saw worse in the southern states when he visited there. The Germany he had left did not have an equivalent: there was racism and antisemitism of course, but it had not been institutionalised. How quickly would that change on his return. In fact, during his time in America, back home the extremist fringe Nazi party was already making rapid gains in winning seats in the Reichstag. The grotesque and terrifying racial purification project was yet to come – but for the moment Bonhoeffer saw in America how the human heart is the same everywhere; how the church can capitulate to culture and collude in injustice and oppression, and how, to establish the real church, disciples need to learn from “the piety of suffering people” (Bonhoeffer’s phrase) – in particular Christians of different races – in their theology and their worship.

On his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer was being drawn into more and more of an “all or nothing” Christian faith, and he was disturbed by the lack of spiritual seriousness of his fellow Lutheran churchgoers, whom he accused of  “playing church”. As the 1930’s unfolded, the young pastor/academic saw clearly that a weak, liberal theology would not be able to resist the new popular thinking which looked forward to the socio-political revival of Germany under a strong leader as a kind of secular salvation, with strong undercurrents of resurgence of ancient nordic pagan spirituality, glorifying violence.

Metaxas describes the national struggle between the Confessing Church, authentic counter-cultural disciples such as Bonhoeffer on one hand , the new ‘German Christians’ advocating racial segregation and syncretism with Nazi ideology on the other, and the majority in the middle, with sympathies on one side or the other but wanting a quiet life. In the short term, Hitler wanted the church on his side, and did not persecute it as long as it progressed towards willingly submitting to become the servant of the state’s programme. The ‘German Christian’ leaders used state power to increasingly impose regulations and restrictions affecting the church. Bonhoeffer opposed this, arguing that the church must support the state in exercise of legitimate rule, but when the state starts to set itself up as the ultimate authority without accountability, the church must question it, help its victims, and ultimately jam a stick into the spokes of its wheel.

1930’s Germany saw the creation of a new, counterfeit Christianity, which replaced the cross with the swastika, the idea of universal human sinfulness and guilt before God with the guilt of the Jew and the sinless victimhood of the post-Versailles Aryan German, and the spiritual meaning of the resurrection with the idea of the victory and dominance of the volk. This creates a crisis in the church: “the confusion that inevitably arises when the Christian faith becomes too closely related to a culture or identity”. It’s not difficult to see parallels with counterfeit faith seen in many of today’s mainline churches.

Bonhoeffer’s implacable opposition to rapid change in Germany was not based in a knee-jerk conservativism or a hankering after the past. It was a conviction about the reality of God in Christ, the truth of the bible as his word, and the necessity of applying Christ’s Lordship to the whole of life not just church. He saw the solutions firstly in being part of church councils and trying to turn things round from within. Then, as this seemed less likely, making a stand (for example the famous Barmen Declaration) and creating distance, differentiation, between the true church and the institution aligned with the world. Establishing good theological education was vital – using methods which did not try to do a form of “good disagreement’ with the liberal worldview in their state-controlled institutions, but actively countered them. He knew that pastors needed to be formed not just by study, but in a community where disciplined discipleship and celebratory worship was learned and practiced together. Ultimately, he reluctantly saw that violent action against the state may be necessary to prevent further catastrophe, but the plot to kill Hitler, in which he was remotely involved, failed.

His ministry resulted in misunderstanding, opposition, imprisonment, early death. Wouldn’t it have been better to keep his head down, survive and be there for the rebuilding after the war? Who can understand the purposes of God fully, but the bible and church history teach that the martyrdom of the prophets is never wasted. Certainly Bonhoeffer’s story and his writings became inspirational for many in the post war years. We need another like him.

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