By Doyle Sager
If Protestants had saints, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be one of them. And Feb. 4, his birthday, would be his day. He was a German pastor and theologian, a prolific writer and an early opponent of Hitler. He ultimately paid for his resistance with his life, when he was executed in April 1945 by the Nazis just days before the Allied troops liberated his prison camp. He was 39 years old when he died.
My encounter with Dietrich Bonhoeffer occurred in the fall of 1989. I had the good fortune to be chosen by William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., as one of several pastors and church leaders who would spend several days with Bonhoeffer’s biographer and best friend, Eberhard Bethge. Bethge’s wife, Renate, who was Bonhoeffer’s niece, was also present. The Bethges kept us spellbound as they recounted how Eberhard secretly stashed all of Bonhoeffer’s letters which were smuggled out of prison. He would later publish them (Letters and Papers from Prison), as well as write a definitive biography of Bonhoeffer and translate many of his works.
Ever since that memorable encounter, I have been a Bonhoeffer fan, reading all I can by him and about him. There is a running joke in the church I serve. Congregants watch for “Bonhoeffer sightings.” How long can the pastor go without quoting Bonhoeffer? When asked about his impact, I always reply, “He was way ahead of his time.” Following are some contemporary topics which find their roots in Bonhoeffer’s prescient writings.
Red letter Christians. The current move among many Evangelicals to pry themselves away from the Pauline epistles long enough to pay attention to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25:31ff and many other Gospel texts is not new. Bonhoeffer also lived in a day when theology was very “Paul-tilted.” As a young professor, he insisted we take Jesus seriously.
Spiritual, but not religious. Bonhoeffer wrote about “religionless Christianity.” Granted, scholars are still debating exactly what he meant by this, but suffice it to say that he foresaw a day when the old structures, categories and language of faith would have to give way to the new.
Field education. You may prefer the terms practicum learning or experiential learning. The classical 19th- and early 20th-century theological education was very formal and extremely rigorous academically. But Bonhoeffer saw the need for on-the-ground, in-the-trenches, holistic pastoral experience which would take into account the spiritual and practical as well as the mental aspects of Christian ministry. As Hitler’s power tightened its grip on the official German Church, Bonhoeffer led a seminary-in-exile on the Baltic Coast. Course work balanced traditional lectures with group discussions of ethical and pastoral concerns which impacted local congregations.
Spiritual formation or the New Monasticism. In the “seminary by the sea” experience mentioned above, Bonhoeffer introduced young German pastors to the spiritual disciplines of meditation, silence, Scripture memory, confession of sin and much more. His books, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible and Life Together, are still read today and offer guidance regarding these practices.
The missional church and social justice. Bonhoeffer despaired of a Christianity which focused only on saving one’s own soul. He insisted that a church which would not speak up on behalf of the abused and neglected of society had no right to call itself Christ’s body. He declared that the church is truly the church only when it exists for others. Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection were physical, not merely spiritual. This world matters!
Discipleship, not just evangelism. Bonhoeffer thundered against cheap grace which offered people a sort of magical, baptismal protection so they could live the Christian life as effortlessly as possible. He announced “only the one who obeys believes and only the one who believes obeys.” Many consider Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship to be his magnum opus.
A free Church in a free State. By 1933, Hitler had already seduced many church officials with promises of power. Swastikas were draped on the altar of churches. What a cautionary tale for any church today which would forfeit its prophetic heritage and be co-opted by secular powers.
Tension and paradox. Many 20- and 30-something believers today are very comfortable with the messiness of faith, which makes Bonhoeffer even more appealing than ever. He was convinced that the church should be in the world, but not of it. He reminded us that through the Cross, God becomes weak. He was an avowed pacifist, yet believed that Hitler should be stopped at all costs. He defied categories, which is the sign of an original thinker!
Happy birthday, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Thank you for your honesty and courage. Though you are dead, you still speak.