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Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy - Eric Metaxas, Timothy Keller

A note in re. my reviewerly shortcomings:

Let me preface this by saying that I am about as ill-qualified as one can be when it comes to ecumenical history. The full extent of my knowledge on the Protestant Reformation is that Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the door of a church on October 31, 1517 (and I only remember that because I remember thinking that it was weird that he did that on Halloween, and that the digits of 95 and 1517 both add up to 14...random, I know, but, hey, I was a sophomore in high school). As a result, I won't be commenting on any bits of biblical exegesis and/or theology because, really, I would just be making things up. 

 

Die Familie von Bonhoeffer: 

Growing up in the Bonhoeffer household (aka "the Wagenheimstrasse") was intense. Dietrich was sixth out of eight children (including his twin sister, Sabine) born to neurologist/psychologist Karl Bonhoeffer and his wife, Paula, granddaughter of a famous Protestant theologian, Karl von Hase. Karl, the pater familias, was effectively an atheist (or agnostic- basically, he wasn't terribly into religion), but the children were brought up with their mother's religion (I don't know what they're looking at in the picture below, but it could be a bible). 

 

Bonhoeffer Family

 

However, every subject or endeavor, whether it be science, religion or music, was approached with fervid rigor under Karl Bonhoeffer's roof. The rule of thumb was, in essence, if you're not going to say something devastatingly brilliant, then don't say anything at all. I don't mean that to imply that the children didn't love their father- they adored him, and their house was a veritable hive of activity (click graphic below for it to be almost legibly large).

 

The Bonhoeffer Family Graphic

 

The big takeaway here was that, though Dietrich was nervous to tell his father he planned to be a theologian, it turned out his dad was a-ok with it, as long as Dietrich studied the bible with the same discipline with which Karl approached his work as a scientist. After all, Dietrich's older brother, Karl-Friedrich, was off working in Physical Chemistry with Albert Einstein and Max Planck. Also, it sets the scene for how Bonhoeffer would be perceived in the world. His future student, Eberhard Bethge, was quoted:

It was hard for any group of people to live up to the standards expected and maintained in the Wangenheimstrasse. Bonhoeffer himself admitted that newcomers to his home were put under the microscope. With that background it was easy for him to create the impression of being superior and stand-offish.

Dietrich Takes Berlin (and also the US, and other places): 

Eric Metaxis (author of this book) uses the Bethge quotation (above) by way of introduction to his chapter on Bonhoeffer as a student in Berlin. Bonhoeffer's commitment to his own intellectual integrity would not allow him to just align his thoughts with those of one professor or another (which, at times, could make things uncomfortable). Despite his burdensome schedule as a student, Bonhoeffer was deeply involved with the students in his Sunday school class (all theological candidates had to complete "parish work" in addition to their studies).

 

Bonhoeffer was never one to shy away from hard questions. He began holding the "Thursday Group," where they would address questions like, "Is there such thing as a necessary lie?" Also, we begin to see the development of Bonhoeffer's ideas of costly grace and (its counterpart) cheap grace. Here is where my theological ignorance will have to be excused, so I'll just borrow from Timothy J. Keller's Foreword in which he describes Bonhoeffer's cheap grace:

That meant going to church and hearing that God just loves and forgives everyone, so it doesn't really matter much how you live.   

I'm skipping over quite a bit, and will sum up Bonhoeffer's take on Christianity in the U.S. (circa 1930 - 1931)by saying that he was not impressed. However, Bonhoeffer was taken with what he heard in Evangelical, black churches and, furthermore, was acutely aware of the hypocrisy inherent in the treatment of "the negro problem" state-side. 

 

Bonhoeffer and The Fuhrer Principle:

Dietrich returned to Berlin determined to "make known the suffering of the negroes." Also, Bonhoeffer around this time (1931-1932) experienced a dramatic shift (Metaxis calls this "the Great Change") in his realization of what it meant to live "the life of a servant of Jesus Christ and belong to the Church." However, he also encountered a Germany that was undergoing great changes of its own.

 

I'm going to steer away from the word (prophetic) that the author uses to describe Bonhoeffer's reflection on "the Fuhrer Principle" prior to Hitler's election, but it certainly showed quite a bit of foresight. While Bonhoeffer's treatment of the Fuhrer Principle is nuanced in its logic, it boils down to the idea that man is meant to seek salvation from only one authority, and that authority is the ultimate authority. 

 

The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority . . . we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him.

 

Nazi Germany and the Church:

Hitler was far too astute to think that he could be declared chancellor, denounce the church, and have death camps up and running all in one fell swoop. No, in fact, Hitler would readily invoke God and Christianity as "the basis for our collective morality," in the earliest days of his rule. 

 

Bishop Ludwig Muller greets Hitler

 

However, the heresy apparent to Bonhoeffer was not so readily apparent to much of the church leadership, as the need for unification and authority had intensified in the backlash to the Weimar Republic. By April of 1933, the Nazi regime goal of coordinating the Protestant churches under one Reich church had gained sufficient momentum for the leadership of the Protestant federation to be writing a new constitution for a national church, and elections for the Church Council (below) were held in late 1933 for the Reichsbishop.

 

Stormtroopers holding Deutsche Christen propaganda during the Church Council elections 

 

The Kirchenkampf (which means "church struggle"), happened in waves (see Five stages of Kirchenkampf) which I won't attempt to describe. Hitler's pick for bishop, Ludwig Muller, was not elected by the original Protestant federation council, so Hitler had to make several maneuvers before Muller could be "elected" and installed as Reich Bishop.

 

Installation of Reich Bishop Ludwig Muller  

 

The Aryan Paragraph and the Confessing Church:

Luckily, Bonhoeffer was not alone in his outrage regarding the changes in the Church-State relationship. The Aryan Paragraph (which barred all non-Aryans from civil service) proved to be the tipping point. Protestant Pastor Martin Niemoller, who had previously supported Hitler, formed the Pastors' Emergency League to consider whether or not they could accept this differentiation between Christians and Christians of Jewish descent (excluding the latter from the church). 

 

Aryan Paragraph 1934

 

And lo, the Confessing Church was born. Bonhoeffer, Niemoller and Karl Barth were among the pastors who decided that the adoption of the Aryan Paragraph was incompatible with the church of Jesus Christ. 

 

From Confession to Conspiracy:

Ok, so I'm not really going to describe this in any detail, but it's the name of a chapter, and I thought it was a pretty good one. Bonhoeffer did not think that his responsibility as a Christian could be restricted to schisms in the church. While some members of the Confessing Church were resisting political encroachment on their church activity, Bonhoeffer saw that there was a much larger problem at hand.

 

About half of this book is dedicated to closely examining how Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to the realization that it was not just his need, but his duty to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Suffice it to say that this wasn't a decision he made lightly.    

 

Bonhoeffer was a serious, rigorous man and one whose story is deservedly told and remembered. Metaxis opens the book with Bonhoeffer's funeral, contrasting it with the sentiment that "the only good German is a dead German." My only critique of the book would be the occasional backhanded pot shot at (admittedly terrible) individuals, not because they were wrong, but they seemed out of tone with the rest of the narrative and certainly un-Bonhoeffer-like.