Bonhoeffer’s dissertation was strongly influenced by his travels to Italy in 1924 and centered on the Socratic dialectical question: What is the church? It was ultimately titled “Sanctorum Communio: A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church.” In his thesis Bonhoeffer would recognize the church as neither a historical entity nor an institution, but as “Christ existing as church-community.” In 1927 Bonhoeffer not only passed his doctoral examination, but out of the 12 doctoral graduates in theology from Berlin University that year, only Bonhoeffer was granted the honor of summa cum laude.
Bonhoeffer lived a courageous life, a meaningful, passionate, excellent and a righteous life. At several critical points in his brief 39 years he was literally that man of God the prophet Ezekiel would say, “stood in the gap.” For example, Bonhoeffer in Harlem rejected the cold, dead, social-justice theology of liberalism and progressivism (e.g., “religionless Christianity”) so fashionable at Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Riverside Church – built specially for him by John D. Rockefeller’s money. Regarding Union Theological Seminary, where Bonhoeffer was a fellow (1930-31), he bluntly proclaimed, “There is no theology here.”
Bonhoeffer stood in the gap as a young teenager studying theology with the world’s most renowned theologians. He elegantly acquitted himself reminiscent of the young Jesus in the Temple who, according to the Gospel of Luke (2:46), was found “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.”
Finally, Bonhoeffer stood in the gap by his faithful and undying conviction that real Christianity was based not on cheap grace, but costly grace. Cheap grace is rooted in liberal theology, formalism and progressivism and says that miracles are mythology and that since God loves and forgives everyone it really doesn’t matter what you believe. By the time Hitler and the Nazis came to power in January 1933, most Germans didn’t know what real grace was about – “God forgives; that’s his job” was a proverbial saying of the day.
As we move into 2012, let us remember Bonhoeffer’s faithful love of truth, his courage, his martyrdom, where Hitler personally gave the order to hang Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators with piano wire and unceremoniously burned his body at Flossenbürg concentration camp: the costly grace for fighting Hitler and the Nazis. But most importantly let us remember Bonhoeffer’s enduring legacy that preached costly grace that changes you from the inside out – a transcendent grace that no government program, no liberal religion, progressive politics, or Nazi philosophy could ever achieve, silence … or murder.