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ELLIS WASHINGTON: Bonhoeffer in Berlin

Posted By Ellis Washington On 12/30/2011 @ 4:27 pm In Commentary,Opinion | No Comments

The Bible texts are not just historical sources, but [as] agents of revelation, not merely specimens of writing, but sacred canon.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ph.D. thesis (1927)

As we approach New Year’s Day 2012, I am continuing my reading of a revelatory biography on one of my favorite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. April 9, 1945), who, although a pacifist, became a Christian martyr who from the beginning of Germany’s love affair with madness fought tirelessly and gallantly against Hitler’s fascist government and Nazi genocide: a demonic, unquenchable bloodlust that martyred him at Flossenbürg concentration camp just two weeks before liberation by U.S. forces. The book is titled, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” (2010) by Eric Metaxas.

Bonhoeffer’s main reason for studying at Berlin University was its world-renowned theology faculty, which had included the legendary Friedrich Schleiermacher whose Weltanschauung (worldview) still dominated the theology department. When Bonhoeffer arrived in 1924 the theology faculty at Berlin University was headed by Schleiermacher’s disciple, Adolf von Harnack, who was one of the champions of the historical-critical method, or liberal theology of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Harnack’s approach to the Bible was restricted to textual and historical-critical analysis, which had led him to conclude that all of the miracles described in the Bible are myths and that the Gospel of John was not canonical.

Bonhoeffer attended Harnack’s popular seminar for three semesters and respected the venerable scholar greatly, though he seldom agreed with his theological conclusions. Helmuth Goes, a classmate of Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of those great debates at Harnack’s seminar:

What really impressed me was not just the fact that he [Bonhoeffer] surpassed almost all of us in theological knowledge and capacity but hearing a young fair-haired student contradict the revered historian, his Excellency von Harnack, contradict him politely but clearly on positive theological grounds. Harnack answered, but the student contradicted again and again.

Besides Harnack, there were other Berlin University professors which had a particular influence on Bonhoeffer including Karl Holl, the greatest Luther scholar of his generation; Reinhold Seeberg, who specialized in systematic theology and under whom Bonhoeffer wrote his doctoral thesis; and Adolf Deissman, who exposed Bonhoeffer to the ecumenical movement and later provided the means by which he became involved in the conspiracy against Hitler.

However, it was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth of Göttingen who was Bonhoeffer’s greatest teacher and a friend. Barth was arguably the most important theologian of the century. In 1934 Barth would be kicked out of Germany for refusing to swear his allegiance to Hitler and who in response would become the principal author of the Barmen Declaration, in which the Confessing Church boldly repudiated Hitler’s ghastly intent to synthesize Nazi philosophy with German church doctrine.

Regarding the existential battle between conservative and liberal Christianity in 1920s Germany, Metaxas wrote:

The debate during Bonhoeffer’s time between the neo-orthodox Barthians and the historical-critical liberals was similar to the contemporary one between strict Darwinian evolutionists and advocates of so-called Intelligent Design. The latter allow the possible involvement of something “outside the system” – some Intelligent Creator, whether divine or other – while the former reject this by definition. Theological liberals like Harnack felt it was “unscientific” to speculate on who God was; the theologian must simply study what is here, which is to say the texts and the history of those texts. But the Barthians said no: the God on the other side of the fence had revealed himself through these texts, and the only reason for these texts was to know him.

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.


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