Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Man of God

As we approach the 70th anniversary of what would become World War II when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 we would do well to remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was indeed a great theologian and even more importantly a great and principled Man of God.

Indeed, from a very young age, Mr. Bonhoeffer had a strong desire to enter the ministry. Expected to follow his father into psychiatry, Bonhoeffer surprised and dismayed his parents when he decided by age of fourteen to become a theologian and later a pastor. When his older brother told him not to waste his life in such a "poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the Church", 14-year-old Dietrich replied: "If what you say is true, I shall reform it!"

Bonhoeffer did indeed go into ministry and become a theologian. He held several teaching posts in America; one was in the Harlem area as well. He held a teaching post at Union Theological Seminary in New York and several teaching posts in his native Germany as well.

Most importantly, however, was the stands he took against the evils of Nazism. He was one of the founding members of a covenant with other pastors called the Pastors Emergency League, which was to resist the Nazi-sponsored state church. They later would establish the Confessing Church, which did basically the same thing as well. After a brief stint in London, Bonhoeffer would establish an underground theological seminary for those wishing to enter the Confessing Church. Unfortunately, his teaching credential with the University of Berlin was revoked in 1936 as he was deemed an "enemy of the state". Bonhoeffer's efforts for the underground seminaries also included securing the needed funds, and he found a great benefactor in Ruth von Kleist-Retzow. In the dire times that he found himself in, his former students and their wives would take refuge in her Pomeranian estate and Bonhoeffer himself was a frequent guest. By August 1937, Himmler outlawed the education of Confessing church pastoral candidates and In September 1937, the Gestapo closed the seminary at Finkenwalde and by November arrested 27 pastors and former students. It was around this time that Bonhoeffer published his best-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, a study on the Sermon on the Mount in which he attacked "cheap grace" as a cover for ethical laxity and preached "costly grace".

Bonhoeffer spent the next two years secretly travelling from one eastern German village to another to conduct "seminary on the run" supervising of his students, most of whom were working illegally in small parishes. He was banned from Berlin by the gestapo in 1938. It was at this time that Union Theological Seminary in New York extended for him to come back to the states, which he did for a brief time. However, Bonhoeffer felt that he had made the wrong decision. He wrote to fellow pastor Reinhold Niebuhr: "I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the recon­struction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people...Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security."

After arriving on the last scheduled steamer to Germany, he continued making brave stands for his underground seminary and churches. He would eventually pay the ultimate price and be executed on April 9, 1945.

I believe that this man was greatly used of God. There was one account from one of the camp doctors on the date of Dr. Bonhoeffer's execution that is particularly telling: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer ... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

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