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Lessons from Bonhoeffer, Part 3

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2022 14 Jan

Post-World War I Germany was a distinctly Christian nation. So much so that, as Eric Metaxas writes in BonhoefferPastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, “even families who didn’t go to church were often deeply Christian.” And that is deeply troubling, given the country’s provocation of World War II and the horrors of the Third Reich. 

It is often asked how a nation steeped in Christian heritage could have embraced a madman whose messianic fancies led the world into war and six million Jews to their deaths. Among the firebrands of atheism, the blame lies squarely on religion, which, Sam Harris is fond of saying, is a “living spring of violence.” For those less trenchant, it is still cause to question the putative virtues of Christianity as a force for good.

A toxic mix

As Metaxas masterfully unfolds the story, the failure of Germany was due not to the failure of Christianity but, rather, to the toxic mixture of misplaced nationalism and “cheap grace.”

Because of Martin Luther’s influence in founding the nation, Christians viewed loyalty to the Fatherland as one of their foremost duties. That led to the creation of a state-church and Christians who had difficulty distinguishing between Caesar’s due and God’s due. By the time Adolph Hitler seized the reins of Germany with his clenched fist, the church had become his docile servant, and Christians his useful idiots.

Contributing to the fecklessness of the domesticated church was a faith neutered of any culture-shaping power. Long before WWII, Christianity, as an all-encompassing belief system, had been reduced to a religion of personal piety sequestered in the private corners of German life. Five years before Hitler ascended to power, Bonhoeffer lamented: “We build [God] a temple, but we live in our own houses”; on Sunday morning “one gladly withdraws for a couple of hours, but only to get back to one’s place of work immediately afterward.” It was a symptom of Christianity without discipleship, cheap grace.

As Bonhoeffer saw it, the problem of cheap grace was a problem of spiritual leadership. Seminaries of the day were launching clergy into the world with no training in disciple-making or spiritual formation. Metaxas writes that German “theological education [was producing] out-of-touch theologians and clerics whose ability to live the Christian life—and help others live that life—was not much in evidence.”

Training the leaders

Distressed over the number of young theologians who didn’t know how to study the Bible or pray, and consequently, had only a thin understanding of Scripture, Bonhoeffer started a seminary under the auspices of the Confessing Church.

In contrast to the emphases in traditional curricula, Bonhoeffer immersed his seminarians in the spiritual disciplines. The routine included daily readings of the Old Testament, New Testament and Psalms, meditation, Bible study, and prayer. He stressed the importance of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, prohibiting the use of outside sources during their daily interactions with the Word.

Among the ordinands, Bonhoeffer demonstrated the principles of servant leadership, performing common household chores as one of them. He taught the need of stepping out of the study and into the community, to learn how to reach people, where they were, with the transforming grace of God. He modeled the importance of mentoring and accountability in their Christian formation.

Years earlier, Bonhoeffer, discerning the need for critical thinking in the younger generation, had started the Thursday Circle: a group of young men that, under his able guidance, met weekly for discussions on topics ranging from theology and religion to politics and the pressing issues of the day.

Later, as seminary director, Bonhoeffer was mentor to his young ordinands. Taking seriously St. James’s instruction “confess your sins to one another,” he initiated the practice of accountability, involving confession and mutual submission. Bonhoeffer led by example, choosing Eberhard Bethge as his accountability partner and confessor, a relationship that would continue until Bonhoeffer’s execution in a Nazi death camp.

The church stammers

The march toward the Fuhrer’s Final Solution began with two calculated steps... Continue reading here.