Illegal Theologians

Illegal Theologians July 26, 2018

I walked into our campus bible study at the University of Arkansas with a reader’s edition of Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship in hand. Eleanor Neel, an active member of the Bonhoeffer Society (she volunteers in various capacities with them, is a deep scholar of Bonhoeffer, and last year brought Victoria Barnett, editor of Bonhoeffer’s Works in English, to Fayetteville for a lecture), sometimes attends the study. She noted I was holding Discipleship, and said, “You know, Bonhoeffer later said he could see the dangers of that book…”

That was intriguing, and a bit scary. Did I want to jump into re-reading it after that warning? It made me turn the volume over and over in hand the next few days. Then on Sunday, I had a note in my mailbox at church from Eleanor, handwritten, a quote from volume 8, Letters and Papers from Prison. In a letter to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel Prison (July 21, 1944, written a day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler of July 20th, and about nine months before his execution in April of 1945), Bonhoeffer had written:

I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote Discipleship as the end of that path. TODAY I CAN SEE THE DANGERS OF THAT BOOK, though I still stand by what I wrote.

Eleanor had mentioned to me that the letter from Tegel prison explains how Bonhoeffer had come to see being a Christian meant living a this-worldliness of life (sharing in God’s sufferings in the world) vs. a homo religiosus life (like the earlier work he had done in forming a separate seminary for the confessing church).

So I started wondering: how did Bonhoeffer think about his work at separating the Confessing Church from the German Church? Digging out another volume in the Works (Volume 15, Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940), I found his Lecture on the Path of the Young Illegal Theologians. By this point in Bonhoeffer’s career, he was working with confessing theologians and pastors willing to risk career and even life in order to remain faithful to the gospel. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen writes of Bonhoeffer’s formation of the seminary for the Confessing Church:

He therefore reminded the Confessing Church’s Council of Brethren that it consented, after he returned from England, to allow him to found a House of Brethren as a spiritual centre. Of his first group of students, six wanted to stay and were allowed to do so, and with them Bonhoeffer was able to pursue the ideas inspired by his visits to the Anglican monasteries…The chief task for all members of the House of Brethren…was to maintain their “life together” with firm rules. Thus, as each new group of ordinands arrived, they found a monastic community life already established, and did not have to be persuaded to adapt themselves to it ( Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance)

Bonhoeffer perceived that grace had been secularized to the modern age, and in the process cheapened.  So discipleship at this stage for him was a call to the costly grace of discipleship modeled especially in monastic community (even if qualified by the Reformation discovery of bringing monasticism out of the monastery and into the world).

But within a few years, Bonhoeffer had moved to a new center, a new this-worldly spirituality that he recognized as somehow different from the theology of Discipleship. He became a co-conspirator in the resistance against Hitler. Rather than a retreat into monasticism (or a retreat to New York City to teach), he stayed in Germany, involved himself in the world, and so was implicated and ultimately arrested.

It leaves you wondering, how could he change? And how could he change while continuing to stand by that which he had written before?

A long quote from his lecture to the young illegal theologians helps us understand:

One now looks to justify our paths not for the past but for the future. We expect from Scripture such concrete directives that we are released from acting on faith; one wants to see the path before walking on it. One demands the certainty that the path will certainly be pleasing to God before starting the journey. One says: if we could be absolutely certain on the basis of Scripture that the path of the Council of Brethren is pleasing to God, then we would follow it. Demonstrate this from Scripture and we will follow. Thus I want to have the scriptural evidence in my pocket as the guarantee for my path. But the Bible can never fulfill this kind of request either, because it is not intended to be an insurance policy for our paths, which may become dangerous. The Bible does only one thing: it calls us to faith and obedience in the truth that we know in Jesus Christ. Scripture points not to our paths but to the truth of God. Let no one among you think after this meeting today that he can go home armed with scriptural evidence that justifies his decision for the Council of Brethren; if so, he misunderstands both the Scripture and the essence of faith. The Scriptural evidence does not spare us from faith but actually leads us into the venture of faith and obedience to God’s word, and it strengthens us in this. According to Scripture we do not first know and comprehend the way and then decide to follow it; it is rather then one who is on the journey who knows that he is on the right way. Knowledge comes only in action and decision. Only he who is in truth will recognize the truth. Jesus says: “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God” (John 7:17). For this reason, scriptural evidence can be provided only along the way, that is, for the one who believes. (Lecture on the Path of the Young Illegal Theologians, 420-421; mimeographed version of Bonhoeffer’s lecture on October 26, 1938, an extraordinary meeting of the Confession Church Council of Brethren in Pomerania).

Bonhoeffer found himself in the unimaginable position of having to oppose the very church in which he had been raised, and oppose the country of his birth and allegiance. By staying faithful, he was displaced. By pursuing the truth, he became illegal. However, speaking to this group of theologians, he could only show them the way by his own example. He could recognize the truth by being in the truth, and say, “I’m going this way and not that way.”

But he couldn’t offer them certainty. Solidarity, yes. Certainty, no. This is especially difficult for a group of faithful who wonder why they should take the radical step of going down this path (confessing) when there are clearly so many risks, and when the majority German Christians were criticizing, ostracizing, and threatening them. In such a situation, it would be especially nice to be offered certainty.

Instead, Bonhoeffer offers them the cross. And rather than the pious focus on the cross as an object of veneration or worship, even at this time Bonhoeffer was preaching the more difficult and costly way. “Yes, dear congregation, there is still one word to be said… whether we have truly found the peace of God will be proven by the way we deal with the afflictions that come upon us. There are many Christians who certainly bend their knees before the cross of Jesus Christ but who refuse and struggle against any affliction in their own lives. They think that they love the cross of Christ, but they hate the cross in their own lives. Thus in truth they also hate the cross of Jesus Christ; in truth they who try to escape the cross by all means possible, are despisers of the cross… therefore, whoever hates affliction, renunciation, crisis, slander, and imprisonment in their life might otherwise talk about the cross with big words, but nonetheless hates the cross of Jesus and has no peace with God. But whoever loves the cross of Jesus Christ, whoever has found peace in his cross, also begins to love the affliction in their own life. And finally they will be able to speak with Scripture: ‘but we also boast in afflictions'” (Sermon on Romans 5:1-5).

We can draw many parallels today to the American Church. Think most recently of the House Chaplain’s firing. Remaining centered in his own Roman Catholic tradition, he suddenly finds himself on the outs with an establishment that in the past would have heard his prayers as faithful, but in a new and more partisan context hears them as political.

Or more generally, the comparison can and should be made between establishment Christianity in the United States and its proximity to the regime. How comfortable establishment Christianity is with its power, and how ready to perceive even the slightest loss of power as persecution. Much of American Christianity has been so co-opted by the various regimes of power (the market, the state, etc.) that it does not even know where God is to be found in God’s suffering. It has thoroughly confused the cross with glory, and vice versa.

This is why Bonhoeffer’s elusive proposal of this-worldly Christianity intrigues all of us who come after him: first because he only hints at it in his letters, and we have no longer treatise to work from to understand what he meant.

But also because his this-worldly Christianity might only be “understood along the way.” We might only understand it when we find ourselves, like Bonhoeffer, in extremis: in prison, excluded, marginalized, sharing in God’s sufferings in the world. Or as Paul writes, when we become, “and are still, the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13).

Illegal theologians.

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