I am following up my blog about the Underground Seminary with thoughts on Bonhoeffer’s views about community and theological education. While the Underground Seminary founded by teaching elder Jin S. Kim, John Nelson, and Laura Newby, of the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, is supposedly modeled after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde seminary during the Nazi years, it is instead, evidently, influenced by progressive ideologies and sees community as a counter movement against western colonialism, consumerism and individualism. It is meant to develop disciples by rooting out the ‘logic and impulses of empire.’
But Finkenwalde was created in order to train pastors who would be faithful to the word of God. Bonhoeffer clung to a realism that was grounded in the incarnation—Jesus Christ was truly human and truly God. Finkenwalde was not about un-doing fascism, (a worthy cause), Finkenwalde was about raising up pastors who loved the Lord of the Church and loved each other.
I am using Bonhoeffer’s Life together, written during the founding of Finkenwalde, to explore his views. I will write another posting, looking at a lecture which was sent as a letter to those seminarians who emerged from the illegal seminary and were struggling with faithfulness because of the German church struggle. The lecture is “Lecture on the Path of the Young Illegal Theologians of the Confessing Church, October 26, 1938.”
Almost immediately Bonhoeffer, in his book, Life Together, lays out the only real reasons for Christian unity and fellowship. This he hoped the seminarians would grasp. Bonhoeffer gives three reasons and then enlarges on each one. The first is that a Christian needs “others because of Christ.” Because humanity is sinful and can only live from the righteousness of Christ and can only live from the word of God they need to hear that word coming from the lips of others, “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.” Bonhoeffer puts it strongly and clearly:
All we can say, therefore, is: the community of Christians springs solely from the Biblical and Reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another.
The second reason for Christian community is “A Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ.” As Bonhoeffer puts it, “without Christ we would not know God, we could not call upon Him, nor come to Him. But without Christ we also would not know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our ego. Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother” And Bonhoeffer goes on to explain that this bonding with our Christian brothers and sisters is an eternal bonding. That is found in the third reason.
The third reason for the fellowship of Christians is “that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.” And this is where Bonhoeffer’s faith affirms the goodness of God’s creation and takes seriously the world in which we live. It is because Jesus has taken on human flesh and as a human he both lived, died and experienced a fleshly resurrection. And in our unity with Christ we are forever with brothers and sisters.
Pulling us all together in our unity with Jesus, Bonhoeffer writes:
We who live here in fellowship with him will one day be with him in eternal fellowship. He who looks upon his brother should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ. Christian community through and in Jesus Christ. On this presupposition rests everything that the Scriptures provide in the way of directions and precepts for the communal life of Christians.
Here is a unity and fellowship that can only boast in Jesus Christ. A community without the center, Christ Jesus and his righteousness alone, is not a Christian community whether it is called church, is a simple gathering of friends or is a seminary. Its whole purpose comes naturally and grows naturally because of its unity with Christ. Outside of Jesus as center there is no real Christian purpose, since there is no real Christian unity.
The rest of Life Together covers the day’s activities from morning devotional with biblical reading in community to singing, eating, ministry and confession, etc. Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about biblical reading in the context of thinking about theological education is important. He speaks of families and seminarians or even those alone, reading the biblical books in sequence. And of how this places us into the actual events:
Consecutive reading of Biblical books forces everyone who wants to hear to put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men. We become a part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jorden into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s faithfulness. All of this is not mere reverie but holy, godly reality. We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace. It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of our present life, however important that is; but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the history of Christ on earth. And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also.
Bonhoeffer could have changed theological training into political denunciation and re-education using all of the various ideologies of his day. He chose to emphasize training in the Scripture and proclamation. That was enough to make him an enemy, it is still enough to make enemies. Edwin Robertson in his biography of Bonhoeffer, The Shame and the Sacrifice, writes of the academic part of the seminary:
Bonhoeffer himself did the teaching—homilectics, [sic] catechetics, pastoralia, exegesis – and his lectures were given from very carefully prepared notes. His method of sermon instruction was peculiarly his own. He would set the students a very difficult text – often highly theoretical or remote – and require them to draft a sermon on it. These would be read out and then he would show by example how that remote text could be preached.
After the seminary closed Bonhoeffer had his students, who were in ministry, send him their sermons and he sent out his own commentary on texts.
All of this is not to say that Bonhoeffer’s seminary neglected the social and communal life of his students. The church and its ministries are rooted in the incarnation. God both created and loved the world. A letter from one of Bonhoeffer’s students confirms the joy and meaning that Finkenwalde gave to the students. The student mentions “music, literature, sports, and the beauty of the earth; a generous style of life that favorably combined the culture of old homes with the uninhibited forms of community of young men.” Nothing in any of the information given about Finkenwalde suggests that the students were pushed beyond their calling to do ministry and proclaim the gospel. Their subject was Christ and the word of God.
Finkenwalde was true to Barmen, the Confessing Church’s confession:
“The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, puposes, and plans.” (8.26-8.27)
Picture by Ethan McHenry
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, Vol. 15, Dirk Schulz, editor, Victoria J. Barnett, editor, English edition, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2012) 6.