Friday, August 22, 2014

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on obeying a heretical church

Johan Christian Dahl: Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway, 1832
I have been writing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s seminary, Finkenwalde, versus the Underground Seminary connected to the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis.[1] While reading old material and new, I discovered a lecture Bonhoeffer gave and then turned into a letter to his past seminary students. It is a letter worthy of our own times although there are, of course, some important differences. But the questions being answered are similar. So are the denunciations by enemies. And I must call them enemies because of their total intolerance.

The lecture and letter is about whether the Finkenwalde students should seek ordination through the consistories of the official German Christians, or go by way of the Council of the Brethren formed by the Confessing Church. To go by way of the Council of the Brethren make the students illegal pastors and their future was at stake. But as Bonhoeffer saw it, if they did become pastors through the consistories, their faith and the faith of those they would shepherd were endangered.

Bonhoeffer using both the Theological Declaration of Barmen and the Message of Dahlem,[2] and more importantly Scripture, admonished his past students to faithfulness. He considered the church under the direction of the German Christians heretical and its pastors self-called.

Some of the differences between our own church struggle in the mainline denominations and the German church struggle is that the German Christians were aligned with the German government. Although liberal in their Christology and biblical understanding, they were willing to embrace racism, anti-Semitism, and nationalism as a means of pulling more Germans into the churches. They were also eager for power. But within these differences is the shadow of similarity in the American church struggle, particularly in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The mainline denominations are not controlled by the government of the United States, however, they are willing to let go of biblical morality in order to conform to the culture and laws of progressive states that affirm same gender marriage and they fight to uphold laws that allow the killing of live aborted children. It must also be said that some of them embrace organizations who are anti-Semitic at their core. The shadow may be morphing into a solid reality.

One other similarity is that both the mainline denominations, in particular PC (U.S.A.), and the German Christians had and have confessions and creeds that affirm biblical truth. Both can and did say, “See in our confessions we affirm that Jesus is Lord,” or “Christ Jesus died for our sins,” or “Scripture is the written word of God,” while allowing [3]pastors and elders to deny the most basic of Christian truths.

So the answers for Bonhoeffer had to do with the connection between what he considered the true church and the heretical church. Bonhoeffer named some of the questions but refused to acknowledge them as legitimate and yet he is answering some of them. Here are some of the questions and his answers.

Can the order and proclamation of the church  be changed?

The German Christians attempted to change both the order and the proclamation of the church. Bonhoeffer turns to Scripture. “Eph. 4: 15 ‘But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined and knit together.’  Bonhoeffer acknowledges that the church is gathered around proclamation and sacraments but he goes on to insist that the church is more, it is the whole Christian life lived by the whole body with Christ as head. Bonhoeffer writes:

When the proclamation becomes false, the church’s concern must be true proclamation; when the church’s order is destroyed, then the church’s concern must be true order; when the practice of Christian life or love is hindered, then the church must nonetheless follow God’s commandments alone.

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that the Synod of Dahlem called for the use of the word to correct church order and proclamation. This was why the Councils of Brethren were formed so that pastors would no longer be ruled by consistories whose members were elected through a political system that had nothing to do with Scripture or calling.

The next question has to do with the ‘one church’ and church unity.

Bonhoeffer was clearly against schism and understood that the church was one. But his answer to the young theologians and others was that the German Christians were causing the division. He writes:

The entire church was threatened, so action was required for its sake. Let us remember that we stood up for the sake of church unity, in order to avoid schism and division. But who is causing the division; those who dissolve and destroy the teaching and order of the church or those who affirm and uphold it. … ‘One body and one spirit,’ this was the question, but how is this possible other than that there be also ‘one Lord, one faith’ (Eph. 4:5)?

Bonhoeffer then goes on to speak of how the body has joy together and suffers together.  But he reminds the young theologians that this is a natural part of being members of the body of Christ. And then he writes of the church’s need for leaders who will teach truth rather then falsehood. Here Bonhoeffer is pleading with his former students to stay with the Confessing Church for the sake of the congregations which leads to the next question.

Who should be leading the church? “The proclamation is bound to the church’s commission.”

This section has everything to do with God’s call or sending rather than human intentions. Bonhoeffer uses Jesus’ call to pray for workers in the field. He writes:

When Jesus sees the people [Volk], he has compassion for them because they are parched with thirst and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd. But he does not awaken his disciples’ own offer to proclaim the gospel, nor does he appeal to their love for the people [Volk] and the church-community, but he says: “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38) In a situation that is very similar to ours, Jesus calls not for self-empowerment action but to prayer, asking God to send preachers.

God builds his kingdom, not we. Nowhere in Scripture does someone come to his ministry without being called, since this is not a matter of pious behavior but God’s own work.

With these thoughts of it being all God’s call and his work, Bonhoeffer points out that this would not be true if one accepted a call from the enemies of God’s church.  And this leads to probably the main focus of the lecture and letter.

Is it disobedience to Christ to obey a heretical church regime [government]?

Bonhoeffer is very clear here, “A church regime is bound to become heretical when it acknowledges other bonds for its ministries … than that to the gospel alone.” In addition, and I believe this is being proven true in the American mainline denominations, “It[the church government] thereby necessarily becomes the oppressor of those who act only out of this bond, and it becomes the promoter of false teaching and lies.”

The German Christians acknowledged such bonds as Aryan ethnicity, new revelation such as, God was revealing himself through the Führer and Jesus as the noble hero rather than the crucified Savior.  These German bonds at first simply existed alongside the good news of Jesus life, death and resurrection, but they became the means of a systematic elimination of the good news.

The post-modern denominations have also began ministries that have evolved from other bonds. The ministries based on nothing but equality or justice, minus the redeeming Lordship of Christ and the authority of his word, have shaped denominational ideologies which not only leave out the good news they ignore  their own values and create victims who suffer without mercy. For instance the millions of babies killed in the womb and the babies aborted alive who are also killed. The weakest in society are given no justice. This too eliminates the good news.

Bonhoeffer warns his past students to remember how the sin of Israel evolved from the sin of Jeroboam, who sat up a false worship system allowing whoever desired to become priests, to Ahab who allowed the worship of the Baals and the office of priest to be filled by the immoral priests of Baal. He also reminds his readers of how King Saul went from disobedience to consulting a witch.  

Bonhoeffer writes:

A congregation that no longer takes seriously its separation from false teaching    no longer takes truth seriously, that is, it does not take salvation seriously, and ultimately that means it does not take itself seriously, regardless of how pious or how well organized it is.  Those who obey false teachers, and promote and encourage them, are no longer obedient to Christ. Here it is said: “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matt 6:24).

Here a footnote states, “The NRSV here has ‘God and wealth,’ but Bonhoeffer’s German text is ‘Mammon”: he is referring here to the German Christian—controlled finance departments that were putting pressure on Confessing congregations.”

Bonhoeffer ends this pleading, and it is a pleading, with remembrance of God’s care and comfort. Like one of the first martyrs of the Confessing Church, Paul Schneider, he refers to the troubles as waves of the ocean, but reminds the pastors that Christ is stronger:

“We will become free of worry only when we abide firmly in the truth that we know and let ourselves be guided by it alone. But if we stare at the waves rather than looking to the Lord, then we will be lost. For many of us it is a huge temptation—we need to say this—when again and again brothers are urgently telling us to look at the waves; see the storm; there can be no happy-end. This is the temptation toward unbelief. We do not wish and cannot deny that there are waves, but we want not to look at them but at Christ who is stronger than them. If only this could finally be understood! In the world it is different, but in the church it can only be this way.”

[2] From the online Encyclopedia Britannica, “At the end of 1934, at the second synod of the Confessing Church at Dahlem, the church proclaimed its emergency law: the true church in Germany was that which accepted the Barmen Declaration, and, where church leadership was no longer faithful to the true confession, ministers and parishes were to follow the orders of the Confessing Church. Thus, in practice, two Protestant churches developed in Germany: the one under state control and the Confessing Church, which the state did not recognize. The Confessing Church, together with the churches of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Hanover (which had remained independent of Nazi rule), formed the provisional government of the German Evangelical Church.
[3] “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on thee Path of the Young Illegal Theologians,” Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, vol. 15, German Editor Dirk Schulz, English Editor, Victoria J. Barnett, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2012) 422.  


Jeff Winter said...

I am blessed and greatly encouraged in my spirit by reading this Viola. Thank you for making the parallels between Bonhoffer and the PCUSA. I will use this piece with my session.

Anonymous said...


Projecting Bonhoeffer's polemic with the State run German Lutheran Church onto the disagreement you have with the PCUSA both trivializes the real catastrophe that occurred in Germany in the 30s and 40s that spawned the cruel death of 10s of millions and the suffering hardship of 100s of millions of people around the globe, but it also blows your complaint against the PCUSA so out of proportion that it makes it impossible to address.

If people like Jeff Winter use such rhetoric with their Sessions it will only sow discord and factionalism in the church, without providing any hope of the Gospel being heard.

I seriously doubt that was Bonhoeffer's intent.

I dare say he viewed the totality of American Christianity - liberal and conservative - in a whole different light than he viewed what was happening in Germany in his time.

Jodie Gallo
Los Angeles, CA

Viola Larson said...

Jeff I am glad this helps. The comparison cannot be drawn to tightly but the outline is the same. One of the things that should make us shudder is the fact that the Nazis were forcing their several euthanasia programs which did kill all of those they found unworthy of life. Here we have not only secular society, but also supposedly Christians willing to kill those they consider unworthy of life including children aborted alive.

Viola Larson said...

Jodie, if I remember rightly, I corrected this before. It wasn't the "State run German Lutheran Church" that Bonhoeffer was disagreeing with. It was the German Christians and their control of a federation of churches called the German Evangelical church which was a combination of Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches. And that term evangelical does not have the same definition as evangelical in the United States.

The German Christians were a party that had formed before Hitler came to power. They were preceded by the league for a German Church which was formed in 1921. As Arthur Cochrane states: "[they] strove to reform the Church along nationalistic lines and to free it from its 'Judaistic' characteristics."

As to the German Christians as Cochrane stated: "The 'German Christians' regarded from the standpoint of Christian faith, were a liberal, nationalistic sect which, at the initiative of the National Socialist Party, formed a union of various schools and groups. These schools and groups, in spite of all differences, were united in their nationalistic tendencies and liberal Christianity."

To go back to the German league, they "demanded that the Old Testament no longer be accepted as canonical, that Paul's rabbinic principle of redemption be done away; and that Jesus death be presented as a heroic sacrifice in line with German mysticism."

Most of the German Christians carried on these same beliefs. And how many times have I heard Presbyterian theologians and pastors suggest that parts of the Old Testament could not possibly be true. How many deny the redemption of Jesus Christ by his death on the cross. We are moving in that direction. We are not there--it is not the same events but the patterns are the same.