Here is an interesting article that takes a deeper look at why the German Protestants supported Hitler. It certainly has implications for our day. It also might puncture a few easy simplifications we sometimes make.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote something in The Cost of Discipleship that keeps working on me. It went like this: only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.
Bonhoeffer sees this as a key pastoral insight.
In dealing with souls, it is essential for the pastor to bear in mind both sides of the proposition. When people complain, for instance, that they find it hard to believe, it is a sign of deliberate or unconscious disobedience. It is all too easy to put them off by offering the remedy of cheap grace. That only leaves the disease as bad as it was before, and makes the word of grace a sort of self-administered consolation, or a self-imparted absolution.
Bonhoeffer argues that the words “I struggle to believe” signal to the pastor “I have not obeyed.” In the next few paragraphs, he charts the mind and movement of the person who says the first as a signal and symptom of the second. But Bonhoeffer does not leave it at diagnosis.
The pastor should give up arguing with him, and stop taking his difficulties seriously. That will really be in the man’s own interest, for he is only trying to hide himself behind them. It is now time to take the bull by the horns, and say: “Only those who obey believe.” Thus the flow of the conversation is interrupted, and the pastor can continue: “You are disobedient, you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control. That is what is preventing you from listening to Christ and believing in his grace. You cannot hear Christ because you are willfully disobedient. Somewhere in your heart you are refusing to listen to his call. Your difficulty is your sins.”
God, recall these words to my mind the next time I am in need of them.
In Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, he expresses shock at the way we Christians twist and turn to escape the clear commands of Christ. Our preachers help us out in this by explaining away the hard teaching and the narrow way. When Jesus says turn the other cheek, he does not really mean accept another blow. He means twist back around so you can get a really good swing on your counter punch. When Jesus says seek first the kingdom of God, he really means seek other things first but be prepared to bet all on the coming kingdom if it comes to that.
Bonhoeffer will have none of this.
How is such absurdity possible? What has happened that the word of Jesus can be thus degraded by this trifling, and thus left open to the mockery of the world? When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: “Father tells me to go to bed, but he rally means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though father tells me to go to bed, he really means: ‘Go out and play.’” If a child tried such arguments on his father or a citizen on his government, they would both meet with a kind of language they could not fail to understand — in short they would be punished. Are we to treat the commandment of Jesus differently from other orders and exchange single-minded obedience for downright disobedience? How could that be possible!
Bonhoeffer writes that obedience to Christ pulls us into a place where faith is possible. It puts us in a place in which we can in fact have true faith, true trust, that Jesus Christ is our Savior.
I am reminded this day to be attentive to the word of Jesus Christ and to step out in obedience, not because I understand but because the grace of God gives me the faith to do so.
Reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer one day and Henri Nouwen the next is a bit like riding a see-saw.
Bonhoeffer tells us that the path to our true self is to find and follow and obey God.
Nouwen tells us that the path to God starts by delving into our inner and true selves.
When I read John Wesley, I hear Bonhoeffer’s voice much more strongly than Nouwen’s in the background.
We in the United Methodist Church say our mission is to make disciples.
Here is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says about discipleship in writing about Mark 2:14.
And what does the text inform us about the content of discipleship? Follow me, run along behind me! That is all. To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible programme for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 58)
This surely is not what we mean by “discipleship.” We are Methodists, after all. We have a program for everything. And yet, I find it difficult to dispute Bro. Bonhoeffer’s argument.
Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 89
I learned this lesson the hard way today.
And I learned I am like Peter. I brag about how much I’ll be there, Lord, to the end. And then the going gets tough and I’m huddling next to the fire in the courtyard denying I’ve ever heard of the guy.
I’m waiting now by the Sea of Galilee to find out if Jesus will meet me here and share some fish with me.
Here is one description of a Methodist society:
a company of people associating together, to help each other to work out their own salvation. (John Wesley)
A Methodist society was not a church, but the early Methodist societies did fulfill the mission that the United Methodist Church has set for itself. They were places where disciples grew. To the extent God changed lives through the society, the world was transformed little by little as well.
As I read Wesley’s description against the backdrop of conversations I hear and ideas I read these days, the thing that strikes me is the individualism that is at its core. The society is a place where people help each other work out their own salvation. At its core, salvation is between each individual person and God.
I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s similar counsel in his book Life Together, a book that is about groups of Christians but begins by asserting that the group only exists as a collection of individuals who each have their own relationship to Jesus Christ. It is only as individuals in Christ that they have any common or shared identity at all.
Wesley and Bonhoeffer both remind us that Christ calls us each by name. We live together. We form the body. But you cannot work out my salvation for me. You cannot answer my call. I cannot answer yours.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observations about American Christianity in the 1930s might speak to us still today. We may not preach so much on the news headlines, but does this visitor from Germany notice anything that still holds true of our American Christianity?
The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have only heard one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in general I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negores.) One big questions continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity …. There’s no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached. But then what becomes of Christianity per se?
In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.
Barth said that it was impossible to do theology at all unless you started from the assumption that God, in fact, exists. In early 20th century Germany, this was a controversial assertion.
Equally interesting to me was the story of Bonhoeffer’s family religion. He had been raised in a family that had strong connections to the Moravian traditions founded by Count Zinzendorf, who John Wesley both learned from and later rejected.
The United Methodists declared Bonhoeffer a martyr in 2008. Although I always saw the affinities between Wesley and Bonhoeffer by reading their works, I did not know Count Zinzendorf had influence on both of them.
It is impossible to understand Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge without becoming acquainted with the shocking capitulation of the German church to Hitler in the 1930s. How could the ‘church of Luther,’ the great teacher of the gospel, have ever come to such a place? The answer is that the true gospel, summed up by Bonhoeffer as costly grace, had been lost. On the one hand, the church had become marked by formalism. That meant going to church and hearing that God just loves and forgives everyone, so it doesn’t really matter much how you live. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace. On the other hand, there was legalism, or salvation by law and good works. Legalism meant that God loves you because you have pulled yourself together and are trying to live a good, disciplined life.
As I read Keller’s assessment, I am struck by how much these two errors seem to be with us always. Did not Jesus preach both against hollow formalism and self-righteous legalism? Did not John Wesley? Did not the prophets of Israel? Do not many today?
We find Bonhoeffer – and his contemporary repeaters – so engaging not because he has discovered something new, but because he has unearthed and shown us again something ancient and true.