Blogging Bonhoeffer: Chapter Seven "Berlin 1933"

Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Revised Edition, 2000. pg. 257-324
Chapter Seven “Berlin 1933”

Maybe the clearest sign that Eberhard Bethge moved from the general to the particular in tone is when he began marking the months. Whereas in previous chapters he splits the sections topically, based on duties or ideas. Here, in 1933 he moves from January to September chronicling every action in the church struggle between the Nazi German Christians and what comes to be known as the Confessing Church—the church that by returning to the Scriptures and their foundations, tried to theologically remove a vicious poison from the faith.

The events of 1933 are renowned. The speed with which Hitler moved from being president to becoming Reich Fuhrer, using the insecurity of the German situation to obtain complete control. Did it happen overnight? No, but in overt and subtle ways every aspect of life gradually moved into compliance with the political. Bethge notes the immediate changes that thrust Dietrich into uncertainty:

The political turning point on 30 January 1933 would force Bonhoeffer’s life onto a different course. It did not require a reorientation of his personal convictions or theology, but it became increasingly clear that academic discussion must give way to action. It was imperative to relinquish the shelter and privilege of the academic rostrum, as well as the protected “rights and duties of the ministry,” if the power of weakness were to be credible. (Bethge, 258)

That “power of weakness” is key here. Here is where Bonhoeffer’s theologia crucis, his important Christology lectures, demanded satisfaction. If God, as Dietrich says, is present where we encounter the other, then who but the Jew–the victim of Germany’s Other-ing–shows us the true face of Christ? This thought developed throughout this period and later, but the important point is that Bonhoeffer committed himself to this task.

Up to now the young lecturer and preacher had not been involved in decisions concerning greater church issues. He had no voice, nor indeed had he desire any. Now at the age of twenty-seven, he found himself among those whose names had suddenly become prominent. (Ibid.)

First is Bonhoeffer’s radio address which is cut off, then is the Berlin ecumenical meeting of the World Alliance and the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work. After the Reichstag burned, Hitler declared his emergency decrees. Then Dietrich’s father was called on to psychologically analyze the young suspect, Marinus van der Lubbe. The Bonhoeffer family is thrust right into Germany’s fate. The Reichstag Fire Edict was later used to close Finkenwalde. On April first came the boycott of Jewish businesses. By April 7 Aryan legislation was enacted. Bethge writes that “Bonhoeffer was among the very few who sat down and worked through its possible consequences, from both a political and an ecclesiastical standpoint.” (Bethge, 272)

Yesterday I read “The Church and the Jewish Question.” from No Rusty Swords, 217-225.

(Incidently, if you don’t know of No Rusty Swords or the trilogy of books edited by Edwin Robertson from Bonhoeffer’s Gessamelte Schriften, then I should let you know that they can still be had thirty years later for much cheaper than the authorized versions coming out! I see copies popping up on and ebay from time to time. I recently got a copy of the second book, The Way to Freedom, for only $5.00! These are selections of the letters, lectures and notes from the German. If you want the papers first hand, this is the cheap way to go.)

Bethge (pg. 272-276) gives a lengthy treatment of this essay (prepared for a group of pastors who met at Gerhard Jacobi’s house) but here is my own assessment:
Beginning with an approach to the state that almost seems to lower the church’s gaze from the world, it soon becomes clear that Bonhoeffer has Christian action in the world very much as its’ focus. He masterfully argues theologically for the Church’s witness to the state, without itself becoming a political animal. Individual Christians will be political, but Bonhoeffer asks with what voice the Church itself should speak. In the case of Hitler, he reasoned that a Status Confessionis was in order. This would involve a prepared statement from an Evangelical Church Council. This wasn’t to happen, and of course Bonhoeffer’s struggle within the Church for its’ stand concerning the jews was only beginning. Bethge says that “by August 1933 Bonhoeffer had concluded beyond all doubt that there would be no question of belonging to a church that excluded the Jews.” (pg. 273)

>From May through to August, Bethge exhaustively details the Confessional Church fight to preserve independence from the State. Paster D. Friedrich von Bodelschwingh is elected national Bishop to counter the German Christians but Hitler makes Ludwig Muller his commissioner of affairs. By July 14 Muller pushed through the new German Protestant Church constitution. Bonhoeffer and Franz Hildebrandt worked hard to sway votes in the church election on July 23, though it was clear it was a losing battle. The story of their run-in with the Gestapo on pg. 295-6 is worthy of note. Word got around after that that Dietrich had been sent to a concentration camp! The office of the Young Reformation movement was invaded and leaflets were confiscated. At this time Bonhoeffer and Hans Jacobi actually drove to Gestapo headquarters to confront them! Some of their leaflets were returned.

On the day of the church elections, Bonhoeffer preached this sermon in the Trinity Church in Berlin.

Church Election Sermon
No Rusty Swords, Fontana, 1977
pg. 208-213

TEXT: Matt. 16:13-18

If it were left to us, we would rather avoid the decisions

which are now forced upon us; if it were left to us, we would

rather not allow ourselves to be caught up in this church

struggle; if it were left to us, we would rather not have to

insist upon the rightness of our cause and we would so

willingly avoid the terrible danger of exalting ourselves over

others; if it were left to us, we would retire today rather

than tomorrow into private life and leave all the struggle and

the pride to others. And yet-thank God-it has not been left to

us. Instead, in God’s wisdom, everything is going exactly as we

would rather not have it go. We are called upon to make a

decision from which we cannot escape. We must be content,

wherever we are, to face the accusation of being

self-righteous, to be suspected of acting and speaking as

though we were proud and superior to others. Nothing shall be

made easy for us. We are confronted by a decision, and a

difference of opinion. ‘For this reason, if we are honest with

ourselves, we will not try to disguise the true meaning of the

church election today. In the midst of the creakings and

groanings of a crumbling and tottering church structure, which

has been shaken to its very foundations, we hear in this text

the promise of the eternal church, against which the gates of

hell shall not prevail; of the church founded on a rock, Christ

has built and which he continues to build throughout all time.

Where is this church? Where do we find it? Where do we hear its

voice? Come all you who ask in seriousness, all you who are

abandoned and left alone, we will go back to the Holy

Scriptures, we will go and look for the church together. Those

who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Jesus went out into a deserted place with his disciples, close

to the edge of the pagan lands, and there he was alone with

them. This is the place where for the first time he promises

them the legacy of his church. Not in the midst of the people,

not at the visible peak of his popularity; but in a distant and

unfrequented spot, far from the orthodox scribes and pharisees,

far from the crowds who on Palm Sunday would cry out “Hosanna”

and on Good Friday, “Crucify him,” he speaks to his disciples

of the mystery and the future of his church. He obviously

believed that this church could not be built in the first place on the scribes, the priests,

or the masses; but that only this tiny group of disciples, who

followed him, was called to this work. And clearly he did not

think that Jerusalem, the city of the Temple and the center of

the life of the people, was the right place for this, but he

goes out into the wilderness, where he could not hope that his

preaching would achieve any eternal, visible effectiveness. And

last of all he does not consider that any of the great feast

days would have been suitable time to speak of his church, but

rather he promises this church in the face of death,

immediately before he tells of his coming passion for the first

time. The church of the tiny flock, the church out in the

wilderness, the church in the face of death–something like

this must be meant.

Jesus himself puts the decisive question, for which the

disciples had been waiting: “Who do people say that the

Son of man is?” Answer: “Some say John the Baptist, others say

Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Opinions,

nothing but opinions; one could extend this list of opinions as

much as one wanted. . . some say you are a great man, some say

you are an idealist, some say you are a religious genius, some

say you are a great champion and hero, who will lead us to

victory and greatness. Opinions, more or less serious

opinions– but Jesus does not want to build his church on

opinions. And so he addresses himself directly to his

disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” In this inevitable

confrontation with Christ there can be no “perhaps” or “some

say,” no opinions but only silence or the answer which Peter

gives now: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living: God.”

Here in the midst of human opinions and views, something quite

new suddenly becomes visible. Here God’s name is named, here

the eternal is pronounced, here the mystery is recognized. Here

is no longer human opinion, but precisely the opposite, here is

divine revelation and confession of faith. “Blessed are you,

Simon Bar-jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to

you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are

Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

What is the difference between Peter and the others? Is he

of such heroic nature that he towers over the others? He is

not. Is he endowed with such unheard-of strength of character?

He is not. Is he gifted with unshakable loyalty? He is not.

Peter is nothing, nothing but a person confessing his faith, a

person who has been confronted by Christ and who has recognized

Christ, and who now confesses his faith in him, and this

confessing Peter is called the rock on which Christ will build

his church.

Peter’s church–that means the church of rock, the church of the

confession of Christ. Peter’s church, that does not mean a

church of opinions and views, but the church of the revelation;

not a church in which what “people say” is talked about but the

church in which Peter’s confession is made anew and passed on;

the church which has no other purpose in song, prayer,

preaching, and action than to pass on its confession of faith;

the church which is always founded on rock as long as it

remains within these limits, but which turns into a house built

on sand, which is blown away by the wind, as soon as it is

foolhardy enough to think that it may depart from or even for a

moment neglect this purpose.

But Peter’s church-this is not something which one can say

with untroubled pride. Peter, the confessing, believing

disciple, Peter denied his Lord on the same night as Judas

betrayed him; in that night he stood at the fire and felt

ashamed when Jesus stood before the high priest; he is the man

of little faith, the timid man who sinks into the sea; Peter is

the disciple whom Jesus threatened: “Get thee behind me Satan”;

it is he who later was again and again overcome by weakness,

who again and again denied and fell, a weak, vacillating man,

given over to the whim of the moment. Peter’s church, that is

the church which shares these weaknesses, the church which

itself again and again denies and falls, the unfaithful,

fainthearted, timid church which again neglects its charge and

looks to the world and its opinions. Peter’s church, that is

the church of all those who are ashamed of their Lord when they

should stand firm confessing him.

But Peter is also the man of whom we read: “He went- out and

wept bitterly.” Of Judas, who also denied the Lord, we read:

“He went out and hanged himself.” That is the difference. Peter

went out and wept bitterly. Peter’s church is not only the

church which confesses its faith, nor only the church which

denies its Lord; it is the church which can still weep. “By the

waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we

remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1). This is the church; for what does

this weeping mean other than that one has found the way back,

than that one is on the way home, than that one has become the

prodigal son who falls to his knees weeping before his father?

Peter’s church is the church with that godly sadness which

leads to joy.

It does indeed seem very uncertain ground to build on,

doesn’t it? And yet it is bedrock, for this Peter, this

trembling reed, is called by God, caught “by God, held by God.

“You are Peter,” we all are Peter; not the Pope, as the ‘Roman

Catholics would have it; not this person or that, but all of

us, who simply live from our confession of faith in Christ, as

the timid, faithless, fainthearted, and yet who live as people

sustained by God.

But it is not we who build. He builds the church. No human

being builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever intends to

build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it;

for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing

it. We must confess-he builds. We must proclaim–he builds. We

must pray to him-that he may build. We do not know his plan.

‘We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may

be that the times which by human standards are times of

collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be

that from a human point of view great times for the church are

actually times of demolition. It is a great comfort which

Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness

to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not

meddle in what is my province. Do what is given to you to do

well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to

views and opinions, don’t ask for judgments,

don’t always be calculating what will happen, don’t always be

on the lookout for another refuge! Let the church remain the

church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is

your Lord, from his grace alone can you live as you are. Christ


And the gates of hell shall not prevail against you. Death,

the greatest heir of everything that has existence, here meets

its end. Close by the precipice of the valley of death, the

church is founded, the church which confesses Christ as its

life. The church possesses eternal life just where death seeks

to take hold of it; and death seeks to take hold of it

precisely because it possesses life. The Confessing Church is

the eternal church because Christ protects it. Its eternity is

not visible in this world. It is unhindered by the world. The

waves pass right over it and sometimes it seems to be

completely covered and lost. But the victory is its because

Christ its Lord is by its side and he has overcome the world of

death. Do not ask whether you can see the victory; believe in

the victory and it is yours.

In huge capital letters our text is etched into the dome of

the great church of St. Peter’s, the papal church in Rome.

Proudly this church points to its eternity, to its visible

victory over the world, across the centuries. Such splendor,

which even our Lord did not desire or bear, is denied to us.

And yet a splendor which is immeasurably greater than this

splendor in the world, is assured to us. Whether the band of

believers is great or small, low or high, weak or strong, if it

confesses Christ the victory is assured to them, in eternity.

Fear not, little flock, for it is my Father’s pleasure to give

you the kingdom. Where two or three are gathered together in my

name, there am I in the midst of them. The city of God is built

on a sure foundation. Amen.

This sermon reveals a lot about Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology. The Church is home to the confession. And this is what I believe. No matter how confusing it may appear, and I have American Evangelicalism in mind, the true Church that is overlooked in our triumphant speech, the suffering Church of confession, is victorious in Christ. This Jesus may be of no real use to politicians in this election season. He doesn’t fit into the usual agendas that win votes. He is too weak for Republicans or Democrats. But He is victorious in our confession.

After the July 23 election defeat Bonhoeffer left for London. His visit there presented the opportunity to take a pastorate, but he wasn’t sure this was the right thing to do. In August came the Bethel Confession. Much is written about this work and it remains one of the most important Church confessions in modern history. Bonhoeffer felt very spent around this time. He felt alone and helpless toward what the church in Berlin had become. This surely influenced his decision for the pastorate in London, though it was only to last nine months, with much of that time traveling back and forth to Germany.


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