Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Revised Edition, by Eberhard Bethge, Fortress Press, 2000.
Chapter Eight, London: 1933-1935 pg. 325-419
It is disheartening to find our ‘theologian of community’ standing alone. From all that I’ve observed blogging Bethge up to this point, it is clear that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s belief in God depends upon relationship between persons. For this reason the amount of angst he must have internalized around this time regarding his dogmatic resistance to the Aryan Clause must have been unbearable. His words to Karl Barth are telling:
“I feel that in some way I don’t understand, I find myself in radical opposition to all my friends; I became increasingly isolated with my views of things, even though I was and remain personally close to these people. All this has frightened me and shaken my confidence so that I began to fear that dogmatism might be leading me astray—since there seemed no particular reason why my own view in these matters should be any better, any more right, than the views of many really capable pastors whom I sincerely respect—and so I thought it was about time to go into the wilderness for a spell. . . . It seems to me that at the moment it is more dangerous for me to make a gesture than to retreat into silence.” (326)
If leaving Berlin for London was an evasion, Bethge assures us “This attempt at evasion, however, was completely unsuccessful.” (327) Bonhoeffer couldn’t “win even a week’s respite from the turbulence in Berlin.” He traveled every few weeks back to Berlin. His phone bill was so high that the local post office reduced it to a manageable size. Bethge gives us a wonderful picture of Bonhoeffer’s parish ministry in London. He vividly describes where Dietrich lived, studied, worked, and played his Bechstein piano. The windows and doors never shut completely. He battle colds and flu. The house was overrun with mice. Even so, it sounds as though this house was busy with the joy of friends and relatives. The church youth met here to practice their nativity play, to sing, or sometimes just to listen to his large record collection.
Bonhoeffer’s work in the parish, his sermons and discipling work, reflected his involvement in the church struggle. We are blessed to have his London sermons. (A Testament to Freedom, 213-252) In chapter eight Bethge carefully takes us through Bonhoeffer’s work against the Reich Church government and the formation of his relationship with Archbishop George Bell. This chapter describes some of his most important ecumenical work. Far from retreating from the Church Struggle Bonhoeffer’s position as an expat pastor in London allowed him to use his ecumenical connections to embarrass the German church before the eyes of the watching world. At different times I got the distinct feel that Bonhoeffer enjoyed being a jerk to the church authority, namely one Bishop Heckel.
Bethge sets the Barmen Declaration of May 1934 squarely within Bonhoeffer’s ecumenical work. It gives it a totally different perspective. Bonhoeffer worked on a letter with Bishop Bell to be sent to the representatives of the Universal Council for Life and Work regarding the German Evangelical Church. Bonhoeffer had to make the differences clear between the Confessing Churches and the German Churches. The Ecumenical planners needed to know exactly who represented the Church in Germany. Bethge says,
“the letter did spell out the essential grievances unequivocally: the Fuhrer principle, a violent regime, disciplinary measures, and racial discrimination “without precedent in the history of the Church . . . incompatible with the Christian principle.”(370)
With Bell’s ecumenical support the opposition churches in German were fortified for their Barmen Synod on May 29. This is where Bonhoeffer’s help lay for Barmen. Despite all his work he was misunderstood both by his friends in the Confessing Church and in the ecumenical world. His Confessing friends could not understand his emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount. Among his ecumenical friends he felt isolated for his emphasis on confession and opposition to heresy. He saw the needed connection between both of these worlds but was alone with that vision. (372)
I’d like to draw your attention to two articles on the Barmen Declaration and its’ significance since 1934. Victoria Barnett, Church historian and author of For the Soul of the People: a history of the Confessing Church wrote an article for the Christian Century on the fiftieth anniversary of Barmen. This has to be the most important treatment I’ve read. Very indepth and insightful, giving Barmen’s strengths and weaknesses for subsequent generations.
The second article is a lengthy revisiting by Ulrich Mauser for Theology Matters, a publication of Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry. Dr. Mauser taught New Testament at Princeton T.S. but is a native German working with the original source material. His background info for Barmen is amazing. The Epilogue begins a dialogue with Barmen and specific PCUSA discussions concerning homosexuality.
Dietrich’s work in London was effective. He got his church and others to turn to the Confessing church. Sadly this didn’t stick after he left. There were financial considerations and Germany had them by the purse strings. In the end Bonhoeffer was called home to begin a preacher’s seminary. He had been still working on plans to go to Ghandi in India. But his dedication to the Confessing churches took over.
In the end Bonhoeffer’s course was not his own to take. His love for the Church was more important than his practical plans to teach Germans nonviolent resistance. Was this a godly choice? Was this God’s will? We can’t take Bonhoeffer out of his place in the church. Even in a church that in the end took the wrong course and left him stranded alone.