Blogging Bethge’s Bonhoeffer Chapter Nine "Preacher’s Seminary: 1935"

Eberhard Bethge, Chapter Nine “Preacher’s Seminary: 1935” pgs. 419-491

I feel like I’ve been over Chapter Nine before. I prepared a paper for the Cornerstone Mag website in March of 2005 titled “Dietrich Bonhoeffer as we understand him at Jesus People Covenant Church.” For that paper I used chapter nine and Craig Slane’s “Bonhoeffer as Martyr” as key resources in understanding the importance of the Finkenwalde period on Bonhoeffer. So when I looked again at my blogging, I was startled and a bit dismayed that I hadn’t really blogged it before! Because of all this previous work, and because I’ve been reading further than I’ve been blogging, I honestly thought I was up to Chapter 10.

Eberhard Bethge writes that “Bonhoeffer had reflected about community life for four years now; now he could put his ideas into practice.” (pg. 419) We’ve already noted to what length Bonhoeffer researched his interest in community. He visited several communities in England to get ideas. There is more background info on these visits from friends who were there in the little book, I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is important to recognize what he had in mind here. He had always loved the sacraments, the monastic orders, the hymns, and the Scriptures. With his students from Berlin I made note that he had already adopted a sort of communal identity. In this chapter Bethge heavily weighs in the political and academic elements involved. Only in the sections “Finkenwalde” (425-440) and “The House of Brethren” (460-472) does he directly treat in detail the communal life and activity. While I intend to blog Bethge as it is written, I want to say straight out that I find the method he employs of chronicling this period quite frustrating! Chapters nine and ten represent what I consider to be the most interesting period in Bonhoeffer’s life. Eberhard Bethge was a student at this time and became Bonhoeffer’s friend around this time. These two chapters represent almost 1/6th of the overall content of the entire book (167 of 933 pgs). It is disheartening to me that in these two chapters there is far less personal narrative of the Finkenwalde community than there is a laboring description of the larger church, political, and ecumenical times and their effects. I understand that the brief Finkenwalde experiment is really only a small part of Dietrich’s story, but I wish that it were written more linear here. As it is, I feel like I have to dissect the material from the larger work and then piece it together to understand it. The index in the back is little help. In short, concentrating on Finkenwalde in the two chapters that cover it, is hard work!

The Seminary among the Seminaries (419-424)
In many ways this was a doomed project from the start. The state of the Confessing Church was beyond question in peril. This seminary was conceived to meet a need within an emergency situation. By all accounts it was an attempt to rescue a new kind of ministry to a Church at odds within itself.

State Church policies (421)
The German Church and Confessing Church were coming under the complete financial control of the Nazi government. The fate of the Seminary’s governing body- the Old Prussian Union- was uncertain. Bethge takes up these policies again in chapter ten on page 493.

It is here, at the beginning, that I think some of my pacifist friends who sympathize with Bonhoeffer’s communal impulse should look. He is already too tied into the State by virtue of his active ecclesial and political actions. His criticism of the state and even of the Confessing Church’s path are not enough. One friend claimed that Andre Trocme and his congregation in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon rather than Finkenwalde was our model of a faith embodied community. (I guess this german lutheran was too german for us today, too lutheran, and cared too much about his church!) I have heard the charge that Bonhoeffer’s community failed to foster the kind of spirituality that could stand against the Nazi state. Further, his decision to join the Abwehr resistance finally severed him from his peace activities and signaled an abandonment of the Church. I think this judgment does not take into account Bethge’s detailed documentation of Bonhoeffer’s work within the Church struggle. At every turn up to 1935, Dietrich has worked within the Confessing Church for an embodied ecclesiology wherein the Church would truly act as Christ’s body toward the State. Up to 1935 most of what he wrote concerning this was for ecumenical gatherings, theological journals, and pastoral leagues. With this new seminary he would finally be training and modeling this ecclesiology for pastors-to-be.

There’s not time here for a full comparison between Trocme and Bonhoeffer, but two things are readily apparent. Trocme is a French Hugenot who began sheltering Jews in 1942. That’s rather late in the game compared to Bonhoeffer. Secondly, while France was under German Military Occupation in 1942, is it really fair to compare a French Hugenot congregation to a German Lutheran one? What did each man have to work with? I think it is far better to say that each faith community had its own story of sin and obedience for the decisions they were given. It is clear that Bonhoeffer’s legacy involved a discipleship that fostered the Church through to the post world war era.

Bethge takes us month by month through the drastic changes that effect the Old Prussian Union within the Confessing church. In March of 1935 the Prussian state government set up a finance department allegedly to protect property and charities, but aparently to bring the churches under state jurisdiction. In June the Legislative Authority is set up to stop Confessing church appeals to the regular courts. In July the Ministry of Church Affairs comes under the leadersthip of Hanns Kerrl. The “Law for the Protection of the German Evangelical Church” is set up. Seventeen clauses led to the disintegration of the Confessing church by creating irreparable schisms among its membership.

Bethge writes:

Thus the year in which Bonhoeffer’s seminary was founded was also one of fundamental changes in the course of the church struggle. The previous resistance against the German Christians and their methods now seemed simple by comparison. That resistance had never lost a certain vigor and joy, and it had given the old concept of heresy a new lease on life. Now, however, the issue was whether to directly oppose thte state and disobey its laws. . . . Things now became far more dangerous and insidious, for the regime had discovered its opponent’s weak spot. (p. 422)

At this point, in his discussion of the Old Prussian Seminaries, (423) Bethge compares the two kinds of churches within the Confessing church as “intact” and “destroyed.” Destroyed churches were ones in which German Christians had gained enough power to disrupt the Confessing influence. In these churches “emergency” administrations had to be set up to counteract the German Christians. So the bitterness is very real. Lutherans call Confessing members “Dahlemites” (radical fanatics) and Confessing members deny the German Christians the right to call themselves “confessing” at all.

Within all this Bonhoeffer is commissioned to direct a seminary for these “fanatics” to train new pastors. He remained official capacity until the day he was executed in 1945. Bethge tells us that Wilhem Rott, named as Dietrich’s assistant director, “adhered to the principle that ‘of course things could be done another way.'” They had a “magnamimous” relationship that complimented each others’ authority. This is a little window for us into the authority structure at Finkenwalde. The majority of students came from Dietrich’s old teaching area of Berlin-Brandenburg (urban area), but some were from Saxony (rural area)–including a young Eberhard Bethge himself. These Saxons were expelled from the Wittenburg seminary by the Reich bishop for refusing to obey Ludwig Muller’s church government authority. (Finkenwalde is the first stop on the main railway line from Stettin to the east,(425) is the site of another private school that had met National Socialist disfavor, and they invite in just-expelled students! How’s that for laying low from the Gestapo?! Something bad is bound to happen, and they all know it.)

The location of the seminary at Zingst was only 100 yards from the beach and the dunes. We should not overlook this little community’s affection for nature. In May when the sun was warm enough Bonhoeffer would take the students outside for their discussion or to sing in choral rounds. I think I have more of a personal fondness for this section of chapter nine (pgs. 426-433) than any other. Beginning with the students’ appeal for funds in poetry, to the miraculous permit for the slaughter of a pig, to the ways they decorated and furnished the rooms and finally the way Bonhoeffer gave his own beloved library or very valuable books (428)–never to see them all in one place again(!)–the prose here is magnificent! I can’t help but feel like the reading here has a holy effect on me. Granted, I always love biographies of community, but here we have described the way in which an Ekklesia (called out people) lived to be different. Their activities were desperate and dangerous and very different from the way most Germans understood the church. That is special, and dare I say, makes for holy reading!
In the description of Dietrich’s daily working routine we find that he had his students read biographies aloud during their evening meal (429). This importance ascribed to biography makes me wonder aloud whether the reading of Bonhoeffer’s biography itself places us as readers into some special communion of saints.

I love it when I read that not all of Bonhoeffer’s ideas met with success. When Bethge says that something met with insurmountable opposition, it says something about Bonhoeffer’s personality. He was not so domineering that the students’ opinions did not count. As he did with the teenagers in the youth clubs years before, Bonhoeffer found creative ways of leading by example, by telling stories, by winsome descriptions rather than loud and direct orders. Which is not to say there weren’t heated arguments. It seems to me that every member of this little seminary was seen to count. Entrance and exit mattered. No one was shunned or excluded. When crucial differences arose over important issues (like a sympathy for the National Socialist positions) the pain of difference was very real. I expect to revisit that in chapter ten.

Music was so important to Bonhoeffer. Bethge writes:

“His love of making music was truly impressive, whether he was persuaded to perform for the others or was inspired to explore musical areas hitherto unknown to him. His romantic heritage was strongly evident in his playing of Chopin, Brahms, and excerpts from the delightfully stylish Rosenkavalier. But he never turned down a request to join in playing one of Bach’s concertos for two pianos. . . . All this was clearly part of the practice of communal living and the personal training of future preachers; it occurred more through indirect suggestions than explicit words.”

I’ve heard Dietrich described as “hopelessly inaccessible” because of his assumed abstract dogmatism. The irony in this is that Bonhoeffer himself had a lifelong passion for concrete expression. He studied the ins and outs of social connections. He longed to be able to communicate these to anyone, from children to prisoners. He was convinced that we meet God in that place where we are encountered by persons we can’t understand. This ‘practice of communal living and personal training’ is Dietrich’s pragmatic realization of his inner longing. He can be himself entirely for others. Through his music, cleaning the kitchen, making beds, and patiently conversing with students, he demonstrated a Christian faith that can countermand the National Socialist bastardization of all that was sacred.

The section titled “Discussion Evenings” (431) is particularly interesting as it relates to the question of Finkenwalde’s stance on war. In 1935 Military Conscription had just been reintroduced and Germany was once again a world military power. When Bonhoeffer raised the issue of conscientious objection he met with heated opposition. Bonhoeffer finally succeeded in instilling in them a healthy respect for anyone refusing to fight out of obedience to Christ’s command. His presumed pacifism only made his critics in the Confessing church that much more suspicious.

Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Herman Stohr of Stettin, secretary of the German Fellowship of Reconciliation is also worth a mention. He defended Stohr to his students even though Stohr’s own position was centered in universal disarmament rather than theology. Bonhoeffer tried unsuccessfully to save Stohr when he was later prosecuted (and then executed) as a conscientious objector.

When Karl Barth fought the oath to Hitler and lost his teaching position, it became an important object lesson at Finkenwalde. Barth’s theological reasoning made it more than a political issue. A copy of the farewell letter to Hermann Hesse was copied and distributed to the students. The final passage reflected both Bonhoeffer and Barth’s sympathies on the Confessing church’s selfishness at that time:

“…the Confessing church has as yet shown no sympathy for the millions who are suffering injustice. It has not once spoken out on the most simple matters of public integrity. And if and when it does speak, it is always on its own behalf.”

Bethge says that rather than give Karl Barth a position at one of the Confessing church’s seminaries, many within the Confessing church were happy to see him leave at this point. (432) What happened here showed the students that there could no longer be a visible separation of Christian action from politics in the face of State incursion. Karl Barth’s request to restate his oath to say “in so far as it is possible for me as a Christian” brilliantly set forth the reign of Christ over Hitler.

There is much more in this chapter than I can possibly cover in a blog entry. The next twenty five pages covered Finkenwalde as a Spiritual Center, and descriptions of Pomerania and the Saxony province as they influenced Bonhoeffer and the school. These are followed by a lengthy description of the Syllabus (lesson plan) for students. He divides it into four sections which cover Homiletics (441-444), Ministry and Church (444-447), Confessional Writings , or the Reformation creeds from where they stood, (447-450) and then finally “Discipleship,” which of course became the book Nachfolge or (for us) the Cost of Discipleship(450-460).

It pains me not to walk through all of these, but let me point out the significance of the section Ministry and Church to our discussion of how Finkenwalde prepared its students for a Biblical outlook on war and injustice. Bethge writes:

“On the issue of the church’s legal authority Bonhoeffer taught that this could not be possessed externally, but only internally in the form of church discipline over its own members. Externally all the church could do was confess and suffer.”(444)

As I see it, this puts Finkenwalde squarely in the same place as the historic peace churches. Bonhoeffer knew that they had no legal authority within the State and that it was only a matter of time before their dangerous situation would turn deadly. Even so, as they saw it, they were compelled to faithfulness to Christ regardless of the consequences. I think we could find many more applications for our times from this section, if it were to be worked through. Much of it is legal and historical and so, any extraction has to be careful and deliberate.

All I’m going to say about the “Discipleship” section is that if Cost of Discipleship is your introduction to Bonhoeffer, you owe it to yourself to read these ten pages. I am fascinated by a friend of mine who told me recently that while he was reading Ethics, he really didn’t give a care about Bonhoeffer as a person. I knew this wasn’t strictly true as he’d devoured and loved Saints and Villains, the fictional account of his life. For the last sixty years the world has delighted in expounding on Bonhoeffer’s importance without much real knowledge of him. That might annoy me, but I can’t help but think Dietrich would be bemused by it. He was misunderstood for just about every direction he took during his life, why should it be any different after his death?

After the Syllabus section, Bethge writes about the House of Brethren. Wait a second, weren’t we talking about the Finkenwalde community already? Well, there was community at the seminary, then there’s a smaller live-in community with a more rigorous devotion to meditation and confession. These separate sections serve to highlight the content over the form. Not all the students could accept the rigorous way of life layed out in what became the book Life Together. If you want to know more about this manner and life and Bonhoeffer’s proposal to the church for its need, read about it in my article here. If you’re reading Life Together, you should read Bethge pgs. 460-472.

Within this section are some revealing insights into Bonhoeffer’s take on groups similar to American Evangelicals. Bonhoeffer spared no disdain in his regard for the Oxford Movement. (470) And his comments on Count Zinzendorf’s hymns (whom Karl Barth regarded highly) also have bearing here:

“By the time I’d finished, I felt really depressed. What a musty cellarful of piety. . . . And all this in hymns! Yes, such are people—pious people! I have a horror of the consequences of this finitum capax infiniti! We must have the pure and genuine air of the Word around us. And yet we are incapable of getting away from ourselves. But for goodness’ sake let’s turn our eyes away from ourselves!”

Maybe it is these sentiments that make me so angry when I think of Richard J. Foster’s placement of Bonhoeffer in the Holiness tradition of his book Streams of Living Water. That was a serious error in judgment that someone, maybe Martin Marty (who wrote the Foreword), should have called him on. I fear that most Evangelicals read enough of Cost of Discipleship to think Bonhoeffer is like the revivalist singer Keith Green on steroids. (That’s honestly what I thought.) Somehow they never get to the end discussion of the Lord’s Supper, or how a personal “conversion experience” is not as important as accepting the truth in faith. Bonhoeffer was no revivalist.

Let me insert a final point here on Bonhoeffer and community. Eberhard Bethge has this remark at the end of his House of Brethren section:

“When Bonhoeffer was working in Ettal at the end of 1940 he encountered the monastic wisdom of the Benedictines as one who was no stranger to it himself. Biographically the time of community life was over, but this was not so in practice. In 1943 and 1944, when he was compelled to lead a cruelly lonely existence, the exercises he had practiced in Finkenwalde proved an invaluable solace, and made him frank and open-minded toward his agnostic fellow sufferers.”

At some point I would love to write a full paper that explores Bonhoeffer’s interest in community from Sanctorum Communio up to the end. Or at least I think someone should. It would take into account his large family, his earliest ecclesiology, its development in his theological sociality (as Clifford Green points out) through to its realization in Finkenwalde, the Collective Vicorates and then finally in his relation to his fellow prisoners. Here’s a brief chronology of Bonhoeffer’s continued use of Meditation, Lectio Divina and Confession up to the end:

1935-1937 Finkenwalde

1938-1940 Collective Vicorates (Life Together published in 1939)

1940 Benedictine monastery at Ettal

1943-1944 we know he continued to practice in prison.

Community always had a distinctive place in Bonhoeffer’s faith. To claim that Finkenwalde was a failed experiment or of little consequence to his students and himself after it was closed is an obvious conjecture from ignorance. Its sad that more folks can’t get the full picture beyond the simple outline of Life Together. I guess there’s far too much reading involved.

The Ecumenical World (472-486)
To summarize this section, Bonhoeffer gets edged out of his youth conference work because of he wanted to further the topics of conscienscious objection and use of coercion and its rights and limitations. He is pushed out in favor of an American(!), Eugene Espy, who quickly makes it known that they’ve gotten rid of Bonhoeffer and will gladly follow Geneva’s plan. From this point on Berlin and Geneva enjoy normal (German Christian) relations (476-8). The Chamby conference fully recognized the German Church entourage headed by Bishop Heckel. Bethge says Heckel “had the field to himself.” On the Jewish question Heckel lied that “it was being dealt with much more openly and that plans in hand were on the way to fulfillment.” Now don’t those “reassuring words” sound downright ominous?

Bishop Bell raised Fano’s resolution again to maintain close fellowship with the Confessing Church and Heckel replied that of course Fano was still good—yeah, right.

This follows with a lengthy review of Bonhoeffer’s essay “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement.” Here’s the final statement from this essay:

“He concluded the essay by asking whether an ecumenical council would ‘speak a word of judgment about war, race hatred and social exploitation, whether, through such true ecumenical unity among Protestant Christians of all nations, war itself will one day become impossible. What is demanded is not the realizations of our own aims but obedience.’” (Bethge, 485)

For Bonhoeffer, in view of the times, this word of judgment gave the work its legitimacy.

The Steglitz Resolutions (486-491)
Shortly after the Nuremberg laws of 15 September, Bonhoeffer’s old friend Franz Hildebrandt called to sound an alarm regarding resolutions to be decided in Steglitz. He warned of the possibility of the council adopting a measure that winked at the new laws and the Aryan clause. He warned that if this happened he would leave the Confessing church. So Bonhoeffer and the entire seminary went to the meetings and sat in the balcony. They heckled the Reich representative before and after his speech on finances. In spite of their pressure, Steglitz tabled the Aryan clause issue while affirming a comment on the rights of Jews to be baptized. This was an embarrassment. Bonhoeffer left Steglitz very depressed. He’d just received a letter from his grandmother about the plight of his twin sister’s Jewish family.

The End of the first Finkenwalde course:
Ordinands returned to their home churches to be soon ordained, but as “illegals.” Hardly any could expect a regular pastorate with a nice house and garden. If they’d wanted that, Finkenwalde was the wrong seminary! The German Christian consistories barred anyone from seminaries of the Councils of Brether from a regular, salaried ministry. Instead they had the following options:

They could find an independent patron with limited funding from the Council. The could get an assistant pastorate, which surely meant permanent apprenticeship. One of the new congregations could call them to fight for use of a church and building. Finally, they could travel and form emergency churches in private homes which Bethge notes, was becoming much more dangerous.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer promised to continue supporting them with letters, visits, and informal study conferences.

Finally, let me point to a theme recurrent in much of the material that I glossed over:

Bonhoeffer was torn between the reality of what he’d begun and what it had become. He sought for Action from the Confessing Church on behalf of the Jews. He sought for legitimacy, representation and action from the Ecumenical delegations on behalf of the Confessing Church. He never stopped believing in the power of the true Church to act. He never lost faith in the use of theology to accomplish all this. He did this knowing that the whole situation was changing and that everything he worked for would likely be lost. Even so he tried to act quickly with the resources he still had.


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Filed under Blogging DB, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge

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