Blogging Bethge, Ch. 11, The Collective Pastorates

Blogging Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Revised Edition, Fortress Press, 2000.

Chapter Eleven, The Collective Pastorates, 1938-1940, pg. 587-678

Other reading:

The Way to Freedom: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1935-1939, Edited by Edwin Robertson, Cleveland: Collins-World, 1977, pgs. 164-255.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures, Edited by Renate Bethge and Christian Gremmels, pgs. 108-117.

Friendship and Resistance: Essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eberhard Bethge, WCC, Eerdmans, 1995., pgs. 58-71.


“His identification with the desperate and the God-forsaken in 1938, through his prayerful involvement with the victims of the pogroms of 2500 years earlier, remained the decisive impetus of his life.” (Bethge, Friendship and Resistance, 71.)


This chapter of Bethge covers the momentous period surrounding the second mandated loyalty oath to Hitler by confessing church pastors (April 20, 1938), Kristallnacht or the Reichspogromnacht (Nov. 9, 1938), his last year (approximately) in community in the Collective Pastorates, the second journey to America (June 2-July 8, 1939), and the stages leading up to Bonhoeffer’s decision to be involved as an accessory in the political resistance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s situation becomes even yet more dangerous. We can’t help but see that he stands apart from both his students and other pastors having lost his academic appointment in 1936, having a father who made appeals on his behalf twice when his movement was restricted by the Gestapo in 1938, and having ties to the outside world that could have very well allowed him to escape into exile in London or the United States. Out of love for his twin sister Sabine and her Jewish husband, Bonhoeffer helped them move into exile. I wonder how this felt for Bonhoeffer, to want a normal family life for his twin and a different sort of life for himself. Did he ever wonder if it were unfair?


The Palestinian intellectual Edward W. Said titled his memoir Out of Place (Vintage, 1999). I can’t help but think that this title describes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was born into a family that set him up for a life of nobility and esteem. But here in 1938 he finds himself embedded in a church acquiescing to legalization with the Nazis, where a public stand meant death along with all opposition. This chapter begins (pg. 587-88) with a general description of the situation as it was shaping Bonhoeffer’s decision to move from training illegal pastors in obscurity to working covertly as a political insurgent.

588-596 describes the way of life for ordinands in the Backwoods of Pomerania where Bonhoeffer spent his last months in community.

Bethge writes:

“Thus Bonhoeffer’s ordinands lived in two vicarages in eastern Pomerania almost as they had lived in Finkenwalde, only in smaller numbers and under more primitive conditions. Both collective pastorates included from seven to ten ordinands for each course. None of them could claim to be enrolled in a preaching seminary; they had to assert that their position was that of an apprentice vicar in a parsh whose name they hardly knew. This arrangement worked smoothly until strict military conscription brought all the ordinands of the Confessing church into the army. In March 1940 the police came on the scene to shut down the secluded retreat. In those two and a half years Bonhoeffer’s collective pastorate added five more courses in eastern Pomerania to the five in Finkenwalde.” (pg. 589)

The best way to get a full picture of Bonhoeffer’s heart for these ordinands at this time is by reading the Finkenwalde newsletters, which were marked as personal letters. These survived and are part of the Works. They can also be found in The Way to Freedom and True Patriotism. Bethge reminds of their importance:

“We owe not only Temptation and Life Together to the end of the House of Brethren, but also the collection of Finkenwalde newsletters, which provide a colorful picture of the life of the illegal pastors in the Confessing church during this long troubled period.” (pg. 594)

596-620 The Low Point of the Church Struggle and Legalization


“Bonhoeffer felt that the oath was quite impossible; but, like the illegal pastors who were supported only by the Confessing church, the peculiar terms of his employment meant that he had no official status as a pastor within the church. Thus he was in the fortunate position of not being on the list of those required to take the oath by Werner’s office.” (Pg. 600)

Bethge notes three ways in which the collective pastorates changed Bonhoeffer. First, the work changed in style, contact from the outside world was made difficult for the students. They could not conduct public ministry in a way that would attract the attention of the authorities. Secondly, Bonhoeffer’s way of life became very unsettled. He no longer had his library or a central place from which to work. He had to rely on his memory of the works he’d possessed, and he seemed to do alright. Finally, he grew to appreciate those people who offered the hospitality of their homes after the House of Brethren was shut down.

He wrote about his life and inner longings at this time to friends outside,

“The only strange thing is this existence in which there can be no anxieties, because each day is a gift. If one forgets that, one sometimes gets rather restive, and would prefer to choose a more settled existence with all the “rights” that normally go with one’s “rank” and age. But this would mean abandoning the work, and it will not do at the moment.”

“[Jean] Lasserre has married. That course is not yet open to people like ourselves; life is too nomadic. But we have a great deal of pleasure in our work instead.”

“My work goes on normally. Only one sometimes gets a bit fed up with the nomadic life, and would like to be more settled and domesticated. . . . But it will not do just now, and I am glad to be allowed to work here.” (Bethge, 594-595)


Bethge writes:

“The pastors’ meetings during those weeks were almost unendurable. Bonhoeffer went with his candidates from one meeting to another, but his arguments did not prevail. They were viewed as coming from someone who was not affected.” (Pg. 601)

“Bonhoeffer was ashamed of the Confessing church, the way one feels shame for a scandal in one’s own family. . . . The possibility of a gap between Bonhoeffer and the Confessing church was becoming real.” (pg. 603)

620-635 Lure of the political

Eberhard Bethge here carefully describes what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer into active political involvement against the Nazi state. In his meditation on sojourning in Psalm 119:19, Bethge finds a “qualifying phrase: “on earth.”

“The earth that nourishes me has a right to my work and my strength. It is not fitting that I should despise the earth on which I have my life; I owe it faithfulness and gratitude. I must not dream away my earthly life with thoughts of heaven and thereby evade my lot—that I must be a sojourner and a stranger—and with it God’s call into this world of strangers. There is a very godless homesickness for the other world, and it will certainly not produce any homecoming. I am to be a sojourner, with everything that entails. I should not close my heart indifferently to earth’s problems, sorrows and joys; and I am to wait patiently for the redemption of the divine promise—really wait, and not rob myself of it in advance by wishing and dreaming.” (pg. 620)

We can’t really understand this without remembering that Bonhoeffer was much more well informed politically than most people. Bethge here divides Bonhoeffer’s participation into five periods: Becoming an Accessory, Hans von Dohnanyi, The Fritsch Crisis, The Sudeten Crisis, The Leibholz Family’s Emigration, and The Call to Military Duty. Obviously I don’t have space to cover each of these. What emerges is that political information, family decisions, and the military draft all force Bonhoeffer into action.

Bethge lists the questions pressing Bonhoeffer at this time:

“Must he really wear himself out over church and national affairs in Germany? For what, really, were his life’s ambitions to be sacrificed? Couldn’t he pursue theology, the thing most important to him, in more conducive surroundings? Would not the universal church and its theology benefit more if he could develop his gifts freely elsewhere? Might there not be a call waiting for him outside, and wasn’t it necessary to leave in order to hear this clearly? Moreover, didn’t his own church view a refusal of military service as a destructive and isolated course?” (pg. 636)


635-662 England and America

Bonhoeffer headed to England for five weeks, then returned to Germany for only a month and a half before making his second trip to America in June of 1939. To really get to know this period I recommend reading his letters and journals from the trip in the book The Way to Freedom. Bonhoeffer only stayed in America for a fortnight, and though he maximized his time in study and connections around Union Seminary, it is clear that he was not happy separated from his Church and family back in Germany. The bonds that his calling brought about within him, his deep affection for Bethge and his students, literally drove him back to Germany from the academic safety of America. It should also be said that Bonhoeffer was terribly uncomfortable with the American theological milieu he experienced. He writes extensively about this in “Protestantism without Reformation,” an essay that no doubt helped form his thinking and writing into what later became Ethics. Paul Lehmann worked hard to secure a position for Bonhoeffer in America. He tried hard to change Bonhoeffer’s mind right up to when he boarded his ship home.


662-676 The War

His friends in the Confessing Church knew nothing of what had gone on with Bonhoeffer in America, his momentous decision, as far as they knew his contacts had gone as expected and the work would go on as before. This section deals with Bonhoeffer’s application for a military chaplaincy (denied), Martin Niemoller’s decision to volunteer in the Navy so as to avoid serious conflict, and renewed hopes for a coup. Bonhoeffer believed that the only hope for peace for Germany was to get Hitler out of power.


676-678 Christian and Man for His Times

These final few pages of this chapter are quite special. Bethge carefully reviews the changes in Bonhoeffer from 1932 to 1939 with a clear eye toward the way he was perceived by others versus what he was not making public. Here are a few excerpts:

“In 1932 he found his calling, in 1939 his destiny. In 1932 he found the unmistakable language in which he wrote his original contribution to theological history: the finished books, Discipleship and Life Together. His development after 1939 was also expressed in two books: Ethics and Letter and Papers from Prison.” (pg. 677)

“The year 1932 had placed Bonhoeffer in a world where things were comparatively clear-cut, where it was a matter of confessing and denying—in his case, of confessing the one church for the whole world and denying its betrayal to nationalist particularism. At the end of this road stood the fate of people like Paul Schneider. In 1939 he entered the difficult world of assessing what was expedient—of success and failure, tactics and camouflage. The certainty of his calling in 1932 now became an acceptance of the uncertain, the incomplete, and the provisional. The new turning point demanded an entirely different sacrifice: the sacrifice of his Christian reputation.” (pg. 677-678)

“After 1939 the old priorities could be fulfilled only by exchanging them. To want to be only a Christian, a timeless disciple—that now became a costly privilege. To become engaged for his times, where he stood, was far more open to misinterpretation, less glorious, more confined. yet this alone was what it now meant to be a Christian.” (pg. 678)

This explanation is unique in its scope. In a way Bonhoeffer is more comfortable to us left unexplained. (He’s more useful for every new situation when we ignore his actual biography.) In other places Bethge seems not to want to explain Bonhoeffer. Here he takes the liberty, but I for one am content to accept his analysis.




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Filed under Blogging DB, bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge, theology

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