“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That chilling — or is it sobering — quote comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and today we will learn more about the man and more importantly, what he believes and why we must listen.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs” by Mark Devine. 192 pages, published by B&H Books in November 2005. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD7.99 and through Faithlife for free. Only free in June. So you only have a few more days left for this deal.
Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Mark Devine is a professor at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He has taught at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City and also served as a missionary in Bangkok, Thailand.
In four words, who is Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer is a Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. That is the title from Eric Metaxas’ biography on Bonhoeffer. I’ll share more how Metaxas’ book compares to Devine’s later but for now those four words aptly describes the man Bonhoeffer. A man who should be more famous than James Bond.
Hopefully that whets your appetite to know more about him and you can read all about him in Chapter 1 of this book, from his early childhood years to his untimely execution ordered by Hitler a few weeks before World War 2 ended.
That’s chapter one done so what are the rest of the chapters about?
What Does He Believe?
The book has five chapters:
- At All Costs. A one chapter biography on the man.
- Knowing and Doing the Will of God.
- The Community of Believers
- Witness and Relevance
- Freedom, Suffering and Hope
The question this book answers is not “Who is Bonhoeffer?”, for good biographies abound, the standard in the field being Eberhard Bethge’s, who was Bonhoeffer’s close friend, fellow conspirator and husband to Bonhoeffer’s niece. So the book does not answer, “Who is Bonhoeffer?”, the book answers the question, “What does Bonhoeffer believe and how does it matter for us today?”
This is primarily not a narrative. The narrative in chapter one serves as explanation and testimony for Bonhoeffer’s belief, a belief which Devine analyses and calls the Church to listen.
Worth Listening To
This is Bonhoeffer’s most famous quote:
Cheap Grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.
Cheap grace. When someone says Christianity is very easy, no sweat, no trials, just smooth sailing all the way to Heaven, that’s cheap grace. There is a cost to discipleship. That is the title of Bonhoeffer’s book where that quote is found.
Devine quotes this in Chapter 3: The Community of Believers. In that chapter, Devine also quotes from Bonhoeffer’s booklet Creation and Fall:
In man God creates his image on earth. This means that man is like the Creator in that he is free. Actually he is free only by God’s creation, by means of the Word of God; he is free for the worship of the Creator. In the language of the Bible, freedom is not something man has for himself but something he has for others. No man is free “as such,” that is, in a vacuum, in the way that he may be musical, intelligent or blind as such. Freedom is not a quality of man, nor is it an ability, a capacity, a kind of being that somehow flares up in him. … Freedom is not a quality which can be revealed—it is not a possession, a presence, an object, nor is it a form of existence—but a relationship and nothing else . … Being free means “being free for the other.”
I have not read Cost of Discipleship. I have not read Creation and Fall. But I know enough to know that when Bonhoeffer speaks, I should listen. Devine does not merely cut and paste the best bits from Bonhoeffer’s writings. This is not a book of quotations.
A Pastor Plots To Kill Hitler
What is the sixth commandment? “Thou Shall Not Murder”.
Pastor and theologian Bonhoeffer was in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
Some sought to cover Bonhoeffer by minimising his involvement in the plot. That might have worked if Bonhoeffer’s own words did not incriminate him.
When he speaks of having a clear conscience about his participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, he means something akin to the abandonment of self-justification in the matter. He means that he offers his decision to God for judgment. He means that he could no longer maintain a good conscience by attempting to keep his own hands “clean” while praying for the “success” of military and “secular” attempts to stop Hitler.
This is explosive stuff. And it’s not even the main part of the chapter. Bonhoeffer lives only to follow the will of God. What does following Christ and resisting Hitler mean? And dangerously, can Christians sanction violence?
This assassination is just one example of how everything comes together. You have the dramatic background of Nazi Germany. You have the doctrinal rigour of a top theologian. You have the decision to follow Christ, no turning back, no turning back.
Devine integrates all of them to discuss for example, church as a community, and when you talk about community, about living together under God’s Word, we read Bonhoeffer starting an underground seminary. We read about his prison ministry.
It is right for the Christian prisoner or missionary or exiled apostle to yearn for contact with fellow believers. The absence, not the presence, of such longings would call into question one’s relationship to Christ. We were made for one another, and our relationship with Christ includes our divinely created and sustained connection to one another. It is a life-giving, mutually interdependent connection as described in 1 Corinthians 12.
For Bonhoeffer, we misunderstand the constituent role of the community for the Christian life if we reduce it to a means for our individual enjoyment of other supposed blessings. Though not simply wrong, it is a distortion to think of the church as mainly the path to the benefits of knowing Christ.
If you have never heard of Bonhoeffer, this could be the book that sets you off to read Cost of Discipleship, Life Together and other books.
Whats The Problem With Bonhoeffer?
So why do evangelicals reluctantly welcome Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Often times I read something, it mentions Bonhoeffer, then it would quickly provide a disclaimer, “But we don’t believe everything that Bonhoeffer believes”. I also remember R.C. Sproul commending Bonhoeffer and issuing that same disclaimer. Bonhoeffer holds to certain doctrines that we don’t believe.
When I came to Devine’s book, I was hoping that a systematic analysis of Bonhoeffer’s theology would answer this question, “Why are evangelicals so careful around Bonhoeffer?” Because this has been bugging me for a while.
Devine writes of the “disproportionate welcome Bonhoeffer has received among progressivist Christians” and often times in the book shows how Bonhoeffer would have responded to such welcome.
Theological liberals and progressives may chafe at the exclusive claims of Christ belonging to ancient, orthodox, biblical, Christian witness, but Bonhoeffer did not.
Against sanguine and optimistic estimations of human nature so prominent within liberal and progressive theologies, Bonhoeffer took a dim view of humanity in its “natural” state.
If I may say so, I come away from the book knowing what Bonhoeffer firmly believes, but I don’t know how or why there is a disproportionate welcome for Bonhoeffer among progressivist Christians than among evangelicals.
I feel that I have to read between the lines but it is not stated outright.
The Dogma is the Drama
I would have liked to be led down a garden path.
Give me a Bonhoeffer quote. Then give me a liberal take on that quote. Make me uneasy. If this is true, then imagine the consequences. Does Bonhoeffer truly believe this?
When the tension is at its peak, release me from my misery. Give me another word from Bonhoeffer that not just dismisses liberal theology but gives clear direction on how to resolve the tension.
Give me the drama. And to some who think this is ugly showmanship, I quote to you Dorothy Sayers, “It is the dogma that is the drama.”
A writer who understands the drama of Bonhoeffer’s life is Eric Metaxas. He wrote Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Why not Theologian? It would ruin the catchy title. I give Metaxas’ book an A for storytelling. It was my first introduction to Bonhoeffer and it made me cry and love him for his life in obedience to our God.
I would give Devine a B or maybe a high C for storytelling. Having said that, Metaxas had a whole book to bring out the man’s life, Devine had to do it in one chapter.
Here is the thing, whereas the focus in Metaxas book is on the man, the focus in Devine’s book is on the man’s belief. And that belief is our belief, maybe. But if it is, then we must listen. Devine has given us substance, well-written, well-argued substance, and I just wished there was just a little more drama, the weighty consequence expressed as cliffhangers, cliffhangers
in the Bonhoeffer past and also in our present life.
Submersibles and James Bond
This could be too soon to use Oceangate’s submersible tragedy as an illustration — we don’t even know the cause of the implosion — but because it’s so vivid, I will do it with some assumptions.
The tragedy illustrates how a man can have rock-solid conviction that innovation works, that his product is safe. Look, to prove that, he is in the submersible going down nearly 4000m under the sea. But all the talk, conviction and assurance is worth nothing when a flawed, untested, vehicle goes against the laws of physics.
Similarly, a man can have rock-solid conviction on an interpretation, that his teaching is safe before the throne of God. All the talk is worth nothing when it breaks under great pressure. The story of Bonhoeffer is compelling because his life and teaching integrated so well, tested under unimaginable pressure.
Before I end, I want to share with you a passage that provoked much thought in me:
Many aspiring scholars pursuing the doctorate chafed at the ministry requirement then prevailing at Berlin and found ways to check off the ministry box as quickly and painlessly as possible. Not Bonhoeffer. Once his catechetical students outgrew the Sunday class, Bonhoeffer started a Thursday reading and discussion group in order to maintain his ministry among them. Papers on religious, historical, economic, and political subjects were presented by Bonhoeffer. They enjoyed field trips together, spending hours together during which these youth, many from Jewish families including several atheists, would speak their minds and challenge their teacher who patiently answered their questions. Many of these students continued to correspond with Bonhoeffer across the years. Nearly all of these students would die in Hitler’s war or in the concentration camps, as would their kind teacher.
How do you respond to that? Profound sadness, yes. But is it a tragedy? Or is it a triumph? Is this the outcome that we want our Sunday School teachers to aim for? Can you show me your lesson plan? Does it prepare our kids to die for Christ? If Bonhoeffer’s teaching makes Christ’s commands clear and compelling, do we want more of it? We are sad at the deaths of so few, but imagine if all of Germany at that time were as diligent in their Bible Study, and as committed to only Jesus is Lord. Hitler might never have been Hitler.
The world’s most famous spy would be James Bond. In a just world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be more famous than James Bond. Bond is make believe, Bonhoeffer is real. Bond got on machine gun cars against campy, creepy, sometimes even cool villains. Bonhoeffer got on radio and called Hitler a Verfuhrer, a misleader. Bond lives, dies, and comes back on screen. Bonhoeffer lives, dies and his reward for obedience is life forever more. So why does the world know and care about Bond when instead of listening to Dietrich Bonhoeffer? What more must a man do before the world will listen?
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs” by Mark Devine. 192 pages, published by B&H Books in November 2005. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD7.99 and through Faithlife for free. Only free in June and there are only a few days left in June.
Another free book is from Logos and that is R.C. Spoul’s “The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World”. I won’t be in time to release a review this month but I hope to do so next month. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you heard my review and decided, “I would like to read that book” but the deal is over and I have to pay full price for it. Actually, that’s not such a terrible thing.
Until next time. Bye bye.