Post-World War I Germany was a distinctly Christian nation. So much so that, as Eric Metaxas writes in Bonhoeffer—Pastor, Martyr, Pastor, Spy, “even families who didn’t go to church were often deeply Christian.” And that is deeply troubling, given the country’s provocation of World War II and the horrors of the Third Reich.
It is often asked how a nation steeped in Christian heritage could have embraced a madman whose messianic fancies led the world into war and six million Jews to their deaths. Among the firebrands of atheism, the blame lies squarely on religion, which, Sam Harris is fond of saying, is a “living spring of violence.” For those less trenchant, it is still cause to question the putative virtues of Christianity as a force for good.
A toxic mix
As Metaxas masterfully unfolds the story, the failure of Germany was due not to the failure of Christianity but, rather, to the toxic mixture of misplaced nationalism and “cheap grace.”
Because of Martin Luther’s influence in founding the nation, Christians viewed loyalty to the Fatherland as one of their foremost duties. That led to the creation of a state-church and Christians who had difficulty distinguishing between Caesar’s due and God’s due. By the time Adolph Hitler seized the reins of Germany with his clenched fist, the church had become his docile servant, and Christians his useful idiots.
Contributing to the fecklessness of the domesticated church was a faith neutered of any culture-shaping power. Long before WWII, Christianity, as an all-encompassing belief system, had been reduced to a religion of personal piety sequestered in the private corners of German life. Five years before Hitler ascended to power, Bonhoeffer lamented: “We build [God] a temple, but we live in our own houses”; on Sunday morning “one gladly withdraws for a couple of hours, but only to get back to one’s place of work immediately afterward.” It was a symptom of Christianity without discipleship, cheap grace.
As Bonhoeffer saw it, the problem of cheap grace was a problem of spiritual leadership. Seminaries of the day were launching clergy into the world with no training in disciple-making or spiritual formation. Metaxas writes that German “theological education [was producing] out-of-touch theologians and clerics whose ability to live the Christian life—and help others live that life—was not much in evidence.”
Training the leaders
Distressed over the number of young theologians who didn’t know how to study the Bible or pray, and consequently, had only a thin understanding of Scripture, Bonhoeffer started a seminary under the auspices of the Confessing Church.
In contrast to the emphases in traditional curricula, Bonhoeffer immersed his seminarians in the spiritual disciplines. The routine included daily readings of the Old Testament, New Testament and Psalms, meditation, Bible study, and prayer. He stressed the importance of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, prohibiting the use of outside sources during their daily interactions with the Word.
Among the ordinands, Bonhoeffer demonstrated the principles of servant leadership, performing common household chores as one of them. He taught the need of stepping out of the study and into the community, to learn how to reach people, where they were, with the transforming grace of God. He modeled the importance of mentoring and accountability in their Christian formation.
Years earlier, Bonhoeffer, discerning the need for critical thinking in the younger generation, had started the Thursday Circle: a group of young men that, under his able guidance, met weekly for discussions on topics ranging from theology and religion to politics and the pressing issues of the day.
Later, as seminary director, Bonhoeffer was mentor to his young ordinands. Taking seriously St. James’s instruction “confess your sins to one another,” he initiated the practice of accountability, involving confession and mutual submission. Bonhoeffer led by example, choosing Eberhard Bethge as his accountability partner and confessor, a relationship that would continue until Bonhoeffer’s execution in a Nazi death camp.
The church stammers
The march toward the Fuhrer’s Final Solution began with two calculated steps: the Aryan Paragraph and the Nuremberg Laws. The first restricted Jews from government service (including church offices), and the second stripped them of their citizenship by forbidding them to marry or employ Germans, and banning their display of the country’s flags, colors, and insignia.
Although the Confessing Church had made a public renunciation of the Reich Church in the Barmen Declaration, it exhibited less resolve with the Reich government. Some church leaders believed that Hitler was a reasonable man who could be brought around through appeasement and accommodation. Others were taken in by his messianic rhetoric and pro-Christian propaganda. Still others feared being labeled as unpatriotic. And most, as Metaxas suggests, misunderstood the biblical limits of their duty to Caesar under Romans 13, as the result of Lutheran nationalism.
Regrettably, but not surprisingly, the church reacted to the Nuremberg Laws in a stammering move characteristic of an invertebrate. In a convocation of leaders, the Confessing Church entertained a resolution acknowledging the state’s authority to enact the legislation. Although the resolution failed to pass, the church’s anemic response was a signal that the Reich’s strategy to neutralize Christian opposition was achieving the intended effect.
Nevertheless, there were those within the Confessing Movement who opposed the abuses of the state and the complacency of the church. Bonhoeffer was at the vanguard, pressing the church to be the Church by standing with those who had no voice.
Through the courageous efforts of confessing Christians, countless Jews and other “inferiors” were saved from Caesar’s sword. But, sadly, it took a military victory from the outside, rather than a moral response from the inside, to put an end to Hitler and his atrocities. Still, Germany’s dark chapter holds important lessons for Christians today, none more important than the nature of the Church.
Takeaways from Bonhoeffer
Against the zeitgeist of the time, Bonhoeffer understood the Church transcending all natural and manmade borders. The Church is not a national institution defined by blood and citizenship; it is the visible, universal Body of Christ made up of neither Jew nor Greek, Aryan nor non-Aryan, Methodist nor Lutheran, but individuals of every race, tongue, denomination, and generation who are under the Lordship of Jesus; it is Christ “in community” existing for the sake of others; especially the marginalized and disenfranchised.
Bonhoeffer also understood the distinct scriptural mandates of the State and the Church. While the State has divine authority to promote civil order, execute justice, and protect the civitas, the Church is commissioned to expand the rule of Christ in the hearts of men through the gospel, proclaimed and practiced. Each needs the other to fulfill its biblical calling.
The Church needs the State to protect it against forces that would persecute it and obstruct its mission. The State needs the Church as a moral sounding board to help it rule fairly and justly in the civil affairs of society.
Without the transcendent perspective of the Church, the State will succumb, as Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote, “to the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus.” As it turned out, the clenched fist of the Nazi regime was a hammer that the flaccid faith of cheap grace could not withstand.
Because Bonhoeffer had a firm understanding of the spheres of sovereignty for the Church and State, he was able to take bold, confident action against both. In response to the apostasy of the Reich church, he made a decisive split to the Confessing church. In response to the amoebic posture of the Confessing Church, he repeatedly took its leaders to task. In response to the abuses of the State, he joined the German Resistance for the defeat of the Nazis.
But perhaps the greatest lesson from Bonhoeffer is that the strength of a nation will not exceed that of its moral foundation. If the foundation is laid with the gold, silver, and costly stones of God’s Word, the superstructure will endure. But if it is laid with the wood, hay, and straw of the world’s principles and values, it will endure for a while but, eventually, collapse. Bonhoeffer reminds us that it is the Church’s duty to lay that foundation and build on it with “living stones” whose rule of life is conformed to, and aligned with, the Cornerstone.
As skillfully explained by Eric Metaxas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man who “understood the times,” and took seriously the call of God upon him, even to the point of death. Despite his all-too-brief time on earth, Bonhoeffer is a towering example to Christians everywhere of incarnational faith, and of what it means to be the Church.
In a day when undiscipled Christians are the norm, religious freedoms are under increasing attack, the institution of marriage is being weakened by divorce and threatened by agitations for novel social arrangements, fatherless homes are epidemic with the paternal State stepping in to fill the vacancy, human life is commoditized toward utilitarian ends, and Caesar is ever-expanding his reach over the lives of citizens, the Church would do well to learn from Bonhoeffer.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at email@example.com.
For Part 1 of "Lessons from Bonhoeffer," click here. For Part 2, click here.
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