Bonhoeffer and the Crisis of the German Church

I recently finished reading Charles Marsh’s excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory. There is much to reflect on in the book, and I would commend it to any one not only interested in Bonhoeffer but also to anyone interested in the question of what difference theology might make in a given life or given historical moment.

Along those lines, I was particularly struck by Marsh’s damning critique of theological liberalism and the German Church’s complicity with and acceptance of National Socialism. Marsh writes, “The German Christian movement did not so much destroy as emerge from the ruins of the once-grand Protestant liberal architectonic. It was perhaps a predictable dénouement for a tradition that increasingly turned theology intro anthropology, surrounding the disciplined language of belief to the habit of speaking about God as if of human nature write large.” As a consequence of this anthropological reduction of theology, “the clerics of the German Christian Church would recast the Holy Spirit as an ethos instead of a person: ‘a nature spirit, a folk spirit, Germanness in its essence.’”

Marsh’s critique aligns with Bonhoeffer’s own misgivings about the German theological establishment, which Bonhoeffer harbored even in his own university days. But it is not just this theology that contributed to the German church’s fall to Nazism. As Marsh observes that theology was part of a dangerous cocktail that included Lutheran understandings of the relationship of Church and State, as well as the deep resentments within Germany in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles, and perhaps most dangerously, the long standing legacies of Germanic warrior culture and blood and soil nationalism. In other words, bad theology may not have been the only cause, but it certainly didn’t help, and the bad theology had no resources of real protest, no prophetic counter-witness to offer.

So how to respond? That question sits at the center of Bonhoeffer’s own life work, and while a part of his response to these conditions was protest, more central in my view was his reimagined vision of theological education as a kind of Protestant monasticism centered on a rule of life and the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Speaking of his written reflections on these issues, Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Marsh observes that Bonhoeffer’s call to radical discipleship and his renewed emphasis on the Sermon the Mount is at one and the same time a needed corrective and an overstatement. On one hand the state church’s captivity to the Nazis and the underlying complacency of German Christianity needed to be challenged, as Bonhoeffer rightly does. But on the other hand, there is a danger within his vision of radical discipleship in laying “upon the individual soul not just his cross but the weight of the world.” Such a burden can “too easily (become) a recipe for a tortured soul or, worse, for an unforgiving perfectionism and sanctimonious bravado.” Despite these dangers, however, the book succeeds because “it was addressed to the crisis at hand.”

Addressing the crisis at hand, in other words, might, or maybe must, take the form of overstatement. This is a helpful reminder as we look at the past and assess Christian theology in different historical moments. What may have been the right book then, may not be the right book now or the right book for another moment with different challenges and conditions. Faithfulness does not necessarily look like a timeless response. It’s more like driving the conditions of the road.

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