Saturday, January 26, 2013

Christian Existence: Human Reality and Divine Mystery

Below is a short paper I wrote in May, 2002, to fulfill a requirement for a Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary course, Introduction to Theology.  The professor was Dr. David Yeago, prominent Lutheran theologian, who was always challenging us to do a better job of "unpacking" the texts we were studying or quoting and who must have been frustrated and disappointed with the short and simplistic essays we students wrote in response to his deeply challenging lectures and writings.  But, it was a privilege to sit in his class and see him at work.  There is an interesting sample of his work, The Catholic Luther, published in First Things, March 1996.

Christian Existence: Human Reality and Divine Mystery
Darryl K. Williams
May 6, 2002
HT252 - Introduction to Theology


Christians realize they cannot understand and usually don’t question the miraculous work of grace God does in the hearts and minds and souls of individuals to bring them to salvation from sin, death, and the devil.  We accept that work of the Holy Spirit as a divine mystery.  We accept that God chose us, and we give thanks for it.  But it is a mistake to focus on that choice as bearing only on our eternal destinies and ignore what Scripture says about the responsibilities of Christian existence.  

Just as there are both divine mystery and human reality of Christ, represented by His two natures, there are both divine mystery and human reality of Christian existence.  If we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life,”[1] how are we to know what those good works are, and how are we able to accomplish them? What is this “way of life” intended for the Christian, and what is the role of the Church in it?  It is the purpose of this short paper to give brief and superficial and incomplete, though hopefully not incorrect, answers to these questions which have occupied the minds of great thinkers and spawned volumes of brilliant writing through the centuries.

The Human Reality of Christian Existence

Salvation in the New Testament is both event and process, and source of both assurance and hope.  Jesus certainly talked to His followers about final judgment, a place in His Father’s house, paradise, and mansions, but He talked more about the reality of challenges of the Christian life.  He restated and explained the application of the Old Testament law to the daily life of the believer.  He also carefully taught the appropriate relationship between the believer and God in his instructions on prayer and worship.  For Jesus, the point was not to just hang in there hoping for escape from punishment and a great reward sometime in the future but to live an unselfish life of love and worship and service to God and fellow mankind.

Also in support of salvation as both event and process, St. Paul, in his epistles to the churches, wrote of believers having been saved[2], being saved[3], and hoping for salvation.[4] Paul’s emphasis, like that of Jesus, was on the Christian life in the Church beginning with its starting point or initiation, baptism.  For both Jesus and Paul, Salvation begins “now,”[5] not at the time of death.  And with salvation comes a tension because the person is, as Luther wrote, “… at one and the same time righteous in Christ and sinful in his own flesh: simul justus et peccator.”[6]  That is a serious condition making the life of the believer into a battlefield and putting the believer at odds with the world.  The battle that rages is probably what Jesus referred to when He said:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.[7]
Jesus said that He had come that we might have life and “have it abundantly,”[8] but He never promised that it would be an easy life.  His demands for change are echoed in St. Paul’s words to the church at Rome; “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[9]  Certainly, the whole message of Jesus, confirmed in the writings of St. Paul, was about transformation of lives in the pattern of the change in the lives of His first followers from fishermen to “fishers of men.”[10]

What did Jesus intend for the life of the believer?  From His word and example we know that Christians are to live lives of prayer and to love and serve and worship God and to love and serve each other.[11]  We are to subject ourselves to the discipline of study of scripture and to the discipline we learn from Scripture.[12]  Christians are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.[13]  Life should be better for all because we are here.  We are to tell the Gospel story and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.[14]  We are to avoid judging each other[15] and let the weeds grow with the wheat until the time of harvest.[16]  Based on the example of Christ, we should associate with and witness and minister to the un-popular and the sinful and the disreputable as He did with Samaritans and lepers and tax collectors.   As citizens of Heaven and Earth, we are instructed by Jesus to “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”[17]

To live such a life is a challenge faced by every believer and a challenge that cannot be met under one’s own power.  St. Paul left a very personal written testimony about the human reality of Christian living, saying “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” and concluding, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.[18]  Martin Luther described the human reality of Christian life in his famous phrase from The Freedom of A Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.[19]  Luther makes it clear that motivation is the key and that the motivation for good works can never be for one’s own benefit.  “Man, however, needs none of these things for his righteousness and salvation. Therefore he should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and the advantage of his neighbor.”[20]  In Life Together,[21] Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the conflict that results from our desire for self justification.  That sinful desire leads us to compare ourselves to others and results, because of our self centeredness, in criticism of the others.  By so doing, according to Bonhoeffer, we justify ourselves.  If only we realize that we already have the gift of justification by grace, we no longer have to justify ourselves by comparing ourselves with others and can accept others as creatures of God.  Only then, Bonhoeffer wrote, can we minister to them without judging.  Only then are we free to do what we want to do rather than what we hate.  Only then are we free to be “servant of all, subject to all,” as Luther taught.  These similar testimonies of St. Paul, Martin Luther, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer show that their common rescuer was the Holy Spirit whose ongoing presence is the divine mystery of Christian existence which enables all Christians to be victorious in the human reality of Christian existence.

The Divine Mystery of Christian Existence

There are two aspects to the divine mystery of Christian existence. First is the spiritual awakening, symbolized by baptism, which comes as a gift through the Holy Spirit.  The second aspect is the ongoing spiritual sustenance that comes through the Eucharist and enables the believer to live in a manner that is pleasing to God. 

The first divine mystery of Christian existence is the work of the Holy Spirit in awakening the sinner to a realization of what God has done and of the justification that is a gift of God to the sinner.  St. Augustine came to that realization in a garden after reading a verse of scripture, St. Paul had to be struck blind on the road to Damascus, Luther had his “tower experience,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer suddenly realized he had not been a Christian is spite of being a theologian, and John Wesley had a strange “warming” of the heart.   All these theologians and Church leaders and others who have joined them through the centuries realized, through the power of the Holy Spirit, what God had done for them.  They were justified!  They had not made a ‘decision for Christ.”  God had made a decision for them.  But they did decide, as every person who realizes what God has done for them through the divine mystery of justification by grace must, whether,  in thankfulness and through the power of the Holy Spirit, to let the promised power of God flow through their lives or to deny that power and continue living in frustration and doubt.  Scripture leaves no doubt that believers are to claim that promise and accept union with Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul wrote to the Romans “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[22]  He had a more positive statement to the Corinthians, saying “…all of us…are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.[23]  So, according to St. Paul, it is possible, through the divine mystery of the presence of the Holy Spirit, for Christians to please God. 

The second divine mystery, ongoing spiritual sustenance, comes through the Church which is the vehicle which God has provided for the transformation of the Christian life. It is easy, from a worldly viewpoint, to misunderstand the Church, seeing it, at its best, as a super civic club, growing, raising and spending money, doing good, and helping people, or, at its worst, as an exclusive private club or clique with strange practices and little interest in reaching beyond its doors or in inviting more people inside.  The New Testament is the story of the founding and early development and worship and practices of the Church, Heaven’s embassy in the world.[24]  From the founding of the Church by Christ in Matthew 16, with a dozen charter members, to the first Holy Communion prior to his crucifixion, to the promised coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the resulting expansion of the Church, to the worship symbolism in Revelation, the Church is the focus of the New Testament.  The Church is not a super civic club, nor is it an exclusive private club.  It is the body of Christ, of which Christ is the head, and is the location of the communion of saints.

Because the Church is the body of Christ, the life that is pleasing to God is life in the Church through which the grace of God and the power for Christian living are received in baptism which is cleansing from sin and Eucharist which is spiritual nourishment.[25]  Christ is the head of the Church, and Christians are the body of Christ.[26]  That means Christians are in union with Christ.  The job of the Church, in union with Christ, is to continue the work that Jesus began in the first century in Palestine, loving God and neighbor and delivering the Gospel message.  Being a Christian means being a member of the Church. 

One way to think of the divine mystery of Christian existence is that there is a total disconnect between the benefits we derive from it and our ability to invest anything in it.  The student studies long hours and does well on an exam and gets a good grade.  The farmer toils in the fields and reaps a bountiful harvest.  The Christian, through the grace of God, receives a free gift of faith which results in justification.  With that justification comes sanctification, motivation and resources to do God’s good works. A fundamental problem for many Christians is that it is easier and more human to work hard on our own to do all the things we think Christ would have us do, as the student works for good grades or the farmer works for bountiful crops, than to open ourselves spiritually to the Holy Spirit and depend on the mystery of the divine guidance that is available from that source.  Simply striving to do better on our own, admirable from a human viewpoint, is “works righteousness” and displeasing to God.

It is also difficult for Christians to come to grips with a new concept of progress when thinking of Christian living.  It’s in our human nature to want to accomplish things and to be better.  One thing we cannot do in this life, even though enabled by the Holy Spirit, is make progress in reducing the infinite gap that exists between our worldly righteousness or good works and the divine perfection that is God.  The good works we do in the power of the Holy Spirit do move us forward, but just as, mathematically, an infinite distance minus 10,000 miles is still an infinite distance, we still have the same gap between what we do and what God would ultimately have us do.


Without the salvation that comes from God, life is either blissful ignorance or hopeless wallowing in sin and despair, both ending in death.  With that salvation from death, sin, and the devil, we enter into the human reality and divine mystery of Christian existence. 

The human reality of that Christian existence is that we are at odds with the world, and the divine mystery is that we are able to win the ensuing struggle only through giving up our own egos and efforts and opening ourselves completely to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God for that power!  May He give us the strength and wisdom to rely on it.


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, Translated by John W. Doberstein. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954.

[1]Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 31 (Vol. 31, Page 344). Fortress Press: Philadelphia

Tappert, T. G. 2000, c1959. The book of concord : The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church: Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press: Philadelphia

Yeago, David S. 2001. The Faith of the Christian Church: A Catholic and Evangelical Introduction to Theology. Columbia, SC.: Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

Yeago, David S. 2001. Classroom Lectures for HT 252, Introduction To Theology. Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, SC.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 1994. New York, NY.: Oxford University Press.

[1] Ephesians 2:10
[2] Romans 8:24
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:18.  It seems that Paul is writing only to those already in the church and saying that they, along with him, are in a process of “being saved.”
[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:8. 
[5] 2 Corinthians 6:2
[6]Luther, M. 1999, c1960. Luther's works, vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 35 (Vol. 35). Fortress Press: Philadelphia
[7] Matthew 10:34-39
[8] John 10:10
[9] Romans 12:2
[10] Matthew 4:19.  An example of language update gone amuck is revision of  the KJV’s, ‘I will make you fishers of men” to “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
[11] Mark 12:29-31
[12] See Hebrews 4:12 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17
[13] Matthew 5:13-16
[14] Matthew 28:19
[15] Matthew 7:1
[16] Matthew 13:25-30
[17] Matthew 22:21
[18] Romans 7:14-25
[19]Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 31 (Vol. 31, Page 344). Fortress Press: Philadelphia
[20]Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 31 (Vol. 31, Page 365). Fortress Press: Philadelphia
[21] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. By John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954.

[22] Romans 12:2
[23] 2 Corinthians 3:18
[24] I liked this explanation Dr. Yeago gave in class of why it is inappropriate to fly national flags in churches.
[25] John 6:54: So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
[26]  Colossians 1:18 - He is the head of the body, the church;

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Countercultural "Urban" Plunge

Below is a paper I wrote ten years ago to satisfy the counter cultural experience requirement for a Masters Degree at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS).  I decided against a trip to the jungles of South America and chose a relatively simple visit to the African American community in nearby Atlanta.  Something had led me to expect progressive Atlanta to be a model of good race relations and racial equality.  As you will see, if you read the paper, I was disappointed.

I did follow through on the intent expressed at the end of the paper and volunteered at The Cooperative Ministry in Columbia for about seven years, early 2003 through 2009.  In 2006 I began volunteering also at Home Works of America, an organization which serves primarily the elderly low income community in Columbia.  In 2010 I opted out of the mostly food and clothing voucher ministry of The Cooperative Ministry in favor of more attention to the hands-on home repairs needed in pretty much the same dominantly African American community.  I am very thankful for the opportunities, as a Home Works of America volunteer, to learn and use new skills in service to those in need.

Another interesting thing about the paper is that it foreshadows and explains some of the rationale for our move eight years later to the Catholic Church.  I was pretty staunchly Lutheran at the time but interest in the Catholic Church was clearly blooming.

And finally, I am not pleased with the writing below but conquered the desire to get into editor mode and have published it just as written and submitted to the professor in January 2003.

Reflections on the January, 2003, Urban Plunge
Darryl K. Williams
January 23, 2003

This Cross-Cultural experience consisted of nine days in the South Atlanta African-American community.  Issues explored and studied were housing affordability, gentrification and the resulting displacement of the poor, homelessness, community disintegration, community building, health care, and juvenile law enforcement.  The experience included a meeting of Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta,[1] a meeting with ELCA Synod of the Southeast Bishop Ron Warren, and visits to The Carter Center, the King Center, a social service organization, and to some communities under redevelopment.  It included attendance at a Muslim worship service, four worship services in African-American churches, and one combined Black Methodist - Reformed Jewish Synagogue service.  For the most part, the worship services were in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the weekend of the national holiday established in his honor.

In general, the Plunge was a discouraging experience.  There are glimmers of hope, mostly reflections off the faces of loving persons dedicated to improvement and progress, but the breakdown of the family, failure of public education, increase in juvenile delinquency and involuntary prostitution, and segregation of the races are all major problems in Martin Luther King, Jr., Country where the scars of the gross and shameful injustices resulting from the sins of slavery and involuntary segregation and racial discrimination, both blatant and subtle, are daily visible reminders that all is not well.  And when those scars are ineffective reminders, leaders in the community and in the churches, where religion and politics are as connected as husband and wife, seem ready to fill the gap and to say that the solutions to the problems of the individuals and the community are in City Hall, the State House, and the National Capitol.  The limited sample of messages I heard in the churches we visited suggests that the predominant message is a paternalistic, "Behave yourselves, remember the past, and vote Democratic."  It may be that the messages are less political on weekends other than the King Holiday weekend.  It seems worth noting that the message in the mosque we visited was about personal responsibility.  The speaker said that it is an individual’s first responsibility to take care of himself so that others do not need to take care of him.  Then, from that basis, others can be helped.  It is a message that seems to be resonating in the Black community, resulting in growth of the Muslim population.

I was reminded that, while Blacks, along with other races, have prospered, on average, in Atlanta and other major cities over the past few decades, averages mean very little.  The distribution of prosperity is bimodal rather than normal.  Many have prospered, but many are trapped at the bottom.  They have been "left behind," but not in the sense of the currently popular "rapture" theology.  They have been left far behind the economic and social and educational progress of which Atlanta boasts.  As a result they have deficient job skills, deficient social skills, insufficient money, little family or community support, and, often, no warm, safe, and comfortable place to lay their heads at night.  And the future does not look good because their children are at risk and are disproportionately involved in behavior which brings them before judges in Fulton County Juvenile Court.  Some are involuntarily prostituted and put to work on the streets or in hotels and motels. 
I was reminded that, even for Blacks who are doing well socially, economically, and educationally, there remains a heightened sensitivity to racial discrimination because they have been and continue to be the victims of it.  It helps me understand if I think of my own sensitivity to persons making fun of people with Appalachian mountain accents, because that is where I grew up and learned to talk.  It has become clear to me that many from other regions of the country make assumptions about persons with such accents just as some make assumptions about Blacks because of the color of their skin, their names, or their accents.  I was surprised to learn that some Blacks see even LTSS as a racist community.  How could that be?  Well if the most visible Black employed on a campus is a janitor, the concerned Black person wants to know why that is so.  If there are no Black Lutheran full-time MDiv students on a Lutheran Seminary campus, the concerned Black person wants to know why that is so.  A few days after the Atlanta trip, back at LTSS, I learned that a Black graduate of LTSS had been unable to get a call to a South Carolina pastorate.  No wonder the supply of students has dried up.  The eyes of the sensitive Black person easily recognize racial issues that the rest of us miss.

What is to be the response of the "one holy catholic and apostolic church" to these problems?  What portion of our energy and resources should go toward a solution to it?  During the Plunge I was reading a novel (How Firm a Foundation by Marcus Grodi) about a Protestant Congregational pastor struggling to defend his own church’s theology, which he had promised to preach and teach, vs. the theologies of other Protestant churches and the Catholic Church.  I was struck by how much Church energy is consumed as a result of the proliferation of theological positions.  I found myself wondering to what extent such theological issues distract the Church from fulfillment of the Great Commandments[2] and the Great Commission.[3]  The splintered "Church" is a dominant presence in South Atlanta with hundreds of congregations and tens of denominations.  Jesus, the founder of the Church, went about touching persons and solving their problems.  Why then, are there not faith-based solutions, led by the multitude of Christian Churches in the community, touching and solving the problems of the people who live even in the shadow of Georgia’s gold-domed state capital?  That seems to me to be a particularly pertinent question to us Lutherans, who are at the forefront of one of the greatest splits in the history of the Christian Church and have a well defined, well thought out, and well defended theology, but are in a small minority, and are almost certainly wrong, in at least some of the details.  Has that emphasis on theology distracted us from obedience to the Great Commandments and the Great Commission?  A principle I was taught as a manager in industry is that people don't care how much we know until they know how much we care.  Is it possible that we have focused too much on what we know and not enough on how much we care?

But despair and discouragement are counter-productive.  We know that much about our faith will remain a divine mystery that we can only struggle to understand.  The critical thing is that we should not devote so much of our corporate and personal energy to that struggle to understand and reconcile the mysterious that we fail to act on those things that are clear: That we are to love God and our neighbors and are to baptize and teach.  I'm reminded of a quote from, I believe, Mark Twain: "It's not the things in the Bible that I don't understand that bother me; It's the things I do understand." 

The glimmers of hope I mentioned earlier included the inspiring story of Dr. Robert Lupton, a man who charges the mainline churches with jumping right over the Great Commandments to emphasize the Great Commission and with being willing to send money to help the poor but not to get personally involved.  A Vietnam War veteran, Bob’s commitment to serve juveniles evolved into a commitment to families and, finally, into a commitment to build communities.  His wife bought into Bob’s vision, and they sold their home in the North Atlanta suburbs and moved into a “bad” neighborhood in South Atlanta 17 years ago.  The organization they built is called FCS Urban Ministries, and the neighborhood they built is called Tapestry.  Bob has written two inspiring books[4]  about the wonderful things that happened as a result of his family’s act of obedience.  Also inspirational were the individuals we met in the Juvenile Justice System.  A program coordinator, a judge, a facilities manager, and a person specializing in a fight against involuntary prostituting of juveniles all showed sincere love and concern for the young persons with whom they were dealing. 

Another hopeful event occurred after the official Plunge had ended.  An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution during the King Holiday weekend had reported on the state of integration of churches in Atlanta.  Only two were mentioned as being well integrated, and one of those was Our Lady of Lourdes (OLL) Catholic Church in the heart of Martin Luther King country, just across the street from King’s burial place.  The next weekend after the Plunge, my wife and I were back in Atlanta to celebrate the first birthday of our youngest grandchild.  On Sunday morning we visited OLL.   There we found an economically and racially mixed congregation, packed with joyful worshipers  focused on worship and celebration of the Eucharist and talking about the ways that particular congregation tries to serve the community in which it worships and lives.  I guess the Catholic Parish system has contributed to the mix of the congregation and to its ability to focus on worship and on love of neighbors.  

Finally, what is to be my personal response to the challenge of the Plunge?  I chose this particular experience because of membership in Ebenezer Lutheran Church, a downtown church challenged by many of the same problems as Atlanta churches, though on a much smaller scale.  I guess the Black community of South Atlanta is bigger than all of greater Columbia.  The Plunge experience will help me play an educated role in determination of the future mission and programs of Ebenezer, but it also challenged me to get personally involved.  As a first step, I am taking the counselor training at The Cooperative Ministry and plan to volunteer there at least a half day per week.
I want to express my appreciation to Dr. Arthur Lewis, Director of the Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta, and Reverend Michael Wilson, Director of the Urban Training Organization of Atlanta, for organizing and leading the 2003 Atlanta Urban Plunge experience.  May that experience result in greater and more effective ministry of all who participated in it.

[1] A joke the members tell on themselves is that they are not all clergy, not all Black, and not all concerned.
[2] Mark 12:28-31
[3] Matthew 28:19
[4] (Return Flight and Theirs Is the Kingdom)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Biblical Creation Accounts

"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” That is the first line of the Nicene Creed, a key part of every Mass in the Catholic Church and a statement to which I fully subscribe, with, admittedly, a pretty sketchy understanding of how that making or creating happened. The first line of The Apostles' Creed, used more often in Presbyterian and Lutheran worship is similar but simpler. "I believe in God the Father Almighty Creator of Heaven and earth..."

In the first three chapters of Genesis we have two very simple but apparently divergent explanations of the creation process followed by an explanation of our sinful nature. Christians often suffer from ridicule for clinging to one or the other or parts of these narratives as literal historical truth, but I believe that is unnecessary and counterproductive. A careful reading, it seems to me, leads to an understanding that these God-inspired stories are theological but neither scientific nor historical.  

I've never, in my adult life, seen any real conflict between the theological truths taught in the Genesis stories and the things we have learned from scientific investigation of our origins, but my understanding was improved a bit during a 2003 Old Testament Theology course at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. Below is a chart I created at the time, slightly revised and reformatted to better fit the blog. If you are interested in the subject, read the stories and see if you think my outlines and summaries of the stories and listings of theological truths contained therein are accurate. I welcome any feedback. I am glad to present Genesis 1-3 as truth, but make no claims about my feeble attempts at understanding. You will need to click on the chart for an easier reading.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Minister

Looking through some old stuff from my seminary retirement hobby I found this paper on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It was an assignment for the History of Christianity course taught by Dr. Mary Havens.  Bonhoeffer is an especially interesting character because of the inherent contradiction of a minister with a reputation for pacifism both entertaining thoughts of suicide and conspiring to assassinate Hitler.  The paper includes Bonhoeffer's views on self esteem and his provocative view that a member of a Christian fellowship " prohibited from saying much that occurs to him."  The emphases of this paper are Bonhoeffer's theory and practice of Christian ministry, a practice that continued until the day of his hanging.


MARCH 27, 2002


Bonhoeffer’s Life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born February 4, 1906, in Breslau, Germany, child of prosperous, intelligent, and prominent parents and brother to seven, and died April 9, 1945, on the Nazi gallows at Flossenburg after spending his last two years confined in the company of a small group of prisoners and jail keepers of Hitler’s Third Reich.  He lived an early life of comfortable privilege surrounded by the love and support of his family and the friendship and guidance of brilliant and influential mentors and associates but in a political environment steadily advancing toward the crisis which was to result in his imprisonment and youthful death.  Relatively unknown during his life and often misunderstood after his death, perhaps because of the incompletion of his life’s work, Bonhoeffer has, nevertheless, become one of the most widely read and studied and quoted theologians of the twentieth century.

Bonhoeffer’s education started at home under the tutelage of his father, Professor Karl Bonhoeffer, chair of his department at the University of Berlin.  Professor Bonhoeffer was a man of dignity, self-control, objectivity, and clear speech and taught his children the same disciplines.  Although the Church was not a priority for the Bonhoeffer family, Dietrich’s mother, Paula, had a Christian education and took personal responsibility for the religious and musical instruction of her children.  Both parents taught the Bonhoeffer children personal responsibility and concern and empathy for others and did so in a home environment that developed their natural talents, built their self confidence, and instilled in them senses of humor.[1]  The fruits of those parental efforts are clearly visible in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The Bonhoeffer family was severely impacted by World War I, losing nephews and one son, Dietrich’s older brother, Walter, in military action when Dietrich was twelve years old.  The war experiences may have influenced him to pursue a career in theology because, at fifteen, he was studying Hebrew.[2]  He entered university at seventeen and pursued his studies vigorously without missing the opportunity to enjoy university social life.  He joined a fraternity which he eventually had to leave when it inserted the Aryan clause in its constitution.[3]  That was perhaps the first of his public anti-Hitler positions which were to become bolder and bolder eventually leading to Bonhoeffer’s execution.

There were two dramatic spiritual turning points in Bonhoeffer’s life.  The first had to do with his attitude toward the Church which was relatively unimportant to him until he spent a university term in Rome and attended St. Peter’s during Easter.  That visit, recorded in his diary as an experience which helped him begin to understand the Church, “made him conscious how nationalistic, provincial, and narrow-minded were the confines of his own church.”[4]  The second turning point occurred in 1933 when he, “discovered the Bible for the first time,” and concluded that he was, “still not a Christian.[5]  By that time he had already served in his first assistant pastorship under the direction of a minister who apparently showed little interest in theology or religion.  There, Bonhoeffer seems to have gotten a good look at what the Church should not be, strictly social and political in nature. 

He had also studied at Union Theological Seminary, had become involved in ecumenism and had become more political, even as Germany had moved closer and closer to crisis.  He had become a university lecturer, heavily involved in travel, seminars, church politics, and ecumenism.   He had also met and had become a friend of Karl Barth.  It was study, lectures, conversation with Barth, and self examination during those years that led Bonhoeffer to the second turning point.  He later confessed that he had finally realized that, “the life of a servant of Jesus Christ should belong to the Church.”[6] From that time, Bonhoeffer belonged to the Church and was focused on Christian ministry and on renewal of the Church, placing him in diametric opposition to Hitler who, in the same year, had become Chancellor of the Third Reich and had immediately begun destroying the German democracy and eliminating the freedoms of the citizens.  Bonhoeffer had ten years left before his arrest.

Bonhoeffer became a parish minister in London in 1933 but returned to Germany in 1935 to lead an underground illegal seminary.  His experiences at the seminary are the subject of Life Together, [7] published in 1938.   After an unsatisfying attempt to escape the German situation by a move to NY, he returned to Germany in 1939 to, “share the tribulations of this time with my people,”[8] and joined the resistance against Hitler, eventually becoming involved in a plot to assassinate the German ruler.  He was arrested and imprisoned in 1943 and, after discovery of the assassination plot, was condemned and hanged in 1945.

Bonhoeffer’s Theory of Ministry 

In Life Together,  Bonhoeffer outlined his concept of ministry, linking the gift of ministry to the gift of justification by grace.  He argued that self justification forces us to compare ourselves to others and results, because of our self centeredness, in criticism of the others.  By so doing, according to Bonhoeffer, we justify ourselves.  If only we realize that we already have the gift of justification by grace, we no longer have to justify ourselves by comparing ourselves with others and can accept others as creatures of God.  Only then can we minister to them without judging.

Bonhoeffer listed seven essential elements of ministry, two that were inward focused and five that had to do with interaction with others.  The first essential element of Christian ministry, according to Bonhoeffer, is control of the tongue.  His strongest statement on the tongue is that, “…it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.”[9]  The prohibition applies not to kind words spoken in private and in love to Christian brothers but to criticism spoken in public and behind the backs of the criticized.  Scriptural support is found in Psalms 50:20-21, Ephesians 4:19, and, perhaps most directly, in James 4:11-12:  “Speak not evil one of another, brethren…who are thou that judgest another?[10]  According to Bonhoeffer, if that philosophy is adopted, “diverse individuals in the community are no longer incentives for talking and judging and condemning, and thus excuses for self justification.” [11]

Meekness is Bonhoeffer’s second, inward focused, essential element of ministry.  To put his advice in modern terms, those who would minister should give up self esteem.  Bonhoeffer’s actual words were that such a person should, “think little of himself.”  Romans 12:3 was cited as a scriptural basis: “…I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” [12]  The purposes of meekness are to avoid the “sin of resentment”[13] and to be able to humbly serve others.  As Bonhoeffer asks, “How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?”[14]

Then Bonhoeffer turns to three specific things Christians should do in personal ministry to each other: Listening attentively, resisting the temptation to interrupt and take the center of attention, helping in even trivial matters, always being willing to be interrupted, and bearing each others burdens,  never sidestepping what others may impose upon us.  All three require a total selflessness and seem almost impossible.  How can one make a living and take care of personal responsibilities if always ready to listen to concerns of others, to be interrupted to help with menial tasks, and to share concern with whatever anyone else may be concerned about?  Such is possible only by the Grace of God.

Bonhoeffer further states that Christians are to proclaim the gospel and speak openly of Jesus Christ to each other.  Bonhoeffer is speaking of, “free communication of the Word from person to person, not by the ordained ministry which is bound to a particular office, time, and place.”[15]  In spite of our concerns about confrontation of Christian friends with the Gospel, we must do it because we are all sinners and, “have only God to fear.”[16]

Finally, according to Bonhoeffer, if we truly serve one another as ministers, we have the ministry of authority.  Believers should not confer authority on persons because of their physical or mental traits and characteristics and abilities but only because of their humble service.  He states, “The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.”[17]  These statements were not just intellectual affirmations but were intensely personal for Bonhoeffer, who in fact was a brilliant personality, charismatic, influential, and gifted, and who later confessed that personal ambition had once been a problem for him and that he had, “turned the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage.”  Certainly during the latter years of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life he qualified as a faithful servant giving humble service.

Bonhoeffer’s Practice of Ministry

The student of Bonhoeffer has the advantage of being able to assess the actual ministry of the always great and eventually humble theologian against his simple theory.  The personality and discipline required of a person making his or her mark as a theologian, ministering through writing and teaching and across distance and time, are different from those required of a person focused on face-to-face personal and immediate ministry to others.  Bonhoeffer excelled in both areas.  His writings are ample evidence of his significance as a theologian and have also become an ongoing ministry of great impact.  A Rabbi wrote to Bonhoeffer’s friend, Eberhard Bethge, that Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison had, “made him understand for the first time how one might be able to worship Jesus Christ.[18]  But it is not just his writing.  Bonhoeffer’s life story includes many examples of selflessness in the practice of personal ministry.

Even as a student responsible for a childrens’ service at the Grunewald church, Bonhoeffer’s talent for personal ministry was foreshadowed in his invitations of the children to his home and in his initiation of discussion groups with the older children.[19] Later he took charge of an unruly confirmation class whose confidence and respect he won through personal involvement in their lives and through opening his home to them, even in his absence.[20]  His personal ministry matured during his leadership of an underground seminary at Finkenwalde from 1935 to 1938.  The seminary was an establishment of the Confessing Church, regarded as illegal by the Reich church government.  In Spartan surroundings, Bonhoeffer opened himself completely to the seminarians, installing his treasured library and piano in a common area for use by all and reading to them from his works in progress.  Initial German patriotism of the seminarians was overcome by Bonhoeffer’s teaching on pacifism.  Finally in 1935, when the seminary itself was officially declared illegal, Bonhoeffer called all the ordinands together and released them from their obligations to the seminary.  None left.[21]  It was of his experiences at Finkenwalde that Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together.

Finally it was the prison experience from April 1943 until his death which was the ultimate test of Bonhoeffer as a minister.  Initially in solitary confinement, forbidden conversation even with the guards, and without amenities even for personal cleanliness, he entertained thoughts of suicide, not only to avoid the risk of betraying his family or associates in conspiracy but, “because basically I am already dead.”[22]  However, after an initial interrogation period, Bonhoeffer was allowed to convert his cell to a study including minimal comforts from home and books and paper.  He gained the respect and assistance of his jailers and was eventually able to smuggle out his writing uncensored. 

Throughout his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer worked and worshiped and ministered, always maintaining a personal discipline and serenity that could not be ignored by his fellow prisoners and prison keepers.  It was not only in matters of faith and religion that Bonhoeffer helped.  Bethge reported that he drafted letters, provided money, helped with legal matters, and assisted in cases of illness and injury.[23]  Rene Marle[24] quoted the comments of one of Bonhoeffer’s fellow prisoners, a British Intelligence Service officer:
Bonhoeffer…was all humility and sweetness; he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy, in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive…He was one of the few men that I have met to whom God was real and close.[25]

Another prisoner, one who occupied the cell next to Bonhoeffer’s, reported that, “…often he would slip into my hand a scrap of paper with a few words of comfort and faith from the Bible written on it.”[26]  Bethge reported that, at Christmas, he wrote prayers for distribution throughout the prison by the chaplain.[27]  In prison, it was not only middle class Christian church members with whom Bonhoeffer was associated.  There were people from all walks of life, and he was often impressed with the contributions to the community of those from outside the Church.[28]  Certainly it was no exaggeration for Renate Wind to write that, “In the emergency community of Tegel he gave and experienced solidarity.”[29]

Bonhoeffer was also active in leadership of worship among the prisoners including celebrations of weddings and christenings.  On his last day of which there is any record, he was locked in a school in Bavaria on the journey to the extermination facility at Flossenburg.  At the request of the other prisoners, Bonhoeffer conducted a service of the Word.  He was about to begin a service with a second group when he was taken away for his execution.  The inscription placed on Bonhoeffer’s memorial tablet at the church in the town where his execution took place said, “A witness to Jesus Christ among his brothers.”[30]

Thanks be to God for the life and witness and ministry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer!


Bethge, Eberhard. Costly Grace: An Illustrated Introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Translated by Rosaleen Ockenden. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, Translated by John W. Doberstein. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954.

Marle, Rene. Bonhoeffer: The Man and His Work, Translated by Rosemary Sheed.  New York: Newman Press, 1967.

Mohan, T. N.  Hanged on a Twisted Cross, Written by Eberhard Bethge. 120 min.
Lathika International Film and Entertainment, Inc., 1996. Videocassette.

Robertson, E. H. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1966.

Wind, Renate. A Spoke in the Wheel: The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1991.

[1] Eberhard Bethge, Costly Grace, trans. Rosaleen Ockenden (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), 17.  Most of the biographical details are taken from this source.
[2] Ibid., 26.
[3] Ibid., 31.
[4] Ibid., 34.
[5] Ibid., 57.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. By John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954.
[8] Bethge, 99.
[9] Bonhoeffer, 92.
[10] NRSV
[11] Bonhoeffer, 93.
[12] NRSV
[13] Bonhoeffer, 96.
[14] Ibid., 97.
[15] Ibid,. 103.
[16] Ibid., 106.
[17] Ibid., 109.
[18] Rene Marle, Bonhoeffer: The Man and His Work, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Newman Press, 1967), 39.
[19] Bethge, 36.
[20]T. N. Mohan,  Hanged on a Twisted Cross, Written by Eberhard Bethge. 120 min. Lathika International Film and Entertainment, Inc., 1996. Videocassette.
[21] Bethge, 82.
[22] Ibid., 116.
[23] Ibid., 137.
[24] Marle, 39.
[25] According to Marle, this quote was reported by Eberhard Bethge in his forward to an edition of Letters and Papers from Prison.
[26] Marle, 38.
[27] Bethge, 137.
[28] Wind 115
[29] Renate Wind, A Spoke in the Wheel: The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1991), 115.
[30] Marle, 35.