Posts Tagged Dietrich Bonhoeffer
On September 23 the parents heard their son preach on a theme central to him throughout his life, supporting the accurately earthly, incarnational aspect of the Christian faith against the Gnostic or dualistic idea that the body is inferior to the soul or spirit. “God wants to see human beings,” he said, “not ghosts who shun the world.” He said that in “the whole of world history there is always only one really significant hour – the present. . . . [I]f you want to find eternity, you must serve the times.” His words presaged what he would write to his fiancée from his prison cell years later: “Our marriage must be a ‘yes’ to God’s earth. It must strengthen our result to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one legged too.” In another letter to her he wrote that “human beings were taken from the earth and don’t just consist of thin air and thoughts” [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 80-81].
Anyone who has gone through graduate school can feel the truth of this statement:
It is quite a remarkable experience for one to see work and life really come together – a synthesis which we all looked for in our student days, but hardly managed to find. . . . It gives the work value and the worker an objectivity, a recognition of his own limitations, such as can only be gained in real life [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 80].
As ever, Bonhoeffer cagily maintained a certain distance. He wished to learn from the old master, but would preserve his intellectual independence. In the end he would not choose church history. He respected that field, as he demonstrated by mastering it, to Harnack’s delight, but he disagreed with Harneck that one must stop there. He believed that picking over the texts as they did, and going no further, left behind “rubble and fragments.” It was the God beyond the texts, the God who was their author and who spoke to mankind through them, that fired his interest [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 62].
By September he made his decision: he would write his doctoral dissertation under Seeberg after all, but it would be on a subject dogmatic and historical. He would write about the subject he had begun puzzling over in Rome, namely, What is the church? It was eventually titled Sanctorum Communio: A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church. Bonhoeffer would identify the church as neither a historical entity nor an institution, but as “Christ existing as church-community.” It was a stunning debut [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 63]
I myself find the way such a decision comes about to be problematic. One thing is clear to me, however, that one personally – that is, consciously – has very little control over the ultimate yes or no, but rather that time decides everything. Maybe not with everybody, but in any event with me. Recently I have noticed again and again that all the decisions I had to make were not really my own decisions. Whenever there was a dilemma, I just left it in abeyance and – without really consciously dealing with it intensively – let it grow toward the clarity of a decision. But this clarity is not so much intellectual as it is instinctive. The decision is made; whether one can adequately justify it retrospectively is another question. “Thus” it happened that I went [to Barcelona] [brackets mine] [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 70].
He attended one Armenian-Catholic service that seemed “stiff and devoid of new life.” He felt that Roman Catholicism was moving in that direction but observed that there were “many religious establishments where a vital religious life still plays a part. The confessional is an example of this.” He exalted in much of what he saw. But he did not feel led to embrace Catholicism as a convert. An acquaintance he met in Rome tried to convince him, but Bonhoeffer was unmoved: “He would really like to convert me and is quite honestly convinced of his method. . . . Following these discussions, I find I am once again much less sympathetic to Catholicism. Catholic dogma veils every ideal thing in Catholicism without knowing that this is what it is doing. There is a huge difference between confession and dogmatic teachings about confession – unfortunately also between ‘church’ and the ‘church’ in dogmatics.” He considered the union of both churches: “The unification of Catholicism and Protestantism is probably impossible, although it would do both parties much good” [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 56.
In my own study and experience, I have discovered three things in relation to this. First, many who leave Protestantism for Roman Catholicism are looking to experience God in a way in which they can be scholastically free and connected to the ancient faith. However, as Bonhoeffer observed, spiritual vitality is absent. Beware of dead dogma, traditions, and icons wherever they may be.
Second, don’t forget that both Protestants and Roman Catholics share the heritage of the Church prior to the Reformation. Neither one owns the previous history.
Third, a key difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions is their approach to doctrine. RC’s take an expansive approach to doctrine; that is, the apostles meant for us to expand upon what was revealed to them. Protestants take an explanatory approach to doctrine; that is, the Church should explain and attempt to make clear what was revealed by God to the apostles. Of course, there is some overlap here rather thank clean line; however, the philosophies are clearly observed in each tradition.
[In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church] the Lutheran and Protestant traditions were less connected to the great classical past and could therefore veer toward the heresies of Gnostic dualism, of denial of the body and of the goodness of this world. But here in Rome the mingling of these two worlds was everywhere [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 54].
I’m beginning to wonder if I will ever get off page 54!
For Dietrich the theologian to hold a prejudice in favor of Lutheranism or Protestantism, or even Christianity, would be wrong. One must consider every possibility and avoid predisposing oneself to where it would all we need [Metaxas in Bonhoeffer, 54].