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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

Regis Nicoll

Regis Nicoll's weblog

What is the Church? A building with a steeple, a sanctuary full of people, a religious club for the saints, a recovery center for the "ain'ts"? What is the Church? That was the question at the center of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's work and life.

In post-World War I Germany, the "church" was a Christian institution defined by national identity and race. Its relation to the State was that of handmaiden—a role that would prove disastrous for the church and the country. Ironically, this situation and the public perceptions that engendered it were due, in no small part, to the magisterial influence of Martin Luther.

As Eric Metaxas explains in Bonhoeffer—Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, before Luther there was no Germany, per se, as there was no common language, culture or heritage. But the publication of the Luther Bible, translated into German, unified the people around a common tongue. In a way, Luther midwifed the nation, making Christianity foundational to the German identity, such that being German meant being Christian, and being Christian meant unwavering loyalty to the Fatherland.

From glory to ignominy

After the glorious era of nation-building under the Kaisers, Germany experienced a blistering defeat in WWI. The loss was a humiliating blow to national pride. But worse, the terms of surrender under the Versailles Treaty for disarmament and monetary reparations, threatened the survival of the country.

Over the next fourteen years, the Weimar Republic, which had replaced the imperial monarchy, did little to restore the nation to its former glory. Instead, deteriorating economic conditions and widespread crime, vice, and unemployment were exhausting public patience. By 1933, the political winds had shifted 180 degrees back to a monarchal-style rule, but with a difference.

Just as the Israelites, eager to measure up to their pagan neighbors, had clamored for a king, the Germans, impatient for national revival and international respect, sought a leader who would usher in a new Reich.

In January 1933, Germany got its "Saul" in the chancellorship of Adolph Hitler.

Der Fuhrer

Hitler was the incarnation of Nietzsche's Ubermensch in the robes of Plato's philosopher-king, imbibing the swill of social Darwinism. He stepped on the world stage as "der Fuhrer," Germany's anticipated leader, in whom was the source of law and order; through whom, the collective will of the people was expressed; by whom, Germany would enter a glorious eschaton; and to whom, Germans owed total allegiance and unquestioned obedience.

Within a matter of weeks, the regime suspended civil liberties under the pretense of national security and vested Hitler with absolute governmental power. A few weeks later, the Nazis restricted non-Aryans from serving in governmental posts and offices. The "Aryan Paragraph," as Metaxas notes, would be the legal steppingstone to the horrors of Treblinka, Dachau, and Auschwitz.

As the country was in thrall to its Fuhrer, Bonhoeffer criticized what its nationalistic zeal had produced: An absolute Leader bestowed with unlimited power and answerable to no higher authority, as opposed to the true leader who "sees that his office is a penultimate authority… in the face of [the ultimate] authority of God."

For the German Church, which was a state-church, the Aryan Paragraph meant that people of Jewish descent would not be allowed to hold official church positions (pastors, ministers, bishops). Tragically, many Christians, caught up in Fuhrer fervor, bought into the Paragraph. It was reasoned that if Hitler was going to restore moral and economic order and keep the Fatherland safe from the communists, as he had promised, the Paragraph might be a necessary, if unpleasant, measure. As der Fuhrer, he was law. As Germans and Christians, they owed him their obedience.

Speaking out

Others, like Bonhoeffer, saw this rightly as a breathtaking instance of governmental overreach. While the State has authority in the civil affairs of man, it has no business in the affairs of the Church, especially mandating who is fit to serve as its shepherds and spiritual leaders.

Recognizing the danger of the State's arrogation, Bonhoeffer spoke out against the complacence of German Christians. He warned that what was at stake was the very essence of the church. If Jew and German could not "stand together under the Word of God," whatever the church was claimed to be, it was not the church established by Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer called attention to the church's role in civil society as conscience of the state and defender of the persecuted. As Caesar's conscience, the church reminds him of his high calling and challenges his questionable actions. As defender of the persecuted, the church gives aid to Caesar's victims and, when necessary, engages in civil disobedience against state-sponsored injustice.

Moreover, contrary to the sentiment that the church was an ethnically closed institution associated with the manifest destiny of Germany, the true Church was universal in scope, transcending all material distinctions. Metaxas recounts two experiences that were influential in shaping Bonhoeffer's ecumenical understandings....

Continue reading here.

Post-World War I Germany was a distinctly Christian nation. So much so that, as Eric Metaxas writes in BonhoefferPastor, Martyr, Prophet, 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... Continue reading here.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis's title character warns his pupil, "The young atheist cannot be too careful about what he reads." The caution is well-taken by anyone whose beliefs are settled, including the young Christian.

Years ago, unaware of that warning, I picked up a book that upturned everything I thought I knew about being a Christian. It was Dietrich Bonheoffer's classic work The Cost of Discipleship.
 

Baptized and catechized in the Catholic Church, matriculating in parochial schools, and regularly attending mass, going to confession, and receiving communion, I believed that being a good Christian meant belonging to the "right" Christian organization, embracing its distinctive doctrines, and following its religious practices. Even during a period of spiritual drift in college and early marriage I considered myself a Christian, if a lapsed one, since, to my thinking, Christianity was foremost a matter of religious belief and association.

Some years later, a first-time encounter with the revealed Word of Scripture prompted me to re-evaluate the faith I had set on the shelf. But ignoring the wealth of millennia of Christian thought and tradition, and the counsel of more seasoned Christians, I left Catholicism and institutional religion for a "have-it-your-way" Christianity, customized according to my private and unaided understandings.

Retained in my fast food faith was the notion that following Christ out of the sanctuary and into the world, putting his teachings into practice, was optional. Jesus was my Savior and my Lord, but only over the sacred spaces, I had allotted him. Then, on an incautious day, I began reading The Cost of Discipleship.

An unsettling read

The salvo on my settled beliefs began with the opening line: "Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church." My interest was piqued. In the following paragraphs, I learned that "cheap grace" was "Christianity without discipleship"—which, more plainly stated, is forgiveness without repentance, salvation without sanctification, deliverance from the judgment of sin without the desire to be delivered from the habit of sin. It hit uncomfortably home.

Standing opposed to the Christ-less religion of cheap grace, was "costly grace." Costly grace is Christ-filled Christianity established on the Cross of redemption and the Yoke of discipleship. It is not a one-time spiritual experience, 12-step recovery program, or endless flurry of church activities, but the life-long process of taking up our cross and putting on His yoke. My settled beliefs began unraveling.

A few pages later, Bonhoeffer's koan-like phrase "only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes," set my head aswirl. While I thought it unremarkable that obedience, true and uncoerced, requires belief, the suggestion that true belief, or faith, requires obedience was counterintuitive, if not misguided. Or was it?   Continue reading here.

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