Why Bonhoeffer matters: The challenge for Christian ministry at the end of Christendom

Stanley Hauerwas

Article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a theologian who should be studied by those in the ministry. Indeed, I suspect he is one of the few recent theologians who has been read or at least admired by those in the ministry. I worry that he may be more admired than read, but I have no way of judging how deeply his theological work has shaped those in the ministry. My worry is not just about whether Bonhoeffer has been read, but the extent to which those in the ministry have read anything, much less theology.

I do not mean this to be critical because for some time theologians have written primarily for other theologians. They have done so because theologians now think their primary constituency is the university and not the church. As a result, we get the disastrous distinction between theology proper and practical or pastoral theology.

Bonhoeffer was, of course, a university person all the way down. He studied at the University of Berlin and wrote two distinguished dissertations. Yet given the developments in the German universities in response to the rise of the Nazis, Bonhoeffer confessed that he “no longer believed in the university.” However, I think it a mistake – a mistake that Bonhoeffer’s declarations about his work may have encouraged – to think that there is a deep divide between his early university theology and his later more ecclesial theology.

This is not the place to argue the matter, but I would contend that there is a deep continuity between his early more academic work and his later theology which was more explicitly written for the church and the ministry. Life Together is the seminal text that embodies Bonhoeffer’s commitment to do theology in a manner that recognizes that the challenges facing the church and the world never go away.

Yet I am sure Bonhoeffer would say that it is neither him nor his theology that should matter for pastors, but rather what he cared about should matter for those in the ministry. So it is not Bonhoeffer who is important for pastors, but rather it is the Christ who was at the centre of Bonhoeffer’s theology. I think Bonhoeffer is an important resource for those in the ministry because he did not get in the way of Jesus.

As Gerhard Ludwig Muller and Albrecht Schoenherr observe in their “Afterword” to the German edition of Life Together, Bonhoeffer sought “to show a continuity in the event of revelation, both by grounding the concrete community in the reality and activity of Christ and by seeing it become actual through Christ in the present through Word and Spirit.”

Bonhoeffer for us?

Yet one may wonder how Bonhoeffer should be read by those in the ministry in our time. The challenges he faced are so different from the everyday tasks incumbent on those in the ministry in our day. Bonhoeffer confronted the Nazis and Hitler – it is hard to imagine a more dramatic conflict. Dangerous though it may have been, those confronted by the Nazi’s knew what sides they needed to be on. We seldom enjoy such clarity. The result is often a stark divide between activities associated with pastoral care and the social witness of the church.

Those in the ministry today must negotiate a very different world than the world Bonhoeffer encountered. We are unsure who our enemy is, or even if we have an enemy. We lack the clarity Bonhoeffer enjoyed – which, of course, is not a bad thing. But it leaves us confused about how to discern in the world in which we live what the primary challenge facing the church may be. Bonhoeffer saw quite early who the enemy was, though he was surrounded by many who did not see what he saw in the Nazis. Indeed, one of the interesting questions for Bonhoeffer’s relevance for pastors in our time is what enabled him to see the threat Hitler represented.

Accordingly, a crucial question that needs exploration in order to gauge Bonhoeffer’s continuing importance for the church in our day is what made it possible for him to see the character of the regime Hitler represented when so many others did not. That he came from the upper classes no doubt played a role, but surely what Muller and Schoenherr identify as his “grounding the concrete community in the reality and activity of Christ” was crucial if we are to understand his early opposition to the Nazis.

The question for us is how that “grounding” might help us know better the challenges before us. I suspect it is a mistake – and a quite understandable one – to assume that what you are against is sufficient to define your moral identity, rather than what you are for.

But to emphasize the “grounding” at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s theology may suggest another reason why Bonhoeffer’s work is not immediately relevant for the challenges that face those in the ministry today. Bonhoeffer’s church, for all its unfaithfulness, still seemed to be a viable institution. Yes, it was a state-supported church, but at least those in that church’s ministry had confidence that the church was just there.

Those in the ministry in our time, however, cannot be confident that the churches they serve will survive. At least, that seems to be the case for those churches that are identified – an identification that may be misleading – as representing mainstream Protestantism. It simply is not clear whether that peculiar form of Christianity is going to survive. Bonhoeffer had a church that was, to be sure, deeply compromised but the assumption seemed to be that you could assume that church was not going away. That assumption proved to be mistaken, but it was nonetheless operative for Bonhoeffer and those young people he was training for the ministry.

There is, moreover, the problem that Bonhoeffer represents a far too strong example of what it might mean to see him as a resource for those in the ministry today. He was a person of immense talent whose talent was enhanced by the class status of his family in Germany. That status insured that he was a person of confidence that seldom had reason to doubt his judgments. That he died a martyr only makes it more difficult for those in the ministry to try to emulate him as a paradigm of faithful service.

It is important to remember, however, that Bonhoeffer was a churchman. That he declared early in his life that he would be a theologian seemed, at least to his family and friends, odd. But even more curious was his conviction that he should be ordained. To be an academic theologian was an acceptable ambition for someone with the status the Bonhoeffer family represented, but to be ordained was not necessarily part of that package. Yet Bonhoeffer seemed to think – a thought quite intelligible for someone who wrote Sanctorum Communio – that he should be ordained. Bonhoeffer had finished writing Sanctorum Communio by 1927. The book was published in 1930. He was ordained in 1931.

Sanctorum Communio helps us understand Bonhoeffer’s pastoral practice and, in particular, his desire to be ordained. Because, in that book, Bonhoeffer developed his strong argument that the church was “Christ existing as community.” Accordingly, the task of theology is a pastoral task because the church and Christ cannot be separated. Bonhoeffer would say, and he knew what he was saying, that the church “is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God. The New Testament knows a form of revelation, Christ existing as Church community.”

This is a theme in his theology to which I will return, as I suspect his emphasis on importance of the recovery of the visibility of the church as the expression of Christ is an emphasis that is crucial for sustaining his ministry as well as those currently in the ministry.

Pastoral care at the end of Christendom

Bonhoeffer did not, however, seek ordination to obtain a status. He seems to have sought ordination because he was convinced he was called to the work of the ministry. For example, early on he enthusiastically took on the responsibilities of a pastor – that is, he became of all things a “youth minister.” Even more remarkably, he seems to have genuinely cared about those to whom he was charged to care.

As Andrew Root argues in his fine book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, Bonhoeffer’s theology was shaped by what he was learning as a pastor charged with the instruction of the young. In particular, Root describes a confirmation class of young boys in Wedding, a section of Berlin, who were so unruly that they were thought responsible for the death of the pastor who prior to Bonhoeffer was trying to have them learn the catechism. This group of young men even became known as the confirmation class that killed their teacher. Bonhoeffer was charged with the task of teaching them the catechism.

Root reports that Bonhoeffer won them over by never losing his temper and by always being composed. The latter stance was by no means easy because the young men tried to impose on Bonhoeffer the bedlam that they used to “kill” the last incumbent. Bonhoeffer, however, drew on stories of his own life to create a trust between him and the boys that made it possible for the work of confirmation to take place. Particularly important for Bonhoeffer was his determination to visit the homes of the boys because those visits proved to be an eye-opening experience for Bonhoeffer.

Through such visits he saw the difficult circumstances in which these young men were being raised. Root reports he even wrote to a friend that his theological training was of no help in understanding what he was doing by making such visits. What was missing according to Bonhoeffer was any account of how to do pastoral care at the end of Christendom. In a letter to a friend, Root quotes Bonhoeffer describing his reactions to these home visits:

“I sometimes or even usually stand there and think I really might as well have studied chemistry. What hours or minutes of torture often pass by when the other person or I try to have a pastoral conversation, and how hesitatingly and drearily it goes on. Some will tell you completely without embarrassment and naively about their very dubious lifestyle. In short this is a very sad chapter, and I often try to console myself with the fact that I think this whole kind of pastoral care is also something that didn’t exist even earlier and is completely unchristian. But maybe it really is the end of our kind of Christianity.”

“Maybe it really is the end of our kind of Christianity” is an observation I think extremely important for helping us see why Bonhoeffer is so significant for those in the ministry today. He is so because I suspect that the kind of Christianity Bonhoeffer thought was coming to an end in Germany is not that different from the Christianity that has lived through us. It is a Christianity that has been identified with the ideals of the culture in which it found itself. As a consequence, the Christianity that has shaped us has little defence against Christians believing we are at home in this world.

For example, in an August 1933 letter to his grandmother, Bonhoeffer said it was becoming increasingly clear to him that what they are going to get for “church” is a volkisch nationalistic church that in essence can no longer be reconciled with Christianity. He then suggested:

“that we must make up our minds to take entirely new paths and follow where they lead. The issue is really Germanism or Christianity, and the sooner the conflict comes out in the open, the better. The greatest danger of all would be in trying to conceal this.”

Bonhoeffer’s attempt to bring the conflict into the open I believe to be extremely important for why and how he continues to be such an important resource for those in the ministry in our time. For, as he suggests, we may well be coming to the end of a form of Christianity that will demand changes in how the ministry is understood. In particular, it will mean the recovery of the visibility of the church as the necessary condition for bringing into the open the conflict between church and world.

One aspect of such a recovery will entail, on the part of those in the ministry, a confidence in our most basic acts that make us the church of Jesus Christ – that is, the preaching of the word as true and the celebration of the Eucharist. It is the preaching of Christ and the celebration of his crucifixion and resurrection that Bonhoeffer rightly reminded us makes possible lives that can identify the lies that threaten our lives.

The visibility of the church

In Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, I suggested that Bonhoeffer’s theological politics is best understood as an attempt to recover the visibility of the church. The church in Germany, according to Bonhoeffer, had become “invisible” because Luther – to be sure, in his peculiar way – had confirmed Constantine’s covenant with the church. The result, particularly in Germany, was to institutionalize a minimal ethic for everyone. Such an ethic meant that the existence of the Christian became indistinguishable from the existence of the citizen. Bonhoeffer argued that development had the effect of making the church vanish into an invisible realm.

That realm of invisibility Bonhoeffer suggested had a name. The name was “religion.” Religion was assumed to be an unavoidable aspect of the human. Christianity was but one form that religion could take. By calling attention to religion as the concept necessary to make the church invisible, I suspect Bonhoeffer was suggesting how the tradition of Protestant liberalism functioned to make Christianity a legitimation of the high humanism of German life. In that tradition, a generalized anthropology was thought necessary to sustain Christianity as a civilizational faith. Liberal Protestants might emphasize the importance of the church for the formation of individuals, but the fundamental problem remained the same – namely, once Christianity became religion it becomes almost impossible to think of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s words, as “Christ existing as church community.”

Bonhoeffer’s call in Letters and Papers from Prison for a Christianity free of religion was not, as it has often been interpreted, an underwriting of liberal Protestant theology. Rather his call for Christianity free from religion was an implicit critique of the attempt by Protestant liberal theologians to defend Christianity by identifying what we believe as Christians with the presumed unavoidable religious aspects of the human condition. The result, from Bonhoeffer’s perspective, was to legitimate an invisible church by confusing the Gospel with some version of humanism. Bonhoeffer called this form of Christianity “Methodism” because it attempts to sustain Christianity on the margins of life rather than at the centre.

Bonhoeffer clearly thought the association of Christianity with “inwardness” had prepared the way for the failure of the church to oppose the Nazis. This was made explicit in the Bethel Confession in which these false doctrines were rejected:

That the church is a religious association formed by gathering together of devout individuals (Enlightenment, pietism, liberalism);

That the true church is invisible, and that every empirical church is only an imperfect attempt to realize the ideal of the true church (idealism);

That the church could be the religious organization for a nation, so that it would have to provide the religious foundation for that nation’s ethno-national tradition, and that the territorial boundaries of that church should be the same as those of that nation.

These were the presumptions Bonhoeffer tried to challenge by the way he trained those studying for the ministry at Finkenwalde. The training he was providing, the way the day was organized, at the seminary was Bonhoeffer’s attempt to train those in the ministry to be people capable of the kind of work necessary to recover the visibility of the church.

Geffrey Kelly, I think quite rightly, in his “Introduction” to Bonhoeffer’s Life Together directs our attention to Bonhoeffer’s 1932 essay, “What is Church?” In that essay Bonhoeffer makes explicit the pastoral implication of his earlier work, which is not surprising given the task he was taking on – that is, to train young men to serve a church that could resist being invisible.

In this early essay on the nature of the church, Bonhoeffer begins by observing that visibility of any institution depends on it having a place in the world. But that is exactly what the church lacks because it has tried at once be everywhere, which results in the church being nowhere. The ambition for the church to be everywhere has, moreover, had the ironic result that the church was turned into the world without the world being transformed by the church. Bonhoeffer with uncommon insight suggests that such a worldly church cannot help but try to hide its own unfaithfulness, which results in contempt toward itself and the world.

Because a church so constituted has abandoned its place in the world, it is hidden by privilege and exists primarily to meet the needs of the petite bourgeois. The God such a church represents is like the church itself: at once everywhere and nowhere having no concrete reality.

According to Bonhoeffer the proper place of the church – the place that makes possible the visibility of the church – “is the place of Christ present in the world. Neither the state church nor some petit bourgeois centre, for no human person, but God alone determines this place. The church which is aware of this waits for the word that transforms it into God’s place in the world.” Bonhoeffer is quick to challenge any suggestion that such a church is an ideal church, but rather the church is a reality in the world, being in fact “a bit” of the world itself. The church is, just as Jesus was, fully human, which means the church must renounce that most deceptive form of invisibility – namely, the attempt to be pure.

The emphasis on the visibility of the church is clearly a theme begun in Sanctorum Communio, but Kelly quite rightly suggests that in the subsequent essay, “What is Church?,” Bonhoeffer began to draw out the practical implications of the work he had done in his first book. He told the students at Finkenwalde that the church is no ideal church, but that does not mean that the church is not a reality in the world. Thus the church, the visible church will be “worldly” by renouncing all privileges and property, but never will it renounce Christ’s word and the forgiveness of sins. “With Christ and the forgiveness of sins to fall back on, the church is free to give up everything else.”

Proper words

In their “Afterword” to Life Together, Gerhard Muller and Albrecht Schoenherr quote from a draft of a speech written for pastors in 1942 by Bonhoeffer. In this fragment, Bonhoeffer addressed what pastors must do in the event of a successful overthrow of the regime. Bonhoeffer called on those to whom he wrote to order their lives anew. He observes they have suffered too long from desires to go their own way and to separate them from their brothers. Such a separation is not in the Spirit of Jesus, but the spirit of individualism, indolence and defiance.

Bonhoeffer makes the surprising suggestion that to be so separated from one another results in the destruction of good preaching. The problem is they sought to perform their duties without faithfully keeping regular times for prayer, contemplation and study, as well as receiving from one another their personal confession. Accordingly, Bonhoeffer ends by imposing on each of those to whom he writes “the sacred duty to be available to our brother for this ministry. We ask you to come together to pray as you prepare your sermons and to help one another find the proper words.”

“To find the proper words” strikes me as the great challenge for the recovery of the church’s visibility. Consider, for example, Bonhoeffer’s reflections in Ethics – tellingly, in the section “Ethics as Formation” – in which he describes how Hitler, the one who tyrannically despises humanity, makes use of the meanness of the human heart by giving it other names. “Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness.” The small number of people who oppose and expose such duplicity find that their courage is called revolt, their discipline Pharisaism, their independence arbitrariness, and their masterfulness arrogance.

In short this tyrannical despiser of humanity hides his distrust of all humanity behind “the stolen words of true community.”

These Orwellian reflections by Bonhoeffer are so interesting because Bonhoeffer locates the church’s failure to call into question these “stolen words” in the church’s desire to be politically relevant. As a result, Christians have failed to be properly visible. The irony is that the invisibility of the church is a correlative of the church’s attempt to be politically relevant – an ambition that tempts the church to use the foreign language, at least foreign for Christians, of what passes for political speech. That language, moreover, meant even Christians could be seduced by the Nazis whose cynicism knew no limit.

A “worldly” church?

As I have already suggested, we are tempted to think we live in a very different time than Bonhoeffer. We are not threatened by Hitler-like leaders, but the cynicism that produces a Hitler remains alive and well. We do not trust our neighbours, nor do we trust ourselves. Nor do we trust the church. In fact, many in the ministry prefer the church to be invisible. The invisibility of the church means that the primary role for those in the ministry is to be pleasant people. What seems lacking is anything for those in the ministry to do.

But Bonhoeffer gives those in the ministry something to do. What Bonhoeffer gives those in the ministry to do is imagine how the social significance of the everyday ministerial tasks such as preaching, presiding at the Eucharist, and caring for the dying are practices for the formation of a people who are capable of being a political alternative to the world. Let me elaborate on that claim by directing your attention to the recent work of Jennifer McBride on Bonhoeffer.

In her book The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness, Jennifer McBride emphasizes, as I have, the significance of Bonhoeffer’s insistence on the importance of the recovery of the visibility of the church. She quite rightly argues that Bonhoeffer’s account of the necessity of the church’s visibility is an expression of his Christology.

Yet McBride worries that this emphasis on the recovery of the visibility of the church as a correlative of Christ’s public witness may fail to do justice to Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran understanding of the hiddenness of Christ. For central to Luther’s (and Bonhoeffer’s) Christology is the reality of the cross which is a manifestation of God’s hiddenness. The cross is at once the most visible manifestation of God but it is a manifestation that is constituted by Christ’s humiliation, which means there is a necessary hiddenness at the point God is most determinatively present.

McBride worries that the call for the recovery of the visibility of the church, a recovery she associates with my call for a recovery of the public character of the church, can underwrite a triumphal account of the church’s role in the world. McBride, therefore, suggests that an emphasis on the visibility of the church can give aid and comfort to the religious right, whom McBride argues are idolatrous in their support of America. The result, moreover, turns Christianity into a moralistic faith unable to be a witness commensurate with the hiddenness of the Incarnation.

In order to avoid that result, McBride suggests that the church must embody the humility that the cross demands. Such a witness, she argues, will best be made by the church that is primarily identified by confession and repentance for sin. Such a confession means the church can reflect the humility of the cross in a world dying for an alternative to our prideful self-assurance.

McBride argues, therefore, that church and world are not strict alternatives but rather they overlap in their mutual need to confess and repent of sin. This is the fundamental way the church serves the broader society – that is, “through creative, repentant activity in public life, the church participates in God’s healing transformation of the world.”

McBride emphasizes the importance of repentance by the church because she thinks a church so formed can better negotiate an increasingly pluralist politics. She worries that the strong distinction between church and world can result in a far too negative view by Christians of the politics in which we find ourselves. Such a view, McBride argues, betrays Bonhoeffer’s humanism – that is, Bonhoeffer’s insistence that it is not that God became human that we might be divine, but that God became human so that human beings might become more fully human. Accordingly, the Pauline admonition that the church is to be “in the world but not of the world” means that the church as a repentant people can never stand in self-righteous arrogance against the world.

McBride suggests that this way of understanding Bonhoeffer clarifies his call for Christians to be “worldly.” A worldly church remains a church that is an alternative to the world, but not in a world denying way. For it turns out if the church is a community which has been born of the repentance necessary for making disciples of Christ, the church cannot help but be led into the “messiness and complexity of historical existence, engagement which alone ushers forth concrete redemption.” Christian prophetic criticisms of “the world,” therefore, are perverse if it is forgotten that the very the church can only stand as an alternative to the world for the world’s sake.

I indicated above that McBride worries that my emphasis on the reclaiming the visibility of the church as alternative to the world’s violence is too antagonistic. According to McBride, I lack an appreciation for “the Christological fact that the world, like the church, stands under Gods’ judgment and mercy.” I fail to account for the fact that the church’s primary truthful witness is not to nonviolence but rather to the church’s complicity in sin and violence. McBride worries that I cannot imagine that God is also present in those who know not Christ, but live faithful lives of love to the neighbour.

I confess I am not particularly troubled by McBride’s criticisms of my account of Bonhoeffer because I do not think her emphasis on confession of sin and repentance as the heart of the witness of the church is antithetical to my understanding of the church as an alternative to the world. Yet I have thought it important to call attention to her account of Bonhoeffer because I think she helps us see why he is so pastorally significant. He is so because, as I suggested above, he helps us see the connections between the everyday practices of the church and the witness of the church for the world.

McBride provides an ethnographic account of the formation of two communities of confession and repentance that show her and Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the church is not some ideal but can be a concrete reality.

For example, she directs our attention to the Eleuthero Community of North Yarmouth, Maine. This is a small community of Christians whose faith takes the form of a stance toward the world in gratitude and repentance. They confess that they live in sharp irony because they participate in a culture that has more power and status than any people who have ever lived, yet it is not clear such a way of life is sustainable. They confess, therefore, they are a community whose identity and mission grows out of a disposition of confession of sin and repentance. Accordingly, they have taken on as their common effort to found a retreat and study centre for the exploration of a Christian spirituality that they know is required to sustain the discipline necessary to practice the care of the earth.

McBride provides an account of the hard work in community building necessary for sustaining such a community. It is the kind of work I suspect is necessary if we are to be the kind of church that Bonhoeffer points us toward. It is a church that will, by necessity, raise up those able to make us articulate before the world. I cannot imagine a more significant role for those who find themselves identified as priests or ministers.

The Christ that is present

I am acutely aware that many may find the last claim disappointing. You cannot help but feel a sense of, “That’s it?” That the reason Bonhoeffer remains so important for those in the ministry is his insistence that at the heart of the church, the central tasks of those ordained, are word and sacrament?

Yet what Bonhoeffer helps us see is that the visibility of the church, the ability of Christians to claim place in a placeless world, draws on our confidence that in word and sacrament is God is “placed.” God is not nowhere. God is present in these essential acts that only make sense if Jesus has been raised from the dead.

I should like to think that my emphasis on the church in my work over the years is a theme that is consistent with Bonhoeffer’s call for the church to again become visible. I recently discovered a sentence that I should like to think gives expression to what I have been about. It is a sentence, moreover, that I think is not inconsistent with Bonhoeffer’s stress on the significance of the recovery of the “proper words” constitutive of our faith. The sentence reads: “In the shadows of a dying Christendom the challenge is how to recover a strong theological voice without that voice betraying the appropriate fragility of all speech but particularly speech about God.”

Bonhoeffer was a master of the fragility of speech about God. Accordingly, we can do no better than to study his work. Through such study we may well learn to use the “proper words” we have been given. For the invisibility that destroys us is the loss of confidence in the words that make us who we are. They are the words that make your preaching and presiding at the altar visible and life giving. That visibility is crucial for the world, calling into question, as it must, the lies necessary to deny God. I end, therefore, with Bonhoeffer’s confident claim in Discipleship:

“The church-community has, therefore, a very real impact on the life of the world. It gains space for Christ … All who belong to the body of Christ have been freed from and called out of the world. They must become visible to the world not only through the communal bond evident in the church-community’s order and worship, but also through the new communal life among brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Or, as I am prone to say, “the first task of the church is not to make the world more just. Rather the first task of the church is to make the world the world.” That such a task is given to those in the ministry is surely one of the dramatic commitments that makes the ministry such a demanding and rewarding call.

Share this post

Logo Stanley Hauerwas

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By using this website you agree to our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.