This is in the book
BONHOEFFER’S “BATTLE(S) FOR CHRISTENDOM”
HIS “RESPONSIBLE INTERPRETATION” OF BARMEN
It is a “time for confessing,” the Formula of Concord calls it, whenever the church is in danger of abdicating its unique authority to an overreaching secular authority. The secular pretender may be the state or the people as a whole or the secular power of the ecclesiastical institution itself or, most likely, all of these together. Against these usurpers the church’s confessors must testify, even when the state is immensely popular as under Hitler, even when the people are a defeated and voiceless nationality as the Germans were then, even when the church’s own leadership sides with this yearning ethnic folk and their revolutionary government. Against these encroaching secular powers the confessing church must testify not in order to nullify secular authority but in order rather to restore the church to its own distinctive priorities, where the authority of Christ’s gospel is supreme and where secular authority, even if that also is Christ’s, is strictly subordinate.
In our time the confessional statement most noted for its re-prioritizing of authorities is the Barmen Declaration of 1934. And by now one of the most visible witnesses for the Declaration is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That seems at first an unlikely role for him. For he did not attend the synod which issued the Declaration. In fact he seems not to have been invited. Also, he more and more identified with only one wing of the Barmen movement, the so-called “Dahlemites,” and even with them more and more as their critic. Yet for all his increasing exclusiveness (and excludedness) Bonhoeffer does provide what the Barmen Declaration explicitly acknowledged it still needed, a “responsible interpretation” of it. Indeed, his version of a verantwortliche Interpretation addresses Barmen’s single most contested issue, the re-prioritizing of churchly and civil authorities.
Bonhoeffer’s interpretation, by his life no less than by his writings, did have the effect of dramatizing the Barmen Declaration’s exclusiveness — shall we say, its “Law?” The Declarations opening thesis announces, “Jesus Christ … is the one Word of God which we have to hear, . . . trust and obey in life and in death,” such that any other “source of [church] proclamation . . . besides this one Word of God,” “we reject … as false doctrine.” Bonhoeffer became notorious for his rejecting, and not only of “doctrine” but of the doctrine’s adherents, church people. If one of the chief features of God’s “secular” authority is the power to pronounce judgment, critically and if need be excludingly, then Bonhoeffer exemplifies how the church, not only the state, employs this authority, too,
Still, in Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran tradition God’s exclusivist Word, the “Law,” is meant to be only “penultimate,” not “ultimate.” Law is that critical authority by which God governs the “old” secular order, where people are to expect fairness, what is their due, but merely that. I say “merely,” for fairness cuts both ways. Ultimately, no sinner can stand that much fairness. By contrast. God’s ultimate authority is the “gospel,” God’s cruciform mercy in Christ through the church, which is not exclusive but indiscriminately inclusive. It is with this gospel inclusivity that Bonhoeffer construed Barmen’s second thesis, that “Jesus Christ is the assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so … also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life,” embracing even the most secular of secular authorities: compromisers, oath-breakers, deceivers, professional killers. Indeed, Bonhoeffer became one with them, guilt and all — guilt, notice, before God — yet all the while as an agent in Christ’s atoning. And for whom? For the severely excluded, the German people. The church of Christ alone has authority for such scandalous, atoning inclusivity.
Thus, those who are excluded from the church and from God are not the sinners, as such, but rather those who persist in imposing God’s secular, legal authority as ultimate, thereby rendering both kinds of authority, both secular and churchly, impossible. Bonhoeffer attacked this inverting of authorities, this ecclesiastical majoring in minors, not only in the “German Christians” but also in current Lutheran distortions of Luther’s theology of “two kingdoms” and, more and more, in what he branded as “Enthusiasm” and “ecclesiastical theocracy” in his own Confessing Church, and classically in American Protestantism. For Bonhoeffer there is between God’s two authorities an undeniable two-ness, which theocrafcs suppress, as well as an essential inseparability — a “polemical unity,” but only through shared suffering. Bonhoeffer’s “responsible interpretation” of Barmen was his effort, intentionally, to recapture for his times Luther’s theology of “two kingdoms.” But more on Bonhoeffer later. First, a look at the beginnings in Barmen.
I. From Barmen To Dahlern: A Narrowing
The “Theological Declaration on the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church” (DEK) was a protest by an ad hoc group within DEK. Calling itself a “Confessional Synod” the group protested the takeover of DEK by that church body’s powerful new majority, the revolutionary, pro-Nazi “German Christians.” This impromptu synod was reacting against the new “German Christian” church leaders, at least in part, because of their National Socialist ideology of Germanic race and space, “blood and soil.” That was at the time the popular new program for ethnic-national liberation.
Yet at least as offensive as the “German Christians'” “false doctrine” was their attempt to nationalize DEK, a voluntary federation of church bodies, into a single Reich church. This national church was to be controlled by the state under a Reich bishop appointed by Hitler. That forcible assimilation (Gleichschaltung) under the national government threatened DEK’s traditionally autonomous territorial churches and church confessions (Lutheran, Reformed and United), not to mention the Roman Catholic Church.
The mixture of motives behind the Barmen Declaration, motives of doctrine but also of governance, was so complex and volatile that the confessors themselves could not agree on what their Declaration entailed practically. Eventually they so differed from one another on the issue of governance, specifically on how the church’s governance relates to the states, that that difference itself assumed the force of doctrinal division among them. That their common foe, the “German Christians” were mis-prioritizing their authorities, the secular over the spiritual, the confessors were well enough agreed. That the most immediate threat therefore was to the authority of the churches, on that point too the confessors were united — united, notice, not against the National Socialist state as such but against the state’s lackeys in the church, the “German Christians.” In fact the confessors seemed agreed even on this, that the “German Christians'” politicizing of the church’s authority, the gospel of Christ, thereby violated DEK’s own constitution. And since that constitution had been incorporated under civil law, the “German Christians” were thus at odds with the civil government itself.
However, beyond the Barmen confessors’ common front against the inner-church threat of the “German Christians” there was far less concensus, indeed there was deepening disagreement, on a practical alternative for relating ecclesial authority to civil. The split between the confessors became increasingly public in the months following Barmen as they had to contend less and less with the inept “German Christians” and more and more directly with a hostile state. Remember, that state enjoyed broad support among the people (Yolk.) and in the peoples’ churches (Volkskirchen.) Already at the time of Barmen Bonhoeffer, writing from his self-imposed “exile” in a London pastorate, ventured a prediction. He foresaw that the church conflict CKirchenkampf) which was then festering, a largely internal church-political conflict, would turn out in the long run to have been merely a “preliminary skirmish” (Vorgeplaenkel) compared to the “second,” really decisive “battle for Christendom” CKampf um das Christentum) which still lay ahead.
Just how preliminary Barmen was, how insufficient for the main battle ahead, how internally undecided on the key issue of spiritual and secular authority, becomes apparent only by hindsight. The text of the Declaration, taken by itself, looks ever so confessionally solid and forthright, especially in its singular witness to Christ. Its six theses, each with a scriptural lead-in and with a corresponding antithesis, are lean and to the point, as is the important preamble. And doesn’t that preamble stress that “as members of Lutheran, Reformed and United churches we may and must speak with one voice in this matter?” Isn’t it also true, as all popular histories of Barmen record, that in the end the synod’s almost 140 delegates from all over Protestant Germany adopted the final revision of the Declaration unanimously?
Given this highly publicized unanimity. Barmen’s publicists have long seemed reluctant to acknowledge the stormy inter-confessional differences which churned just beneath Barmen’s surface. And given that defensiveness, the recent historical revisionism which is now setting the record straight must sound to traditional interpreters like sour grapes, like a hermeneutics of suspicion bent on exposing family secrets. That reactionary non sequitur. that dissent is inadmissible except as schism, is a fallacy which Bonhoeffer himself tried to correct, unsuccessfully.
Does it really detract from the Barmen Declaration that Karl Barth’s boast, that he had drafted it virtually alone with no help from the Lutherans on the drafting committee, now turns out to be a gross over-simplification of Barmen’s pre-history? If even the late Klaus Scholder, one of the the most eminent of Kirchenkampf historians, could have been swayed by Barth’s claim, isn’t it a tribute to Scholder’s students that they rescued his posthumous publication from that error, thanks to the latest documentary discoveries by Nicolaisen? The same discoveries reveal that Barth himself, at the last moment before the final draft went before the synod for its vote, consented to rewrite Thesis Five, on church and state, to include the crucial point insisted upon by the Bavarian Lutherans.
Their point was, just as a totalitarian state must be condemned for arrogating to itself the function of a church, so must any church be condemned which takes to itself the function of a state. That broad indictment could apply not only to the “German Christians” but also to any Barmenites who might hope to coerce Lutherans into a new kind of Union church. (The majority of delegates at Barmen
were from the Evangelical Church of the Old Prussian Union, one of the largest Protestant bodies in the world, a corporate giant with a history of state enforced “Union” between Lutherans and Reformed.) The antithesis which the non-Union Bavarians insisted on adding to Thesis Five could apply also to those Barmenites (and Barthians) whom Bonhoeffer would later reproach as “ecclesiastical theocrats.” In any case it surely does no harm to learn that Hans Asmussen, himself one of the Declaration’s drafters and the one appointed to explain the text to the assembly, included this acknowledgement in his closing remarks, “In no small way are we indebted to the perseverance of our Bavarian brothers, who did not relent until this new formulation was put forward.” Here the minutes record “spirited applause.”
In fact, the record shows “applause” even for a Bavarian Lutheran whom Asmussen had not intended to commend, Werner Elert. Not only was Elert not present at the synod, he soon became one of its sharpest critics, for awhile even favoring a third front against both the “German Christians” and the “Unionists.” Politically, he hoped for a church which could identify with the ethnic-political liberation of the people. He has been likened to a liberation theologian, a title which is anachronistic if true. Theologically, his major complaint against the Barmen Declaration was not against its fifth thesis but against Thesis One — Barth’s favorite — and Thesis Two: against the first because it restricts revelation to Christ and denies to the world any revealed law, against the second because it then compensates by reducing Christ to a new lawgiver.
As for the Declarations Thesis Five, Elert was amused by how it now contradicts Thesis One: it seems to admit after all, though grudgingly, that beyond “Jesus Christ as the one Word of God” the secular political order is also from God. Elert’s critique hardly endeared him to the Confessing Movement. Scholder calls him “prickly,” the selfsame adjective which has been applied to Bonhoeffer. But it is significant that Asmussen’s quoting of Elert before the Barmen assembly, obviously pejoratively, could nevertheless earn Elert a hand.
On the other hand, maybe the applause was meant to be against Elert. In any case, the evidence continues to show how unresolved were the synods differences, particularly on the prickly issue of secular and spiritual authority. True, in the end the confessors did vote for the Declaration “with one voice.” Even that, however, they did with a portentous proviso: that the Declaration be transmitted to the three different confessional bodies “for the purpose of providing responsible interpretations from their respective confessional traditions.” Bonhoeffer’s confessional tradition was Lutheran, but he was a Lutheran in the Church of the Old Prussian Union. That dual role would impair his credibility in both communions.
The proviso calling for separate “interpretations” does portend an infra-Barmen conflict. But that conflict was not only inter-confessional, Reformed versus Lutheran versus Union. No, the ensuing divisions within the “Confessing Church” (Bekennende Kirche), as the confessional movement came to be called, stemmed also from another difference. The member churches represented at Barmen were each suffering quite different fates back home at the hands of the “German Christians.” The 1 afters’ takeover had succeeded in some territorial churches, for instance those of the Old Prussian Union, more than in others, for instance Bavaria and Wuerttemberg, whose established Lutheran churches were successfully frustrating the “German Christian” takeover and so were still more or less “intact.”
The “destroyed” churches, by contrast with the “intact” ones, were having to create emergency administrations and funding and networks of their own in defiance of their new “German Christian,” state-supported overlords. Suddenly cut off from the traditional church-tax (Kirchensteuer) for pastors’ salaries, publication, theological education and hard pressed by antagonistic civil governments, these “destroyed” churches more and more believed that their hard-won independence entitled them alone to be the “Confessing Church.” By contrast their fellow-confessors in the “intact” churches were scorned for being more “privileged” because still “legal” (though barely) in their home territories. These “intact” churches were therefore thought to be ecclesially inferior and at best a “confessing movement” or “front” or, worse yet, not even a “confessing.” but merely a “confess-ional” front.
The intactness of the “intact” churches irked not only their fellow confessors in the “destroyed” churches but also, of course, the frustrated “German Christians” in those “intact” territories, like Bavaria and Wuerttemberg. There the confessing churches were still the legally established churches, not yet forced underground as “free” churches to maintain their confessional status. But there also, with covert support from Hitler, the “German Christians” were intensifying their efforts to “destroy” these confessing churches as well by forcing them into the one Reich church, so far unsuccessfully. For instance, one September evening after the Barmen synod the “German Christians” of Bavaria chose Nuremberg, a hotbed of Nazi partisanship, for a mass demonstration in the city’s Adolf Hitler Platz. They were calling for the removal of the Lutheran bishop of Bavaria, Hans Meiser, whom they denounced as a leader of the confessing movement.
On that same evening in Nuremberg, church people loyal to Bishop Meiser, having been denied a permit for a counter-demonstration, crowded instead into their churches — three churches full. Right outside were the “German Christians” and their crowds, fortified by the uniformed SA. Inside the three churches each congregation awaited its turn for the bishop to arrive and preach. An eyewitness recounts the following.
From around 6:30 p.m. until 1 1:30 p.m. people sat and stood in the Lorenzkirche — the old hymns of faith re- sounded throughout the nave and rang out so loudly that the doors had to be shut by the police. . . . Nuremberg has experienced a church revival. Christ is our Lord. He is confessed on the streets, in the houses around, in bakers’ and butchers’ shops. We stand firmly together. The bishop’s supporters included Party members as well as non-Party members, unaware as yet of the contradiction. But the Party leadership was getting the message: if people had to choose, they “would not hesitate to turn their backs on the Party.”
The German Christians and their Reich church administration tightened the screws. Next they tried firing Bishop Meiser and, failing that, they brought in the political police to put him under house arrest and a ban of silence. He responded with a public declaration, “We summon our pastors and communities to offer no obedience to this church government.” The state president of Bavaria, who was descended upon by his own Party members warning him that ninety-five per cent of the farmers from their region supported Meiser, concluded that they “are not afraid of any force and would prefer to have themselves branded as martyrs.” “All this,” says Scholder, “was without doubt one of the … most remarkable protest demonstrations ever experienced in the Third Reich.” At about the same time in the neighboring state of Wuerttemberg a similar attempt was made to depose the Lutheran bishop there, Theophil Wurm, for his leadership in the confessing movement. As in Bavaria, the Wuerttemberger bishop and his pastors and congregations prevailed “intact,” but again by recourse to what amounted to civil disobedience.
Quickly a second confessional synod convened, a sequel to Barmen, this time in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem. With Bishops Meiser and Wurm under house arrest at the time, it was reasonable for the delegates to assume that all the confessing churches, even the “intact” ones in Bavaria and Wuerttemberg, had now finally been “destroyed.” That mistaken assumption, for events soon disproved it, was all that the so-called “radical” minority at the Dahlem synod needed to get their way. For at that juncture it did seem that at any moment the Hitler government would officially incorporate the Reich church into the Reich government, and all territorial churches with it, including the heretofore “intact” ones. Little did anyone guess that within days the Bavarian and Wuerttemberger populace would prevail after all, that their two bishops would be released and even invited for a meeting with the Fuehrer, and that the “German Christians” would be discredited along with their Reich bishop and any prospect of a Reich church.
But meanwhile at Dahlem the synod delegates (those who stayed) voted, far from unanimously, that the Confessing Church was announcing an “emergency” church law, in effect a counter-takeover of DEK substituting the confessors’ governance for that of the “German Christians.” All cooperation with the latter was forthwith to be severed. One incredulous delegate asked how such a confessors’ takeover could make sense, since in his entire home territory of Thuringia all the churches together “have only a thousand members in the Confessing Community.” Pastor Martin Niemoeller, on the other hand, insisted that there not even be joint scripture study with the “German Christians.” In the end it was voices like Niemoeiler’s, from the United church, and Barth’s, from the Reformed, which prevailed at Dahlem. And it was into hands like theirs, in the new Council of Brethren and its inner Council of Six that the Dahlem synod now entrusted the leadership of the Confessing Church. But it did so without strong concensus.
By November 1934, hardly two weeks after Dahlem, the synod’s fragile concensus began to come apart openly, specifically over the synod’s sharp separation from “German Christians” and from the Reich church. In opposition to this exclusivist claim that Dahlem and its Council of Brethren must monopolize the leadership of DEK, other veterans of Dahlem now created instead the “First Provisional Church Government of DEK.” This temporary, pluralist approach to governance met the regulations of the Reich church yet also represented those upstart Lutheran churches like Bavaria and Wuerttemberg, which meanwhile had prevailed “intact.” Indeed, the idea of the Provisional Church Government was officially negotiated with the state by none other than the president of the Council of Six and was supported by a majority of the Council of Brethren despite Niemoeiler’s and Barth’s (temporary) resignations. Bonhoeffer sided emphatically with Niemoeller, who was the Bonhoeffer family’s unofficial pastor in Berlin, and with Barth, to whose theological influence Bonhoeffer owed much. One wonders whether Bonhoeffer, who again had not been present at Dahlem, knew how divided the opinion at that synod had actually been.
But weren’t Niemoeller and Barth right? Didn’t this new compromise, the First Provisional Church Government, violate Section III of Dahlem’s Message, “that in matters of the church’s . . . teaching and order, the church” was “called to judge and decide alone, regardless of the state’s right of supervision?” No doubt. On the other hand the same Dahlem Message, Section IV, did defer to the Reich government asking it to recognize the church’s right to self- determination. It was clear that the church wanted recognition by the secular authorities. Should the church want that? If the state acceded to the Message’s demands, fine. But if not, then what? How important is it for the church to have legal title, if only for its independence? Yet must it win its independence at the cost of becoming exclusive and sectarian, no longer a church of the people? But if a church of the people, also of the people’s political aspirations? How inconclusive Barmen had been on these questions, for all of its apparent “unanimity,” Dahlem was now exposing by its glaring lack of unanimity.
II. The Authority To Exclude, But Whom All?
Enter Bonhoeffer, specifically Bonhoeffer the “Dahlemite,” the “radical,” the “legalist,” the “sectarian” — in a word, the exclusivist. For eventually all these epithets were applied to him, and all in connection with his interpretation of Barmen — and Dahlem. That is what made him a “Dahlemite”: he insisted on interpreting Barmen strictly in light of Dahlem. No one could honestly make Barmen’s confession of faith, so Bonhoeffer claimed, unless they complied with Dahlem’s prescriptions for church governance. And the one church governance which was binding was Dahlems Council of Brethren, not the post-Dahlem First Provisional Church Government, which Bonhoeffer condemned as a betrayal and a capitulation to state interference. Even though he had attended neither synod at Barmen or Dahlem, nor was his absence widely lamented, he esteemed Barmen’s Declaration and, as its organizational follow-through, Dahlem’s Message as inviolable. Together they were for him definitive of the authentic Confessing Church and, at its boundaries, of who could and could not be saved.
Maybe Bonhoeffer would have acknowledged, as recent critics of Dahlem have, that “the narrow principles of Dahlem . . . were accepted fully within the Confessing Church only by a small minority.” Certainly Bonhoeffer counted himself in that minority. But just as certainly he would not have conceded a criticism like Beholder’s. Though Scholder could admire the resolutions which Dahlem passed, he objected to how they were legalistically universalized. “It was wrong to turn these resolutions, born out of an emergency situation, into a law for all churches and communities [even the Bavarian and Wuerttemberger Lutherans] without distinction, [as] the basis on which it was decided whether or not they belonged to the Confessing Church.” For only a few days later, Scholder observed, the resolutions would have been stated differently, the Lutheran bishops of southern Germany would have been able to cooperate, and Dahlem “would have been understood everywhere as the synod of the whole Confessing Church and not just … of its radical wing.” Bonhoeffer belonged to that “radical wing.”
Why did he? Why, on what confessional grounds, could he defend such exclusion of even his fellow-confessors? It wasn’t only that they were perpetrating injustice. Who wasn’t? And since when is the church to be restricted only to the just? The breaking point, so I am suggesting, came when injustices which in mercy might have been borne with, in hopes of correcting them, hardened instead into de facto church policy, when the evangelical patience of the Christian community came to be extorted by law, enforcable law, in fact civil law. Whether in fact that happened, or to what extent it did, is open to historical inquiry. It is the confessional issue at stake which I wish to pursue here. To do that. we follow Bonhoeffer to Finkenwalde in Pomerania, where he learned new ways of being Lutheran, some of which would endear him to almost no one.
It was less than a year after Barmen when Bonhoeffer returned to northern Germany from his London exile to become director of a seminary at Finkenwalde on the Baltic coast. This was one of five underground seminaries newly opened by the Confessing Church of the Old Prussian Union. They were the work of the new Brotherhood Councils of Dahlem, opposition-seminaries to the established Old Prussian Union faculties now controlled by “German Christians.”
There was of course no need of such “illegal” seminaries in the Lutheran “intact” churches, where the confessing movement still controlled official theological education, however precariously.
This created additional friction between “intact” and “destroyed” churches, all still within the same larger confessing movement. The seminaries of the “destroyed” churches disdained the “intact” ones as “privileged” and not really “church.” The “intact” faculties accused the “destroyed” of “Pharisaism” and “legalism.” That made life more miserable for both camps. Also it obscured to each of them the sacrifices and bravery of the other, though both of them were resisting a common enemy of the gospel.
Fortunately Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwalde has been spared much of that undeserved obscurity. Thanks to the reporting by its most eloquent spokesperson, Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s student and best friend and biographer, we know of the awesome Christian heroism of the Finkenwalde community. Not only that, it was wondrous for its accomplishments in pastoral formation under very ?. straitened conditions and all within the two and a half short years before it was closed by the Gesfcapo. The record of Finkenwalde is part of Bonhoeffer’s “responsible interpretation” of Barmen. It may even be that Finkenwalde could not have made the Barmen witness it did, especially on the re-prioritizing of authorities, had it not been for Bonhoeffer’s alleged “legalism,” objectionable though that also may have been.
Bonhoeffer’s work at Finkenwalde was not made easier by the fact that it was located in Pomerania, not easier but perhaps more theologically responsible. Pomerania was a church province of the Old Prussian Union which, in protest against the “German Christian” takeover there, had duly mounted its own “Dahlemite” counter- church government through a provincial Council of Brethren. However, the Pomeranian confessors still prided themselves on their Lufcheranism. For Lutheran Bonhoeffer, who did the same, that by itself would have been no problem. The trouble was, these Pomeranian fellow-confessors of his felt a close affinity with the Lutherans in the “intact” church of Bavaria, specifically with Bavarian Lutheran theologians on the faculty at Eriangen like Althaus and Elert. As Bethge reports, these “two theologians’ criticism that the Barmen theses had erred in following Barth’s rejection of “original revelation’ in creation and history had met with a large measure of agreement here.” Consequently it was hard to enforce the measures legislated by Barmen and Dahlem. The result for Bonhoeffer was that in that Lutheran context he was made to appear “isolated and radical.”
At the same time, when it came to the question of who was being more Lutheran, Bonhoeffer was not about to take a backseat, even at the point where his Lutheran critics thought him most “radical.” For him it was anything but a matter of indifference whether his position did justice to Luther’s Reformation and the Lutheran Confessions. On the contrary, he consistently invoked that tradition in his own support against “the so-called Lutherans.” Aggressively he accepted the same confessional accountabilities as did those Lutherans who so differed from him on church-political issues. But were he and they really all that different theologically? The Lutheranism of the Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer extended not only to his christology and his theology of the Lord’s Supper, where his Lutheranism is sometimes acknowledged by his followers today, though not always enthusiastically. But more and more his Lutheranism surfaced also on those very issues which most sharply divided Lutherans from Barthians: law and gospel, two kingdoms, secular and spiritual authorities. At Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer was being distanced both from Lutherans and, more and more, from Barthians as well. Because of his Lutheranism? Not altogether for that reason, certainly. But that hypothesis — the Lutheran reason for his alleged “legalism” and “sectarianism” — does bear investigating.
Bethge reports that at Finkenwalde “study was centered almost wholly on the confessional writings,” which “at that time aroused . . . passionate interest,” and that “with each term more and more time was allocated to these classes than to any other subject.” One of the confessional themes which aroused such interest was the theme of “adiaphora.” In the Lutheran confessional writings the classical discussion of adiaphora appears in the Formula of Concord of 1577, specifically its tenth article. More on this later. For now let it be noted that it was first at Finkenwalde that the Formula of Concord became virtually a “discovery” for Bonhoeffer, also for his ordinands. In his later courses at Finkenwalde it was to become a “predominant theme.” “He loved the Formula Concordiae.” His personal copy abounds in underlinings and marginal notes. One passage in Formula of Concord, Article Ten, must have struck Bonhoeffer as especially compatible. He emphasizes it with double markings. “To dissent from the consensus of so many nations and to be called schismatics is a serious matter. But divine authority commands us all not to be associated with and not to support impiety and unjust cruelty.” “To dissent” to the point of being called “schismatic” was an agony Bonhoeffer was learning at firsthand, and he was finding confessional warrant for the experience in the Lutheran declaration on adiaphora.
What earned him such reproaches as “schismatic” and “legalist” was an article he published in the summer of 1936 on the subject of “church fellowship.” The article included this offending sentence of his, “Whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church in Germany separates himself from salvation.” That scandalous quotation, Bethge reports, “spread like wildfire throughout the German churches.” In the retelling it was soon caricatured into “Those without a Red Card [membership card in the Confessing Church] won’t go to heaven.” Within months Bonhoeffer was, as he said, “the most reviled man of our persuasion.” What had occasioned Bonhoeffer’s provocative article, first presented as lectures to his Finkenwalde students, was the worsening situation right within his own Confessing Church. This church was dwindling not only in financial support and in numbers and in pastorates for its “illegal” ordinands but also in its spiritual resolve to remain separate. The more credible alternative even for some members of the Councils of Brethren, yes, even for ordinands from Finkenwalde, was to reconsider their former exclusiveness and to join forces instead with the so-called Church Committees. These committees were now the latest attempt to salvage the leadership of DEK by accomodating both the concerns of the National Church and the concerns of the confessing movement. Enviably, the “intact” churches of Bavaria, Wuerttemberg, Baden and Hanover managed to stay clear of these Committees. The “destroyed” churches in the Old Prussian Union, like Pomerania, did not. Regardless, for Bonhoeffer it was the quite separate, dwindling Confessing Church which remained the only true church of Christ in Germany, from which members “separated” (his word) only on pain of their damnation.
One need not be naeve to grant that Bonhoeffer, whether or not he was right, was also misunderstood. Also there may be reason to believe that he was misinformed, for example, about how united (rather, disunited) the decision at Dahlem had actually been. Hence he may have been wrong about its authority as a binding council of the church united by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, he may have been mistaken about how “privileged” the “intact” churches really were, thus underestimating their confessorhood. In other words, he may have had his facts wrong about the exact scope of the “Confessing Church,” and in that factual respect may himself have “separated” from the authentic confessing church those who had not separated themselves. That may or may not make him “schismatic.” It still need not follow, however, that his exclusionary statement, “Whoever knowingly separates himself from ‘the Confessing Church’ in Germany separates himself from salvation,” was false or “legalistic” in its confessional intention. On the contrary, it was Bonhoeffer’s intention thereby to combat legalism, and in so many words.
Those who misunderstood Bonhoeffer’s intention legalistically included not only his detractors but his defenders, whom he tried to disabuse or, when that failed, had to disclaim. These sympathizers with Bonhoeffer, right within the Confessing Church, even within the Finkenwalde community, imported their own legalistic precon-ceptions into his intention, though they did so well-meaningly. Bethge reports that the Finkenwalde seminarians were at first hard pressed to defend their teacher’s controversial article and themselves had to learn that in that article his foremost accent had in fact been a “denial of the whole legalistic view [of the] church,” namely, the view “that the Church was to set her own boundaries and determine their extent.”
Bonhoeffer’s point had been quite the opposite. The church, he argued, was now having boundaries set for her, “drawn against her from outside,” for instance, when seminarians were pressured by “outsiders” to withdraw from the Finkenwalde community. Once that happened, must not these outsiders’ self-imposed boundaries be recognized as the real boundaries they then become, for those outsiders? Then the self-imposed boundaries become barriers not to membership in some human organization but to the body of Christ, barriers to Christ himself? That is the way Scholder, too, read Bonhoeffer’s intention: he “began from the gospel call to salvation which did not itself set limits, but came up against limits.” Yet Scholder also saw that Bonhoeffer’s colleagues in the Confessing Church did not always read matters the same way: “the claim of the Confessing Church to be the sole church of Jesus Christ hardened into a confessional orthodoxy which inevitably put [an end] to any evangelical freedom.” That sort of exclusiveness, as Bonhoeffer himself would later say, is the direct antithesis of evangelical freedom. It is the “timid impulse to draw narrow limits.” Bonhoeffer, probably not altogether without fault of his own, incurred the charge of “legalism” by his very efforts to the contrary, to guard the church against legalism and for freedom.
Terms like legalism and freedom, premised as they are upon more basic terms like law and gospel, return us to the Formula of Concord, which had become a preoccupation of Bonhoeffer’s at Finkenwalde. The Formula’s tenth article, as we noted, purportedly deals with the subject of adiaphora, judging from the title. But only purportedly, for in fact the article deals with those circumstances when adiaphora are not adiaphora any longer. Ordinarily in the church there are always adiaphora, those controversial practices and teachings about which the members of the community differ and, if God’s Word is not being compromised, should be free to differ. The practices in question might even be offensive to some members, but if these members are “the strong,” as Paul calls them, they ought to use their strength to bear with the failings of “the weak” rather than flaunt their freedom and thereby pressure “the weak” to conform against their own convictions.
However, and this is the point of Article Ten, there are limits to such adiaphoral freedom. There are times when the weak ones exploit this freedom as a subterfuge for forcing their “weak” ways upon the community, thus blackmailing the strong and in fact perverting Christian freedom into bondage. That is exactly what Bonhoeffer saw happening in the congregations where a strong pro- German spirit prevailed, by itself understandable, but where the pastor was pressured to leave because he was”non-Aryan.” Even that, so Bonhoeffer told his seminarians, might be a conceivable course of action, however regrettable. But it dare not be allowed if the gospel’s freedom was being breached. Presumably a similar breach occurred when Finkenwaldians, who were vulnerable to begin with, were being subjected to superior pressure from “the weak,” namely the Church Committees. Especially was that happening when the Church Committees, which might have been tolerable in theory, seemed more and more to be harboring the very state which, as Bonhoeffer foresaw, was Antichrist itself, the determined enemy of Christendom.
When such a time comes, says Formula of Concord X, that is a “time for confessing.” For then the freedom of the gospel has been twisted into its opposite: legalistic coercion and the enslavement of consciences, the very torment which Bonhoeffer was witnessing in his seminarians and, beyond them, in Christian Germany generally.
Folowing the cue of the Formula, Bonhoeffer scribbles in the margin, “The DCs’ [German Christians’] policy on the Jews is false doctrine” — not merely sin, a violation of God’s law but heresy against the gospel. Another marginal note reads: “By its incursion into adiaphora what is being inserted is a legalistic [gesetzliches] understanding” — that is, of the gospel.
At such “times,” says the Formula, “we should not yield to adversaries even in matters of indifference, nor should we tolerate them. That is the language not of gospel inclusivity but of judgment, which the church’s authority also obliges it to pronounce. This exclusionary authority is not unique to the church but, even though it contrasts with the gospel, it is essential to the church. “It is written, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’ (Gal. 5:1)” Paul’s very metaphor of the rebelling slave is drawn from civil law, but in the service of that very different authority, the gospel of freedom.
Employing Luther’s two-kingdoms terminology Bonhoeffer summarizes the exclusionary thrust of his article on church fellowship; the church “will be doing alien work [law] in order to carry out more efficiently its proper task [gospel].” But “the Law,” “alien” as it may be to the gospel., is not “legalism,” which is a distortion both of law and of gospel. Granted, an Erianger Lutheran like Elert might not at all have agreed with how Bonhoeffer applied this reprioritizing of authorities in the situation at hand. Still, with the reprioritizing itself he could — or should — scarcely have agreed more, particularly in view of its source in that “Gnesio-Lutheran” symbol. Formula of Concord X.
But Bonhoeffer’s article which reflects this reprioritizing of churchly authorities, the authority of gospel as “proper” over the authority of law as “alien,” was after all an article on church fellowship, merely intra-ecclesial reprioritizing. What does that have to do with the church’s external relation to the state? Does it follow from the the reprioritizing of gospel over law that the church takes priority over the state? We come to that next. But first, a reminder is in order. As late as 1942 Bonhoeffer, by then a member of a political plot against Hitler, was asked by members of another plot, “The Freiburg Group,” to project a plan for the Protestant church of Germany should it survive the war. Even at that late date when church life in Germany was nearing its nadir and the state’s hostility to Christianity was by then undisguised, Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is possible to settle the relations between state and church only if the Kirchenkampf is settled.” However true it may have been that the struggle within the church to reprioritize its own authorities was merely a Vorgeplaenkel compared to its coming great conflict with the Nazi state, for Bonhoeffer the “preliminary skirmish” still came first.
III. The Authority To Include: Polemically, Atoningingly
Surely there is more to Bonhoeffer’s “responsible interpretation” of Barmen than his exclusivist disclaimer, “Whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church in Germany separates himself from salvation.” We may still put the best construction on his statement, reminding ourselves that the separatists are those who set limits to the church from outside and so, from that “alien” distance, receive merely the church’s law, not its gospel. We may remind ourselves also that for Bonhoeffer to equate the Christian church in Germany with “the Confessing Church” only reflects what for him was always axiomatic. God’s Word for the church is “concrete,” historically situated, not abstract or vague. Even so, doesn’t Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Barmen somewhere provide a church-world relation which is not just exclusive but also inclusive? Indeed it does.
In fact, for Bonhoeffer Christ’s claim upon the world is inclusive, “total” (ganz.) exactly because it is “exclusive” Causschliesslich.) In support of this dialectical claim of Christ Bonhoeffer refers autobiographically to “one of our most astonishing experiences during the years when everything Christian was sorely oppressed.” So formative must this “experience” have been — Bonhoeffer calls it “an experience of our days,” “an actual concrete experience,” a “living experience” — that the reader is reminded of Luther’s Turmerlebnis. True, the experience did confirm Jesus’ words of “Law,” that “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Mt. 12:30). That much is exclusive. But the same experience soon confirmed the amazing contrary as well, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk, 9:40). That is inclusive in the extreme, and the church has Jesus’ authorization for that.
The experience began with the “confessing congregations” and with their “exclusive demand for a clear profession of allegiance to Christ.” The exclusiveness of their demand, as we saw, was directed not just against the “anti-Christian forces” of Nazism, which actually had had the effect of bringing the confessing congregations together in the first place. No, “the greatest of all the dangers which threatened the Church with inner disintegration … lay in the neutrality of large numbers of Christians.” Alas, “the exclusive demand for a clear profession of allegiance to Christ caused the band of confessing Christians to become ever smaller.” The excluders — or shall we say, those who pronounced judgment on the self-excluders? — had become the excluded.
However, “precisely through [the church’s] concentration on the essential,” on Christ alone, so Bonhoeffer recalls, “there gathered around her [those] people who came from very far away, and people to whom she could not refuse her fellowship and her protection.” Who were these new outsiders? “Injured justice, oppressed truth, vilified humanity and violated freedom all sought for [the church], or rather for her Master, Jesus Christ.” Bonhoeffer seems to have had in mind Germans like those he joined in the conspiracy, those humanists whom his Jewish-Christian brother-in-law, Gerhard Leibholz, called “the other Germany,” “the upholders of the European and Western tradition in Germany.” The church, as Bonhoeffer marvels, “now had the living experience of that other saying of Jesus: ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’.”
They are “for us,” Bonhoeffer explains, because “Jesus gives his support to those who suffer for the sake of a just cause, even if this cause is not precisely the confession of His name.” That is, “He takes them under His protection. He accepts responsibility for them, and He lays claim to them,” all to the surprise of those people themselves. Thus “it happens that in the hour of suffering and responsibility, perhaps for the first time in his life and in a way which is strange and surprising to him . . . , such a person appeals to Christ and professes himself a Christian because at this moment. . . he becomes aware that he belongs to Christ.” Again Bonhoeffer assures his reader, this “is not an abstract deduction but. . . an experience which we ourselves have undergone, … in which the power of Jesus Christ became manifest in fields of life where it had previously remained unknown.”
Bonhoeffer’s theological explanation of this experience, I am suggesting, is part of his “responsible interpretation” of Barmen, specifically on the issue of reprigrrUzlna the authorities. First, consider those cultural values in European humanism which at the time were so under attack from the prevailing nihilism and bestiality: “reason, culture, humanity, tolerance and self-determination, . . . concepts which until very recently had served as battle slogans against the Church, against Christianity, against Jesus Christ Himself.” Historically, where had those values come from? From Christianity. Their “origin [Ursprung] is Jesus Christ.” But in the intervening centuries of widespread defection from Christ, the “good” Europeans had “fallen away from their origin.”
Only as they are now made to suffer for their humane causes at the hands of Antichrist do these persecuted, “homeless” humanists rediscover their own Ursprung in Christ, who himself suffers for his claims of exclusiveness. What these secular martyrs discover is that the values for which they are persecuted are ultimately unsustainable without their basis in Christ. “It is not Christ who must justify Himself before the world by the acknowledgement of the values of justice, truth and freedom, but it is these values which have come to need justification, and their justification can only be Jesus Christ.”
Is Bonhoeffer suggesting, contrary to Barmen’s first thesis that there is after all in worldly history another “kingdom” or rule of God — say, the “wrath” of God — alongside God’s gracious rule in Christ? If the answer is yes, it can only be a very nuanced yes. For, notice, even though the cultural values of a secularized Christendom might somehow persist for awhile without their humanist practioners acknowledging their source in Christ, lie still graciously acknowledges them — in the inclusive claim which the church makes in his behalf. So his grace alone does seem to prevail. However, sooner or later Christ in turn must be. acknowledged if those values are to be “protected” and “justified.” They cannot indefinitely survive apart from Christ. And when those values perish for lack of nourishment from their root, possibly forever, isn’t that also a judgment of God, perhaps even a judgment of Christ, but certainly not a judgment of Christ’s grace? Does Bonhoeffer bring that qualification to Barmen’s Thesis One?
What does seem to be the case is that “one of [Bonhoeffer’s] most astonishing experiences” brought home to him that there is also something besides Christ, even contrary to Christ, which nevertheless reveals the need of Christ, namely, the tyrant’s persecution of good causes and values? Wasn’t Nazism’s very terrorizing of the humane tradition “sufficient to awaken the consciousness of a kind of alliance and comradeship between the defenders of these endangered values and the Christians?” “The children of the Church, who had become independent and gone their own ways, now in the hour of danger returned to their mother.”
That there should be a “mother” was of course essential, but so was the humanists’ “hour of danger,” their “hour of suffering and responsibility.” Without this “hour” they may well not have returned home. There does seem to be a necessary affinity and fit between “the Christ who is persecuted and suffers” and the good people’s own “concrete suffering of injustice.” The need of Christ is driven home, unwittingly of course, by something other than Christ, indeed by “Antichrist.” So then is that, namely, the one whom Bonhoeffer calls Antichrist, the one who conducts the contrary reign to Christ’s reign of grace in the world? That dualistic explanation might have the advantage of exempting God from the onus. Still, Bonhoeffer un-flinchingly traces the current affliction he and his people are suffering to the retributive “wrath of God,” which is not grace.
Indeed, the “grace,” says Bonhoeffer, lies in being able to recognize, as few of his contemporaries could, the “wrath of God” for what it is.
Accordingly, it is not just the reign of human perversity or even of Antichrist but finally of divine “wrath” which God’s grace in Christ must supercede. In fact, the surest proof that for Bonhoeffer the Antichrist is not the final antithesis but “the wrath of God” is, is Bonhoeffer’s recognizing that the divine wrath is pitted also against Antichrist. And God opposes Antichrist, in this case the Nazi tyranny, not only by means of the church but also by the coercive, exclusive “power of the state.” Notice, the Nazi regime no longer qualifies as “the state” but as its enemy. “The power of the state,” which has now passed to other hands, finds itself in a strange alliance with the church of Christ against a common foe, though the two allies, state and church, fight with markedly different, even antithetical weapons.
In II Thessalonians who is it, besides the church, who opposes Antichrist? It is as the apostle calls him “the restrainer” (II Thess. 2:7), whom Bonhoeffer identifies with “the force of order, equipped with great physical strength.” ‘The restrainer’ is the power of the state to establish and maintain order.” In Bonhoeffer’s current circumstance “the restrainer” appears in the persons of those anti-Hitler co-conspirators like his brother Klaus, his brother-in-law Dohnanyi, Admiral Canaris, General Oster and others, military officers and politicians, secret agents and lawyers, executives and intellectuals who are using their power to plot tyrannicide.
“The restrainer,’ the force of order, sees in the Church an ally, and will . . . seek a place at her side.” The two, church and “restrainer,” “are entirely different in nature [verschieden in ihrem WesenL yet in the face of imminent chaos they are in close alliance.” The church’s unique task is that of the proclaimer, “preaching the risen Jesus Christ,” “the saving act of God, which intervenes from . . . beyond whatever is historically attainable.” By contrast, “the restrainer’ is the force which takes effect within history through God’s governance of the world, and which sets due limits to evil” .Yet the proclaimer and the “restrainer” are “both alike objects of the hatred of the forces of destruction, which see in them [both] their deadliest enemies.”
Notice the incongruity. The “restrainers” — admirals and generals and political conspirators — are by vocation and commitment all people of power, “equipped with great physical strength,” “the power of the state to establish and maintain order.” Yet in this “hour of suffering and responsibility” they find themselves to be instead the weak, the persecuted, the suffering. In their “hour of danger” they, the weakened strong, see the proclaimer-church likewise suffering — for instance, suffering exclusion for its exclusiveness. Yet they also see that its “suffering presents an infinitely greater danger to the spirit of destruction than does any political power which may still remain.” Above all “through her message of the living Lord Jesus Christ the Church makes it clear that she is not concerned merely for the maintenance and preservation of the past.” The “miracle” entrusted to her is “a raising of the dead.” With that, “even the forces of order she compels to listen and turn back.” They,”after long straying from the path, are once more finding their way back to their fountain-head.”
The church in turn dare “not reject those who come to her and seek to place themselves at her side.” “While still preserving the essential distinction [wohl gewahrter Unterscheidung] between herself and these forces,” at the same time “she unreservedly allies herself with them [in aufrichtiger Bundesgenossenschaft.]” How the church is to do that, we shall soon see. But in passing let us note that in this long section in his Ethics Bonhoeffer is quite explicitly trying to recoup Luther’s “doctrine of the two kingdoms,” which in the centuries after the Reformation had degenerated into a false “emancipation and sanctification of the world and of the natural.” For Luther as for Bonhoeffer “there are two kingdoms which, so long as the world continues, must neither be mixed together nor yet be torn asunder. There is the kingdom of the preached word of God, and there is the kingdom of the sword.” “But the Lord of both kingdoms is the God who is made manifest in Jesus Christ.” How to retrieve that “doctrine of the two kingdoms” for a suffering church ministering to suffering “restrainers” on its doorstep?
In answering that question we should emphasize what in Bonhoeffer studies is often de-emphasized, that the weak and the suffering for whom Bonhoeffer found himself called always included, perhaps especially, this “Germany” as a Christian Volk. this reunion of the church and “the promising Godless,” this Christentum. “1 have loved this people,” he exclaimed. Of all the “voiceless” ones in whose behalf he spoke — the Jews, the victims of euthanasia, the “illegal” Finkenwaldians — no oppressed group seems so fully to have engaged his confessor’s energies as did his fellow-countrymen, and surely not because of their innocence.,
In this special sense Bonhoeffer was as outspokenly pro-German as those in the confessing movement who, church-politically, seemed to be his opposites — for example, Elert. who long before had written his own Kampf um das Christentum. Bonhoeffer opposed “internationalism” for the same reason he opposed its cause, “nationalism,” since both were alike “revolutionary” enemies of the corpus christianum. It may be that Bonhoeffer’s agonizing for his own people is under-emphasized in the histories about him lest he might appear insufficiently different on that score from the “German Christians.” That would be the gravest of errors. His theological cause was diametrically opposed to theirs. For him “the question really is: Germanism or Christianity.” His passion, as it was Elert’s, was not for a German Christianity but for a Christian Germany. Without Christ the Ursprung. at least for Bonhoeffer, Germany could not truly be a people. During his first stay in the United States, in 1930, Bonhoeffer told a New York congregation, “We [Christians] are no longer Americans or Germans, we are one large congregation of brethren,” but soon added, “Now I stand before you not only as a Christian, but also as a German, who rejoices with his people and who suffers when he sees his people suffering …” And their suffering, their mass deaths and impoverishment and starvation and epidemics as a result of World War I but still evident in 1930, Bonhoeffer vividly recounts to his American hearers. He has the boldness to add, no one “who knows well the history of the origin of the war believes that Germany bears the sole guilt of the war — a sentence which we were compelled to sign in the Treaty of Versailles.”
Less than a decade after that sermon Bonhoeffer was back in New York, but this time for barely a month. Germany was now going back to war. On second thought, Bonhoeffer cancels his plans for an American stay and promptly returns, as he explained to Reinhold Niebuhr, because “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany.” “Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose.” There, in that choice of his, we have Bonhoeffer’s rationale for the conspiracy: to give evidence to the Allies that there is in fact an “other Germany,” which the victors dare not again destroy by demanding unconditional surrender. Leave aside that the conspiracy failed.
Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy concretizes how he saw the church entering into aufrichtigen Bundesgenossenschaft with the state, specifically with the “restrainer,” that “power of the state to establish and maintain order.” His own conspiratorial role in this church-state alliance was not as a public representative of the church but nonetheless as one of its servantlike, “arcane” disciples. Yet as I see it, that very feature of arcane, servantlike discipleship is exactly the most significant feature of Bonhoeffer’s “responsible interpretation” of Barmen. That is, in the end it is a “nonreligious interpretation,” particularly so with reference to Barmen’s prickliest issue, the reprioritizing of spiritual and secular authorities. And Bonhoeffer’s non-religious interpretation is, as Bethge would add, “more an ethical than a hermeneutical category and also a direct call to penitence directed to the Church and its present form.” “Non-religious” and “arcane” entail repentance, and repentance is emphatically servantlike.
What is arcane or hidden about the disciples’ “discipline” as they practice it concretely amongst their homesick humanists is precisely the “non-religious” exterior of that discipline. Amongst themselves, by contrast, when they gather in the explicit name of their Lord to hear his gospel and receive his sacraments, or in private intra-believer conversation or correspondence, there the cultus and prayers and hymnody and theological discourse are still openly exercised. But in the believers’ secular associations their disciplina is kept secret or, if we may put it so, is restrained. Their self-restraint on religiousness, not to mention religiosity, is not altogether different from the restraint placed upon civil evil and disorder by the “restrainer.” For it is part of the very promise of our age that it is “godless,” not only by its own apostasy but by God’s intentional acquiescence thereto, so as to make of the age an age of grown-up responsibility, no longer baby-sat by the tutelary supports of religion and pietism.
However, arcane as the believers’ discipline is in their associations with “the promising godless,” they do very much exercise that arcanum right in those most worldly contexts, though now hiddenly. And what is this well-kept secret of their inner-worldly discipleship? It is their world-affirming solidarity with the other worldlings, especially in the latters’ sufferings and most especially in their suffering together from sin. Theirs is a solidarity of the penitents. Four and a half years after Bonhoeffer’s return from America he finds himself in Tegel prison on trial for his crimes, justly so, and writes of this to his friend Bethge. “1 haven’t for a moment regretted coming back in 1939 — nor any of the consequences, either. . . . And I regard my being kept here … as being involved in Germany’s fate, as I was resolved to be.” But the arcanum, the secret of one’s penitential co-involvement with fellow-sinners is the doing of that “in faith.” “All we can do,” Bonhoeffer confides to Bethge, “is to live in assurance and faith — you out there with the soldiers, and I in my cell.” Bonhoeffer’s collusion with the “restrainers” implicated him in the most grievous sins. That he was mortally guilty, as he himself recognized, we minimize or heroize only by not taking his penitence seriously. He and his fellow conspirators were “good” people only relatively to the “wicked,” whose sin is not “suffering” sin, but not because the conspirators and their acts did not need Christ’s “justification.” That was their most abject need. For all of them, deceit, connivance, forgery, feigning loyalty to the Fuehrer. misleading their fellow Christians, endangering the lives of others, conspiring to kill were not lapses of weakness but deliberate policy. Worse yet, with all this came their often overwhelming temptations to cynicism and despair. However, the culpability of those few conspirators only writes large what is everyday truth for the church in the world generally. In Bethge’s words, “This ‘borderline case’ is . . . an example of being Christian today.”
But then how, through such collaboration with the worldlings’ sin, are the church’s believers being church? For that, as Bonhoeffer sees it, is what they are in their solidarity with the world as it is: not just private, isolated Christians but representatives of the church of Christ, though hiddenly. But then all the worse, how as the church’s representatives are they really any different from those who do not (yet) acknowledge Christ? Where is there here any meaningful entry of the church, let alone of Christ, into the world? Bonhoeffer’s answer employs the extravagant picture of worldly Christians as agents of “atonement.” As penitent and forgiving co-sinners, these Christian collaborators infiltrate the state with that exclusive churchly authority which the state does not have, the al- inclusive, sinner-including authority to atone.
Bonhoeffer pondered how in the New Testament the Christian “who suffers in the power of the body of Christ suffers in a representative capacity Tor” the Church.” “For while it is true that only the suffering of Christ himself can atone for sin, and that his suffering and triumph took place ‘for us,’ yet to some … he vouchsafes the immeasurable grace and privilege of suffering ‘for him,’ as he did for them.” By the end of his days Bonhoeffer must have seen that this “vicarious activity and passivity on the part of the members of the Body,” this “immeasurable grace and privilege” extended also to himself.
The quotation just cited comes from Cost of Discipleship. But already in his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio. Bonhoeffer, barely out of his teens, was writing about “the love which of its own free will is ready to incur God’s wrath for its brother’s sake, . . . which takes its brother’s place as Christ took our place for us.” Bonhoeffer there recalls how “Moses wished to be blotted out of the book of life with his people, and Paul wished that he himself were accursed and cut off from Christ, not in order to be condemned with his brethren, but to win communion with God for them; he wishes to be condemned in their stead.” Years later, less than a year before his execution, in his poem “The Death of Moses,” there is the line: “God, this people I have loved.” As Bethge assures us, by “this people” Bonhoeffer “did not mean the Church, but Germany.” And of this people, he writes, “that I bore its shame and sacrifices/ And saw its salvation — that suffices.”
The way Bonhoeffer retrieves Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms is as a “polemical unity.” By contrast, what Bonhoeffer repudiates, as he believes Luther also did, is a “thinking in terms of two spheres” CRaeumen) or “spaces.” It would be tempting, as the literature about Bonhoeffer betrays, to misunderstand his objection as if he were against the two-ness of the kingdoms. He is not. Their Unterscheidung is essential. That they are “opposites” (Gegensaetze) is essential to their “unity.” Else it would not be a “polemical unity.” What Bonhoeffer objects to is a two-ness which regards secular and Christian as “ultimate static” opposites, as “mutually exclusive givens.” And the trouble with such mutual exclusiveness is not that that discourages all.interest in unity. On the contrary, what ensues is a “forced unity” which subjugates one opposite to the other in some imposed system, either sacred or profane.
Moreover, when secular and spiritual are construed not as polemically unified — the way, I would think, two debaters in a dialogue are unified — but instead as mutually repellent spheres whose unity has to be forced, then one of the two, alas, tends to be identified with “Christ” and the other with “the world.” That restricts the reality in Christ to merely a partial reality. It forces people to abandon reality as a single whole and to seek either Christ without the world or the world without Christ. But it is the whole world that Christ has won for himself. There are not two realities, only one: his. All that is real is real only in him. Granted, not all that is real in Christ (Christuswirklichkeit) is yet “realization” (Wirklichwerden.) Though the world is included in his reality, it only very partially recognizes that. That part of the world which does recognize itself as his is the church, das Christliche. “What is Christian” is not identical with “das Weltliche.” Though the two are one reality as Christ’s, they still are polemical opposites.
On the other hand, what is Christian — that is, what is church — by no means exhausts what is Christ’s. For Bonhoeffer that distinction, too, is decisive. “The dominion of the commandment of Christ over all creation is not to be equated with the dominion of the Church.” That is what a triumphalist church forgets, as the Roman church did in expanding its ecclesiastical power over the secular. That is why Luther polemicized in behalf of secular authority. He “was protesting against a Christianity which was striving for independence” from the secular, but which thereby was also “detaching itself from the reality in Christ.”
Of course, the reverse also happens, as the militant secularism of the Nazi Antichrist brazenly illustrated: das Weltliche forcibly denies its dependence on das Christliche. only dramatizing thereby its renunciation of Christ. To this great divorce the church contributed when, as in Pseudoluthertum after the Reformation, “the autonomy of the orders of this world” is counterposed to “the law of Christ.” As this escapist distortion of Luther’s two-kingdoms theology showed, “any attempt to escape from the world must sooner or later be paid for with a sinful surrender to the world.” Bonhoeffer’s critique of this “so-called Lutheran” doctrine of the two kingdoms has been widely and enthusiastically advertised. And that definitely was one, though only one of his favorite examples of post-Reformation “thinking in two spheres”
There is a second example of post-Reformation “thinking in two spheres” which Bonhoeffer almost always mentions in the same breath with his faulting of the “pseudo-Lutheran” doctrine. But this second culprit is frequently purged from the citations by Bonhoeffer enthusiasts, particularly by those with Barthian proclivities. As a result it is less well known that Bonhoeffer, perhaps especially in his later years when he became increasingly critical of his own Confessing Church, mounted strong objections against “ecclesiastical theocracy” or, as he also called it, “Enthusiasm” ‘(Schwaermertum.) In the same sentence in which he commends Luther for protesting “with the help of the secular and in the name of a better Christianity,” Bonhoeffer adds, “So, too, today, when Christianity is employed as a polemical weapon against the secular, this must be done in the name of a better secularity.” “Above all it must not lead back to a static predominance of the spiritual sphere [Sakralitaetl as an end in itself.”
For Bonhoeffer the classical form of this “ecclesiastical theocracy,” itself a version of “two spheres thinking,” is that “scheme of the Enthusiasts” in which “the congregation of the Elect takes up the struggle with a hostile world for the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.” In face of such Enthusiasm Bonhoeffer agrees that “there is good reason for laying stress on the autonomy of,for example, the state in opposition to the heteronomy of an ecclesiastical theocracy.” True, the church must raise questions, for example, about “certain economic or social attitudes and conditions which are a hindrance to faith in Christ and which consequently destroy the true character of [humanity] in the world.”
(As examples Bonhoeffer mentions “socialism or collectivism” but first of all “capitalism.”) However, “the Church cannot indeed proclaim a concrete earthly order which follows as a necessary consequence from faith in Jesus Christ.” On the one hand, the church’s “negative” strictures against those social attitudes which subvert faith in Christ do need to be made “by the authority of the word of God.” as “divine,” as “doctrine.” On the other hand, the church’s “positive ” “contributions toward the establishment of a new order” are not doctine but “Christian life,” “earthly,” “not by the authority of God but merely on the authority of the responsible advice of Christian specialists and experts.”
The “enthusiastic spiritualism” which Bonhoeffer faults as an instance of “two spheres thinking” he finds exemplified in the Anglo-Saxon countries and particularly in the USA. In the development of American democracy the dominant influence, more dominant than Calvinist ideas of original sin, was the spiritualism of the Dissenters who took refuge in America: “the idea that the Kingdom of God on earth cannot be built by the authority of the state but only by the congregation of the faithful.” True, Bonhoeffer concedes, America too is “suffering from severe symptoms of secularization.” But there “the cause does not lie in the misinterpretation of the distinction between the two offices or kingdoms, but rather in the reverse of this.” And what is that? Answer: “the failure of the enthusiasts to distinguish at all between the office or kingdom of the state and the office or kingdom of the Church.”
That, too, we recall, is a form of “two spheres thinking.” And in this case, too, it “ends only with the total capitulation of the Church to the world.” Bonhoeffer finds that documented by “the New York church registers.” “Godlessness remains more covert. And indeed in this way it deprives the Church even of the blessing of suffering and of the possible rebirth which suffering may engender.” So we return to Bonhoeffer’s (Luther’s?) doctrine of the two kingdoms. It is a solidarity of the suffering church with the suffering world, both suffering from their common sin. In that solidarity between two “polemical opposites” the church is represented not as an ecclesiastical theocracy, whether of the left or of the right, imposing its agenda upon the state, though it does call all society to account for its subversion of faith in Christ. Nor in this solidarity is the church’s most positive contribution the “earthly” wisdom it offers toward “a new order.” That, too. But the church’s “immeasurable grace and privilege” is through its servantlike disciples in the world. It is their unique authority, as church, penitently and forgivingly to “atone” for their people — and for now, arcanely. With that comes “the possible rebirth which suffering may engender.”
Might this Bonhoeffer, both in his life and his writings, qualify as a “responsible interpretation” of Barmen, specifically on the embattled issue of reprioritizing the authorities? For he does describe the church’s battle in its entirety, not only as a Kamof amongst the Kirchen to exclude the inner-church secularization of the gospel — that, too, and first of all, though only as a
Vorgeplaenkel — but especially that major battle, that Kampf urn das Christentum. in which the church contends for the world as sinner among sinners, but atoningly as suffering servant.
Robert W. Bertram
NYC, August 1992