Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

Dietrich BonhoefferToday is the seventieth anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Flossenbürg concentration camp.

I’ve posted on Bonhoeffer numerous times over the years, most recently in Bonhoeffer and Luther on the psalms. Here are links to most of those posts.

The Cost of Discipleship 

In 2007, I wrote a series of posts on Bonhoeffer’s best-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, mostly to defend it from charges of “legalism”:

Another post based on The Cost of Discipleship is here: Recognising Christ the mediator.

Life Together 

Here’s a short series from 2010 on Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together:

On a similar theme (though based on The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible) is this short post quoting Bonhoeffer on The blessing of morning prayer. I also quoted Life Together in this post on congregational singing: Singing with all your heart.

Seize the Day 

I first discovered Bonhoeffer shortly after I returned to faith in 1994, when I bought a copy of Charles Ringma’s book Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is a daily devotional which has a short quotation from Bonhoeffer for each day, followed by reflections written by Ringma.

My intermittent use of this book has led to a small number of blog posts over the years:

Other posts

Some other posts which don’t fit into the above categories:

Auden’s vocation

W.H. AudenA very interesting essay on W.H. Auden here: Auden and the Limits of Poetry.

The writer, Alan Jacobs, begins by describing Auden’s conversion to Christianity, and how this was expressed in his later poetry: in particular Horae Canonicae, which Jacobs observes “have rarely been given serious attention,” but which is (according to Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson) “arguably his greatest work”; a judgment which I am not about to disagree with.

Later in his essay, Jacobs asks why it is that Auden is so neglected by Christians today. Partly, he suggests, because of Auden’s homosexuality, an obstacle even for those Christians “quick to forgive C. S. Lewis’ peculiar liaison with Mrs. Moore, or Charles Williams’ penchant for spanking and being spanked by young women.”

Mostly, though, it is because of Auden’s “Kierkegaardian emphasis on indirect communication,” in which the Christian perspective is often present in his poetry by the absence which points towards it. This isn’t an approach that shifts many units in Christian bookshops:

This emphasis stemmed from Auden’s determination to repent of his, and his fellow poets’, prideful assertions of their own importance. But Christian readers, for the most part, don’t want their poets to be humble: being somewhat Romantic in taste, they tend to prefer their poets to be seers, prophets, “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (as Shelley put it) just as long as they are Christian seers, prophets, legislators. As they often say, they like poems that are “redemptive.” But Auden understood that nothing and no one is redemptive except Jesus Christ and thus he called Shelley’s famous line “the silliest remark ever made about poets.”

As Jacobs observes, summarising Auden’s perspective: “What can poetry add to the Incarnation or the Passion of our Lord?”

For Auden, poetry was a vocation rather than a hotline to the divine. Jacobs describes this (with some justice) as a “Lutheran” understanding:

Auden consistently repudiated the notion that poetry has any privileged access to truth, any especially sanctified role to play. Poetry was certainly his vocation, and he loved it. As Mendelson writes, “Vocation, for Auden, is the most innocent form of love, a voluntary loss of self in an object.” He knew he would be wrong not to love his work, not to achieve what he called “that eye-on-the-object look” characteristic of people who are “forgetting themselves in a function.” But he would never claim that his calling was superior to any other. In this sense he was purely Lutheran, emphasizing the dignity of every calling before God.

In his conclusion, Jacobs describes how Auden rejected as a temptation of “the Black Magician” the belief that poets can be “prophets and redeemers”. Poets, for him, can do nothing that could not be “done in some other way, by action, or study, or prayer.” But this doesn’t leave poetry without a role:

Auden uses poetry to remind us of what poetry can never give us. But, in the end, this assigns poetry a genuine and important role, as it points always beyond itself in a strangely mute witness to that of which it is unable definitively to speak.

As Auden put it in one of his poems, with which Jacobs closes his essay:

We can only
do what it seems to us we were made for, look at
this world with a happy eye
but from a sober perspective.

Bonhoeffer and Luther on the Psalms

Dietrich BonhoefferI’ve just been reading the last book published by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lifetime, before his arrest in 1941: The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible.

It’s a very short book – really only an essay, 24 pages long – but full of profound reflections on the psalms as a model for Christian prayer. Martin Luther was also a great lover of the Psalter, and Bonhoeffer quotes him on a number of occasions in the book. The interaction between Bonhoeffer and Luther is a good way to get a flavour for the book as a whole.

Bonhoeffer begins by reflecting on how the psalms are prayers that God has given us in his Word to pray back to him, just as Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. As such, the two are closely interrelated:

All the prayers of the Bible are gathered together in the Our Father, taken up into its measureless scope. The Our Father does not make them superfluous, but they are themselves its inexhaustible riches, even as the Our Father is their crown and unity. Luther says of the Psalter: ‘It is interwoven with the Our Father in such a way that we can understand each through the other very well and see their happy harmony.’ (p.4)

This relationship between the psalms and the Lord’s Prayer is, incidentally, reflected well in the Daily Office, whose twin poles are the chanting (or reciting) of psalms and the praying of the Lord’s Prayer, just as the two poles of the Mass are the ministry of the Word (supremely, the Gospel lesson) and the ministry of the Sacrament.

A little later, Bonhoeffer is discussing the musical nature of the psalms (the word “psalms” itself being derived from the word “psaltery”). Again, he is able to call on Luther in his support:

Many of the rather baffling headings of the psalms are directions for the choir master. Equally, the ‘selah’ which frequently occurs in the middle of a psalm probably indicates an interval. ‘The selah is telling us to pause and reflect diligently on the words of the psalm; for they require a calm and tranquil soul who is able to grasp with understanding what the Holy Ghost is presenting to his thought.’ (Luther). (p.7)

One of my favourite Luther quotations from the book comes when Bonhoeffer describes what a blessing it is for a church to have a liturgical life that is built around the psalter:

In many Churches the Psalms are recited or sung antiphonally every Sunday, or even daily. These Churches have preserved a treasure of incalculable value, for only through daily use do we grow into that divine prayer book. If we read them only now and again we shall find these prayers so overwhelming in thought and power that we shall always want to turn back to lighter fare. But anyone who has begun to pray the Psalter regularly and in earnest will soon have done with his own easy, ‘trifling little devotions and will say: Ah, here there is none of the sap, the strength, the fervour and fire that I find in the Psalms, this is too cold and hard for me.’ (Luther). (p.8)

Moving on, Bonhoeffer quotes Luther’s description of Psalm 110 as “the foremost among the chief psalms of our dear Lord Jesus Christ” (p.13). He also cites Luther on the penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) as “the Pauline psalms” (p.18), for the way in which they “take us to the very depths of what it means to acknowledge our sin before God, they help us to confess our guilt, they direct our whole trust to the forgiving grace of God.”

In his conclusion, Bonhoeffer describes the purpose of his book as follows:

We have undertaken this short journey through the Psalter in the hope of learning to pray some of the psalms better. […] [A]ll that really matters is that we should begin afresh faithfully and lovingly to pray the Psalter in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (p.24)

He then gives the last word to Luther:

May our dear Lord, who has given us the Psalter and the Our Father and taught us how to pray them, grant us also the spirit of grace and supplication, that we may with delight and resolute faith truly pray without ceasing, for thus it behoves us. He has commanded it and desires that we should. To him be praise and honour and thanksgiving. Amen.

Bringing up the Body: Martin Luther vs Thomas Cromwell

GenericsLike my master the king, I am a faithful son of the holy Catholic church. Only just now we are not in communion with the Pope. – Thomas Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel)

Before I would have mere wine with the fanatics, I would rather drink sheer blood with the Pope. – Martin Luther

In his book Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (see previous post), Heiko A. Oberman contrasts Luther with other Reformation figures such as Andreas Carlstadt and Ulrich Zwingli. Luther famously disagreed with Carlstadt and Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper, insisting on the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the consecrated bread and wine, and rejecting the “fanatics'” symbolical interpretation of the Words of Institution.

Oberman argues that this theological disagreement reflects a sociological disagreement over the nature of the Reformation. As we saw in my previous post, Luther didn’t see what he was doing as “reformation” or himself as a “reformer”: he was a prophet and an evangelist, proclaiming the Gospel while the Devil and his Antichrist raged and the End Times drew near. Other Reformation leaders – Zwingli, Carlstadt, Bucer and so on – were indeed reformers, intent on forging a new model of urban, bourgeois Christian citizenship, freed from the mediaeval past. As Oberman observes:

The contrast between the community-oriented urban reformers and Luther, minister to a godless world, is sharp. Luther focuses on the individual Christian, not because the “individual soul” is more important “before God” than a responsible forging of political life, but because service to the world demands a stout heart. For it is not a question of honour and dignity, but—whether in city or country, townhouse or farmhouse—of resistance to the destructive power of the Devil. Political affairs make enormous demands on Christians, and that is why they must be fortified in their faith. (p.235)

The urban reformers were rejecting a “sacramental, sacerdotal Church” in favour of a “spiritually unified, true community of faith.” This was then inextricably linked with their rejection of the real presence:

The presentation of one’s position on the Eucharist showed where one stood: on the side of the privileged clerics and ruling elite, or in the ranks of the citizens united in true faith.

This shift from a a “sacramental, sacerdotal Church” to a “spiritually unified, true community of faith” has been acted out for us in recent weeks in the superb BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

An underlying theme of both the novels and the TV adaptation is Thomas Cromwell’s covert links with English Protestants. Some of these Protestants are outspoken in their rejection of the real presence, even when it means their death. As John Frith says when Cromwell visits him in the Tower to urge him to take the opportunity to escape martyrdom (Wolf Hall, p.435):

I will say before any tribunal what I will say before my last judge – the Eucharist is but bread, of penance we have no need, Purgatory is an invention ungrounded in scripture –

Cromwell would never be so incautious. However, the “citizens united in true faith”, the “privileged clerics” and the “ruling elite” all suspect him of Protestant sympathies – partly, no doubt, because he is the epitome of the upwardly-mobile, reform-minded bourgeoisie who were turning most eagerly to the new teachings. Cromwell’s great skill is to navigate the treacherous waters between the old mediaeval elites and the emerging modern world – as seen in his heavily ironical rejection of the suggestion that Tyndale is his “co-religionist”, quoted at the start of this post.

Cromwell’s views on the Eucharist, as perhaps befits such a chameleon, are harder to discern. When accused directly of being a Lutheran, he denies it (“No, sir, I am a banker. Luther condemns to Hell those who lend at interest.”). In conversation with the King, though, he expresses a very Lutheran-sounding position:

Christ taught us how to remember him. He left us bread and wine, body and blood. What more do we need? (Wolf Hall, p.533)

In the end, though, Mantel’s Cromwell is probably closer to Philip of Hesse, as described by Oberman: a sincere Evangelical but a political realist, frustrated by the divisions within the Reformation resulting from Luther and Zwingli’s disagreement. For Luther, however, political unity in the name of a bourgeois reform programme was never the aim.

Christians and politics: “reformation” vs “betterment”

Martin Luther and his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German NationThe House of Bishops’ pastoral letter on the 2015 general election has stirred up a great deal of discussion, both on the merits of the document itself and on the propriety of Church of England bishops “interfering in politics” in the first place.

I should probably admit right from the start that I haven’t read the pastoral letter yet, so I can’t comment on its content. My interest at this stage is on the second question, of whether it’s legitimate for the bishops to issue such a document at all. One comment I saw suggested that the letter “violates Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms”. Others have suggested that the bishops have failed to realise that justice is principally a matter of “eschatology”, not something that can be achieved in the here and now; or that following the example of Christ means refusing to be “derailed or side-tracked” by the “provisionality” of earthly politics.

Now, Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms is a highly contested area of theology. However, Wikipedia summarises the essence of it quite succinctly:

The church should not exercise worldly government, and princes should not rule the church or have anything to do with the salvation of souls.

There’s a difference, though, between rejecting the notion of the church’s “temporal authority,” and saying that church leaders should be silent on political topics. Certainly Luther cannot be invoked as an authority for the latter claim, as Heiko A. Oberman makes clear in his book, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. In his second chapter, Oberman describes the distinction that Luther made between “reformation” and “betterment”. It’s a distinction that I think may be helpful in understanding how Christians (including pastors) are to engage with politics.

Oberman observes that “reformation” was a familiar word in the early 16th century. “Everyone was for it” (just as everyone today is for “democracy”), but no one was really sure how to implement it. Essentially it meant a return to the ideals of the early Christian church, of a community united again in love (p.50). Successive waves of reform movements from the eleventh century onwards had attempted to realise this vision of a renewed church.

Luther, however, did not think that what he was doing was “reformation”, let alone “the” Reformation. He rejected late medieval millenarian dreams of a “reformed” church. Rather, he saw what he was doing in the light of Jesus’ prophecy:

And the gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then the end shall come. (Matthew 24:14, quoted on p.72).

In other words: Luther saw it as his role not to “reform the church”, but to preach the gospel. The preaching of the gospel would provoke a furious reaction from the devil, which in turn would be followed (as he saw it) by the Great Reformation of the Day of Judgement.

However, this didn’t mean that Luther taught a quietism in which Christians just sat around enduring persecution and waiting for the end to come. Nor did he see it as his job solely to preach the gospel while leaving politics to the professionals. On the contrary: a great deal of his efforts were “directed toward order and improvement in the world”. As Oberman says:

It is of lasting significance that Luther’s rejection of historical utopias did not entail abandoning the Church and the world to chaos: Christians are threatened but not helpless, under attack but not defenceless. (p.76)

So Christians can, and should, be hard at work in trying to improve the civic and political order:

But for this dimension he used the sober, secular, practical, temporal and above all relative term betterment rather than the glorious Reformation. In short: Reformation is the work of God, betterment the task of Adam and Eve. (p.76)

An example of the “betterment” advocated by Luther can be found in his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, written in 1520. Oberman summarises Luther’s message of political reform in this treatise as follows:

Ostentatious luxury, “through which so many noblemen and wealthy people are impoverished,” must be curbed; trade must be regulated so that “German money [cannot] leave the land”; usury is “the greatest plague of the German nation … Should it last another one hundred years, it would not be possible for Germany to keep one single penny.” Business monopolies are equally immoral: “The Fuggers and their ilk should be brought under control”; and finally, “Is it not wretched that we Christians continue to allow public whorehouses”! (pp.78f.)

I’d love to know what people’s response would have been had the Church of England bishops released a document as strongly anti-capitalist as that. Not that Luther’s social programme is necessarily a template for them to have followed:

Though often misunderstood, Luther’s suggestions for improvement should not be regarded as Christian ethics in the sense of timeless directives. Luther did not leave governments and societies an unalterable plan for all times and all centuries […]. Faith shatters any claim to eternal validity, opening instead the eyes of the faithful for what is the most needful service to others. […] God entrusted the world to man and woman, and they must discharge their duties to the very last; in this and this alone can they be of help to God. (pp.79f.)

Luther’s eschatology is alien to most of us today, even to most Christians. But his distinction between “reformation” (God’s eschatological work in establishing final justice and restoration) and “betterment” (the “sober, secular, practical, temporal and above all relative” work of making life that bit better now, of identifying and fulfilling “what is the most needful service to others”) is a valuable one. What we can achieve through worldly politics is limited; perfect justice is unattainable. But we can, and should, be using what wisdom we have to try to make things better, and Christian pastors and leaders can play a role in helping encourage this process of “betterment”.

Who’s doing the talking here?

divineserviceDiscussing my previous post on Facebook, a couple of further thoughts came to mind that are worth briefly mentioning here.

First: I think one’s interpretation of the words of institution largely depends on who you think is doing the talking when we celebrate the Mass. If it’s us who are doing the talking, then that will push us towards a metaphorical understanding of them (since we are just remembering / re-enacting what Jesus said and did).

But if it’s Christ who is doing the talking, through his minister, then that’s a different matter. Here is Christ, saying right here and right now, about this bread and this wine: “this is my body, this is the new testament in my blood; take, eat and drink.”

Secondly: one common response to all this is to say that the Supper is a “mystery” – the implication being that we can’t be sure whether Christ is being “literal” or “metaphorical” when he addresses these words to us.

Yes, the Supper is a mystery, but we should not make mysterious what Christ has made clear, any more than we should claim to make clear what Christ has kept mysterious. Christ’s promise – “this is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” – is clear. How bread and wine can become the body and blood of Christ is indeed a great mystery – but that mystery shouldn’t make us doubt or deny the clarity of the promise itself.


Talking of Facebook (you see what I did there?), I read something at work saying that Facebook is going to “dominate” social media in 2015. Which is a slightly depressing prospect, but hey, that’s the world we’re living in. So I now have a Facebook page for this blog. If “Liking” pages on Facebook is something you do (I’m being totally hypocritical here, as I try to avoid it), then I’d be very grateful if you would do so with this. If not: that’s fine, too. :-)

Are Lutherans “literalists” about the Supper?

I was reading Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian last night, and at a moment of mild exasperation in his chapter on the Eucharist tweeted the following:

Ron Swanson on Moby DickThis prompted a bigger flurry of responses than I’d been expecting. One person suggested this was a “biblical fundamentalist” hermeneutic (albeit reaching a conclusion rarely reached by “biblical fundamentalists”). Others drew my attention to Jesus’ frequent use of “figurative language” and metaphors. Another simply replied, “parables”.

Now, my aim in this post is not to argue for the Lutheran doctrine of the Supper over that of other Christians, but to address a narrower point from those two responses: does the Lutheran teaching – namely, that the Sacrament of the Altar is “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ himself” – depend on a “literalist” or “fundamentalist” reading of Scripture, one which ends up overlooking the metaphorical and figurative aspects of the text?

The discussion last night was helpful in clarifying my own thoughts on this issue. The question is, what type of statement is Jesus making when he says “this is my body”? Is he being metaphorical, as when he says “I am the door”? Or is he using figurative or parabolic language, as when he says “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”?

The answer, I think, is: none of the above. Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus said (as compiled in the Small Catechism):

“Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” … “Take this and drink of it, all of you. This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

The point is that Jesus isn’t just imparting information in these words; he is making a promise, above all a promise of “the remission of sins”.

When Jesus imparted information to people, then yes, he very often used figurative language – though even then, we are told he “explained everything in private to his disciples”. But when he was directly addressing God’s promises to people, especially the promise of the forgiveness of sins, he spoke in clear terms intended to create faith in the listener: “Your sins are forgiven; stand up and take your mat and walk”; “I am willing: be clean”; “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and so on.

The Lutheran belief is that when Jesus says “this is my body, which is given for you,” he is declaring a promise rather than merely imparting information. That is, “this is my body” is in the same category of statements as “your sins are forgiven” rather than statements such as “I am the gate of the sheep”. He wanted his disciples in the upper room, and wants us, to believe those words of promise; to take, eat and drink.

Not all Christians will share that understanding of Jesus’ words, and I don’t expect (though I can always hope!) to have changed many of their minds with this post, But I hope at least to have demonstrated why taking a “literal” view of Jesus’ words of institution (“‘is’ means ‘is’, on this occasion at least”) isn’t a rejection of metaphor generally, and doesn’t commit us to a flat, “literalistic” reading of Scripture as a whole.