Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bonhoeffer Speaks Today

Following Jesus at All Costs

Most people familiar with the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer likely gained that familiarity through his provocative book, The Cost of Discipleship, or his Letters and Papers from Prison, published posthumously by his best friend and student, Eberhard Bethge. Since his untimely death at the end of a Nazi noose in April 1945, Bonhoeffer’s life and ideas have become the subject of hundreds of books and countless more articles and dissertations, not be mention plays and films. The scope of scholarship on Bonhoeffer is virtually all-encompassing. Yet, Professor Mark Devine’s recent contribution to the corpus accomplishes a long-overdue advancement. By reaching beyond the multitude of nuanced academic inquiries, Devine has produced a brief work that will readily serve to re-introduce the broader evangelical Christian community to this saint and martyr of the Church.

Through the ease and accessibility of his prose, Devine achieves what his book’s title promises: Bonhoeffer speaking today. His words speak with particular clarity and challenge to the all-too-comfortable 21st Century American evangelical church that has in many obvious ways succumbed, as had the German church of the early 20th Century, to the lure of cheap grace. As a Southern Baptist professor and pastor concerned for the ailing condition of the evangelical church, Devine undertakes his task with the purpose of demonstrating the relevance of both the Lutheran Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas and his concrete application of those ideas through his exemplary life to the realities of contemporary life that confront Christians today.
In his opening chapter, Devine succinctly charts the formative influences and choices that embodied within Bonhoeffer the beliefs he expressed in his writings and through his actions. In the remaining four chapters, the author provides a helpful introduction for his readers into the extensive works of Bonhoeffer under the themes: “Knowing and Doing the Will of God” (Chapter 2); “The Community of Believers” (Chapter 3); “Witness and Relevance” (Chapter 4); and finally “Freedom, Suffering, and Hope” (Chapter 5).

Drawing heavily from Eberhard Bethge’s authoritative biography, Devine unfolds Bonhoeffer’s life by depicting with keen insights the familial relationships and educational experiences through which he heard God’s call and was formed for ministry. For example, Devine notes the almost prophetic significance of the 14-year old Bonhoeffer’s words in reply his older brothers’ urgings that he not waste his life in such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the Church.” To which the young Dietrich responded: “If what you say is true, I shall reform it!” (5). His account then moves with relative swiftness through the complexities of Bonhoeffer’s service as a lecturer in theology and emerging leader of the Confessing Church.

Devine, however, slows his pace when describing Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany from the safety and security of America in the summer of 1939. That decision would prove to be one of the most significant turning points in a life spent not merely talking about the cost of discipleship, but one that authentically paid the price. Bonhoeffer’s unreserved commitment to the cause of Christ prompts Devine to conclude that “risky, self-sacrificing service to the church and to the world, in the name of Jesus Christ, belongs organically to Christian obedience.” (20) From this decisive event through his clandestine service as a double-agent for the Resistance, his subsequent arrest by the Gestapo, two-year imprisonment and ultimate execution by hanging at Flossenbürg, Devine demonstrates the consistent character of Bonhoeffer’s courage that sustained him in the face of evil. Having thus laid the foundation of a proven life, he proceeds to engage Bonhoeffer’s theology as it was both conveyed through his extensive writings and embodied in his practice.

Although some evangelicals and fundamentalists within this book’s intended audience have been quick to conclude that Bonhoeffer was a liberal theologian, or at least an early expression of a “neo-evangelical,” Devine makes a strong case that Bonhoeffer’s view of the Scriptures was much more in keeping with the “Back to the Bible” movement than with the higher critics who had been among his teachers. While acknowledging their influence, Devine notes that Bonhoeffer clearly recognized the limitations and even dangers of the higher critical view. In contrast, Bonhoeffer’s view of the Scriptures is succinctly set forth in a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher upon which Devine founds his case. In that letter, Bonhoeffer wrote: “I want to confess quite simply that I believe the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we only need to ask persistently and with some humility in order to receive the answer from it.” (43). With such a high view of Scripture, it is no surprise that Bonhoeffer took seriously the call of Christ upon his life and so sought to know and do the will of God as his singular purpose.

For Devine, it is Bonhoeffer’s single-minded devotion to Christ that renders his voice so relevant for followers of Christ today. In an age where popular preaching and contemporary “how-to” literature approaches the Christian life more as a strategy for personal happiness and success, Devine urges his readers to listen carefully to the one who insisted that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (66) Taking that call seriously, as Bonhoeffer did, will lead the follower of Christ to an “others-focused” service that may often be accompanied by suffering because it will prompt the disciple to take up the burdens of others. This theme becomes pervasive throughout Devine’s survey of Bonhoeffer’s ideas on both community and witness. It culminates in his final chapter through a demonstration of the integral role of suffering in the life of a disciple who lives in the freedom from self that Christ enables and lives for the hope of the resurrection that Christ entrusts to his own.

Each chapter includes Devine’s applications of Bonhoeffer’s thinking and practice to contemporary challenges facing evangelicals through both internal struggles over doctrine and external battles in the boarder culture wars. While some of his applications are limited to his experiences within the Southern Baptist Convention, on the whole, Devine’s insights demonstrate conclusively how a young Lutheran pastor and scholar’s life and ideas may speak volumes into the hearts and minds of every serious follower of Christ in the 21st Century. This book joins the ranks of other recent works, such as Stephan Plant’s Bonhoeffer and Elizabeth Raum’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Called by God, and should be read by both those familiar with Bonhoeffer and especially by those who desire to be introduced to this exemplary saint and martyr who counted and paid the cost of discipleship.

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