Discipleship – 2: In Praise of Obedience


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This is the second post in a nine-part series for Spectrum’s 2014 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

“Wherever simple obedience is fundamentally eliminated, there again the costly grace of Jesus’ call has become the cheap grace of self-justification.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Chapter 3

Initially, Bonhoeffer didn’t sound very much like Bonhoeffer.

In a farewell ethics lecture to German-speaking congregants in Barcelona, the precocious assistant vicar, still in his early 20s, spoke positively of the Germanic warrior tradition and of Nietzsche’s Superman. He said that under Christ the only law is “the law of freedom.” We discern the divine will in freedom from all legalisms, he explained, so that even war and murder “can be sanctified.” As for concrete application of the Beatitudes in the present age, that would be “meaningless” and “impracticable.”

Bonhoeffer made these remarks in 1929. Four years later, in 1933, Hitler came to power and his government enacted the so-called “Aryan paragraph,” ordering persons of Jewish descent removed from both the civil service and the (state-aided) Evangelical churches. The religious establishment promptly threw itself behind the Aryan paragraph, jeering Bonhoeffer when, at a major meeting, he objected to this. By the year’s end, 90 percent of theology students at the University of Berlin (where Bonhoeffer studied and, for a short time, taught) had joined the Nazi party. The dean of the theology faculty had draped a swastika over the front entrance of their building. One German pastor had exclaimed: “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.”

In university lectures begun three months after Hitler took power, Bonhoeffer said the doctrine of Christ was the church’s last bulwark against barbarism: Christ was God, and (so it was implied) no one else. For some time he’d been shifting away from his professors’ self-satisfied Protestant liberalism — the liberalism that tainted his remarks in Barcelona — and the moral crisis in Germany was accelerating the shift. During a brief post-doctoral stay in the United States, he had, as an expression of deeper faithfulness, undergone full-immersion baptism at Harlem’s historically black Abyssinian Baptist Church. Now he was identifying with what would become the breakaway “Confessing Church,” whose members rejected Nazi-sycophantic German Protestantism. By 1935 he would be the leader of a semi-secret seminary located in a remote village northeast of Berlin and sponsored by the Confessing Church. Here the curriculum centered on discipleship, and Bonhoeffer’s lectures became, by 1937, the first edition of the book we are now reading together.*

Bonhoeffer’s take on Christianity had swung toward the dissenting, or free-church, tradition recovered in the Radical, as opposed to the Magisterial (Lutheran-Calvinist), Reformation. The family of Radical Reformation churches — Mennonites, Baptists, Brethren and the like — is the family to which Adventists belong. Although this fact is widely unrecognized, much of Discipleship does resonate with us: the book feels like Adventism even as it demolishes our self-satisfaction — or arouses our resistance.

The section for this week, chapters 3-5, typifies Bonhoeffer’s focus at Finkenwalde, where he would constantly ask his students what it means to be a Christian in present circumstances. The chapters zero in on the choice Jesus puts before everyone he calls: obedience or disobedience; the cross or self-indulgence; authenticity or drift.

Chapter 3, on “Simple Obedience,” begins by cataloguing rationalizations for “avoidance of simple, literal obedience.” Bonhoeffer says that “paradoxical” understandings what of Jesus commands may have some place, but if they “lead to the annulment of a simple understanding,” they are “just a comfortable excuse,” a way of pitting self or some “principle of scripture foreign to the Gospel” against the “concrete call of Christ.”

With a view to his formerly more “liberal” beliefs, and now also to the arrogance and malice of Nazism, Bonhoeffer saw that the fear of legalism could underwrite disastrous theological mischief. If you oppose grace to obedience, or play down the authority of Christ, you reap a whirlwind of harm. Obeying Christ is not, of course, “some sort of meritorious human achievement,” but it is part of what a gracious God asks for and enables.

To anyone with everyday fears and wants, Chapter 4 is truly unsettling. Reflecting on “Discipleship and the Cross,” Bonhoeffer argues that “a disciple is a disciple only in suffering and being rejected, thereby participating in the crucifixion.” The author is not talking here about ordinary misfortune (which is painful enough). Bearing the cross involves suffering that is a consequence of being Christian. He emphasizes, moreover, that it is suffering and rejection — it is being “shunned, despised, and deserted” precisely for being loyal to Christ.

Again, the historical context sheds important light. Bonhoeffer was addressing students at a dissenting seminary (one the Gestapo would close in 1937), and all around him a heart-numbing, blood-thirsty idolatry was taking hold. It was in light not only of the New Testament but also of this extremity that he pictured a Christ so radically demanding. It was in the same light that he made such a determined call for obedience. Those who say “No,” who step away from “suffering and being rejected,” lose “their community” with him. “They are not disciples.”

Yet bearing the cross is also a means of overcoming of suffering. The cup of suffering passed from Jesus “only by his drinking it,” and when those who follow Christ do the same it brings them “refreshment and peace.” Bearing the cross, Bonhoeffer said, is “our greatest joy.”

The author takes up “Discipleship and the Individual” in chapter 5. If Christ as “mediator” stands between the disciple and God, he also stands between his followers and every “natural” community, whether family or nation or race. An authentic disciple — an authentic individual — cannot drift with the current of “given circumstances.” Drift, after all, may generate delusion, and delusion must be “hated.”

Yet the break with natural communities does not mean isolation; it is the basis for an “entirely new community.” Each person “enters discipleship alone, but no one remains alone in discipleship.” Later, in his final lectures at the seminary, Bonhoeffer would describe the sort of Christian community he had in mind (and was trying to create among his seminarians). The lectures would become Life Together, the most widely read of all his books during his lifetime.

In its underlining of obedience, this week’s section of Discipleship feels like Adventism. Arguably, it is a profound expression of the “remnant” ideal, the vision of a people who “hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). But Bonhoeffer’s account is severe as well as bracing, and thus as likely to arouse resistance as to induce new adventures in faithfulness. The clash, after all, between his picture of the authentic individual and that of popular, Western culture — or, indeed, of popular, Western Christianity — is practically stupefying.

So, from a biblical standpoint, was he right about the conclusive authority of Christ? Was he right about bearing the cross? Does the true Christian temper or even disavow allegiance to “natural” communities like family and nation? If most German Adventists supported Hitler, and before that the Kaiser, what did Bonhoeffer know that might have prevented this, or might help us all in the further formation of own lives and of Adventism as a whole?

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* I rely on Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Knopf, 2014), 84-85; 162-176; 227-244, 255; and, to a lesser extent, on an interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s life in James McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology, vol. 1, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 193-209.

Charles Scriven chairs the board of the Adventist Forum, publisher of this website. He was formerly an educator and church pastor, having most recently served as president of Kettering College in Ohio.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6128