Category Archives: Theological Reflection

Searching for Bonhoeffer’s Voice Today

Dietrich Bonhoeffer presents readers today with a problem. It is a problem of true exegesis of an author who has left the world with a complex and incomplete library of literary works. While this problem is one that tends to arise in the generations that follow a particularly influential individual, the willingness to engage a writer without the bias of the reader influencing the author’s legacy is noticeable in both academia and in casual reading of Bonhoeffer. Too often the bias of the reader projects a Bonhoeffer who only partially depicts the true theologian and preacher. Appealing to specific books or sentences, one finds a Bonhoeffer who never rises above apparently contradictory statements rather than noting the circumstances under which statements were made or the truth behind particular phrases that have an entirely different meaning today. This has led to Bonhoeffer being a champion for opposing sides in debates ranging from abortion to orthodoxy, from doing away with religion in the name of Christianity to flat out atheistic claims of God’s demise, and from sanctioning violence and torture to staunch, unwavering pacifism. Bonhoeffer has been described as a right-wing Evangelical Christian in a U.S. North American context, a Lutheran theologian with a more liberal bend, and a closeted homosexual.

Who is to say who is the real, true, authentic Bonhoeffer? How do the different representations of Bonhoeffer shape current interpretations and theological studies? Should we today try to explain away the supposed contradictions that appear over the scope of Bonhoeffer’s writing? Or might we allow for Bonhoeffer to speak to us himself, even revealing to us something about ourselves—perhaps our own bias—especially when we might wish for another Bonhoeffer than the one who appears on the page? Can Bonhoeffer be rescued, not from himself, but from those who seek to revise Bonhoeffer in order that he better appeal to his followers and his critics?

What is needed is a true de dicto interpretation of Bonhoeffer. By this, I mean encouraging individuals who are willing to put diligent study into every facet of Bonhoeffer’s life and works. According to philosopher Robert Brandon, one must study the author and what he said so thoroughly so as to understand how his thoughts develop over a lifetime, the rhetorical strategies he employed, as well as how the author’s works fit into the entire body of study—not to mention his attitudes and experiences. All of this so that, “one can answer questions on his behalf in something like his own voice.” From the growing influence of Bonhoeffer on theological scholarship, it is clear that there is a desire to answer some of the questions of today in something like Bonhoeffer’s own voice.

It appears a primary source for most students of Bonhoeffer is one of the growing number of biographies. Each, complete with strengths and weaknesses, offer readers a depiction of Bonhoeffer in order to better read and interpret his theological works. In a posting earlier this year on this blog, I discussed the importance Bonhoeffer’s life plays in our understanding of his writing. In that post entitled “The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” I mentioned the specific importance his life has in our understanding Ethics, but this is true for the entire cannon of his works. Today we have a privilege many before us did not have thanks to the completed volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works both in German and in English. In addition to reading the published works of Bonhoeffer, readers now have insights into his life via correspondence, unpublished lectures, and notes from his students.

In addition, those who engage Bonhoeffer should be encouraged to read most, if not all, of what he wrote, as well as who he read in order to better understand what lay behind his words. This means reading Heidegger in order to grasp his concept of “Dasein,” studying Søren Kierkegaard, and the theological teachings of Reinhold Seeberg, Karl Barth, Augustine, and of course, Martin Luther among many others. No less influential than these partners in theological dialogue were Bonhoeffer’s family and friends. By reading notes and correspondence once unknown one discovers the significance of those who surrounded Bonhoeffer. And while much focus has been on the men who influenced young Bonhoeffer, there is no discounting the significant effect the Bonhoeffer women had in his life. In addition, many newly shared and translated notes in the Bonhoeffer Works disclose the true depth of relationships once thought to be passing acquaintances.  

To further understand the setting surrounding Bonhoeffer, it is important to read materials that capture the time in which he lived, but also that which influenced his earlier years. Thus, while understanding the events of the 1930’s and 40’s of Germany is integral, no less so is an understanding of the ecumenical religious climate of the early 20th century. One should no doubt also study the events surrounding World War I and the toll the war took on the psyche of the German citizen and the impact the events had on the faith of the nation. Expanding our understanding beyond the borders of Germany to London, Spain, the United States, as well as globally can only give greater insight into the formation of such a profound thinker.

More than anything, such an undertaking requires diligent study of Scripture. In order to truly grasp what Bonhoeffer says in his writing, we today must be no less a student of the Bible than was Bonhoeffer himself. When reading Bonhoeffer in one hand—or those who write about Bonhoeffer—the Bible should be read in the other. Bonhoeffer’s love of Scripture pours from the pages of his works, inviting his readers to love Scripture as well.

We are now three generations removed from Bonhoeffer’s life, and most of his contemporaries have passed on. In addition, those who learned from Bonhoeffer’s peers in theology and ministry are passing the torch to what Victoria Barnett describes in a lecture given at the University of Virginia as an emerging generation of scholars in this, “a new era of Bonhoeffer interpretation.” Can this new generation of scholars overcome the degrees of separation and achieve the sort of de dicto interpretation necessary to ensure the true, authentic Bonhoeffer is not lost to revisionists thinking? Can readers today undertake such a massive project as to exegete Bonhoeffer in this way? Perhaps this is an audacious if not arrogant undertaking for a Presbyterian pastor in rural Colorado, but that is precisely what I hope to do.

While I do not wish to take away anything from the volumes that seek to share an author’s love of Bonhoeffer with the world, it is imperative, I feel, that the world receive nothing less than the true Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We who have learned from this man, who find something in his writing that appeals to our faith, who have been touched by his love for God owe him nothing less. Moreover, we owe the generations to follow an authentic, unbiased account of Bonhoeffer in order that they too might experience something similar to our own experiences. By no means should one lose focus on that which Bonhoeffer’s life was dedicated—the worship of God—nor must scholars simply seek to find Bonhoeffer’s answers to the questions of today. With clear understanding of Bonhoeffer, uninfluenced and unbiased by his readers, we are able to learn from him and stand upon the shoulders of this influential figure.

Taking Hold of the Real: An Interview with Barry Harvey

The following is an interview conducted by Diane Reynolds with Barry Harvey about his book Taking Hold of the Real. 

 1.     What motivated you to write this book?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been a constant companion of mine, both personally as a Christian and professionally as a theologian, for nearly
three decades. I often refer to him as a close friend I never had the chance to meet. I wanted others to see him as a friend as well.

 2.     What would you say is/are the one or two most important take-aways from your book?

 It’s important to recognize that Bonhoeffer cannot speak for us in our struggle to be faithful members of the body of Christ, nor should we want him to, for as he puts it in Ethics, we must give an account of our time and place. That said, he still has quite a bit to say to us on the topic of what it means to be the church in the modern world, particularly if we get beyond the most well-known of his writings (Discipleship, Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison), and look at the breadth of his life, short though it was. What we find when we take the time to do this is an amazing tale of both continuity and development that shows us the maturation of a Christian mind.

 3.     When and why did you first get interested in Bonhoeffer?

 I have written on some aspect or other of his life and work on several occasions, the fruits of which supply both the framework and some of the content for the present volume. Even when I have not written explicitly about him, something he said or did frequently acts as a catalyst for my reflections. I was introduced to him and his thought in seminary, but it was only after I finished graduate school and fell in with the characters in the International Bonhoeffer Society that he worked his way into the heart of my own work and faith.

 4. Are there characteristic ways you think people misunderstand Bonhoeffer?

 I would to caution people to be careful not to squeeze Bonhoeffer into categories that we in North America find convenient. Attempts to make Bonhoeffer fit neatly into categories such as evangelical or mainline, conservative or progressive, are bound to come up short. The complexities and nuances of ecclesial and political life in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century do not map cleanly onto the intellectual and social landscape of the United States, a fact he documents in his reflections on Protestantism in America, “Protestantism Without Reformation.”

 5.     Do young people today know about Bonhoeffer in your experience?

 There is a general recognition of Bonhoeffer among many young people, but much of that comes from secondary sources such as recent biographies. Whenever I encounter those, young or old, whose knowledge comes from such sources I try to tell them, “Great, now read Bonhoeffer for yourself! You’ll be rewarded in ways you can’t even imagine now.”

6.     Anything to add: any new projects on the horizon?

I’m working on a book project in which I hope to take up some of the threads on music that I describe in the book, and develop them into a more comprehensive imaginary of the Christian life in our post-Christendom world.

The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

Prior to Christmas, a copy of Jennifer Moberly’s book The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics arrived in the mail. In the first chapter, Moberly makes a claim that will inform her study of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and, in doing so, set her apart from many others who have endeavored to do the same. Moberly states in her study she “shall not attempt to give a detailed exegesis and interpretation of the manuscripts of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” which up to this point, given her examination of Bonhoeffer’s work with regard to the specific understanding of “virtue ethics,” is to be expected. She continues her statement by saying, “nor will I seek to demonstrate my interpretation by appeals to his biography.” It is this second part of the sentence on which I wish to focus.

Upon first reading, I found myself nodding along in agreement as I read her justification for such a stance, as such an appeal to a biography “must rely on a degree of speculation that is dangerous if not unwarranted.” How many times have Bonhoeffer’s various claims, ranging from his earlier works to those written in Ethics, been brought into question due to Bonhoeffer’s practical response to particular situations? In addition, how many have sought to explain what they perceive to be contradictions in Bonhoeffer’s works by citing, not his works themselves, but various biographies?

Granted, the ease by which one may bring Bonhoeffer into one’s camp on a specific issue by appeal to his life eliminates the need for thorough examination of his writings or the perceived contradictions or changes over time. This in turn allows for nearly any ideology to claim the theological authority of having Bonhoeffer on one’s side. Of course, this will not necessarily offer the world a true glimpse of Bonhoeffer or his theology, but rather a caricature that, by virtue of the false claims made in his name, negates the authority originally desired.

Having read for myself several accounts where just such a claim has been made, I express my admiration for Moberly and her ability to avoid the temptation to let Bonhoeffer’s life and the specific time in which he lived dictate her interpretation of his work. How many individuals have argued for their own stance (e.g. regarding pacifism or retributive violence), citing a section in Ethics (e.g. “Natural Life” (p171-218)) in which Bonhoeffer appears to claim an opposing position, only to justify the reader’s interpretation by recalling Bonhoeffer’s biography? Rather than letting Bonhoeffer’s work speak in conversation with his biography, the side that agrees with the reader is victorious, especially where Bonhoeffer apparently behaved, to some extent, to the contrary of his writings. The insights and the challenges of being faithful in a fallen world are lost when Bonhoeffer is used to support one’s preconceived arguments, bordering on “hero-worship” rather than recognizing the struggle he endured wrestling with Scripture, theology, and the world around him.

For those outside the academy, the appeal of Bonhoeffer is that he was a man who acted according to his faith. I would argue that Bonhoeffer’s biography brings more people to know him than his theology (which, if this is where one stops, is a shame). If this is the case—especially if Bonhoeffer’s biography does not truly represent the man—how might this influence those who later read his writing? Do the man’s actions negate or compromise the ethic espoused? Does one bear more weight than the other, thus enabling the reader to draw conclusions on Bonhoeffer’s character contrary to what he himself may have written? In short, Moberly seeks to avoid the problematic slippery slope that has led some in the past decades to claim Bonhoeffer’s name and authority belong to their interpretation of a given situation or espoused ideology.

It is, however, upon greater reflection I arrived at the rub. With regard to ethics in general, is an author above his or her own prescribed ethic? I yield to Jennifer Moberly’s expertise in virtue ethics, and her argument for reading Bonhoeffer’s ethic as virtue ethics versus situational ethics appears solid. Yet, as Moberly points out, Bonhoeffer’s is not a universal ethic so much as a Christ-centered ethic. Thus, there is a call to action for those who take not only Bonhoeffer’s writing seriously and not as mere theoretical pondering, but also the teachings of Scripture. In addition, I ask, how can one take seriously the espoused ethic if the author himself is unable to live up to that which he asks of others?

This is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of ethics, that one must adhere to that which is prescribed. Yet, it is this very prescribed behavior that emerges from ethics that is of such great importance. This is why so many philosophers and theologians have sought to address the practical aspects of humanity via ethics. How fitting that Bonhoeffer’s Ethics be built upon a similar foundation. In essence, Bonhoeffer’s entire life, not simply his writing, become the extended finger of John the Baptist in Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, pointing toward the crucified Christ. If this is the case, how much more important is it for Bonhoeffer scholars to ensure that the ethic represented is one based not simply on Bonhoeffer’s writing alone, but his embodiment of said ethic as well as its adherence to Scripture? Similarly, if those outside the academy are primarily exposed to Bonhoeffer’s biography, the importance of incorporating his writings and offering a true representation of the theologian and pastor—opposed to a spokesman for particular ideals—becomes paramount.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed, detail of Crucifixion)
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed, detail of Crucifixion)

I admire Moberly’s attempt to convey a study of Bonhoeffer’s ethic void of the misinterpretations of Bonhoeffer’s activities that might compromise the true message of his writings. The near “hero-worship” of some who wish to elevate particular events in Bonhoeffer’s life cannot outweigh these important ethical teachings directed toward believers. I do, however, wonder if this approach neglects an important aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ethical writings, which is his own ability to adhere to behavioral expectations he addresses—those rooted in Scripture and a world at war. Is there a way to bring both together and convey a true representation of that which Bonhoeffer wrote? Surely Bonhoeffer’s biography plays a part in our understanding of how practical his ethical writings appear. Bonhoeffer’s writing read in the context of his life allows a reader a greater understanding of his theology—as long as the Bonhoeffer being represented is true to the source.

Misreading Bonhoeffer: A Response

BonhoefferI was recently alerted (via Facebook) to an article by Richard Weikart, “The Troubling Truth about Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” Christian Research Journal 35.6 (2012) which can be read HERE.

It seems Weikart initially felt quite happy with Bonhoeffer while he thought him an “Evangelical,” but quickly dismissed him once he came to see him as “Neo-Orthodox” (pp.1-2). What makes this so troubling is that neither category is fitting for this early twentieth century German Lutheran minister theologian, but seem more concerned with categories of Americans intent on dismissing folks by use of labels. That being said, Weikart expresses numerous points at which he finds trouble with Bonhoeffer.

Under the heading of Scripture, Weikart quotes Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation.” He then proceeds to argue this is not true to Luther (on the “priesthood of all believers) or Lutherans. But this type of belief about the place of the proclaimed word and its potency is precisely Lutheran. Weikart seems to not realize the place of the preached word in Lutheran theology proper or in the theology of Luther. For Luther (and thus Lutherans in his wake), it is the proclaimed word of God where one hears the voice of Christ. Such is the case with Bonhoeffer.

Where Weikart accuses Bonhoeffer of moving from his earlier reading of Scripture with regularity, he seems oblivious to Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the spiritualizations of the pietistic Lutheran practices with which he had at first been fostered into and only later came to see the pietism often did not result in greater faithfulness, but only a higher sense of spiritualized success all the while avoiding taking responsibility in the life of the world (see his many such comments on this in Ethics). There is in fact nothing wrong with not reading Scripture daily. Jesus didn’t. He couldn’t. What is imperative is that we meditate upon Scripture, hear it and obey it. The Scriptures nowhere demand daily Bible reading. That is a matter of pietistic Evangelicalism that has learned to think such a practice is a requirement of genuine spirituality. Bonhoeffer seems to have understood this at deeply sustained levels.

While many (in the U.S.) regard Barth as “neo-orthodox” this is not owing to Barth himself, but to early American interpreters of Barth who either failed to understand him or misrepresented him. It is easier to just lump him in with others who are also rejected without wrestling with what he has actually written.

Under his attack on Bonhoeffer’s (and Barth’s) view of Scripture, Weikart misses that the Scriptures are recorded not as transcripts, but as careful theological reflections of the revelation of God concerning the stories of Israel, Jesus, the Church and the world. The Scriptures are not attempting to document empirically verifiable history, but instead that which must be believed by faith which is offered sufficient witness to believe. Weikart’s view seems to be more intent on historicality (even when the text itself does not warrant it, nor the preservation of the text) rather than the realities to which the text points in the manner in which the writers were inspired to record them.

Further, what Bonhoeffer rejects of the emphasis upon trying to speak of the “historical” with regard to Jesus is that 19th-20th century German obsession with doing just that. This led to a number of notions such as a bifurcation of the Jesus between that of history and that of faith, or worse yet, an eradication of the historical Jesus altogether. Bonhoeffer was responding in just that sort of milieu. And he responded by pointing to faith in the preserved stories of Jesus regardless of the ability to historically verify details beyond the witnesses of the texts themselves.

Weikart’s use of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison shows an utter disregard for the writings of one in a personal letter to another that was NOT intended for public consumption. If any of us had things we said privately preserved by others after our death and disseminated globally we would find ourselves having stated things which we were wrestling with and/or were not offered with the context of explanation (because it is assumed the person spoken to knows this sufficiently to understand). Judgment of all of us would ensue.

Under the title “The Good Book,” Weikart fails to grasp Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Scripture as offering “universal, timeless truths”. Bonhoeffer is convinced that to treat Scripture as offering such, is to pre-determine what God would have us to do in any and every situation. But this (for Bonhoeffer and for myself) ignores the living word of the living God who speaks today through that word to us. It makes a binding law of the word of Jesus. It means one is no longer required to attune their ears to the Spirit, but only to reread words written. It is on this very idea, that I have personally found life and joy in Christ and proclaim that we are not through listening as if we have heard all there is to hear…NO! We must go on listening anew today!

On Weikart’s claim of universalism, he fails to engage the very “this-worldly” notion of redemption at work in Scripture and the theology of Bonhoeffer. Instead, he seems to think more of spiritualized heavenly individualistic salvation. Bonhoeffer, however, was concerned with the redemption of the cosmos that was enacted in Christ Jesus. Bonhoeffer was concerned with “people” and not simply individuals and he was concerned with this precisely because of the election of Jesus wherein all of humanity finds redemption. This is not to say all are saved, but to say that in Christ salvation is sufficient for all and is extended to all and must be declared to all. The pastoral and missiological implications of this are profound.

I for one find little to judge negatively of Bonhoeffer’s reflections stated by Weikart, but maybe, just maybe, I’ve become one of Weikart’s “liberal” “neo-orthodox” folks he seems so adamant are to be despised and rejected. Or maybe Weikart is simply judging Bonhoeffer by means of his own skewed theological and ideological agenda rather than on grounds of truthful discourse that hears Bonhoeffer in Bonhoeffer’s own context. To those who have ears to hear…

___________________

My apologies for not citing Bonhoeffer’s works throughout. This is more of an overall response (without direct access to Bonhoeffer’s works from my home). For those interested in reading Bonhoeffer in context, they can read the pages cited by Weikart as well as reflecting particularly on Bonhoeffer’s Ethics which answers (for myself) the misreading of Bonhoeffer contra much of American Evangelicalism and its inherited pieties.

This was originally blogged on my personal blog at rickwadholmjr.wordpress.com

On Being Human

ethicsWhat does it mean to “be human”? Have we given sufficiently careful consideration to this topic? Or have we simply made the assumption that it is whatever we are doing? Is it to be rooted only in description of how “we” are or prescriptive of how “we” ought to be? Or is it yet some other thing?

I taught an adult Sunday school class a few years ago where I was asked to address the subject of “being human.” In the course of the conversations, a discussion of holiness was brought up. Someone mentioned that “we know we will sin, because we are all humans after all”. This struck me in light of Bonhoeffer’s statement that popped into my mind at that moment: “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings” (D. Bonhoeffer, Ethics [Vol. 6; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005], p. 84, emphasis added). While this statement assumes that we strive to be more than human (because we believe our being human is something to be overcome), I wonder if this is not the basis for the excuse echoed in my Sunday school that day.

We blame our humanity for our sinfulness. It struck me that Paul never does this, John never does this, and Peter never does this. The Scriptures blame our sinful or “fleshly” nature (the language of Paul). And, perhaps surprisingly for many, I don’t believe this should be confused with “being human”, truly human. The reason being that Jesus is True Man and all else is but a pale image of the true, being marred by sin. I would actually contend that our sinfulness deprives us of our humanity, because it is only in obedience to the Father that one is truly human in the fullest sense. And this can only come about by the regenerating work of God’s Spirit (the spirit of adoption crying “Abba, Father!”) conforming us into the image of the Son, who Himself is the true image of God.

So what are some potential outcomes of this change of perspective which seems to follow the trajectory proposed by Bonhoeffer?

(1) To be human is to be taken up into Christ. It is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God which is acceptable and pleasing. It is the humanity of God in Christ taking up our sinful humanity and glorifying God through the obedience of redemption. To be truly human is to be counted as those who are in Christ: the righteousness of God and the First Adam.

(2) To be human is to set aside excuses for sinning. We can no longer say that we will continue to sin because “we are just human after all”. NO! We have been delivered from death to life. The Spirit of Christ Jesus now lives in us. We have been baptized with Christ and our sins have been once for all dealt with. We are not the children of the devil, but the children of God who no longer are slaves to sin and death. We are slaves of Christ Jesus our Lord and have been delivered from death to life! Therefore, to be “real human beings” is to live by the power of the Spirit! To live free! Free of the bonds of sin.

(3) To be human is to live free for the other and free for God. There is no constraint, but the one to love. This is the greatest commandment and all it entails: humanity unleashed from the bonds of self-serving, self-loving rebellion against God and God’s will for creation. The true human is the one who lives for the other because of being made in God’s image. Therefore, the other who is made in God’s image becomes the one by which we grow into the image of God in communion as those created and purchased by God.  As those bearing God’s image, by God’s Spirit we reflect the ineffable God in Christ. Unbounded love for God and for the other: this is being truly human…to be in Christ Jesus.

So I would charge you fully to embrace your humanity; God did!

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Metaphysician Incognito

 

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As long as I have studied theology, I have read Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have known many versions of him throughout the years. But however mysterious he has appeared at times, he has always been profoundly intriguing, and I have never been able to create much distance from him. Nevertheless, the metaphysical tradition that Bonhoeffer so avidly rejected has for me become increasingly compelling. One can appreciate then how reading Bonhoeffer’s utterly anti-speculative body of work is complicated, as he refigures theology by Christology in German Protestant fashion. Complicated though it may be, I do love reading Bonhoeffer, and expect I will never stop.

Since joining the dark side (a la Barth on the analogia entis), the metaphysical vocabulary has illuminated many of the conundrums in Bonhoeffer’s thought. I found myself wanting to interject the learning of patristic and medieval thinkers into his arguments, such as his insistence upon the transcendentality of truth and goodness, mediated through participation. His objections to theoretical speculation are valid, but they simply do not apply to the theological sensibility that John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Erich Przywara espouse; such objections include: the generality of “being” detracts from the personal God of Jesus Christ; divinization implies the abolishment of human particularity, and idolatrously envisions human beings ascend to the place of God; the language of “essences” and “substance” cannot account for the concrete and fluid reality of the real world; speculation assumes absolute knowledge belongs to creatures instead of the simple in faith.

Sacred Rhetoric: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Participatory Tradition (Wipf & Stock, 2015) is my appeal to Bonhoeffer on behalf of the Christian metaphysical tradition, and in many ways it is a conversation with my former—theology of the cross adoring, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, Pannenberg defending—self. I hope this work can contribute to a wider theological discussion, and look forward to engaging with the Bonhoeffer community. This post is meant to introduce the discussion, and I anticipate creating two more entries on the topic.

Bonhoeffer on Confession

Every week I stand along with the congregation at our Presbyterian church, and together we confess our sins “before God and one another.” We do so praying a prayer written in the bulletin that is general enough to apply to almost all participating. This has been the practice to which I have grown accustom, and while other denominations practice varying traditions, unison confession of sins within a congregation remains mine. It wasn’t until I encountered some of Bonhoeffer’s writing that I began to wonder—Have I been practicing confession incorrectly?

In his work Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses the importance of confessing one’s sins and how we, as believers in a community of faith, should practice confession. For many of us within Reformed traditions, the act of confessing our sins has been part of the weekly worship services in the form of a corporate prayer read aloud, usually allowing time for silent confession, followed by an assurance of pardon. For others, the same is accomplished in the Roman Catholic act of confessing one’s sins in private to a priest. Writing about a community of believers sharing “life together,” Bonhoeffer appears to ask whether either one is truly the manner in which we are commanded by Scripture to confess our sins.

Bonhoeffer contests the Protestant understanding of confession and challenges us to not be so simply satisfied with the corporate prayer of confession spoken aloud in many of our worship services. In addition, he questions the idea that one needs to confess to a leader in the church, such as a priest, when so many individuals in worshiping communities represent Christ’s body present here and now. Recognizing that the largest difference between the two practices of confession center on the need for an intermediary between believers and God, Bonhoeffer points out that as members of the Body of Christ, individuals are both representatives of the ecclesial community and of God.[1] Thus each one is fit to understand human sin and the need for grace and forgiveness.

For this reason, Bonhoeffer, citing James 5:16, offers that confession can and should be made to one’s fellow brother or sister in faith in order that none be left alone to remain in one’s evil. This “remaining alone,” insists Bonhoeffer, is a possibility for Christians in spite of daily participation in a worshiping community. The reason this solitude in sin is so prevalent is that we mistakenly believe, “We are not allowed to be sinners.”[2] We must not fall prey to similar rationalizations—Bonhoeffer does not command that believers live a sinless life lest they be removed from the ecclesial community. On the contrary, even the most pious believers recognize that they, too, sin (Romans 5:12). Bonhoeffer’s quote is a tongue-in-cheek indictment of the community that has all but eliminated humility. He opposes a setting where a penitent sinner faces judgment from the ecclesial body and thus seeks to hide his or her sins from fellow believers. Bonhoeffer calls Christians to be honest with one another regarding sinful transgressions so that individuals might be “loosed” from that which has separated them from God and from one another (John 20:21-23).[3]

Referencing passages in both testaments of Scripture, Bonhoeffer supports the practice of confessing aloud to one’s fellow believer and the subsequent grace that is pronounced. In this short chapter on confession, he offers reasons that corporate prayer and private confession tend to fall short. He encourages believers to instead seek reconciliation with God and the community potentially harmed by acts of sin by confessing to a representative of both. This practice he proposes allows sinners to see the affect one’s actions have on his or her relationships, both divine and human. This act also leads the sinner to recognize a need for restoration and grace which then allows for a renewed sense of discipleship. Confession, as Bonhoeffer states, is discipleship; it is “Nachfolge”—following after.[4]

Thus, rather than allowing guilt to fester and hatred toward one’s self or others to grow, Scripture calls believers to bring sin from darkness into light; from the unknown to the known.[5] This takes place in the act of confession, but more specifically, in the act of confessing one’s sins to a fellow believer in the Body of Christ. As a member of the Body of Christ, those who hear confession stand in place of Christ for the confessing sinner as the one who hears and pronounces God’s grace and forgiveness. Through the act of confessing aloud, that which was done and with the harm it had on relationships within the community recognized and admitted, sin loses the power it once had to tear apart the community.[6] In the act of handing over one’s sins to one who is stands within the Body of Christ the sinner offers his or her sins over to God. It is in this moment of confession that the sinner no longer stands alone in sin but is surrounded by fellow sinners who also seek the grace and mercy of forgiveness that comes only from God but also within the presence of Christ.

As difficult at this may be for many to imagine, the act of confessing aloud is an act of embracing God’s gift of grace. Hearing the confession of one’s brother or sister, the listening member pronounces the grace and forgiveness of God that comes through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, setting the confessing believer free from his or her sinful acts. Exposing one’s sins in the act of confession, the sinner in turn hears the words of grace, allowing the old self to die and the new life to begin. Not only does this take place in the believer’s heart, but when done aloud to a representative of Christ’s body, new life begins within the Church as a community of forgiven sinners. Together, the forgiven sinners who make up the Body of Christ rejoice at the joy found in forgiveness. All of this begs the question—Why not practice the confession of sins aloud to one’s fellow believers?

The simple answer, according to Bonhoeffer, is pride.[7] This is evident in the way many within the Church seek to hide their sinful selves rather than humbly admit faults or sins lest anyone think less of them. Bonhoeffer even quipped that “Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious.”[8] Human beings are too caught up in their own pride to be truly humble before God or before the Church community. To stand and admit that I am a sinner is to admit that I am less than I hope to portray. This, I believe, is part of the appeal behind silent prayers of confession. I do not have to admit to anyone other than God that I am sinner in need of grace. In response to this, Bonhoeffer asks why we feel it is easier to go to God, the sinless one who rightly judges with our sins, than to speak them to a fellow sinner.[9] It should be easier to confess to one who understands our sinful state.

Pride is the real reason many feel that sinners are unwelcome in a worshiping community. Yet it is precisely pride that must be overcome in the act of confession. Looking to the cross, we see the power of Christ humbling himself for the sake of sinners. This, according to Bonhoeffer, shatters all pride, and in the act of confession we affirm our own cross and the public death of our old, sinful self.[10] Through the act of confession, believers not only recognize the need for grace, but recognize they are free from the sin that prevents them from embracing God-given grace.

Thus, the question facing us is, can we do this? Can we as believers, regardless of our ecclesial traditions, practice confession in the manner encouraged by Bonhoeffer? There is much that must be overcome if this practice is ever to find a place in our worship—not the least of which being the pride referenced above. Another aspect is that we must be cautious regarding who hears the confessions of penitent sinners, lest rumors and gossip run rampant throughout churches. This practice must take place where everyone recognizes his or her own status as a sinner in need of grace. No one believer is any better than any other as, again, all have fallen short, and there is no gradation of sins making one worse than any other. If we are to truly humble ourselves and recognize the impact our sins have on the relationship we have with those around us as well as with God, what better place is there to start than within the Church?

Perhaps in the near future, the Church will begin to resemble more of what Bonhoeffer described in his doctoral dissertation Sanctorum Communio and less the “world come of age,” thus offering a place where confession of one’s sins may be done before a fellow believer without the fear of judgment, gossip, or pride getting in the way. Until that day, however, we are left challenged by Bonhoeffer’s short chapter asking if there is another manner in which to practice confession, praying that someday we will humbly set aside our pride in order that the Church be a place where sinners in need of grace are welcome.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress. 1996), p111-113.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p108.

[3] See also: Acts 2:37-38

[4] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p112.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p110.

[6] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p110.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p111.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p108.

[9] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p112.

[10] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p111.