Review: D. Bonhoeffer, Life Together

ARCANE AND GERMANE BOOK REVIEWS #2

“After reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” (C.S. Lewis)


Born in 1906 in Breslau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in Berlin. The son of a physician and academic, he showed early signs of his own academic ability, presenting his doctoral thesis at the age of 21. Six years later he famously turned his back on a glittering New York academic career to return to Berlin where Hitler had taken control. The young pastor spoke out boldly spoke against the “German-Christian” compromise with the Nazi Government and led an illegal and secret seminary intended to prepare German pastors for faithful gospel ministry.

Along with all who opposed the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer’s freedom was short-lived. On April 5th 1943, he was arrested for his part in the resistance movement and an assassination plot against Hitler. Wherever he was imprisoned, Bonhoeffer served his fellow prisoners with God’s word, leading secret services. A number of prison guards came to respect Bonhoeffer, smuggling out papers, essays and poems which made their way to family and friends.

Life Together
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
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Life Together
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
HarperCollins. $12.99 (varies).

Nevertheless, on Sunday April 9th 1945, Bonhoeffer was to conduct his last service. The following day he was executed by hanging in the Gestapo prison of Flossenburg. An English officer who was present at that service later reported Bonhoeffer’s last words to him: “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.”

An English officer who was present at that service later reported Bonhoeffer’s last words: ‘This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.’

Life Together

It is probable that more people have read books about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, than have read the books he actually wrote. Life Together, perhaps his most accessible work, was written out of his experience of living in community with pastors and those training for gospel ministry in 1930s Germany, and is rightly viewed as a Christian classic. Though short (105 pages), it is profoundly challenging and demanding—not because Bonhoeffer’s writing is obscure or difficult, but because every one of its pages contains penetrating biblical insights concerning what it means to live together as God’s rescued and dearly loved children. Bonhoeffer constantly reminds his readers of their true identity as God’s people bound to Him and to one another in Christ alone; by grace alone.

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this (p21) …the community of Christians springs solely from the Biblical and Reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another…we come to God and to one another solely through Christ. (p23)

The Church is a Divine, not an Ideal, Reality

Bonhoeffer has some wonderfully shocking one-liners that hit the reader between the ears.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realised by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law … acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way … he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. (pp27-28)

Bonhoeffer reminds us that we do not choose our Christian brothers and sisters any more than we choose our earthly family. As God’s word is proclaimed, God calls together his new people in Christ: Christ will build his church. The church is not a human ideal, but a divine reality despite all its apparent fragility this side of the marriage feast of the Lamb. Only when we recognise and accept God’s sovereign grace in this way can we be equipped to weather the inevitable disillusionment that arises when our church-growth or church planting plans fail to deliver their projected outcomes.

Christ Rules his People by his Word

Accordingly, it must be the word of God—and not the personality or vision of any human leader—which must stand at the heart of our life together.

The basis of all spiritual reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ. The basis of human reality is the dark, turbid urges and desires of the human mind. The basis of the community of the Spirit is truth … in the community of the Spirit the Word of God alone rules … God’s word alone is binding. (pp31-32)

The whole counsel of God should be taught in such a way that together God’s people come to Christ, and grow up into maturity in Him, as they receive the full biblical witness to Jesus:

Only in the infiniteness of its inner relationships, in the connection of Old and New Testaments, of promise and fulfilment…will the full witness to Jesus Christ the Lord be perceived…(p51)

It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised in the Last Day. (p54)

This rule of the Word extends to our conceptions of what Christian love is supposed to look like:

What love is, only Christ tells us in His Word. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love toward the brethren really is … The other person…needs to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life … I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. (pp35-36)

And to the way we begin each day:

For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with the besetting concerns for the day’s work. At the threshold of the new day stands the Lord who made it. All the darkness and distraction of the dreams of night retreat before the clear light of Jesus Christ and his wakening Word. All unrest, all impurity, all care and anxiety flee before Him (Eph 5:14; Pss 63:1; 119:147). (p43)

In a distracted and anxious age, with many voices and devices clamouring for our attention, Bonhoeffer reminds us of the words that Jesus lived by: that we live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Luke 4:4 cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). He insists that we need to slow down; take smaller portions of Scripture and let them sink in as God applies them to our lives through the work of His Spirit. If reading Scripture is not to become a mere academic exercise, we must spend time individually, alone with the Word and in prayer, so that it is God who directs our path.

In a distracted and anxious age, with many voices and devices clamouring for our attention, Bonhoeffer reminds us of the words that Jesus lived by: that we live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord

The time of meditation does not let us down into the void and abyss of loneliness; it lets us be alone with the Word. And in so doing it gives us solid ground on which to stand and clear directions as to the steps we must take. (p81)

Ministry – Listening before Speaking

Grace, and gracious dealings, are central to Bonhoeffer’s vision of ministry. Before Bonhoeffer describes “the Ministry of Proclaiming,” and “the Ministry of Authority,” he speaks about “the Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue,” “the Ministry of Meekness,” “the Ministry of Listening,” “the Ministry of Helpfulness,” and “the Ministry of Bearing.” As he reminds his readers:

God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image…To me the sight may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every man in the likeness of His Son, the Crucified. After all, even that image certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it. (p93)

Or again …

Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them…he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. (pp97-98)

For Bonhoeffer the willingness to listen to, offer practical help and forgive others is the necessary prerequisite to faithfully proclaiming God’s Word—but not a substitute for it. Sometimes speaking God’s word will require a word of rebuke; a word that must be offered in love and with great humility.

Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin. It is a ministry of mercy, an ultimate offer of genuine fellowship, when we allow nothing but God’s Word to stand between us … Then it is not we who are judging; God alone judges, and God’s judgment is helpful and healing. (p107)

Life Together is a book to be read slowly and prayerfully. Not surprisingly for a book written about the people of God, it is best enjoyed and most beneficial when read in the company of other believers! For this and many other reasons it has become required reading for the ministry staff-team I am part of with the Christian Union at Melbourne University.

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