Crisis, What Crisis?: Bonhoeffer and the Need for Theological Leadership

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One of the joys of returning to Melbourne has been the chance to open lots of lovely book packages; ordered while we were in Italy, but delivered to Australia to await our return. One of these contained the most recent volume in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English series: volume 15 entitled Theological Education Underground: 1937–1940. The bulk of the volume consists of letters written by Bonhoeffer in the run up to, during and after his decision to leave Germany for the USA and then, within a month, to return again.

The longest of these letters are circular epistles to former seminarians from the recently closed Finkenwalde seminary, of which Bonhoeffer was Director. There is a growing sense of looming danger in these letters, as the stakes for Confessing Church pastors are raised by (among others) the Gestapo, the German Christian movement and the so-called 'neutrals' within the Confessing Church itself. In her excellent Editor's Introduction, Victoria Barnett makes the acute observation that Bonhoeffer's response to the crisis that all see coming is not yet the call to decisive action, or prophetic/sacrificial gesture (that comes arguable with his decision to return to Germany from the USA). Instead we see Bonhoeffer working as pastor pastorum, and his concern again and again is to remind his former students that they will offer leadership to the church exactly to the extent that they are prepared to wrestle theologically with questions of truth, which is to say gospel.

It struck me that both for Baptist colleagues in the UK, currently thinking about new possibilities, vision and strategies, as well as for UCA colleagues here, who face the common challenge of identifying what constitutes authentic Christian witness in a changed culture, Bonhoeffer's insistence pn the need for sustained theological effort is instructive. Here he is, in a letter written in late-January 1938. After a call to prayer, Bonhoeffer insists that prayer is not sufficient:

'But then we want to tackle what has been neglected. We want to struggle for full theological clarity about the insghts of the Confessing Church. We are not willing to let go before we have reached firm ground. We tend to move from questions of truth to the order of the day all too easily. Yet how should a clear leadership for a parish or a church be possible without a clear theology? The false front lines … arise whenever the question of truth is bypassed. Let us resume the discussion also with those who confront us with questions! But it should be a discussion in ultimate truth. … Only then will the inexhaustible field of work that is the Confessing Church's specific task begin.' (pp.35–36)