Guest post by Javier Garcia, who recently completed his PhD at Cambridge University on Bonhoeffer and will be the Associate Director of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox and Assistant Professor of Religion.
Everyone, it seems, is talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Pastors reference him from the pulpit. Church-goers reflect upon his understanding of community in Bible studies. Academics debate (yes…they still do!) the intricacies of his theology. Few Christian thinkers have enjoyed such sweeping popularity across the board, gaining both celebrity status and intellectual respect in equal measure. We live in a time when Bonhoeffer, quite simply, is a star.
This is due in large part to the success of recent American biographies of the 20th-century German theologian. On the one hand, Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010) proved a sensation among evangelicals; it sold more than 800,000 copies and has been translated into 17 languages. On the other hand, Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and seasoned Bonhoeffer scholar, penned Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), which has won critical acclaim. For the nerds out there, the scholarly edition of Bonhoeffer’s works in English, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works series (totaling 16 volumes), was completed in the last few years.
These have helped hoist Bonhoeffer to the center stage of our conversations about contemporary Christianity. But why should anyone read his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship?
Who Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
Somewhere beyond hype and hagiography, there is the real person who lived a life of compelling faith during a defining moment in history. By all accounts Bonhoeffer was, like most of us, a combination of contradictions—deeply pastoral yet intensely reserved; calm and self-controlled but known to those close to him for having a “volcanic temper”; emanating an insatiable love of life while struggling with what he called acedia (what we call depression); a die-hard aristocrat with the most rarefied taste who reached out to the poor and the outcast. Yet, what surfaces and sticks with us, especially in reading his letters, is the immense courage and hope he showed in what many consider the darkest times in the last century.
Bonhoeffer’s life was bookended by two world wars—he was born shortly before WWI began and died shortly before WWII ended. When he came into this world, the German Empire looked unstoppable. When he departed it, German civilization was unsure of its survival. Along the way, Bonhoeffer lived a full life in his short 39 years. He traveled the world, living in Barcelona, New York, and London, also visiting North Africa and Central America. He became an intellectual powerhouse, completing his dissertation at the ripe age of 21 (yes, he was obnoxious like that!) and publishing theological great books, including The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, as well as, posthumously, Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison.
Above all, Bonhoeffer is known and remembered for his bravery during the Nazi era. As a young lecturer in the early 1930s, he chose to teach on Genesis, a subversive affirmation of the Old Testament. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer was one of the first theologians to publicly recognize the responsibility of the church to defend the Jews in the essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.”
In the years following 1933, the German Protestant Church was launched into the “Church Struggle,” a battle royale for its theological soul between those who would kowtow to Hitler, embrace anti-Semitism, and baptize the Nazi regime, (the so-called “German Christians”), and those who believed this was an abomination to the gospel. Bonhoeffer stood firmly with the “Confessing Church.” His biographer Ferdinand Schlingensiepen puts it ominously when he writes, “There were never to be many who agreed with him.”
It can be considered that Bonhoeffer’s shining moments, at least those most seared in our collective memory, were on the road from Finkenwalde to Flossenbürg. As the director of the illegal seminary in Finkenwalde, Pomerania (now Poland), all of Bonhoeffer’s talents in teaching and pastoral care coalesced. His experiment in life together pushed the disciplines of prayer and meditation. While students were initially hesitant, this would become a powerful formation they would fondly remember when they were sent out into the world.
After the Gestapo closed the seminary’s doors, and as the shadows of war drew nearer, Bonhoeffer committed to staying in Germany, come what may. Citing Isaiah 28:16 in his journal, “One who believes will not run away,” Bonhoeffer left a cushy theological job in New York and boarded one of the last ships allowed back to Germany in 1939 before war broke out.
This fateful decision would lead Bonhoeffer to the German resistance, to Tegel prison, and, finally, to the gallows. Much has been made of how Bonhoeffer justified or didn’t justify tyrannicide, whether he was a pacifist or a special form of pacifist that allowed for this exception, and so on. What is clear is that Bonhoeffer eschewed abstractions in favor of concrete reality. He was interested, in other words, in the ways God calls us in history to enter—not escape—the drama of this world. An early letter to a friend reads, “The calling defines my future: what God will make out of it, I do not know.” His last recorded words, before he was hanged on April 9, 1945, were, “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”
5 Reasons why you should read The Cost of Discipleship:
Because it is a modern classic. From the time of its publication, The Cost of Discipleship was an instant spiritual classic, celebrated by Christians of all traditions. It was the longest and most influential book published during Bonhoeffer’s lifetime and has continued to enjoy immense success worldwide since. What makes it a classic is its return to the fundamentals of the Christian faith in a challenging and powerful way. Who is Jesus Christ? What does it mean to be a Christian? How do I read the Bible? What is the church? Bonhoeffer answers these questions with simple language that conveys his wisdom and depth of spirit.
To join the conversation. When you read this book you are invited into a discussion with some of the brightest theological minds. Martin Luther is Bonhoeffer’s main authority, sitting at the head of the table, as it were. This text is an intense wrestling with Luther’s understanding of justification and sanctification, trying to recover these seminal doctrines from the hands of “pseudo-Lutherans,” a veiled reference to Nazi sympathizers. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard weighs heavily in the background, too, because of his insights into faith and critiques of 19th–century European Christendom. Finally, there was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, whom Bonhoeffer read at an early age and felt in dialogue with for the rest of his life. When he was nearly finished writing The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote to Barth, “The whole period was basically an ongoing, silent discussion with you…” Later, when Barth broached the subject of discipleship in Church Dogmatics, his magnum opus, he wrote, “Easily the best that has been written on this subject is to be found in Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”
To follow the living Christ. The original German title is simply Discipleship, literally “following after” (Nachfolge). This book at heart is about seeking and following “our sole concern,” Jesus Christ, the same person who lived among the disciples. Bonhoeffer’s conviction throughout is that Jesus himself calls us to follow him in the mundane and complex realities of our every day life. He is not safe, static, or predictable. He comes with the full force of his concrete commandments and leads us down paths unknown. Bonhoeffer goes so far as to say, as rendered in R. H. Fuller’s iconic translation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Yet, as Bonhoeffer puts it, “Discipleship is joy.” The riddle and paradox of following after the living Christ is that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30). We are prompted to ask, with Bonhoeffer, what does Jesus want from us today?
To learn of grace and obedience. Bonhoeffer can be quite intimidating. In a few short body-blow phrases, Christian faith can sound like an impossible undertaking. “Only the believers obey and only the obedient believe”; “faith is only faith in deeds of obedience”; “You should not ask; you should act”; “cheap grace is…the denial of the incarnation of the word of God.”
People can easily trip over Bonhoeffer’s famous opposition of “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Is grace something we have to earn? That would be to completely misunderstand Bonhoeffer (and Christianity for that matter)! As Jonathan Sorum explains, “cheap grace…is not grace” while costly grace “is simply grace.”
Grace is freely given by Christ to those who repent and believe in him. Yet costly grace recognizes that “nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.” Christ’s death on the cross for our sins shows how costly grace is to God. We are therefore called to continual repentance at the foot of the cross. When we assume God’s grace towards us as a general principle, when we no longer turn away from our sins, when we detach forgiveness from the call to obedience, that is when we have fallen victim to cheap grace. Thank God that Jesus equips us to follow him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only by God’s grace can we say, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
To encounter the Word of God. Bonhoeffer saw this work as an extended “exposition on the Sermon on the Mount and the Pauline doctrine of justification and sanctification.” Readers will dive deeply into key passages in the New Testament that will inform their understanding of Christ, the cross, and the life of faith in the church. How are we to interpret the Beatitudes? What is exceptional about Christianity? What does it mean for the church to be visible and hidden at the same time?
Bonhoeffer spoke of a time when “something happened, something that has changed my life and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible.” The Sermon on the Mount was for him the beginning and the end of this transformative discovery.
Of course, there are many more reasons to read this book. I guess you will just have to find them out for yourself.