Friday, August 22, 2008

The Protestant Saint (Berlin, I)

The Catholics have, quite literally, thousands of them. Evangelical Protestants are reticent to name people ‘saint’ for many reasons. The two most important reasons are, in my humble opinion, quite valid. They are: 1) The Bible calls all Christians ‘saints’. To give specific people this title excludes certain that are and, quite probably, has included some that are not. 2) When Catholics use the term ‘saint’, they really mean ‘demi-god’ who somehow makes intercession on behalf of mere men here on earth before God. A foundational belief that sets Protestants apart from Catholics is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This makes praying to saints not only pointless and silly but idolatrous and sinful. As an aside, notice how the doctrine is called “priesthood of all believers”, not “high-priesthood of all believers”.

On both of these issues, as with 90% of other issues, I am in total agreement with the Protestant view. However, there does seem to be a need to differentiate great Christians heroes throughout Church history. These people live lives that are particularly instructional to Christians. They can be known for anything from performing a miracle to total devotion to God, from theological treatise to martyrdom. Some Catholic saints that Protestants all readily agree should be recognized on some level include: the Apostles, Mary, Valentine, Patrick, Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, and others.

Yet since the time of the Reformation, we Protestants don’t tend to raise people to this level. There are literally dozens of individuals from the Reformation period that would be called ‘saint’ if they had been on the other side of the conflict: William Tyndale, John Huss, Martin Luther, John Knox, Jean Calvin, Queen Elizabeth, etc. But there are also hundreds, possibly thousands, since the Reformation. People like Corrie ten Boom, Jim Elliot, Mary Slessor, William Carey, the Wesley brothers, and many others.

One staunch Protestant of whom even the Catholic Church has expressed approval was martyred in Nazi Germany during World War II. “The Protestant Saint” is not my own phrase. I read it sometime ago in some Catholic publication discussing the life, work, and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Most likely this is, at least partly, due to the failure on the part of the Catholic Church itself to resist Nazism, even while many Catholics did. Bonhoeffer helped to found one of the only official Protestant church movements in Europe, and the only in Germany to my knowledge, to refuse to cooperate with Nazism on almost every point.

But that isn’t all he did to deserve this title. He is, perhaps, best known for his theological and Christian living writings. This summer I read three of his books: Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible, The Cost of Discipleship, and Life Together. I found each to be a treasure trove full of gems waiting to be explored. Perhaps my favorite of the three is Life Together. ‘Favorite’ isn’t the correct word, as it took more than three months to finish the book because I could only read a few pages before having to put it down in shame and conviction. I realized, for the first time, how my view of Christian life, family, and friendship has been so incredibly twisted.

The Cost of Discipleship is easily the most controversial among Evangelicals but also the richest. It is true that Bonhoeffer flirts with, what sounds to some (including at times myself), blatant heresy. But he also lays the practicality of Christian life out in an uncompromising way. Sadly I think that these times he flirts with heretical language only serve to, in the minds of some, discredit what he has written. But there are many important things one must understand before passing judgement on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s orthodoxy: his stream of Christianity (a mix of Evangelicalism, Incarnationalism, Holiness, and Social Justice), his denomination (Lutheranism), his time, and the politics and environment of his country all contribute to a use of vocabulary that differs greatly from the way 21st century American Evangelicals tend to use them. It is important to remember that The Cost of Discipleship is talking solely about discipleship and victory in Christian life even when he uses the term “salvation".

That term, for Bonhoeffer, rarely means what we Evangelicals mean when we use the word. We of course mean eternal non-damnation and rewards in Heaven. Well, at least most of us do. This alone has done more to contribute to a total misunderstanding of Bonhoeffer’s works among American Christians than anything else. However, there are two other things that Christians of my generation won’t understand: 1) Bonhoeffer’s contact with Christian Liberalism in New York and Berlin that horrified him at the state of Christian theology and 2) the emergence of Nazism in Germany and, especially, the sympathy and aid it received in the German Lutheran Church. These two things influenced his writing and colored his writings in ways that we can't understand as 21st century Middle-Americans who have basically little contact with theological Liberalism.

But I’ve written over a page of explanation and haven’t gotten to my point! My trip to Berlin really had only purpose that made it impossible for me not to go: I wanted to visit the house of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I did make it, and, like visiting the Hiding Place in Holland, it was an extremely moving experience for me. This is the outside of his parent’s house in Berlin where he stayed whenever he was in the city:

The following pictures are from Bonhoeffer’s bedroom. To sit in his chair at his desk where he wrote some of his theological works and love letters, to look at the books in his library that must have played an important part in influencing his own writing, and even to see his wash basin and wardrobe meant something I can’t explain in words. My prayer was: “God, raise up a generation like this man! But if not a generation, raise up a few individuals who will preserve the name of Your Church when it is bent by being corrupted by the world.” For you see, our time is, in many ways, not that much unlike Bonhoeffer's. The Church must always be on the gaurd against becoming so embroiled in the world (politically, culturally, socially) that she loses her savor.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

I'm so glad you made it to Bonhoeffer's home (and just a little envious, too!)