The Young Berlin Youth-Pastor on Being Church (1932)

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    When the 25-year old Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a Berlin pastor for the first time, by the end of 1931, the Berlin church was in a state which may show striking resemblances to the state our 21st century churches are wrestling with. There was no self-evident reason at all for many an official church member, to feel a real connection with the church one officially belonged to. In Wedding, the Berlin suburb Bonhoeffer was sent to, unemployment rates were running enormously high, and hence, poverty, poor education, and societal indifference or political left- and right-wing extremities were very common – while, to the view of local citizens, the local Zionskirche (Sion’s Church) may have had to offer no answer at all to the most urgent societal questions.
    The young Bonhoeffer had only recently returned from his exchange-year in the United States. He had seen all kinds of church-forms over there, and he was considerably impressed especially by the Afro-American congregations he had visited there. His feeling for the urgency of (a Christian answer) to ethical questions had been awakened. So, the young doctor who started working in the Zionskirche was not quite the same theologian as the brilliant student who wrote his first book on the Sanctorum Communio (1927). His American experiences and his troubles and joys in and around the Zionskirche urged him to think in new ways about what it means to be the church – or at least: to rethink the concepts of his doctoral dissertation in a new light. In his lectures as private university teacher, he developed a radical new view on the place of the church in society.
    Bonhoeffer’s own manuscript has – regrettably – been lost. There are, however, lecture notes by two of his students, Hanns Rüppell and Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann. In DBWE 11 they can be found, pp. 269-332. Bonhoeffer’s title for these lectures: Das Wesen der Kirche, is difficult to translate. The editors of DBWE 11 have chosen the title The Nature of the Church; where The Essence of the Church might have been a – maybe more confusing – possibility as well (cf. DBWE 11, 270, fn [2]). I would suggest that On Being Church might suggest the young teacher’s intentions even better: Bonhoeffer is thinking about what it means to be church, and to let one’s life (as a communion) be (trans)formed by this ‘nature’/‘essence’. He is highly critical about a middle-class-church which chooses its own ‘place’ in society, and postulates that it is the church’s essence to be on any spot where God will situate church. Bonhoeffer offers new insights, even compared to his rich doctoral dissertation.
    As such, this much-neglected ecclesiological text of Bonhoeffer’s is highly actual; and it deserves new attention in our own era, and in our thinking about the future of the church.
    Recently, I published a new reconstruction of Bonhoeffers lectures in Dutch (see My reconstruction is based on a more complete view of Bonhoeffer’s total output than the reconstruction by Otto Dudzus (GS V, 227-275), which has to my knowledge never been translated into English.
    In my paper, I would like to draft the new and urgent insights that might be learned from the young Bonhoeffer’s lectures. In my Dutch reconstruction, I already drafted what the Bonhoefferian urgency might look like in our Dutch context. It would be very interesting to discuss the same issue in an international context. In my paper, I would also sketch out how an English reconstruction of these lectures might look like. It would surely be helpful to aim at such a reconstruction, since it will make Bonhoeffer’s most urgent thoughts available in an easier accessible way, to many readers.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages5
    Publication statusIn preparation - 2020
    EventInternational Bonhoeffer Congress 2020: How is the coming generation to go on living? - Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa
    Duration: 19 Jan 202023 Jan 2020


    ConferenceInternational Bonhoeffer Congress 2020
    Country/TerritorySouth Africa
    Internet address

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