Thursday Theology #322
August 12, 2004
Topic: Some Reverie Brought on by Renate Bethge's Bonhoeffer Book
Reviewing Renate Bethge's book last week got old tapes turning. Here's some
anecdotage to go along with my dotage.
Renate is a personal friend. We met her and her late husband Eberhard when
they visited Seminex a quarter century ago. Both of them were guest
lecturers. Eberhard, as you may know, catalyzed the Bonhoeffer boom with his
publication shortly after WWII of DB's "Letters and Papers from Prison."
That title was apparently chosen for English-language marketing purposes,
but didn't at all say what the German title said: "Widerstand und Ergebung."
[Something like "Resisting and Being Defeated." I.e., we tried, but we
Possibly because we could "schwaffel" with the Bethges in German on that
occasion--though both spoke excellent English--Marie and I got invited to
visit them "the next time you're in Germany." Which we eventually did as
guests in their home in Wachtberg near the Rhine. We saw the Bonhoeffer
originals--took in hand and read some of the famous ones. Also paged
through Bonhoeffer's copy of the Lutheran Confessions [The Book of Concord],
and turned to his marginal scribbles at Formula of Concord Article 10, which
so fascinated Bob Bertram. The Lutheran lingo about "status confessionis"
comes from FC 10. It talks about "a time for confessing." During our days
at Seminex Bertram helped us see our own slice of church history as such a
"time for confessing." [The second full book Bob never got out of his
computer before death carries that title. There's a full chapter on
Bonhoeffer. Mike Hoy is working on exhuming it for us all.]
FC 10 was central for Bonhoeffer in the Church Struggle [Kirchenkampf] of
his day. Confessing was the core concept of the "Bekennende Kirche," the
Confessing Church, that arose in protest against Aryan theology invading
the "Evangelisch" [Protestant] churches during the Hitler era. "Confession"
has always been a big word for Lutherans ever since Augsburg (1530). The
Aryan addenda that Naziism urged upon the German churches snapped that
time-for-confessing trip wire. For Lutherans that revived study of FC 10
and its language about situations in church history that force Christians
into a "status confessionis." Such a situation (status) is one where you
are called to make public confession of the "true" Gospel contra the
"Gospels-with-addenda" that are regnant in the church. The Aryan addenda
made that "perfectly clear" to some Lutherans (DB included), but not to all.
Hence the "Kirchenkampf" was first of all within the church itself--and not
just with Hitler.
N.B. this "time for confessing" (tempus confessionis) in Germany 1933-1945
was not a time when you stood up and told Hitler off. Instead FC 10 defines
times for confessing as inner-churchly--a time to stand up to fellow
Christians, usually church leadership, and 'fess up to the genuine Gospel in
the face of the phony Gospel-with-addenda that the leaders are hustling.
Confessing is tough talk because false Gospels finally merit the apostolic
anathema--and somebody's got to tell them. Consequences, of course, can be
serious, sometimes lethal. No wonder that making such witness (martyria in
Greek) can lead to martyrdom.
Well, Bob learned all this with an assist from Bonhoeffer and taught it to
the rest of us, helping us see the wars of Missouri in the 70s as such a
time to confront a Gospel-cum-addenda with a Gospel "pure" from such
Just how important the Lutheran Confessions were in Bonhoeffer's theology is
a current hot topic in the Bonhoeffer Society. Bob was one prominent
yea-sayer in the society in this debate. The accepted wisdom has been that
Karl Barth, DB's friend and sometime ally, was more his mentor than Luther
was. I'm an outsider to the Bonhoeffer Society, but from what I hear the
debate continues, now with some of Bob's former students prominent players
at work to "save Bonhoeffer from the Barthians." It's not a turf war, but a
substantive effort to show and tell the Gospel-grounded character of DB's
theology and then use it for Gospel-confessing today.
Reverie #2 (shorter)
I think it was at a 50th anniversary celebration of the Barmen Declaration
(the charter document of the Confessing Church from 1934) that someone
asked Eberhard Bethge to reminisce about the Confessing Church's underground
seminary at Finkenwalde in Pomerania. Bonhoeffer was the director, Bethge a
student. Here's where the two of them bonded in a freindship so solid that
Bethge began to show up regularly in the Bonhoeffer family home back in
Berlin. So often was he there that he finally noticed DB's niece Renate
next door . . . and . . . and . . . and eventually Eberhard did indeed
become a member of the family.
Bethge electrified the audience with his memories of Finkenwalde at this
1984 Barmen anniversary conference. Then someone asked if he'd ever
encountered anything close to that since those days. "Only once," he said,
"at Seminex. Especially in the chapel. The singing, the singing!"
Reverie #3 (not so short)
Seminex granted four earned doctorates in systematic theology in the course
of its 10-year history. One of those was to a Korean Presbyterian pastor,
Keun Soo Hong. Keun Soo went back home and got into trouble for his own
kind of confessing--much of it in the public arena that impacted actions by
the South Korean national government. Like Bonhoeffer, Keun Soo finally
wound up in prison. After he served his two year sentence, he was released
and returned to his pastoral work. Somehow his congregation juggled things
so that Marie and I could actually visit him in prison when we were in Korea
in 1992 together with a bunch of Crossings folks from St. Louis. Here's
Marie's journal entry for that incredible day, a "Letters and Papers from
Prison" entry with a Korean twist. Yes, Bonhoeffer does figure in. Read
April 30, 1992 - We two went with Prof. Jong-Sun Noh and Pastor Kim from
Hyang-rin church (Keun-Soo Hong's congregation) by train to Kun San prison,
where Keun Soo was being held. It's almost a 3-hour train ride south of
Prof. Noh talked about possible reasons why Keun Soo was arrested and not
he, though he holds the same opinions and has said the same things. He said
that Keun Soo was in the U.S. for 18 years, during the worst years of
persecution under S. Korean president Park Chung Hee. When he returned, he
had become Americanized enough to think he could say what he wanted anywhere
and everywhere, whereas those who had stayed in Korea knew almost
instinctively how to choose both their words and the places they could say
them. When Keun Soo said some comparatively good things about North Korea
on a popular late-night call-in radio show, the government really had to go
When we arrived at Kun San we took a taxi about half an hour to the Kun San
correctional institution. At the prison we walked inside to the first
building, where we waited in a waiting area until the man in charge of such
special visitors returned from lunch and could deal with us. We sat and
waited, watching the young guards behind the counter do their paper work.
The official returned and ushered us into the room on the other side of the
counter, past the young guards, and into his office. There we sat and
Eventually we were ushered out of the first building, through another very
smelly building where guards had to unlock steel gates for us, to a third
building which lay across the exercise area. Up on the second floor we sat
on vinyl stuffed chairs around a coffee table. An older guard sat at a
nearby desk with pencil and paper, ready to take notes, and two young
soldiers sat against the wall by the door. We waited a few minutes again,
and finally Keun Soo came in the door and walked over to us. I got tears in
my eyes watching him and Ed hugging each other. He was very surprised to
see me there, too. We sat down on the chairs and talked.
Keun Soo explained that when special visits are arranged like this, it has
to be for some educational reason, so we would have to sound educational
somewhere along the line. We showed him pictures of children and
grandchildren, and a picture of him and his wife with Ed and our daughter
Anne when we were in Seoul four years ago. He told us about a poem he's
been writing about the dead depending upon the living: when Jesus was in the
tomb he was completely dead, completely dependent on the living God to raise
him. In the same way he, Keun Soo, though not dead, is completely dependent
on others; he can't even open his own room. Others have to unlock the door,
others determine when he can eat, exercise, read, write. But he says he is
really treated very well, especially by some Christian guards who honor and
care for him. In return he is able to minister to them and to fellow
prisoners. In fact, some have begun calling him "Honghoeffer," echoing
Bonhoeffer's similar ministry in prison in Nazi Germany.
When we had first written to Keun Soo to see if we could visit him, he wrote
back asking us not only to come and see him, but also to bring the English
translation of Bonhoeffer's biography written by Eberhard Bethge. So there
in the prison Ed brought it out of his briefcase. But before Keun Soo could
take it, it had to go first to a guard, who gave it to the man at the desk.
Keun Soo explained that the official would have to check it over and make
sure nothing extra was put in it, that it was only a book.
He looks good, even in the loose blue shirt and pants, even with a number
(993) over his heart. All of this conversation (well, maybe 30%) Prof. Noh
translated for the guard at the desk -- he couldn't do it all because the
guard wouldn't be able to write it all, and besides, some of the things we
said the guard didn't need to know. "I told him the truth," said Prof. Noh.
Keun Soo said, for instance, that he is studying Luke in particular right
now, because it is "the most political" of the gospels. Well, with all the
talk and laughter we overstayed our time, and then Pastor Kim had to ask him
about something at church, so we didn't leave soon enough to catch the 3:25
train from town. We rushed to get a taxi and the taxi drove fast, but the
distance and the traffic were too much. So we waited at the train station
for the next train at 4:06, and got back to Seoul Station about 7:45.
When this ThTh gets posted--if things go as planned--we'll be in SE Asia for
the mission stuff described in ThTh 318. On our way home we intend to visit
"Honghoeffer" in Seoul. Keun Soo is now retired, but from what we've heard
he keeps on confessing. He says he learned it at Seminex. Perhaps. But
some of it was the gift he brought to us.