Bonhoeffer and Barth on discipleship
One of Bonhoeffer's principal contributions was working out the application of Trinitarian theology to the challenges of real life. The challenges he faced were those encountered in Germany leading up to and through World War II. His beloved country, including his beloved German Lutheran Church came under the evil influence of Hitler and his Nazi regime.
Bonhoeffer was challenged to live out his theology in the midst of this terrible evil. Thus his theology was formed in the trenches of real (almost too real) life. For him this meant joining the Living Lord, Jesus Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, was actively sharing his life with all people on earth. Given this perspective, the key questions he focused on were these:
- Who is Jesus?
- Where is Jesus, and what is he doing there?
- How is Jesus calling me to join with him?
"Follow me" is the substance of the call in the power of which Jesus makes people his saints.... The lifting up of themselves for which he gives them freedom is not a movement which is formless, or to which they themselves have to give the necessary form. It takes place in a definite form and direction. Similarly, their looking to Jesus as their Lord is not an idle gaping. It is a vision that stimulates those to whom it is given to a definite action. The call issued by Jesus is a call to discipleship... Easily the best that has been written on this subject is to be found in Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In [this book]...the matter is handled with such depth and precision that I am almost tempted simply to reproduce [it]... in an extended quotation. For I cannot hope to say anything better on the subject that what is said here by a man who, having written on discipleship, was ready to achieve it in his own life, and did in his own way achieve it even to the point of death.Watching (in horror) as the German Lutheran Church (in large part) capitulated to Hitler's demands, Bonhoeffer listened intently to Jesus' command as to what he was to do. Thus for him (and Barth), discipleship (following Jesus) was not about a rigid, one-size-fits-all program (what Barth calls "a normative technical rule"), but about hearing and then obeying the Lord's specific, personal command in a particular set of circumstances.
However, as Barth notes in the quote above, and elsewhere in Dogmatics, though not formulaic, true discipleship is not "formless" - it is not about personal whim or preference. Rather, it's about conforming our lives along "certain prominent lines along which the concrete commanding of Jesus, with its demand for concrete obedience" moves.
Those "lines" are exemplified in the four Gospels, which record for us some of the details of Jesus' life with his disciples 2,000 years ago. However that does not mean that discipleship in the 21st century is about mimicking what Jesus' first disciples were called to do in the 1st century. Rather, we are called to hear and to obey Jesus now - to join with him in what he is now doing in our world. The Gospels show us the basic form of discipleship - the "lines" along which it proceeds, but not the specific details.
What then are the details? The answer must come from Jesus - we must hear his personal command to us, within the community of the church, as to how we are to follow him. This approach to discipleship calls for spiritual discernment, for radical obedience, and for a rare depth of commitment. I'm informed by Barth's and Bonhoeffer's teaching on this topic and inspired by Bonhoeffer's example of committed faith.