Dietrich Bonhoeffer on living in the “Middle of the Village”


Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)  wrote this to his friend Eberhard Bethge from prison the year before he was executed by the Nazis:

“I find all this talk about human limits questionable. (Can even death, since people hardly fear it now, or sin, which people hardly even comprehend now, still be called genuine “limits?”) I always have the feeling we are merely fearfully trying to save room for God; I would rather speak of God at the center than at the limits, in strength rather than in weakness, and thus in human life and goodness rather than in death and guilt.

As far as limits are concerned, I think it best simply to remain silent and to leave the unresolvable unresolved. The belief in resurrection is not the “solution’ to the problem of death. The “beyond” of God is not the “beyond” of our cognitive capacity. Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God’s transcendence. God is “beyond” our lives. The church is found not where human capacity fails, at the limits, but rather in the middle of the village. This is the sense of the Old Testament, and we still do not read the New Testament enough from the perspective of the Old Testament.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Eberhard Bethge Tegel prison, April 30,1944)

I read this as a call for the church to be fully engaged in the life around it, and not be a conventicle that separates itself from the “world.”  Certainly Bonhoeffer himself engaged his times and society, and gave his life for doing so.  But it is so hard to be “in the world and not of it.”

4 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer on living in the “Middle of the Village”

  1. >I suppose one theological question Bonhoeffer's assertion raises is how to speak of "God's strength at the center" in light of the crucified Son of God fully displaying God's strange sovereignty. Is this weakness God's form of strength, and if so, what does this strength look like for the church that abides in the middle of the village?

  2. >I think that is a terrific question, and one that I wondered about myself when I read this letter. And let us be mindful that he is writing this from prison. I do believe, as one for whom the cross is central to my theology, that God's power is made perfect in weakness, and Bonhoeffer, good Lutheran that he was, did too. So what does he mean here?So your final question is just the right one, “what would this strength look like for the church that abides in the middle of the village?”It must mean, at least, that a robust theology of the cross doesn't abandon the public square.Thanks for the good comment.

  3. >yes, Bonhoeffer has a strong theology of the cross and yet at this very point, at least in the section of his letter, he seems to dodge the radical weakness underneath which the strength of God is veiled. He is also arguing here with Barth about limits. What is so powerful, particularly in American churches, is the notion that God might be veiled in weakness.

  4. >Yes. I think that is right. And your insight that there is a argument with Barth about limits is interesting to me. I have always thought that the little of Bonhoeffer's theology we are left with, makes it hard to fairly compare him with Barth at the end of the day. There is sadly, no mature Bonhoeffer.Yes, the American church has trouble with the idea of power made perfect if weakness. See my rant from yesterday. Thanks again for engaging this puzzling passage, and for your good comments.

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