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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s
Reformation Day
Sermons and
Theology Today
2017, Vol. 74(3) 252–262
! The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0040573617721916
Robert Vosloo
Stellenbosch University, South Africa
In this article, I examine Bonhoeffer’s relationship to the legacy of the Reformation in
the light of some of his remarks, sermons, and meditations related to the celebration of
Reformation Day. These engagements, or so this article argues, point to the fact that
for Bonhoeffer commemorating the Reformation did not entail mere restatement
of seemingly timeless truths, but rather renewed and unscripted engagement with
the legacy of the Reformation. This implies a historical hermeneutic which emphasizes
that faithfulness to a tradition does not involve mere repetition, but performative and
participatory remembering that requires ongoing interpretation, continual improvisation, and creative reenactment and embodiment. With these remarks in mind, this
article attends to some of Bonhoeffer’s Reformation Day sermons and meditations
against the backdrop of the uses and abuses associated with acts of commemoration
and, more pointedly, also in light of the 2017 Reformation 500 celebrations amidst
complex forces of imperialism and neo-tribalism.
Bonhoeffer, Reformation, memory, performativity, preaching
While in Tegel prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents Karl and
Paula Bonhoeffer, dated 31 October 1943, in which—after thanking his parents
for their visit as well as for a packet he had received from them—he observes,
‘‘Today is Reformation Sunday, a day that can evoke a great deal of reflection
Corresponding author:
Robert Vosloo, Stellenbosch University, 171 Dorp Street, Stellenbosch 7600, South Africa.
Email: [email protected]
again precisely in our time.’’1 For Bonhoeffer, then, this day of commemoration
gave rise to thought, especially in a time of crisis. Bonhoeffer continues his letter by
sharing some of his own thoughts in this regard:
One wonders why consequences had to arise from Luther’s action that were exactly
the opposite of those he intended and that overshadowed his own last years and at
times even made him question his life’s work. He wanted an authentic unity of the
church and the West, that is of Christian peoples, and the result was the collapse of the
church and of Europe; he wanted the ‘‘freedom of the Christian,’’ and the result was
complacency and degeneration; he wanted the establishment of an authentically
worldly ordering of society without clerical domination, and the result was the insurrection in the peasant’s revolt of his time and soon thereafter the gradual dissolving of
all authentic bonds and orders of life.2
Bonhoeffer is clearly aware—like many historians today as well3—of the unintended consequences of the Reformation. He is, of course, also grappling with
the possible inadvertent consequences of his own actions, as well as that of his
friends, fellow conspirators, and the Confessing church. One senses in Bonhoeffer’s
observation not some form of triumphant rhetoric on the legacy of the
Reformation, but rather something of a self-critical grappling with the ambivalence
of his own faith tradition, and his own participation in it.
In this Reformation Day letter to his parents Bonhoeffer also recalls a debate
from his student days between his Berlin teachers Karl Holl and Adolf von
Harnack on whether great intellectual movements succeeded as a result of their
primary or secondary motives. Holl opted for the first answer, while Von Harnack
asserted the second. Bonhoeffer notes in his letter that at the time he thought that
Holl was right, but that he now thinks otherwise. Bonhoeffer’s renewed reflection
on this discussion between Holl and Von Harnack indicates, in part at least, his
hesitation about offering mono-causal explanations for complex historical phenomena. Bonhoeffer also evokes in the context of these ideas Kierkegaard’s statement that ‘‘Luther today would say the opposite of what he said back then.’’4
By recollecting this assertion by Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer gives us a further glimpse
into his way of theologizing about important historical figures and traditions.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English (DBWE), 8, 172.
2. Ibid. The remark that Luther questioned his life’s work towards the end of his life in the light of the
unintended consequences of the Reformation reminds one of the more elaborate discussion of
the young Bonhoeffer in a seminar paper he wrote for Karl Holl. See ‘‘Luther’s Feelings about
His Work as Expressed in the Final Years of his Life Based on His Correspondence of 1540–1546,’’
DBWE, 9, 257–284.
3. See, for instance, Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Movement
Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012). In this study Gregory argues that ‘‘the
Reformation’s influence on the eventual secularization of society was complex, largely indirect,
far from immediate, and profoundly unintended’’ (2).
4. DBWE, 8, 173.
Theology Today 74(3)
Clearly for him reflection on the legacy of the Reformation is not primarily about
quoting some of Luther words or in reiterating the Reformation solas. No, there
is a different hermeneutic at work in Bonhoeffer’s engagement with his own theological legacy, one that points to the idea that what is required in commemorating
the Reformation is not a mere restatement of seemingly timeless truths, but a
renewed and unscripted engagement with the legacy of the Reformation ‘‘in our
time,’’ thus amidst the turmoil and challenges of ‘‘today.’’
One can say, or so this article will argue, that such a historical hermeneutic is not
about mere repetition, but about performative and participatory remembering,
requiring what Catherine Pickstock calls non-identical repetition.5 Such a performative remembrance points to the need for ongoing interpretation, continual
improvisation, and creative reenactment and embodiment. With this remark in
mind, this article attends to some of Bonhoeffer’s Reformation Day sermons and
meditations against the backdrop of the uses and abuses associated with acts of
commemoration and, more pointedly, also in light of the 2017 Reformation 500
celebrations amidst complex forces of global imperialism and neo-tribalism.
Reformation Day, Our Protest and God’s Protest
In the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works we have access to a couple of his sermons
preached on Reformation Sunday. In this article I will pay special attention to a
sermon he preached at a university worship service in the Dreifältigkeitskirche
(Trinity Church) in Berlin on 6 November 1932, just a few months before Hitler
became Chancellor. In focusing on Bonhoeffer’s sermons and sermon meditations,
one is mindful of the importance of preaching for Bonhoeffer’s understanding of
the theological task and his own calling. As Eberhard Bethge notes in his
Bonhoeffer biography, ‘‘Only as a preacher was he fully present; here he devoted
himself without any reservations or qualifications. Preaching was the great event
for him. His severe theologizing and critical love for his church were all for its
sake, for preaching proclaimed the message of Christ, the bringer of peace.
For Bonhoeffer nothing in his calling competed in importance with preaching.’’6
Bonhoeffer’s scriptural text for his sermon on Reformation Sunday in early
November 1932 Bonhoeffer was Revelation 2:4–5, where we read,
But I have this against you, that you abandoned the love you had at first. Remember
then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will
come to you and remove the lampstand from its place, unless you repent . . . Let everyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone
who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise
of God.
5. See Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University, 2013), 46.
6. Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 234.
What did Bonhoeffer say in his sermon in the light of this text and also convey the
feeling of crisis that permeated the spirit of the times? In his editorial introduction
to Creation and Fall (volume 3 of DBWE) John de Gruchy refers to the winter of
1932 as a winter of profound discontent in Germany, ‘‘a time of confusion, anxiety,
and, for many, false hope, as social and political upheavals led to the demise of the
Weimar Republic and the birth of the Third Reich.’’7 Amidst these circumstances
Bonhoeffer opens his sermon by affirming the crisis of the times, stating that ‘‘we
are in the eleventh hour of the life of the Protestant church.’’8 But he provides no
cheap comfort in the light of this diagnosis, since in his view the trumpet fanfares
associated with the celebrations on Reformation Day only bear witness to the fact
that Germany is at death’s door and that, in fear of its own future, it is drumming
up courage through loud words to face the terror of death that is secretly alive in its
heart. It is similar to children whistling in the dark when they walk down a dark
street in order to convince themselves that they are not afraid. This manufactured
courage is also present in the church. Bonhoeffer comments,
The Church of the Reformation, which secretly knows that it is separated from the
Reformation by an abyss and is already shuddering at the approach of death, sings
with desperate courage, ‘‘A mighty fortress is our God’’ . . . In celebrating the
Reformation, the church can’t leave old Luther in peace. He has to suffer for the
terrible things that are going on in the church today . . . Though he is dead, we prop
him up in our church and make him hold out his hand, gesture towards the church,
and keep saying over and over those self-confident words with all their pathos, ‘‘Here
I stand—I can do no other’’ . . . It is simply untruthful, or unforgiveable to take refuge
behind these words. We can indeed do otherwise, or at least we should be able to do.9
Bonhoeffer further interrogates the way in which the Protestant church sees
protest as among its traditional obligations. This protest takes on different
forms, often against secularism, or Catholicism, or even against those who do not
take notice of our protest. In light of this, Bonhoeffer writes, not without a touch of
irony, ‘‘Oh, how easily we protest, with what passion and self-confidence, since we
have a documented right to do so. What a splendid day this is. ‘We protest!’ is
7. DBWE, 3, 1. One can also recall Bonhoeffer’s own remarks about the crisis of the times at the
International Youth Conference in Gland on August 29, 1932: ‘‘Things are coming to a crisis more
horribly than ever before—millions of starving people whose wishes have been put off or unfulfilled,
desperate people who have nothing to lose but their lives and who with their lives lose
nothing—humiliated and degraded nations, who are not able to recover their dishonor—political
extremes against political extremes, fanaticized against fanaticized, false gods against false gods—and
behind all of this, a world bristling with weapons as never before, a world that is feverishly mobilizing
for war, in order to guarantee peace through armaments, a world whose false gods have become the
world ‘security’’’ (DBWE, 11, 378–379).
8. DBWE, 12, 439.
9. Ibid., 441
Theology Today 74(3)
our cry. But God says, ‘But I have this against you . . . ,’ meaning ‘I protest.’ God
protests—against whom? Against us and our protest!’’10
For Bonhoeffer the commemoration of the Reformation is, therefore, not in the
first place about the affirmation and rallying of the protest of Protestants, but
about the memory of God’s protest, also God’s protest against Protestants.
But secretly, Bonhoeffer continues, we know we are not up to God’s protest,
and that is why the church makes so much noise on Reformation Sunday, ‘‘hammering wrong ideas into the heads of thousands of schoolchildren, only so that they
don’t notice our weakness, so that we can forget it ourselves.’’11
For Bonhoeffer this is not the way to celebrate the Reformation, hence his stern
warning: ‘‘Let us stop celebrating the Reformation that way! Let us leave the dead
Luther to rest at long last, and instead listen to the gospel, reading the Bible,
hearing God’s own word in it. At the last judgment God is certainly not going
to ask us not, ‘Have you celebrated Reformation Day properly?’ but rather, ‘Have
you heard my word and kept it.’’’12
Reformation and repentance
Bonhoeffer continues his sermon by elaborating on the words from Revelation 2:4:
‘‘But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first,’’
aiming in the process to make the congregation feel the full weight of these words.
This brings him to comment on the words following this accusation in the biblical
text, namely ‘‘Remember then from what you have fallen: repent, and do the works
you did at first.’’ For Bonhoeffer it was this call that led Luther to do what he did.
‘‘The Church of the Reformation,’’ states Bonhoeffer, ‘‘is the church of those who
expose themselves to this call . . . The Church that stands in repentance, the church
that lets God be God, is the church of the apostles and Luther.’’13
For Bonhoeffer then—preaching on this text in the context of the rise of Nazism
in Germany—the church’s remembrance of its past should be the sort of remembrance that makes it possible for the church to heed the call to repentance.
Speaking amidst the groundswell of a style of commemoration in Germany that
would increasingly reify the past for ideological gains, Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on
the language of repentance indicates something of how he understood the heart of
the message of the Reformation and how it could speak to his own time.
It is interesting to compare Bonhoeffer’s Reformation Day sermon of 1932 to his
sermon meditation for the commemoration of the Reformation at Finkenwalde
10. Ibid.
11. DBWE, 12, 441.
12. DBWE, 8. This point is often made by Bonhoeffer. A decade later, for instance, Bonhoeffer states
in ‘‘A Theological Position Paper on the Question of Baptism’’: ‘‘Luther’s Reformation came not
from the attempt to realize a better, perhaps ‘original Christian’ ideal of church-community, but
rather from the new recognition of the gospel from Holy Scripture.’’ See DBWE, 16, 569.
13. DBWE 12, 444.
four years later (dated 25 October 1936), again using Revelation 2:1–7 as text.
The tone of this meditation is clearly more pastoral, emphasizing that Christ
speaks to the church community in a friendly way: ‘‘Christ knows the work
being done in our Confessing church and church-communities . . . He neither
shatters nor destroys us, being instead present himself wherever the fate of his
church-community is at stake.’’14 Yet Bonhoeffer does point to the fact that
Christ accuses his church community. Christ stands against his own Confessing
Church community, since ‘‘much is so harsh, so self-assured, as if it was a matter
of defending oneself. Much was said and done simply in one’s own interest, for
the sake of one’s own assurance.’’15 The Confessing Church too is in danger of
forgetting its first love, since—as Bonhoeffer writes—‘‘our hearts cling to many
other things, to the world, to security, to habit.’’16 The church, however, is called to
remember the first love (that is, Christ), and remember from what they have fallen.
This remembrance is, in Bonhoeffer’s words, ‘‘the basis of all reformation, not
glorification of human beings or of past history, not Lutheran slogans, but
rather gratefully to hear God’s summons to repentance.’’17
In this meditation, too, as in the Reformation Day sermon from 1932,
Bonhoeffer links remembrance to repentance, and repentance to Christ. This link
between reformation and a christological focus—as reflected in his 1936
Reformation Day meditation—is also well expressed in a later letter of
Bonhoeffer to Ruth Roberta Stahlberg, dated 20 March 1940. Bonhoeffer writes,
I must add that something in me protests very powerfully against all longings for
reformation. In the past four hundred years and up to the most recent era, we have
experienced them almost without interruption in the most varied forms, and all of
them have resulted—I must add, thank God—in nothing. The only true Reformation
sprang not from so-called longing for reformation, but rather from a single, newly
given biblical rediscovery that then in and of itself . . . broke open the church and
renewed it . . . The liveliest longings for reformation in our church in the last four
hundred years have always resembled the not particularly respectful intention of fashionably dressing up one’s elderly mother so as not to have to be ashamed of her. I do
not wish to dispute that there is also a true desire for renewal in the church, but we can
easily distinguish between true and false by asking whether we are more concerned
about doing something new or about Jesus Christ.18
True reformation for Bonhoeffer, therefore, requires a focus on Christ, and such a
christological focus cannot be separated from the call to repentance.
14. DBWE, 15, 954, 955.
15. Ibid., 955.
16. Ibid., 956,
17. Ibid.
18. DBWE, 16, 37.
Theology Today 74(3)
Commemorating the Reformation?
As Protestant Christians and churches commemorate the 500th anniversary of the 16thcentury Protestant Reformation in 2017, it is worthwhile keeping these words of
Bonhoeffer in mind, as well as the historical hermeneutic underlying his thinking.
A faithful commemoration of the Reformation, one can argue, following Bonhoeffer,
requires listening to God’s word anew in a spirit of repentance amidst the challenges of
our time—challenges that are certainly different from those Luther (and Bonhoeffer)
had to face in their day. It is therefore quite apt that Martin Marty organizes his recent
little book October 31 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World around
the notion of repentance, finding support of course in the first of Luther’s 95 theses:
‘‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he intended
the entire life of believers to be repentance.’’19 Such a focus on repentance certainly
challenges any attempts to celebrate the Reformation in a spirit of triumphalism that
neglects the historical ambivalent nature of the legacy of the Reformation as well as the
convictions that lie at the heart of this theological tradition. The emphasis on repentance—as found in the theology of Luther and Bonhoeffer—also poses important challenges for the public witness of the church in our world today. As Jennifer McBride has
rightly noted in her book The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness,
‘‘The triumphalistic tendencies of Christian public presence today require a renewed
shift in our thinking about repentance, one that will reform the church’s public
witness and shape its redemptive activity in a pluralistic society. Repositioning and
reinterpreting repentance as central and nonnegotiable for Christian life and thought
has proven, historically, to be a catalyst for needed reformations.’’20
It is, furthermore, often—and rightly—pointed out that the 2017 Reformation
celebrations require an ecumenical and global focus. The 2013 report From Conflict
to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in
2017, for instance, mentions some important challenges that provide opportunities
and obligations for the commemorative process:
(1) It is the first commemoration to take place during the ecumenical age. Therefore,
the common commemoration is an occasion to deepen communion between Catholics
and Lutherans. (2) It is the first commemoration in the age of globalization.
Therefore, the common commemoration must incorporate the experiences and perspectives of Christians from South and North, East and West. (3) It is the first commemoration that must deal with the necessity of a new evangelization marked by both
the proliferation of new religious movements and, at the same time, the growth of
secularization in many places.21
19. Martin E. Marty, October 31 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World (Brewster,
MA: Paraclete, 2016), 4–5.
20. Jennifer M. McBride, The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness (Oxford: Oxford
University, 2012), 59.
21. The Lutheran World Federation and The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, From
Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017
(Leipzig: Evangelische, 2013), 11.
These are important insights and it should also be reiterated that the ‘‘the age
of globalization’’ (to use the words of the report) in which the Reformation is
celebrated is also marked by growing polarization and hardened identity constructs,
as recent geopolitical events such as Brexit and the United States presidential election
testify. In such a climate the link between commemorations and the quest for the
affirmation and consolidation of identity should be taken into account.
In his important work Memory, History, Forgetting the French philosopher Paul
Ricoeur, in a chapter on the exercise of memory, discusses at length what he refers
to as the uses and abuses of memory. Ricoeur places the abuse of natural memory
on three levels, namely the pathological-therapeutic level (given the reality of
wounded or blocked memory), the practical level (the level of manipulated
memory), and the ethico-political level (entailing the felt obligation or duty to
remember the past). For our purposes here I am especially interested in
Ricoeur’s second level, namely the practical level associated with the manipulation
of memory. For Ricoeur this instrumentalization and manipulation of memory is
associated with ‘‘the mobilization of memory in the service of the quest, the appeal,
the demand for identity.’’22 The diseases of memory (and one can add, commemoration) are closely intertwined with the diseases of identity.
In his award-winning book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks too points to some of the temptations associated with the
demand for identity. He writes, ‘‘Identity has returned. The tribes are back and
fighting more fiercely than ever. The old sources of conflict, religion and ethnicity,
are claiming new victims.’’23 Sacks remarks in the light of the complex relationship
between religion and violence that religion is not necessarily the cause of violence
(as is often assumed), but that violence is fundamentally linked with identity
constructs and to life in groups (with the concomitant division of the world into
‘‘Us’’ and ‘‘Them’’). Sacks speaks in this regard of the danger of what he calls
pathological dualism, according to which one sees ‘‘humanity itself as radically,
ontologically divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad.’’24
Although violence may be possible wherever there is an Us and a Them, ‘‘radical
violence emerges only when we see the Us as all-good and Them as all-evil,
heralding a war between the children of light and the children of darkness.’’25
22. Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004).
23. Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (New York: Schocken, 2015),
41. Cf. also the chapter ‘‘Back to Tribes’’ in Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia (Malden, MA: Polity,
2017), 49–85. Bauman ends his provocatively titled book with the following comment: ‘‘There are
no shortcuts leading to a quick, adroit and effortless damming of the ‘back to’
currents—whether to Hobbes, to tribes, to inequality or to the womb . . . We need to brace
ourselves for a long period marked by more questions than answers and more problems than
solutions, as well as for acting in the shadow of finely balanced chances of success and
defeat . . . More than in any other time we—human inhabitants of the Earth—are in the either/
or situation: we face joining either hands, or common graves’’ (166–167).
24. Ibid., 51.
25. Ibid., 48.
Theology Today 74(3)
The commemoration of the Reformation indeed calls for reflection ‘‘in a time
like this,’’ in a way similar to what Bonhoeffer indicated in his Reformation Day
letter to his parents in October 1943. It offers the opportunity for a robust
theological conversation about the theology that lies at the heart of the
Reformation legacy. In addition, one could argue that this conversation should
be accompanied by a critical reflection on the uses and misuses associated with
It is important to note that in the year following Bonhoeffer’s 1932
Reformation Day sermon, preached in the fall of 1933, the 450th anniversary
of Luther’s birth was celebrated with great fanfare, with celebrations—also in
Wittenberg—linking Luther to ‘‘the new German Spirit.’’ The Nazi leadership
as well as German Christians capitalized on this commemoration. It is against
this background that we can view the ‘‘Declaration to the Reich Church
Government’’ drafted by a group of German pastors (including Bonhoeffer)
at a pastoral conference in Bradford in England (dated 29 November 1933).
This declaration is highly critical of recent events in the ‘‘German Christian
Faith Movement’’ and ends with the words: ‘‘In indignation and shame over
the attacks on the substance of the Protestant faith, we express our hope and
expectation, for the sake of the unity and purity of the church, in this Luther
anniversary year 1933 and on the occasion of the enthronement of the Reich
bishop, that the German Evangelical Church will remain for all time the church
of the Reformation.’’26
The contestation between German Christians and the Confessing Church on
what it means to be the church of the Reformation, also explains the statement
in the section ‘‘What is Reformation?’’ in the Bethel Confession that reads,
‘‘The essence of the Reformation is consciousness of the Holy Scriptures, submission to the Holy Scriptures. For the Reformation, Martin Luther is the teacher who
is obedient to the Holy Scriptures. To see the German spirit or the origin of the
modern concept of freedom or as the foundation of a new religion, goes against his
own word.’’27
In commemorating the Reformation one should therefore be mindful of the way
in which past commemorations served particular agendas, mindful in the process of
how our own, often hidden, agendas undergird our commemorative practices.
In this context one could recall Tzvetan Todorov’s comment: ‘‘While history
makes the past more complicated, commemoration makes it simpler, since it
most often supplies us with heroes to worship or with enemies to detest, it deals
in desecration and consecration.’’28
26. DBWE, 13, 50.
27. DBWE, 12, 380.
28. Tzvetan T. Todorov, Hope and Memory: Reflections on the Twentieth Century (London: Atlantic,
2014 [2003]), 133.
Performative Remembrance and the Lord of the Promise
Bonhoeffer’s sermons and reflections on Reformation Day reveal his sensitivity
towards the abuse of commemorations in the service of a self-congratulatory
engagement with the past, a type of romantic remembrance, which makes it impossible for the church to hear and respond to God’s call to repentance. We should
further note that for Bonhoeffer repentance is accompanied by obedient embodiment. Therefore Bonhoeffer reminds his hearers in his Reformation Day sermon in
1932 that the call to repent in Revelation 2 is followed by the words ‘‘and do the
works you did at first.’’ Bonhoeffer acknowledges in his sermon that it might not
sound appropriate to speak about works on Reformation Sunday, but for him
‘‘it would be a dreadful misunderstanding of the gospel to say that faith and
repentance are just something for our morning and evening devotions. Faith and
repentance mean letting God be God, and that means also in what we do—especially
in what we do, to be obedient to God.’’29
In his 1936 Reformation Day meditation Bonhoeffer again emphasizes the need
for repentance and embodied obedience when he writes, ‘‘Perform those first
works.’’30 Commemoration is therefore not to be separated from to the faithful
embodiment of the gospel.31 In Bonhoeffer’s words, ‘‘We should make a reformation
rather than celebrate one.’’32 This points towards what can be called a participatory
or performative remembrance, in which remembrance and commemoration are
linked to repentance and concrete obedience.
Bonhoeffer is well aware that the church of his day is doing many things, but the
question still remains, ‘‘Do we love God and our neighbour with that first, passionate, burning love?’’ It is interesting to note that in one of his other Reformation
Day sermons, preached in London on 4 November 1934, the theme of love is also
central, with 1 Corinthians 13:13 as his text. He planned his sermon series in such a
way that this text is read on Reformation Sunday. In this sermon Bonhoeffer
argues that faith cannot be separated from love. ‘‘For the message of the faith
that alone saves and redeems has become hardened, a dead letter, because it has not
been kept alive by love.’’33
Bonhoeffer ends his 1932 Reformation Day sermon on a serious note, quoting
from the verse ‘‘I will remove the lampstand from its place, unless you repent.’’
Bonhoeffer even speaks of the ‘‘destroying God.’’ Celebrating the Reformation
under the sign of repentance therefore challenges cheap claims to greatness, or
loud, over-confident, and self-righteous protest statements, but rather affirm the
29. DBWE, 12, 444.
30. DBWE, 15, 956.
31. See also in this regard Bonhoeffer’s discussion of ‘‘costly grace’’ in Discipleship (DBWE, 4),
especially 53.
32. DBWE, 15, 956.
33. DBWE, 13, 392. Bonhoeffer strongly emphasizes the bond between faith and love: ‘‘Let no one
think it is possible to have love without faith and faith without love. Love without faith would be a
stream without a source’’ (395).
Theology Today 74(3)
seriousness of God’s call, the God about whom Leonard Cohen sings: ‘‘You want
it darker.’’34 But for Bonhoeffer the allusion to the destroying God is not the last
word, since the destroying God is also the Lord of the promise, the one that gives
permission to eat from the tree of life. Therefore in commemorating the
Reformation, we can also attune ourselves to Bonhoeffer’s words at the end of
his 1932 sermon: ‘‘The future frightens us. But the promise comforts us. Blessed are
those who are called to it.’’35
Author biography
Robert Vosloo is professor in Systematic Theology at the faculty of theology,
Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
34. See the title track on Leonard Cohen’s album You Want it Darker (Columbia Records, 2016).
35. DBWE, 12, 446.
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