Bonhoeffer was a German theologian, pastor, writer, spy and martyr. He led much of the Confessing Church movement in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, and ultimately paid for his faith with his own life.
As a young man of 22, he had already earned a doctorate in theology in Berlin. In his first visit to America – 1930-31- he spent some time at Union Seminary in New York City, a bastion of theological liberalism. His comments on the American theological scene are sharp and pointed.
In one letter he wrote…
There is no theology here…. They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students – on the average twenty-five to thirty years old – are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.
In another letter…
In New York they preach about virtually everything, only one thing is not addressed or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.
The exception, he noted, was in the “negro churches.” It was in the socially-downtrodden black churches that he found the gospel preached and its power manifested. The church, Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York City, had 14,000 members in 1930! There he learned of a church where…
Not a ticket or a dish of ice cream was sold to pay for the erection of the church and Community House. Every dollar of the money was brought in through tithes and offerings, and God fulfilled his promise by pouring out a blessing that our souls were not able to contain.
Bonhoeffer’s biographer, Eric Metaxas, states….
Bonhoeffer’s experience with the African American community underscored an idea that was developing in his mind: the only real piety and power that he had seen in the American church seemed to be in the churches where there was a present reality and a past history of suffering. Somehow he had seen something more in those churches and in those Christians, something that the world of academic theology – even when it was at its best, as in Berlin – did not touch very much.