Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bonhoeffer at Union Seminary 80 years ago


Accustomed to the rigors of German scholarship and theology, the visiting young student Dietrich Bonhoeffer not yet 25 writes in 1930 about his colleagues—faculty and students—at Union:

“The theological atmosphere of the Union Theological Seminary is accelerating the process of the secularization of Christianity in America. Its criticism is directed essentially against the fundamentalists and to a certain extent also against the radical humanists in Chicago; it is healthy and necessary. But there is no sound basis on which one can rebuild after demolition. It is carried away with the general collapse. A seminary in which it can come about that a large number of students laugh out loud in a public lecture at the quoting of a passage from Luther’s De servo arbitrio on sin and forgiveness because it seems to them to be comic has evidently completely forgotten what Christian theology by its very nature stands for.”

“Things [outside the seminary] are not much different in the church. The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro. . . One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity. . . There’s no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached. But then what becomes of Christianity per se?”

The American seminaries had, of course, taken their lead from the 19th century German theologians, even though as Bonhoeffer noted they were not even up to the level of the fundamentalists they ridiculed. America had long since lost the fervor of the “awakenings” that had shaped it, at least in the seminaries. At that time, Hitler’s small party was gaining ground in Germany. Germany has since recovered from that disastrous time—at least politically and economically. I’m not sure the American mainline churches have been able to expunge the demons of the liberal seminaries.

From p. 105-6 of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

Cross posted at Collecting my thoughts

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