Month: March 2018

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 6, 1906. He was martyred two months and three days into his thirty-ninth year. He was martyred on April 9, 1945, as a direct order by Hitler himself, while Bonhoeffer was in a concentration camp. In between, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian, a pastor, and an author. He was born into an academic family; his father was an MD and PhD, and he taught medicine and psychology at the University of Berlin. This was a family who also loved music. The Bonhoeffer’s had a large family parlor, and there are often stories Dietrich would tell later of the family writing oratorios in honor of their parent’s birthdays or anniversaries, and the whole family would gather together to perform.

Early on, Bonhoeffer was destined for a life of academics and a career in academics. As a young man he went off to university, and, as he was twenty going on twenty-one, he received what would be his first doctorate. Following that, he went to Barcelona and served for a year or so as a youth pastor. This was mostly to Germans who were there in Barcelona for government work or through industry, and he did some preaching and youth ministry there. He went back to Berlin, received a second doctorate, wrote a philosophical treatise called Act and Being, and received an appointment as a professor at Berlin. He convinced his supervisors that it would be good for him to come to America and study theological developments in America.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer came to New York City and he ended up at Union Theological Seminary. When he saw the theological developments there, he did not like them. He saw liberalism, he saw that there was nothing to preach; he visited these big pulpits, he visited Harry Emerson Fosdick’s church in New York City, and he said, “Abysmal,” —it is what he wrote in his diary. And then he wrote, “There is no theology here.” He ended up going on a road trip from New York City all the way to Mexico in the winter of 1930, and he also spent significant time in some African-American churches in the city. He went to a large church in the morning, but in the afternoon, he went to a storefront church in Harlem. It was also there that he was introduced to the Negro Spirituals, so when he went back to Germany he had armfuls of vinyl records that he would take back, and when he was a professor at the University of Berlin, he would often play those records for his students.

He ended up lecturing in Berlin. He lectured on Christology and the opening chapters of Genesis, and then the Nazis came into power. Eventually, Bonhoeffer lost his license to teach at the university, he was kicked out of the university, and he was banned from writing and his books were banned. But, he became a director of the underground seminary. That seminary originally met at Finkenwalde, and it was closed by the Gestapo in 1937, and the next year Bonhoeffer wrote his famous little book, Life Together, recalling the times together at Finkenwalde. He became involved in the resistance movement once the war was in full step, and he was even involved with groups that were planning to assassinate Hitler. It does not seem like Bonhoeffer played any military or strategic role, but this group that he was involved in had military officials. He was the theologian in the room that these folks looked to give them some ethical guidance. They were trying to figure out what to do in response to what was happening to their country and what they saw Hitler doing. It was for that involvement that Bonhoeffer was eventually arrested and taken to prison in Tegal. Then, following the Valkyrie plot, all of these former folks that were involved in these assassination attempts were gathered up and brought into Berlin. As the war was about to come to a close, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was moved from Berlin to Buchenwald, and then to Regensburg. Then, he had his final move to the concentration camp at Flossenburg, and there he was hanged on April 9, 1945.

The 60 Pound Commentary

Joseph Caryl was a Puritan pastor who was born in London in 1602 and died on March 10 in 1673. In between those dates of his seventy-one year-old life, he was mostly a pastor. He was educated at Exeter College in Oxford where he received his bachelor of arts in 1625 and his master’s degree in 1627. He was ordained to the ministry and held a post in a pulpit at Lincoln’s Inn from 1632 to 1647. After that, he was appointed as minister at St. Magnus near London Bridge, where he preached from the late 1640s until 1662. That year was called the, “Year of the Restoration.” Charles II was on the throne, the Act of Uniformity was enacted, and this Puritan pastor was kicked out of his pulpit. So Caryl found an independent congregation in London and managed to have the freedom to preach there for the last decade of his life.

You can set Joseph Caryl’s interesting life against a fascinating time in the British reformation. The 1640s was the time of the English Civil War where the Parliament was against the king. This was also the time of the Westminster Standards, and Caryl was part of what we would call the Westminster Divines, the group of ministers who met at the Westminster Assembly to produce the Westminster Catechisms and the Westminster Confession of Faith. He preached many times there, and was often a preacher at various meetings at the different times during the year. He is, however, probably most famous for his commentary on Job.

The commentary was originally published as what are called “quarto volumes.” These are smaller books they are more “hold in the hand” kind of sizes. You take a large piece of paper, called a folio or leaf, which was about 11 x 17 inches, or 12 x 18 or so inches, and you fold it up into four, “quarto,” and that’s the size of the book; twelve volumes that size on Job. But then it was published as two folio sized volumes. Again, that’s about 18 x 12 inches. If you can picture that, it is five and a half inches thick. That’s volume one! Volume two is another five and a half inches thick. So, at almost a foot thick of large paper, each one weighs somewhere around thirty pounds; this is the 60-pound commentary on Job. Archibald Alexander, one of the great Princeton theologians said, “Though this work,” referring to Caryl’s commentary on Job, “possesses great merit, it’s enormous size has been a great obstruction to its usefulness. It has been wittily said that this book is a good exercise of that patience which the book of Job was intended to inculcate and exemplify.” So, you need patience to read it. Each volume has about 2,280 pages, and it’s in double column, and there’s Hebrew text in the margins. Make no mistake about it, this 60-pound commentary is not for the faint of heart.


Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived in the first century. He was born in 56 or 58 and died in 118. He was an orator and a lawyer who served in the Roman Senate, and he appears to have had some sort of political role in the province of Germania. He is known to us as one of the historians of first-century Rome. In his books, the Annals and the Histories, he tells the story of first-century Rome, starting with the death of Augustus Caesar in AD 14 and ending with Domitian’s death in 96. Through the lens of the emperors, Tacitus looks at the various events of the first century. His history takes on another layer of importance because it coincides with the time of Christ’s earthly life and with the writing of the New Testament and the early church.

Much of Tacitus’ work is lost, but the parts that remain are fascinating. One of the books that remains from the Annals is book 15, which tells the story of Nero’s reign from 62 to 65. This was a very important time, coinciding with Paul’s imprisonment and, as church tradition tells us, Nero’s oversight of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul.

In this period, there was another very important event: the burning of Rome in 64. As Tacitus tells it, Nero himself was thought to be responsible for the fire. He had a desire to rebuild the city, and, if he could simply burn away some of the city’s undesirable areas, it would be easier for him to rebuild. But the fire grew out of control and ended up destroying much of the city. This caused the people of Rome to turn on him.

Tacitus tells us:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations called “Christians” by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origins, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out, not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.

At this point in the Annals, Tacitus reveals what he thinks about Rome: “Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”

Tacitus continues:

Accordingly, an arrest was made of all who pled guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt to serve as nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a chariot. Hence, even for criminals, who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

In this selection from the Annals, we can observe a number of things. We see one of the first references outside of the New Testament to Christ, wherein His life is dated relative to Pontius Pilate and reference is made to His death by crucifixion. We also see the attitude of the Romans toward Christians and the intense, cruel persecution they faced at the hands of Nero.

Francis Grimké

Francis Grimké was born in 1850 as a slave on a plantation near Charleston, S.C. He had a white father who died when he was rather young. And as the law had it at the time, he became the property of his white half-brother. Initially, his half-brother treated him well, and Grimké and his other siblings, along with his mother, lived in town basically as free persons. But then something happened, and as Grimké was moving into his upper teens, his half-brother brought him into his home as a house slave and, by all accounts, treated him very harshly. During the Civil War, one of Grimké’s other brothers managed to run away successfully. So, Francis himself attempted to run away during the Civil War. He was caught and returned, but after the war he was finally emancipated.

Grimké went with one of his brothers to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and received his bachelor’s degree in 1870. After a few years, he made his way up to New Jersey and became a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He studied in earnest from 1875 to 1878 and was among the last group of students at Princeton to have Charles Hodge as his theology professor for all three years. Upon his graduation, he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian church.

In 1928, on his fiftieth anniversary of being in ministry, Grimké wrote of his appreciation for Princeton in reference to early-twentieth-century liberal Christianity: “The findings of higher critics, the rationalist tendencies within the church, the dogmatic and arrogant assumptions of science that would banish God from the universe or limit his power, all of that has not affected me in the least, nor affected my perfect faith in the Bible.” That’s a testament to the education that he received at Princeton Seminary under professors such as Charles Hodge.

After graduating, he served as pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., from 1878 to 1885. In 1885, he began serving as a pastor in a Presbyterian church in Jacksonville, Fla., but he missed Washington, D.C., and the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church and returned in 1889. He would serve there until 1928, when he retired. He died in 1937.

As a student of Princeton Theological Seminary, Grimké had read John Calvin, and he admired him throughout his ministry. At one point, after reading an address on John Calvin, he wrote in his diary:

As I laid it aside, more profoundly impressed than ever before by the character and work of John Calvin, there went up from my heart the earnest prayer that when my life ends here that I too may be remembered because of some things I have said or done in bringing men face to face with life and its great and solemn responsibilities for which they must answer at the bar of God. To feel, as John Calvin felt, the sovereignty of God and to get others to feel the same, . . . is a great achievement and will go on working for good long after we are gone.