The End of Time and the Good Bishop
Over the last few years I have increasingly become interested studying the lives of pastors who served the church in Germany during the Weimar, National Socialist and War years. Rod Dreher, author of the Benedict Option and Live Not by Lies, has drawn many parallels between the Weimar period with its transgressive moral atmosphere and institutional disintegration and recessive trust with our own time period. What can the pastors who served in that time period teach us? I believe we can learn much from them. From Hermann Sasse, pastor and professor at Erlangen University in Franconia, Germany we learn what means to confess the Faith “delivered
to the Saints.” From Dietrich Bonheoffer, pastor and professor at the underground seminary at Finkenwalde Seminary we see a picture of the “cost of discipleship.” From Otto Dibelius, Bruno Doehring, Martin Niemöller and Hanns Lilje we see how vital the Gospel preaching mission truly is in a world perishing. There are so many others, but needless to say while these men were not perfect, they for the most part stayed true to the confession of the Christian Faith in the face of truly demonic and evil persecution and war.
A few years ago the former Lutheran seminary in Gettysburg was selling off their books and I picked up a copy of a book entitled Luther and the Reformation. When I got home and opened the book up I saw that on the title page it was signed by the author Hanns Lilje.
I did some research and learned that Pastor and later Bishop Lilje stood firm against the corruption of the church by the National Socialists and their ideological allies in the church the “German Christians.” Consequently, he was arrested by the Gestapo and was imprisoned for much of the war. I later learned that he authored a book on his experiences as a prisoern of the Nazis entitled, The Valley of the Shadow. This arrived during Advent 2021 and I finished it in a day. It was entirely moving and moreover encouraging to all those who seek to stand firm for the Faith in the face of terrible and great opposition.
From In the Valley of the Shadow I was led to another book by Hanns Lilje, The Last Book of the Bible. This book was begun just as the war was beginning and was not completed until a few years after the war subsequent to Lilje being elevated to the office of Bishop in the Territorial Church of Hannover, Germany. This is important because Lilje faced the “end” again and again in that Gestapo prison. He was routinely subjected to threats of execution and was serving there under a death sentence. With urgency, he took up the end of the Bible. With a battle tested Faith he entered the world of St. John the Divine and the end times. The book is separated by two sections: Part One serves as an introduction on reading the Apocalypse (Revelation). “...our generation, more than many which have proceeded it, is more prepared to consider the question of the end of history. In two world wars our generation (Lilje served in the Great War as a young soldier) has seen the beginning of the disintegration of that old Christian Europe, of that “Christendom,” whose creative thinking had influenced world history for more than a thousand years.” This is the context of this book. Around him while writing this book was the ruins of a once great nation. Ancient churches stood bombed out, castle walls in rubble, and educated and once well off people were eating cats in houses without roofs. Christ is coming. Lilje writes, “Christ is here, at our door, as the decisive, final essential reality, at every moment standing at our door. Hence the only spirit in which we can study this book is that of the obedience of faith. “Semper parati simus”- “Let us always be ready,” Luther used to say, and thus put his finger on the decisive point...”
From this Lilje launches into his commentary on the last book of the Bible. This is the Second Part. This second part serves as a commentary on Revelation. In keeping with his Lutheran confession of the Faith Lilje delivers a churchly commentary faithful to the catholic faith. He does not introduce novelty or shy away from the awful wrath and judgment that is due to humanity that is guilty of having wrecked and killed so much in Lilje’s world and ours. Lilje routinely interacts with early church fathers and introduces parallels to the church’s Divine Service In order to illustrate God’s ultimate faithfulness in Christ to sinners. “The theme of the Bible is “new creation” Lilje writes, “it is the real content of the Christian lie, the description of God’s purpose for the world and for men. It is the main theme to which, with an overwhelming unity of mind and heart, all bear witness: prophets and evangelists, apostles and apocalyptic writers and Jesus himself. The seer gathers up this united witness to the divine new crearion in this radiant scene. If we want to find a comprehensive summary of the whole message of the Bible-of the “gospel” in the widest sense of the word-these words (Revelation 21) fill the bill.”
I found myself going over Lilje’s commentary slowly. I also found myself wishing I was reading the good Bishop in his first language: German. This is a terrible gap in my education that I only have myself to blame for. Nevertheless, the translator for Lilje has done a wonderful job of making Bishop Hanns Lilje read well in English. Bishop Lilje teaches us in his book , The Last Book of the Bible the glorious vision of Christ and the sure and certain hope that vision of faith brings to us. He is a man tested and true to the Faith and that makes this book all that much more compelling. I commend this book to you my dear reader.
My study of the confessional pastors of the 20th century continues. The goal is to be like them when the time comes. As a pastor in the church of Jesus I seek to revere Christ as Lord always. I want to be “always prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks me to give the reason for the hope that I have in Christ Jesus (paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:15).”