Biography of J. Heinrich Arnold

Heini Arnold chats with a friendJohann Heinrich Arnold (1913–1982) grew up surrounded by people for whom discipleship took shape in a dramatic way. When he was six, his parents, Eberhard and Emmy, left their villa in Berlin and moved to Sannerz, a village in central Germany. There, with a small circle of friends, they set out to live in full community of goods on the basis of Acts 2 and 4 and the Sermon on the Mount. It was a time of tremendous upheaval. The same post-war restlessness that drove his father, a well-known writer and theologian, to this leap of faith also inspired thousands of others to rise up against the rigid social and religious conventions of the period and seek new ways of life. These were Heinrich’s formative years, and the steady stream of young anarchists and tramps, teachers, artisans, and free-thinkers who came through the little community influenced him profoundly.

Heinrich himself felt the call to follow Christ at the age of eleven. Later, as a young man, he committed himself to life-long membership in the church community, known by then as the Bruderhof, or “place of brothers.” In 1938 he was chosen as a servant of the Word, or pastor, and from 1962 until his death he served as elder for the growing Bruderhof movement.

Arnold was a true pastor, but an unconventional one. He was not a charismatic personality, and he had no formal theological training. He was a true Seelsorger or “spiritual guide” who cared deeply for the inner and outer wellbeing of the communities entrusted to him. And he served his brothers and sisters by sharing in their daily lives in work and leisure, at communal meals, business meetings, and worship services.

Arnold’s style as a speaker and writer was straightforward and spontaneous. He rarely spoke with notes, and when he wrote, he quickly and sometimes almost aggressively met the heart of the issue. There were those who felt he was too blunt. Yet it was precisely his simplicity that made his witness accessible to so many. His faith was not a matter theological sophistication, but something that had to be expressed in deeds: “We are tired of words; they are cheap and can be heard almost anywhere, for who will say that he is against brotherhood and love?”

As a pastor, Arnold was called on to address every aspect of spiritual life, personal and communal. But there is a visible thread that runs through all he wrote: Christ and his cross as the center of the universe. Again and again, Arnold insists that without meeting Christ personally – without being confronted by His message of repentance and love – there is no possibility of a living Christian faith. To him it was unimportant whether a problem he had to face was of a practical or an inner nature. He sought to approach every issue on the solid ground of Christ’s commands. This was true not only for the internal questions of communal life but also for all matters that needed attention beyond it, such as current political events or social issues and trends.

Arnold knew well that he did not have all the answers. Often he said that he needed to think about a matter in question, or wished to consider it in prayer, or simply felt he did not know what to do about it. Asked to explain a difficult verse, an apparent contradiction, or the meaning of a mysterious passage in the Bible, he might say, “I have thought about these words a great deal, but I do not fully understand them myself. Let us leave it in trust to God. Someday it will be revealed to us” – and he would not attempt an interpretation. Though widely-read and entirely at home in the Old and New Testament, he was a man whose education was the education of the heart, whose knowledge was the knowledge of the human soul, and whose understanding of God’s ways was born of his love for God, for Jesus, and for the church.

There are many aspects of Arnold’s writings that one might consider at greater length – the influence of his own father, Eberhard Arnold; of the nineteenth century Lutheran pastors Johann Christoph Blumhardt and Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt and their vision of the kingdom as a present reality; or of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, in his discipleship of the heart. There are also Dietrich von Hildebrand, Friedrich von Gagern, and Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevski whose books Arnold read and referred to often. In these predecessors Arnold found spiritual kinship and a remarkable depth and breadth of vision. But what mattered to him most of all was the power of the Gospel to transform the lives of his readers and of all those he counseled. In his own words:

What a great gift it would be if we could see a little of the great vision of Jesus – if we could see beyond our small lives! Certainly our view is very limited. But we can at least ask him to call us out of our small worlds and our self-centeredness, and we can at least ask to feel the challenge of the great harvest that must be gathered – the harvest of all nations and all people, including the generations of the future.