On the fourth of February, 6 years after the turn of the 19th to the 20th century the birth of twins thrilled the new parents, the Bonhoeffers, in Breslau, Germany. The established neurologist’s family had added a daughter and a son, the latter they named Dietrich, and the former, Sabine. Eventually he would have eight siblings. After some schooling in Tubingen, Dietrich attended for three years the Universiy of Berlin starting in 1924, and finally after his dissertation, Sanctorm Communio the twenty-one year old earned his Doctorate — with honors. He went to Barcelona in 1929 for year as curator and Student pastor for the German congregation in Spain. His travels in Europe included a Roman adventure, as well. He was accepted to teach at this the University of Berlin in 1930 after finishing his qualifying thesis (Habilitationsschrift) “Act and Being.”
Halcyon School Days
The August of 1930 started a year when he did postgraduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York until he returned to his post lecturing theology at his alma mater in 1931. While in New York he did regular work at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He also traveled to Mexico and Cuba. In his day, Bonhoeffer, despite his youth, could more than ably communicate the intricacies and sophisticated ideas out of a German and English theology.
Dietrich became Pastor Bonhoeffer in an ordination at Saint Matthias Church in Berlin on November of 1931. The same year he attended the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship Through the Churches — which opened more his awareness of the global faith that he started abroad. For that group he was named Youth Secretary for Germany and Central Europe. He started his evangelical movement around this time that strove to deal with correct doctrine for the Church. Nazi propaganda claiming that they were bringing moral and spiritual renewal to Germany (and ultimately Europe and beyond) did not penetrate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s true discernment of this movement as it did for so much of the world’s Christians having “itching ears.” Bonhoeffer published his winter semester of 31-32 lectures “Creation and Fall.” Events of 1933, namely the election by one vote of Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany, prompted his continued criticism of National Socialisms’ Aryanism and its hatred of everything else, especially the Jews. He belonged to a group that openly rebutted the pro-Nazi German Christians. By April he wrote that civil disobedience was correct when opposing unrighteous political movements. His last seminar on G.W.F. Hegel and published lecture in Berlin “Christ the Center,” an example of his emphasis on Christology, was in that summer of 1933. Before he began to pastor at the Sydenham German Evangelical Church he helped organize the Pastor’s Emergency League in September 1933. This year he started to question Christians’ avoiding sin when obsessed with questionable politics. He authored the Bethel Confession His belief in the planetwide brotherhood of the Body of Christ needed forgiveness and responsibility. He, as a result of his life, is most noted on this other focus — ethics. He befriended the prominant George Bell, Bishop in the Anglican Church while Dietrich assumed a pastorate at London’s Reform Church of Saint Paul. In 1934 he became a member of Bishop Bell’s Universal Christian Council for Life and Work (UCCLW).
Storm Clouds on the Horizon
More auspices of that year, 1933 proved evil — by April Hitler’s first official act was to order a day’s boycott of Jewish businesses. Factories and stores witnessed the pickets; but, Julie Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s brave grandmother marched right passed the SS stormtroopers, and bought strawberries in one of the Jewish department stores. An American visitor of the Bonhoeffer’s witnessed: “They didn’t dare take this elderly woman. She was very alert and walked elegantly. So nobody was going to stop her!” The next step was the removal and banning of Jews in public office and even church posts, Christian or not. Even though at this time until 1935, Bonhoeffer was still pastoring in England, he kept in touch with the opposition, who would become the “Confessing Church” (Bekennende Kirche) which included Karl Barth and was led by Martin Niemoeller. This “Confessing Church” would involve about a third of Germany’s Protestant leaders. Also, theologically, Barth’s neo-orthodoxy would influence Bonhoeffer throughout his career.
The Confessing Church
As a member of the UCCLW he toured Europe and tried to put those of the ecumenical movement on a much needed “guilt trip” in behalf of the beleaguered Confessing Church being maybe the only ones with orthodoxy and pacifism. The Confessing Church was born in Barmen, Germany in May 1934. The Barmen Declaration of 1934 officially made complaint against the incursion of Nazism in the German Church. August of 1934 Bonhoeffer preached a dynamic message convincing attendees to denounce the Church – State affliation with Fascism and promote peace at the youth conference in Fano, Denmark. Because the Nazis took over all of the theological seminaries, in April of 1935 Zingst, on the Baltic sea, became the new home for the underground Preacher’s Seminary for the Confessing Church until June when Finkenwalde, Pomerania provided the haven. It was here that the confessing community was emphasized in his teaching. This coincides with the time Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in the spring from Great Britain. This group eventually seemed to Dietrich to lean to much in an overly apolitical, more militant, and especially with an overabunance of a neutral outlook toward the Semitic persecutions. But, he stayed involved with them to 1939. Inspired by these heady days he wrote “Spritual Care” and other Pastoral ministry pieces, and his two most famous books: The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1938). On August 5, 1936 the professor was no longer welcome to teach at the University of Berlin.
The Gestapo raided Finkenwald Seminary in 1937 arresting 27. Now, Bonhoeffer devised “collective pastorates” where those learning the ministry hooked up with individual underground pastors and he met with them for classes. He was rethinking his Gandhi-like pacifism seeing patriotism in treason. In February of the next year Bonhoeffer was introduced to the resistance circle by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyl. This conspiracy of political and military overthrow of Hitler and the Nazi regime was aborted with the Munich agreement. Around this time he wrote his Ethics whereby he declared: “There is now no law behind which the responsible man can seek cover.” He expected believers to serve Jesus Christ with moral responsibility guided by obedience to His ways even to the point of civil legal disregardance. On the second of June 1939, Bonhoeffer went back to New York‘s Union Theological Seminary to teach; but the threats of war only caused this man with a great heart from God for his people, to return to Germany and the resistance on July 27th of that year. His prophetic rationale:
I have had time to think and to pray about my situation, and that of my nation, and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion I have made a mistake in coming to America. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of the Christian life in Germany after the war if I did not share in the trials of this time with my people. Christians in Germany face the terrible alternative of willing the defeat of their nation in order that civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose. But I cannot make that choice in security.
The Nazis Clamp Down
1940 came offering more misery to Bonhoeffer’s ministry when the police put a gag order on his preaching, but Dohnanyl arranged to get Dietrich a job with the staff of the Abwehr (military intelligence) department. He could have gathered crucial data and used this courier position and his fame, especially considering his outreach across denominational lines, to garner outside resistance assistance in foreign journeys. Unfortunately the Main Security office was run by the SS and they busted the Abwehr — they thought was unneccesary competition. By March of 1941 Bonhoeffer was not allowed to write, publish or distribute anything.
In 1943 the 37 year old Dietrich, who in January just had become engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, became involved in Operation 7, which was the smuggling of Jews out of Germany into neutral Switzerland. On April 5 of that year, Bonhoeffer continued his ministry — in Berlin’s Tegel prison — joining Dohnanyi and sister Christine, where inmates and guards as witnesses told of his giving counsel and soul nourishment. He was still allowed to see family and comrades, and to write. How much this paralleled the Apostle Paul. We have the opportunity to glimpse into his intermittent experiences with correspondence including love letters from his fiance. One would think that all this disappointment would have imbittered the pastor, who could have felt like the Hebrew Joseph, instead he reminded:
On July 20, 1944 a suitcase bomb placed under the conference table by conspirators, including some of the Abwehr group, exploded, but failed to kill Hitler. Initially Bonhoeffer, who was moved on February 7, 1945 to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, was not tied to them, but the Gestapo found Admiral Canaris‘ diary in April that evidenced his connection, and now, along with others, were sent to Flossenburg. Exactly two years after his first arrest, he was ordered to be annihilated by Hitler. On the same day that his brother-in-law was killed at Sachsenhausen Camp, April 9, 1945, at Flossenburg, a stripped naked Bonhoeffer, only thirty-nine years of age, knelt for his last prayer before being hanged from a gallows that could be called a “Twisted Cross.” (Swastika).
- (Poem from Prison–published in 1946)
Who Am I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which
other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like
a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though
compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for
the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for
Tossing in expectation of great
Powerlessly trembling for friends at
an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at
thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and
Am I both at once? A hypocrite
And before myself a contemptibly
Or is something within me still like
a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory
Who am I? They mock me, these
lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O
God, I am Thine!
- (1943-45) Letters and Papers from Prison — last years writings of his life were compiled and published posthumously in 1951 by associate Eberhard Bethage. These were the primary post-war source of initiating his Western popularity.
- (1943-45) Love Letters from Cell 92 — are the published letters of fiance, Maria von Wedermeyer.
- His Scholarly Work (bypassed by contemparies)
- (1930)Sanctorum Communio
- (1931) Act and Being
- (1933) Creation and Fall
- His Tracts (were more popular in his lifetime)
- (1937) The Cost of Discipleship
This is where he discusses ‘costly grace’ versus ‘cheap grace.’
- (1939) Life Together
He emphasizes balance in the communities Christian discipline.
- (1939) Ethics — published in 1949
- (1937) The Cost of Discipleship
- Collected Works — the comprehensive compilation whose 1958-1974 German publication is yet to be completely translated into English.
Some of his theological assertions concerning man’s independence, even from God, which were taken more liberally in the 60’s. These perhaps misunderstood ideas like “Religionless Christianity” unfortunately were not more elaborated upon more fully due to the premature death of this great Christion.
The intellectual community is aware of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethical musings, but they stem from an intense Biblical perspective scanned here:
- Separation of the Church from the World
Whether a pacifist or resistance sympathizer, Bonhoeffer was consistent with his strong feeling of the Churches not conforming to the popular worldview, but following the Mind of Christ.
- Costly Grace versus Cheap Grace
- He saw in history a drifting since the 1200’s regarding man’s relationship, individually and corporately as becoming a set of rituals, rules and philosophies “winning” recruits that run into escapism — the very opposite of participating and or relieving suffering fellowmen.
- Jesus the Man for others
- He wants us to follow the template set down by Jesus himself, one interactive in people’s lives in the good times and bad.
- The Church for OthersContrary to some modern interpretors, Bonhoeffer did not want to completely secularize the institution, but he continued to promote the ordinances, fellowship and the worship with the congregants. The separation from the cosmos (Plato‘s world system) was while we are in the midst of mankind, striving to reeducate modern error of total (or even partial) independence from the Almighty and His Word.
He was fighting the good fight against what is called, also, Easy Believism, that is taking advantage of God’s ultimate forgiveness on the cross. Sometimes known as pietism, or an holiness movement was an answer to the problem of Calvinism’s teaching in layman‘s terms: “One Saved, always Saved.” The cavalier attitude that leads to willful sinning is the opposite of what that unearned, undeserved sacrifice in our stead giving us freedom and power to live sanctified lives.
Besides the works of fiction, of which we are eagerly awaiting translation, Bonhoeffer was a musician it would have been interesting to know what else this giant of a man would have done if he hadn’t demonstrated so dramatically (and literally) that there is “…no greater love than when a man lays down his life for others…”
Source: Great Leaders of the Christian Faith, Moody Press
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology; ed. Walter A. Elwell, Baker: (1984).
The Moody Handbook of Theology; Paul Enns, Moody Press: (1989).