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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Text by Victoria Barnett

“The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years (December 1942)
Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison (summer 1944).
Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison (summer 1944).
— Christian Kaiser Verlag

In the years since his death, the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become widely known as one of the few Christian martyrs in a history otherwise stained by Christian complicity with Nazism. Executed in the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945 for his role in the resistance against Hitler, Bonhoeffer’s letters and theological works still influence Christians throughout the world.

In many respects, however, Bonhoeffer’s legacy is complex. His experience under Nazism thrust him into profound conflict with much of his religious tradition, raising questions that he was unable to resolve before his life was ended. These questions continue to confront those who explore Bonhoeffer’s relevance today.

This is particularly true with regard to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Christian-Jewish relationship. In his political insights and public opposition to the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer certainly went beyond most of his colleagues and compatriots. Still, much of his theological work reflected traditional Christian attitudes toward Judaism. Like most Christians of his generation, Bonhoeffer believed that God’s special destiny for the Jewish people included their eventual acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.

As a result, Christian and Jewish scholars evaluate Bonhoeffer’s legacy quite differently. For many Christians, his resistance against Nazism and the profound insights in his writings offer new ethical and theological models. Some Jewish scholars, however, contend that Bonhoeffer acted on behalf of his church and was driven by his own deep sense of patriotism, not for the sake of the European Jews. Because of this, and because the Christian tradition was his central point of reference, much of Bonhoeffer’s thought seems irrelevant, at best, to the Jewish community.

How should we understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s role? What were his motives? What is his legacy to us in the aftermath of the Holocaust?

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We who are followers of Jesus in the fairly comfortable western world can hardly relate to Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s time in a Nazi prison.  Even a person characterized by strong faith in Jesus will struggle in such circumstances.  Bonhoeffer did, especially early on…

During the first period of his imprisonment, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote on a slip of paper:





Night–deeply lonely

(Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 70).

Renate Bethge writes that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was completely engaged by his convictions, although he knew that he risked his life…Bonhoeffer withstood the threat full of conviction.  This courage was firmly established in his upbringing, which had the goal of fully intervening wherever one saw wrong being done.

Not without reason, his brother and the husbands of two of his sisters were also killed by the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer’s faith gave him the strength and composure to bear the challenges and burdens (Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 68).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dallas M. Roark

Bonhoeffer’s experiences with the clandestine seminary beginning in 1935 repeat a familiar refrain in the history of the church: How can the church survive under the fire of illegality?

At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer ran a Predigerseminar, a preachers’ seminary, covering a term of about six months, concentrating on pastoral duties. The days of training pastors for the Confessing Church were the most satisfying of Bonhoeffer’s life. Gemeinsames Leben (Life Together) is a record of this experiment. Published in 1938, the book enjoyed a popularity beyond its basic theological profundity.

Life Together deals with the practical relations of the church’s life in Christ. Between the two advents of Christ the believer lives in community with other Christians. This is a gift of God; not all can experience it, for they may be scattered, imprisoned, or alone among heathen people.


Community, for the Christian, centers in Jesus Christ. This means three things: (1) a Christian is related to others because of Jesus Christ; (2) the path to others is only through Jesus Christ; (3) the Christian is elected in Christ from eternity to eternity. The first point of being relates to one s need of others. Christians must have one another to give God’s word reciprocally to each other. The word given to me is more assuring than my own. Yet my word may encourage another who is uncertain of his own heart. Thus the Christian community is to bring the message of salvation to all. The second point means that all relationships with one another and God are through Christ. He is our peace, wrote St. Paul, and the avenues to others wind through him. The third point relates to the Incarnation. We are incorporated into Christ and shall be with him and one another in an eternal fellowship.

As in his early writings, Bonhoeffer is careful to emphasize the difference between the community as an ideal and as a divine reality. The church is not the product of desire, a wish dream, or visionary hopes. If the church were a result of man’s efforts, its failure would cause the founder to accuse the other members, God, and finally himself. However, the church has been created by God in Jesus Christ, and thankfulness is the only attitude open: thankfulness for forgiveness, daily provisions, and fellowship. Thankfulness is the key to greater spiritual resources. Without thankfulness for the daily gifts, the greater gifts of God will not come our way. Especially in the case of pastors, thankfulness is important. A pastor has no right to accuse his congregation before God. Rather, let him make intercession and give thanks for his congregation.

When Bethge was himself arrested at the end of October 1944, he destroyed the last letters arranged for by Bonhoeffer in order to bring neither of them into even greater danger.  He – and many Bonhoeffer followers – later regretted that very much, since from the correspondence with his parents, but above all with Eberhard Bethge, and from notes that Bonhoeffer had made in prison, after the war the book Letters and Papers from Prison (Widerstand und Ergebung) appeared, which Eberhard Bethge published (at the request of Fritz Bissinger of Chr. Kaiser Publishing House and in consultation with the Bonhoeffer families)

(Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 66-67).

Darryl Dash went through the same DMin track at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  The track, The Preacher and The Message, was under the direction of Dr. Haddon Robinson.  Darryl recently posted a message by Dr. Robinson on his blog DashHouse.

Saturday Links

by Darryl on November 21, 2009

…An MP3 of Haddon Robinson responding to some who criticize preachers for “dumbing it down” – This short recording reminds me how much I appreciate Haddon.


I had a few days off because I was off hunting.  We will get back to Bonhoeffer tomorrow!


Other than his fiancee and his parents, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not allowed to write anyone.  He was, however, allowed to receive letters.  For some, it did not seem advisable to communicate through letters that might draw the attention of the Gestapo, which controlled the postal service.  Two guard were stationed there especially for Bonhoeffer.

They smuggled letters out of prison to (Eberhard) Bethge and let others go through to particular addresses.

If this had been discovered, they could have expected severe punishment.

(Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 66).

Hate Your Family | Dietrich Bonhoeffer

41ucrc5aq-l_sl160_1”If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).

For the Christian the only God-given realities are those he receives from Christ. What is not given through the incarnate Son is not given us by God. What has not been given me for Christ’s sake, does not come from God.

When we offer thanks for the gifts of creation we must do it through Jesus Christ, and when we pray for the preservation of this life by the grace of God, we must make our prayer for Christ’s sake. Anything I cannot thank God for for the sake of Christ, I may not thank God for at all; to do so would be sin.

The path, too, to the “God-given reality” of my fellow-man or woman with whom I have to love leads through Christ, or it is a blind alley. We are separated from one another by an unbridgeable gulf of otherness and strangeness which resists all our attempts to overcome it by means of natural association or emotional or spiritual union.

There is no way from one person to another. However loving or sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open in our behavior, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbors through Him.

That is why intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbors, and corporate prayer, offered in the name of Christ, the purist form of fellowship.

From The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prisoner at Tegel. Often air raids took place…

Through all the months air raids continued with increasing intensity, and one of their effects in Tegel prison was further to strengthen Bonhoeffer’s growing influence.  It had become evident how strongly his perfect calm in the midst of the most violent attacks supported morale of those in his neighbourhood.  Very soon his skill in first aid was discovered, and after this he was always fetched down to the first aid post when the alarm sounded, and often remained there talking with the warders after the raid was over.

By this time his spirit was affecting the atmosphere throughout the prison, and warders and prisoners alike would make use of all kinds of tricks and subterfuges for the comfort of exchanging a few words with him (Mary Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 251).

Bonhoeffer’s Christ-like behavior and words were a source of strength to those around him.

November 2009


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