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In a letter on July 21, 1944, to his longtime friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in prison, recalled a conversation he had some years ago with a young French pastor. They discussed what they both wanted out of life.

The pastor opined that he aspired to eventually become a saint. Bonhoeffer disagreed, stating that he would like to have faith by attempting to live a holy life. It’s possible that both men were on target with their desires, though we’ll never know that will be the case. (See “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” edited by Robert Cole, Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books, 1998).

Who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Dietrich, born in 1906, one of seven siblings, came from a prominent aristocratic family in Breslau, Germany, that moved to Berlin. Dietrich studied theology at Tübingen University and then at Berlin University where he received the doctoral degree in theology with a dissertation on “The Communion of Saints.” He was an outstanding student who played the piano brilliantly and was an excellent tennis player, to boot.

In 1928, Bonhoeffer took a position as a curate in a Lutheran church in Barcelona where he enjoyed taking care of the spiritual needs of blue-collar workers. They loved the talks he gave because they were thoughtful and punctured with biblical verses. For example, he once stated that Christ had been left out of a person’s life, if that person only gave to Christ a tiny part of his/her spiritual life. Bonhoeffer told his audience that one needs to give one’s life entirely to Christ, if they wanted to really understand their spiritual life.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan as a Sloan Fellow where he gained the respect of outstanding theological faculty like Paul Lehmann, with whom he developed a close friendship. After the year was up, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin University as a lecturer in theology, while working on his second doctorate. 

Two days after Hitler rose to power as German Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer railed against Hitler and the Nazi party on the radio, when suddenly he was cut off in the middle of his remarks. That same year, inspired by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer again spoke out against Nazi rule. Many members of the Lutheran Church, including bishops and pastors supported Hitler and some even wore brown Nazi shirts, to the dismay of Bonhoeffer and Pastor Niemoeller who helped organize the “Confessing Church” that opposed the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer had to leave Berlin in 1938, and in 1941, the Nazi government forbade him to write. He then became part of an anti-resistance movement, along with six military officers who tried to overthrow the Nazi government by force. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer became a prisoner at the Tegel Prison and then at Flossenbürg, a small village in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria.

Flossenbürg had a barracks that held 1,000 prisoners, but was built to hold 250 prisoners. Both Jews and special enemies of the state were housed in Flossenbürg. Special enemies like Bonhoeffer received “special treatment’ such as interrogation, torture and execution. Bonhoeffer was hanged in this prison — witnessed by Dr. H. Fischer who said that Bonhoeffer knelt on the floor and prayed before he was hanged.

What made Bonhoeffer a special person?

For the rest of the post…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastoral assistant in Barcelona from February 1928 to February 1939.

The task to which Bonhoeffer had been looking forward most of all, perhaps not without a few jitters, was that of preaching. Pastor Olbricht had him give 19 sermons during his year in Spain, that was more than usual for a pastoral assistant at the time. Of these sermons, 14 manuscripts have been preserved and show that he invested a great deal of effort in each.

“I work on it the entire week, devoting some time to it every day”

(Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 46).

Why did Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent a year in Barcelona in 1928? It was partly because he desired to take his theological training and make it practical for the people in the pew:

One reason Bonhoeffer wished to spend a year as a pastor in Barcelona was that he believed communicating  what he knew theologically–whether to indifferent businessmen, teenagers, or younger children–was important as the theology itself. His success in children’s ministry shows this…

(Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 85)

Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in his early 20’s, he knew that pride and hubris could cripple a person’s Christianity and ministry. He wrote:

Thus, the Christian message is basically amoral and irreligious, paradoxical as that may sound. 

(Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 83)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in Barcelona in 1928. There he assisted Pastor Friedrich Olbricht in Barcelona in a German speaking community. Bonhoeffer was concerned that the children were neglected.

In letters home, Bonhoeffer mentioned that Olbricht…”has apparently hitherto done nothing in the way of addressing the younger generation in his parish.” 

Apparently, instruction in the church stopped at the fifth grade. Bonhoeffer wanted to remedy this problem by proposing classes in the church for the older children. Every proposal was turned down by Olbricht.

The example of Bonhoeffer is very, very contemporary and relevant for the twenty-first century church. The church should be a place where all generations are to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus!

(Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 77-78)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer assisted Pastor Friedrich Olbricht in Barcelona in 1928 in a German community. Bonhoeffer had many opportunities as a young man to grow in the area of preaching. Despite his age, the people in the congregations appreciated the sermons of Bonhoeffer.

On Easter (of 1928), with Olbricht away, Bonhoeffer preached again and the next week too. Each time he challenged his hearers and somehow won them over, It soon happened that whenever Bonhoeffer was scheduled to preach, the congregation grew noticeably. Olbricht noticed and promptly discontinued announcing the preaching schedule! 

Pulpit jealousy?

Pastor Olbricht should have been thankful that the Lord was using the Bonhoeffer in the pulpit.

(Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 77).

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in Barcelona in 1928, he served as a pastor in a German community. Eric Metaxas wrote the following on the sermons of Bonhoeffer…

Bonhoeffer’s sermons challenged the congregations both spiritually and intellectually. In his first sermon he leaped into his favorite subject, the difference between a faith based on our own moral efforts and one based on God’s grace. Along the line he mentioned Plato, Hegel, and Kant, and quoted Augustine. One can only imagine some of the Barcelona businessman puzzling over this earnest twenty-two-year-old, freshly descended from the ivory tower.

And yet there was an undeniable vitality to what he was saying; he rarely lost their attention.    

(Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 77).

July 2020


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