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The family, including Dietrich’s mother, had its own direct relationship with Bible, and the traditions the church, without feeling a need for any ecclesiastical guidance; thus, any direct connection to the institutional church seemed unnecessary. No church dignitary or minister seems to have played a role in the Bonhoeffer’s social relationships at that time…The impulse (for Dietrich) to become a theologian for the sake of the real church belonged to a later period.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 35.

“One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1924. CreditArt Resource, N.Y.

Coming to terms with the genocidal century just past, especially the unvarnished evil of Nazi Germany, has prompted theologians and philosophers to adjust and recalibrate much of what they thought they knew. Writers as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, John Pawlikowski, Richard Rubenstein and Elie Wiesel — some more successfully than others — have all struggled to reconcile the existence of the divine with unspeakable atrocities, many of them carried out in the name of God.

Few theologians witnessed the juggernaut of Nazi depravity at closer range than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In “Strange Glory,” Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, renders Bonhoeffer’s life and thought in exquisite detail and with sympathetic understanding, and in the course of more than 500 pages, we see Bonhoeffer’s transformation from pampered scion and theological dilettante to energetic churchman and Christian martyr, all against the backdrop of cataclysmic changes in Germany.

Born the sixth of eight children in Breslau, Prussia, in 1906 to a psychiatrist and his wife, Bonhoeffer grew up in a privileged environment but one that was not especially religious. When Dietrich announced at age 13 his intention to become a theologian, his siblings questioned and even belittled his choice, arguing that the church was hopelessly irrelevant. “In that case,” the undeterred teenager replied, “I shall reform it!”

After his family moved to Berlin, Bonhoeffer attended the Grunewald Gymnasium, graduating at the precocious age of 17, and in 1923 settled in for a year of study at Tübingen University, while the Weimar Republic continued its downward economic spiral. Insulated by his family’s wealth, Bonhoeffer barely noticed. The following year, he set off on an aesthetic summer in Italy. Whereas Martin Luther had been repulsed by the opulence and corruption he witnessed on his visit to Rome four centuries earlier, Bonhoeffer was rather enchanted with the Eternal City and even, in Marsh’s telling, lured by the “beauty, exuberance and grandeur” of Roman Catholicism.

Bonhoeffer’s theological training began in earnest under the tutelage of Karl Holl, Reinhold Seeberg and Adolf von Harnack at Friedrich Wilhelms University in 1924. These were tempestuous times, not only politically but theologically. Although the eminent theologian Karl Barth had also studied with Harnack, he rejected what he saw as Harnack’s enervated liberalism, tethered as it was to nationalism and reduced to social utility. Barth sought a fresh understanding of divine transcendence.

Bonhoeffer was entranced, and in ensuing years he would seek to embellish Barth’s insights by emphasizing the ethical and communal ramifications of doctrine, insisting that the Christian Gospel unfolds most authentically within community, “not through individual social or ethical experience.” Bonhoeffer was searching, Marsh writes, “for a more embodied, vital and dynamic Protestantism.” The danger in Bonhoeffer’s ideas, as Marsh acknowledges, is that his notion of the kingdom of God, in the context of rising nationalism, could be commandeered in the service of Germany, especially when the German theological establishment “presumed the providential blessings of the warrior God.”

Bonhoeffer’s brief stint as an assistant pastor to the German Lutheran congregation in Barcelona provided a respite from the growing crisis in Germany and also exposed him to those less fortunate (although he continued to live comfortably). Even more formative was his year in the United States for postgraduate study in 1930. Although he was underwhelmed by his courses at Union Theological Seminary — and found that among his fellow students everyone “just blabs away so frightfully” — he responded to the Gospel he heard at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he became a pastoral assistant. And a road and rail trip through the South and into Mexico allowed him to see firsthand the effects of poverty and racism. Bonhoeffer came to admire the social conscience of Union students, although he found no more sustenance in the preaching of liberal Protestants in the United States than he had in Germany. “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events,” he lamented.

Back in Berlin in 1931, Bonhoeffer continued his engagement with the poor in parish work, but the Lutheran church in Germany was quickly capitulating to Hitler’s regime. Nazi banners ornamented the churches; one minister declared, “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler.” Bonhoeffer’s initial protest centered on the so-called Aryan paragraph, passed by the Reichstag on April 7, 1933. It mandated the removal of all Jews, even baptized Jews, from civil service, which included the churches.

The protests were unavailing. As a leader of what would become the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer organized a school for dissident seminarians at Finkenwalde, near the Baltic Sea. Until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937, Finkenwalde immersed Bonhoeffer in Christian community, a place where, in his words, “the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship are taken seriously.” It was also where Bonhoeffer developed a lifelong, homoerotic relationship with a student, Eberhard Bethge, although Marsh insists it was chaste.

Marsh is a bit less persuasive in making the case that Bonhoeffer in no way cooperated with the Nazi regime. An avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer secured an appointment with German military intelligence, which allowed him remarkable freedom to travel both in and out of Germany. His complicity in a plot to assassinate Hitler, however, sealed his fate, although his principal involvement lay in providing moral justification for tyrannicide.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer held that “silence in the face of evil is itself evil. … Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

The German theologian, martyred trying to stop Hitler, scorned “cheap grace” — faith that requires no sacrifice.

The ideals Bonhoeffer acted on profoundly impressed his biographer, a Yale-educated Manhattanite who attends an Episcopal church.

After researching Bonhoeffer’s life and times, “I found myself forced to speak out for religious freedom,” Eric Metaxas said in a telephone interview last week as he prepared for a March 12 Lancaster Literary Guild lecture.

Metaxas identifies two “hot-button issues” that he believes threaten one of this country’s most important founding principles.

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Christian America and the Cruciform Church

January 9, 2014 By  

“Christian America” is that form of American Christianity that operates by way of seeking to show the importance of Christianity for culture at large in terms of its strength, sustainable solutions and resilience to gain and maintain control. But is this the way God in Christ always or even chiefly operates?

Perhaps we can learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach to German Christianity and the surrounding culture in the mid-twentieth century. Bonhoeffer wrote about being dead to the “God of the gaps” kind of Christianity. “God of the gaps” Christianity seeks to present Christianity as playing a strong savior role whereby it fills the gaps and provides the missing links for all of society’s questions and concerns. This entails the view of God riding into town and miraculously saving the day (deus ex machina). On this view, God delivers his people from their (and his) enemies—in Bonhoeffer’s case, the Nazis. In contrast, in Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer writes that God allows us to push him out of the world and onto the cross. For Bonhoeffer, at this stage in his journey, God is weak and powerless in the world. For Bonhoeffer, “man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is thedeus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”

For readers who don’t know it, Bonhoeffer’s story is what really makes the God-in the-gallows lesson come live.

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Welcome to the DBCL website, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Centre London (DBCL). In 2013 an independent centre was founded at the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Church in London to study and promote Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and writings. The life and work of Bonhoeffer have received global attention in both the Christian churches and in universities. The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Church in London stimulates participation of those interested in Bonhoeffer in a variety of fields. It serves academic research as well as Church related activities both in the United Kingdom and on an international level.

“Here is the sum of the commandments—to live in fellowship with Christ.”

~ Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost Of Discipleship

Dec. 18, 2013 6:42 p.m. ET
Though the Nazis never won an outright majority in the parliament of the decaying Weimar Republic, they received nearly 44% of the vote in the critical election of March 1933—a mandate that enabled Adolf Hitler’s anointment as supreme leader. To some, however, the evil character of the Nazi regime was visible from the start. Among them were the young Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, the subjects of Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern’s “No Ordinary Men.” In this concise, engaging account, Ms. Sifton, an eminent book editor, and Mr. Stern, a distinguished historian of Germany, trace Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi’s evolution from partaking in small acts of opposition to playing leading roles in the anti-Hitler resistance.

Bonhoeffer, a pastor, fought Nazi efforts to meld Protestant churches into a single “Reich Church.” Dohnanyi, a lawyer in the military intelligence service, used his position to document Nazi crimes and save Jews while joining several plots to kill Hitler. Their paths of resistance intertwined when Dohnanyi recruited Bonhoeffer to the anti-Hitler conspiracy.

Born in 1906, Bonhoeffer received a strong moral and intellectual upbringing from his father, Karl, an eminent Berlin psychiatrist, and his devout mother, Paula. The family had a notable independent streak; Paula chose to home-school their eight children in their early years. (“Germans,” she observed, “have their backbones broken twice in life: first in the schools, secondly in the military.”) One morning in 1922, Dietrich was in school when he heard “a strange crackling” from the street. It was the assassination of Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, a crime the Bonhoeffers recognized as an omen. “Only think of the trouble we shall have later with these people,” Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus wrote


No Ordinary Men

By Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern
(New York Review Books, 157 pages, $19.95)

Dohnanyi, the son of a famous Hungarian composer, was childhood friends with the Bonhoeffers and later married one of Dietrich’s sisters. While Hans began a brilliant career as a lawyer in the German civil service, Dietrich gained renown as a young theologian. Influenced by the Swiss master Karl Barth, who rejected the historicism of much academic theology and emphasized the transcendence of God across time and culture, Bonhoeffer sought to develop an account of how the Christian church could exercise leadership in an increasingly chaotic society. He finished his dissertation at 25, studied with the theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr during a year abroad in America, and began lecturing at the University of Berlin in 1931.

Two years later, Hitler barred “non-Aryans” from holding positions in the civil service, the academy or the clergy. While most church leaders dithered, the 27-year-old Dietrich published an important essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” that subtly challenged the legitimacy of Nazi rule and argued that the church must not only help “those who have fallen beneath the wheel” but “at times halt the wheel itself.”

Over the next few years, Ms. Sifton and Mr. Stern write, “virtually everything he did”—co-founding a league of anti-Nazi churches, developing relationships with Jewish and Catholic communities abroad—”set him against the Nazifying church authorities.” By 1936 he was banned from lecturing at the University of Berlin. He retreated to the country estate of Finkenwalde, where he continued to mentor young pastors in secret and wrote a pointed tract called “The Cost of Discipleship.” Two years later Finkenwalde was shut down on Heinrich Himmler’s orders.

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An Essay by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943″

Posted on June 9, 2013 by 

The long run. The lifelong commitment.  The big picture. The foundational truths. These are the elements that feed the reactors that are burning deep within the hearts and minds of those who make a difference, whether or not they are flamboyant as they do it.  Such  people are deliberately self-aware but not self-conscious, because their focus is on what desperately needs to be done in response to what others are doing.

Bonhoeffer1Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is the title by Eric Metaxas that documents the short life and astounding work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who lived all four of those identities to the full.

It is a mistake to think of Hitler having a meteorically sudden rise to power, and it is a great misreading of events to think that those who actively resisted him did so out of the anxiety of a moment, implementing plans only drawn up under the pressure of we must do something right now.  Bonhoeffer and and others who actively resisted both inside and outside of government and military service, were far more thoughtful than such a perception would suggest.

What follows is a two page excerpt from Metaxas’ 2010 biography and may provide some food for thought as we find our places in our own national mess, perhaps feeling as he did, that we have so little ground under our feet because of the entrenched betrayals and deceptions that are dissolving the world as we knew it.

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“After Ten Years”

Bonhoeffer had written an essay a few months before his arrest, titled “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943.”  At Christmas 1942 [he was arrested in April of 1943], he gave copies to Bethge, Dohnanyi, and Hans Oster, and he hid a fourth copy in the ceiling of his attic room.  The essay is an assessment of what they had been through and learned in the extraordinary experiences of the ten years since Hitler’s ascension, and it helps us see more of the thinking that led him and all of them to the extraordinary measures they had been taking and would continue to take against the Nazi regime.  And it confirms Bonhoeffer’s crucial role in the conspiracy, that of its theologian and moral compass.  He helped them see precisely why they had to do what they were doing; why it was not expedient, but right; why it was God’s will.

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April 2020


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