of Dietrich Bonhoeffer reprinted with the permission of Gütersloher
Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a theologian, pastor and martyr who lived
in relative obscurity for most of his brief life but who, sixty
years after his death, exercises the religious imagination like
eighth child of Paula and Karl Bonhoeffer, a psychiatrist at the
University of Berlin, Dietrich was a child of privilege, academically
gifted and, like his older brothers, driven to succeed.
age twelve, he announced his intention to study theology, not so
much out of personal devotion, but to claim a sphere of activity
that had been ignored by other family members. Dietrich studied
theology at the universities of Tübingen and Berlin, eventually
earning a doctorate at age 21 and positioning himself for a stellar
unlike many professional theologians, Bonhoeffer pursued a pastoral
vocation as well: He took a vicarage in Barcelona (1928), studied
at Union Theological Seminary in New York (1930-31), served as a
pastor in London (1933-35), and trained seminarians in Germany (1935-1939).
Bonhoeffer was unusual, in fact, in the way he was able to integrate
Christian ministry with the academic discipline of theology.
Doing so was not easy; the breakthrough came in his mid-20s when,
he says, “something happened,”
that has changed and transformed my life to the present day….I
had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, and
talked and preached about it—but I had not yet become
a Christian…I know that at that time I turned the doctrine
of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage for myself…I
pray to God that that will never happen again. Also I had never
prayed, or prayed only very little. For all my loneliness, I
was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular
the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything
has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people
about me. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that
the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the Church,
and step by step it became plainer to me how far that must go….My
calling is quite clear to me. What God will make of it I do
not know…I must follow the path.
from the image of a theologian who prays and reads the Bible, what
is most compelling about Bonhoeffer is the way he opposed the Nazi
regime—unflinchingly, sacrificially and from the
very first week of Hitler’s rule. Bonhoeffer
almost immediately recognized the demonic element in Nazism that
most saw clearly only in retrospect. At a time when
the majority of German Christians wished to adjust the church’s
belief and practice to conform with the Nazi revolution or focus
exclusively on the ecclesiastical realm, Bonhoeffer modeled a path
of theologically-inspired resistance that had clear political implications.
April 1933, for instance, just three months after Hitler was named
Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer wrote that under certain circumstances
the church might be obligated to “jam a spoke in the wheel”
of the German state. This sort of thinking set Bonhoeffer apart
from most of his co-religionists in Lutheran Germany and put him
on a path of resistance that would require his very life.
was a leader in the Confessing Church movement that sought to withstand
National Socialism’s encroachments, but he found it difficult
to convince even fellow “confessors” of the need to
defend the regime’s racial victims. By
the mid-1930s, Bonhoeffer despaired of the possibility that the
institutional church could offer effective opposition to Nazism.
By the late 1930s he was convinced that, for him
at least, resistance must take the form of political conspiracy.
members of his extended family, Bonhoeffer was enlisted as a double
agent with a resistance cell in the Abwehr (German counter-intelligence).
Bonhoeffer served the conspiracy primarily by utilizing ecumenical
contacts in Allied and neutral countries on behalf of the resistance.
He also participated in a scheme to spirit a group of German Jews
to Switzerland and was intimately involved in the July 20th 1944
assassination plot against Hitler.
April 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested under suspicion that his work
for the Abwehr was an attempt to avoid military service (which it
was). While in detention, Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy
on Hitler’s life was discovered and he was executed on Hitler’s
orders at Flossenbürg, April 9th, 1945, just two weeks before
the Allies liberated the camp.
Bonhoeffer had little time to devote to publishing after 1933, his
role as spiritual guide is tied to books like The Cost of Discipleship
(1937), Life Together (1938), and Letters and Papers
from Prison (published posthumously by his friend and biographer
Eberhard Bethge). Like Bonhoeffer himself, these books can be interpreted
in different ways. To many, Bonhoeffer’s is a christocentric
message that discipleship requires total commitment and that when
Christ calls someone, “he bids him come and die.”
others, Bonhoeffer’s experiences in the resistance and in
prison allowed him to glimpse a “non-religious” Christianity
that would appeal to a post-war world “come of age.”
To others, Bonhoeffer is more spiritual than religious, a moral
mentor for persons of all faiths or none.
is beyond dispute is that Bonhoeffer’s reputation and influence
continue to grow among theologians, lay Christians, and religious
seekers. Among the reasons for his popularity is the integrity represented
by his life and death—an integrity between word and deed,
thought and action that was as rare in his time as it is in ours.
©2006 Stephen Haynes
Haynes has written two books about Dietrich Bonhoeffer—THE
BONHOEFFER LEGACY: POST HOLOCAUST PERSPECTIVES and THE
BONHOEFFER PHENOMENON: PORTRAITS OF A PROTESTANT SAINT.
To purchase these books, visit amazon.com. This link is provided
as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered