Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is known to many American Christians for his execution by the Nazis shortly before the end of World War II. He’s also known for two popular books – Life Together and Discipleship (published in English as The Cost of Discipleship) – which have received wide readership in the US. Bonhoeffer is often remembered by American evangelicals as a hero for his work in the Confessing Church to oppose the distortions of the German Christian movement, which sought to reshape the German church in the image of National Socialist ideology. Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis has been remembered as a sort of martyrdom for the truth of the gospel.
Mainline Protestant theologians in the US also have had a strong attachment to Bonhoeffer’s late-career prison writings. During the 1960s, some of Bonhoeffer’s fragmentary comments from prison inspired radical theologians to explore Bonhoeffer’s concept of “worldliness” as an apt description of the modern condition of life without God. More broadly, Bonhoeffer’s work and witness has been taken as a model for resistance against tyranny and the abuse of political power. More recently, other aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology have been explored in more detail – especially his work as a theologian of the Lutheran tradition. Among modern theologians, Bonhoeffer’s appeal has been uniquely broad across various traditions and to those with widely differing outlooks on the task of theology and the place of the church in modern society.
Bonhoeffer was born to an upper-class German family in 1906. His father was a psychiatrist and neurologist who, though not particularly religious himself, nonetheless encouraged Dietrich’s pursuit of theological education and ordained ministry. Bonhoeffer was educated at the University of Tübingen, attending seminars held by the famous theologian Adolf von Harnack. He would go on to complete his doctoral work at the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1927 at the age of twenty-one. His dissertation was a study of the doctrine of church, eventually published as Sanctorum Communio. After serving a one-year pastoral internship in Barcelona, Bonhoeffer would return to Berlin for postdoctoral study, which culminated in his second book, Act and Being.
A year-long teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York would bring Bonhoeffer to the US. Though he was not particularly impressed by the state of theological education there, his time in the US proved formative. He was particularly drawn to the life of worship at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, an African American church, in which he found a more authentic expression of Christian faith under the conditions of political and cultural dispossession.
When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, the political situation had only worsened. Controversy surrounded Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany, and this eventually precipitated the organization of the Confessing Church in response to attempts by the Nazis to coopt the German churches. In the process, Bonhoeffer and his coconspirators would found a free seminary at Finkenwalde in eastern Germany. Though eventually forced to abandon their campus, during this period Bonhoeffer and others continued to illegally instruct seminarians for the Confessing Church in secret at various locations. His experience teaching during this time prompted two of his most famous books, Discipleship and Life Together.
Conflicted over the deteriorating situation in Germany, Bonhoeffer made a final trip to the US in 1939. However, his sightseeing was brought to an end due to the conviction that he must return to Germany in order to assist the church through the struggle against the Nazis. At this point, Bonhoeffer was drawn into a plot against Hitler from within the German government by some of his associates. In 1939, war in Europe would break out. Though it’s not known the extent to which Bonhoeffer was familiar with the details, he collaborated with others who sought Hitler’s demise. In 1943, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Tegel, only later to be sent to the Flossenbürg concentration camp where he would be executed in April of 1945 – only a month before the end of the war. Much of Bonhoeffer’s correspondence – especially with his friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge – is collected in a volume called Letters and Papers from Prison.
Bonhoeffer’s contribution to Christian theology in the years since has been immense. His book Discipleship is a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, and takes aim at the compromised cultural Christianity of liberal Protestantism in Germany at the time, which found itself defenseless before the temptation of Nazism. Life Together presents a series of reflections on the nature of Christian community that has come to be regarded as a modern classic of Christian spirituality.
Some of his other, lesser-known works are significant as well. Notes for an incomplete book have been gathered together as Ethics, and present a series of provocative reflections on the nature of the Christian life that are read profitably in tandem with Discipleship. Perhaps my favorite of Bonhoeffer’s writings is a short book on Creation and Fall, where he engages the first three chapters of Genesis from a theological perspective. His description of original sin as the ambition to become like God (sicut deus) is an especially helpful dimension of his thought. The Letters and Papers from Prison also contain some powerful engagements with Luther’s theology of the cross – especially the suffering of God in Christ on behalf of sinners.
Bonhoeffer’s life and theology have been met with intense scrutiny since the time of his death. Readers have found in him diverse and divergent images: a pastor-theologian, a prophet of radical resistance to tyranny, a critic of cultural Christianity, an inspiration for what Lutheran theology might look like in the modern world. Indeed, an immense amount of ink has been spilled contesting and interpreting his significance as a figure of Christian history and a theologian of the church. Those interested in learning more about Bonhoeffer are best served by encountering the witness of his writings for themselves, while keeping in mind the rich details of his life story.
For some biographical information on Bonhoeffer, see: