On July 27, 1945—over 75 days after the surrender of Germany—an elderly couple in Berlin was listening to a BBC broadcast. One of their sons had perished in the First World War; the life of a second son, and those of two sons-in-law, had been claimed by the war just past. They were still uninformed of what had happened to their youngest son; the broadcast put an end to their uncertainty. What they heard was a memorial service for this son, Dietrich, Presiding over the service was one of Dietrich’s dearest friends, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester.
Even those who feel no affinity with, or who have their critical questions about, Bonhoeffer’s legacy will not deny that he authored one of the theological classics of the twentieth century; namely (The Cost of) Discipleship, a book in which Bonhoeffer draws inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount to write about following Christ, and, in doing so, takes a stand against what he calls ‘cheap grace’—by his definition, any notion of having received grace that is not accompanied by self-denial and a real confession of Christ in this life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Controversial Theologian
Bonhoeffer is not without controversy as a theologian. For numerous Germans, what makes him controversial is his involvement in the resistance against Hitler, a decision which ultimately would cost him his life. That involvement also entailed that he deliberately mislead the authorities for the sake of resistance. Even more controversial, in the 1960s a faction of thinkers known as the “God is Dead” theologians used passages from Bonhoeffer’s prison letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, originally published in German under the title Resistance and Submission, to help justify their position.
Yet when we consider his twin sister Sabine’s argument that her brother was assassinated twice—once by the Nazis and once again by the theological modernists—the question arises whether this claim might in fact be dubious. What is certain is that Bonhoeffer was too open to the world to satisfy the demands of orthodox Lutherans and too pietist for the modernists. Indeed, both sets of critics are right. The former of these criticisms is one of the reasons why the present writer will always feel a degree of estrangement from Bonhoeffer’s theology; the latter, on the other hand, forms one reason why I am attracted to certain aspects of his thinking—all the more so since Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached.
Who was Bonhoeffer? Childhood and Studies
The fourth and last son of an aristocratic German household that had eight children in all, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906. On both sides of his family, Bonhoeffer was the descendant of a host of senior functionaries, lawyers, military officers, and musicians. His father Karl was a leading professor of psychiatry; his maternal grandfather was a clergyman. It is not unrelated to this social standing that Dietrich felt a vocation to the preaching ministry from his tender years onwards. Nevertheless, his own parents were not regular churchgoers; in fact, his father was an agnostic. His mother, however, possessed a lively spirituality, and the Horn sisters, who entered the service of the Bonhoeffer family six months after Dietrich’s birth and who remained with the household for more than twenty years, were very much more committed Christians. The Horns were thoroughgoing Moravian pietists.
In Berlin, Bonhoeffer studied under renowned theologians, including the celebrated church historian Adolph von Harnack. His supervisors were expressly liberal in theological conviction: for them, the Christian faith was the sublime expression of religion, and classical Christian doctrine was of little account. As a student, Bonhoeffer came into the orbit of Karl Barth, who was then lecturing at the University of Göttingen. Barth was an ardent protestor against theological liberalism. Opposing the prevailing notion of religiosity, he held forth the special revelation of God in Christ. Some have argued, of course, that, for Barth, the scope of special revelation was in fact universal, and that even though he pleaded for the significance of orthodox Christian doctrine, he was revisionist as to its content.
Some have detected the same tendency in Bonhoeffer, due not least in terms of his great admiration for Gandhi, who he regarded as an embodiment of the Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer’s theology is much less speculative than Barth’s. Bonhoeffer, for instance, had a daily devotional time with God through Bible study. Although Bonhoeffer never formally distanced himself from the historical-critical school of biblical interpretation that he had learned as an undergraduate, it is striking how little he wielded its techniques later in life and how central to his work was one particular biblical witness.
Bonhoeffer’s Stay in America
After graduating, Bonhoeffer was first an understudy at a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, and then the curate of a Berlin church. A key period in his life was his stay at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, in 1930–31. There, Bonhoeffer found himself facing the American version of theological liberalism. This brand of liberalism was superficial not only in religious but even in academic terms. Both aspects of this insincerity grieved Bonhoeffer, who took a low view of American Protestantism in general, describing it as Protestantism without the Reformation.
Whereas U.S. churches prized above all freedom from the state, for Bonhoeffer the church’s liberty existed for the sake of the freedom of the Word of God to make itself heard. He was convinced that there was too much religiosity and moralism in American Christianity and that the person and work of Jesus Christ received scant attention in it, or were not grasped at all. Bonhoeffer came to the view that many Americans were more religious than Germans, but had his doubts as to whether they outdid them as Christians.
While in the United States, Bonhoeffer became acquainted with the clash between liberalism and fundamentalism. He developed cordial relations with several of his fellow students, including the Frenchman Jean Lasserre and the African-American Frank Fisher. He was distinctly unimpressed with the preaching at the elite Riverside Baptist Church, whose incumbent was the noted liberal theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick. For this reason, he was only too glad to accept Frank Fisher’s invitation to attend a service at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. There, the preacher was Adam Clayton Powell, the son of a Cherokee mother and an African-American father.
At Union Theological Seminary, the faculty looked down upon this church and its preacher, who they considered to be the model of fundamentalism. Yet it was at this church that Bonhoeffer heard the Gospel preached as he had never heard it before. Powell’s message centred on the cross of Christ, and his preaching was accompanied by an urgent call to repent—a repentance which had to be expressed in mutual care, love of the poor, and esteem for the despised. The hymns sung in this congregation also stirred Bonhoeffer greatly.
It was obvious to friends and acquaintances that a change had occurred in Bonhoeffer. Contrary to his previous practice, Bonhoeffer began attending church on a weekly basis and studying the Bible and praying daily. His daily devotional time remained his practice until death. Although Bonhoeffer never used the word ‘conversion’ to describe the change in his life, we would not be out of line to call it one.
Through his friendship with Lasserre, Bonhoeffer became convinced of the significance of the Sermon on the Mount, a conviction which ultimately led to his writing the Discipleship. In the United States, and particularly in the South, Bonhoeffer saw for himself the discrimination against African-Americans, which disturbed him deeply. He observed parallels between the treatment of African-Americans and the anti-Semitism escalating in his homeland, not yet knowing at that point how inhumanly the Jews soon would be treated by the Nazis.
In 1931, Bonhoeffer returned to German, being a Privatdozent and a chaplain to students at the University of Berlin in 1931. Even in the early days of National Socialist rule, Bonhoeffer became convinced of the great peril of Nazi ideology, as did other members of his family. For Bonhoeffer, the treatment of the Jews was the source of the fundamental question about the Nazi movement. Bonhoeffer shared his concern about Nazi ideology with his ecumenical contacts, and these individuals later played a major role in his decision to be part of the resistance to Hitler. From 1933 to 1935, Bonhoeffer served a German-speaking congregation in London, and it was in these years that he befriended the Anglican George Bell.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1935 in order to be able to take an active role in the struggle of the Confessing Church against the so-called “German Christian” movement and the Reichskirche. Until the Nazis closed it, he led one of the seminaries of the Confessing Church, a seminary based first in Zingst and then in Finkenwalde in East Prussia. Here, Bonhoeffer fleshed out his idea of the imitation of Christ in the context of a community of believers. Bible study, meditation, and prayer (including praying through the Psalms) were part of the daily rhythm of the seminary. Bonhoeffer was also an advocate of an evangelisch form of confession, along the same lines of what Luther envisioned centuries earlier. For his own confessor, he chose Eberhard Bethge, one of his students and a lifelong friend.
In 1939, Bonhoeffer returned to the United States for a twenty-six-day trip, not least because he believed that the Confessing Church was becoming too lackadaisical in its attitude. Having heard a very disappointing sermon on his first Sunday morning in New York at Riverside Baptist Church, he decided to go to Broadway Presbyterian Church for his second act of worship that day. Like Abyssinian Baptist Church, Broadway Presbyterian was regarded as a fundamentalist institution. Dr. McComb’s sermon on conforming to Christ showed him that there was another side to American faith. Resisting the urgent invitations of American friends to stay in the country, Bonhoeffer resolved to return to his native Germany. This decision was to have far-reaching consequences. Bonhoeffer had hardly been back in Germany a week when the Second World War broke out with the German invasion of Poland.
It was not long before Bonhoeffer, who unfailingly warned against Nazism in his preaching and Christian witness, became involved in the resistance to Hitler. His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi, a lawyer at the Reich Ministry of Justice and later a Wehrmacht official, played a key role in this involvement. A number of officers in the military were torn between their duty to serve and defend the Vaterland and their revulsion at the rise and ideology of the Nazis. While brother ministers and former students of Bonhoeffer’s were imprisoned or forced to serve in the military, Bonhoeffer—to the amazement of many of them—was spared.
The cover story for this was that Bonhoeffer had been appointed to spy for Germany and would be tapping his network of ecumenical contacts abroad to glean intelligence. However, his handlers—including General Oster and Admiral Canaris—were in reality planning to bring about Hitler’s downfall, so that Bonhoeffer was in fact double-crossing the Third Reich. In his intelligence capacity, Bonhoeffer visited Switzerland three times, and Sweden, Norway and Italy once each.
A great disappointment to those seeking to bring down the Nazi régime was that the British Government declined to support attempted coups. Bonhoeffer’s involvement in smuggling seven Jews to Switzerland got the Gestapo on to him. In this period, Bonhoeffer, now thirty-six years old, was engaged to the eighteen-year-old Maria von Wedemeyer, who had been his student in catechism a few years earlier. Previously, from 1927 to 1936, he had been intensely involved with the theologian Elizabeth Zinn. Their mutual feelings were never openly declared as love, however, and once it became apparent that that love was shared, they had already grown so far apart that they broke up.
On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested, together with his brother-in-law Dohnányi. He languished for a year and a half at the Tegel military prison. Several attempts on Hitler’s life were plotted during these months. Twice, the bomb failed to go off; on the third occasion, the bomb did explode but Hitler survived. Count von Stauffenberg, who had placed the bomb, was executed. Bonhoeffer’s uncle, Paul von Hase, the military commandant of Berlin, was arrested and eventually executed, as were General Oster and Admiral Canaris, together with other senior officers.
Bonhoeffer had managed to conceal his true involvement until now, as had Dohnányi. But he was no longer able to do so once the Gestapo uncovered documents from the pen of Dohnányi describing the crimes of the Nazis at great length. This led in turn to the arrest of Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus, and also to the end of Bonhoeffer’s time on military remand in Tegel.
Bonhoeffer and Dohnányi were now transferred to the Gestapo jail on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. With the total collapse of the Third Reich coming nearer by the day, Bonhoeffer was taken from there to Buchenwald prison on February 7, 1945. We have a detailed account of the last week of Bonhoeffer’s life from Captain Sigismund Payne Best, a British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officer held as a prisoner of war. On April 3, orders came from Berlin that Best, Bonhoeffer, and a few other prisoners should be transferred to Flossenbürg, Bavaria.
As that concentration camp was overflowing (according to the commandants there), however, the inmates were taken to a school in nearby Schönberg. There, at his fellow captives’ request, Bonhoeffer held a morning meditation on April 8 (the first Sunday after Easter). His texts were Isaiah 53:3, “By His stripes we are healed,” and 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
Even before this, on April 5, Hitler determined that Dohnányi and Bonhoeffer, among others, must not be allowed to live. Almost as soon as Bonhoeffer had ended his Sunday morning meditation, two guards entered and called out, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make yourself ready and come with us.” The execution was carried out at dawn on April 9 at Camp Flossenbürg. Bonhoeffer was seen by the camp doctor, who was not aware at the time who he had in front of him.
Ten years on, he wrote, “On the morning of that day, roughly between five and six o’clock, the prisoners, including Admiral Canaris, General Oster […] and Reichsgerichtsrat Sack, were removed from their cells and had the verdicts of their court-martial read out to them. Through the door of a room in the barracks that lay ajar, I could see Pastor Bonhoeffer, before he had taken off his prison uniform, kneeling in intimate prayer with his God. This remarkably winsome man’s manner of prayer, so full of surrender and so assured of being answered, profoundly moved me. At the actual place of execution, he prayed another brief prayer before courageously and calmly mounting the step to the guillotine. His death ensued in a couple of seconds. In my fifty years as a doctor, I have seldom seen a man die so full of yieldedness to God.”
The Significance of Law in Bonhoeffer’s Thought
Nazi ideology was consciously anti-Christian. If matters had been left to Bormann and Himmler, it would not have been the Jews alone but the Christians who would have been persecuted directly upon the Nazi rise to power. For tactical reasons, Hitler thought that this would not be a wise move. Notably, Hitler and other Nazis preferred not just ancient Germanic paganism above Christianity but also found Islam superior to Christianity; this on account of both religions’ positive evaluation of military might and violence, as contrasted with Christianity’s concepts of self-denial and cross-bearing—notions fundamental to such a man as Bonhoeffer.
In several regards, the Nazis were postmodernists avant la lèttre. For them—just as for the postmodernists—there are no set values or norms; the will of the Volk determine good and evil. It is not without significance that the Nazis suppressed the last verse of Das Deutschlandlied (“Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”), owing to its opening line, Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit für das deutsche Vaterland (“Let the German Fatherland have unity, law and liberty”). By contrast, for Bonhoeffer there are fixed ordinances grounded in the will of God. He, like other German aristocrats who took part in the resistance against Hitler, was, we might say, a ‘conservative’ Christian—where here we understand the adjective ‘conservative’ in the most positive sense to signify an appreciation for Scripture and classical Christian doctrine.
For such Christians, over against the fickle will of the Volk stands the unbending will of God. While the Nazis propagandized for euthanasia and applied that policy to those unable to make tangible contributions to the German Volk and Reich, Bonhoeffer was filled with disgust at this practice. In his posthumously-published Ethics, Bonhoeffer is blunt in his rejection of abortion: nothing needs our protection as much as unborn human life does. Bonhoeffer unreservedly equates the deliberate termination of life in the womb with murder. The notion of sexual chastity is a key plank of Bonhoeffer’s thinking. The exercise of sexuality is the preserve of marriage, a lifelong bond between one man and one woman.
To a much greater degree than in Barth (with whom Bonhoeffer felt an affinity), we see in Bonhoeffer the central significance of God’s unchanging nature, although it must be conceded to Barth that he too eschewed homosexual practice and was of the opinion that it was incumbent on the government to deter public expressions of it, something which very few of his contemporary admirers would care to advocate.
In his emphasis upon the unchanging law of God, Bonhoeffer retains his significance in our day. Many today, aware solely of the Nazis’ persecution and murder of both Jews and homosexuals, grasp far too little how much of Nazi thinking is increasingly becoming commonplace in today’s European society. Whereas National Socialism ultimately rejected homosexuality, it is accepted in our time.
That is a greater distinction than it may seem: for a National Socialist, homosexuality is an expression of self-actualisation that runs clean contrary to the purpose of the body, whereas the narrative in our day is that those who have that orientation ought to be left to find ways to express it corporeally. What both worldviews have in common is that they base themselves on the body. Arie van Deursen (1931-2011 ), who for many professor of early modern history at the Free University of Amsterdam and a sharp critic of culture, has drawn attention to this in a contribution to one of his compendia analysing the Zeitgeist.
Yet, for a Christian, it is not the body but the commandment of God that sets the frame of reference. That commandment requires self-control and self-denial of all of us, and this will become concrete for one person in a particular domain of life and in one situation but for another person in a different situation. For postmodernists, the standard is the person, in his body, whoever he might be, but by the same token, all must be subject to that view. Ultimately, in the postmodern scheme, tolerance stops at the boundaries of that ideology.
The Nazis believed that the German/Aryan race is superior to all others. In our own day, the Holocaust increasingly is being framed as an example of the consequence of systematic inequality. The egregious evil of anti-Semitism, which found expression in the Holocaust, today is hardly even acknowledged. The uniqueness of the Jewish people hardly ever is mentioned, and anti-Semitism has obtained a new lease on life.
Bonhoeffer found himself caught up in a clash between Nazi ideology and authentic Christian faith. He emphatically chose the latter, knowing full well that it could cost him his life, which indeed it did in the end. We ought to do likewise—cognizant of what the clash between the postmodern Zeitgeist and authentic Christian faith might cost us, choosing and confessing the latter consciously and unreservedly.
United with Christ yet with both Feet Planted in the World
Bonhoeffer could not abide a Christian faith that shrinks back, with an appeal to pieties, from its responsibility in the world. I argue that it is in this context, and not in any other, that his pronouncements about ‘religionless Christianity’ should be understood. In my reading, Bonhoeffer made himself an opponent of Sunday-only Christianity, which does not seriously entertain the lordship of Christ over the whole of life and which only requires God when human explanations and assistance are found wanting. As I see it, it was in this spirit, and no other, that Bonhoeffer wrote of a “life without God” and of “living as though God did not exist” (etsi Deus non daretur).
Bonhoeffer protested against a nominal Christianity that declines to take the real-world following of Christ seriously. Where Christians live such that they reckon they can muddle through on their own and need God merely for matters that they cannot (or cannot “quite”) resolve themselves, i.e. where God serves to “plug the gaps”, they have fallen outside the scope of living coram Deo, before God’s face.
This notwithstanding, Bonhoeffer stands in the tradition of Kant, making positive pronouncements on human potential which the present author would not wish to endorse. We have to bear in mind that the views on religionless Christianity were written in private correspondence to a friend and not intended for publication. These were loose thoughts which even their author admitted were not fully conceived and need further elaboration. Bethge, the friend to whom Bonhoeffer wrote these letters, put on record that by taking these remarks on religionless Christianity out of context, people have distorted them into a superficial modernism entirely at odds with all that Bonhoeffer said and wrote on the living God.
Thorough readers of Bonhoeffer will note that there need be no contradiction between a fully earthly focus and an altogether heavenly orientation. His saying that whoever has just one foot on earth is by the same token only able to have one foot in heaven can also be turned around: he who has only one foot in heaven must be standing on earth with the other one. Huntemann has convincingly demonstrated in his outstanding book Der Andere Bonhoeffer that Bonhoeffer’s sayings about being a Christian in the world have to be understood in terms of the secret communion with God which Bonhoeffer advocated, and of his pronouncements about mystical union with Christ. We know for certain that Bonhoeffer read several chapters of Scripture a day in prison. In his first six months of detention, he read through the whole Bible nearly three times over. He prayed several of the Psalms each day, and sang hymns, including ones by the German Lutheran pietist, Paul Gerhardt.
We encounter Bonhoeffer the pietist particularly in his little book Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, the last of Bonhoeffer’s books which he was able to see through to publication. In it, Bonhoeffer argues that the key question for us is not so much what the Psalms mean for us but what they meant for Christ. In the Psalms, Christ is present in the psalmist and with the psalmist. Only one who reads and prays the Psalms with this understanding will rightly grasp them, he urges. In this, we hear faithful echoes of Luther centuries earlier. Not just in Psalm 22 but in other Psalms besides, Bonhoeffer—like Luther—first and foremost has in mind Christ’s bitter passion when reading of the Psalmist’s distresses, and of Christ’s exaltation when reading of the Psalmist’s exultation.
What I shall always find lacking in Bonhoeffer is that he stops short of becoming practical about apprehending salvation and seeking salvation from the wrath to come. Nonetheless, I continue to feel a profound affinity with him, especially when I read and ponder his last known words, uttered to Captain Best: “This is the end; for me, the beginning of life.”
For further reading
Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, revised edition, translation Victoria J. Barnett (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).
Haynes, Stephen R. The Bonnhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
Huntemann, Georg. Der andere Bonhoeffer. Die Herausforderung des Modernismus (Wuppertal: Brockhaus Verlag, 1989).
Leibholz-Bonhoeffer, Sabine. The Bonhoeffers: Portrait of a Family (New York: St. Martin Press, 1972).
Eric Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).
Stephen J. Nichols, Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross to the World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2013).
Zimmermann, Wolf-Dieter, I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translation Ronald Gregor Smith (New York, Harper & Row, 1966).
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, eds. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works (hereafter, DBW) 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).
 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. De Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best, Lisa E. Dahill, Reinhard Krauss, and Nancy Lukens, DBW 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).
 H. Fischer-Hüllstrung, “Bericht aus Flossenbürg”, in Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann, Begegnungen mit Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ein Almanach (München: Kaiser, 1964), 192.
 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, DBW 6 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
 A.Th. van Deursen, De geest is meer dan het lichaam. Opstellen over geschiedenis en cultuur (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2010), 256-257.
 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 324-329.
 Georg Huntemann, Der andere Bonhoeffer. Die Herausforderung des Modernismus (Wuppertal: Brockhaus Verlag, 1989).
 Bonhoeffer, “Prayerbook of the Bible,” in Life Together and Prayer Prayerbook of the Bible, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, DBW 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 141-181.
 Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Theologe, Christ, Zeitgenosse (München: Kaiser, 1967), 1037.