Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1906–1945)

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and religious leader during the period when National Socialism dominated. He was active in the resistance to Hitler; and his anti-Nazi activities led to his death in a concentration camp. The heroism of his end served to call attention to his life and thought, but by itself the drama of his life does not account for the continuing interest Bonhoeffer has aroused in twenty-first century theological circles. He has been read eagerly for the substance of his thought, his example of resistance to oppression, and his provocative portrayal of the secular settings that provide the context for much theological inquiry. The Nazi milieu prevented Bonhoeffer from making a sustained impact on the academic world during his lifetime; he was then recognized chiefly for his involvement in the nascent ecumenical movement, for his leadership of a clandestine seminary at Finkenwalde and, of course, for his part in the resistance to Hitler. (Thanks to the work of theologians such as John de Gruchy, Bonhoeffer's thought inspired much South African resistance to apartheid, and he has been invoked elsewhere by critics of oppressive political orders.)

Philosophy and Theology

Only one of Bonhoeffer's works, Akt und Sein, is wholly devoted to formal questions concerning the relation of philosophy to theology. Akt und Sein was his inaugural dissertation, and it is marked by a certain pretentiousness and heavy-handed systematic theological concern. At times its jargon obscures the author's line of thought. It is doubtful whether the work possesses any great worth in isolation from Bonhoeffer's life. However, because it anticipates many of the themes that he later elaborated without explicit philosophical reference, it is of interest.

In Akt und Sein Bonhoeffer carried on a veiled polemic, on the one hand, against those who wished to reduce Christianity either to a philosophy of transcendence (Akt ) or of being (Sein ), and on the other hand against those who believed that Christian theology could be expressed independently of philosophical concerns. His own interests were in many ways synthetic. Critical of philosophical attempts to account for or exhaust the meaning of Christian revelation, Bonhoeffer admitted the general necessity of relating theology and philosophy. He appreciated the Kantian Akt -philosophy, which stresses the thinker or the knower "in relation to" the known, but he criticized its lack of interest in the problem of the known, as in the mundane world. He turned with some interest to the Sein- philosophies, which focus on God as the known but which may lack a proper corollary interest in the concrete historical events in which believers find God to be revealed. These philosophies Bonhoeffer categorized repeatedly throughout his career as "theologies of glory" that seek to explicate the nature of the Divine on a philosophical basis. He advocated mainly what in his Lutheran theological lineage has always been called "a theology of the Cross" because it accented an event in history, specifically in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

If the corpus of Bonhoeffer's most important literary work is to be related to philosophy, it must be categorized as a philosophy of history. In all his writings he shows an active and positive interest in the concrete character of Divine revelation. He often voiced an agnostic position on the possibility of making meaningful statements about God apart from revelation in Jesus Christ. In lectures on Christology delivered in 1932 and available in the form of published classroom notes, he concentrated consistently on the historical, concrete, and conditioned character of revelation in Jesus Christ and the church over against philosophies of transcendence.


Bonhoeffer's Ethics is his most systematic work (although it survives only in fragments from the concentration camp years). Whereas it profits from philosophical debate, Ethics is largely a rejection of philosophical ethics. In this book Bonhoeffer takes a negative view of Roman Catholic ontological ethics, which moves from general abstract ethical statements to specific Christian principles. He was more closely identified with existentialism, but he regarded that philosophy also as an abstraction from revelatory events in Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer has been accused, along with his teacher Karl Barth, of presenting an overly Christological philosophy and ethic, a critique that would not have disturbed him at all.

Later Thought

During his final imprisonment before his execution, Bonhoeffer's thought took a surprisingsome would say a radicalturn. Pondering the collapse of continental humanist traditions at the hands of Nazis and other totalitarians, he focused on the blithe ways many of his contemporaries shrugged off inherited traditions of piety, even though some remained Christian. In his eyes, they joined free-spirited nonbelievers as they left behind preoccupations with guilt and modes he associated with conventional religion. He has come to be best remembered for his interpretation of modern history, developed on the basis of these observations and his study of the Bible during his imprisonment. From the Christian point of view he regarded secularization as a largely positive process. In a celebrated historical analysis he perceived that the "god of explanation" was gradually disappearing from European history; and disappearing with it was what he called "the religious a priori " (Bonhoeffer 1953). By this term he referred to the idea that a person must adopt a specific metaphysics, a specialized view of transcendence, or a particular form of piety and churchly existence before becoming a Christian. All of these, Bonhoeffer claimed, belonged to the spiritual adolescence of humans.

Contemporary humans, Bonhoeffer thought, reckoned less and less with a transcendent and hypothetical deity located outside the circle of the empirical. He cherished those Biblical texts and those aspects of theological tradition that spoke of transcendence located in the center of human affairs, particularly in the history of Jesus Christ. In this historical context, Bonhoeffer pointed out, the role of philosophy had become increasingly secularized as it focused on human autonomy (Bonhoeffer 1953).

In his eyes, René Descartes had begun to see the world as a mechanism. Benedict de Spinoza was a pantheist. Immanuel Kant, in Bonhoeffer's view, was close to the deists in his reluctance to deal philosophically with God as the known, in his revelation in history. He commented on the ways in which Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Hegel had also developed brands of pantheism that drew them away from the historical involvement of God with the secular world.

All of these developments, he claimed in letters he wrote from prison, revealed the "growing tendency to assert the autonomy of man and the world" (Prisoner for God, Bonhoeffer 1954, p. 163). He came to be seen as a forerunner of a school of antimetaphysical theologians who insisted that Christian life and language were most free when they were not based on a philosophy of being or the expression of transcendence. Some of their writings became best-sellers in the 1960s and 1970s, when elements of Bonhoeffer's thought appeared in the controversial Honest to God (1963) by Bishop John A. T. Robinson and in a number of radical theological works, some of them momentarily associated with the concept of "the death of God."

Subsequently, cultural changes in Europe, wherein non-Christians and many Christians came to rediscover the potency of myths and symbols, which Bonhoeffer had earlier come to minimize, found significant figures resorting to new languages touting spirituality. In this context, a later generation of those influenced by Bonhoeffer reexplored those sources in his thought that were not exhausted by his witness to a "world come of age" and to the existence of a Christian church that was engaged, in almost carefree ways, with secular philosophies.

Part of this reexploration led some theologians to revisit the long-overlooked influence of Martin Heidegger on the young Bonhoeffer who wrote Akt und Sein. In that work, only Martin Luther was referenced more frequently than Heidegger. The most elaborate statement of this engagement was written by the American Charles Marsh in Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1994). Recognizing that Heidegger, a devotee of National Socialism, and Bonhoeffer, who was to give his life opposing it, were poles apart in politics, and that Bonhoeffer seldom quoted Heidegger after that early work, Marsh did discern some revisitations of the themes of transcendence that showed the influence of the philosopher. In Marsh's terms: "In an attempt to shape reflection in a way that is not determined by the totality of the self-reflective subject but emerges from a source prior to and external to the individual, Bonhoeffer finds certain themes in Heidegger's fundamental ontology congenial to his theological purposes. Bonhoeffer subjects these themes to Christological redescription," and so does not stay with existential analysis (1994, p. 112). Nonetheless, Marsh argued, "Heidegger's notions of potentiality-for-being, authenticity, and being-with others push[ed] Bonhoeffer in his thinking about human selfhood and sociality to recognize specific social-ontological distinctions and concepts critical to his developing Christology" (Marsh 1994, p. 112).

Needless to say, such a view of connections and influence does not go unchallenged. Thus German theologian Ernst Feil presented anew what Marsh called "the conventional wisdom." In it, Heidegger's "concept of existence, derived from the human and not from revelation, was, for Bonhoeffer, theologically unusable" (1985, p. 31) agrees that Bonhoeffer finally did reject Heidegger's fundamental ontology on theological grounds, but awareness of this rejection "should not obscure Bonhoeffer's' admiration for Heidegger's Being and Time's attempt to 'destrue' or destructure the history of ontology," which captured Bonhoeffer's imagination in a decisive way (1994, p. 31). Yet even this self-described "reclamation" project by thinkers such as Marsh, while showing early dependence on Heidegger, does not serve to limit the imagination with which Bonhoeffer "revisited" Christological themes in a milieu he described as "a world come of age" (Bonhoeffer 1953, p. 327).

See also Barth, Karl; Descartes, René; Existentialism; Heidegger, Martin; Kant, Immanuel; Philosophy of History; Religion; Religious Language; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


works by bonhoeffer

Nachfolge. München: C. Kaiser, 1937. Translated by Reginald H. Fuller as The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1959).

Ethik. München: C. Kaiser, 1949. Translated by Neville Horton Smith as Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1955).

Widerstand und Ergebung, edited by Eberhard Bethge. München: C. Kaiser: 1951. Translated by Reginald H. Fuller as Letters and Papers from Prison. London: SCM Press, 1953 and New York: Macmillan, 1971; and as Prisoner for God (New York, Macmillan, 1954.

Gesammelte Schriften. 4 vols. Munich: C. Kaiser, 19581961.

Akt und Sein. Translated by Bernard Noble as Act and Being (New York: Harper, 1962).

Sanctorum Communio. Translated as The Communion of Saints (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

works on bonhoeffer

DeGruchy, John W. Bonhoeffer and South Africa: Theology in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984.

Feil, Ernst. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Translated by Martin Rumscheidt. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.

Marsh, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. New York: Oxford, 1994.

Robinson, John A. T. Honest to God. London: SCM Press, 1963.

Martin E. Marty (1967, 2005)