Bonhoeffer, Dietrich

views updated May 08 2018


BONHOEFFER, DIETRICH (19061945), Lutheran pastor, theologian, and martyr. The sixth of eight children, Bonhoeffer was raised in Berlin in the upper-middle-class family of a leading neurologist. He received his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin. A student of Adolf von Harnack, Bonhoeffer was deeply influenced by the writings of the young Karl Barth. From 1930 to 1931, he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York with Reinhold Niebuhr. He then returned to Berlin, teaching theology and becoming student chaplain and youth secretary in the ecumenical movement.

As early as 1933 Bonhoeffer was struggling against the Nazification of the churches and against the persecution of the Jews. Disappointed by the churches' nonaction against Nazism, he accepted a pastorate for Germans in London. However, when the Confessing church (i.e., Christians who resisted Nazi domination) founded its own seminaries, he returned to Germany to prepare candidates for ordination, a task he considered the most fulfilling of his life. As a result of this work, he was forbidden to teach at the University of Berlin. In 1939, after conflicts with the Gestapo, he accepted an invitation to the United States, again to Union Theological Seminary. After four weeks, however, he returned to Germany, convinced he would be ineffectual in the eventual renewal of his nation were he to live elsewhere during its most fateful crisis. He then became an active member of the conspiracy against Hitler. On April 5, 1943, he was imprisoned on suspicion. After the plot to assassinate Hitler failed, Bonhoeffer was hanged (on April 9, 1945), along with five thousand others (including three other members of his family) accused of participating in the resistance.

Bonhoeffer's writings have been widely translated. His early work reflects his search for a concrete theology of revelation. His first dissertation, "Sanctorum Communio," published in Germany in 1930 (also under that title in London, 1963; and as The Communion of Saints, New York, 1963), relates the revelational character of the church to its sociological features. An original statement at the time, it remains evocative. His second dissertation, "Act and Being," was written in 1931 against a background of such opposing philosophies as Kantian transcendentalism and Heideggerian ontology. This work tries to reconcile an existential theological approach with an ontological one. According to Bonhoeffer, these approaches work themselves out in the church, in which revelational contingency and institutional continuity merge.

Turning to the actual life of the church and to criticism of it, Bonhoeffer, in 1937, published his controversial The Cost of Discipleship (New York, 1963). Asserting that "cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church," this work, which is based on the sermon on the mount, critiques a Reformation heritage that breaks faith and obedience asunder. In Life Together (New York, 1976), Bonhoeffer's most widely read book, the author considers experiments to renew a kind of monastic life for serving the world. In 1939 Bonhoeffer began to write a theological ethics, the work he intended to be his life-work, but he completed only fragments of it (Ethics, New York, 1965). These fragments reveal Bonhoeffer as moving beyond a situational ethic to a Christ-centered one.

The most influential of Bonhoeffer's posthumous publications has become Letters and Papers from Prison (New York, 1972). Among his daily observations was a vision of a future Christianity ready for "messianic suffering" with Christ in a "nonreligious world." To Bonhoeffer "religion" was a province separated from the whole of lifeproviding cheap escapism for the individualand a tool in the hands of the powers that be for continuing domination of dependent subjects. Bonhoeffer was critical of Western Christianity because of its complicity with the Holocaust; his letters reveal his conviction that a life with Christ means "to exist for others." It was his belief in a "religionless Christianity"that is, a praying church that responds to Christ out of the modern (not sinless) strength of human beings and their decisionsthat enabled Bonhoeffer to begin to write a revised theology of "Jesus, the man for others," and to participate in the conspiratorial counteraction against the deadly forces of Hitler.

Bonhoeffer's thought emerged from his cultural heritage of German liberalism. He suffered when he experienced its weakness in the face of Nazism. He rethought this heritage within a Christocentric theology, thus becoming a radical critic of his contemporary church and of contemporary theology because they seemed to him to touch only the insignificant corners of life.

The originality of Bonhoeffer's thought may be summarized in three ways. First, by employing biblical and modern criticism of religion, he gave to theology and piety epochal stress on the idea that the God who is not of this world posits a requisite "this-worldliness" of faith, which is not, however, absorbed by immanentism. Second, Bonhoeffer's words and deeds teach that each generation must discern its own particular means to express its contribution to faith and action. Third, in areas where developments press toward a "confessing church," Bonhoeffer challenges Christians to analyze and to resist ideological syncretism with any zeitgeist, whether the result is a Greek, a Teutonic, or an American Christ.

His influence is worldwide for two reasons. First, his life as theologian and thinker was sealed by martyrdom. Second, Bonhoeffer's legacy has stimulated ecumenism beyond his own national, spiritual, and institutional borders, including influence among Roman Catholics and Jews who see in him a Christian theologian who never cheaply evaded controversial issues.


For a comprehensive listing of primary and secondary literature, see Clifford J. Green's "Bonhoeffer Bibliography: English Language Sources," Union Seminary Quarterly Review (New York) 31 (Summer 1976): 227260. This admirable work is continually revised and amended in The News Letter of the English Language Section of the International Bonhoeffer Society for Archival Research.

In addition to the works by Bonhoeffer mentioned in the article, see three collections of letters, lectures, and notes titled No Rusty Swords (New York, 1965), The Way to Freedom (New York, 1966), and True Patriotism (New York, 1973). For works about Bonhoeffer, see my Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary, 3d abr. ed. (New York, 1970); André Dumas's Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian of Reality (New York, 1971); Clifford J. Green's The Sociality of Christ and Humanity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Early Theology, 19271933 (Missoula, Mont., 1972); and Keith W. Clements's A Patriotism for Today: Dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bristol, 1984).

Eberhard Bethge (1987)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

views updated Jun 11 2018

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) had a major influence on post-World War II Protestant theology. Executed because of his part in the German resistance to Hitler, through his actions and writings he called for Christian involvement in the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on Feb. 4, 1906, in Breslau, the sixth of eight children. His father was a leading professor of neurology and psychiatry; his mother was the granddaughter of a distinguished church historian. When Dietrich was 6, his family moved to Berlin. He was educated at the universities of Tübingen (1923-1924) and Berlin, where he was awarded a doctorate in 1927 at the age of only 21.

Early Career

Bonhoeffer's doctoral dissertation, The Communion of Saints (1930), introduces some of his most characteristic emphases: a passionate concern that Christianity be a concrete reality within the real world of men; a wholly Christ-centered approach to theology, grounded entirely in the New Testament; and an intense preoccupation with the Church as "Christ existing as community."

After a year as curate of a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain (1928-1929), Bonhoeffer spent the academic year 1930-1931 in the United States as Sloane fellow at Union Theological Seminary. In fall 1931 he became a lecturer in theology at Berlin University, and his inaugural dissertation was published that year as Act and Being. Two collections of his lectures were later published: Creation and Fall (1937), an interpretation of chapters 1-3 of Genesis; and Christ the Center, published posthumously from student notes. The latter work foreshadows the central idea of his last writings—Christ's whole being is His being-for-man, and His powerlessness and humiliation for man's sake are the fullest disclosure of the power and majesty of God.

Resistance to Nazism

Bonhoeffer was one of the first German Protestants to see the demonic implications of Nazism. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer helped organize the Pastors' Emergency League, which became the nucleus of the Confessing Church of anti-Nazi German Protestants. While serving as minister to a German-speaking congregation in London (1933-1935), he sought support from international Christian leaders for the German Christians who were protesting Nazism.

In 1935 Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and founded a clandestine seminary to train pastors for the illegal anti-Nazi church. The seminary, located chiefly at Finkenwalde, continued despite Gestapo harassment until 1937. Bonhoeffer organized the seminary as a living workshop in Christian community and developed close relationships with his students. Out of Finkenwalde came The Cost of Discipleship (1937), a clarion call to active obedience to Christ based on the Sermon on the Mount, and Life Together (1939), a brief study of the nature of Christian community.

As war became increasingly inevitable, friends arranged an American lecture tour for Bonhoeffer with the hope that he would remain in the United States indefinitely. But only 6 weeks after his arrival in New York, he decided to return to Germany to suffer with his people.

Bonhoeffer became a member of the German resistance movement, convinced after much soul searching that only by working for Germany's defeat could he help save his country. From 1940 to 1943 Bonhoeffer worked on a study of Christian ethics, which was grounded in the biblical Christ as the concrete unity between God and the world. The sections he completed were later published as Ethics (1949).

In January 1943 Bonhoeffer became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, a longtime acquaintance. In April, however, he was arrested; while incarcerated he wrote the correspondence that later appeared as Letters and Papers from Prison (1951). In these fragmentary but highly original writings he developed his earlier ideas into a highly positive evaluation of modern secular thought and life, and a strongly negative judgment on traditional religiosity. Bonhoeffer described modern secularization as the world's "coming of age" from earlier religious and metaphysical dependencies into autonomous ways of understanding and coping with life. In such a world "religion"—as individualistic, otherworldly piety and dependence upon God as a "supreme being"—is dying out. Bonhoeffer believed that a Christian should not be narrowly "religious" but should be fully involved in the world. His own participation as a Christian in the momentous political struggle of his time embodies this "secular style" of discipleship.

After the abortive attempt on Hitler's life by the resistance (July 20, 1944), evidence came to light that incriminated Bonhoeffer, and he was hanged at Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945.

Further Reading

The definitive biography of Bonhoeffer is Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Courage (1970), written by the man who was Bonhoeffer's closest friend and the recipient of most of his prison letters. Other good biographical sources are Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann and Ronald G. Smith, eds., I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1965; trans. 1967), a book of reminiscences about Bonhoeffer by his friends, and Mary Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1968). Several full-length studies of Bonhoeffer's theology are available, including William Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1967); John A. Phillips, Christ for Us in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1967); and James W. Woelfel, Bonhoeffer's Theology: Classical and Revolutionary (1970). □

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich

views updated May 21 2018

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1906–45). German pastor and Christian (Lutheran) theologian. Bonhoeffer took a leading part in drafting the Barmen Declaration. He attempted to found a seminary for pastors of the Confessing Church, but this was soon closed down. He continued to oppose Hitler, and was arrested in Apr. 1943. His Letters and Papers from Prison are a moving testament. He was executed on 9 Apr. 1945, commemorated in the nearby church by a tablet which states, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness of Jesus Christ among his brethren.’

His theological work was, obviously, unfinished. He accepted with Barth that religion as a human enterprise was an inevitable failure; but in contrast, indeed, he envisaged a ‘religionless Christianity’, commensurate with ‘a world come of age’.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1906–45) German theologian. A Lutheran pastor, he opposed the rise of fascism in Germany. Arrested by the Nazis in 1943, he was executed for treason after documents linked him with a failed conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Among his works are Letters from Prison (1953) and Christology (1966). Bonhoeffer espoused a kind of ‘secular’ Christianity. His theology is Christocentric and opposed to separation of church and world.