Theologian, Pastor, Martyr
Dietrich Bonhoeffer 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 few others.
The 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. At 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 academic career.
But 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,”
something 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.
Apart 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.
In 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.
Bonhoeffer 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.
Through 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.
In 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.
Although 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.”
To 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.
What 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.
Copyright ©2006 Stephen Haynes
Photograph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer reprinted with the permission of Gütersloher Verlagshaus.
Stephen Haynes has written two books about Dietrich Bonhoeffer—THE BONHOEFFER LEGACY: POST HOLOCAUST PERSPECTIVES and THE BONHOEFFER PHENOMENON: PORTRAITS OF A PROTESTANT SAINT.