Basics of Bonhoeffer

Basics of Bonhoeffer.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a systematic thinker, and I’ve had difficulty finding the themes that connect his thought.  One problem is that his early writings, such as The Cost of Discipleship, differ from his latter writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison, written in the two years between his arrest and murder by the Gestapo when his link to the plot to assassinate Hitler was uncovered. 

I’ve focused on his Letters, which ask how a Christian is to live in a world that barely pretends to believe in God, a question that has become more pressing in recent years, at least in the Western world.  I believe these themes summarize the thought of the mature Bonhoeffer, who died at the age of 39.  To speak of the “mature Bonhoeffer” who died so young might sound silly, but by then he had been a mature thinker for years. 

An earlier post addresses The Cost of Discipleship; another post addresses his religionless Christianity.”

Live as if there is no God,

For Bonhoeffer, we must live as if there is no God (Letters, p 359).  By this he means several things.  First, that in the modern world there is no place for God.  Some people still go to church and observe the rituals, but religion is confined to small corner of life.  The real issues of making a living, raising a family, and dealing with the problems of everyday life no longer have much to do with religion.  But, Bonhoeffer argues, this is not entirely bad.  In a world “come of age,” we must do God’s work for him (Letters, p 361).  “Religionless Christianity,” as he calls it, means action, not worship.  In a late letter to his nephew about the world he would inherit, Bonhoeffer wrote

Our earlier words  . . . [will] lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. (Letters, p 300)

God chose weakness, but we can be strong

In writing about the role of religion, Bonhoeffer is not just making an observation about our churches.  More important is his theological point that God chose weakness.  That is the significance of Christ.  God did not send a powerful leader to save us, but one who died like the least of us, alone, tormented, abandoned, like a refugee dying of thirst in the Sonoran Desert.  This man or woman is close to Christ.   Our task is to grasp this image of Christ, which means understanding that God is weak, but we can be strong if we dedicate ourselves to serving him. 

Bonhoeffer knew that a category such as God’s omnipotence was not to be seen as an authentic experience of God’s nature, but was our understanding of power extended outward into the world. (Pugh, p 99)

The God who emptied himself into Jesus (kenosis), becoming weak and powerless, so as to know and feel our suffering, is the most difficult concept for Christians to bear, and the most important.

The “secret discipline”

By this way of thinking, the church is redundant.  Give the property of the church to the needy, and gather in each other’s homes as the original Christians did (Letters, pp 382-383).  Dedicating your life to others and prayer are the only essentials to Christianity. Prayer is so important not because God answers every prayer, but because it is the way we keep the needs of others in mind, putting ourselves in their shoes.  In another post on Bonhoeffer I’ve questioned whether this is true about prayer, but it is Bonhoeffer’s view, and the best way to understand what he means by religionless Christianity. 

Bonhoeffer writes of the “secret discipline” that constitutes prayer and worship in the absence of religion.  Some have interpreted this as a reference to the eucharist.  I think it refers to the discipline required of Christians once the familiar institutions of religion are gone (Letters, p. 286).  Without these institutions it is doubly difficult, and doubly important, to follow the path of Christ, while reinterpreting what that means in today’s world.  One thing it means is to stop worshiping success.

In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. . . . The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought that takes success for its standard.  (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p 77)

The transcendental is our neighbor

Bonhoeffer asks us to reinterpret basic religious concepts in a worldly way, concepts such as repentance, faith, justification, rebirth, and sanctification.  This would truly be, says Bonhoeffer, “the word became flesh.” (Letters p 286)  Bonhoeffer was murdered before he could elaborate this theme. Seventy-five years later the task remains undone, hardly begun.  Still, we can imagine what it might look like.  Faith is no longer expressed by observing the rituals of the church, but by helping to feed the hungry and house the homeless.  By this measure, men and women of great faith may belong to no church at all.  This is a familiar idea, but the idea that this is the true meaning of “the word became flesh” helps us think about it differently (Letters p 286; John 1:14).

The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation. (Letters, p 381)

We desire to have an immediate experience of Christ.  What we get is a chance to serve others.  It takes a grownup to accept this and act accordingly.

Not the afterlife, but this life

Is there any concern at all in the Old Testament about saving one’s soul, asks Bonhoeffer?  No, and that too is good.  “Myths of redemption search outside history for an eternity after death.” (Letters, p 336)  Not with the beyond should we be concerned, but this world as it is now, this world as it could be reconciled and restored.  That is what salvation looks like, and what a worldly reinterpretation of sanctification might resemble.

Say yes to God’s earth

If there is any theme that ties all this together, it is in his letter to his fiancée on their upcoming marriage, which was not to be.  Marriage, he says, is a “’yes’ to God’s earth.” (Letters, p 456)  We celebrate God when we celebrate human life together.  Marriage is an act of faith, not just in each other, but in God’s world.  Marriage is a prayer.

The man

Focusing of Bonhoeffer’s theology risks missing the extraordinary man who made it.  A comrade who shared his last days, confined in a special prison in Buchenwald concentration camp, knowing they would almost certainly be killed, wrote of him this way.

He always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. . . . He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him. (Metaxas, p 514)


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.  Macmillan, 1963.  [original 1937]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged edition.  Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1971.  [published posthumously, 1953]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics.  Simon and Schuster, 1995.  [original 1949]

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Jeffrey Pugh, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times.  T&T Clark, 2008. 

5 thoughts on “Basics of Bonhoeffer”

  1. You managed to convey it very well.I’ve always felt drawn to him since I first read him.Catholics usually aren’t encouraged to read anything from a Protestant.It is a loss for them
    Thanks for all your writing.I’d never read it if it were by someone else as you are good at grasping the main issued plainly.

  2. Thank you Katherine. I’m still puzzled by Bonhoeffer (I think it’s the depth of his belief that is beyond me), but I find I can’t understand anyone or anything unless I can say it as simply and clearly as possible. Fred

  3. I have just read this again as it came on by chance.I find more in it and am more affected by it now “Marriage is a prayer”
    I like that,Katherine.

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