Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An unlikely hero

Dietrich BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer: an unlikely hero.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German theologian who rejected theology, was an unlikely hero. Murdered by the Nazis for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, one would never have guessed his ending from his beginning. 

His father was the most important neurologist in the most important hospital in Germany.  His twin sister Sabine was tutored by the daughter of Thedor Mommsen, Nobel prizewinner and classicist.  As a student he commuted to the Humboldt University of Berlin with his neighbor, Adolf von Harnack, the most distinguished scholar of the German Protestant Church.  Put simply, Bonhoeffer belonged to the Protestant elite. (p 45)

Bonhoeffer was financially dependent on his family almost his entire life.  When he wasn’t traveling, he generally lived at home.  Throughout his life he would mail his dirty laundry home, to be washed by servants, and returned by Deutsch Post.  When he was running an underground seminary during the Hitler era, his parents gave him an Audi convertible so he could more easily come home on weekends.  Not your average revolutionary. 

He would never disown the advantages of birth or pretend to have surpassed them. It was an aristocratic confidence, he would insist, that helped him see through propaganda and resist mediocrity. (p 74)

The statement is, I believe, absolutely correct.

A theologian at 15

At the age of 15 he read a two-volume book on the beginnings of Christianity, and began signing his name “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theol.” (p 17)  By the end of his life he would reject both theology and the university.  He was blessed with a large family and many friends, but never had a girlfriend.  Finally, at the age of 36, he became engaged to his 17-year-old niece, whose mother insisted they wait.  They never married; three months after his engagement he was jailed.  He met Eberhard Bethge, his first real friend, when he was twenty-nine, ten years before his death.  They were exceptionally close.  Bethge married another of Bonhoeffer’s nieces while Bonhoeffer was in prison.  Their first child was named after Dietrich. 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together makes much sense and no sense

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together makes much sense and no sense.  Life Together is based on his experiences at the underground seminary he directed at Finkenwald, in what is now Poland, from 1935 to 1937.  From then on, he was a marked man, eventually imprisoned in the concentration camp Flossenberg, where he was executed by order of Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo just days before the camp was overrun by Allied forces.  He was executed because he was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler.  Previously a pacifist, Bonhoeffer came to recognize that extreme evil must sometimes be resisted by force.

Finkenwald was a community of theology teachers and their students who lived, worked, and ate together.  From this experience he learned a number of lessons.  Some of the lessons are simple but important, such as listening to each other, and helping each other, which often means bearing the burden of the other.  This is actually quite insightful.  Other lessons make no sense to me.

The good lessons

Bonhoeffer reminds us that God bore the burden of being tortured and murdered.  “Human beings crushed God to the ground.  But God stayed with them . . . In suffering and enduring human beings, God maintained community with them.”  In the same way, we are obligated to maintain community with others.  Yes, others can be a burden, but it is a burden we should take up gladly, remembering the burden Christ took up for us (pp 77-78).  

Others aren’t just a burden because they demand much of us, or don’t do their share.  Others are a burden because they are different and other.  Humans naturally want to assimilate others to themselves, making others like them.  In so doing we use others as objects.  The only way of treating others as ends in themselves is to bear the burden of otherness and difference, seeing others first as fellow creatures of God.

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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.”

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What do Niebuhr, Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich have in common? More than you might imagine.

What do Niebuhr, Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich have in common?  More than you might imagine.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich are the most well-known Protestant theologians of the twentieth-century.  All downplay the mythical worlds of heaven and hell.  The eschaton is now; we have already been saved by Christ’s intervention in history; he need not come again.  What we have to do is live up to what we have been given gratis.  Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Barth hold this view most strongly, Niebuhr less so, and I’m ignoring important differences among them.

Bultmann and Barth come to this view because there is nothing left but faith.  If we regard the Bible as historically bound, while at the same time conveying an essential truth, then that truth must be known by faith alone.  The Bible provides symbols, such as the cross, to help us discover and express that faith. 

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Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

The standard Christian view of sin and salvation is not a pretty one.  Salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God. Salvation doesn’t mean being saved from yourself or the devil.  Salvation is being saved from God’s wrath, which condemns to hell all who have broken his law.

All of us have sinned against God and deserve judgment.  But Jesus never sinned.  He lived the Law of God perfectly.  Jesus is perfectly righteous.  “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)  Through his crucifixion, Jesus bore our sins in His body and suffered in our place.  

Escaping the judgment of God means having faith in Jesus Christ.  It has nothing to do with doing good works.  “Through grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)  You are saved by grace through faith. 

When you have faith in Christ, then Christ’s righteousness is given to you, and you give your sins to Jesus.  “It’s like a trade.  He gets your sin.  You get His righteousness.”  (  It sounds more like blackmail to me.  Be righteous because God will send you to hell forever if you aren’t. 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was 39 years old when he was executed by the Nazis in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp in 1945.  He co-founded the Confessing Church in 1934 when the German   Church failed to resist Hitler, accepting his choice for Reich Bishop of the Evangelical Church.  In effect, the Protestant church became an arm of the Nazi regime, even as some individual pastors and churches resisted.  The church also accepted the Aryan paragraph, in which converted Christians were barred from the church.   For this Bonhoeffer was not murdered; he was murdered because he was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. 

His most well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, argues against cheap grace. 

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 47)

Cheap grace completely, and perhaps intentionally, misunderstands Martin Luther.

When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save.  His followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 53)

The obligation of discipleship is complete.  God asks everything of us, including our lives.  Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached. 

Can’t I just give some of my money away?

In Bonhoeffer’s account, giving everything means just that.  In a well-known Biblical story, a rich man goes up to Jesus and says that he has fulfilled the Ten Commandments, what more can he do?

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:21-22)

The man went away sad, I imagine, because he knew he was not going to give his wealth away and follow Jesus.  The Ten Commandments are easy compared to that.

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