Bonhoeffer (Review Article)

By Matthew Becker

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER: THEOLOGIAN, CHRISTIAN, MAN FOR HIS TIMES.  A BIOGRAPHY.  By Eberhard Bethge.  Revised edition.  Revised and edited by Victoria Barnett.  Translated by Eric Mosbacher, Peter and Betty Ross, Frank Clarke, and William Glen-Doepel under the original editorship of Edwin Robertson.  Foreword by Clifford Green.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.  1048 pages.  Paper. $39.00.

 Twenty years ago, when I first read Eberhard Bethge’s classic biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), many of my college classmates knew of Bonhoeffer and a few had even read his most popular work in English, The Cost of Discipleship (Ger. ed., Nachfolge [“Discipleship”] 1937; Eng. 1949).  Today, however, apparently very few college students seem to be aware of who this man was or why he might be of importance to them and others.  Here’s my anecdotal evidence to support the above assertion:  Over the past several years when I have introduced Bonhoeffer’s life and thought in my Humanities courses I have asked how many students have heard of him, and typically only about one in twenty will raise his or her hand.  Lest this be thought to be an isolated piece of data that is best explained in terms of the secular region in which I live, in 1995 Leon Howell reported in Sojourners magazine that only one in twenty-five college juniors and seniors at a mainstream religious retreat he attended had heard of Bonhoeffer.  I suspect such ignorance is common among many other American students.

Perhaps the recent airings on public television of the film, “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace” (funded in part by Oregon Public Broadcasting and AAL and broadcasted each year since its premiere in 2000) and the informative website that PBS has created on Bonhoeffer ( will help to interest students and others in this courageous man of faith and action.  Then, too, there is the on-going work of the International Bonhoeffer Society, which is translating and publishing the complete writings of Bonhoeffer and which makes available a large number of secondary works each year. (The English Section of the IBS meets annually at the American Academy of Religion.)  Bethge’s biography of the martyred pastor, first published in 1967 and translated into English in 1970, is still the definitive presentation.  This revised edition will put these new translations of Bonhoeffer’s writings into their proper context.

That Bonhoeffer ever came to the attention of people outside of German theological and ecumenical circles is mostly the result of Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend (though one should note that discussions about the “secularization of theology” and “the death of God” in the 1960s also played an important role in popularizing Bonhoeffer).  Bethge, who was born in 1909 and who died in 2000, received his Th.D. from Halle-Wittenberg in 1933.  From 1935 until 1940 he was Bonhoeffer’s assistant at the preacher’s seminary in Finkenwalde and in the underground collective pastorates that were formed after the Gestapo closed the illegal seminaries of the Confessing Church in September 1937.  Bethge was a main recipient of Bonhoeffer’s prison correspondence and after Bonhoeffer’s execution he became his biographer and literary executor (e.g., piecing together the Ethics [1949; Eng., 1955] and editing the Letters and Papers from Prison [1951; Eng., 1953]). Bethge, who was married to Bonhoeffer’s niece, spent his professional life telling the world about the most well-known Lutheran pastor of the twentieth century.

Like many theologies (e.g., Augustine’s, Luther’s, Kierkegaard’s, Barth’s) but unlike many others (e.g., Origen’s, Aquinas’, perhaps Schleiermacher’s), the theology of Bonhoeffer is comprehensible only in relation to the life of its originator.  The faith and order and the life and the work run together and mutually affect each other so that knowledge of the life and the actions are integral to knowledge of the faith and the theology.  Indeed the coherence between Bonhoeffer’s life and thought, their fundamental integrity, makes Bonhoeffer attractive to many, both inside and outside the Christian church. 

This new Fortress edition makes the complete text of the German seventh edition (1989) available for the first time to an English audience.  All of the materials that were omitted or edited in the 1970 edition, as well as the revisions and numerous new endnotes in the subsequent German editions, appear now in the new Fortress edition.  (Materials from the endnotes of the German eighth edition, published in 1994, as well as more recent information that has emerged in scholarly circles, have been included in the new Fortress edition.)  Needless to say, the 1970 translation has also undergone careful revision in many places.  Victoria Barnett, who has made a name for herself as a scholar of the Holocaust, is to be commended for her fine work of revising and editing this new edition.  (For those who might be intimidated by the length and intricacy of Bethge’s work, there is a shorter, though still fairly comprehensive biography that is in its own way quite good: see Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991].)

Bethge’s work is divided into three uneven parts.  The first part (“The Lure of Theology,” pp. 3-169) presents the course of Bonhoeffer’s life from his birth in Breslau, through his childhood in cosmopolitan Berlin and his decision to study theology (Tübingen and Berlin), to his years as assistant pastor in Barcelona (1928), as an assistant lecturer in Berlin (1929-1930), and as a graduate student at Union Seminary in New York (1930-1931). 

In this first section one is reminded that Dietrich and his twin sister were the sixth and seventh of eight children to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer.  When Dietrich was six the family moved to Berlin, where his father accepted the chair in psychiatry in the University. (In the twenties and thirties Karl Bonhoeffer was among the most well-known neurologists in Europe.)  From this time onward Berlin would be the intellectual and cultural center of Dietrich’s life. 

In this section Bethge also reminds the reader that both sides of Dietrich’s family included some of the most distinguished citizens of Germany.  These included pastors (e.g., his maternal great-grandfather, Karl August von Hase [1800-1890; a mediating theologian of the first order], and grandfather, Karl Alfred von Hase [1842-1914; a mediating theologian of the second order]), doctors, city council members, lawyers, military officers, and mayors.  Such facts give one pause when reflecting on the decision of several Bonhoeffer family members, including Dietrich, to participate in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

After describing the family tree, the biography moves on to analyze Bonhoeffer’s early intellectual pursuits.  Given his family’s cultural and professional sophistication and given the fact that his immediate family did not attend church, Bonhoeffer’s decision to study theology was something of an oddity.  (Some Christian celebrations were observed, but mostly at home.)  While the roots of his vocational decision are a mystery, once he made his decision he stuck with it—despite the taunting of his brothers and sisters and the concern of his parents (especially his father).

Bonhoeffer’s scholarly interests centered in the study of church history with Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and the study of systematic theology with Reinhold Seeberg (1859-1935).  Through these giants of Protestant Liberalism Bonhoeffer became thoroughly immersed in modern theology and historical-critical methodology.  Although he almost wrote his dissertation in patristics under friend-of-the-family Harnack, he instead wrote a dissertation for Seeberg that explored the theological and sociological dimensions of the church.  This initial dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, was completed in 1927, when he was twenty-one.  For it he was honored by the Berlin faculty with the rare mark of summa cum laude.

During his later student years he also came under the influence of Karl Barth’s (1886-1968) emerging theology.  While Bonhoeffer never formally studied under Barth, he was in occasional contact with him, especially in the 1930s, and one may detect Barthian influences on Bonhoeffer’s Habilitation dissertation, Act and Being (1930), and on his other works of the mid-1930s, especially Discipleship.  (For a compelling study of Barth’s influence on Bonhoeffer’s theology, see A. Pangritz, Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000].)  Bethge demonstrates both where Bonhoeffer and Barth are similar (e.g., the early Barth’s critique of “religion”) and at which points Bonhoeffer detected weaknesses in Barth (e.g., Barth’s formalistic understanding of the freedom of God).  After 1933, of course, Bonhoeffer could only defend Barth and the Barthians rather than to call them into question.

Because of the intricate weaving together of continental theology, philosophy, and sociology in Bonhoeffer’s dissertations, one appreciates Bethge’s careful unraveling of Bonhoeffer’s ideas.  Such analysis helps to make the dissertations easier to understand.  Bethge demonstrates that many of the ideas presented here became foundational for Bonhoeffer’s later thought and actions.  For example, there is Bonhoeffer’s fundamental commitment to the concrete (in both ecclesiology and theological anthropology) rather than to the abstract, his commitment to the communal nature of both church and human beings, and his commitment to both the revelation of God and to the sociality of the church.  Throughout his dissertations he displays a creative blend of liberal theology, idealist and existentialist philosophies, and dialectical-revelational theology.

 Bonhoeffer, however, aimed at nothing less than bringing together his divergent heritages: to bring sociology and the critical tradition into harmony with the theology of revelation, that is, to reconcile Troeltsch and Barth.  Applying the irreconcilable to the concrete church, he used a phrase from Hegel’s The Absolute Religion.  Hegel’s words were “God existing as community”; in Bonhoeffer they became “Christ existing as church-community.”  …There was a personal concern in Bonhoeffer’s concept that established the word of God in a sociological community of persons.  In the living church, salvation acquired its pro me in an extra me, without the one disappearing in favor of the other (83).

 The second part (“The Cost of Being a Christian”), the largest in the biography (pp. 173-678), moves from Bonhoeffer’s first years as a lecturer in theology in Berlin (1931-1933) through his years as a pastor in London (1933-1935) and as active participant in ecumenical conferences (most famously at Fanö in 1934, where he revealed his pacifism), to his work in the Confessing Church, which included his assignment as administrator/professor in the illegal seminary in Zingst which then relocated to Finkenwalde (1935-1937).  This second part ends with a lengthy analysis of the discussions leading up to the establishment of the illegal “collective pastorates,” wherein seminarians in the Confessing Church received contextual education under several pastors in various cities in Germany (1938-1940).

Barely a few months into the Hitler regime, Bonhoeffer came into conflict with the Deutschen Christen and was soon under surveillance for his less-than-secret opposition to Hitler and the attempted nazification of the Evangelical Church.  His theological lectures throughout this whole period were delivered with eyes firmly fixed on the developing political situation in Germany.  Throughout this period Bonhoeffer was also viewed with suspicion by many within the Confessing Church itself because they thought he was too radical in his ideas.  For example, the so-called “Bethel Confession” that Bonhoeffer and Herman Sasse (1895-1976) wrote over the course of several weeks of “happy collaboration” (Sasse)  in August 1933 was criticized and so watered down by others (e.g. eliminating its section on “the Jewish question,” adding laudatory sections on the aims of the government) that Bonhoeffer refused to sign the final version.  It hurt Bonhoeffer that respected Lutheran theologians, such as Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938), who held a positive attitude toward the Nazis in 1933, firmly rejected Bonhoeffer’s and Sasse’s joint effort.  Later, many Lutherans could not accept Bonhoeffer’s rejection of “the orders of creation” nor could they comprehend his pacifism.  (That Bethge documents the profound levels of disorder and theological disarray within the “Confessing Church” is another lasting contribution of this book.  It is amazing–and depressing–to read what the theologians were debating—and were not debating—as the Nazi war-machine was kicking into full gear…)

In the years between 1932 and 1937 knowledge of such suspicions within the Confessing Church itself did not hinder Bonhoeffer from subtly and not-so-subtly attacking through his lectures and ecumenical addresses both the idolatry of the state and idolatry in the church.  His lectures in the early- and mid-thirties included such topics as the history of systematic theology, ecclesiology, “creation and sin,” theological anthropology, Christology, Hegel’s philosophy of religion and, in the preacher’s seminary, lectures on “discipleship,” the Psalms, and Christian community. 

Of significance in this period is Bonhoeffer’s “momentous turning point” in 1932 “over whether a theologian could also be a Christian” (206).  In this year Bonhoeffer underwent a fundamental shift in his life.  In a 1936 letter to an acquaintance, in which he looked back on his life, he wrote that prior to 1932 he had plunged into theological work

 in a very unchristian way… At that time I had turned the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage for myself… 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… 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 clear to me how far that must go (204-205).

After 1932 he thus became much more intensely involved in the ecumenical movement, an involvement that later made it possible for him to play an important role in the conspiracy.

Of additional theological interest in the period after 1932 are Bonhoeffer’s repeated criticisms of traditional Lutheran understandings of the “order of creation.”  For Bonhoeffer such a notion is deeply problematic not only because it is inevitably an artificial human construct that serves sinful human beings’ pride and power over against other human beings and the rest of creation, but also because such an “order,” however construed, has been radically qualified by the new creation inaugurated by Christ.  To focus on a supposed “order of creation” established in ancient Eden (which Bonhoeffer did not hesitate to call “mythical”) not only disregards modern biology and anthropology, but fails to acknowledge that human beings have always lived “on this side of Eden.”  Christians today can thus only talk about “a fallen world,” even in our efforts to talk about the “original perfection” of creation and of human beings and the development of human families and other social structures and duties in various cultures in history.

Especially in his 1932 lectures on “creation and sin” (published as Schöpfung und Fall, 1937; Eng., Creation and Fall, 1966) Bonhoeffer argued for a more dynamic understanding of creaturely “orders” on the basis of what he called the “orders of preservation” (also called “mandates” in the Ethics; these include the traditional loci of the vocatus, e.g., labor, marriage, government, and church).  For Bonhoeffer each ordnung is conditioned by sin and evil and has always been historical, dynamic, and open to change (especially in light of the eschatological creation that has dawned in the death and resurrection of Christ).  This understanding argues that “the orders” are not “static” and unchangeable structures that are divinely willed from eternity for the duration of creation (as in Emil Brunner’s [1889-1966] and Paul Althaus’ [1888-1966] theologies, for example; cf. Werner Elert [1885-1954], Morphologie des Luthertums, 2nd ed., 2 vols. [Munich: Beck, 1952], 2:37-79).  Rather, according to Bonhoeffer, nations and earthly authorities are only provisional, historical realities, and thus open to criticism and change if they do not truly serve the needs of other human beings, the needs of human communities, and the needs of creation itself.  Christians are to seek social stability, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the neighbor.  For Christians, service “at the center of life” in creation receives its insights from the new creation that has dawned in Jesus, who is also “at the center of life” and not “at the borders.”  Thus, for Bonhoeffer, eschatology is the key to the doctrine of creation and to Christian ethics and to the “ordering” of life in church.  The theology of “order of creation,” which had been taken over and used by the Deutschen Christen to purify the church and order it along Nazi-Aryan lines, is a false source of ethics and a false basis for ordering the church.  Bonhoeffer’s criticism of the traditional “orders of creation” would intensify in prison as he experienced life “from below,” i.e., from the perspective of those who suffer oppression.

Anyone who would seek to articulate and defend a theology of Schöpfungsordnung(en) in the present will have to concern himself with Bonhoeffer’s critique of that notion and its use by the Deutschen Christen, as well as by theologians like Brunner, Althaus, Elert, and others of more recent vintage.

The confused situation surrounding the revisions and publication of the Bethel Confession partly contributed to Bonhoeffer’s departure for a London pastorate in late 1933.  He remained there until 1935, when he returned to Germany to assume the leadership of the preacher’s seminary in Zingst and then in Finkenwalde.

As word of Nazi atrocities in Poland and elsewhere reached Bonhoeffer through his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi (who worked for Colonel Oster and Admiral Canaris in the Abwehr, the Office of Military Intelligence), Bonhoeffer was forced to wrestle yet again with the relation between theology and ethics, between faith and action.  Hitler’s successes “were bringing disaster on Germany” (675).  All those who were capable of acting to stop Hitler’s aggressions “suffered from paralysis of conscience” (ibid).  Commenting on Oster’s daring plan to warn the Dutch of Hitler’s imminent attack, Bethge remarks:

 The patriot had to perform what in normal times is the action of a scoundrel.  “Treason” had become true patriotism, and what was normally “patriotism” had become treason.  An officer saw the diabolical reversal of all values, and acted entirely alone to prevent new outrages in other countries…and the pastor [Bonhoeffer] approved of what he did…  For people and nations who have never found themselves in the unhappy state of divided loyalty, it is difficult in retrospect to empathize with this borderline situation where the most conscientious person was the one who had to accept disgrace.  To measure the situation of that era by the yardstick of our own principles or deliberately overlook its peculiar characteristics is to distort it and fail to see the realities of those months.  Germany’s name could no longer be rescued through ordinary but blind respectability.  Throughout the world, “treason” is normally viewed as a horrible sentiment, characterized by speculation for personal advantage and the intent to injure one’s own country.  The opposite was true of Oster, Dohnanyi, and Bonhoeffer (ibid).

When one realizes that some Germans (and others) still consider these men to have been traitors to their country, one might better appreciate such apologia-pro-vita-sua paragraphs as the above.  (In 1996 a German student in his twenties defended in one of my classes his judgment that Bonhoeffer had acted traitorously and had received what he deserved.  This was the same year that a Berlin court confirmed the earlier judgment of a Bavarian court to invalidate the treason verdict against Bonhoeffer and the other conspirators.)

            Since Bonhoeffer’s license to teach in a university had been rescinded in 1936 and his freedom to publish taken away a few years later, and because it appeared likely that he was going to be drafted into the German army in 1940, one would have thought he would have attempted to escape Germany in the late thirties.  He could have done so on his second, ultimately short trip to America in 1939.  But it was not to be.  As he told his American friend and theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), “I have made a mistake in coming to America.  I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany.  I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…” (655).

The third part (“Sharing Germany’s Destiny,” pp. 681-933) details Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, his arrest and imprisonment for his work in the Abwehr, and ultimately his execution. 

When he returned from America to Germany in 1939 Bonhoeffer was able to secure a military exemption through his employment in the Abwehr, where his brother-in-law, von Dohnanyi, was chief counsel.  Almost immediately Bonhoeffer was put to use in the resistance that centered in the Abwehr.  He made several trips to Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden, ostensibly on behalf of the Abwehr but secretly in service of the conspiracy.  These trips made it possible for Bonhoeffer to contact his friends in the ecumenical movement with important information about the resistance and to seek to legitimize the conspiracy vis-à-vis church and secular leaders outside of Germany (e.g., in England and Sweden).  Bonhoeffer was also able to assist the Abwehr in getting more than a dozen Jewish individuals into Switzerland (“Operation 7”) in 1941-42.

Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer were arrested in April, 1944, to be interrogated for the following matters: 1) Bonhoeffer’s military exemption, which the Gestapo judged to be a convenient way to avoid observation by the Gestapo; 2) “Operation 7,” which had come to the Gestapo’s attention; 3) The nature of Bonhoeffer’s journeys outside of Germany for the Abwehr; and 4) Bonhoeffer’s work in assisting pastors in the Confessing Church to avoid military service.  While in prison, however, important documentation that Dohnanyi had collected on German atrocities since the mid-1930s was discovered by the Gestapo.  One of the most interesting sections in the revised edition of the biography is a new appendix that contains notes made in 1945-46 by Bonhoeffer’s sister, Christine von Dohnanyi.  These notes concern the discovery by the Gestapo in October 1944 of her husband’s secret documentation.  The discovery of this documentation, the so-called “Zossen Files,” provided the Gestapo with the evidence that led to the intensification of the interrogations of Bonhoeffer and his comrades and eventually to their executions in April 1945.

Of particular theological interest in this third section is Bethge’s analysis of Bonhoeffer’s prison correspondence and the unfinished Ethics (which Bonhoeffer had been working on since 1940), which helps to differentiate Bonhoeffer’s thought from those who modified it for their own purposes in the 1960s and 1970s (cf. Robinson’s Honest to God [1963], van Buren’s The Secular Meaning of the Gospel [1963], Cox’s The Secular City [1965], and Altizer’s/Hamilton’s Radical Theology and the Death of God [1966]).  Here Bethge exegetes such famous expressions as “a world come-of-age,” the “worldliness” of Christian faith, “nonreligious Christianity,” “nonreligious interpretation” of the Bible, and so on.  These reflections from Tegel Prison, which also have been used by such theologians as Dorothee Sölle (Christ the Representative), Jürgen Moltmann (The Crucified God), and Eberhard Jüngel (God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism), cannot be divorced from Bonhoeffer’s pre-Tegel period.  Indeed, Bethge warns the would-be secularist who wants to coopt Bonhoeffer’s ideas:

 …[I]t can be ruled out that Bonhoeffer’s new attempt at a theology of God’s solidarity with the world was intended to proclaim a simplistic intellectual open-endedness.  On the contrary, he commended himself to the Holy Spirit precisely at the point where he set about taking the “etsi deus non daretur” seriously.  The autonomy of “the world come of age” of which he now began to speak is not to be understood as the freedom of a Titan, but a freedom born of humility.  The inevitable theological consequence—as inevitable as it was difficult—was Bonhoeffer’s attempt to preserve a place in his new thinking for the “arcane discipline” (854).

If one is interested in pursuing further Bonhoeffer’s provocative notions from the Tegel period, there is the excellent discussion by Ralf Wüstenberg, A Theology of Life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), and also the essay, “The ‘Nonreligious Interpretation of Biblical Concepts’” by Bonhoeffer’s most famous and most influential student, Gerhard Ebeling (1912-2001), in Ebeling, Word and Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963), 98-161.

Those already familiar with certain ambiguities in Bonhoeffer’s life and ideas will readily appreciate the difficulty that Bethge faced when he set out to write his book.  Many questions about Bonhoeffer’s life and thought still remain fully unanswered, even after forty years of substantial investigation of the relatively small number of primary texts (16 slim volumes in English translation).  But the place to begin such investigations is still Bethge.  While this massive biography will not appeal to the masses like “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace,” perhaps the film will lead some to the former’s pages.  Even if a person might have read the first English edition long ago, such a classic deserves to be read more than once.  Those who have read the earlier edition will without doubt discover in this new one knowledge and insights that escaped them previously.

Are there weaknesses in this biography?  Yes.  There is some repetition of facts and at times Bethge’s narrative is a bit tedious.  On occasion one wishes that Bethge would have given more information (e.g., regarding Bonhoeffer’s theological hermeneutics) and in other places one feels he gave too much (e.g., some of the intricate politics with the German church struggle, particularly surrounding the collective pastorates).  But on the whole this is a great piece of art.

Are there problems and dangers in Bonhoeffer’s theology?  Of course.  Whose theology does not contain these?  But to analyze these, another essay than the present one would have to be written.

Finally, I cannot help but mention that one of the highpoints of my student days was a lunch with Bethge in Pritzlaff Hall on Concordia Seminary’s campus and a dinner that evening with him and his wife, Renate, back in the early 1990s.  At lunch that day each of the twelve or so ELCA and LCMS graduate students around the table was given an opportunity to ask a question or two and to receive a response from him.  I was struck by Bethge’s patience, his kind and gracious demeanor, and by his careful, often witty responses to our sometimes inelegant questions.  It was a memorable conversation, a memorable occasion.

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