Who Am I? Bonhoeffer as a Historical Mentor in Prayer: Part 1


Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945): German pastor/theologian who wrestled with Nazi-rule and founded the Confessing Church. Photo taken in 1939. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA.

In the process of completing the  series, I was inspired to dig into material which I wrote on the prayer life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for Theology and Practice of Prayer[1]. My intention had been to do such last fall, but I found my time too pressed with transitioning into my new role as Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network. I will begin the series with the introduction to Who Am I? Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a Historical Mentor in Prayer. I am very interested in your thoughts/insights regarding the life, ministry, and academic writing/study not only of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but also of the people of God whom he served (and/or tried to serve) during a significantly challenging period of German (and international) history.


How Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906-1945) “theology is interwoven with the course of his life” (Eberhard Bethge 1997, viii) and the various influences upon it attracts attention from many circles. In addition to his writings, libraries abound with publications by popular biographers[2], family who survived World War II[3], close friends and acquaintances[4], pioneers of the liberation movements[5], members of the “death of God” movement[6], advocates of religionless Christianity[7], and those engaged in dialogue with patriotism, pacifism, and resistance[8]. A number of movies, plays, and television shows attempt to act out the drama of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the resistance to the Nazi party before and during World War II, which ultimately led to his hanging 23 days before the surrender of Nazi forces[9].

In what manner does one find Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom Eric Metaxas calls Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy (Thomas Nelson, 2011), also a prominent figure in the history of Christian prayer for the church? Bonhoeffer’s conversion led to his acknowledgement of Christ as the Lord of all of life and the world, even in its “religionless form.” He found and taught the historic liturgical practices of the church as vital to daily discipleship and the pastoral vocation. Bonhoeffer’s “rule of life” incorporated the praying of the Psalms with an emphasis on their value at the beginning of a day filled with “righteous action.”

Praying of the Psalms was practiced not only in the “new monasticism” of Finkewalde’s, i.e., the Confessing Church Seminary led by Bonhoeffer, but personally through Nazi imprisonment up to his death. In between, his 1939 release of Psalms: The prayer book of the Bible led to the enforcement of a ban on his release of new publications, which was coupled with a ban on his preaching and teaching (first in Berlin). As Martin E Marty draws together in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and papers from prison: A biography (Princeton University Press. 2011), in some ways he was “a product of his time,” but with “the pivot of all of Bonhoeffer’s liberating analysis” being Christology, “he also transcended those times more than did most clergy” (55). As such Bonhoeffer leaves not only a legacy worth reflecting on and discussing, but also spiritual practices to follow today.

Questions for your reflection:

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) was first published in 1937 under the title Nachfolge (Discipleship). For Bob Trube‘s reflections on this classic click here..

  • In what manner do you consider Bonhoeffer “a product of his time” . . . while at the same time one who “transcended his time”?
  • Why do you think Bonhoeffer has become “popular” among so many different groups of people since his death, including Evangelicals? Note: Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (1937) reached the Final Four of ESN’s March Madness.
  • In what manner do the Psalms inform your walk with the Lord, possibly even your daily walk with the Lord and as part of the people of God?

Note: Sources Consulted for the whole project (PDF).

Click here for Part 2: Who Am I? – A Glimpse of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Context.


  1. SF/ST 777: Theology and Practice of Prayer. Laurie Mellinger, Ph.D. Evangelical Seminary. Summer 2012. Course Description: This course explores various aspects of the interplay between theology and prayer. What we believe about God determines how and why we pray; this has also been true for Christians throughout the history of the Church. We will examine both historical persons and methods of praying from a variety of Christian traditions, and discuss their potential for deepening our own relationships with God. This course provides the opportunity for students to study and experience a variety of Christian prayer forms, and to discern the theological foundations upon which they rest. We will take a historical approach, discussing prayer in the Scriptures and its application in the lives of persons of prayer throughout the Christian era. We will also consider the place and practice of prayer in the contemporary church, both for individuals and for corporate gatherings. ↩
  2. E.g., Mary Bosanquet. The life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968; Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy: A righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011. Barbour Publishing recently re-titled and re-covered Michael Van Dyke’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Opponent of the Nazi regime (2001) as The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Radical integrity. ↩
  3. E.g., Bonhoeffer’s twin sister Sabine Leibholz-Bonhoeffer wrote The Bonhoeffers: portrait of a family (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1972). Family, friends, and acquaintances are in Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann and Ronald Gregor Smith’s I knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967). ↩
  4. The most notable being Eberhard Bethge. While imprisoned Bonheoffer called upon Bethge to be his pastor through the practice of letter writing (Letters and papers from prison: New greatly expanded edition, 128). Bethge gathered and published Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Letters and papers from prison: New greatly enlarged edition. After the conclusion of World War II, Bethge organized conferences, spoke, and wrote on Bonhoeffer. ↩
  5. E.g., Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr. and Charles Marsh, eds. Theology and the practice of responsibility: essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994. ↩
  6. E.g., William Hamilton. “’The Letters Are a Particular Thorn’:Some Themes in Bonhoeffer’s PrisonWritings,” in World Come of Age. ed. Ronald Gregor Smith. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1967. ↩
  7. E.g., John A.T. Robinson. Honest to God. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1963.  Ralf K. Wüstenberg. A theology of life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing.  ↩
  8. E.g., John W. de Gruchy (2007, 361-362) considers Eberhard Bethge’s role as Bonhoeffer’s interpreter for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Stanley Hauerwas wrote Performing the faith: Bonhoeffer and the practice of nonviolence (2004) to be “no more and hopefully no less than ongoing commentary on Bonhoeffer’s extraordinary claim that if our common life rests on lies and injustice, then we cannot hope to be a community of peace. Accordingly this book is my attempt to display how the church by being the church serves the world” (14). Also see Larry L. Rasmussen with Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: His significance for North Americans. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990; Larry L. Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and resistance. Louisville, KY : Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.  ↩
  9. E.g., Bonhoeffer. Dir. Martin Doblmeier. Journey Films, 2005; Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace. Dir. Eric Till. PBS, 2000. DVD. 3; Hanged on a Twisted Cross. Dir. T.N. Mohan. Lathika International Film & Entertainment Inc, 1996. DVD; The Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler Inside Nazi Germany 1933-1945. Dir./Producer Hava Kohav Beller, 1991.  ↩

Updated: 10/27/2013. 9:09 AM.

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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  • bbdemy99@hotmail.com'
    Bob Demyanovich commented on October 27, 2013 Reply

    Are we truly in Christ? Do we prefer righteousness, truth, do we prefer Jesus:
    more than our comfort or status?
    more than our things?
    more than family?
    We can commit to a decision in advance of possible events. Will that decision stand when the outcome is imprisonment, maiming or death? Dietrich Bonhoeffer injects that decision into our places. God bless you and your family Tom.

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on October 27, 2013 Reply

    Amen! Thank-you Bob. May God richly bless you and your family. To God be the glory! In Christ, Tom

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