In the process of completing the Christian Devotional Classics series, I was inspired to dig into material which I wrote on the prayer life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for Theology and Practice of Prayer1 Click here for Who Am I? Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a Historical Mentor in Prayer: Part 1. As you read Part 2, reflect upon how you respond to your
- upbringing: familial — including expectations and educational/cultural power (or lack of it), cultural, educational, ethnic, religious, socio-economic . . .
- your international/cross-cultural relationships
- academic mentors and gatekeepers, particularly when one’s conscience is challenged.
- community — how do you understand/define your closest/deepest community?
- Lord (i.e., Jesus the Christ) with your head, heart, and hands in all aspects of life (including vocation).
- “legacy” as you perceive it to be developing.
Who Am I? – A Glimpse of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Context
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was born into a “middle-class,” aristocratic Prussian family which moved to a Berlin suburb when his father Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer (1868-1948) was appointed Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at University of Berlin, the most highly-regarded chair in Germany at the time. Karl and his wife Paula (1874-1951) valued education, the arts, the state, the church as an institution, the family, and the Protestant work ethic. The children’s early schooling began with Paula and was continued by governesses from the Herrnhut community. Paula’s mother was a German countess. Her father was a practical theology professor and a military chaplain, who briefly served Kaiser Wilhem II. She had a grandfather who had been a famous church historian at the University of Jena.
Walter (1899-1918), one of Dietrich’s older brothers, was killed while serving Germany in World War I. Karl struggled with Nazi government requests to assist with the experimental programs and prisoner evaluations denounced by Dietrich. Dietrich’s twin sister Sabine (1906-1999) and her husband, a Jew who practiced law, fled to England during Nazi rule. Dietrich, along with one of his brothers and two of his brother-in-laws, were executed by the Nazis for their part in the German Resistance.
Although Karl was an agnostic and his wife Paula did not attend a local congregation, Dietrich grew up with a longing to be a “man of God,” like those found in the biblical stories read to him by his mother and taught by his governesses. Despite his father’s push toward scientific research, Dietrich chose theological studies first at Tubingen University, then at the University of Berlin. In between he was drawn into the sociality of the Body of Christ by a visit to Rome, where he was tempted to become a Roman Catholic (Marty, 156). Afterward Dietrich became heavily influenced by Karl Barth’s Christocentrism and remained in correspondence with him throughout his life. His thesis Sanctorum Communio (Communion of Saints, 1930) began as an exploration of a theology of sociality which became central to his understanding of the church. As Clifford J. Green writes in The sociality of Christ and humanity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s early theology, 1927-1933, “Christ as ‘the man for others’ and the life of the Christian and the church as ‘being for others’ are simple yet rich and pregnant formulas which epitomize in a new context the import of the early theology of sociality” (1972, 332).2
Unlike many of his Lutheran colleagues, Bonhoeffer traveled for pastoral and educational responsibilities. His time in Barcelona, New York City, and London opened his eyes to the perspectives of those in positions of weakness. His interactions with the two Niebuhrs and a “soul-filled” African-American Baptist Church while at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, were particularly formative in his response to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Green writes on Bonhoeffer’s conversion:
In 1932, as Bethge has documented, a personal liberation occurred which illuminates the theological path he had already traveled as it directed the course upon which he then embarked. Without a knowledge of this autobiographical dimension, understanding of Bonhoeffer’s theological development would be darkened by inner obscurity or externally imposed speculation, or both.
Nachfolge [The Cost of Discipleship] is the direct theological expression of Bonhoeffer’s personal liberation in 1932. Beneath its exegetical, ecclesiastical, and political concerns runs a deep, personal concern of the theologian himself. It is impossible properly to understand the book without knowing this fact, and seeing how it influences the theology, exegesis, and the portrait of Luther. Yet when we recognize that Bonhoeffer’s existential commitment to faith and the church in 1932 gives an autobiographical dimension to the theology of Nachfolge, we also see how the new theme of discipleship is related to the theology of sociality which preceded it: “discipleship” does not replace the theology of sociality; it adds to it and presupposes it. Bethge has shown that while Nachfolge was not fully articulated or published until 1937, its basic themes were all present in nuce in an address Bonhoeffer gave in November, 1932, shortly after his experience on “becoming a Christian” . . . To understand that there is an autobiographical relationship, as well as a theological connection, between Bonhoeffer’s formative writings and his book on discipleship is also to illuminate his prison writings (3).
According to Eberhard Bethge, a close friend and colleague, “the pivot of all of Bonhoeffer’s liberating analysis was Christology” (Marty, 49). Wustenberg states, Bonhoeffer throughout his life and work sought “to provide a hermeneutic, whereby Christ would become Lord of the world again” (Marty, 68).
Christocentrism provided the call to challenge “cheap grace” at every turn, to be a founding member of the Confessing Church which stood against the German Protestant church’s submission to total Nazi authority instead of Christ as Lord 3, to create Finkenwalde Seminary (1935-1937) to train pastors in Christ-likeness instead of continuing in his career as pastor and university lecturer, to join public resistance to Hitler’s genocidal programs against the Jewish people 4, to decline positions abroad to avoid being at home during the war, and to eventually shift from pacifism to active resistance as a double agent with the Abwehr for the sake of what he considered the true church in Germany, i.e., the Confessing Church. As Bethge writes in “Preface to new edition” of Letters and papers from prison: New greatly enlarged edition, Bonhoeffer’s “theology is interwoven with the course of his life.” (1997, viii).
In 1937, the Gestapo closed and arrested 27 members of Finkenwalde. The resistance movement failed to assassinate Hitler. The Gestapo uncovered and arrested members including Bonhoeffer on April 5, 1943. He spent his final two years in prison. Marty comments, Bonhoeffer had “unwelcome solitude, but one that allowed for reading and writing” (53). In addition he sustained his “old piety, rhythms” blessing not only those in prison with him, but also many others through his letter writing (Marty, 56) and joy despite the “fragmentary life” meticulously chronicled by Bethge in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A biography (2000, 86). While writing Letters and papers from prison, Bonhoeffer wrestled with God through the lens of Psalms: The prayer book of the Bible5, advocated “prayer and righteous action among men” as the next step for Christianity (1997, 400), and waited for release. He longed not only to assist the Confessing Church in reconstruction through a total separation of the Lutheran church from the state, but also to marry his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer.
In “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A biographical sketch,” Payne Best, a British airman, shares regarding Bonhoeffer’s last weeks with prisoners from a number of nationalities, “Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and 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 close” (Bethge, 1970, 83). Bonhoeffer’s last recorded words before his April 9, 1945 hanging at thirty-nine years of age at Flossenburg Concentration Camp were to Best, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life” (Bethge, 84). Dr. H. Fischer-Hullstrung came across Bonhoeffer before his execution:
Through the half-open door in one room of the hut I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God (Bethge 2000, 927-928).
In “Eberhard Bethge: Interpreter extraordinaire of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” John W. de Gruchy brings helpful attention to the fact that a significant part of the Bonhoeffer’s last two years and his thoughts during them survive due to the gathering, organizing and publishing of Letters and papers from prison by his former student, co-laborer at Finkenwalde, “custodian and interpreter,” “special friend,” “sounding board, confidant, and clarifier” Eberhard Bethge (2007, 349-368). Without the smuggled letters providing the backdrop for Bonhoeffer’s “martyrdom,” the provoking post World War II conversation with Bonhoeffer’s work serving as a mirror to self would never have occurred (Marty, 28). One may wonder whether works such as the Cost of Discipleship (originally published 1937), the second most popular 20th Century household title for Christianity Today readers6, and Life Together (originally published 1939) would have received less attention in Evangelical circles. Moreover, communist re-framers of Bonhoeffer such as Hanfried Muller would never have found “[t]he last honest Christian Westerner” (Marty, 101).
Click here for Part 3: Who Am I? – A Glimpse of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Theological Reflection.