DIETRICH BONHOEFFER (1906–45)
A Classic Theologian
May 18, 2018
by Stephen Nichols President, Reformation Bible College
On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.
But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.
Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:
At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.
As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”
Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.
Young Professor in Berlin
He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.
As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The Church Pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got Bonhoeffer, a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.
Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.
When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.
Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “Because I am a preacher of the word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.”
The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwalde, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.
Letters from Prison
The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.
Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark upon. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.
The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.
In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.
Cost of Discipleship
In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.” To be in Christ means, we are not only united to him in his death; we are united to him in his life. Bonhoeffer once preached a sermon on Colossians 3:1–4, where Paul reminds us that we are dead, that we are alive in Christ, and that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
Bonhoeffer notes, “Our true life is hidden — but it is grounded firmly in eternity.”
While he was in prison, Bonhoeffer worked on what would be his magnum opus, Ethics. He was unable to finish it, though he wrote most of it. It was published posthumously. In this book, Bonhoeffer spoke of the Christian life as the Christusleben, the life-in-Christ. This is truly living, truly being what God intended us to be. Sending us into the stratosphere, Bonhoeffer writes, “So heaven is torn open above us humans, and the joyful message of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ rings out from heaven to earth as a cry of joy. I believe, and in believing I receive Christ. I have everything. I live before God.”
Whether Bonhoeffer was justified in his actions of conspiring to assassinate Hitler or not, or whether his death is an execution or a martyrdom, one thing emerges. Bonhoeffer’s contentment, even joy, while being in a Nazi prison cell was rooted in the reality that he was dead and that he was raised to new life in Christ. He could live in the world and for the world, because he lived from the cross. He lived from his identity in Christ.
Beginning of Life
Bonhoeffer was moved from Tegel prison to the dungeon prison beneath the Gestapo headquarters in September of 1944, just as the Allied Forces intensified their bombing of Berlin. Almost nightly Bonhoeffer heard the whistle of the bombs, felt the foundations shake, and wondered if this would be his last night on earth. In the trickle of letters, which he was able to get out, he repeatedly asked for prayer. In Life Together, published in 1938, he spoke of intercessory prayer as one of the sweet gifts that God gives us. God gives us the gift of praying for others. Bonhoeffer clung to those prayers as if his very life depended on them.
On February 7, 1945, the day after his thirty-ninth birthday, Bonhoeffer was transferred to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, then on to Regensburg. On April 8, he and other prisoners were transported to Flossenburg. Along the way, he preached a sermon. They were jostling around on crudely erected benches packed in the back of a transport truck. Large canvases were pulled over the steel frame. Bonhoeffer and the others were emaciated, mere shadows of their former selves. And Bonhoeffer preached a sermon to them. He led them in the Lord’s Prayer, and they sang a hymn.
The next day, April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged on the gallows on a concrete slab at Flossenburg Concentration Camp. His final words were these: “This is for me the end, the beginning of life.”
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