Thursday, May 06, 2021

Heroes of the Faith: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23

[Jesus] fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. – Matthew 26:39-40

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Basic Facts

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German pastor and theologian, and a voice of resistance against Hitler’s Nazi regime. He is best known today through his books, especially The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Letters and Papers from Prison.

- Early in his career, Bonhoeffer served both as a pastor and an academician. He was deeply influenced by a year of ministry in Spain and a year of study in New York City, and developed a rich understanding of the Gospel’s demand that Christians must stand up for the poor and the outcast. He was also shaped by his studies of the Sermon on the Mount, and saw peacemaking as one of the great callings of the church.

- Back in Germany, Bonhoeffer became a prominent voice of resistance against the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews and against the German church’s capitulation to Hitler. This resistance ultimately led to his execution in 1945.

Timeline of Bonhoeffer's Ministry:

1927 – Earns a degree in theology

1928 – Serves as a pastor of a church in Barcelona, Spain, just as the Great Depression hits

1929 – Begins work as a professor of theology at Berlin University

1930 – Goes to New York to study at Union Theological Seminary; is deeply impressed by the spirituality of the oppressed black minorities in Harlem

1931 – Appointed youth secretary for an international ecumenical movement

1932 – Lives in a slum neighborhood in Berlin in order to teach confirmation classes there

1933 – The German state church capitulates to the Nazis by barring Jewish-heritage pastors from serving and by requiring an oath of allegiance to Hitler before ordination; Bonhoeffer speaks out in immediate protest; goes to England to try to rally international and ecumenical resistance

(During the 1930s and ‘40s, most German churches gave in to Nazi propaganda, and many embraced it enthusiastically. Many clergy swore oaths to Hitler and dressed in Nazi “brownshirt” uniforms. Pictures: Bishop Friedrich Coch welcoming Hitler with a Nazi salute; a Nazi swastika flag flying over the door of Cologne Cathedral)

1934 – The “Confessing Church” (of which Bonhoeffer was a part) takes a stand against Nazism

1935 – Bonhoeffer begins directing and teaching an unregistered seminary at Finkenwalde

1936 – He is declared “a pacifist and enemy of the state”; barred from teaching at the University

1937 – Withdraws from the ecumenical movement and the Confessing Church in protest because of their timidity; the Gestapo closes his seminary; he writes The Cost of Discipleship

1938 – He is forbidden to live or work in Berlin; writes Life Together

1939 – Has an opportunity to escape the war and take a prestigious professorship in the US, but he decides to remain in Germany; becomes a civilian agent of the Abwehr (German intelligence) in order to join a conspiracy to remove Hitler from power

1940 – Gestapo shuts down his pastoral seminars and forbids him from public speaking

1941-1942 – Bonhoeffer uses his Abwehr connections to help many Jews escape to Switzerland; continues his work as a double-agent by contacting the Allies to let them know the coup plans

1943 – Arrested for sedition and held in Tegel Prison in Berlin; here he writes the letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge which will later be published as Letters and Papers from Prison

1944 – Gestapo uncovers the full conspiracy of which Bonhoeffer had been a part; Bonhoeffer has a chance to escape but chooses not to, worried that his family might be targeted

1945 – Bonhoeffer is executed at Flossenburg concentration camp, one month before the war ends


“Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.”

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church…Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth…. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure a remission of sins…. In such a church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

“Christ is ‘the man for others,’ and the church is only the church when it is there for others.”

“We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

“In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life…God uses us in his dealings with others.”

“Christians stand by God in the hour of his grieving; that is what distinguishes Christians from pagans…Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way…. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event.”