A Brief Introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Mentors offer wisdom and guidance. They are also someone against whom to test ideas and develop our own thinking. Many have found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived through the storm that engulfed the world in the mid-twentieth century, one such mentor.

Bonhoeffer was born into the sophisticated German professional upper-middle classes. His father was a distinguished psychiatrist. At an early age that he indicated that his chosen professional path was as a theologian and it was as a theologian that he grew into the profound faith that enabled him to resist the pressures of the Nazi era.

At university he studied under the great names of the period but he was decisively affected by the radical writings of Karl Barth (1886-1968) who was challenging the humanistic liberalism of the nineteenth century. For Barth, God is only known in the revelation found in Jesus Christ. This Christological focus was to set the agenda for Bonhoeffer. He constantly asked where Jesus Christ is to be found in the world. ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today?’ In a turbulent world this was to prove a strange and exciting journey. In a short introduction it is only possible to pick out four areas where he struggled with this question. 

Bonhoeffer was, first of all, caught up in the emerging Ecumenical Movement of the twenties and thirties. This gave him strong international links that held under the stress of the Nazi regime, especially with the World Council of Churches in Geneva and Bishop Bell of Chichester, avenues of communication invaluable to the German resistance. 

Bonhoeffer identified himself with the Confessing Church that resisted the Nazification of the Protestant churches. He became the Director of their seminary in Finkenwalde (in Pomerania). For Bonhoeffer, witnessing under persecution meant testing faith to the utmost. Out of this came two key publications: The Cost of Discipleship, which sets out the demands of following Christ; and Life Together, that describes the Church in term of community life. 

When the seminary was closed down Bonhoeffer was found a job in military intelligence. This became a cover for his part in the resistance and the plot to assassinate Hitler*. But here was a real moral dilemma, not only to condone murder but also, contrary to the whole Lutheran tradition, to rebel against the state. This struggle can be traced in his unfinished work, Ethics. 

Eventually Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. This gave him time to put his reflections into a wider historical context. The Letters and Papers from Prison, smuggled out to his friend Eberhard Bethge, contain the notes of his thinking. Bonhoeffer is really the first to wrestle with the implications of the secularisation arising from the Enlightenment. What is it like to retain faith when God is absent? Can we think of a ‘religionless Christanity’? These are ideas that have been chewed over ever since and very much with us today. If we are interested in pursuing them then there is no better stimulus than Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenbürg camp a few days before it was liberated.

For Further Reading: Keith Clements: SPCK Introduction to Bonhoeffer. London, 2010. 2

Paul Ballard is an SCM Friend.


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Resource type: 
Theology and Stories
Resource theme: 
Faith in Action