Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pastor and Theologian, 1945

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Westminster Abbey)

Born in 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the son of a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Berlin. The younger Bonhoeffer studied theology at Tübingen and Berlin, though he was deeply influenced by Karl Barth. After his ordination, he worked in Barcelona and at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, returning to a university lectureship and pastoral work in Berlin in 1931. Opposed to the Nazi movement from the first, he sided with the Confessing Church against the soit disant German Christians, and he signed the Theological Declaration of Barmen in 1934. After serving as chaplain to a Lutheran congregation in London, he returned to Germany in 1935 to become the head of a Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde in Pomerania. It was here that he put into practice ideas he had learned in England at Kelham and Mirfield. He was forbidden by the Nazi government to teach and dismissed from his lectureship in Berlin in 1936. In 1937 the seminary at Finkenwalde was closed by the government (stimulating Bonhoeffer to write his treatise on Christian fellowship, Life Together). On the outbreak of the Second World War Bonhoeffer was in America on a lecture tour, but he felt it his duty to return to Germany despite Reinhold Neibuhr’s urging him to remain in the United States.

His defiant opposition to the Nazi regime (including attempts at mediating between Germans opposed to Hitler and the British government, and his joining a number of high-ranking military officers in a plan to assassinate Hitler) led to his arrest in 1943. After imprisonment in Buchenwald he was hanged by the Gestapo at Flossenbürg in 1945.

In Celebrating the Saints, Robert Atwell writes that Bonhoeffer’s experiences “led him to propose a more radical theology in his later works, which have been influential among post-war theologians”. He is in particular considered a forerunner of the “death of God” movement in 1960s liberal protestant theology. However, this is to read one of his best-known works, a collection of his Letters and Papers from Prison, out of the context of his surroundings and other writings. As a radical theologian (which Bonhoeffer arguably was), he is by his misinterpreters not thought of as one who gets to the root of the matter, as the word implies, but as an iconoclast. “Yet he was and remained a Lutheran and a very orthodox clergyman. His last act before he died was to conduct a religious service” (from the “Translator’s Preface” to Christ the Center, © 1960 Harper San Francisco). As is clear from Christ the Center, a reconstruction of Bonhoeffer’s lectures from his student’s notes, christology – and a robustly orthodox christology at that – lay at the center of Bonhoeffer’s theology. After his experiences of a German Church that lay prostrate and compliant before the pagan and destructive idolatry of Naziism, Bonhoeffer sought a radical reform of the Church, which in its existing form he thought to have no message for his time. In its place he sought a Christianity capable of dispensing with religion (understood in a Barthian sense) and with the cheap grace of religious transactions as a prerequisite of authentic biblical faith.

    Prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and other sources.

The Collect

Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, you gave grace to your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and to teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and to bear the cost of following him; Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive your word and embrace its call with an undivided heart; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The propers for the commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pastor and Theologian, are published on the Lectionary Page website.

The photograph is of the statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the western wall of Westminster Abbey, one of the series of 20th century martyrs commemorated there.

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One thought on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pastor and Theologian, 1945

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer”s Ghost pursued him through time.

    “Why”, asked the Ghost, “did one drawn to the Sermon on the Mount and to nonviolence, retaliate?”

    We guess the answer:

    The very enormity of Hitler’s evil. Even pacifists said, “We must fight!” Bonhoeffer offers an explanation, but Bonhoeffer knows the Ghost has more to say. Bonhoeffer himself knows more. Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity builds on the Sermon on the Mount. So too Bonhoeffer’s world come of age. And his famous notion of cheap grace most certainly attaches a cost to discipleship. But for doing what? There’s the rub.

    Painfully, Bonhoeffer knows there is a lasting contradiction between his actions then and what he might have done if he had had the time.

    So he is not surprised to hear the Ghost explain, “Evil for evil merely breeds more evil.. Jesus knows a better way; he is more canny. Negotiation is his style and parable his sword. He shakes the very props of Empire with a word. Why did he die? It was to show the power and shape of Abba’s love. To vindicate and demonstrate the truth of Abba’s Way..”

    The Ghost continues. “Dietrich, it is not too late. Inspire those who come after to speak what you would have spoken. Instead of creeds, obedience. Instead of a set of beliefs, a way of life. Instead of ‘church’, a practiced faith. Instead of assent to war and its ways, a removal of the sword from Caesar and the final coming of age which is Abba’s Way.

    “This way confronts but does not kill. This way puts on no airs and claims no truths. It simply acts and values Abba-like That’s all.

    “You knew it then: The old way will not work. Do not allow your legacy to venerate you for the wrong thing.”

    Bonhoeffer, like Hamlet, talks back. And, like the poet in Isaiah 6, says: “I am a man of unclean lips. Living in a world of unclean lips.”

    The Ghost replies, “You are indeed. But Abba sets you free. Then, Dietrich, if they kill, it will be for the right. Make strait the way of Abba, Dietrich. Make it strait.”

    Then on the parapet, the ghostly figure disappears. And now we hear a rising angels’ song.

    Abba whose home in heaven is
    Hallowed and holy is your name
    Let your realm come your will be done
    Till earth and heaven are the same

    Give us this day our daily bread
    Forgive the wrongs that we have done
    As we forgive those who do wrong
    Lead us not into temptation

    Deliver us from evil lord
    And guide us safely to your shore
    Yours is the power to heal and mend
    Yours is the glory ever more

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