There are many ways to know Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his relatively brief 39 years on this earth, he lived a very full and multi-dimensional life. If you know him only as a German pastor who was martyred by the Nazis, you actually know very little of him. In my estimation, Dietrich’s greatest legacy was his theology—his insightful, even breakthrough interpretation of Christian doctrine, dogma, and biblical instruction.
It’s true Bonhoeffer was a caring pastor and a resistance organizer who was imprisoned, then killed by special order of Hitler. These elements of his story understandably attract attention, but it was his deep, complex, and well-developed theological precepts that informed all aspects of his life, thought, and work. Knowing Dietrich the Theologian is the best way to fully appreciate what is behind his enduring legacy.
Clifford Green, executive director of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition, and a translator of DB’s dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, and magnum opus, Ethics, entitled his definitive 1999 treatment of this question as: Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, UK). Now, before you dismiss this blog post as dismally boring, let me emphasize Bonhoeffer’s theological reflections were hardly dry and academic. Instead, his beliefs drove him to courageous—even heroic—action. For example, DB’s idea that the church, as Christ’s physical form on the earth, existed “for others,” (reflective of Christ who was, in DB’s words, “the man for others”), meaning, the Christian community exists to serve the needs of others. This led to DB’s helping Jews escape their Nazi predators, his training of pastors that would undermine Hitler’s attempt to coopt the church, his work as a spy for the resistance movement within the military, and, ultimately, his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
If Green’s subtitle gets to the core of DB’s theological idea, then the late Professor John Godsey’s outline of the five pillars of DB’s theology gets to the basic framework for that idea. In a 1991 article for Christian History, Godsey distilled his 1960 definitive work, The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, into five component parts: 1) Concrete, “This World” Revelation, 2) Christ and the Church, 3) Faith and Obedience, 4) Christian Living and Obedience, 5) His Most Controversial Ideas. Let me see if I can, in turn, distill each of Godsey’s part into a line or two:
Concrete, “This World” Revelation refers to the literal appearance of God in human flesh, in concrete reality, and engaged with human history, in real ways and in real time. This means everything we believe as Christian doctrine has social implications—an effect on how we relate to others.
1. Godsey, John D. “Bonhoeffer’s Costly Theology.” Christian History, 1991, 1-22.
Christ and the Church refers, first, to the centrality of Christ in all things—human existence, history, even nature. This is a very real and historical Jesus, a person that walked the earth, “taught and healed, forgave sinners, and died on a cross.”
Faith and Obedience speaks to the balance between law and gospel. Most traditional Lutherans of Bonhoeffer’s day saw the law as a device for proving that no one could truly obey the law, but he saw the law as complementary to grace. In his seminal study of the Sermon on the Mount, The Cost of Discipleship, he calls Christians to the “costly grace” expressed in “following Jesus and obeying his commands.”
Christian Living and Ethics are expressed through the account of the communal life of DB’s seminarians contained in his second popular book, Life Together. In their daily routine of spiritual disciplines woven through their work, the students learned that “self-justification and judging others go together,” and that “grace and serving others also go together.” It was during this time DB began working as a spy for the military resistance movement, adhering to his precept of “responsibility.” This tenet implies Christians are obligated to act, not simply believe.
Most Controversial Ideas include the “non-religious” understanding of the Christian faith—a way for expressing the gospel in a progressively more secular time. DB saw “religious people” as individualistic, in their “concern for saving one’s own soul,” and God as a handy device to “fill gaps in knowledge or solve personal problems,” and “arrogance” by thinking God favors particular believers over all others. “Like Jesus,” Godsey writes about DB’s fundamental idea, “we are to be there for others in the joys and sorrows of mundane life.”
This is a good summary of the core concepts that form Dietrich the Theologian. They are not only explicated in his tomes, Sanctorum Communio, Act and Being, and Ethics, but illustrated in Discipleship, Life Together, Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible, and even in his letters and notes sent to family and friends. Consider this pearl from a letter DB wrote to his confidant, Eberhard Bethge, after a year in prison, “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general.” It’s a profound observation for someone who’s been separated from all his loved ones, verbally, if not physically, abused, and subjected to every form of fear in the present and anxiety about the future.
For DB, prayer, Bible reading, speaking of God, good and evil, philosophy, theology, were all constants, right up to his death, no matter where he was or who was or was not with him. DB’s life, worldview, epic decisions, courses of action, hope, and even despair revolved around and emanated from his understanding of the centrality of the divine. This is Dietrich the Theologian.
2. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and papers from prison. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Enlarged ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. p. 279