by Rick Wadholm Jr.
It is not often that any theologian’s story captures the imagination of the general public, but one striking exception is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer continues to be widely known across a broad spectrum of the English-speaking world. His life is sufficiently of interest that one biography made the New York Times Bestseller list. His life captures the imagination as it ends so abruptly at the fall of Nazi Germany.
Bonhoeffer lived a short life (Feb. 4, 1906—Apr. 9, 1945), yet contributed significantly to theology primarily through his ecumenical engagements addressing issues of ecclesiology, particularly on behalf of a persecuted church; his pastoral writings, such as his most famous works, Discipleship and Life Together; and his incomplete end-of-life theological musings that have generated considerable controversy for some, including Ethics and the collection of Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer wrote numerous other works, including his doctoral work, Sanctorum Communio, and his habilitation written toward receiving an official teaching post in Germany, Act and Being.
Bonhoeffer was a dedicated pastor, from the first announcement of his “calling” to the life of the Church at age twelve. Bonhoeffer taught Sunday School for troubled youth in Berlin, ministered among the poor of Harlem, served German expatriates in Barcelona and London, and cared for his university and seminary students as a pastor training pastors, including during and after his time leading an underground seminary for illegal pastors of the Confessing Church. He regularly wrote letters to his students with pastoral care, spiritual direction, and biblical injunctions. His explicitly pastoral books, Discipleship and Life Together, were birthed in the midst of this latter work of training pastors in the illegal seminary at Zingst, and then Finkenwalde.
Bonhoeffer’s premature death by the Nazis, for his proposed participation in several 1943-1944 plots to assassinate Hitler, is perhaps the factor that drives the most interest in him as a historical figure. This is even more intriguing given his seeming pacifistic claims in his pastoral writings. Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the Abwehr, a German intelligence agency, was facilitated by his brother-in- law, Hans von Dohnányi, to keep Dietrich out of direct military service. This arrangement also made use of his ecumenical connections, particularly with Anglican Bishop George Bell as a liaison for sharing plans for a new German government proposed by the conspirators against Nazism. However, it was this involvement that led to his accusation, imprisonment, and execution two years later on April 9, 1945.
Three areas in which I and many others have personally found Bonhoeffer helpful include his theologies of Word, Christ, and Church. Bonhoeffer follows the traditional Lutheran contribution of “Word” as that which is the eternal Word of God made flesh, the enscriptured Word entrusted to Israel and the Church, and the proclaimed Word of God’s community. His emphasis upon this Word binds us to God’s self-revelation as the only place for our redemption. This is ubiquitous throughout Bonhoeffer’s teaching, preaching, and writing as he most clearly points to the Christ as God’s Word for us, not simply to us, but emphatically on our behalf.
The Christological center for Bonhoeffer entails a true recognition of our humanity as simultaneously dead in sin and the crucified one, but also radically raised to new life in Christ. This new life is the experience of the present body of Christ as church-community, the community of saints, who await and live toward the Lord’s coming kingdom.
For Bonhoeffer, the enfleshment of Christ is present in this community in Word and sacrament as pointing to the enfleshment of the living Christ at the right hand of the Father who persists in addressing his word to us.
Rick Wadholm, Jr. is Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies as Trinity Bible College, ND.
Bonhoeffer’s complete Works are now available in both German and English, only on Logos Bible Software. Immerse yourself in the rich theological and pastoring writings of this great German theologian with Logos: