Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Born(1906-02-04)4 February 1906
Breslau, Province of Silesia, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire
(now Wrocław, Poland)
51°06′39″N 17°04′18″E / 51.110788°N 17.071616°E / 51.110788; 17.071616 (Birthplace of Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Died9 April 1945(1945-04-09) (aged 39)
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
EducationStaatsexamen (Tübingen), Doctor of Theology (Berlin), Privatdozent (Berlin)
Alma materEberhard Karls University of Tübingen,
Friedrich Wilhelms University of Berlin
ChurchEvangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union (1906–1933)
Confessing Church (1933–1945)
WritingsAuthor of several books and articles (see below)
Congregations served
Zion's Church congregation, Berlin
German-speaking congregations of St. Paul's and Sydenham, London
Offices held
Associate lecturer at Frederick William University of Berlin (1931–1936)
Student pastor at Technical College, Berlin (1931–1933)
Lecturer of Confessing Church candidates of pastorate in Finkenwalde (1935–1937)
TitleOrdained pastor

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German: [ˈdiːtʁɪç ˈbɔn.høː.fɐ] (About this soundlisten); 4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and key founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity's role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship has been described as a modern classic.[1]

Apart from his theological writings, Bonhoeffer was known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship, including vocal opposition to Hitler's euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews.[2] He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel prison for one and a half years. Later, he was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp.

After being accused of being associated with the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he was quickly tried along with other accused plotters, including former members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office), and then hanged on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

Early life

Childhood and early life

Bonhoeffer was born on 4 February 1906 in Breslau, then Germany now Poland, into a large family. In addition to his other siblings, Dietrich had a twin sister, Sabine Bonhoeffer Leibholz: he and Sabine were the sixth and seventh children out of eight. His father was a psychiatrist and neurologist Karl Bonhoeffer, noted for his criticism of Sigmund Freud; and his mother Paula Bonhoeffer, née von Hase, was a teacher and the granddaughter of Protestant theologian Karl von Hase and painter Stanislaus von Kalckreuth. Bonhoeffer's family dynamic and his parents' values enabled him to receive a high level of education and also encouraged his curiosity, which in turn impacted his ability to lead others around him, specifically in the church setting.[3] His oldest brother Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer became a chemist, and, along with Paul Harteck, discovered the spin isomers of hydrogen in 1929. Walter Bonhoeffer, the second born of the Bonhoeffer family, was killed in action during World War I when the twins were 12. The third Bonhoeffer child, Klaus, was a lawyer until he was executed for his involvement in the 20 July plot.[4][5][6]

Both of Bonhoeffer's older sisters, Ursula Bonhoeffer Schleicher and Christel Bonhoeffer von Dohnanyi, married men who were eventually executed by the Nazis. Christel was imprisoned by the Nazis but survived. Sabine and their youngest sister Susanne Bonhoeffer Dress each married men who survived Nazism. His cousin Karl-Günther von Hase was the German Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1970 to 1977.[citation needed] His nephew, Christoph von Dohnanyi, son of Hans von Dohnanyi and Christel Bonhoeffer von Dohnanyi, is a prominent orchestral conductor, most notably musical director of the Cleveland (OH) Orchestra from 1984 to 2002, and the London Philharmonia Orchestra.

Bonhoeffer completed his Staatsexamen, the equivalent of both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of the University of Tübingen. At the age of 21, he went on to complete his Doctor of Theology degree (Dr. theol.) from Berlin University in 1927, graduating summa cum laude.

Studies in America

Still too young to be ordained, at the age of twenty-four, Bonhoeffer went to the United States in 1930 for postgraduate study and a teaching fellowship at New York City's Union Theological Seminary. Although Bonhoeffer found the American seminary not up to his exacting German standards ("There is no theology here."),[7] he had life-changing experiences and friendships. He studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and met Frank Fisher, a black fellow-seminarian who introduced him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school and formed a lifelong love for African-American spirituals, a collection of which he took back to Germany. He heard Adam Clayton Powell Sr. preach the Gospel of Social Justice, and became sensitive to not only social injustices experienced by minorities but also the ineptitude of the church to bring about integration.[8]

Bonhoeffer began to see things "from below"—from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. He observed, "Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God...the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision." Later Bonhoeffer referred to his impressions abroad as the point at which he "turned from phraseology to reality."[7] He also learned to drive an automobile, although he failed the driving test three times.[9] He borrowed a 1924 Oldsmobile sedan from a member of the Greenville Community Church in Westchester County in order to drive to Mexico.[10]


Dietrich Bonhoeffer on a weekend getaway with confirmands of Zion's Church congregation (1932)[11]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer on a weekend getaway with confirmands of Zion's Church congregation (1932)[11]

After returning to Germany in 1931, Bonhoeffer became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin. Deeply interested in ecumenism, he was appointed by the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches (a forerunner of the World Council of Churches) as one of its three European youth secretaries. At this time he seems to have undergone something of a personal conversion from being a theologian primarily attracted to the intellectual side of Christianity to being a dedicated man of faith, resolved to carry out the teaching of Christ as he found it revealed in the Gospels.[12] On 15 November 1931—at the age of 25—he was ordained at Old-Prussian United St. Matthew [de] in Berlin-Tiergarten.

Confessing Church

Bonhoeffer's promising academic and ecclesiastical career was dramatically altered with the Nazi ascension to power on 30 January 1933. He was a determined opponent of the regime from its first days. Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he attacked Hitler and warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Führer (leader), who could very well turn out to be Verführer (misleader, or seducer). He was cut off the air in the middle of a sentence, though it is unclear whether the newly elected Nazi regime was responsible.[13] In April 1933, Bonhoeffer raised the first voice for church resistance to Hitler's persecution of Jews, declaring that the church must not simply "bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam a spoke in the wheel itself."[14]

In November 1932, two months before the Nazi takeover, there had been an election for presbyters and synodals (church officials) of the German Landeskirche (Protestant historical established churches). This election was marked by a struggle within the Old-Prussian Union Evangelical Church between the nationalistic German Christian (Deutsche Christen) movement and Young Reformers—a struggle that threatened to explode into schism. In July 1933, Hitler unconstitutionally imposed new church elections. Bonhoeffer put all his efforts into the election, campaigning for the selection of independent, non-Nazi officials.

Despite Bonhoeffer's efforts, in the rigged July election an overwhelming number of key church positions went to Nazi-supported Deutsche Christen people.[15] The Deutsche Christen won a majority in the general synod of the Old-Prussian Union Evangelical Church and all its provincial synods except Westphalia, and in synods of all other Protestant church bodies, except for the Lutheran churches of Bavaria, Hanover, and Württemberg. The non-Nazi opposition regarded these bodies as uncorrupted "intact churches," as opposed to the other so-called "destroyed churches."

In opposition to Nazification, Bonhoeffer urged an interdict upon all pastoral services (baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.), but Karl Barth and others advised against such a radical proposal.[16] In August 1933, Bonhoeffer and Hermann Sasse were deputized by opposition church leaders to draft the Bethel Confession,[17] a new statement of faith in opposition to the Deutsche Christen movement. Notable for affirming God's fidelity to Jews as His chosen people, the Bethel Confession was so watered down to make it more palatable that Bonhoeffer ultimately refused to sign it.[18]

In September 1933, the national church synod at Wittenberg voluntarily passed a resolution to apply the Aryan paragraph within the church, meaning that pastors and church officials of Jewish descent were to be removed from their posts. Regarding this as an affront to the principle of baptism, Martin Niemöller founded the Pfarrernotbund (Pastors' Emergency League). In November, a rally of 20,000 Deutsche Christens demanded the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible, which was seen by many as heresy, further swelling the ranks of the Emergency League.[19]

Within weeks of its founding, more than a third of German pastors had joined the Emergency League. It was the forerunner of the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), which aimed to preserve traditional, Biblically based Christian beliefs and practices.[20] The Barmen Declaration, drafted by Barth in May 1934 and adopted by the Confessing Church, insisted that Christ, not the Führer, was the head of the church.[21] The adoption of the declaration has often been viewed as a triumph, although by Wilhelm Niemöller [de]'s estimate, only 20% of German pastors were supporting the Confessing Church.[22]

Ministries in London

When Bonhoeffer was offered a parish post in eastern Berlin in the autumn of 1933, he refused it in protest at the nationalist policy, and accepted a two-year appointment as a pastor of two German-speaking Protestant churches in London: the German Lutheran Church in Dacres Road, Sydenham,[21][23] and the German Reformed Church of St Paul's, Goulston Street, Whitechapel.[24][25] He explained to Barth that he had found little support for his views – even among friends – and that "it was about time to go for a while into the desert.” Barth regarded this as running away from real battle. He sharply rebuked Bonhoeffer, saying, "I can only reply to all the reasons and excuses which you put forward: 'And what of the German Church?'" Barth accused Bonhoeffer of abandoning his post and wasting his "splendid theological armory" while "the house of your church is on fire," and chided him to return to Berlin "by the next ship."[26]

Bonhoeffer, however, did not go to England simply to avoid trouble at home; he hoped to put the ecumenical movement to work in the interest of the Confessing Church. He continued his involvement with the Confessing Church, running up a high telephone bill to maintain his contact with Martin Niemöller. In international gatherings, Bonhoeffer rallied people to oppose the Deutsche Christen movement and its attempt to amalgamate Nazi nationalism with the Christian gospel. When Bishop Theodor Heckel [de]—the official in charge of German Lutheran Church foreign affairs—traveled to London to warn Bonhoeffer to abstain from any ecumenical activity not directly authorized by Berlin, Bonhoeffer refused to abstain.[27]

Underground seminaries

In 1935, Bonhoeffer was offered a well-sought-after opportunity to study non-violent resistance under Gandhi in his ashram. However, remembering Barth's rebuke, Bonhoeffer decided to return to Germany instead, where he was the head at an underground seminary in Finkenwalde for training Confessing Church pastors. As the Nazi suppression of the Confessing Church intensified, Barth was driven back to Switzerland in 1935; Niemöller was arrested in July 1937; and in August 1936, Bonhoeffer's authorization to teach at the University of Berlin was revoked after he was denounced as a "pacifist and enemy of the state" by Theodor Heckel.

Memorial of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in front of St. Peter's Church, Hamburg
Memorial of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in front of St. Peter's Church, Hamburg

Bonhoeffer's efforts for the underground seminaries included securing necessary funds. He found a great benefactor in Ruth von Kleist-Retzow. In times of trouble, Bonhoeffer's former students and their wives would take refuge in von Kleist-Retzow's Pomeranian estate, and Bonhoeffer was a frequent guest. Later he fell in love with Kleist-Retzow's granddaughter, Maria von Wedemeyer,[28] to whom he became engaged three months before his arrest in 1943. By August 1937, Himmler had decreed the education and examination of Confessing Church ministry candidates illegal. In September 1937, the Gestapo closed the seminary at Finkenwalde, and by November arrested 27 pastors and former students. It was around this time that Bonhoeffer published his best-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, a study on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he not only attacked "cheap grace" as a cover for ethical laxity, but also preached "costly grace."

Bonhoeffer spent the next two years secretly traveling from one eastern German village to another to conduct "seminary on the run" supervision of his students, most of whom were working illegally in small parishes within the old-Prussian Ecclesiastical Province of Pomerania. The von Blumenthal family hosted the seminary on its estate of Groß Schlönwitz. The pastors of Groß Schlönwitz and neighbouring villages supported the education by employing and housing the students (among whom was Eberhard Bethge, who later edited Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison) as vicars in their congregations.[29]

In 1938, the Gestapo banned Bonhoeffer from Berlin. In summer 1939, the seminary was able to move to Sigurdshof, an outlying estate (Vorwerk) of the von Kleist family in Wendish Tychow. In March 1940, the Gestapo shut down the seminary there following the outbreak of World War II.[29] Bonhoeffer's monastic communal life and teaching at Finkenwalde seminary formed the basis of his books, The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.

Bonhoeffer's sister, Sabine, along with her Jewish-classified husband Gerhard Leibholz and their two daughters, escaped to England by way of Switzerland in 1938.[30]

Return to the United States

In February 1938, Bonhoeffer made an initial contact with members of the German Resistance when his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi introduced him to a group seeking Hitler's overthrow at Abwehr, the German military intelligence service.

Bonhoeffer also learned from Dohnányi that war was imminent and was particularly troubled by the prospect of being conscripted. As a committed pacifist opposed to the Nazi regime, he could never swear an oath to Hitler and fight in his army, though refusal to do so was potentially a capital offense. He worried also about consequences his refusing military service could have for the Confessing Church, as it was a move that would be frowned upon by most Christians and their churches at the time.[27]

It was at this juncture that Bonhoeffer left for the United States in June 1939 at the invitation of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Amid much inner turmoil, he soon regretted his decision and returned after two weeks[31] despite strong pressures from his friends to stay in the United States. He wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr:

I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people ... Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.[32]

Abwehr agent

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's study
Dietrich Bonhoeffer's study

Back in Germany, Bonhoeffer was further harassed by the Nazi authorities as he was forbidden to speak in public and was required regularly to report his activities to the police. In 1941, he was forbidden to print or to publish. In the meantime, Bonhoeffer had joined the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization. Dohnányi, already part of the Abwehr, brought him into the organization on the claim that his wide ecumenical contacts would be of use to Germany, thus protecting him from conscription to active service.[33] Bonhoeffer presumably knew about various 1943 plots against Hitler through Dohnányi, who was actively involved in the planning.[33] In the face of Nazi atrocities, the full scale of which Bonhoeffer learned through the Abwehr, he concluded that "the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live."[34] He did not justify his action but accepted that he was taking guilt upon himself as he wrote, "When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace."[35] (In a 1932 sermon, Bonhoeffer said, "The blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness."[36])

Under cover of the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer served as a courier for the German resistance movement to reveal its existence and intentions to the Western Allies in hope of garnering their support, and, through his ecumenical contacts abroad, to secure possible peace terms with the Allies for a post-Hitler government. His visits to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland were camouflaged as legitimate intelligence activities for the Abwehr. In May 1942, he met Anglican Bishop George Bell of Chichester, a member of the House of Lords and an ally of the Confessing Church, contacted by Bonhoeffer's exiled brother-in-law Leibholz; through him feelers were sent to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. However, the British government ignored these, as it had all other approaches from the German resistance.[37] Dohnányi and Bonhoeffer were also involved in Abwehr operations to help German Jews escape to Switzerland. During this time Bonhoeffer worked on Ethics and wrote letters to keep up the spirits of his former students. He intended Ethics as his magnum opus, but it remained unfinished when he was arrested. On 5 April 1943, Bonhoeffer and Dohnányi were arrested and imprisoned.


On 13 January 1943, Bonhoeffer had become engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, the granddaughter of his close friend and Finkenwalde seminary supporter, Ruth von Kleist Retzow. Ruth had campaigned for this marriage for several years, although up until late October 1942, Bonhoeffer remained a reluctant suitor despite Ruth being part of his innermost circle.[38] A large age gap loomed between Bonhoeffer and Maria: he was 36 to her 18. Bonhoeffer had first met his would-be fiancée Maria, when she had been his confirmation student at age eleven.[39] The two also spent almost no time alone together prior to the engagement and did not see each other between becoming engaged and Bonhoeffer's 5 April arrest. Once he was in prison, however, Maria's status as fiancée became invaluable, as it meant she could visit Bonhoeffer and correspond with him. While their relationship was troubled,[40] she was a source of food and smuggled messages.[41] Bonhoeffer made Eberhard Bethge his heir, but Maria, in allowing her correspondence with Bonhoeffer to be published after her death, provided an invaluable addition to the scholarship.

For a year and a half, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Tegel Prison awaiting trial. There he continued his work in religious outreach among his fellow prisoners and guards. Sympathetic guards helped smuggle his letters out of prison to Eberhard Bethge and others, and these uncensored letters were posthumously published in Letters and Papers from Prison. One of those guards, a corporal named Knobloch, even offered to help him escape from the prison and "disappear" with him, and plans were made for that end but Bonhoeffer declined it, fearing Nazi retribution against his family, especially his brother Klaus and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi, who were also imprisoned.[42]

After the failure of the 20 July Plot on Hitler's life in 1944 and the discovery in September 1944 of secret Abwehr documents relating to the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer was accused of association with the conspirators. He was transferred from the military prison Tegel in Berlin, where he had been held for 18 months, to the detention cellar of the house prison of the Reich Security Head Office, the Gestapo's high-security prison. In February 1945, he was secretly moved to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp.

On 4 April 1945, the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, were discovered, and in a rage upon reading them, Hitler ordered that the Abwehr conspirators be destroyed.[43] Bonhoeffer was led away just as he concluded his final Sunday service and asked an English prisoner, Payne Best, to remember him to Bishop George Bell of Chichester if he should ever reach his home: "This is the end—for me the beginning of life."[44]


Flossenbürg concentration camp, Arrestblock-Hof: Memorial to members of German resistance executed on 9 April 1945
Flossenbürg concentration camp, Arrestblock-Hof: Memorial to members of German resistance executed on 9 April 1945

Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on 8 April 1945 by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in Flossenbürg concentration camp.[45] He was executed there by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp,[46][47] three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard where he was hanged with six others: Admiral Wilhelm Canaris; General Hans Oster, Canaris's deputy; General Karl Sack, a military jurist; General Friedrich von Rabenau;[48] businessman Theodor Strünck; and German resistance fighter Ludwig Gehre. Bonhoeffer's brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, and his brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher, were executed in Berlin on the night of 22–23 April as Soviet troops were already fighting in the capital. His brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi had been executed in Sachsenhausen concentration camp on April 9.

Eberhard Bethge, a student and friend of Bonhoeffer's, writes of a man who saw the execution: "I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."[44]

This is the traditional account of Bonhoeffer's death, which over the decades went unchallenged.[49] However, many recent biographers see problems with the story, not due to Bethge but his source. The purported witness was a doctor at Flossenbürg concentration camp, Hermann Fischer-Hüllstrung,[50] who may have wished to minimize the suffering of the condemned men to reduce his own culpability in their executions. J.L.F. Mogensen, a former prisoner at Flossenbürg, cited the length of time it took for the execution to be completed (almost six hours), plus departures from camp procedure that would probably not have been allowed to prisoners so late in the war, as jarring inconsistencies. Considering that the sentences had been confirmed at the highest levels of Nazi government, by individuals with a pattern of torturing prisoners who dared to challenge the regime, it is more likely that "the physical details of Bonhoeffer's death may have been much more difficult than we earlier had imagined."[51]

Other recent critics of the traditional account are more caustic. One terms the Fischer-Hüllstrung story as "unfortunately a lie," citing additional factual inconsistencies; for example, the doctor described Bonhoeffer climbing the steps to the noose, but at Flossenbürg the gallows had no steps. Moreover, it appears that "Fischer-Hüllstrung had the job of reviving political prisoners after they had been hanged until they were almost dead, in order to prolong the agony of their dying."[52] Another critic charges that Fischer-Hüllstrung's "subsequent statement about Bonhoeffer as kneeling in wordy prayer ... belongs to the realm of legend."[53]

The disposition of Bonhoeffer's remains is not known.[54] His body may have been cremated outside the camp along with hundreds of other recently executed or dead prisoners,[55] or American troops may have placed his body in one of several mass graves in which they interred the unburied dead of the camp.[54]


Gallery of 20th Century Martyrs at Westminster Abbey. From left, Mother Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King Jr., Óscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Gallery of 20th Century Martyrs at Westminster Abbey. From left, Mother Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King Jr., Óscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer's life as a pastor and theologian of great intellect and spirituality who lived as he preached - and his being killed because of his opposition to National Socialism - exerted great influence and inspiration for Christians across broad denominations and ideologies, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the anti-communist democratic movement in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

Bonhoeffer is commemorated in the liturgical calendars of several Christian denominations on the anniversary of his death, 9 April. This includes many parts of the Anglican Communion, where he is sometimes identified as a martyr,[56][57][58] and other times not.[59][60] His commemoration in the liturgical calendar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America uses the liturgical color of white,[61] which is typically used for non-martyred saints.[62][63][64] In 2008, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which does not enumerate saints, officially recognized Bonhoeffer as a "modern-day martyr." He was the first martyr to be so recognized who lived after the Reformation, and is one of only two as of 2017.[65][66][67][68]

Dietrich is remembered in the Church of England with a commemoration on 9 April.[69]

The Deutsche Evangelische Kirche in Sydenham, London, at which he preached between 1933 and 1935, was destroyed by bombing in 1944. A replacement church was built in 1958 and named Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Kirche in his honor.[70]

Theological legacy

This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (January 2014) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Sculpture by Edith Breckwoldt, The ordeal. No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places.   citation by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Sculpture by Edith Breckwoldt, The ordeal. No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places. citation by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Overshadowed by the dramatic events of his life, Bonhoeffer's theology has nevertheless been influential. His theology has a fragmentary, unsystematic nature, due at least in part to his untimely death, and is subject to diverse and contradictory interpretations, sometimes necessarily based on speculation and projection. So, for example, while his Christocentric approach appeals to conservative, confession-minded Protestants, his commitment to justice and ideas about "religionless Christianity"[71] are emphasized by liberal Protestants.

Central to Bonhoeffer's theology is Christ, in whom God and the world are reconciled. Bonhoeffer's God is a suffering God, whose manifestation is found in this-worldliness. Bonhoeffer believed that the Incarnation of God in flesh made it unacceptable to speak of God and the world "in terms of two spheres"—an implicit attack upon Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms. Bonhoeffer stressed personal and collective piety and revived the idea of imitation of Christ. He argued that Christians should not retreat from the world but act within it. He believed that two elements were constitutive of faith: the implementation of justice and the acceptance of divine suffering.[72] Bonhoeffer insisted that the church, like the Christians, "had to share in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world" if it were to be a true church of Christ.

In his prison letters, Bonhoeffer raised tantalizing questions about the role of Christianity and the church in a "world come of age," where human beings no longer need a metaphysical God as a stop-gap to human limitations; and mused about the emergence of a "religionless Christianity," where God would be unclouded from metaphysical constructs of the previous 1900 years. Influenced by Barth's distinction between faith and religion, Bonhoeffer had a critical view of the phenomenon of religion and asserted that revelation abolished religion, which he called the "garment" of faith. Having witnessed the complete failure of the German Protestant church as an institution in the face of Nazism, he saw this challenge as an opportunity of renewal for Christianity.

Years after Bonhoeffer's death, some Protestant thinkers developed his critique into a thoroughgoing attack against traditional Christianity in the "Death of God" movement, which briefly attracted the attention of the mainstream culture in the mid-1960s. However, some critics—such as Jacques Ellul and others—have charged that those radical interpretations of Bonhoeffer's insights amount to a grave distortion, that Bonhoeffer did not mean to say that God no longer had anything to do with humanity and had become a mere cultural artifact. More recent Bonhoeffer interpretation is more cautious in this regard, respecting the parameters of the neo-orthodox school to which he belonged.[73] Bonhoeffer also influenced Comboni missionary Father Ezechiele Ramin.[74][75]


English translations of Bonhoeffer's works, most of which were originally written in German, are available. Many of his lectures and books were translated into English over the years and are available from multiple publishers. These works are listed following the Fortress Press edition of Bonhoeffer's writings. The English language edition of Bonhoeffer's Works contains, in many cases, more material than the German Works series because of the discovery of hitherto unknown correspondence.[citation needed]

All sixteen volumes of the English Bonhoeffer Works Edition of Bonhoeffer's Oeuvre had been published by October 2013. A volume of selected readings entitled The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Reader which presents a chronological view of Bonhoeffer's theological development became available by 1 November 2013.[76]

Fortress Press editions of Bonhoeffer's works

Various works in the Bonhoeffer corpus individually published in English


Further reading


External video
video icon Presentation by Charles Marsh on Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July 10, 2014, C-SPAN
video icon Discussion with Martin Marty on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison June 5, 2011, C-SPAN




Choral theater

Verse about Bonhoeffer





  1. ^ "Dietrich Bonhoeffer Biography". Retrieved 3 May 2008.
  2. ^ Rasmussen, Larry L. (2005). Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality And Resistance. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 130. ISBN 978-0-664-23011-1.
  3. ^ Koehn, Nancy (2003). Forged In Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders. New York, NY: Scribner. p. 287. ISBN 978-1-5011-7444-5.
  4. ^ Bonhoeffer, Barnett & Schulz 2011, p. 581.
  5. ^ Bethge & Barnett 1999, pp. 18, 625.
  6. ^ Root 2014, p. 119.
  7. ^ a b David Ford, The Modern Theologians, p. 45
  8. ^ "Bonhoeffer Timeline". PBS.
  9. ^ Galli, Mark and Barbara (1991). "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Did You Know?". Christian History (32).CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  10. ^ "Dietrich Bonhoeffer, friend of Greenville Community Church". Greenville Community Church. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  11. ^ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pfarrer, Berlin-Charlottenburg 9, Marienburger Allee 43: Begleitheft zur Ausstellung, corr. a. ext. ed., Kuratorium Bonhoeffer Haus (ed.), Berlin: Erinnerungs- und Begegnungsstätte Bonhoeffer Haus, 1996, pp. 31, 33. No ISBN.
  12. ^ Michael Balfour, Withstanding Hitler, p. 216
  13. ^ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pp. 259–60
  14. ^ David Ford, The Modern Theologians, p. 38
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