Dietrich Bonhoeffer Additional Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Bonhoeffer defined the concept of Christian discipleship, especially as it related to the Lutheran Church in Germany during the 1930’s. He provided a unique combination of theology and political ethics that made him a leader in German resistance to Adolf Hitler and also led to his untimely death in 1945.

Early Life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), on February 4, 1906. His father was Karl Bonhoeffer, a well-known physician and psychiatrist. There were eight children in the family, of whom Dietrich and his twin sister, Sabine, were the sixth and seventh, respectively. The family soon moved to Berlin, where Karl Bonhoeffer became professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin. It was there that Dietrich spent his childhood.

The realism that later characterized the philosophy and theology of Bonhoeffer was imparted to him by his father and through the influence of his mother, who was from one of the leading intellectual families in Germany. The family home became a meeting place for friends and neighbors representing some of the most brilliant minds of the day. Among the visitors were Adolf von Harnack, an eminent historian of Christian doctrine, and Ernst Troeltsch, a philosopher and theologian. The influence of these men helped place Bonhoeffer in the liberal spectrum of Christian theology as well as at the forefront of the ecumenical movement.

At the age of sixteen, Bonhoeffer dedicated his life to the study of theology and to service in the Lutheran Church. He entered the University of Tübingen in 1923 and was matriculated at the University of Berlin the following year. He remained in Berlin for the completion of his formal education. During his years at the university, Bonhoeffer became a follower of the post-World War I theology of Karl Barth, soon to become known as Neoorthodoxy. These ideas enhanced Bonhoeffer’s realism and helped him to accept the tremendous suffering and destruction of the recent conflagration, as well as Germany’s lowered status in the community of nations.

When Bonhoeffer was twenty-one, he presented his doctoral dissertation to the faculty at Berlin. The dissertation, The Communion of Saints, published in 1930, was praised by many, including Barth.

Bonhoeffer left Berlin in 1927 to serve two years as an assistant minister to a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain. He proved to be a tremendous help and encouragement to the church and its elderly pastor. Back in Berlin in 1929, Bonhoeffer soon became a lecturer in systematic theology at the university. Before settling into the routine, however, he went to the United States for a year of additional study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Somewhat surprised by the lack of interest in serious theology on the part of American students at the seminary, Bonhoeffer was impressed by their social concern for the poor and needy. Bonhoeffer was well prepared for his life’s work when he returned to Berlin in 1931. He was ready to face the challenges to Germany and the world in the person of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Life’s Work

By the time Bonhoeffer began lecturing full-time, he was identified with the ecumenical movement, which sought to unite Christians around the world, and also with the ideas of Barth, whom Bonhoeffer soon met at a seminar in Bonn. The students at the university were at first skeptical about the youthful professor but were soon drawn to him by the depth and relevance of his views.

Bonhoeffer’s rising popularity in Berlin coincided with the rising popularity of the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party throughout the country. The Bonhoeffer family had been deeply affected by the defeat of Germany in 1918 and by the humiliation of the nation in the Treaty of Versailles, but they strongly opposed the ultranationalistic philosophy and the superior race ideology of the Nazi Party. Even while outside the country, Dietrich was kept informed about the growing Nazi influence, particularly as it related to the Jews. His twin sister, Sabine, was married to Gerhard Leibholz, whose father was a Jew, although Gerhard had been baptized as a Lutheran.

Bonhoeffer was soon dismayed by the paralysis of the German Christians regarding Nazi ideology. His realism, as well as his theology, compelled him to speak out against that ideology. On February 1, 1933, two days after Hitler had become chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer addressed the German public on radio and urged them not to adopt an ultranationalistic leader who could easily become a...

(The entire section is 1908 words.)


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought was forged in the furnace of Nazi Germany. As one of the founders of the Confessing Church, which refused to submit to Nazi ideology, and a member of the resistance movement inside Germany, Bonhoeffer was compelled by the conviction that Christian ethics consist not in trying to do good but in assuming responsibility for the future. His ethical theology is, therefore, “teleological” or “consequentialist.” The focus is not upon motives (for example, adhering to some set of moral rules labeled “Christian”) but upon living in light of the reality that in Jesus Christ God has reconciled the world to Himself. By rooting ethics in the person of Jesus Christ, the...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)