Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In April, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a distinguished young German theologian, was executed by the Gestapo for implication in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. During his imprisonment he had corresponded with Eberhard Bethge, who was a fellow theologian, the husband of his niece, and a close personal friend. In 1951, Bethge published extracts from these letters in a volume which was issued in English under the title Prisoner for God in 1953. The success of the book led Bethge to issue a revised and expanded edition in German (1964), which was translated and published in English in 1967 with the title Letters and Papers from Prison. An enlarged edition which added items of personal and family interest was published in West Germany in 1970 and in an English translation in 1971.

When Hitler took power in Germany in January, 1933, he established a dictatorship which brought the major institutions of German society, including the churches, under the control of the Nazi state. Bonhoeffer was a leader among those Protestant clergy who refused to accept Hitler’s control. When World War II broke out in 1939, Bonhoeffer used his contacts through the ecumenical movement to encourage opposition to the war.

In 1942, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, the counterintelligence service of the German military forces, began plotting to overthrow Hitler and negotiate peace. He recruited Bonhoeffer, his brother Klaus, and Hans von...

(The entire section is 441 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In this book, published posthumously after being smuggled out of prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer tries to reconcile sociological ideas concerning the church as a human organization with the theological idea of the church as a divine society on earth. In so doing, he follows both his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio (1930; The Communion of Saints, 1963), which first introduced the theme, and Akt und Sein (1931; Act and Being, 1962), which was chiefly concerned with philosophical postulates of theology. Bonhoeffer, who in 1933 helped found the Confessing Church, which battled against National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany, focused on the earthly dimension of the church and its political responsibility. Influenced by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, Karl Barth, and Søren Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, who was one of the leading Lutheran theologians during the Nazi period, urged Christians to imitate Christ with respect to obedience, penance, and discipline so that the church might save the world, which was becoming increasingly secularized.

After his arrest and during incarceration, Bonhoeffer completed Ethik (1949; Ethics, 1955), which acknowledged the world’s disunion with God. Bonhoeffer believed that one knows oneself as an individual apart from God and therefore knows only oneself, outside God. One’s shame is a recognition of estrangement from the source of knowledge of good...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Worldliness and Christians

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Bonhoeffer’s appreciation of the worldliness of life in the Old Testament leads him to rethink concepts of the “ultimate” and “penultimate.” He claims that one must first turn to this world if one is to understand the meaning of the Christian life of faith. “This-worldliness” (the “penultimate”) of Christian life is a means of witnessing the “ultimate” (the one and only interest of theology). However, the goodness of life and the love of the world cannot resolve the tension between this world and “the transcendent.” Transcendence is necessary, but it has a proper time and place. Genuine transcendence means accepting the life God gives one with all its blessings, loving it and drinking it in full, grieving over what one has wasted or neglected. Bonhoeffer brings together in one letter the false and proper views of transcendence, advocating a “religionless Christianity” that directs one to this world and to God simultaneously. By living in this world, the Christian bears witness to God.

History and contemporary events teach Bonhoeffer that “it is the unexpected that happens, and that the inevitable must be accepted.” Life in wartime is grim, but he eagerly anticipates a reconstruction of international society, both materially and spiritually, based on Christian principles. Convinced that human life extends far beyond physicality, he is able to perceive how a pattern is created for the whole of existence and what materials...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Active Participation in Life

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Bonhoeffer’s Christological vision leads to his exhortation to share “in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world” by adopting a “secret discipline.” This latter phrase is mentioned twice in the prison letters, the first reference occurring in the middle of his initial thoughts about religionless Christianity and the second during a discussion of a nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts (April 30 and May 5, 1944). Bonhoeffer seeks to protect the “secrets” of Christian faith (such as preaching and the Sacraments) against profanation. He appears to be arguing that the church must not cast away its great terms such as “Creation,” “Fall,” “Atonement,” “regeneration,” and “Holy Ghost.” However, if the church cannot relate them to the secular world, showing their essence in worldly life, then the church must keep silent. Christians derive strength from living a worldly life and sharing in Christ’s Lordship over it, through the discipline and humility of holding their peace during the union with God’s suffering.

The problem of theology is language, and Bonhoeffer differentiates between “qualified speech” and “qualified silence.” There is a proper time and place for silence as regards the ultimate, and that time has come in this secularized age. Dogmatic theology and apologetics must remain silent and secret, and nonreligious Christians must grope and stammer to find words free of pious jargon yet consistent with the life of the modern world. Christians derive strength from living a worldly life and sharing in Christ’s Lordship over it, through the discipline and humility of holding their peace...

(The entire section is 682 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Sources for Further Study

Bethge, Renate, and Christian Gremmeis, eds. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures. Translated by Brian McNeil. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006. This heavily illustrated work forms a useful companion to studies on and biographies of Bonhoeffer.

Godsey, John D. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960. A good summary of Bonhoeffer’s theology in the historical development of his writings. As such, it is an equally good source of the story of his life.

Haynes, Stephen R. The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.

Haynes, Stephen R. The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Kelly, Geffrey B., and F. Burton Nelson. The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003. A life of Bonhoeffer is followed by discussions of different dimensions of moral leadership: Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric spirituality, peace, Christian community, compassion for the suffering, and the spiritual life. Bibliography, index.

Marsh, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A comparative study of Bonhoeffer’s theology and Christology, along with that of other philosophers, including Karl Barth, G. W. F. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger. Bibliography, index.

Matthews, John W. Anxious Souls Will Ask: The Christ-Centered Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005. The author, senior pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota, selects prison writings from Bonhoeffer to critique postmodern life and offer inspiration for standing firm in contemporary culture. Bibliography.

Nickson, Ann L. Bonhoeffer on Freedom: Courageously Grasping Reality. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002.

Plant, Stephen. Bonhoeffer. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Roberts, J. Deotis. Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Schliesser, Christine. Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty: The Concept of Accepting Guilt in Dietrich Bonhoeffer—Reconstruction and Critical Assessment. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2006. Originally the author’s doctoral thesis at Fuller Theological Seminary, this is study of Bonhoeffer’s concept of guilt in the context of Christian ethics. Bibliography.

Weikart, Richard. The Myth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Is His Theology Evangelical? San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1997. This books tries to debunk the questions surrounding Bonhoeffer’s theology.

Young, Josiah U. No Difference in the Fare: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Problem of Racism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998. An examination of Bonhoeffer’s contribution to the theology of race relations. Contains a bibliography and index.