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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 Dohnanyi, a distinguished jurist who was married to Bonhoeffer’s sister, giving them positions in his agency as a cover. In 1943, Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested and confined to a military prison while their activities were investigated. The Commandant of Berlin was Bonhoeffer’s mother’s cousin, and for this reason his confinement was comparatively comfortable and he was allowed to write most of the letters which make up Letters and Papers from Prison.

In July, 1944, a plot by another group of German officers to assassinate Hitler failed. In the investigation that followed, the Gestapo discovered Dohnanyi’s documents, which also implicated Canaris, Bonhoeffer, his brother Klaus, and another brother-in-law. All were executed in April, 1945, shortly before the Allied victory.

Letters and Papers from Prison is written in an informal, unsystematic style which leaves many questions for theologians but is part of the pieces’ appeal to most readers. Some of the letters are written to his family members to reassure them; they reveal a thoughtful son and brother who appreciates their concern for him and their efforts to help. The most important letters are those to Bethge, who was at that time serving in the German army in Italy. In these letters Bonhoeffer is thinking aloud as he tries out his ideas on a sympathetic and understanding friend.

Context

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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 and evil. This book complements the Letters and Papers from Prison (written during the last two years of his life), a work that also shows a growing feeling of abandonment in a world without God. Both books reveal Bonhoeffer as a sociologist of religion who portrays Christ not as an isolated historical figure who founded Christianity, but as a collective person who is the foundation of the church.

Letters and Papers from Prison consists of letters to Bonhoeffer’s parents and an unnamed friend (probably his editor, Eberhard Bethge), miscellaneous papers (including an outline for a book), five poems, and reflections on prison life. This work, which made him internationally famous because of its deep inspirational and controversial nature, enables the reader to reconstruct the last days of an extraordinarily sensitive man. Intimate details of his life fuse with disastrous events occurring outside his prison cell, but Bonhoeffer’s real legacy is not simply the model of spiritual courage he provided before his hanging but also the key he provided for unlocking a revolutionary theology and ecclesiology.

The letters and papers express an acute awareness of the world in its manifold glories and deprivations. Despite the repressive nature of his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer is able to turn his solitude into a way of taking himself out of himself. He turns his thoughts to life and its meaning. Acting on the belief that prison life is not so different from life anywhere else, he uses his reading, meditating, and writing to allay anxieties about the future. The Bible and Christian hymns serve as “vehicles of spiritual realities” (June 14, 1943), just as simple gifts or parcels from family and friends reassure him of spiritual bonds among people. The early letters evoke a palpable sense of worldliness despite his transcendental thought. For one thing, Bonhoeffer confesses to weakness when he feels his peace and placidity wavering and his heart becoming defiant or despondent. Yet, the counterpoint is a better understanding of life.

Worldliness and Christians

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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 are or should be used for this purpose (February 20, 1944).

Bonhoeffer integrates theology and ecclesiology in the process of arguing that though the church occupies space in the world, the nature and justification of that space needs to be rethought. This space is still related to divine revelation, but it is not the only area where revelation can be discussed. Bonhoeffer attempts to provide a different perspective or picture of Christ’s form in the modern world and of humanity’s conformation with Christ. He is willing to explore “a time of no religion at all,” an age that the church must redeem and serve (June 8, 1944). He interprets contemporary history as a liberating force and sees the “god of explanation,” of a priori religious postulates, disappearing from Western history, and therefore, he considers the world to have “come of age.” Humanity has decided to be emancipated from God, church, and pastor. As a consequence, God is no answer to humanity’s problems, or so it seems at first. His letter of July 16, 1944, claims that this historical trend must be acknowledged if Christianity is to be honest and true to its message. Bonhoeffer takes issue with Karl Barth, his great teacher, for his “positivist doctrine of revelation,” which urges people to swallow doctrine whole or not at all (April 30, 1944). He also argues against Rudolf Bultmann’s famous essay on mythology and the New Testament, claiming that although you cannot, as Bultmann imagines, separate God from miracles, you do have to be able to interpret both in a nonreligious way. Religious mythology is true, but the concepts must be reinterpreted so as not to make religion a “precondition of faith” (May 5 and June 8, 1944).

Bonhoeffer’s “nonreligious interpretation” recognizes the contribution of Barth and Bultmann, but it refuses to claim that eternal and universal Christian truth may be discovered independently of the secular historical setting of the New Testament. Consequently, it raises a paradox: On the one hand, his Christ is a worldly man who claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations. On the other, his triumphant Lord in a salvation myth suffers and is humiliated in this world before being crucified.

Active Participation in Life

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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 while sharing in the suffering of God.

Christ’s life among people and his suffering and death merge into a single vision (July 18 and July 21, 1944). This concept becomes the climax of Bonhoeffer’s theology: “Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other” (July 18, 1944). To be a Christian, claims Bonhoeffer, is not to be religious “in a particular way” on the basis of some method or other, but “to be a man—not a type of man but the man Christ creates in us.” Therefore, it is not the “religious act” that makes a Christian, but “participation in the sufferings of God in worldly life.” The religious act is “always something partial,” but “faith is something whole, an act of one’s life.” Jesus does not invite people to a new religion but to life itself in which “the knowledge of death and resurrection is ever present” (July 18, 1944). By living as a human, Christ gave meaning to people’s lives.

Finding Christ through this identification with the world means that people accept full responsibility for the world’s history, structures, laws, and influences. This is not an escape into the transcendent but an active Christian participation in secular, political, social, and economic life. It is a style of life that leads people to God through the world.

Letters and Papers from Prison had a vital impact on Christian philosophy. Despite the fragmentary nature of the writing and its palpable spiritual unrest, Bonhoeffer was, in an important sense, a forerunner of the “Honest to God” controversy. As a Lutheran, he obviously went far beyond his church’s typical concern with doctrines of the two kingdoms and of salvation by faith. His concept of the modern church breached the idea of a doctrinaire institution with dogmatic truth; instead, it sought to reveal a human organization that could restructure the world in Christ despite events that challenged faith. As such, Bonhoeffer became a forerunner of such theologians as Gregory Baum and Daniel Berrigan, who played active roles as sociopolitical dissenters. Bonhoeffer’s theology allowed for a confrontation between the secret discipline, which makes possible a mundane existence, and the godless world come of age. Although this confrontation or dialectical tension, which gives Christian life a distinctiveness, left itself open to various interpretations, it helped change the shape of Christianity and its role in the secular world.

Bibliography

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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.

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