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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Theologian, Pastor, Double Agent

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by Dennis Pollock

Many evangelical Christians aren’t quite sure how they feel about the German theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived and ministered in the tumultuous times leading up to and throughout World War II. They admire his courageous stand against Adolf Hitler and appreciate his insistence that Christians pay the price to truly follow Jesus, as he demonstrates powerfully in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship. But his frequent associations with well-known church liberals and some of his statements about “religionless Christianity” trouble them. Was he one of us or not? Did he have a genuine relationship with Christ or was he simply a brilliant thinker and philosopher with only a mental knowledge of the God about whom he wrote so eloquently?

Dietrich came by his mental acuity honestly. His father was a distinguished neurologist who later became the director of a prominent psychiatric clinic in Berlin. This man taught his precocious son from his youth to always question prevailing ideas which cannot be supported by either evidence or reason. His mother was from a distinguished family whose grandfather had been a prominent church historian and minister to royalty. With such parents it was not too surprising that all their eight children would be highly intelligent, but Dietrich, the sixth child, was the one who turned his considerable mental prowess toward spiritual matters, even from his youth.

While both his parents were intelligent, in spiritual matters they differed dramatically. Dietrich’s father, Karl, was an agnostic, having little interest in the Bible or the church. Considering himself a man of science, he was not prepared to believe anything which could not be visibly and tangibly proven, both in psychology and in religion. Of course Christianity is built around an invisible God, a Savior we have never seen, and a walk by faith rather than sight. Dietrich’s mother, Paula, was of a different mind. She loved the Scriptures, and was determined that her children should know and love them as well. She taught her children directly from the Bible and made sure that they were exposed to continual Bible teachings. The family hired two nannies for their children who were both strong, devout Christians, and they proved a strong influence for Biblical values and instruction in the lives of the children.

The family rarely went to church. The father saw no need for this at all, and the mother was far more concerned that her children have a personal relationship with God than an involvement in their local churches, which were often based more on ceremony and social dimensions than on Christ. Somehow, Karl did not seem to mind the constant religious instruction his children were receiving from his wife and their tutors. Although he could not assent to Christian theology, he strongly approved of its morality. In spite of their religious differences, husband and wife had a deep and constant love for each other, and their home provided a happy and stable atmosphere for their growing family.

Called to Theology

At the age of thirteen Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided he wanted to become a theologian. This is something almost no Americans could identify with today, either at thirteen or thirty. There is very little role these days for the professional “theologian.” What we now call theologians are usually pastors who write books that run a little deeper than the shallow writings of most evangelical offerings. But in those days in Germany a theologian was typically an academic working for a major university, a man who wrote and thought deeply, and wrestled with the difficult questions of Christianity, the Bible, and the church. His main task was not the caring for Christ’s sheep or the preaching of the gospel, but rather an endless inquiry into thorny religious issues. Theologians often struggled for years and in vain to answer hard questions that nobody in the real world was even asking. It was typically far more of a mental life than a spiritual one, centered on thought, debate, discussion, the writing of essays, and philosophical ponderings. It was a far cry from the life of the church’s premiere theologian, the apostle Paul, who in addition to writing and teaching about God and Christ, planted churches, healed the sick, raised the dead, and preached Jesus to the multitudes.

After high school Bonhoeffer attended Tubingen University for a year, but transferred to Berlin University where he would eventually earn his doctorate at the age of 21. His reason for making the switch was primarily because of Berlin’s prestigious theology department. This seems rather strange since at that time the head of the theology department was Adolf van Harnack, a flaming theological liberal who denied the miracles of the Bible and didn’t even believe the gospel of John belonged in the Scriptures.

Bonhoeffer developed a strange relationship with Harnack. He seemed to greatly respect his scholarship and intelligence, but quickly came to sharply disagree with his conclusions. Thus, even in his earliest days, we see this dichotomy in Bonhoeffer who carried the instincts of a conservative, Bible-believing Christian, but seemed somehow drawn to associate with liberal “Christians” who possessed little or no respect for the inspiration of the Scriptures. To his credit, Bonhoeffer was courageous enough to contradict this distinguished and learned man in class. A fellow student writes:

I had the experience (for me it was something alarming and magnificently new!) of hearing a young fair-haired student contradict the revered historian his Excellency von Harnack, contradict him politely, but clearly on positive theological grounds. Harnack answered, but the student contradicted again and again.

Upon graduation, Bonhoeffer spent a year as an assistant pastor to a small, German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain. Here he filled in for the senior pastor in preaching at times, and taught a children’s class. His first class brought in a total of one pupil, but soon others began to come, and in a short time he was ministering to thirty children or more each Sunday. Although clearly an intellectual, the young doctor of theology obviously had the ability to connect with simpler minds. After returning to Berlin Dietrich did some postgraduate work, and finally made the decision to spend some time in America. He was offered a teaching fellowship at New York City's Union Theological Seminary. Once again Bonhoeffer found himself in a bastion of liberalism. The seminary was rife with unbelief. From Christ's virgin birth to His resurrection, these students and faculty members prided themselves in their knee-jerk dismissal of what they considered primitive and superstitious ideas.

American Religious Liberalism

Bonhoeffer quickly grew sick at heart at what he saw there. He wrote to a friend:

There is no theology here… They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students – on the average twenty-five to thirty years old – are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.

It quickly became apparent that the young German theologian didn't exactly fit in with this "progressive" institution. One of the professors pronounced Bonhoeffer "as stout an opponent of liberalism as had ever come my way." As he visited some of the large and prominent mainline churches of New York, Dietrich found more of the same. He lamented, "In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life." In attempting to determine whether Bonhoeffer had the necessary evangelical credentials, statements like this one ought to put our minds at rest. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and these words surely suggest an evangelical and conservative bent.

While at Union Dietrich became close friends with a man named Frank Fisher, an African American student there. Fisher invited him to a service at his home church, Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a virtually all-black church. Dietrich was delighted at what he experienced there. The pastor, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was a powerful and moving orator who preached salvation through the cross and blood of Jesus without hesitation. But he was also unafraid to take America to task for social injustice and the indignities blacks suffered continually in this land that was supposed to represent "liberty and justice for all." This church was a megachurch in a day when megachurches did not exist, having a membership of fourteen thousand. The music was filled with life and power and moved Bonhoeffer deeply.

Dietrich began attending this church every Sunday. He soon became a Sunday school teacher. Surely this must have appeared one of the strangest sights possible in those days – a white Sunday school teacher with a German accent instructing black children. He also came to appreciate the struggle of blacks in America for equal rights, writing: "The separation of whites from blacks in the southern states really does make a rather shameful impression… It is a bit unnerving that in a country with so inordinately many slogans about brotherhood, peace, and so on, such things still continue completely uncorrected." This hatred for racial injustice would soon be evident back in Germany as Hitler and the Nazis became more and more intolerant of the Jews. After a year in America, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, carrying many recordings of the African American hymns and spirituals with him.

Voice of Resistance

In the years that followed, the brilliant theologian would become a leading voice of the church in Germany, and eventually the head of Finkenwalde seminary, a training facility for ministers who refused to be a part of Hitler's officially recognized and sanctioned churches. As Adolf Hitler rose to power and prominence in the 1930's, many Christians and even pastors championed him as a great friend of the church and upholder of German patriotic ideals. To his credit Dietrich Bonhoeffer never once held such notions. From the very beginning he recognized the German Fuehrer as a great enemy of Christ and Germany. Indeed his entire family felt the same way, despising Hitler's bombastic speeches, the way he carried a riding crop with him wherever he went, and the strange and disgusting friends with whom he associated. Worst of all was the hatred that spewed out of his mouth for the Jews. The Bonhoeffers had many Jewish friends and could in no way embrace the rabid anti-Semitism that swept across Germany in those days.

During the early days of Hitler, the church in Germany began to split. The majority of the churches followed the Nazi party line, and became known as the German Christians. In their desperation to divorce Christianity from all Jewish influence they stopped referring to the Old Testament Scriptures and purged their hymnals of all Jewish phrases. They refused to allow Jewish believers to pastor their congregations, and justified their slavish following of the Fuehrer by quoting Paul's admonition that we should submit to the authorities over us.

For those believers more staunchly evangelical and Christ-centered, this was ridiculous. A break was inevitable. Bonhoeffer and others formed a new loose-knit group known as the confessing church. When someone asked Bonhoeffer why he didn't just stay with the German Christians to try to reform them from the inside, he replied, "If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction."

By 1939 Germany was inevitably headed toward war. Bonhoeffer knew he would surely be drafted to serve in the army, and this he felt he could not in good conscience do. With severe restrictions over his ministry in Germany and receiving an invitation to teach in Union Theological Seminary, he decided to go back to New York. In June he arrived on the shores of the United States once again. Almost immediately doubts and regrets assailed him. In his heart he knew he belonged back in Germany with his brothers and sisters in Christ, facing whatever might come through faith in God. As he visited several churches in New York he was again discouraged by their liberal unbelief. Of Union Seminary he wrote, "No thinking in light of the Bible here!" At a church he visited, he noted, "Too much analysis and too little Gospel." Bonhoeffer found no rest in America, and within a month he was on a ship headed back to Germany.

Back in Germany Dietrich wrote and published a booklet about the Psalms, which he titled The Prayerbook of the Bible. He emphasized that the Psalms were prophetic in that they pointed to the coming of the Messiah.  He discussed how powerful they can be as Christians assimilate them in their prayers. To us today this might seem reasonable and innocuous, but for the Nazis this was a terrible heresy. To suggest that the Psalms had any connection to Christ was to say that there was a link between Judaism and Christianity, and this they refused to consider. Bonhoeffer was forbidden to publish any further writings.

Double Agent

In July, 1940 Dietrich Bonhoeffer did an amazing thing – he joined the Abwehr, a sort-of German version of the American CIA. To outward appearances he had become one of the Nazis, but in truth the theologian had become a double agent. Bonhoeffer, along with a number of others in that organization, began to plot and plan ways to defeat Hitler's regime. Before long their plans included the assassination of the Fuehrer. Although Bonhoeffer was never one of the key players in the assassination attempt on Hitler that eventually took place in July, 1944, there is evidence that he knew about it, participated in discussions about it, and fully approved of it. He likened his resistance to the responsibility that neighbors might have if a drunk driver was rampaging through their community killing pedestrians. Should not every decent person rise up and attempt to put an end to this?

As a double agent, working for the Nazis on one hand and yet secretly opposing and resisting them on the other, Bonhoeffer ended up doing things that seem distinctly unchristian. He deceived, he lied, and he plotted the murder of an acting head of state. This hardly seems like "being subject to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1). These things weighed on his conscience, and this struggle began to appear in his theological writings, as Bonhoeffer attempted to justify his behavior. He began to emphasize that doing God's will was far more important than trying to merely follow His commands or live morally, even if doing His will brings guilt upon us. It takes little insight to see that he was thinking of himself here – killing Hitler and working against the Nazis was undoubtedly the will of God in his mind; therefore if he must lie and deceive and possibly kill to accomplish that will, still it must be done.

Of course in truth it is by the Word of God that we can test our impressions of the will of God and determine their legitimacy. If we are to tell everybody to subjectively decide for themselves the will of God for their lives and then do it, regardless of what the Bible says or condemns, we will be giving a license to every adulterer, swindler, homosexual, liar, drug user, wife-beater, and contract-breaker to practice their sins guilt-free. Bonhoeffer was clearly wrong in this conclusion. A far greater theologian, the apostle Paul, declared that "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age" (Titus 2:12). Paul's writings are saturated with exhortations for believers to do the right and shun the wrong.

Another theme that appeared in Bonhoeffer's writings was the idea of "religionless Christianity." On one hand most evangelicals would agree that it is relationship with Christ that saves and frees us – not the practice of religious duties or membership in religious institutions. But Bonhoeffer seemed to be saying a little more than this. In his disgust over the failure of most of Germany's churches and pastors to recognize the evil of Hitler, and their blind submission to their "Fuehrer," he appeared so disappointed and disillusioned that he reverted somewhat to his mother's love for Jesus combined with little regard for the church. In this he surely went too far. As poorly as Christians and churches live up to God's standards, still Jesus has never given up on His church – and as long as there are two or three people to gather together in His name He will be there with them.

Final Days

Bonhoeffer was eventually arrested by the Gestapo, but at the time they considered him small potatoes. After some time Hitler learned that the preacher / theologian was mixed up with the group that had attempted to assassinate him, and Bonhoeffer's fate was sealed. Sadly it was only weeks before Hitler's suicide and the end of the war in Europe that the order was given – Bonhoeffer was to be put to death. During his time in prison he was transformed from theologian to pastor, as he ministered God's love and His word to both fellow-prisoners and guards. His devotion to Christ was evident unto all. One prisoner wrote: "He was one of the few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him." When he was told by the guards to come with them for his execution, he said to this man, "This is the end. For me the beginning of life." According to the camp doctor, Bonhoeffer prayed in his cell, then walked to the gallows where he paused and said a final short prayer. The doctor wrote, "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."

So was this complex man a true believer? The evidence suggests that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was surely an evangelical who loved Jesus, loved the Bible, and walked with God. His theology was a little off in some spots and there were times his brilliant mind wrestled unnecessarily with complex questions better left alone. Still he never took his gaze off Jesus. And at the end Bonhoeffer went to his death on the gallows calmly, not as a theologian or an intellectual, but as a simple believer in Jesus Christ.  At the heart of his life and theology was the Incarnation – God took on human flesh and became a man who died on the cross and rose again to redeem us from our sins. Bonhoeffer never grew too far away from his mentor, Karl Barth, who when asked to summarize his life's work in theology in a single sentence, replied, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

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