DIETRICH BONHOEFFER: 20TH CENTURY MARTYR
by Bob Wheeler
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Thomas Nelson, 2010
542 pp., pb.
In this age of secularization the Christian is increasingly faced with the question of how to relate to the state, especially when the state espouses values that run counter to Christian moral standards. The problem is not new, and was confronted in the last century by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian who was put to death in a Nazi concentration camp near the end of World War II.
The story is told for us, in considerable detail, by Eric Metaxas in his New York Times Bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. It is the story of a man who was both talented and devout and who was led to confront directly the evil of Nazi Germany.
Bonhoeffer came from a very cultured and aristocratic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a prominent psychiatrist. His mother was the granddaughter of an earlier prominent theologian, Karl August von Hase. The immediate family, however, was not particularly religious. For some unknown reason, however, young Dietrich decided to study theology. He studied at Berlin under Adolf von Harnack, the renowned liberal theologian, earning a doctorate in 1927 at the age of only 21. He did local church work and gave university lectures, and from 1930 to 1931 did some post-graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Even though Bonhoeffer came from a liberal theological background, the theologian whose writings influenced him the most was Karl Barth, the famous Swiss proponent of Neo-Orthodoxy, which stressed that God can only be known through revelation. Bonhoeffer also became involved with the ecumenical movement. But at some point along the way he discovered prayer and the Bible, and that deepened his faith in God and his commitment to serving Him. Was this a conversion in the evangelical sense of the word? Metaxas is not sure, but Bonhoeffer was definitely a changed man.
Shortly afterwards, however, things began to change in Germany as well. Hitler came to power in 1933 and sought to remake Germany along Nazi lines. This involved, among other things, changing the Lutheran state church, and the Nazis began promoting “German Christianity,” a version of Christianity reshaped along the lines of Aryan racial identity. Bonhoeffer, along with others, realized that this was unacceptable, and during the 1930’s he and others organized the “Confessing Church” which would be true to its Christian heritage. In 1934 it issued the “Barmen Declaration” urging the churches to remain faithful to their doctrinal standards. It was during this period that Bonhoeffer wrote his famous book The Cost of Discipleship.
But things took a turn for the worse at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The racism of the Nazis manifested itself in outright genocide, with the German military slaughtering innocent civilians in Poland and elsewhere. Bonhoeffer’s well-connected friends and relatives became convinced that for the good of Germany and the world at large it was necessary to remove Hitler from power. A conspiracy was formed.
Bonhoeffer, however, was at risk of being drafted into the army. His friends managed to arrange to have him come to the U.S. to teach at Union Seminary. But no sooner did he arrive than he began to have doubts about the wisdom of the plan. In a state of emotional turmoil he became convinced that he belonged back in Germany where the struggle was. He returned to his home country after only one month in the U.S.
But what would he do in Germany? His sister-in-law urged him to join the conspiracy. “’You Christians are glad when someone else does what you know must be done,’ she said, ‘but it seems that somehow you are unwilling to get your own hands dirty and do it’” (p. 359). A turning point came when France fell to the German armies in June, 1940. Up until then the hope had been that Hitler would overreach and thereby destroy himself. But with the unexpected victory in France Hitler was more popular in Germany than ever. It was at about this time that Bonhoeffer made his decision. He joined the resistance.
Bonhoeffer’s friends arranged to get him a position in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence. His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was already on the staff of the head of the Abwehr, Wilhelm Canaris. At one point Canaris had asked Dohynanyi to compile a file of Nazi atrocities that could be used to convince others to join the conspiracy. The file became known as the “Chronicle of Shame.” By joining the Abwehr himself Bonhoeffer could evade the Gestapo and avoid military service.
But it also involved a certain amount of dissimulation on Bonhoeffer’s part. Outwardly he would appear to be working for the German government when in reality he was actually working against it. This, of course, raised a disturbing ethical question. Bonhoeffer was saying, in effect, that the end justifies the means.
The Gestapo, however, eventually caught up with him, and in April, 1943 he was arrested and taken to jail. Bonhoeffer’s influential family connections helped ease his discomfort in prison, and he was able to smuggle out letters to his friends, some of which were later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.
However on July 20, 1944 there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler. Anyone remotely connected to the conspiracy was rounded up and many were executed. Dohnanyi was one of those arrested, and the Chronicle of Shame was discovered by the authorities. Bonhoeffer was moved to a prison run directly by the Gestapo and eventually taken to various concentration camps. He was finally hanged on April 9, 1945, only two weeks before that camp was liberated by the Allies.
There has been some confusion of Bonhoeffer’s theology in its later stages. His Letters and Papers from Prison reveal and much more complex and conflicted figure, the radical theologian who seemingly embraced modern secularism, the advocate of “Religionless Christianity,” the inspiration for the “God is Dead” movement. Metaxas feels that while Bonhoeffer was very much concerned with how Christianity relates to an increasingly secularized world, what he wrote in his letters was “simply an extension of his previous theology, which was dedicately Bible centered and Christ centered” (p. 467) He also says that Bonhoeffer “might be the most misunderstood theologian that ever lived” (p. 365).
One thing that is certain is that Bonhoeffer’s theology did undertake a change of direction while he was in prison. In some of his letters written from prison Bonhoeffer described the growing secularization of the Western world. The church had responded to this trend by conceding the advances of modern science, but clung to the idea that God was still the answer to the ultimate questions of life. But by the mid-Twentieth Century it had become evident that most Germans had grown quite comfortable without religion at all. The world, in Bonhoeffer’s words, had “come of age.” What should the church do now?
Bonhoeffer’s answer is not at all clear, partially because he was executed before he had the opportunity to put down his ideas in book form. He does criticize the church for seeking conversions by making men feel guilty. He says that the church should rather share the problems of ordinary human life, “not dominating, but helping and serving” (Letters, Macmillan, 1967, p. 204), and should teach positive human values by example. In some ways his suggestions sound like what we know today as the Social Gospel and Incarnational theology.
What is especially disconcerting about Bonhoeffer is his apparent embrace of secularism. He claimed that “we must live as men who manage our lives without [God]” (Ibid., p. 188). He criticizes Christians who use God as a kind of “deus ex machina,” the Person to whom we go when we are in trouble. He claims that “the Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help” (p. 188). The church must become “this worldly.” Dropping religious pretense it must reinterpret biblical concepts and revise the church’s creeds, apologetics and ministry.
There are serious problems with Bonhoeffer’s analysis. First of all, God is not the weak and helpless figure Bonhoeffer portrays Him to be. God is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, who rules over all things through His providence. Biblical piety requires us to put our trust in God for our daily needs. Indeed, that is the very essence of prayer. Without it religion simply does not exist.
Secondly, embracing secularism is simply not an option for the Christian. It is expected that the world will reject Christ. The Christian, however, is not supposed to conform to the world. He has been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ and is expected to live accordingly. The world does not set the church’s agenda; Christ does. Bonhoeffer should have recognized the world’s rejection of Christ for what it is: rebellion against God.
Bonhoeffer’s problem can probably be traced back to the weakness of the liberal apologetic. By accepting the conclusions of modern science and abandoning the authority of Scripture, German Protestantism had placed itself in a position in which it could not state with certainty what was actual truth. The result was that Bonhoeffer found himself drifting with the general culture; he could not simply go back to Scripture and say “Thus saith the Lord.” He had no answer to the world’s presuppositions. It was only a matter of time before he adopted the world’s conclusion: religion is irrelevant.
What it all comes down to is the authority of Scripture. Is the Bible what it claims to be, the inspired Word of God, true and accurate in all that it affirms? Or is it just a collection of ancient myths and legends, the product of a society with an outdated worldview? If the former, then Scripture is our standard: we must heed and obey it. If the latter, then we are adrift in a vast sea of human opinion.
Bonhoeffer’s Letters raise some intriguing questions about his spiritual and emotional state. If two different images of Bonhoeffer have come down to us, it may be because he himself was not exactly sure of who he was. While in prison he wrote a revealing piece of verse entitled “Who Am I?” In it he tells of how impressed others were of him, but then he asks,
“Am I really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage . . .”
He then goes on to say,
“Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?”
(Letters, p. 188-189)
In his essay “After Ten Years,” also written while he was in prison, he makes this revealing comment: “We have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open . . . What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?” (Ibid., p. 17).
Bonhoeffer, as we have noted, came from a comfortable upper middle class family. The picture that we glean from his letters of Bonhoeffer himself is that of a charming and cultured individual – well-educated, able to appreciate music, literature and art. He was likeable, warmhearted and sincere in his beliefs. He was also the product of a state church. To be a good German was to be a good Lutheran. Bonhoeffer was, in a sense, fulfilling a predetermined role as a member of his nation and class.
This created a dilemma, however. Was he a Christian because he was a German, or was he a Christian because of a personal relationship with Christ? And if for the former reason, was he really any different from those who did not go to church at all? The inner conflict may account for the ambiguity of his theology.
Bonhoeffer’s predicament, in a way, illustrates the problem facing believers in many Western countries today. These countries have a Christian heritage. Christianity was honored and respected; and it was easy, under such circumstances, to think of “God and country.” The professing Christian could expect to live a nice, safe, comfortable middle class life. But as these countries become increasingly secularized the surrounding culture becomes increasingly hostile to genuine Christianity. More and more we are faced with the stark reality of God or country.
America today is not Germany in the 1930’s, of course; and it is impossible to say what challenges lie ahead. But like Bonhoeffer we too may have to learn what is the true cost of discipleship, to learn what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24; NKJV).