Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Minister

Looking through some old stuff from my seminary retirement hobby I found this paper on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It was an assignment for the History of Christianity course taught by Dr. Mary Havens.  Bonhoeffer is an especially interesting character because of the inherent contradiction of a minister with a reputation for pacifism both entertaining thoughts of suicide and conspiring to assassinate Hitler.  The paper includes Bonhoeffer's views on self esteem and his provocative view that a member of a Christian fellowship " prohibited from saying much that occurs to him."  The emphases of this paper are Bonhoeffer's theory and practice of Christian ministry, a practice that continued until the day of his hanging.


MARCH 27, 2002


Bonhoeffer’s Life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born February 4, 1906, in Breslau, Germany, child of prosperous, intelligent, and prominent parents and brother to seven, and died April 9, 1945, on the Nazi gallows at Flossenburg after spending his last two years confined in the company of a small group of prisoners and jail keepers of Hitler’s Third Reich.  He lived an early life of comfortable privilege surrounded by the love and support of his family and the friendship and guidance of brilliant and influential mentors and associates but in a political environment steadily advancing toward the crisis which was to result in his imprisonment and youthful death.  Relatively unknown during his life and often misunderstood after his death, perhaps because of the incompletion of his life’s work, Bonhoeffer has, nevertheless, become one of the most widely read and studied and quoted theologians of the twentieth century.

Bonhoeffer’s education started at home under the tutelage of his father, Professor Karl Bonhoeffer, chair of his department at the University of Berlin.  Professor Bonhoeffer was a man of dignity, self-control, objectivity, and clear speech and taught his children the same disciplines.  Although the Church was not a priority for the Bonhoeffer family, Dietrich’s mother, Paula, had a Christian education and took personal responsibility for the religious and musical instruction of her children.  Both parents taught the Bonhoeffer children personal responsibility and concern and empathy for others and did so in a home environment that developed their natural talents, built their self confidence, and instilled in them senses of humor.[1]  The fruits of those parental efforts are clearly visible in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The Bonhoeffer family was severely impacted by World War I, losing nephews and one son, Dietrich’s older brother, Walter, in military action when Dietrich was twelve years old.  The war experiences may have influenced him to pursue a career in theology because, at fifteen, he was studying Hebrew.[2]  He entered university at seventeen and pursued his studies vigorously without missing the opportunity to enjoy university social life.  He joined a fraternity which he eventually had to leave when it inserted the Aryan clause in its constitution.[3]  That was perhaps the first of his public anti-Hitler positions which were to become bolder and bolder eventually leading to Bonhoeffer’s execution.

There were two dramatic spiritual turning points in Bonhoeffer’s life.  The first had to do with his attitude toward the Church which was relatively unimportant to him until he spent a university term in Rome and attended St. Peter’s during Easter.  That visit, recorded in his diary as an experience which helped him begin to understand the Church, “made him conscious how nationalistic, provincial, and narrow-minded were the confines of his own church.”[4]  The second turning point occurred in 1933 when he, “discovered the Bible for the first time,” and concluded that he was, “still not a Christian.[5]  By that time he had already served in his first assistant pastorship under the direction of a minister who apparently showed little interest in theology or religion.  There, Bonhoeffer seems to have gotten a good look at what the Church should not be, strictly social and political in nature. 

He had also studied at Union Theological Seminary, had become involved in ecumenism and had become more political, even as Germany had moved closer and closer to crisis.  He had become a university lecturer, heavily involved in travel, seminars, church politics, and ecumenism.   He had also met and had become a friend of Karl Barth.  It was study, lectures, conversation with Barth, and self examination during those years that led Bonhoeffer to the second turning point.  He later confessed that he had finally realized that, “the life of a servant of Jesus Christ should belong to the Church.”[6] From that time, Bonhoeffer belonged to the Church and was focused on Christian ministry and on renewal of the Church, placing him in diametric opposition to Hitler who, in the same year, had become Chancellor of the Third Reich and had immediately begun destroying the German democracy and eliminating the freedoms of the citizens.  Bonhoeffer had ten years left before his arrest.

Bonhoeffer became a parish minister in London in 1933 but returned to Germany in 1935 to lead an underground illegal seminary.  His experiences at the seminary are the subject of Life Together, [7] published in 1938.   After an unsatisfying attempt to escape the German situation by a move to NY, he returned to Germany in 1939 to, “share the tribulations of this time with my people,”[8] and joined the resistance against Hitler, eventually becoming involved in a plot to assassinate the German ruler.  He was arrested and imprisoned in 1943 and, after discovery of the assassination plot, was condemned and hanged in 1945.

Bonhoeffer’s Theory of Ministry 

In Life Together,  Bonhoeffer outlined his concept of ministry, linking the gift of ministry to the gift of justification by grace.  He argued that self justification forces us to compare ourselves to others and results, because of our self centeredness, in criticism of the others.  By so doing, according to Bonhoeffer, we justify ourselves.  If only we realize that we already have the gift of justification by grace, we no longer have to justify ourselves by comparing ourselves with others and can accept others as creatures of God.  Only then can we minister to them without judging.

Bonhoeffer listed seven essential elements of ministry, two that were inward focused and five that had to do with interaction with others.  The first essential element of Christian ministry, according to Bonhoeffer, is control of the tongue.  His strongest statement on the tongue is that, “…it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.”[9]  The prohibition applies not to kind words spoken in private and in love to Christian brothers but to criticism spoken in public and behind the backs of the criticized.  Scriptural support is found in Psalms 50:20-21, Ephesians 4:19, and, perhaps most directly, in James 4:11-12:  “Speak not evil one of another, brethren…who are thou that judgest another?[10]  According to Bonhoeffer, if that philosophy is adopted, “diverse individuals in the community are no longer incentives for talking and judging and condemning, and thus excuses for self justification.” [11]

Meekness is Bonhoeffer’s second, inward focused, essential element of ministry.  To put his advice in modern terms, those who would minister should give up self esteem.  Bonhoeffer’s actual words were that such a person should, “think little of himself.”  Romans 12:3 was cited as a scriptural basis: “…I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” [12]  The purposes of meekness are to avoid the “sin of resentment”[13] and to be able to humbly serve others.  As Bonhoeffer asks, “How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?”[14]

Then Bonhoeffer turns to three specific things Christians should do in personal ministry to each other: Listening attentively, resisting the temptation to interrupt and take the center of attention, helping in even trivial matters, always being willing to be interrupted, and bearing each others burdens,  never sidestepping what others may impose upon us.  All three require a total selflessness and seem almost impossible.  How can one make a living and take care of personal responsibilities if always ready to listen to concerns of others, to be interrupted to help with menial tasks, and to share concern with whatever anyone else may be concerned about?  Such is possible only by the Grace of God.

Bonhoeffer further states that Christians are to proclaim the gospel and speak openly of Jesus Christ to each other.  Bonhoeffer is speaking of, “free communication of the Word from person to person, not by the ordained ministry which is bound to a particular office, time, and place.”[15]  In spite of our concerns about confrontation of Christian friends with the Gospel, we must do it because we are all sinners and, “have only God to fear.”[16]

Finally, according to Bonhoeffer, if we truly serve one another as ministers, we have the ministry of authority.  Believers should not confer authority on persons because of their physical or mental traits and characteristics and abilities but only because of their humble service.  He states, “The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.”[17]  These statements were not just intellectual affirmations but were intensely personal for Bonhoeffer, who in fact was a brilliant personality, charismatic, influential, and gifted, and who later confessed that personal ambition had once been a problem for him and that he had, “turned the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage.”  Certainly during the latter years of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life he qualified as a faithful servant giving humble service.

Bonhoeffer’s Practice of Ministry

The student of Bonhoeffer has the advantage of being able to assess the actual ministry of the always great and eventually humble theologian against his simple theory.  The personality and discipline required of a person making his or her mark as a theologian, ministering through writing and teaching and across distance and time, are different from those required of a person focused on face-to-face personal and immediate ministry to others.  Bonhoeffer excelled in both areas.  His writings are ample evidence of his significance as a theologian and have also become an ongoing ministry of great impact.  A Rabbi wrote to Bonhoeffer’s friend, Eberhard Bethge, that Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison had, “made him understand for the first time how one might be able to worship Jesus Christ.[18]  But it is not just his writing.  Bonhoeffer’s life story includes many examples of selflessness in the practice of personal ministry.

Even as a student responsible for a childrens’ service at the Grunewald church, Bonhoeffer’s talent for personal ministry was foreshadowed in his invitations of the children to his home and in his initiation of discussion groups with the older children.[19] Later he took charge of an unruly confirmation class whose confidence and respect he won through personal involvement in their lives and through opening his home to them, even in his absence.[20]  His personal ministry matured during his leadership of an underground seminary at Finkenwalde from 1935 to 1938.  The seminary was an establishment of the Confessing Church, regarded as illegal by the Reich church government.  In Spartan surroundings, Bonhoeffer opened himself completely to the seminarians, installing his treasured library and piano in a common area for use by all and reading to them from his works in progress.  Initial German patriotism of the seminarians was overcome by Bonhoeffer’s teaching on pacifism.  Finally in 1935, when the seminary itself was officially declared illegal, Bonhoeffer called all the ordinands together and released them from their obligations to the seminary.  None left.[21]  It was of his experiences at Finkenwalde that Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together.

Finally it was the prison experience from April 1943 until his death which was the ultimate test of Bonhoeffer as a minister.  Initially in solitary confinement, forbidden conversation even with the guards, and without amenities even for personal cleanliness, he entertained thoughts of suicide, not only to avoid the risk of betraying his family or associates in conspiracy but, “because basically I am already dead.”[22]  However, after an initial interrogation period, Bonhoeffer was allowed to convert his cell to a study including minimal comforts from home and books and paper.  He gained the respect and assistance of his jailers and was eventually able to smuggle out his writing uncensored. 

Throughout his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer worked and worshiped and ministered, always maintaining a personal discipline and serenity that could not be ignored by his fellow prisoners and prison keepers.  It was not only in matters of faith and religion that Bonhoeffer helped.  Bethge reported that he drafted letters, provided money, helped with legal matters, and assisted in cases of illness and injury.[23]  Rene Marle[24] quoted the comments of one of Bonhoeffer’s fellow prisoners, a British Intelligence Service officer:
Bonhoeffer…was all humility and sweetness; he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy, in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive…He was one of the few men that I have met to whom God was real and close.[25]

Another prisoner, one who occupied the cell next to Bonhoeffer’s, reported that, “…often he would slip into my hand a scrap of paper with a few words of comfort and faith from the Bible written on it.”[26]  Bethge reported that, at Christmas, he wrote prayers for distribution throughout the prison by the chaplain.[27]  In prison, it was not only middle class Christian church members with whom Bonhoeffer was associated.  There were people from all walks of life, and he was often impressed with the contributions to the community of those from outside the Church.[28]  Certainly it was no exaggeration for Renate Wind to write that, “In the emergency community of Tegel he gave and experienced solidarity.”[29]

Bonhoeffer was also active in leadership of worship among the prisoners including celebrations of weddings and christenings.  On his last day of which there is any record, he was locked in a school in Bavaria on the journey to the extermination facility at Flossenburg.  At the request of the other prisoners, Bonhoeffer conducted a service of the Word.  He was about to begin a service with a second group when he was taken away for his execution.  The inscription placed on Bonhoeffer’s memorial tablet at the church in the town where his execution took place said, “A witness to Jesus Christ among his brothers.”[30]

Thanks be to God for the life and witness and ministry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer!


Bethge, Eberhard. Costly Grace: An Illustrated Introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Translated by Rosaleen Ockenden. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, Translated by John W. Doberstein. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954.

Marle, Rene. Bonhoeffer: The Man and His Work, Translated by Rosemary Sheed.  New York: Newman Press, 1967.

Mohan, T. N.  Hanged on a Twisted Cross, Written by Eberhard Bethge. 120 min.
Lathika International Film and Entertainment, Inc., 1996. Videocassette.

Robertson, E. H. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1966.

Wind, Renate. A Spoke in the Wheel: The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1991.

[1] Eberhard Bethge, Costly Grace, trans. Rosaleen Ockenden (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), 17.  Most of the biographical details are taken from this source.
[2] Ibid., 26.
[3] Ibid., 31.
[4] Ibid., 34.
[5] Ibid., 57.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. By John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954.
[8] Bethge, 99.
[9] Bonhoeffer, 92.
[10] NRSV
[11] Bonhoeffer, 93.
[12] NRSV
[13] Bonhoeffer, 96.
[14] Ibid., 97.
[15] Ibid,. 103.
[16] Ibid., 106.
[17] Ibid., 109.
[18] Rene Marle, Bonhoeffer: The Man and His Work, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Newman Press, 1967), 39.
[19] Bethge, 36.
[20]T. N. Mohan,  Hanged on a Twisted Cross, Written by Eberhard Bethge. 120 min. Lathika International Film and Entertainment, Inc., 1996. Videocassette.
[21] Bethge, 82.
[22] Ibid., 116.
[23] Ibid., 137.
[24] Marle, 39.
[25] According to Marle, this quote was reported by Eberhard Bethge in his forward to an edition of Letters and Papers from Prison.
[26] Marle, 38.
[27] Bethge, 137.
[28] Wind 115
[29] Renate Wind, A Spoke in the Wheel: The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1991), 115.
[30] Marle, 35.


  1. Darrel
    You impress me with your thoughts, beliefs and conviction to the word of God. Merry Christmas to you and family.

    1. Thanks, Earle, and Merry Christmas to you and yours as well.