Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Sneak Preview

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Sneak Preview October 20, 2011

This review is by our blog friend and regular commenter, Diane Reynolds, and is a sneak preview of a book coming out November 1: Theological Education Underground, 1937-1940 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 15), ed. by Victoria J. Barnett. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become a singular saint among many today, and I hope it leads to many reading his brilliant studies Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5) and Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4). I have been reading Bonhoeffer since about 1974, when I first read what was then called The Cost of Discipleship, but I also have found his Life Together to be a treasure trove of wisdom — derived in the most difficult of circumstances, life in hiding from Hitler. Now to Diane’s fine introduction to various publications during those difficult times of Bonhoeffer’s life:

The years 1937 to 1940 marked a critical period in the life of pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During this time, he conducted his illegal seminary under increasingly dangerous circumstances in Nazi Germany, wrote two of his most famous books—Discipleship and Life Together—and decided to reject a secure haven in the United States to return to Germany on the eve of World War II. His departure after only a month in the U.S. catapulted him towards active resistance—and hence execution—as part of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.

These years are chronicled in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theological Education Underground:1937-1940, volume 15 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English edition series (DBWE), to be released by Fortress Press on November 1.  This book, the fourth-to-last of the 16 volumes (plus index) to be translated from German, chronicles Bonhoeffer’s struggles to respond to the horrors of Nazism and offers a riveting “fly on the wall” view of one individual’s wrestling with issues of conscience and discernment.

What do you think drives the current fascination with Bonhoeffer? What does Bonhoeffer mean to you?

In his notes on “sin,” in this volume, Bonhoeffer ponders issues that will preoccupy him for the rest of his life: “Because the essence of sin is to obtain praise for itself and to judge over good and evil, sin can never recognize its own sinfulness. … sin is a judgment of God, who calls sin that which people call good, namely, one’s own righteousness.” Do you agree with this definition?  Can one’s own will to righteousness—our desire to preserve our own purity—be sinful? Does God ever call us out to serve him by abandoning our purity?

Although Bonhoeffer became a pacifist during his year at Union Theological Seminary in 1930-31, from 1937-40 he was working out—and living out– the theology that would lead to the difficult decision to participate in an assassination attempt against Hitler.  True to form, Bonhoeffer was unflinching in not rationalizing his participation in this plot as somehow holy. For this Sermon on the Mount Christian, even killing someone as evil as Hitler potentially violated Christ’s witness. Bonhoeffer recognized that he was caught in a bind, but felt he could not be a Christian without acting in what he called a “this-worldly” way—and he hoped, but was never certain, that God would forgive him for his deed. Is this the definition of courage? Or did he wrongly abandon his pacifism?

The letters and journal entries that lead us through Bonhoeffer’s 1939 decision to return to Germany—a choice so incomprehensible that one of his friends hopped a train from the Midwest to argue with him in person— and are a particularly poignant part of this volume. How many of us would return to Nazi Germany, given a chance to escape—and not only to escape, but with the opportunity to do meaningful work in exile? How many of us, at a time when it was clear war was coming and unclear that Britain could withstand a German assault, would decline a chance to bring a beloved twin sister and her Jewish husband and daughters out of harm’s way? Bonhoeffer’s life challenges our easy rationalizations and our tendency to cast our decisions as pure.

Like the other meticulously edited DBWE volumes, this one does not disappoint, offering up a full feast of scholarship, including letters and papers unearthed since the German edition was published. As usual, the editors’ essays, in this case by Victoria J. Barnett and Dirk Schulz, are top notch.  Further, the letters, sermons, notes and diary accounts build an intimate portrait of Bonhoeffer and chronicle, “up close and personal,” a fascinating period of history and a fascinating man.

"Isn't that her job? Why does she deserve additional gratitude?Should we send grateful letters to ..."

Thanks SCOTUS Justice Sotomayor
"Thanks. In a little research for this post I did find the OT connection interesting. ..."

Amen … So Be It (RJS)
"Not shunning the newcomer just because the circumstances of his arrival are...controversial?"

Thanks SCOTUS Justice Sotomayor

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I think the beauty of Bonhoeffer’s work is the window it gives us into a soul struggling to live authentically for Christ both spiritually and practically. The historical context makes it easy for us to be “in his shoes” and identify with what he faced. As a result, I think we are mentored by Bonhoeffer in a way few other Christian writers can offer.

  • Scot, thank you for the heads up. I have 13 of the volumes and eagerly await this publication. I would love to do a D.Min. dissertation on Bonhoeffer – but am struggling as to how to tweak it to be acceptable. Bonhoeffer has gripped me for many years now, and I am amazed at his ability to hold profound paradoxes in living tension – such as the pacifist/conspirator paradox.

    I think his definition of “sin” as noted above must be read within a much larger context – what is the specific “righteousness” that he is identifying? Is it the complacent “religion” that he saw was killing the German Christian church? I really do not think it was a pietistic righteousness that we automatically picture when we read the word (although he was no fan of pietism, either).

    I have learned we cannot read Bonhoeffer in 21st century terminology unless and until we frame his writings in the early to mid 20th century German situation.

    I really look forward to this addition to the series, and to read in depth how he frames this definition, among other things.

  • Diane


    I think Bonheoffer would make a great dissertation topic–what do you imagine you’d have to tweak? .Clifford Green’s Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality, offers ideas for subjects that could use more research. Or do you have an idea in mind?

  • Diane, “tweaking” in the sense that a D.Min. project/thesis is ministry specific, as opposed to a Ph.D. dissertation which is primarily academic. To use a word picture, out of the ocean of Bonhoeffer’s theology, I would have to pull out a thimble full of water, so that I could have it seed a cloud and have that cloud rain on my little garden. The problem is not quantity or quality of ideas – it is narrowing one down. In the DBWE I have 13 volumes – and I would be limited to 125 pages in my dissertation!

    Thank you for the reference – I will obtain it post haste.

  • Roger Reynolds

    The world is complex. There are often times when there is no clear answer, or perfect solution to a problem. Was Bonhoeffer’s decision to conspire to assassinate Hitler righteous? Or is righteousness best understood as faith in God’s forgiveness? For those of you who are Quakers or pacificists, would you have acted as Bonhoeffer did?

  • Thanks much, Diane. And Scot along with commenters. I’ve been frustrated because I misplaced my copy of “Life Together.” I need to get back into Bonhoeffer, actually. I found him fascinating at one time.

    I little appreciate as in understanding the tension he held between his unwavering pacifist stance and his decision to be involved in the assassination plot to kill Hitler. That somehow in some mysterious way he may be following the will of God in doing so.

    Is one aspect of Bonhoeffer simply about the pursuit of God’s will in the sense of that will being something we can’t ever fully grasp anymore than we can grasp God himself? I don’t know. Bonhoeffer thinks such large thoughts, but then seeks to bring them down to earth. Of course he was pressed in a dire situation in which in a sense there must have never been a moment’s rest.

    Well, all that to say I need to replug into Bonhoeffer and plug into this. Will be easier for me to do so living in Grand Rapids, even if I don’t purchase the volumes.

    Look forward to more from you, Diane.

  • Hmmm … very interesting, Diane!

    I have been thinking a lot these days about “sin” — every since my post on M. Scott Peck’s idea that the root of sin (original sin) is laziness. In that context I would say that there is a part of self-perceived righteousness that approaches laziness — as in: “I’m doing my share. This is not my concern.” I can very much see how Bonhoeffer would see this as a huge root problem in the Church in Germany.

    I also, as usual, look at things through my “cHesed glasses” — which would show me that Bonhoeffer understands that faithful covenant keeping means that I am breaking covenant if I am not looking out for the best interest of my covenant partner(s). It is another angle on laziness — and conflicts with the pacifism, perhaps, when he observed that there were too many turning the other cheek when they should be standing firm. Perhaps he saw the Church in Germany’s tipping point and felt that he HAD to do something … even if that was so extreme as being part of this conspiracy.

    There is a very fine line, it seems to me, that divides the ideals of peace and the courage to move against evil.

    Thanks for the opportunity to ponder 🙂

  • Diane


    Thanks for the kind words of looking forward to more. I think you–and of course Peggy–are hitting many nails on the head. I think Bonhoeffer was concerned with trying to discern God’s will and it seems to me he was quite sure about returning to Germany, a move that seemed insane to many of his friends. However, my impression is that never was sure about the assassination plot–and the question becomes, how do we decide what to do when the path to take seems uncertain, when God isn’t sky writing the answer? I think he ultimately decided he needed to act in the world, to take on suffering and possibly sin.

  • That’s certainly a tough question, Diane. I think it’s always a matter of wanting to be open to the will of God, and committing one to that course. Bonhoeffer knew he failed at times. But for me it would necessitate not second guessing a decision if I’m committing my way in prayer to God. And it most definitely includes risk. If there is no sense of risk, is there faith?

    Surely such decisions or moves include a kind of disciplined, trained spontaneity- and a calling, the two together.

    And this would certainly all be thoroughly Christocentric. Really well beyond us, but a sheer gift.

  • Diane

    Yes, Ted, and I wonder how many people, even if uncomfortable, would have seen all the opportunities offered in America–and with them, the chance to get his sister and her Jewish husband and daughters out of England–would have seen that as the obvious path, the will of God?

  • Valerie E

    Today I read in the NY Time of the horrific death of a terrible man, Qaddafi, at the hands of a violent and celebratory mob. Everyone I’ve talked with about this today has shrugged it off with some version of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” and I found myself thinking that as well. But as a Quaker pacificist, I have to acknowledge that this response does not address the problem (does it?). So, for me, the answer is, no, no, no. Never would I agree to act as Bonhoeffer did. I also pray I will never in real life, rather than in imagination, have to face such a terrible choice.

  • God’s will for our earthly life (his will for heavenly life is specifically revealed in Scripture) is that we grow in WISDOM, so that we can make good decisions. For example, “One evening Bonhoeffer [was asked] what he thought about the New Testament passage ‘all who take up the sword will perish by the sword’ (Matt. 26:52). Bonhoeffer’s reply was that the word was valid for their circle too – ‘we have to accept that we are subject to that judgment, but there is now need of such men as will accept its validity for themselves.’”
    Having truly understood it for the first time, “Bonhoeffer explained himself with the quintessentially Lutheran imperative: ‘Sin boldly! [pecca fortiter].’ This advice to citizens of the secular realm is often ripped out of context and then becomes a dreadful cliché to be used against Luther…. But when quoted in full, it really sums up how, according to Luther, a Christian should live in this world:” “[I]f grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says (2 Pe. 3:13), we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” [See Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther, 84; see also 85, 91-98, 183, 148, 189.] (Luther, of course, is not advocating against a Pauline view of sin/grace/the redeemed life. What he is advocating, and the way in which Bonhoeffer appropriated it, is that the Christian life is one of action. It is not a ‘spectator sport.’ Indeed, Christian love is action. But if one is always apprehensive about taking action on behalf of another because it might occasion sin, then one will never take action, for, since the fall, man’s nature is so corrupted that all that one does is tainted with sin. And add to this the sins of omission. On the other hand, the new man (living in Christ, and Christ in him) is not focused on obeying commands; rather, as the new man, he naturally and simply obeys God and thus acts for neighbor; the new man, living under grace, is focused on God in faith and on the neighbor in love. This is no antinomianism, as the new man’s will has been conformed by the Spirit to God’s will and, rather than being contrary to it in any way, delights in it. Of special and important note, the original manuscript copy of Luther’s letter actually has et peccaris, “Be a sinner and you will have sinned boldly,” designating Luther’s phrase as descriptive rather than prescriptive!)
    Sin is self-righteousness, the heart curved in on itself. – this squares well with DB’s view.
    BTW, Lutheranism thrives where most fall – that is, on paradox.

  • Diane

    Rev. Andrae,

    Thanks for “visiting” from the Bonhoeffer list. I recognize this as Bonhoeffer’s view of sin and action on behalf of the other in the Ethics–I did not realize how closely he adhered to Luther.

  • Diane

    Valerie E,

    In strict pacifist terms, as I understand them, when the temptation to violence is strongest, that is when one must most strongly resist violence–however, I wonder about the role of community in this situation. Bonhoeffer was part of a family and social group that felt they had to try to assassinate Hitler, much as assassination was not part of their worldview.Bonhoeffer was clearly under pressure to throw his lot in with people he loved and respected–and they were also doing much to protect him as a dissenting minister. It is such a heart rending question when purity of conviction runs up against community. If your community is not pacifist, can you remain so? I don’t know,–perhaps you can–but the situation becomes much more complicated. Are you a pacifist if you are not doing something to stop the violence?

  • Diane, Your question is so thought provoking to me. Although our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church, has a tradition of Christian pacifists-
    I have to admit sadly that even though our pastor Jack seems ambivalent on the subject, I really know no other pacifist where I live. It is honestly hard to hold to that position when community seems to embrace “just war”. Sad and troubling for me, since I see this kind of stance as an important if not crucial outworking of the gospel.

  • Bonhoeffer was never a strict pacifist, but was influenced by pacifists at Union Seminary. One must understand the doctrine of the two realms (kingdoms), which was at the heart of his theology/action.
    Sidenote: Just War as Christian Discipleship by Daniel Bell is must reading on the topic.

  • Rev. Eric Andrae,
    From an interesting review of the book by Daniel Bell you mention comes this:

    “…as Bell insists, traditional Christianity does not support war for national self-interest (or even self-defense) or vengeance against the enemy. But, even as Bell’s book is widely read, Christians of all persuasions should never cease to ask the critical question: is this faithful to Jesus?”

    Review here:

    The review is by Ry O. Siggelkow, and I found it helpful. And casts the Christian just war tradition especially as espoused by Augustine in what is for me a more than questionable light.

    And I doubt that such thinking reflects what Bonhoeffer, who unlike Augustine did not relegate commands in the Sermon on the Mount to inward disposition, but to faithful obedient action.

  • Bonhoeffer wrote on Just War in Ethics, among other places.

    “…as Bell insists, traditional Christianity does not support war for national self-interest (or even self-defense) or vengeance against the enemy” – this is quite an oversimplification of what Bell and the Just War tradition has to say. For an article-length version of Bell’s book, see: