As many of you already know, I have been working towards an Associate’s Degree in Biblical Studies at Colorado Christian University (online). I thought I would share some of my work here on my blog. The following paper was my final for my History of Christianity course last semester. This course was fascinating! Even though I have extensively studied the Bible itself, I have never really studied Christian History between the Bible and now until this course. Our final assignment was to choose an influential person in Christian History to write about. I received full credit for this assignment!
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Session 5 Final Paper: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Colorado Christian University
“The history of Christianity is intensive and complicated. There are many men and women who impacted the course of Christianity whether for good or for bad. It was difficult to choose a single person to focus on for this assignment. Besides the obvious examples such as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, etc. there are many who are lesser known. Katherine von Bora, as Martin Luther’s wife, had great influence in her husband’s life and ministry. John Bunyan wrote one of the greatest Christian allegories ever written: Pilgrim’s Progress… while in prison. Not to mention any of the many missionaries who’s stories live on for the impact they had on various groups of people and cultures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is also one who I would consider lesser known, although, he has become better known lately due to the recent publications of his biography (articles and books) and movie documentaries.
I believe that I was first introduced to the history of the holocaust around fifth or sixth grade in history class. In eighth grade, I received a copy of Corrie Ten Boom: Her Story (1995), which included three books in one volume (The Hiding Place,Tramp for the Lord, and Jesus is Victor). Sometime during high school, and again in 2003, I visited the sobering United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Even with my interest in holocaust history over the years, I did not learn about Dietrich Bonhoeffer until I read (portions of) his biography written by Eric Metaxas (2010): Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy for a book club I participated in several years ago.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young German theologian influenced greatly by men like the German reformer Martin Luther and fellow theologian Karl Barth. He spent time in Germany, England, the United States, and other countries where he continued to study, write, debate, and advocate for the church. It was in the United States that he worshiped at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in an African American community. The pastor, Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., was outspoken about racism and the saving power of Jesus Christ. This church was completely different from those he had encountered in Germany. He also saw racism in America firsthand. (Metaxas, 2010. pp. 107-110).
In pre-war Germany, Bonhoeffer along with Karl Barth and others, were leaders of the Confessing Church, which was against Nazi oppression (Got Questions?org). For a time, Bonhoeffer was a pastor of a church in London, England, where he gained support for German Christians. While in London, he was asked by the Confessing Church to return to Germany as head of a clandestine (secret and possibly illegal) seminary. In 1937, the Reich ordered his seminary to be disbanded. However, Bonhoeffer traveled around and assembled groups of students for further instruction (Gonzalez, 2010. p. 463). The Reich, otherwise known as “German Christians,” was a group that promoted the unification of the German protestant church through the creation of a church that conformed to Nazi ideology and Aryan laws (Metaxas, 2010. p. 151-152).
Bonhoeffer returned to America but increasingly realized that Germans would have to make a choice between truth and patriotism. He wrote the following,
“I have made a mistake in coming to America… I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security” (Metaxas, 2010. p. 321)
Over the years, he wrote letters to friends outside of Germany to inform them of what was happening in his country. He also wrote several essays that were outspoken against the Nazi changes in the protestant church. This alienated him from other clergy who wanted a smooth transition and/or connection between the church and politics. In January 1938, he was banned from Berlin and in September 1940 he was banned from public speaking. Through his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, he learned about German resistance plans. By using his connections, Dohnanyi helped Bonhoeffer obtain an assignment in the office of Military Intelligence, so he could avoid military service. He used his job to send messages either written or in person during his international travels. In July of 1944, the Military Intelligence office unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the regime. Bonhoeffer was also involved with international plans to get Jews out of Germany by giving them forged papers. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested. Initially, he was charged with: “conspiring to rescue Jews, using his foreign travels for non-intelligence matters, and misusing his intelligence position to help Confessing Church pastors evade military service.” His broader connections to the resistance were uncovered after the failed coup attempt in July 1944. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).
While in prison, transferred several times, Bonhoeffer became the chaplain and he wrote many letters and was involved in the church as he could be from a cell. These letters were eventually published as Letters and Papers from Prison (Got Questions?org). On April 9,1945, he was hanged at the Flossenburg concentration camp along with other conspirators. His brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, and his brother-in-laws, Hans von Dohnanyi and Rudiger Schleicher, were also executed soon after (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). Allied troops gained control of the prison only a few days after his execution (Gonzalez, 2010. p. 465).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a modern (as in the past century) example of what it means to live and die for Christ while in complete opposition to the government around him. He did not look back on a major event and write or speak about his views in hindsight as many people do. Instead, he lived through one of the most evil movements in recent history and was outspoken about his views during that time. He was one of the few pastors to do so. He said “the church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society. There are things for which an uncompromising stand is worthwhile” (DC Talk, 1999. p. 198). I wonder if Bonhoeffer ever thought he would die for the cause of Christ when he wrote the following passage from The Cost of Discipleship:
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God (Bonhoeffer, 1995. p.45).”
Over the years there has been some debate over the theological views of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For example, his letter to a friend mentioned a “religionless Christianity” (Gonzalez, 2010. p. 465) or his views on grace and works, which are mentioned in The Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer, 1995). Many would suggest that his views are in line with scripture and that his motivation for his political views and actions were pure. Others would suggest that his interests were solely political and that his theology was skewed. I would venture to say that it is difficult for us to know for sure one way or another because his life was cut short by an evil regime. Had he the opportunity to live past the holocaust, I am sure we would have been able to read more clarification of his works from his own words. Still, we can know based on the works that we have, that he strived to seek after the Lord. He clearly did not stand for the Nazi oppression of the Jewish people and others. And, he clearly opposed the church that tried to bow to the political movement of Hitler. This is something that we as Christians in America should remember, especially as our government aims to take more and more control of the people. As popular culture promotes intolerance towards religion, it is not outside the realm of possibilities for American Christians to eventually see real persecution. Will we aid those who are persecuted and stand firm on the foundation of Jesus Christ, or will we conform to the social and political pressure, influence, and deception?
While Bonhoeffer’s life and theology may raise questions within the Christian community, there is no doubt in my mind that he legitimately took a stand for Christ when others did not. Based on what I have read, I believe that he did what he knew he could do to further the kingdom of God and end an evil movement in clear opposition to scripture. He, like the apostle Paul, continued to serve Christ and the people around him while in prison. Dietrich Bonhoeffer truly lived out Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:38-39 (NIV), “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” The last words that he sent to one of his friends before his execution were, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” (DC Talk, 1999). These words, from a man who knows that his death is coming, are encouraging for Christians who will someday meet their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Bonhoeffer, D. (1995). The Cost of Discipleship. New York, NY: Touchstone.
DC Talk and The Voice of the Martyrs. (1999). Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus: The Ultimate Jesus Freaks. Tulsa, OK: Albury Publishing.
Gonzalez, J. L. (2010). The Story of Christianity: The Reformation To the Present Day (Volume2). New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Got Questions?org (2010-2017).Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Retrieved from: https://www.gotquestions.org/Dietrich-Bonhoeffer.html
Metaxas, E. (2010). Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Ten Boom, C. (1995) Corrie Ten Boom: Her Story. (The Hiding Place, Tramp for the Lord, Jesus is Victor). New York, NY: Inspirational Press.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10008205.
Sawyer, A. (2017). Session 5 Final Paper: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Unpublished Essay.