Sanctorum Communio, 1930 (The Communion of Saints, 1963)
Akt und Sein, 1931 (Act and Being, 1962)
Nachfolge, 1937 (The Cost of Discipleship, 1948)
Gemeinsames Leben, 1939 (Life Together, 1954)
Ethik, 1949 (Ethics, 1955)
Widerstand und Ergebung: Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft, 1951, revised 1964, 1970 (Letters and Papers from Prison, 1953; revised 1967, 1971)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, 1986-1999 (17 volumes; partial translation as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, 1996-2000 [7 volumes])
Brautbriefe Zelle 92: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maria von Wedemeyer, 1943-1945, 1992 (Love Letters from Cell 92: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maria von Wedemeyer, 1943-1945, 1994)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (BAWN-huhf-ur) is one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. Born in Breslau, Germany, the sixth in a line of eight children, he was reared in Berlin in an academic atmosphere. His father, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and neurology, taught at the University of Berlin. Bonhoeffer naturally gravitated toward a university career, but unlike his father he was more interested in theology than in the natural sciences. Influenced by the historical theologians Karl Holl, Adolf von Harnack, and Rheinhold Seeberg, and deeply affected by the writings of Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer attempted to combine a theological and sociological understanding of the church in his doctoral dissertation, entitled The Communion of Saints. He was granted a Ph.D. in 1930; during the same year, he also studied in New York at the Union Theological Seminary with Reinhold Niebuhr.
In 1931, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and accepted an appointment at the University of Berlin as a lecturer in systematic theology. Not long afterward, he published Act and Being, a work in which he argued that Christianity is reducible to neither a philosophy of transcendence (Akt) nor a philosophy of being (Sein); also, it could not be explained without reference to philosophical concerns. Thus, according to Bonhoeffer, philosophical attempts to account for the meaning of Christian revelation are not exhaustive, yet all Protestant and Catholic theologies have nevertheless been influenced by transcendental metaphysics and ontology, and theories of being and of knowledge. Bonhoeffer’s point, which characterizes all his subsequent writings, is that it is not possible to make meaningful statements about God apart from the notion of revelation in Jesus Christ. In fact, to understand Christian revelation one must always examine the concrete and historical aspect of revelation in Christ as opposed to any philosophical explication.
Bonhoeffer resisted the persecution of the Jews and the Nazification of the church from the time Adolf Hitler first seized power in 1933. Frustrated and sorely disappointed by the passivity and lack of resistance among the churches in Germany at that time, he accepted a pastorate for Germans in London from 1933 to 1935. When the Confessing Church (formed by Christians who actively resisted Nazi domination) established its own seminary in Finkenwald, he returned to Germany and served as its director. He continued to prepare young men for ordination clandestinely until 1940, even though the state authorities had closed the school in 1937. It was here that Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, a book on the practices of private confession, prayer, and common discipline which he hoped would serve as a spiritual renewal for the secular world, and The Cost of Discipleship, a polemic directed against the doctrine of what he termed “cheap grace” promulgated by Protestant churches at the time; an unlimited offer of forgiveness was, to Bonhoeffer, merely a cover for moral laxity. Bonhoeffer first became widely known through these writings.
After repeated conflicts with the Gestapo, Bonhoeffer considered taking refuge in the United States under the sponsorship of Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary. Yet, having spent four weeks at the seminary, he returned to Germany, convinced that he would have no effect on the Christian revival of his country if he did not directly share the tribulations of other Germans during the war. Back in Germany, and despite the restrictions placed on his activities, Bonhoeffer became an active force in the resistance movement while he worked for the Department of Military Intelligence (which, in fact, was a center for those who opposed Hitler). He traveled to Sweden in May of 1942 to convey to the British government a conspiracy to remove Hitler and propose a negotiated peace; to his chagrin, the Allies’ policy of unconditional surrender stymied this plan. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested on the charge of suspicion and imprisoned. When the attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20, 1944, failed, Bonhoeffer was directly linked to the conspiracy and was hanged with five thousand others on April 9, 1945, at the Flossenberg concentration camp.
From 1939 to 1943, Bonhoeffer had begun writing a manuscript on Christian ethics that he regarded as the culmination of his life’s work; however, the work was never completely finished and survives only in fragmentary form. Published posthumously in 1949, Ethics is Bonhoeffer’s most concerted and systematic attempt to reject a philosophically based moral framework. In it, he rejects the notion that theological ethics moves from general abstract ethical principles to specific Christian precepts, and he proposes a view which calls for a unitive and concrete ethical framework based on revelatory events in the life of Jesus Christ.
The letters and papers Bonhoeffer wrote in prison during the last two years of his life have become the most influential of all of his work. Letters and Papers from Prison, as it is best known, contains a memorable interpretation of modern history. According to Bonhoeffer, the “god of explanation” belongs to humankind’s spiritual adolescence and is gradually disappearing from history. By this he means that humans no longer have to rely upon or adopt a particular metaphysical perspective, or specific view of God’s transcendence, in order to call themselves Christians. Rather, they must live with Christ in a modern, nonreligious world–in short, to live for others. Losing the sense of otherworldliness and the concentration on personal salvation will therefore liberate people and allow them to focus on aspects of life in this world. It was Bonhoeffer’s belief in such a “religionless Christianity” that enabled him to write about imitating Jesus, “the man for others,” and sharing “in God’s sufferings in the world.” On a personal level, this belief justified his own participation in the conspiracy against Hitler and ensured his place as a martyr for Christianity.
The heroism that Bonhoeffer displayed at the end of his life has called much attention to his personal character, but it has not overshadowed the interest that he has garnered over the years as a theologian. Bonhoeffer has been earnestly studied by large numbers of students not only for his radical critique of the contemporary church and the secular environment in which Christianity currently exists but also for his interpretation of twentieth century theology and its emphasis on what he considered to be the insignificant aspects of religious life. His ideas still influence movements in church reform and ministry, especially in the efforts of theologians to propose a secular Christianity, or secular meaning of the Gospel, and in the formulation of a theology of hope. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer’s own formulation of these ideas is not complete, and he was prevented from making any sustained impact on the field of theology in his lifetime by the Nazi regime.