Bonhoeffer: Approaching His Life and Work

From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2013. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Many evangelical Christians today seem fascinated with the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and hold him up as a hero of the faith. Others, however, do not hold him in such high regard. Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Is he someone Bible-believing Christians should look to as a hero or ideal? In this article Prof. Andy Stearns of Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary examines the life and work of Bonhoeffer. In the second article Stearns evaluates Bonhoeffer’s teachings and his view of the Scriptures.

Bonhoeffer’s Life

Early Years and Education

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 in Breslau, located in modern-day Poland. He was a twin and the sixth of eight children.1 Bonhoeffer grew up in a household that was not particularly religious. Rather, “the predominant atmosphere was one of tolerant empiricism.”2 His father, a renowned professor of psychiatry and neurology, was more at home with science and empirical data than myth and religion. His mother, however, had grown up a pastor’s daughter and therefore gave her children three years of religious education in the home.3

The Bonhoeffers were a scientifically inclined family, though Dietrich would not become a scientist or a doctor. Rather he made the unexpected decision to become a theologian. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen explained the family’s reaction:

For a young person from an academically inclined upper middle-class family, which was ‘Christian, but no longer in the church’, to decide to study theology was as rare then as it is nowadays… . His father was surprised, and his brothers could be openly scornful. It didn’t fit the family image. The children had lots of other opportunities open to them.4

Bonhoeffer, however, would remain determined and followed this course, entering the University of Tübingen in 1923 and transferring a year later to the University of Berlin. There he would learn from the giants of theological liberalism, foremost among them the legendary Adolf Von Harnack.5

Bonhoeffer completed two theology degrees by his 25th birthday. In 1927 he wrote Sanctorum Communio, a doctoral thesis in which he engaged philosophers and sociologists regarding the nature of the church. In 1930 he completed Act and Being, his habilitationsschrift.6 In this second work Bonhoeffer interacted with two views on the form of knowledge.7 Both of these papers dealt heavily in the philosophical and sociological realm. Neither relied significantly on Scripture.8

From September 1930 to June 1931 Bonhoeffer studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He greatly disliked the American liberal theology he encountered.9 During that year he also made trips to Cuba and Mexico. When he returned to Germany in July of 1931, he spent two weeks in Bonn meeting the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer had been an avid reader of Barth and had interacted with his works in Act and Being.10

In Bonn he attended lectures given by Barth as well as discussion groups in the evening. At one point Bonhoeffer offered a quote from Luther which Barth greatly enjoyed.11 This exchange led to a personal invitation for Bonhoeffer to visit the theologian’s home. Bonhoeffer, already an admirer of Barth, began a close relationship with the theologian who would become a mentor of sorts.12 Barth’s influence can be seen and felt in Bonhoeffer’s later writings.

Teaching and Writing

For the next few years Bonhoeffer served in the ministry, while at the same time working in the University of Berlin. During this time Bonhoeffer gave a series of lectures on the first three chapters of Genesis and on Christology. Both of these lecture series turned into books: Creation and Fall (1932) and Christ the Center (1933). These writings were works of a scholarly nature and more fully showcased Bonhoeffer’s theology.

From 1933 to 1935 Bonhoeffer pastored a church in London. In 1934 Mahatma Gandhi personally invited Bonhoeffer to visit him. Bonhoeffer had been trying to make a trip to India for some time to visit Gandhi and to learn about community life and spiritual techniques that could be applied to the church in the West.13 In a letter to his grandmother he confessed that it seemed “there’s more Christianity in their ‘paganism’ than in the whole of our Reich Church. Of course Christianity did come from the East originally.”14 Bonhoeffer was unable to make this visit, which grieved him.

Rather than traveling to India, in April of 1935 Bonhoeffer accepted a position to lead a new seminary to train preachers. Bonhoeffer wrote of this experience in his work Life Together (1938). His purpose, in contrast to his earlier works, was not to discuss a philosophical system but to detail the methods of preparing for ministry and living in community with others. During these years Bonhoeffer began to think through his next work, The Cost of Discipleship. Stephen Haynes noted the devotional writing style in both The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, calling these works “homiletic” and “inspiring” compared to Bonhoeffer’s later works.15

From its inception, the seminary was illegal under German law at the time. Though the classes were small, the seminary was full of men training to go into the pastorate. It, however, survived for only two years before the Nazis found it and shut it down. After its closing, Bonhoeffer wrote what was perhaps his most widely read work, The Cost of Discipleship (1937). Countless Christians have read this work, and some think it is one of the most influential books for Christians in the twentieth century.16

With the Nazi threat increasing every day, Bonhoeffer began to work with a secret resistance group. Eventually he lost his teaching position and was banned from speaking in Germany. After a Jewish safe-house was discovered by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was implicated as one of the collaborators. He was arrested and spent the next two years in prisons and prison camps.


During this time Bonhoeffer corresponded with his closest friend, Eberhard Bethge. These letters had to be smuggled in and out of the prison. Bethge saved the letters and eventually published them as a book, Letters and Papers from Prison (1943–1945, published 1951). We can learn much about Bonhoeffer’s final days in these letters.

Bonhoeffer spent the rest of his days in German concentration camps under difficult conditions. Eventually Hitler was apprised of new information implicating Bonhoeffer and others in an assassination attempt. As Schlingensiepen reported, Hitler, having worked himself into a “frenzied rage,” gave the order to liquidate the conspirators. On April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was hanged, a mere two weeks before the Allied forces arrived.17

Bonhoeffer’s Recent Popularity

Bonhoeffer was raised in the typical theological liberalism of the time. He turned to Barth’s teachings and accepted much of his neo-orthodoxy. Bonhoeffer spent a long time secretly working against the German government, even playing a role in an assassination attempt on Hitler. In the end, many believed that he died on account of his belief in Christ. Bonhoeffer wrote a book on the cost of being a disciple of Jesus, and then almost prophetically lived what he likely thought was the direct outworking of that teaching. Ultimately, the cost of being a disciple of Christ was his death in a Nazi prison camp.

Bonhoeffer’s writings and manner of death are inspirational to many Christians today. Who would not be stirred to hear a story of a man who lived out his belief in Christ to the point of death? We desperately want to hear a story to inspire us to stay the course as Christians.

Some Evangelicals, when they read Bonhoeffer’s writings and learn of his manner of death, cast him as a hero, an icon, and an archetype for the church today. They ask, “Would you like to see what a committed Christian looks like? Look to Bonhoeffer. Would you like to know what it’s like to follow Christ and resist the political machine of the day? Look to Bonhoeffer. Do you want to become a disciple of the Savior? Look to Bonhoeffer.”

Perhaps the best example of this excitement about Bonhoeffer was the recent biography by Eric Metaxas. In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy Metaxas offered a vision of Bonhoeffer as a present day evangelical hero.18 His biography has received praise from evangelicals19 and even held the top position on the New York Times’ best-seller list.20

Bonhoeffer’s Critics

In spite of Bonhoeffer’s recent popularity, some scholars, who have spent their lives reading and studying him, offer a strong voice of dissent. While agreeing that Bonhoeffer was a noble and courageous man who stood up to the Nazis, these scholars point out that Bonhoeffer’s theology was not evangelical.21

Some scholars not only deny Bonhoeffer was evangelical, but they even find in his works the basis for their own variant, left-leaning theology. For example, in 1966 Harvey Cox authored a book titled The Secular City. In this work he set forth a Christianity which was wholly secular. He based his work in part on comments Bonhoeffer made while in prison regarding the world that had “come of age.” Cox saw Bonhoeffer as accepting the belief that religion is just a myth and that we must continue our lives without it. In essence, Cox reinterpreted the Bible based on Bonhoeffer’s themes.22 For this reason, at the very least, the Bible-believing Christian should use great care in reading Bonhoeffer’s works. Cox is not alone in his use of Bonhoeffer.23

What to Do with Bonhoeffer?

So in the end, what are we to do with Bonhoeffer? First, we should take a cautious and critical approach to reading his works. If you want to read a biography, start with Eberhard Bethge’s work. It is long, but he was Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, and his perspective is most reliable. If this book is too daunting, then pick up Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s biography. He worked with and was asked by Bethge to make Bonhoeffer more accessible to the masses and has written an excellent biography.

Second, remember that noble actions do not equal Christian behavior. Many noble people are not believers. Just because people perform noble deeds does not mean we ought to assume they are Christians. Rather, remember that while Bonhoeffer did courageously resist the Nazis, he also said some shocking things that people from various theological perspectives have taken to support their own positions.

In the next article we will look specifically at how Bonhoeffer used and interpreted Scripture. Such an examination reveals the true nature of his theology. Evangelicals have always been a “people of the book.” The question of the next article is whether this statement was also true of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


1 Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Revised Edition, Rev. and ed. by Victoria J. Barnett (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 3.

2 Ibid., 36.

3 Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906–1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, trans. Isabel Best (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 16.

4 Ibid.

5 Bethge, 45–91.

6 A habilitationsschrift was a postdoctoral dissertation written to qualify as a university lecturer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928–1931, ed. Clifford J. Green, vol. 10 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 46–47.

7 Schlingensiepen, 56–58.

8 Bonhoeffer’s use of Scripture will be discussed in the following article.

9 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, ed. John W. De Gruchy, The Making of Modern Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 10–11.

10 Schlingensiepen, 38–75.

11 Ibid., 76-77. Bonhoeffer noted that Luther said, “For God, the cursing of a godless person can be more agreeable than the hallelujahs of the pious!”

12 Bethge, 175–177.

13 bid., 406–409. Note especially Karl Barth’s response to Bonhoeffer’s plans.

14 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelley and F. Burton Nelson (HarperCollins, 1995), 23.

15 Stephen R. Haynes, “Between Fundamentalism and Secularism: The American Love Affair with Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffers Theologie Heute: Ein Weg Zwischen Fundamentalismus Und Säkularismus?, ed. John W. De Gruchy, Stephen Plant, and Christiane Tietz (Gütersloher Verl.-Haus, 2009), 221.

16 The Cost of Discipleship was listed as the second most influential book in Christianity Today’s list of the top 100 books of the last century (“Books of the Century,” Christianity Today, April 24, 2000), January 7, 2013). It was also the nineteenth book on its list “The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals” (Christianity Today, October 2006), (accessed January 7, 2013).

17 Schlingensiepen, 371–378. See also, Bethge, 921–993.

18 Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).

19 “Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer 2011 Christian Book of Year,”, News/Commentary, (May 6, 2011),…, (accessed January 7, 2013); “Bonhoeffer Reviews,” Eric Metaxas, n.d., (accessed January 7, 2013); Joseph Loconte, “Belief in Action,” The Wall Street Journal: Bookshelf, (April 23, 2010),… (accessed January 9, 2013). Also notice the many recommendations at the beginning of Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, ii–vi.

20 “Best Sellers: E-Book Nonfiction,” The New York Times, (September 25, 2011),… (accessed January 7, 2013).

21 For scholarly critique of Metaxas’ work, see Nancy Lukens, “Agenda-Driven Biography,” Sojourners, n.d.,… (accessed January 7, 2013); Richard Weikart, “Metaxas’s Counterfeit Bonhoeffer: An Evangelical Critique,” n.d., (accessed January 7, 2013); Clifford Green, “Hijacking Bonhoeffer,”Christian Century 127, no. 21 (October 19, 2010): 34–35.

22 Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. (New York: Macmillan, 1966).

23 For another example of this use, see John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, 40th Anniversary Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). Stephen R. Haynes offers an especially helpful work which looks at Bonhoeffer from various theological perspectives inThe Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).

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There are 10 Comments

Paul Henebury's picture

It is good to read a piece that explores just what Bonhoeffer believed and then compare it with [American] Evangelicalism.  Metaxas's bio is great propaganda and poor historical evaluation, so it is important to read between the lines.  Not to plug Karl Barth, but I find it ironic that evangelicals will avoid Barth and read Bonhoeffer!  I have hopes for the second installment.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Kevin T. Bauder's picture

Andy has done some nice work on Bonhoeffer. It's good to see it getting some public exposure. His perspective is needed in an evangelical world that reveres Bonhoeffer as if he were a Christian martyr.

Marsilius's picture

I am glad to see a thoughtful article like this. Richard Weikart, who is mentioned in the article wrote a book on Bonhoeffer. I have talked with him at length about Bonhoeffer's views. Though I have read quite a bit of Bonhoeffer's writings, I learned a lot from  Weikart, that was new (he does not view Bonhoeffer as an Evangelical). Weikart, by the way is an impeccable scholar. And I still view Bonhoeffer as a genuine brother in Christ. I am looking forward to the next part of Andy Stearns article.

Ryan Meyer's picture

This article on Bonhoeffer is especially interesting to me because I am a former history student/teacher who now has decided to teach the Bible instead.  Christians, in my opinion, are sometime prone to believe that everyone who pursued noble goals in history were themselves believers, but sometimes they unfortunately were not.  In the process, we set up "Christian" role models for our children of men and women who were not themselves following Christ.  Benjamin Franklin would be a good American example.

I am getting a little ahead because I have read the second part of the article, but I am curious about your definition of a "genuine brother in Christ".  Do you disagree with Weikart regarding Bonhoeffer not being an Evangelical, or do you believe that he was a "genuine brother in Christ" despite being un-Evangelical?  I would be especially interested in your research on Bonhoeffer's views of the nature of Christ and the resurrection.



Ryan Meyer

Rob Fall's picture

Herr Doktor Professor Bonhoeffer from my Neo-Orthodox at best UP pastor back in the late 60s.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Hooray for this article. I encountered the Bonhoeffer phenomenon some years back and was surprised by the number of people who had not studied his history but rather pointed to his opposition to the Nazi's through which everything else was considered.

To me, while he borrowed heavily from his Lutheranism on some points, he, in his theology, came across as far more of a social gospelist where he was not bound by his Lutheranism.

Marsilius's picture

I believe Bonhoeffer was a brother in Christ, even though I am also convinced he was not an evangelical (he was in fact quite critical of the Evangelicals in his country, “die Pietisten”). The reason I believe Bonhoeffer was a Christian is because my German copy of The Cost of Discipleship contains his testimony of how he became a true believer in Christ. It was through reading the Scriptures while in England. Prior to that time he had not been a Bible reader. He stopped reading the Bible when he wrote his Ethics. His mind was full of philosophy. He drew on that to write about Ethics. Evidently he returned to Bible reading when he was imprisoned.


If someone is wanting to know who were the people who were killed for their faith by the Nazis, their records exist. Paul Schneider was one. One can say he genuinely suffered death because he uncompromisingly preached the Gospel, even in prison. But he was already dead in 1939, so he is little talked about.


Moderator: Added link to Wiki

Jay's picture

I recently read Metaxas' work on Bonhoeffer, and Don Johnson actually PM'd me to talk with me about it.  While I'd love to believe that Bonhoeffer was a genuine believer / martyr, there is enough in the book about his theological training to make me wonder about what and whom he actually believed in.  Metaxas doesn't get into a ton of what he believes spiritually, but it would have been nice if there had been a chapter on his theological beliefs.

That being said, his stand against Nazism is salutary, regardless of his spiritual beliefs.  Bonhoeffer was one of precious few to warn against the co-opting of the German church and later of the rumors of the Final Solution.  Some view his involvement with the (failed) plot to assassinate Hitler as problematic, but I honestly don't see it as a detriment.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Dave Mallinak's picture

Thank you for this article.  I am printing it and will be reviewing it in depth.  My brother-in-law recently read a biography about him (I am not sure which one), and has been raving ever since.  As I am concerned for truth, I want to make sure he has not simply swallowed what was spoon-fed in a book.  I will be alerting him to this article so that we can look beneath the surface.

Dave Mallinak, Berean Baptist Church

"In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don't kn

Joshua R's picture

Admittedly I'm no expert on Bonhoeffer, but I'm also a little confused re: this thread. I'm only halfway through Metaxas' bio on him and it seems clear to me that he is a professing Christian albeit with evolving theological positions.  I also feel that if I take very careful note of the historical and religious context of his time I am inclined to view his life with a little more grace. 

Perhaps one of the main problems is with Christians today idolizing any of these men from the past, but regardless it seems that DB is rightly highly esteemed for opposing such great evil in his day.

I'm interested in hearing any of your thoughts on this.



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