Archive for January, 2013

After the months in Rome, Dietrich returned to Germany and enrolled at the University of Berlin, where the world’s leading scholars in theology and church history were teaching. He was not naive about this, knowing full well these were very liberal teachers. In fact he already knew most of those professors: They were neighbors of the Bonhoeffer family.

His personal foundations were shaped by his faith, which in turn was shaped to a large degree by that of his mother. Having learned from his family to think for himself, he was thoughtful both in his affirmation of his mother’s faith and in his criticism of the biblical studies he found in his Berlin classes.

For one of his classes in 1925 (age 19), he examined the ways in which scholars studied Scripture and concluded that “After this total disintegration of the texts, historical criticism leaves the field of battle. Debris and fragments are left behind. Its work is apparently finished.” Strong words for a young man who knew he was criticizing, among others, the very man who would be grading his paper.

The biographer Eric Metaxas misunderstands what Dietrich is saying here and concludes that Bonhoeffer rejected liberalism. The problem which Bonhoeffer sees with historical criticism is that it does not continue its examination of the biblical text after having dissembled it into its various sources. Whatever factors may account for the text as we have it, the ultimate task of biblical studies must be to hear the voice of God in the text as we have it. Anything less is an abuse.

American Evangelicals, to whom Metaxas compares Bonhoeffer, want to dispense with critical studies, not move through them to the level of spiritual listening to the text.

What Bonhoeffer had done is remarkable. He had already begun to articulate an understanding of Scripture based on a fresh, honest, faithful reading of the text. He refused to read the Bible through lenses provided either by tradition or scholarship. When he later discovered Karl Barth – and especially his commentary on Romans – he was confirmed in the path he had already chosen.

Having led hundreds of small group Bible studies over the years, I am very sure that the biggest problem for students of the Bible is that they tend to find in any given text what they already believe and to ignore whatever does not fit their preconceived notions. An honest reading of Scripture seems to be unthinkable.

Some of the most enjoyable study groups for me have been multi-cultural. I have noticed repeatedly that Western men (more than Western women) tend to look at the text only briefly because they think they already know what it means. That creates serious difficulties in groups where the other members want to see and understand the test for themselves.

All good Bible study begins with careful observation of the text to see what it actually says, not what we think it ought to say. Bonhoeffer is a superb example of what a good student of Scripture can be.


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During January of 1933, Bonhoeffer was at work on his lectures on Genesis at the university in Berlin. He was not yet a paid professor but, as was the custom for beginners, he was permitted to teach and the students were permitted to pay whatever they liked directly to the teacher.

Dietrich was also working on a radio message he was scheduled to deliver on February 1. He had chosen to use the occasion to warn the German people of the grave danger that lay in their demands for a strong leader who would pull them out of the extremely difficult situation they were experiencing. The war had left them impoverished and, just as they were beginning to regain some stability, the crash of the world economy knocked them down again. Combined with the bitterness they felt at the humiliating Treaty of Versailles which ended the war, there was a growing sense of desperation amongst the people. There brief experiment with democracy since 1917 was clearly not working well for them.

Bonhoeffer wanted to make it clear that the desire for a strong, autocratic leader was an invitation for a tyrant to take the helm of state. Though he didn’t plan to mention Hitler by name, everyone would have known that Bonhoeffer had a particular tyrant-to-be in mind.

The president of Germany, the aged Hindenburg, was simply too old to be engaged in affairs of state. He had only run for re-election because he had feared the petty and hateful Hitler might win if there were no substantial opposition. By the beginning of 1933, however, Hindenburg realized that Chancellor von Schliecher, who had been the third Chancellor (similiar to the British offer of Prime Minister) appointed in 1932, was as ineffective as all the others. Schliecher was dismissed on Saturday, January 28. On Sunday as many as a hundred thousand people gathered in Berlin to cry out against Hitler, whom they knew wanted to be the next Chancellor. Their cries were unheeded: Hindenburg appointed Hitler on Monday, January 30. (Ignore the biographer Metaxas, who seems to think Hitler was elected by the people. The position was filled by appointment, not election.)

And on Wednesday, February 1, Bonhoeffer delivered his message, knowing it was already too late. Worse, Dietrich had spoken beyond the time limit and was cut off before reaching the conclusion of the message, which was the explicit warning to which he had been building.

The message, then, did nothing to slow the incredible speed with which Hitler turned himself into the very tyrant Bonhoeffer had predicted but at least it put on record that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was opposed to tyranny in general and to Hitler more specifically. That little seed of opposition would develop from mere disagreement to opposition to participation in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, a progression we’ll follow carefully in the weeks ahead.

___________________________Reference: Chapters 1, 6, 7 of Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich are very helpful as background to this story.

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When he was 24, with a doctorate and a year of pastoral internship under his belt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to America for a year of study at prestigious Union Seminary in New York City. He found American education to be a great disappointment because it lacked rigor and solid foundations. One of his comments about his fellow students was especially interesting. He wrote from New York to his sister Sabine, “I always have the feeling I am talking to twelfth-grade boys” (Leibholz, 63).

German education was far more demanding than American, despite the fact that in Germany, unlike America, a student could begin working on a doctorate right out of secondary school without needing first to earn a bachelor’s degree. Americans spent more years gaining less education than Germans.

What was Dietrich like when he graduated from secondary school? He had already read and pondered most of the Western classics from Homer onwards, having begun working on them in his spare time around age 12. At age 13 he wrote a several page, carefully researched paper on the political and military relations between Germany and France. For a graduation paper he chose to compare the Roman authors Catullus and Horace, which he read and quoted in Latin.

He began his university studies at Tübingen, which was highly respected but not yet what he really wanted. The Kaiser Wilhelm University in Berlin (usually just called Berlin University) had the world’s most prominent scholars in theology, his chosen field. His father and older brothers were Tübingen graduates, so perhaps he thought beginning his studies there was a form of respect for his family.

At the end of his first year he and his brother Klaus traveled to Rome. Klaus, who was later to be executed for his participation in the conspiracy with Dietrich, having just earned his doctorate in jurisprudence and passed his bar exams, was poised to begin his career as a lawyer, first with the League of Nations in Geneva, later with Lufthansa. Though he was only 18, Dietrich already had a solid foundation in history and art, so he reveled in the richness of the ancient city on the Tiber, just as he had expected.

It was his deep love of music, however, that turned out to be the key to the ultimate effect of Rome on the young scholar. He discovered in the music and liturgy of the church his first taste of the communion which constitutes the church. In his diary we find such notes as:

The universality of the church was illustrated in a marvelously effective manner. White, black , yellow members of religious orders – everyone was in clerical robes united under the church. It truly seems ideal (DBWE:9:88).

          . . .on Sunday afternoon in the Trinità dei Monti it was almost indescribable. Around 6 o’clock approximately 40 young girls who wanted to become nuns entered in a solemn procession wearing nun’s habits with blue or green sashes. The organ began to play. With unbelievable simplicity, grace, and great seriousness they sang Evensong while a priest officiated at the altar. The impression left by these novices was even greater than would have been left by real nuns, because every trace of routine was missing. The ritual was truly no longer merely ritual. Instead, it was worship in the true sense. The whole thing gave one an unparalleled impression of profound, guileless piety. When the door opened after the short half hour one had the most magnificent view overlooking the domes of Rome while the sun was setting. Then I also went for a bit of a walk on the Pincio. The day had been magnificent. It was the first day on which something of the reality of Catholicism began to dawn on me – nothing romantic, etc. – but I think I’m beginning to understand the concept of ‘church’ (DBWE:9:88).

His evaluation of the Roman Catholic Church varied from day to day as he often disapproved of what he saw. Nonetheless, the overall impression made on Bonhoeffer by the churches and the worshipers of Rome was deep, positive, and long lasting. The subject of his doctoral thesis three years later? The church and his understanding of what the church was meant to be: The Communion of Saints.

DBWE – Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, vol. 9, 2003
Leibholz, Sabine Bonhoeffer, Portrait of a Family, 1994

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July of 1914 saw the opening of what came to be called World War I. We are saddened and shamed by the idea that we humans could create anything called a World War and we are shocked that we have needed to number them. The world was at war, twice. You don’t need to be a pacifist to see that war is proof of how far we have fallen from the Image of God in which we were created.

For Dietrich Bonhoeffer at age eight, however, the beginning of the war felt like his country was beginning a grand adventure. He was excited about reading “progress” reports in the newspapers, hearing proclamations of quick victories on the radio, even making maps to identify the far off places he was hearing about.

It took only a short time, however, to recognize that his parents had the more realistic attitude: War is not glamorous but gory, not honorable but horrifying. However much individuals may prove their courage and valor in war, the conflict remains a sure sign that we have fallen far short of our Creator’s intention for us.

The fighting ended in August of 1914, when Dietrich was 12. By then, of course, all Germans were aware that the four years of war had been gruesome and costly beyond measure. The Bonhoeffer’s, like most families in Germany, had lost a son. Walter, Dietrich’s older brother by seven years, had been killed in April of the final year. Every member of the close knit family was wounded by the loss.

Dietrich was confirmed at age 15 in March of 1921. Confirmation seemed to be the only church ceremony that mattered to his mother. As a Confirmation gift, she gave Dietrich the Bible that Walter had received at his Confirmation and had taken to the front with him. Dietrich treasured and used it for the rest of his life and honored the inscription his mother had written inside its pages for Walter:

The letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive! (2 Corinthians 9:6)
So love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10)

During his time in the Confirmation class, Dietrich declared to his family that he had chosen his career. He was going to be a theologian. His older brothers teased him about wanting to serve an institution that was “poor, feeble, boring, petty, and bourgeois.” He responded simply, “In that case I shall reform it!”

He spoke those words more than 90 years ago and in a very real sense is still having a reforming effect on the church around the world.

By age 15 Bonhoeffer had already spent three years devouring the classics of Western literature. He had developed also such skill on the piano that it seemed a real possibility that he would make a career in music. And he was firmly grounded in his mother’s habit of using each day the devotional booklet published by the Moravians. (Called in those years “The Watchword,” today it is known as “Moravian Daily Texts” and is available online at < http://www.moravian.org >).

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his seven siblings were full of life. The flourished in a loving home that included both strict discipline and lots of freedom, both faith and intellectual rigor, both healthy pride and sincere humility. The children had more pets than they cold count and an endless supply of good books. They learned a deep love both of hymns and classical music. They learn poetry for the ear and painting for the eye. And it was all soul food for the heart.

Around age 12 Dietrich began devouring the classics of Western literature. Not the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew but Homer and Plato, Chaucer and Plutarch, Goethe and Schiller.

Even earlier his character as a caregiver showed up very clearly. Walking outdoors with his twin Sabine and their younger sister Susanne, Dietrich never tired of picking stickers out of their socks or offering a hand when they forded a stream. He was very young when he spotted a dragonfly hovering in the air. He assured his mother that she need not fear the creature because he would guard her.

His devotion to God also showed up very early. Susanne tells a story about this:

One day when we “three little ones” no longer slept in the same room, he declared to me and my sister Sabine, “During the day we think much too little about the dear Lord, and evenings after praying, I too think immediately about something else again and hear how you in the next room begin to chatter. Shall I, when in the evening the dear Lord comes to my mind, rap to you three times on the wall so that you too think about him?” Three raps on the wall – sometimes I can still hear them.

Intellect, lovingkindness, faith — We’ll see this trio again and again in Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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There are two good reasons for us to look with some care at the family in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born and raised. The first, of course, is that knowing something of his family helps us understand Dietrich himself. The second is that families in 21st century America are in disarray and we need to see positive examples of what a family can be.

I find at least four characteristics of the Bonhoeffer family that are deeply attractive to me.

1. Dietrich’s parents, Karl and Paula, loved each other. Our divorce-prone society has invented the sad and unrealistic idea that we can break up a family without harming the children if we simply tell them that mommy and daddy still love them, just not each other. Children need for mom and dad to love each other as much as they need to be loved by mom and dad. It is cruel to think a child can separate the two loves.

Dietrich and his seven siblings were raised in a home made safe and secure by the bond of love and the commitment they saw between their parents. Years later, Karl reminisced about the first time he saw Paula:

         I met a blond, blue-eyed girl who so captivated me the moment I entered the room by her free natural manner, her open uninhibited gaze, that my impression of this moment when I first saw my future wife remains in my memory as an almost mystical one that determined my life. (Bethge 8).

At their 50th wedding anniversary, someone calculated that Karl and Paula had only been apart from one another for a total of about a month in the half-century they shared.

2.  Their home honored not just the immediate, “nuclear” family but the extended family and its history. Each of the children knew himself or herself to be securely placed in the context not just of parental love but family honor. That gave each child both a foundation and an obligation. Dietrich wrote to his great-nephew:

   The cosmopolitan culture of the old middle-class tradition represented by your mother’s home has created, in those who inherit it, a proud awareness of being called to high responsibility in public service, intellectual achievement and leadership, and a deep-rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition. This will endow you, even before you are aware of it, with a way of thinking and acting that you can never lose without being untrue to yourself (DBWE 8:384).

Bethge, Dietrich’s closest friend, comments that “The rich world of his ancestors set the standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own life.  It gave him a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation.” (Bethge 13).

Even if your own family history is more horrific than honorable, you can teach your children that, “We are the beginning of a new generation, a new stage of family honor, and our great grandchildren will be proud of us.”

3. Karl and Paula would never have dreamed of neglecting to model and teach basic values and to actively shape the character of their children. Many parents today are hesitant to “impose” their values on their children, leaving them instead to grow up aimless. In the Bonhoeffer family, there were basic values that were simply part of the way the family operated: integrity, clarity of thought, kindness, creativity, imagination.

There are a couple of lines in Bethge’s biography which I especially like. Paula Bonhoeffer, says Bethge, “regarded mistakes as more forgivable than boredom.” And, “Dishonesty and fibbing were severely punished; in comparison, broken windows and torn clothes hardly counted.” (Bethge, 18-19).

One of the most fundamental family values is faith in God. Karl seems to have had none, yet he was always perfectly respectful of Paula’s deep faith. She taught the children the Bible, trained then in the habit of daily devotions, sang hymns with them, and prayed with them. She never let faith be a substitute for the careful thought and articulation so valued by Karl but neither did she let faith be supplanted by rationalism. It is striking that Paula’s faith did not move her toward the church. The Protestant church in Germany simply did not have much connection with real faith. It was simply a religious institution. (Did you know that one of Bonhoeffer’s most challenging ideas when he grew up was that we need to be followers of Jesus but not religious?)

4.  The home was marked by a wonderful balance of discipline and freedom. When duty was to be done, the discipline was strict, but when it was time for play – and Paula made sure there was lots of that – there was always a celebration of freedom, curiosity, and imagination. All the children were avid readers and valued the world of ideas. They also wrote and performed plays. Dietrich was a very good pianist and even set some Psalms to music. Friends and cousins were always drawn into the fun. And no one could count the pets.


From his mother Dietrich learned a faith that was deep, personal, and foundational. The Lutheran church played little role in Bonhoeffer’s upbringing. It was almost completely irrelevant in Germany aside from the “religious” ceremonies of infant baptism and confirmation. This distinction between faith and church must surely have contributed to Bonhoeffer’s later idea of a “religionless Christianity.”

From his father Dietrich learned the value of using the mind with deep integrity rather than passing on thoughtless but familiar cliches. Most of Dietrich’s later ideas, still shocking readers to this day, result from his strong commitment to speaking the truth without settling for commonly accepted but inadequate ideas. He read Scripture, for instance, with fresh eyes undimmed by church tradition.

Bethge = Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, revised edition, Fortress, 2000.
DBWE = Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, the Fortress series of Bonhoeffer’s complete writings.

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