Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in
Nazi custody, summer 1944    

February 4, 2006, was the centenary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his role in the resistance which sought, unsuccessfully, to assassinate Hitler, bring the crimes of the Third Reich to an end, and establish a new, morally legitimate, government in Germany. Bonhoeffer's role in the resistance grew out of a theological worldview that was at once profoundly rooted in the Lutheran tradition in which he grew up and shaped by his friendships with such people as the French pacifist Jean Lasserre, an American black friend named Franklin Fisher, and the Anglican Bishop George Bell. One of the most brilliant theologians of his day, Bonhoeffer was not satisfied to pursue theology as a purely academic enterprise. He recognized that a divinity which is not homely, a theology which is not incarnate, is not Christian. The time in which he lived provided a dramatic, and costly, opportunity not only to articulate his faith, but to live it in an exemplary way.

In 1937, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge, which first appeared in English translation (by Anglican scholar Reginald Fuller) as The Cost of the Discipleship, in 1949. Bonhoeffer wrote this book as he was wrestling with the competing claims of his pacifist convictions and his responsibility for his neighbor, particularly the Jews and others who were being persecuted and murdered by the Nazis. In this personal struggle, Bonhoeffer found himself at odds with the leaders of his own church who were more than willing to subordinate the demands of the Gospel to the policy of the state. For them, the peace of the church within a warring nation was more important than the peace of the world, and loyalty to the state a higher value than the protection of a neighbor in need. It was most certainly to them that the opening lines of The Cost of Discipleship were addressed:

"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.... Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian "conception" of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In

Westminster Abbey, West Front
In 1998, the niches immediately above the west doors of  
Westminster Abbey were filled with statues of ten martyrs 
of the 20th century.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer
is fourth from      
the right.                                                                                       

such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God..... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

By this time, Bonhoeffer was already coming to the conclusion that he could not stand on the sidelines and that public statements were an insufficient response to the crisis at hand. He had been speaking out for years against the regime and its abuses from the pulpit and in other forums at home and abroad. But soon after the publication of The Cost of Discipleship he accepted a post in the German intelligence service where he became actively involved in high-risk efforts to save Jews and, eventually, to assassinate Hitler.

Discipleship, Bonhoeffer had written, is a matter of costly, not cheap, grace.  It is costly in the same way that the Incarnation itself was costly: "it cost God the life of his Son." And yet, as he wrote about discipleship, Bonhoeffer did not equate the cost of discipleship with martyrdom. When he eventually came to the most quoted sentence of the book, "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die," he was not speaking about physical suffering, much less death. Rather, he was speaking about giving up our attachments, giving up the old person, the old life, as the first disciples did who left behind home and family to follow Jesus. Very often, rejection and suffering will follow and are to be accepted, but the fundamental cost of discipleship is a different kind of death.

Personally, Bonhoeffer came to understand that discipleship had to mean that even deeply held convictions, such as loyalty and love of country and even his commitment as a Christian to pacifism and non-violence, might have to be relinquished. No attachment may be higher than our attachment to Christ. In a letter to friends and associates at Christmas 1942, he wrote: "Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God's question and call." So, when the path ahead is risky and the moral choice is clouded, we must act with the confidence that costly grace will prevail. Again, from The Cost of Discipleship, "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."

Initially arrested in 1943 because of his role in helping Jews to escape the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was eventually implicated in the failed attempt on Hitler's life on July 20, 1944. Just weeks before the liberation of Germany, on April 9, 1945, he was hanged for treason. His brother Klaus, and his brothers-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher were also executed for their roles in the plot. A doctor at Flossenburg was one of the last to see Bonhoeffer and, ten years later, he described the last moments of his life: "He climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. In the almost fifty years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."

Statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
for Westminster Abbey             

(from Letters and Papers from Prison)


     If you would find freedom, learn above all to discipline your senses and your soul. Be not led hither and thither by your desires and your members. Keep your spirit and your body chaste, wholly subject to you, and obediently seeking the goal that is set before you.  None can learn the secret of freedom, save by discipline.


     To do and dare--not what you would, but what is right. Never to hesitate over what is in your power, but boldly to grasp what lies before you. Not in the flight of fancy, but only in the deed there is freedom. Away with timidity and also reluctance! Out into the storm of event, sustained only by the commandment of God and your faith, and freedom will accept you with exultation.


     O wondrous change! Those hands, once so strong and active, have now been bound. Helpless and forlorn, you see the end of your deed. Yet with a sigh of relief you resign your cause to a stronger hand, and are content to do so. For one brief moment you enjoyed the bliss of freedom, only to give it back to God, that he might perfect it in glory.


     Come now, Queen of the feasts on the road to eternal freedom! O death, cast off the grievous chains and lay low the thick walls of our mortal body and our blinded soul, that at last we may behold what we have failed to see. O freedom, long have we sought thee in discipline and in action and in suffering. Dying we behold thee now, and see thee in the face of God.


In addition to The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer's published works include Life Together, a reflection on Christian community based on his experience running an underground theological seminary, Ethics, and Letters and Papers from Prison, a collection of letters, poems, and other writings smuggled out of prison. His close friend Eberhard Bethge, who was the recipient of much of the prison correspondence and edited it and Ethics for publication, also wrote a biography of Bonhoeffer. A 2003 documentary on the life of Bonhoeffer, is available on DVD. Denise Giardina has written a novel, Saints and Villains, based on Bonhoeffer's life. Writing historical fiction, not history, Giardina takes liberties with the story, but many will find this book to be a moving reflection on the struggle to be faithful in the face of great evil. A review of the novel is available here from the archives of The Christian Century. Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Rowan Williams, gave this paper (provided here in PDF format) at the International Bonhoeffer Congress at the University of Wroclaw, marking the Bonhoeffer centenary.

Gracious God, our fortress and our strength, who gavest grace to thy servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ and to bear the cost of following him:  Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive thy Word and embrace thy call with an undivided heart; through the same Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.