Chapter 9: The Significance of Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by Dallas M. Roark

Chapter 9: The Significance of Bonhoeffer


Difficulty surrounds the attempt to evaluate Bonhoeffer. His influence grows and students will continue to turn to him and find inspiration in his germinal thinking. That part of the revolution in theology due to his influence is still with us. But at this point in history we can draw some ideas together about the man’s significance. Time will tell whether this particular assessment stands true or not.

A beginning point is the man himself. More attention has been paid to his thought and ideas rather than to the man. Perhaps interest in the man himself will heighten since the definitive work of Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is now available in English translation. Both Bethge’s work, and the excellent biography by Mary Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, give a clear vision of the man, his style of life, his activity, his hopes, fears, aspirations, faith, and loyalty to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer is an inspiring example of a committed Christian. He deserves to be enrolled among the greater adventurers of faith. From the first, he set his face against tyranny in Germany. He was among the first to raise his voice against the monstrous persecution of the Jews when they were forbidden to hold public office or to enter or remain in the ministry of the church. The frustrating opposition to the political church in Germany, the clandestine seminary life operated by the Confessing Church, the intrigue and plotting designed to rid Germany of a demonic rule make him a fascinating person.

A vivid contrast could be drawn between Bonhoeffer and Sir Thomas More. Could Hollywood do with Bonhoeffer what it did with More in A Man for All Seasons? More was a man who stood by his principles in an issue unworthy of martyrdom, while Bonhoeffer stood to the death for a purpose worthy of giving one’s life — to rid a country of tyranny. With the English translation of Eberhard Bethge’s definitive biography, the story of Bonhoeffer the man should take on renewed interest.

Protestantism does not have its roll of canonical saints, but Bonhoeffer deserves to be enrolled in the memory as a hero of faith. Bonhoeffer has a modernity that past adventurers of faith do not. We rationalize by saying that life in previous generations and cultures may have been much easier. But here within a technological culture saturated with militarism, hate, and divided peoples is a man familiar with it all and who has something to say about it.

The person of Bonhoeffer assumes an interest for us in contrast to the other great theologians of his time. Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Rudolf Bultmann are interesting for their theologies. We have not focused any great attention upon their personal lives. If we dismiss them for their theology or accept them for it, we are not drawn to them as persons. With Bonhoeffer it is different. We may also say that many other pastors died in prison in Germany during the church struggle, but we have not been caught up with them. Bonhoeffer is different. He is a rare soul who had many interests, a rare being who came to grips with theology, and the kind of person who would die for his convictions in an often used word of this generation we could say that Bonhoeffer had charisma. We are drawn to him, his person, and we want to know something of him as well as his theology.


Bonhoeffer is important for his contribution to theology in general. Some new moods in theology that appeared in the early sixties appealed to Bonhoeffer’s later works, particularly the Letters and Papers from Prison. The work of Bishop John A. T. Robinson made use of Bonhoeffer’s terminology. The upheaval in theology following Robinson was notoriously journalistic, if not profound. We have already raised questions about the legitimacy of Robinson’s use of Bonhoeffer’s ideas.1

Like Robinson, the radical God-is-dead movement appealed to the "later" Bonhoeffer for the use of some of his terms and operated under the guise of fulfilling Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a "religionless Christianity." The attempt to build a theology without the God-hypothesis has not been widely accepted as a positive contribution to theology. Certainly great value has come in asking for the meaning and content of the word "God," and the answers have been various. But for Bonhoeffer, Jesus Christ filled the meaning of the word "God."

Disciples often show ambivalent trends in their interpretations of their master, and this is true of Bonhoeffer’s. There is the radical stream seen in various degrees in Robinson, Hamilton, Van Buren, and others, who have appealed predominantly to the themes and suggestions in the popular Letters and Papers from Prison, or perhaps the "later Bonhoeffer." The opposite trend appeals to the "whole Bonhoeffer," to his complete works. Falling into this category are Bethge (the close friend of Bonhoeffer and perhaps the man who understands Bonhoeffer best of all), Moltmann, Godsey, Phillips, and others. These interpreters defend Bonhoeffer against being misused for "radical" interpretations. Bethge, because of his influence and importance in this camp, will probably remain the most important interpreter.

Questions might be raised about the restlessness within the church and the self-criticism it has directed against itself in the last decade. The grass roots always furnishes a certain amount of discontent with denominational structures, barren religiosity, and "status-quoism" within the religious culture. Although no sociological gauge to determine cause-effect relations can be established, Bonhoeffer has helped the church’s leadership to become critically aware of shortcomings. The popularity of Bonhoeffer in the early sixties among the religiously oriented college student, the reading layman, and the perceptive pastor give some basis for a commentary on the criticism of the church in that decade and which still spills over into this one.

Whatever the ultimate outcome for Bonhoeffer in the history of doctrine and the history of the modern church, his name is certainly one of influence. Because of his ability to say things in a new and pungent way there has been ignited an exciting exchange of ideas in theological literature.


In specific areas of theology Bonhoeffer has made several contributions.

1. The church has an important place in Bonhoeffer’s thought. If objectivity were a reality in theological circles, Bonhoeffer’s view could conceivably serve as a basis for an ecumenical "happening" between the institutional idea found in Roman Catholicism and the "called out" emphasis of Protestantism. Objectivity could perhaps lead Roman Catholic theologians to see that formal institutionalism is alien to the New Testament while voluntaristic Protestants might see that the mystical body of Christ has "space" in the world and is where Jesus Christ is to be found. But since theological wheels move slowly and reevaluation of respective positions seldom occur, the possibilities of Bonhoeffer’s position may have to wait for a long time.

Yet the church has possibilities as it contemplates the ecumenical movement. Roman Catholicism is attracted to Bonhoeffer in a way that it is not attracted to the other names of Protestant theology. We have already mentioned that one of the better works on Bonhoeffer comes from a Roman Catholic. William Kuhns’ remarks that Bonhoeffer’s works "speak directly to a Catholic as a Catholic, despite their emergence from the most vital sources in Protestant tradition."2 The Cost of Discipleship is akin to works on the spiritual life found in Roman Catholic seminaries and monasteries. Life Together "is recognized by many Catholics as the finest available description of living Christian community."3 Ethics has an appeal for it speaks of a "Church which Catholics can recognize and understand. . ."4

Kuhns delineates five areas in Bonhoeffer’s thought that hold particular fascination for Roman Catholics: (1) "his idea of community" (the church is the community where Christ is); (2) "his search for the true nature of the Church’s authority" (in the concrete situations facing the church who can speak with authority about wrong or right?); (3) "his anthropology" (what is it to be Christian in the modern world? and Bonhoeffer’s answer of holy worldliness, or his hope of full manhood); (4) "his effort to forge a dynamic definition of the Church" (the church is defined in relationship to the world); and (5) "his struggle toward a deeply relevant Christology" (the Incarnation becomes the central issue of all facets of theology) .5

The Protestant likewise shares a deep interest in these five areas. Bonhoeffer attracts Protestants because of his deep respect for the authority of Scripture in determining the idea of the Christian community, the meaning of the Incarnation, the role of the church in the modern world and in the life of modern man come of age.

Bonhoeffer did not forge a union of churches. He criticized the ecumenical movement for its inadequate theology of ecumenicity, and this criticism remains valid today. Certainly there has been no strong theology of ecumenicity set forth that refrains from watering down doctrine and swallowing up weaker denominations. The attitude of the so-called "ecumaniac" (somebody else’s church is better than mine) was not the attitude of Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer sought one important thing from the ecumenical movement: a strong denunciation of the apostate church under Hitler’s control. He felt that the church should speak out on vital issues, even chancing that it may be wrong. This problem is unsolved in American ecumenicity even when the National Council of Churches attempts to speak in behalf of its members "Who speaks for the churches?" is today an open question.

2. Ethics remains as a powerful work confronting modern man. We have yet to reckon with many of its features. His treatment of the role of the Christian in the modern world will probably be a continuing inspiration for many people if the prestige of the church continues to diminish.

The new beginning point of ethics is yet to be reckoned with by philosophical ethics. Nicolas Berdyaev declared that ethics should teach a man how to die, but philosophical ethics is not concerned with this. Bonhoeffer answers Berdyaev’s question by declaring ethics’ goal for man as being restored to unity with God. In restoration man becomes real man. Right and wrong are not products of man’s mind but are found only in the will of God.

Certain emphases in Ethics are important because of the frequent world-denying attitude among Protestants. This is God’s world, created and sustained by him, and man is to accept it with all its hopes and Possibilities as a gift of God. The narrow view of some Protestants that the world is the devil’s is to insult God’s grace and redemptive act. Bonhoeffer calls us to regain an appreciation for God’s world and redemption in it.

The mandates — labor, marriage, government and the church — reaffirm the goodness and purpose of life. Could Bonhoeffer be read seriously by some of our deeply discontented students and others, he would no doubt beckon them to a better understanding of themselves in their split world.

3. About the spiritual life, Bonhoeffer has remarkable insights. Those who knew Bonhoeffer found that the development of the spiritual life as he outlined it was not exciting to begin with, but as time passed they reassessed their views and came to regard their six-month stay in the Finkenwalde experiment as a high point of their lives. Bonhoeffer is highly relevant to the needs of modern man in his pursuit of spiritual growth. Here is the source of the church’s possibility of being the church in the world, the Christian being the man for other men.

In the context of the Finkenwalde experiment, there may be found some possibilities of rethinking contemporary theological education. The modern seminary can be a time-killer in the seminarian’s drive for a degree in theology (his union card) without ever helping him to become a theologian or develop a discipline of the spiritual life. The experiment at Finkenwalde produced a host of pastors who stood firm in their purpose to minister in any way possible. The modern seminary turns out men who have not developed a spiritual existence within themselves and are dedicated to serving where the money is the highest. They drift from church to church, lacking vital spirituality, unable to build the churches up because they are empty. The practical and professional emphasis in the seminary has been in the direction of administration, social work, and ecclesiastical machinery rather than the practical discipline of the spiritual life.

4. Christology stands out as the central feature in Bonhoeffer. With one stroke he cut down the controversies centering around the Incarnation. We are concerned with Who, not how in the Incarnation. This is true in the church also. We cannot ask the question "How is Christ in the church?" but "Who speaks to us in the church?" Doctrine was important for Bonhoeffer. He was not a narrow doctrinaire creature who could not allow doctrinal differences, but eventually doctrine became a life and death issue in the Confessing Church’s struggle in Germany. The issue was as important as the survival of the church. Doctrine is that important. Christology is the center of doctrine. His controversial utterance, "Whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church in Germany separates himself from salvation," stressed both the importance of doctrine as well as the idea that separation from the church is equal to cutting oneself off from Christ who exists in the church.

5. We would like to conclude this work with a word about Bonhoeffer’s face toward the future. Bonhoeffer knew that the evil of Hitler would one day meet its end and there must be people who were ready for picking up the pieces. The. church must be ready to minister. In 1942, Bonhoeffer met a few friends at Werder, and among them was Werner von Haeften, who was a staff lieutenant of the Army High Command. In discussing ,his duties, he asked of Bonhoeffer: "Shall I shoot? I can get inside the Fuhrer’s headquarters with my revolver. I know where and when the conferences take place. I can get access."6

Bonhoeffer discussed this issue at length. He noted that ridding the world of Hitler was not everything, for worse could come by others; but it should accomplish something; there should be "a change of circumstances, of the government. . . the ‘thereafter’ had to be so carefully prepared."7

In conversations with others, plans were made on various levels for the possible reconstruction of Germany. Earlier Bonhoeffer had returned from the safety of New York to give himself the right to participate in that reconstruction along with his suffering people. His look toward the future only expressed his continuing faith in God who was incarnated in Jesus Christ and the church. In these troubled times plans need to be made for the future.



1. See chapter I.

2. Kuhns, op. cit., p. 258.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., pp. 260ff.

6. I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 191.

7. Ibid.