St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Theology Course 05:
Towards God and Secular Theology:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Resource Paper Extracted

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a modern day tragic saint of contemporary Christianity. He is one of those people who lived the life of sacrificial service, and also taught, but what he taught was necessarily fragmentary because of incarceration and execution in the last days of retreating Nazi power.
He is best known for two phrases: 'the world come of age' and 'religionless Christianity'. Both of these are puzzling. World come of age is often understood as some sort of moral achievement, which would seem rather odd given the twelve year experience of Nazi institutionalised cruelty and mass killing, adding to that of Stalin. What he meant, as best as can be understood, was that humankind has shifted in its fundamental outlook:
People were no longer overtly religious: theological or pious words cannot tell people everything; inwardness and conscience cannot either, and people cannot be religious any more. He said that Karl Barth started thinking on these lines, but his view of revelation was essentially a restoration of the old view. Karl Barth therefore did nothing for the ordianary person: Bonhoeffer asked what is a Church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy and Christian life to someone in a religionless world? (McEnhill and Newlands, 2004, 74)
How can an ecclesia, that can no longer be thought of as favoured, speak in a secular way about God? Christ becomes not the object of religion but Lord of the world - and yet he asked what that means. He wondered about worship and prayer in a religionless situation. (McEnhill and Newlands, 2004, 74-75)
The task was to live, Christianly, as if God was not present; and had he lived Bonhoeffer might have gone on to reinterpret some key Christian motifs, metaphors and creeds.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with Karl Barth and even Rudolf Bultmann in not locating religion in culture, or feeling, or dependency, as had been the classic liberal position. We shall see that this was very different from the stance of Paul Tillich. And like Barth and Bultmann, there was yet remaining the centrality of the belief that God had revealed himself in Christ. Indeed he had a strong Christology, and he promoted the gospel for people in good times not just difficult times. Secular theology is often misunderstood: it is not a form of secularism but is about the hiddenness of the revelation of God in Christ.
Certainly the world had come of age in that it did not need to use God to explain gaps in knowledge, and the world could account for itself without reference to God. Indeed, such is the case with all academic departments now except Theology, and ordinary people no longer pray for rain and mean it with any seriousness.
Now for Bonhoeffer this is likely a liberation, and here is why: because the God believed in before the world came of age was a God of power, a foolish human religiosity of God intervening to solve our problems - when God had clearly shown his powerlessness, and Christ had shown this revelation in his own suffering and humiliation. Now this does relate to the Nazi period, of the God who did not intervene while the civilised world tore itself apart.
Bonhoeffer thinks the Christian come of age is one who gets a life: a life of participation in the suffering. There is no call to a new religion, just to get a participatory life of Christ in us.
Now there is a link to the postmodern outlook in Bonhoeffer (it is always worth looking for such connections!) - it is that who Christ is for us, in how he is lived, comes before how Christ became incarnate.
The normal, objective truth method is to say: first we discover how Christ became incarnate, by some supernatural or magical or historical or whatever means, and then we see how this incarnation becomes effective. Bonhoeffer reversed this. First we see the expression of being incarnate through us living the life, and this then tells us something of the how. Bonhoeffer's Christology is active, busy, secular and liberationist. A clue is the Sermon on the Mount, and that points to a tough and costly discipleship - one for the Christian that is disciplined. Costly grace matters: cheap grace is much preaching but little doing, a kind of generalised universalism open to all but not much in the way of disciplined, spiritually close, discipleship. We almost have a theology of a (remaining) generalised religiosity, which amounts to little. Bonhoeffer seems to prefer the busy, secular, person.
There is a conflict here too: the sanctification of the secular person for the later more radical Bonhoeffer and yet the sanctification of the dedicated Christian in the slightly more conservative and (dare one say) religious Bonhoeffer that seems to only offer cheap grace for the masses. Yet the activist Christian is almost secular in his or her activism.
Some background information on the life of Bonhoeffer helps understand him better.
Born in 1906 to a nominal Lutheran family, a maternal great-grandfather was a Church historian and his maternal grandfather was once chaplain to the emperor. Yet his choice of a career in the Church was regarded as backward looking. He went to Tübingen for his degree when 17 and received his first doctorate when just 21 in 1927 at Berlin, having studied under liberal divines such as Alfred Von Harnack, returning two years on to do another doctorate as a way to join the academic life. However, he first went to Union Theological Seminary in New York for a year, was disappointed in the student level of theology, and participated in the black churches there. So anyone joining the black churches on 1930s America is not going to be anti-Jewish! He returned to Germany in 1931 where he became disillusioned with the response of Churches to Hitler's rise. So he left to became a pastor to two German speaking congregations in London. Karl Barth urged him to come back to serve his needy home Church. Thus Bonhoeffer was not present at the 1934 Barmen Declaration that launched the Confessing Church against Hitler, but he did return to Germany to help set up an underground seminary closed after about two years by the Gestapo. Even the Confessing Church was patchy in its criticism of Crystal Night in 1938 and Bonhoeffer left Germany in 1939 disillusioned, by which he avoided having to give an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Yet he knew this was wrong, and wrote to his friend the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that he had to go back - if he did not go back during the war he would have no right to participate in the restoration of Christianity after the Nazis. In Germany he became an honorary member of the army counter-intelligence service that led to travel and making contacts with the resistance. He used his connection with the Bishop of Chichester G. K. A. Bell to get messages between the resistance and the Allied leadership - including on a trip to Stockholm to report its expansion and ask for allied encouragement. A plot in the resistance to kill Hitler led to Bonhoeffer's arrest in April 1943. It was in Tegel military prison in Berlin that he wrote and had smuggled out his Letters and Papers in Prison. After a second resistance plot to kill Hitler was uncovered, and a definite link was discovered with Bonhoeffer and his friends regarding the first plot to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp and then was moved ahead of the Allies' advance to Flossenbürg, where he was hanged on April 9 1945.
His life was that of a chosen, tragic and costly discipleship; also he was fully exposed to the German, American and English religious and theological world, and was something of a visionary as to what that world would be, and more visionary when in prison than he had been when he wrote The Cost of Discipleship up to 1937 and Life Together up to 1939, these books asserting religious independence under God from the State. In prison he said the Church must be the Church for others under the example of the man for others. The Church would give away its property to the needy; clergy would work for a living or live off the offerings of congregants, ministerial training would be reformed and creeds revised.

Main Points Summary:


McEnhill, P., Newlands, G. (2004), 'Bonhoeffer, Dietrich', Fifty Key Christian Thinkers, Routledge Key Guides, London: Routledge, 70-80.

Beeson, T. (1999), 'Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)', Rebels and Reformers: Christian Renewal in the Twentieth Century, London: SCM Press, 93-94.

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Adrian Worsfold