Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an amazing example of courage and conviction who stood up to Nazi Germany as one of its own citizens and paid the ultimate price. He was born in 1906 to a famous neurologist and his mother was the granddaughter of a famous preacher. Although the Bonhoeffers rarely attended church, young Dietrich surprised his family with his decision to become a theologian and a pastor and told them that it was his intention to reform the church.
He was influenced by the writings of the famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth whose work was a reaction against the prevailing liberal theology which had elevated personal experience and minimised the value of the Bible. Bonhoeffer nevertheless valued the need for a practical faith, too, as encouraged by one of his teachers.
He graduated with the highest honours from the University of Berlin in 1927 and earned a doctorate in theology at the age of just 21. His thesis presented such a new way of looking at the Christian church that it was regarded by Barth as a “theological miracle”. He then served as an assistant pastor in a Lutheran church in Spain from 1928 to 1929.
This was then followed by a 1930 visit to the United States for postgraduate study and a teaching role at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school in a Harlem Baptist church, where he developed an interest in the music and the plight of African Americans. This experience influenced his ecumenical views and a desire to turn theological ideas into practical faith. He readily accepted an offer to preach on peace in Mexico, before returning to the University of Berlin in 1931 as a lecturer in systematic theology and a Christian dedicated to sowing his life to the betterment of others. It was in this year, at the age of 25, that Bonhoeffer was ordained in Berlin.
The rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933 brought immediate opposition from Bonhoeffer. He was famously cut off mid-sentence in a radio broadcast cautioning against the adulation of the Fuhrer. He was also the first church leader to express resistance to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, suggesting that the church should not simply look after the victims of persecution, but resolve to bring the persecution to an end.
Corruption saw the German church infiltrated with Nazi influences, leading to Bonhoeffer’s desire to suspend all pastoral services such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Despite the lack of support, Bonhoeffer developed the “Confessing Church” in 1934 to oppose the mainstream German Christians. This was a small movement, but provided genuine opposition to Nazism, boldly stating that Christ, and not Hitler, was the head of the Church.
To protest against the policy of restricting church posts to German nationals, Bonhoeffer rejected an offer to lead an East Berlin parish. Therefore, in 1933 he took up a two-year appointment as a pastor of two German-speaking Protestant churches in London. Barth misunderstood this motive and rebuked Bonhoeffer for abandoning his post in battle and wasting his talent while the church of Germany was “on fire”. Whilst there, though, Bonhoeffer was actively pursuing support for his Confessing Church back home to which he soon returned.
His life was marked by such a relentless drive to make a difference in the face of pressure that he inspires us to also pursue the investment of our every effort with similar conviction. Tomorrow we’ll look at a little more of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s remarkable story.