Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A Kernel of Wheat for the Gospel


By John Martin, NC State UBF



On July 27, 1945, a radio broadcast went out over newly liberated Western Europe.  In Germany the elderly Dr. Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer gathered around the radio to hear the noon BBC broadcast which began with somber classical music, followed by a familiar English voice, that of George Bell the Anglican Bishop of Chichester and dear friend of their missing son, Dietrich, who spoke “We are gathered here in the presence of God, to make thankful remembrance of the life and work of his servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life and faith and obedience to his holy word.”  Finally after three agonizing months the mystery of their missing son had been tragically and yet heroically answered.  But who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and why has his influence continued to grow, and why does he remain so fascinating and yet mysterious even now.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer only lived to be 39 years old before he was martyred three weeks before the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945.  But today he is considered one of the most important 20th century theologians and contributors to the contemporary Christian Protestant church.  The fact that he lived and gave his life for what he believed has given his words extra mortal force.  Like a kernel of wheat that dies and produces many seeds his influence and writings including, “The Cost of Discipleship" have grown in importance year by year.  Bonhoeffer is vital to us as a modern hero of faith, not only because of what he said wrote and believed, but also what he stood against and because of his participating fully in the sufferings of Christ.


Born to the gifted Family


Dietrich was born to well-educated parents of good standing.  His father, Karl Ludwig Bonhoeffer, was both a noted physician and professor at the University of Berlin; his mother was a descendant of the famous church historian Karl von Hase.  Dietrich had a beloved twin sister named Sabine; they were both born on February 4, 1906, and had four older brothers and sisters, but there was plenty of room to explore, play and study in their big house.  While growing up many famous academics, theologians and philosophers were frequent household guest of his parents.  However, the family did not go to church and only Dietrich showed any interest in learning about God.  Bonhoeffer was a gifted, sincere child and precocious student and who decided by the age of sixteen to dedicate his life for the ministry of the church.  This was to the consternation of his skeptical brothers who urged him to go into secular studies and the sciences. But Dietrich remained firm in his decision saying "Even if you knock my block off i will still believe in God."  and at age 17 entered the University of Tubingen.


In 1924 after one year he transferred to the University of Berlin where he began studies for his doctorate of theology.  The faculty at Berlin was brilliant, erudite and liberal and were considered outstanding contributors in their fields of history, doctrine and New Testament studies.  The twenties were also a period of intellectual ferment and radicalism in Germany.  However Bonhoeffer stood out as a young man who learned from his teachers but did not swallow their ideas verbatim and developed independently.  In class discussions he refused to accept liberal thinking and arguments at face value and often firmly contradicted his teachers on firm theological grounds. Consequently his fellow students held Bonhoeffer in high regard.  In 1927, he submitted his graduation thesis on the topic of community of the church.  Young Bonhoeffer’s dissertation was praised as a “theological miracle” by esteemed theologian Karl Barth and was later published as the first of Bonhoeffer’s important works. 


After graduation Bonhoeffer received additional assignments as part of his religious training. Though some of these assignments seemed minor at that time, from God’s point of view they were all critical in the development of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual growth to become a leader in the opposition to political totalitarianism.  For three years he traveled, first to Barcelona, Spain to serve as an assistant pastor in a German speaking church; and then to New York for a post graduate position at the famous General Theological Seminary.  The undergraduate students there was so influenced by Modernism they made fun of Bonhoeffer’s serious teaching on man’s sinfulness, and the authority of scripture, but grew to greatly respect them.  In turn, he was impressed not with the depth of intellectual study and theology in America, but he did note the social concern of students, and he worked with them in soup kitchens and children's orphanages. Bonhoeffer was impressed by the writings of Harlem Renaissance authors like Langston Hughes. On Sunday's Dietrich attended a large black Baptist church, taught ladies Sunday School and was even invited into their homes. 


In 1931 he returned to Berlin and began teaching systematic theology full time at the University of Berlin after completing his inaugural paper entitled, “Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology”.  Again his independent conservatism made him stand out, but at this time he began a life-long friendship with Karl Barth, with whom he shared a common belief. Bonhoeffer served as a popular youth pastor for delinquent kids in one of Berlin’s roughest neighborhoods.  In 1931, because of his connections and multilingual skills, Bonhoeffer was elected International Youth Secretary for the World Council of Churches.  This position would later become vital to the future role Bonhoeffer would have as a representative of the underground church and the resistance movement against Hitler during World War II.


During the 1930’s, as Adolph Hitler seized the levers of power in German one by one, Bonhoeffer grew very outspoken against the Nazi movement, and took a highly visible role in the evangelical opposition to Hitler.  Bonhoeffer was also busy writing a teaching a  series of lectures entitled “Creation and fall”, “Christ the Center”, and finally in 1937 his perhaps most well known and influential book “The Cost of Discipleship”.  This is as a study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and a condemnation of the substitution of "cheap grace" for the true "costly discipleship" of following Jesus Christ. 


Bonhoeffer’s travel and involvement with the international ecumenical movement during the decade of the thirties enabled him to make friends all over the world including George Bell, the Anglican Bishop of Chichester in England, and even Mahatma Gandhi in India.  However, a planned trip to India to study pacifism was cut short by a call from the opposition, so called, “Confessing church,” to establish an unofficial seminary for the training of ministers who were not controlled by the Nazi party.  This was necessary because the Nazi government had now infiltrated and taken control of the official state Lutheran church.


“Life Together”


Because of his public pacifist and anti-Nazi views, Bonhoeffer gradually lost many of his privileges and finally his teaching post at the University of Berlin.  However, his work at the seminary was one of the happiest times of his life.  The seminary was located in the tiny village of Finkenwalde, near the Older River in far Eastern Germany in what is now Poland.  It was not a traditional seminary that stressed theory and academic theology but instead organized pastoral education into a balance of study, worship, and work such as community involvement and visitation.  Most important was the spiritual environment established at the seminary, which emphasized not monastic solitude but concern for and responsibility for one’s brother in Christ.  This included communal prayer, confession of sin, and coworking during household chores like washing the dishes.  There was also time for just plain fun, which meant things like singing, as there were no movie houses in Finkenwalde.


The experiences of this “brother house” were collected and recorded by Bonhoeffer in a small book called “Life Together,” published in 1939.  Both the book and the seminary set a good example to b e studied by any groups of believers intent on establishing a Christian environment together, whether it is a “Shepherd’s house,” “Sister’s house,” or a “house church” between husband and wife.  The government soon attempted to disband the seminary, it continued to exist underground until 1940, raising up spiritual leaders loyal not to the false church, but to the church as a body of Christ.


Meanwhile his friends outside Germany were becoming concerned.  Through the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and others, Bonhoeffer received an indefinite appointment to the faculty of Union Theological Seminary.  Bonhoeffer left Germany and arrived in New York City on June 12, 1939. In America he was free to speak and write what he wanted without hindrance.  But Bonhoeffer’s conscience bothered him greatly and when he struggled in prayer he was overwhelmed with love and concern for his fellow Germans.  Bonhoeffer was faced with the most important decision of his life-to return to German to be part of the underground church and resistance against Hitler, or to live in safety in American.


To Return or To Stay…


After six weeks of prayerful consideration, Bonhoeffer made up his mind to go back.  Only when he was on the boat returning to Germany was his mind at rest again. God was preparing him for the final mission of his life. When he returned he was denied speaking rights and his movement were restricted.  Like all German men he was eligible for the draft but fortunately instead he got a job as courier for the German Military Intelligence Service.  This position protected Bonhoeffer from Hitler’s personal intelligence group, the Gestapo which as a ruthless and jealous rival military service.  In addition, Bonhoeffer now had an official pass which enabled him to travel both inside and outside of Germany without the knowledge of the Gestapo.  In this way Bonhoeffer was used as a contact for the resistance movement in Germany to the outside world. This underground group also responsible for smuggling a small group of influential Jews to safety in Switzerland.


Within the Germany Army staff and especially the Military Intelligence Movement were several high ranking offices who delayed a plan to assassinate Adolph Hitler with the hope of forming a non-Nazi government to negotiate peace terms with the allied forces arrayed against Germany.  Although it was unknown if the US, Britain, and especially Russia would ever agree to this they went ahead with the plans anyway.  As the war progressed and the Axis forces began to be driven back, this group asked Bonhoeffer to help them, especially the communication with the Allies.  Bonhoeffer agreed, though it meant he had to give up his pacifist views. When some wondered why he took such a risk, Bonhoeffer gave a cryptic but revealing answer, “It is not only my task to look after the victims of a madmen who drive a motorcar in on the crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all.”1


Bonhoeffer’s life now became increasingly difficult, both for him and his family.  During the time he provided over the seminary a pious widow named Ruth von Kleist-Retzoe faithfully attended Sunday services at the seminary.  In March of 1943, Bonhoeffer became engaged to her granddaughter, a young woman named Maria von Wedemeyer whom he had met in his Finkenwalde days. One month after his engagement on April 5, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested without reason or an arrest warrant and spent the next eighteen months of his life in the Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. 


At first conditions were terrible.  Even the blankets in the freezing prison were two smelly to use.  Perhaps for the firs time in his life Dietrich was in both physical and spiritual darkness.  He considered suicide, but when he knelt in prayer continually God gave him hope and purpose to go on.  For the next two years Bonhoeffer became a shepherd for other political prisoners who were in despair of their life.  Gradually he was given limited privileges to have visitors and write letters.  His letters were later collected in a book entitled, “Letters and Papers from Prison,” which contained some of his deepest, most profound and controversial statements.  During the long hours of solitude Bonhoeffer voraciously read many books on history, philosophy, science, literature, and the Bible.  Bonhoeffer also kept in touch with the resistance movement through coded messages smuggled in and out of prison with the help of friendly guards.


In July of 1944, the military plotters put into motion a carefully planned assassination attempt against Adolph Hitler.  A briefcase packed with explosives was placed close to him in an underground headquarters bunker.  Unfortunately, the heavy leg of the conference table shielded Hitler from much of the blast, and he survived.  Although the plotters had ironclad alibis, two months later a secret file discovered by the Gestapo implicated many of the officers of treason, including Field Marshall Rommel, Admiral Canaris, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer received warning and had an opportunity to escape, but he chose not to, because his family members would be endangered.


For the next several months Bonhoeffer was taken, first to the Gestapo prison in Berlin where he was tortured for several weeks. Then Bonhoeffer was transferred to Buchenwald, and finally to the extermination camp at Flossenberg, in Bavaria.  Bonhoeffer’s compassionate testimony, and prayerful faith were a constant encouragement to his fellow prisoners as they later witnessed after the war.  Sunday morning, April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer conducted an outdoor service and spoke to them on 1 Peter 1:3, that God has given us a new birth into a living hope through Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Immediately afterwards a truck pulled up to take  Bonhoeffer to an all night court proceeding where he was 'tried' and condemned to death.   Early the next morning, April 9, the camp doctor of Flossenberg recorded history as follows:


I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God.  I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds.  In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.


In the ensuing chaos following Germany’s surrender less than one month later, those outside of Germany and even Bonhoeffer’s family were unsure of his fate.  When finally the truth was known, his friend Bishop Bell spoke a memorial service in London in July of 1945.  From that time the memory and words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer have continued to live on.


It is hard to overestimate the impact that Bonhoeffer has had on theology, the church, and individual believers, through his example and his words.  His writings remain a touchstone of faith for many believers today.  Along with Karl Barth, he helped reverse the trend of Protestantism toward secular modernism and cultural compromise.  In contrast to the ideas of existentialism, Bonhoeffer understood that a person can only truly be defined in relationship to God, to confronting sin as a concrete reality of history in which our relationships with God and with others are broken, necessitating the moral decision to surrender our life to Christ.  Giving our life to Jesus is indeed costly, but this costly grace was purchased for us by Christ.  This costly grace makes it possible for us to carry out what he has called us to do, and it is this same grace which brings us to eternal joy in the kingdom of God. 


In 1997 at the International Summer Conference at Michigan State University, a young Russian student gave a world mission report with a key verse of Mark 10:45.  The young man confessed he could see who Jesus is through the sacrificial life of Missionary Stephen Kim in Moscow.  This can serve as the key verse for the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer life also, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a random for many.”  In the end Bonhoeffer’s writing comes back to the beginning point, that God created man in his image, and sent his Son to restore that image, made complete at the resurrection.2.  As we see in the lives of God’s servants, like Dr. Samuel Lee and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this image of God in us is Christ crucified and raised, who gave his life as a ransom for many.






Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dallas M. Roark, Word Books 1972


  1. The Cost of Discipleship Translated by R.H. Fuller,  McMillan Co. rev. ed. 1960. 
  2. Ibid, p. 268