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When reflecting on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one gets a strong impression of the remarkable degree to which his life was inextricably interwoven with the historical context of his times. His participation with the events on the world stage was by no means a given. He could have retreated into a comfortable life of teaching in the academy or withdrawn into a sheltered and isolated pastorate. But he did not, nor could he have without compromising his deepest convictions. Bonhoeffer’s driving purpose was to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and he realized that this required him to live a life fully engaged with God and the world. This sense of responsibility led him to play a prominent role in the German church struggle that resulted from the establishment of the Third Reich and in the conspiracy and assassination attempts against Hitler, involvements which would significantly shape his life and death.
Nearly seven decades since his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Bonhoeffer’s influence lives on, largely because of his classic devotional writings (especially The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together), his penetrating questions on what it means to live as a Christian in the modern world (found in his later writings Letter and Papers from Prison and Ethics), and his riveting and challenging biography. But at the center of Bonhoeffer’s engagement with the world was his understanding of the prominent and unique role of preaching. Bonhoeffer’s close friend Eberhard Bethge claimed that “Bonhoeffer acted and analyzed out of a responsibility for preaching . . . the Bonhoeffer who taught, the Bonhoeffer who was obedient to the Word, the Bonhoeffer who was involved, was governed by preaching and its majesty” (Fant 1975, 3). Further, Bethge explains, “Preaching was the great event in his life; the hard theologizing and all the critical love of his church were all for its sake, for in it the message of Christ, the bringer of peace, was proclaimed. To Bonhoeffer nothing in his calling competed in importance with preaching” (Fant 1975, 7-8). Similarly, John D. Godsey describes Bonhoeffer as “a man for whom preaching was an integral part of life” (Fant 1975, 6). Preaching played such an important role in the thought and life of Bonhoeffer that Victoria Barnett argues that we cannot “understand Bonhoeffer the resistance figure of Bonhoeffer the theologian without understanding Bonhoeffer the preacher” (Barnett 2012, x). Preaching stands as the central and unifying event that brings all of the facets of Bonhoeffer’s life into focus.
This emphasis on preaching is surprising given the fact that Bonhoeffer spent very little time in a regular pulpit ministry. Although he preached consistently throughout his adult life, he spent only two periods serving in a congregational pastoral position, both of which were outside of
Because of the limited time that Bonhoeffer spent in a weekly preaching ministry, his entire collected works contain only seventy-one complete sermons (Barnett 2012, xi). He almost never spoke to large crowds, the only possible exceptions being his addresses given at ecumenical gatherings outside of
Bonhoeffer the Preacher
Bonhoeffer’s first attempts at preaching began in 1925 at the age of nineteen. He was excited by the opportunity because he realized the life-giving effect that a sermon can produce. His professor of practical theology, Friedrich Mahling, commended his effort, calling it very fine “in content and form, in its dashing masculine style and heartfelt goodness, pure truthfulness and conscientious seriousness” (Bethge 2000, 90). His examination sermon on Luke 9:51-56 contained the directness that would mark his preaching, as he declared, “the walls of the centuries separating us from this story have fallen away. We face Jesus eye to eye.” But his examiners judged that he needed more work in his transition from the academy to the church, determining that he “will have to discard some things and learn some things before he is able to write a really finished sermon. . . . He is lacking in clarity” and must “cultivate a simple and noble simplicity” (Bethge 2000, 91).
During Bonhoeffer’s time in
Several years later, while teaching at the
Then something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible . . . I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it—but I had not yet become a Christian. . . . Also I had never prayed, or prayed only very little. For in all my loneliness, I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people about me. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became clearer to me how far that must go. . . . The revival of the church and the ministry became my supreme concern (Bethge 2000, 205).
The effect of this event produced a remarkable change in the direction of Bonhoeffer’s life. Prior to this his intention was to pursue an academic career, but now he began to move in the direction of parish ministry (a move that was at first resisted by his father, a university professor in neurology and psychiatry). Throughout his early life, he had not regularly attended church, but now he became an active churchgoer and longed for preaching and the sacraments. His own preaching became focused on the Bible, and he began to preach on longer passages rather than brief phrases. This experience also significantly impacted his writing, which moved away from discussing others’ ideas to expounding the message of the Bible. According to James Woelfel, “his early interest was in the formal problems of dogmatic theology,” but he began “increasingly to devote himself simply to the material dogmatic task of interpreting the Holy Scriptures.” Woelfel further observes that in contrast to his earlier writings (The Communion of the Saints and Act and Being), “Bonhoeffer’s writings after 1932 consist largely of theological exegesis and homiletics” (Woelfel 1970, 208). This is reflected in Klass Runia’s assessment of The Cost of Discipleship as “one of the most penetrating expositions of the Sermon on the Mount” (Runia 1964, 16). Bonhoeffer’s connection to the Christian faith had been as an intellectual studying theology; now he became a deeply committed Christian. Now his preaching had a newfound “urgency which had not been characteristic of them before, an urgency that insisted upon a single-minded devotion to Christ” (Fant 1975, 14).
In April 1936 Bonhoeffer further described these convictions in a letter to his brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher, who, in contrast to Bonhoeffer, continued in the path of liberal theology:
Is it . . . intelligible to you if I say I am not at any point willing to sacrifice the Bible as the strange word of God, that on the contrary, I ask with all my strength what God is trying to say to us through it? Every other place outside the Bible has become too uncertain for me. I fear that there I will only bump into my own divine Doppelgänger. . . .
And I want to say something to you personally: since I learned to read the Bible this way—which has not been long at all—it becomes more wonderful to me with each day. . . .
You wouldn’t believe how happy one is to find the way back from the wrong track of some theologies to this elemental thing (Bethge 2000, 206).
These deepening convictions led to an increased sense of the primacy of preaching since preaching is the way that God speaks his word to his people. In his first sermon in London on October 22, 1933, upon accepting the pastorate of the St. Paul’s and Sydenham Churches, he described the criterion by which a congregation should assess a pastor’s ministry: “There is really only one question for a congregation to ask of its pastor: Are you offering us the eternal world of God, the word of life, wherever you can, in the pulpit and in daily life? Or are you giving us stones instead of bread?” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 89). He then described the miraculous nature of preaching:
This is what makes a sermon something unique in all the world, so completely different from any other kind of speech. When a preacher opens the Bible and interprets the word of God, a mystery takes place, a miracle: the grace of God, who comes down from heaven into our midst and speaks to us, knocks on our door, asks questions, warns us, puts pressure on us, alarms us, threatens us, and makes us joyful again and free and sure. When the Holy Scriptures are brought to life in a church, the Holy Spirit comes down from the eternal throne, into our hearts, while the busy world outside sees nothing and knows nothing about it—that God could actually be found here. Out there they are all running after the latest sensations, the excitements of evening in the big city, never knowing that the real sensation, something infinitely more exciting, is happening in here: here, where eternity and time meet where the immortal God receives mortal human beings, through the holy Word, and cares for them, where human souls can taste the starkest terrors of despair and the ultimate depths of God’s eternity (Bonhoeffer 2012, 90).
Bonhoeffer practiced and advocated the use of a simple and direct style in preaching so as not to distract from the word of God. In his homiletics lectures at the underground seminary for the
I must refuse to indulge in tricks and techniques, both the emotional ones and the rhetorical ones. I must not become pedantic and schoolmasterish, nor begging, entreating, urging. I do not try to make the sermon into a work of art. I do not become unctuous and self-centered or loud and boastful. By forsaking my personal ambitions I accompany the text along its own way into the congregation and thus remain natural, balanced, compassionate, and factual. This permits the Word’s almost magnetic relationship to its congregation. I do not give life to it, but it gives life to me and to the congregation (Fant 1975, 138).
He advised his students to be well prepared before stepping into the pulpit because this “allows the greatest amount of factual, direct preaching from the pulpit. Only the unprepared preacher has to use the techniques of emotionalism, shouting, or exercising influences through pressure. These techniques betray his insecurity” (Fant 1975, 149). He again warned against the use of excessive expression because of the nature of the preaching task: “Truthfulness and factuality suggest simple methods. They discourage senseless shouting and emotional excitement in preaching and worship. We are witnesses, not the trumpets of the Last Judgment” (Fant 1975, 172).
Even though Bonhoeffer advocated a strict simplicity in preaching, that does not mean that he did not believe in using vivid language. Reflecting on his own sermons, he “noticed that the most effective sermons were those in which I spoke enticingly of the Gospel, like someone telling children a story of a strange country” (Fant 1975, 12). His Finkenwalde students recounted that he encouraged them “to speak colorfully” (Fant 1875, 38). He understood that the greatness of the message required that the preacher attempt to convey the greatness of that about which he spoke. In a sermon preached in
One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough. A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. People should run and not be able to rest when the gospel is talked about (Bonhoeffer 2012, 34).
An excellent example of the affection-stirring use of language can be found in the concluding sermon in a four week series on 1 Corinthians 13, which he preached to his congregations in London. When expounding the phrase “the greatest of these is love”, he climaxes by asking a string of nine questions, all of which begin with the words “What can be greater than . . . ?” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 164-5). This moving repetition allows the congregation to taste the glory of what it means to live in faith with the daily presence of God.
In his preaching Bonhoeffer used illustrations very sparingly. In fact, extended illustrations from outside of the Bible are almost nonexistent; the only illustrations that he regularly used were simple, one sentence analogies. He advised his seminary students that they should “be very sparing in the use of stories, illustrations, and quotations” since “these shift attention [from the text] and usually there is not time for that” (Fant 1975, 158). He even takes this further by instructing that “introductions and conclusions as separate sermon parts are particularly to be avoided” (Fant 1975, 157). Staying firmly focused on the biblical point is what is necessary. As he taught his students, “The sermon which has a clear center does not have a lot of fat in it” (Fant 1975, 149).
Along with discouraging the use of extraneous material, Bonhoeffer tried to increase his students’ confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture for preaching. He attempted to instill in them “a belief in the power of the Word itself to make its own way” (Fant 1975, 139). He taught them to “read the whole book with the thought that it wants to be preached” (Fant 1975, 159). He advised that if the students focused on the biblical text, they would never lack material:
Strict textual preaching is the true way to overcome the constant demand for more sermons. The torment of waiting for fresh ideas disappears under serious textual work. The text has more than enough thoughts. One really only needs to say what is in it. Anyone who does that will not have to complain anymore about a scarcity of ideas. When we ask ourselves, “What shall I say today to the congregation?” we are lost. But when we ask, “What does this text say to the congregation?” we find ample support and abundant confidence (Fant 1975, 158).
If the church will only listen to the Scripture is such a way that it “really takes this text as a testimony to the living Christ,” it will find that “everything is here” (Ziegler 2013, 30). The Bible does not suffer under limitations, but rather, as he explained, “It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!” (Bethge 442).
Bonhoeffer’s regular practice was to preach from a full manuscript. Once his preparation led him to the main idea and the structure of the sermon, he wrote it out word for word and rarely made any corrections (Bethge 2000, 235). He passed this advice along to his students, along with the observation passed on to him by his teacher Adolf von Harnack, “My pen is wiser than my head” (Fant 1975, 149). He also commended the practice of lectio continua to his students, stating that it “is in the best interest of congregational maturity” because of the way it helps people to see the unity of Scripture.
Of course, the preacher is only one side of the preaching event; the sermon must also be heard, a responsibility that Bonhoeffer personally took very seriously. He loved to listen to other preachers and worked hard to listen carefully. At Finkenwalde students were surprised by the respect and reverence with which he listened to their early, floundering sermons because he was convinced that every sermon is “the expression of the true and living voice of Christ” (Bethge 2000, 441). He always looked intently for the divine message even in the feeblest of sermons. This attention caused the students to recognize the weight of the preaching task and increased their confidence to proclaim God’s word. In fact, Eberhard Bethge, who was himself a student at the seminary, suggests that Bonhoeffer’s practice of listening to sermons had a greater impact upon the students than even his homiletical lectures (Fant 1975, 19).
In the openings of his sermons, Bonhoeffer would often impress the responsibility to listen upon the congregation. He would do this in a subtle manner by making a statement that would force them to answer the question of their willingness to listen. For example, in his Memorial Day sermon preached in
Even though Bonhoeffer was hesitant to speak about conversion, his sermons powerfully pushed for belief. In his sermon of October 22, 1933, after reading “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (from 2 Corinthians 5:20), he declared, “For every sermon is basically an interpretation of that sentence” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 92). His sermon entitled “Overcoming Fear” declared, “There is one thing we are lacking: to believe that the Almighty God is our father and our Lord” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 63). While preaching on the interaction between Jesus and the father of a boy with an unclean spirit found in Mark 9:23-24, he pleaded for a decision: “But Jesus says: if you could believe. There is longing and infinite compassion in these words. If only you would decide to take this step that you have wanted all your life to take and never did, to believe. If only you would give yourself up, quite simply and in everything that is most personal and specific to you, and let Jesus be your Lord” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 174). In a 1938 sermon preached, once again, on a confirmation Sunday, he said, “Faith is a decision. We cannot avoid that.” He then pressed the implications of that decision upon his listeners: “Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and the poor, to all godlessness and mocking of the Holy. Your Yes to God demands a brave No to everything that will ever hinder you from serving God alone, whether it be your profession, your property, your house, your honor before the world. Faith means a decision” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 203). Bonhoeffer relentlessly employed the power of his sermons towards the goal of instilling belief.
Bonhoeffer’s sermons continue to communicate the demanding force of his message. Their strength lies in his unyielding pursuit and abandonment to the full implications of the call of Jesus as found in the Bible. Their spiritual vigor challenges, confronts, goads, and comforts with the gospel. Ultimately, he desired to produce the deep and sure confidence of faith in Jesus Christ alone, even amidst the most threatening of challenges. As he concluded his 1933 sermon on Peter’s great confession, “Whether the people gathered is great or small, lowly or highly placed, weak or strong, if they confess Christ, the victory is theirs for eternity. . . . The city of
The Word of God through the Word of God
At the center of all of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought is an absolute commitment to the Bible as the word of God. Clyde Fant observes that “Bonhoeffer’s absolute respect for the Bible as the Word of God . . . is to be observed in virtually every page of his writings” (Fant 1975, 39). Bonhoeffer relentlessly pushed himself, his congregations, and his students towards the Bible. In Life Together he urges, “We must learn to know the Scriptures again, as the Reformers and our fathers knew them. We must not grudge the time and the work that it takes. We must know the Scriptures first and foremost for the sake of our salvation” (Bonhoeffer 1954, 54). Since we are so completely dependent upon God’s self-revelation given to us in the Bible, it is the sine qua non of true discipleship: “one who will not learn to handle the Bible for himself is not an evangelical Christian” (Bonhoeffer 1954, 55).
Bonhoeffer prophetically pressed the centrality and necessity of the Bible at a 1932 conference in
Let me express to both groups the great concern which has been bearing down on me with growing heaviness throughout the whole conference; has it not become terrifyingly clear again and again, in everything that we have said here to one another, that we are no longer obedient to the Bible? We are more fond of our own thoughts than of the thoughts of the Bible. We no longer read the Bible seriously, we no longer read it against ourselves, but for ourselves. If the whole of our conference here is to have any great significance, it may be perhaps that we must read the Bible in quite a different way, until we find ourselves again (Fant 1975, 40).
Bonhoeffer’s students at the
Because the Bible is the place where God’s revelation is found, it is the sole source for the message of preaching. As Bonhoeffer taught his seminary students, “The sermon as a speech has as its distinguishing characteristic that it is an exposition of a biblical text. . . . Since the sermon is the proclamation of the Word of God, its whole promise rests upon the assumption that it remain bound to the Scripture and the text” (Fant 1975, 156). The preacher is “the spokesman of God before the congregation” and therefore bears witness to what God has said, much like “as if I read a letter which another has written. I report factually what another says” (Bonhoeffer 1986, 293; Fant 1975, 139).
That the content of the sermon must arise from the Bible and not from us is a distinction that Bonhoeffer hammered with unrelenting persistence. In his homiletic lectures he made a central argument: “We do not testify to what we have seen and touched, but to what [the apostles] have seen and touched. We declare the biblical testimony as faithful witnesses” (Fant 1975, 132). He repeatedly warned against a whole litany of ways that the preacher can himself become the source, such as making “the text a springboard for our own thoughts,” establishing theories “on the basis of our life experience” or “sensational stories,” adding “something to this witness through our own experience,” or deriving a message “from any man’s heart or understanding or character” (Fant 1975, 133, 144, 132; Bonhoeffer 1986, 293). The content does not come from “the pious Christian experience or consciousness of the preacher” but from the word of God (Fant 1975, 137). What the church needs is not “brilliant personalities” or “extraordinary talents,” but “a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word” (Bonhoeffer 1954, 109).
Fidelity to the Bible guards the sermon as an act of truth, relevance, and love. Bonhoeffer taught his seminary students that “If the preacher wants to be certain about the truth of his preaching he should devote himself exclusively to the word of the text” (Fant 1975, 164). In addition, relevance is achieved not by inserting a few references to current events but by sticking to the Bible. He advised, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic” (Bethge 2000, 442). Faithfulness to the Bible is also in the best interest of the congregation because, as Bonhoeffer said, “There is no greater service of love than to put men in the light of the truth of this Word” (Ziegler 2013, 36).
For Bonhoeffer the final authority for every sermon is the Bible. He reminded his students that every “evangelical pastor is answerable to the Scripture. He must be able to establish scriptural evidence for his thinking” (Fant 1975, 144). He taught that “The preacher should therefore educate his congregation to follow the sermon with open Bibles” because the congregation bears a responsibility (Fant 1975, 158):
What rightly belongs to the congregation is the text of the sermon together with the interpretation of this text, and on this basis there is a “searching of the Scriptures, whether these things be so” (Acts 17:11), that is to say, whether they are really as the preaching has proclaimed them to be; in certain unusual circumstances, therefore, there arises the necessity for contradicting the preaching on the basis of Holy Scripture (Bonhoeffer 1986, 294-5).
Bonhoeffer makes a special point of the addressing the importance of a Bible dependence in evangelistic preaching. Its keen insight bears quoting:
It is particularly important for this kind of sermon to use textual preaching. In evangelistic preaching there always lurks the dangerous mistake of preaching as if I am the one who calls to repentance, while in fact only God through his Word can call anyone to repentance. The text must dominate and not my decision that “now it’s time to call the people to repentance and conversion.” When I convert, then I convert to my own way of thinking. Only God converts to God. Perhaps we can effect certain changes in people, but no more. . . . Urgent insistence exercises psychological pressure and betrays the Spirit (pneuma).
Conversion can have results just like political propaganda. There have been conversions to Hitler that are exactly analogous to some “conversions” to Christ. This phenomenon can occur in the preaching of Christian evangelists. In the case of such conversions a falling away inevitably follows (Fant 1975, 163-4).
The reason that Bonhoeffer called for such a strict adherence to Scripture in preaching is because when the word of God is preached, Jesus is truly present. As he described in Christ the Center, “Christ is not only present in the word of the church but also as the word of the church, i.e. as the spoken work of preaching. ‘In the word’ might say too little, if it made it possible to separate Christ from his Word. Christ’s presence is his existence as preaching. . . . Were that not so, preaching could not have the prominent place accorded it by the Reformation” (Fant 1975, 25-6). He argued that “the proclaimed Christ is the real Christ,” “the same Christ whom the disciples encountered” (Fant 1975 36; Bonhoeffer 1963, 250). Christ is present in the church as the spoken word of preaching in a way that is not true of music or art (Fant 1975, 26). Bonhoeffer described the reality of Christ’s presence to his students: “Therefore the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is the Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word” (Fant 1975, 126). He drew attention to this presence in a 1933 sermon on Matthew 8:23-27, by saying, “From this pulpit the living Christ himself wants to speak. . . . And Christ is here, too, in the nave of this church” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 63).
Interaction with American Preaching
Many of Bonhoeffer’s convictions about preaching are evident through his observations of the preaching that he encountered in the
His first period at
This theological emptiness spilled over to the pulpits. He observed that “the sermon is degraded to marginal ecclesiastical observations about events of the day,” nothing but “the telling of edifying examples . . . eager descriptions of one’s own religious experiences, which naturally are not given any objectively binding character” (Bethge 2000, 234). In comparing the German ministerial training with that in America, he said, “If the first sermons of the German student serve for him to hand on his dogmatics as quickly as possible, they serve for the American student to display before the congregation the whole of his religious experience” (Fant 1975, 13). As he described his experience in
As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro. . . . There’s no sense to expect fruits where the Word is no longer really being preached. . . .
In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life (Metaxas 2010, 106).
He was further disappointed at a homiletics seminar taught by the eminent American liberal preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick passed out a list of sermon topics that included a category condescendingly referred to as “traditional themes.” Bonhoeffer was astonished when he saw that this ridiculed section included a sermon on “forgiveness of sins and on the cross!” (Metaxas 2010, 106). In this climate the Christian message had been depleted to “an ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that—who knows how—claims the right to call itself ‘Christian.’” Bonhoeffer’s overall impression is that the American church had “forgotten what the real point is” (Metaxas 2010, 107).
Upon his return to
That evening he went to Broadway Presbyterian Church, where he heard a message from Dr. John McComb (who was mocked as a fundamentalist by the Union crowd) on “Our Likeness with Christ,” which he thoroughly enjoyed, even calling it “astonishing.” He called the sermon “A completely biblical sermon—the sections on ‘we are blameless like Christ,’ ‘we are tempted like Christ’ were particularly good” (Metaxas 2010, 334). The biblical commitment he saw at Broadway Presbyterian gave him a glimmer of hope: “This will one day be a center of resistance when
His remaining weeks found very little true proclamation. The following Saturday night, he wondered in his diary if in the next morning “I shall hear a sermon?” The next morning he attended a Lutheran church and offered the following analysis: “Sermon on Luke 15, on the overcoming of fear. Very forced application of the text. Otherwise lively and original, but too much analysis and too little Gospel. . . . Again no real exposition of the text. It is very poor” (Metaxas 2010, 339). The last sermon that he heard was by the radio preacher, Rev. Gorkmann at
Through Bonhoeffer’s analysis of the American landscape, his emphases regarding preaching come to the fore. To him the Bible was the only soil out of which true proclamation can arise. He desired a strong focus on the biblical themes of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He strongly distrusted the sharing of any individual’s religious experience because it gave no room for Christ. True, biblical preaching was what he hungered for while he was in the
Politics and the Pulpit
When Hitler and the National Socialist party rose to power in
In his sermons, Bonhoeffer made a practice of never directly commenting on current political or church events. Yet he forcefully proclaimed the absolute authority of God over every human realm. His strongest political sermon was his first sermon after Hitler’s ascension. It was delivered in
Roughly a week after hearing the news that SS troops had massacred many of Hitler’s rivals in the Nazi party, Bonhoeffer turned to Luke 13:1-5, the passage in which Jesus addresses the suffering of Galileans and those killed by the
In 1936 Bonhoeffer gave the homily at the funeral service for his grandmother, Paula Bonhoeffer, who had been ninety-three. Dietrich and his grandmother had often discussed the manner in which the government was persecuting their Jewish friends. He referenced this in the homily by saying, “Thus her last years were clouded by the great sorrow she endured on account of the fate of the Jews among our people, a fate she bore and suffered in sympathy with them.” After the funeral, one of his cousins who was a high government official refused to shake his hand (Bethge 2000, 505-6).
Bonhoeffer’s sermons spurred his listeners towards an active engagement with the world; he believed that such an involvement was a necessary responsibility for disciples of Jesus. While in
There are even people who think themselves particularly devout if they do not see the dark side of life, if they close themselves off from the catastrophes of this world and just lead their own tranquil, pious lives in peaceful optimism.
But it can never do any good to fool oneself into ignoring the truth, for in deceiving oneself about the truth of one’s own life, one is certainly deceiving oneself about God’s truth as well” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 129).
In the political struggle that ensued, Bonhoeffer believed that ultimately, only firm theological convictions could provide the resources necessary for full resistance. While in prison, he wrote his essay “After Ten Years: A Reckoning made at New Year 1943,” in which he makes the following statement:
Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God (Bonhoeffer 1972, 5).
In a letter to his brother, Karl-Friedrich, he described his motivation in accepting the position to lead the
Bonhoeffer’s vocal and prophetic resistance eventually brought an end to his public ministry. In September 1940 the government prohibited him from public speaking and required him to report regularly to the police. Later that year, he published a book on the Psalms entitled The Prayer Book of the Bible. Such an honoring of the Old Testament was rightly seen as a direct affront to the Nazi attempt to eradicate anything Jewish. This led to a March 1941 order forbidding him to print or publish. His arrest would take place two years later.
The End for Preaching?
Some have questioned whether Bonhoeffer abandoned his belief in the centrality and necessity of preaching during the dark days of his imprisonment, based primarily on his questions and speculations regarding “religionless Christianity” and “a world come of age” (found in the posthumously collected Letter and Papers from Prison). Much of the difficulty and variety of interpretations of these reflections arises from Bonhoeffer’s dialectical manner of using ambiguity, paradox, and even contradictions; it also stems from the frequently referenced way that the imprisoned Bonhoeffer used his letters to Bethge as an attempt to “clarify his thinking” (Fant 1975, 57).
Yet it can be demonstrated that Bonhoeffer maintained his hope and conviction for preaching till the end. Several times in late 1943 he communicated his longing to hear a good sermon (Bonhoeffer 1972, 119 and 171). Prior to his arrest, it is clear that Bonhoeffer was convinced of a future for preaching, as can be seen in a 1942 incomplete draft of an essay entitled “Of a proclamation from the pulpit after a political overthrow.” In it Bonhoeffer writes:
God has not forgotten his church. In his unfathomable mercy he calls his faithless tormented servants to repentance, to a renewal of life according to his holy will. . . . In the midst of a Christendom that has been smitten with guilt beyond measure the word of forgiveness of all sins through Jesus Christ and the call to a new life in obedience to God’s holy commandments must once more be proclaimed. . . . We call to preaching. Proclaim and hear in all places the comfort of the love of God in Jesus Christ which forgives sins. Proclaim and hear in all places the wholesome commandments of God for a new life. Come together to worship as often as possible (Fant 1975, 50).
His “Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of D. W. R. Bethge”, written in May 1944, provides the clearest statement of his thinking:
Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. . . . It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom (Bonhoeffer 1972, 300).
Similarly, in his Ethics, Bonhoeffer writes, “The mandate which is given to the Church is the mandate of proclamation. God desires a place at which his word is repeatedly spoken, expounded, interpreted and disseminated until the end of the world. . . . God Himself desires to speak His word in the Church” (Bonhoeffer 1986, 293).
In Bethge’s comparison of Bonhoeffer’s earlier and later sermons and interpretations (from 1944), he finds no difference in the language, which, as he states, “merely confirms how little Bonhoeffer viewed his task as suddenly finding new words.” In describing this continuity, he argues, “We see that being turned toward the world and renouncing ‘religious’ language had influenced Bonhoeffer’s way of preaching even earlier” (Bethge 2000, 885-6). This is because “for the Bonhoeffer of the prison writing obedient exposition of the Bible is ‘non-religious’ interpretation” (Woelfel 1970, 210). His penetrating questions regarding non-religious language stand right in line with the sharp criticism of religion that he had made throughout his life. Bethge concludes, “The ‘secular interpretation of biblical concepts’ does not mean the discontinuation of preaching but the first step toward its renewal for the world.” Unapologetically, Bethge claims that “Bonhoeffer stands unshaken upon the irreplaceability of the preaching of the Christ” (Fant 1975, 4). Bonhoeffer maintained his unconquerable optimism and his ultimate hope for the sermon because, as he taught his students at Finkenwalde, “In the sermon the foundation for a new world is laid” (Fant 1975, 130).
Bonhoeffer’s Final Sermon
The September 1940 order that prohibited Bonhoeffer from public speaking and his assignment with the Abwehr the next month ended Bonhoeffer’s regular preaching ministry. His arrest on April 5, 1943, would make his separation from the pulpit final. Shortly after he was forbidden to preach, he heard the news that a relative would only have a few months to live. He speculated about what he would do if he was given such a diagnosis and decided that “I should try to teach theology as I used to, and to preach often” (Bethge 2000, 696). Although he wrote two sermons while in prison (“Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell” and “Thoughts on the Baptism of D. W. R.”), he never had the opportunity to preach. But that would change in his final hours.
The German authorities had been transporting Bonhoeffer and a number of other prisoners around to a number of different concentration camps in order to stay ahead of the approaching American troops. On the Sunday morning of April 8, while they were being held at Schönberg, Dr. Pünder, a Catholic, asked Bonhoeffer to hold a morning service. Since some of the fellow prisoners were Catholic, and one Russian prisoner, Vassily Korkorin, was an atheist, Bonhoeffer at first resisted. But when even Korkorin insisted, he agreed. He read the texts for that day (Isaiah 53:3 and 1 Peter 1:3), offered a prayer, and explained the meaning of the verses. One of the prisoners, Payne Best, a captured British secret service agent, recounted the sermon:
Pastor Bonhoeffer held a little service and spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought. He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said: “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.” Those words “come with us”—for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only—the scaffold. We bade him good-bye—he drew me aside—“This is the end,” he said. “For me the beginning of life” (Fant 1975, 24).
Bonhoeffer was then immediately taken to Flossenbürg, roughly one hundred miles away, where he arrived late that Sunday evening. He was convicted with several other co-conspirators at a summary court within the concentration camp and hanged early on Monday morning. Because the crematorium at Flossenbürg was not working, the bodies of Bonhoeffer and the other men were put in a pile and burned. The camp doctor remembered seeing Bonhoeffer pray fervently to God that morning just prior to his execution and reflected, “I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (Bethge 2000, 928).
Bonhoeffer’s preaching ministry had prepared him to face such an end. Many years before, in 1933, he preached a sermon in
And we can never hear about this realm of God, which is not our world, about this kingdom of peace into which our loved ones who have died have gone ahead of us, without an immeasurable longing that steals over us, an indescribably homesickness for that world. . . . No one has yet believed in God and the
What are twenty or thirty or fifty years in the sight of God? And which of us knows how near he or she may already be to the goal? That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up. . . . Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 106).
Appendix: Bonhoeffer and Historical Criticism
Although Bonhoeffer discarded the liberal theology of his academic training, he held onto its assumptions regarding the historical criticism of the Bible. Both of these positions were reflective of the significant influence that Karl Barth had on Bonhoeffer. Bruce Demarest locates two central areas of Barth’s thought that greatly impacted Bonhoeffer: “that theology is Christology and that the nature of revelation is event rather than propositional truths” (Demarest 1991, 407). Even though Bonhoeffer was a strong, independent thinker who criticized aspects of Barth’s thinking, these internecine quibbles must not distract from the fact that both men held so much in common (Godsey 1987, 17). When Bonhoeffer studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1930-1931, one of his professors, John Baillie, described Bonhoeffer as “the most convinced disciple of Dr. Barth that had appeared among us up to that time, and withal as stout of an opponent of liberalism as had ever come my way” (Metaxas 2010, 106).
Discerning Bonhoeffer’s precise attitude toward biblical criticism is difficult, as John Woelfel states, because “Unfortunately, we find in his writings very little basic reflection on specific problems raised by historical-critical study” (Woelfel 1970, 213). Yet even his general comments reveal how he viewed the historical accuracy of the Bible.
Bonhoeffer believed that higher criticism had a rightful place: “We have in the first place to do with a book, which we find in the secular sphere. . . . It is meant to be read with all the means of historical and philological criticism” (Woelfel 1970, 213). He takes this further in Christ the Center:
We must be ready to admit the concealment in history and thus accept the course of historical criticism. But the Risen One encounters us right through the Bible with all its flaws. We must enter the straits of historical criticism. Its importance is not absolute, but at the same time it is not a matter of indifference. In fact it never leads to a weakening of faith but rather to its strengthening, as concealment in historicity is part of Christ’s humiliation” (Fant 1975, 40).
This description of historical flaws in the Bible as “Christ’s humiliation” is similar to the way that Bonhoeffer described Christ’s presence in the preached word (Fant 1975, 37).
Because of the findings of historical criticism, the historical events described in the Bible are on uncertain ground. He held that the biblical evidence for the Virgin Birth is doubtful, but further claimed that even if the evidence was decisive for the real fact, “there might be no particular significance in the dogmatic obscurity.” In fact, he thought that the “How?” question of the incarnation was distracting and unnecessary because “we should really talk, not about the Incarnation, but only about the Incarnate One” (Woelfel 1970, 214). When dealing with the historical reality of Christ’s resurrection, he writes, “We cannot be sure of the historicity. . . . Even here we cannot escape the realm of ambiguity” (Demarest 1991, 404).
Bonhoeffer then addresses the issue of having to preach from historically unreliable texts:
Perhaps we have to preach about a text, which we know from scholarly criticism was never spoken by Jesus. In the exegesis of Scripture we find ourselves on thin ice. . . . There may be some difficulties about preaching from a text whose authenticity has been destroyed by historical research. . . . But it is through the Bible, with all its flaws, that the risen one encounters us” (Demarest 1991, 408)
Bonhoeffer did not believe that the historical errors were a major obstacle to the preacher since Christ has chosen to make himself present when the biblical word is proclaimed nonetheless. Yet, because individual biblical passages have been a comfort to many people, “Criticism should surely guard against thoughtlessly giving offense to the congregation” (Wiekart 1993, 15).
Bonhoeffer did not believe that a view of divine inspiration of the Bible was an adequate way to overcome the historical issues. Not only that, he judged that resorting to inspiration would be an even bigger hindrance. In a lecture given in
Yet for his entire acceptance of the conclusions of historical criticism, he did not believe this to be the best way to understand Scripture. In a letter to his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher, he describes the way that one must read the Bible differently than other books “because in the Bible God speaks to us.” But then he describes the similarities:
Of course it is also possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view of textual criticism, etc.; there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as we do not grasp the words of someone we love by taking them to bits, but by simply receiving them, so that for days they go on lingering in our minds, simply because they are the words of a person we love (Metaxas 2010, 136).
Even though higher criticism affected his views of the historical reliability of the Bible, he did not let that hinder his use of and appreciation for the Bible, because it is through the Bible that God still speaks.
So how can Bonhoeffer give such a prominent role to the Bible in every aspect of his life and yet have such a diminished view of its historical truthfulness? Part of the answer stems from a Neo-orthodox separation of the noumenal realm of revelation and the phenomenal realm of the Bible. Another component is that his focus on an ethical engagement with the world led to an “intensely concrete, non-speculative attitude toward the Bible in Bonhoeffer’s thought” (Woelfel 1970, 108). Bonhoeffer firmly and fully believed that God spoke through the “flawed” words of the Scripture, and, as long as God continued to speak, he was content with that. The fact of God’s speaking so drew him and appealed to him that, although he was aware of the effects of historical criticism, he was entirely unconcerned. James Woelfel provides a helpful summation of Bonhoeffer’s mindset:
The fallible, time-bound words of the Bible are in their very particularity and historicity the concrete Word of God to us. We cannot get “behind” the biblical witness to abstract universal truth (liberalism) or to a theory about what it “really” is (Bultmann); the witness itself is all the truth we possess or need to possess (Woelfel 1970, 108).
God’s active revelation in the Bible captivated him to such an extent that he was compelled to fully devote his life to it.
Bethge, Eberhard. 2000. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A biography, ed. Victoria J. Barnett, rev. ed.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1954. Life together, trans. John W. Doberstein.
__________. 1963. The cost of discipleship.
__________. 1972. Letter and papers from prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge.
__________. 1986. Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge.
__________. 2012. The collected sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. Douglas W. Stott, et al., ed. Isabel Best.
Demarest, Bruce A. 1991. Devotion, doctrine, and duty in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bibliotheca sacra. 148, no. 592: 399-405.
Godsey, John D. 1987. Barth and Bonhoeffer: The basic difference. Quarterly review. 7, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 9-27.
Larsen, Timothy. 2013. The evangelical reception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, ed. Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, 39-57.
Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy.
Plant, Stephen J. 2013. The evangelization of rulers; Bonhoeffer’s political theology. In Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, ed. Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, 73-89.
Runia, Klass. 1964. Leaders of theological thought: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Themelios. 2, no. 1: 15-22.
Weikart, Richard. 1993. Scripture and myth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Fides et historia. 25, no. 1: 12-25.
__________. 2011. So many different Dietrich Bonhoeffers. Trinity journal. 32 NS: 69-81.
Woelfel, James W. 1970. Bonhoeffer’s theology; Classical and revolutionary.
Ziegler, Philip G. 2013. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A theologian of the word of God. In Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, ed. Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, 17-37. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity.
 Yet he warned that this should normally be done by ecclesiastical officials rather than the congregation because “It creates an unhealthy situation if the congregation is always obliged to listen to the preaching in a critical frame of mind.”
 For a more extensive interaction of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Bible, along with his acceptance of the methods of higher criticism, see the Appendix “Bonhoeffer and Historical Criticism.”
 Because of the many affinities and divergences between Bonhoeffer’s thought and that of contemporary evangelicals, there has been a wide spectrum of evangelical appropriation. Richard Wiekart takes a very negative stance, arguing that the underpinnings of Bonhoeffer’s thought are so incompatible with evangelical Christianity that all of his writings should be avoided entirely. See his articles “Scripture and Myth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” and “So Many Different Dietrich Bonhoeffers.” For a more balanced assessment, see Timothy Larsen’s essay “The Evangelical Reception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” and Bruce Damarest’s “Devotion, Doctrine, and Duty in Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Also helpful is James Woelfel’s Bonhoeffer’s Theology, particularly Chapter 10 entitled “Paths in Bonhoeffer Interpretation.”