Born on February 4, 1906, in Breslau, then part of Imperial Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began his theological education in 1923 at the University of Tübingen. He later trained under liberal theologians Adolf von Harnack and Reinhold Seeburg.
Following what he would later call a conversion experience, Bonhoeffer intensified his focus on contemporary theological problems facing the church. With the ascendancy of the Nazi party in Germany, Bonhoeffer was among the first of the German theologians to perceive the pervasiveness and significance of the looming Nazi threat.
When the pro-Nazi German Christian party won the church elections in the summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer quickly opposed the anti-Semitism of the Nazis in an important article, “The Church and the Jewish Question.” In this piece Bonhoeffer provided a seminal overview of his perspective of the church's relationship to the state.
His framework was based on a view of the normative worldly authorities, first articulated in his doctrine of “preservation orders” in his early academic lectures and later developed in mature form in his ethics manuscripts of the early 1940s. In these latter documents, Bonhoeffer speaks of four unique and divinely instituted mandates in the world: work (or labor), marriage (or family), government, and church.
The recognition of the legitimate but limited role of government in human affairs enabled Bonhoeffer to oppose the perversion of the state represented by the National Socialists.
Marriage is not made by the government, but is affirmed by the government. The great spheres of work are not themselves undertaken by the government, but they are subject to its supervision within certain limits—later to be described—to governmental direction. Government should never seek to become the agent of these areas of work, for this would seriously endanger their divine mandate along with its own.
Bonhoeffer's resistance to the Nazi regime included his support for and pastoral participation in the Confessing Church along with other prominent Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller, as well as his intricate association with the broader ecumenical movement. When the effectiveness of the Confessing Church's opposition to Hitler was blunted and his efforts to bring the moral authority of the ecumenical movement to bear failed, Bonhoeffer became involved with the so-called Abwehr conspiracy, which intended to assassinate Hitler, overthrow the Nazi regime, and end the war.
After imprisonment for his role in the escape of Jews to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer was implicated in the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. At the age of thirty-nine, he was hanged by the S.S. at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the liberation of the area under Allied troops. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life and death are a testament to his commitment to the Christian faith and his ardent opposition to the absolutism and idolatry of Nazi Germany.
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