The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Ferocious power like that of the old Caesars can never again disgrace the leading civilizations of the world,” Frank Newman confidently predicted during the course of his lectures on ancient and modern history. Almost exactly one hundred years later a certain Lutheran pastor called Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken from his Berlin prison to an extermination camp at Flossenbürg. The next day he was stripped naked and hanged.
He left behind him one uncompleted work of scholarship, several books of a pastoral nature, and some letters and jottings he had kept throughout his two-and-a-half years of imprisonment. These last were preserved and published in English sixteen years ago. If John Robinson, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, had not injured his back and thus had time for that meditation on the state of religion which in 1963 produced the provocative best-seller Honest to God, it is possible that Bonhoeffer’s influence would have been confined to a narrow circle. The Bishop, however, quoted him extensively, public interest was aroused, and the Bonhoeffer industry began. Books and articles poured from the press. Some nerve was touched which still vibrates and I do not think it an exaggeration to say that Bonhoeffer has been responsible for a great deal of the mood which lies behind the present theological debate. But how much is the real Bonhoeffer and how much Bonhoeffer bent to fit the preconceptions of those who are, in fact, preaching quite another gospel?
While rejoicing at the wide publicity given to his life and work we may legitimately regret the banner under which he was entered for the theological lists. There has been no lack of informed appreciation of his thought. The work of Bethge, Marty, Godsey, Phillips, and René Marlé, immediately springs to mind. But like the Bishop of Woolwich himself, to an unfortunate extent Bonhoeffer has been captured by his cruder exponents. A fastidious, conservative, deeply Christ-centered man has been associated in the public mind with revolutionary theology of a particularly shallow kind. Those who have not troubled to read his Ethics against its real setting, have seized on such notorious phrases as “religionless Christianity” and “man come of age” to promote attempts to substitute anthropology for theology. So, ironically, the man who on his first visit to New York wrote scathingly, “What do we find in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism which pins its faith to progress and which for some not quite evident reason assumes the right to call itself Christian,” has often been dubbed the apostle of what is in essence unselfish atheism masquerading as religion. The saint of the secular has been transformed into the secular saint.
The truth is quite different and very much more disturbing. As a thinker Bonhoeffer was not original, nor, even if he had had the capacity, did circumstances permit him to integrate his ideas into some profound synthesis. What is …