Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer; drawing by David Levine

Only three years ago the work of the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer was regarded in Britain and America as well as in his native Germany as that of an interesting and courageous, but nonetheless minor, theologian. As late as 1962, the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, deplored this widespread view, complaining that Bonhoeffer’s striking Letters and Papers from Prison “seem now in danger of being forgotten.” To day, Bonhoeffer’s reputation in Germany remains about the same; but in America and England he is being widely acclaimed as one of the “most decisive” theological influences of the century, of whom it has for example been written: “he is unquestionably the favorite theologian among young Protestant seminarians in the U.S. Some church leaders, in fact, consider his work the starting point of modern theology.”

This change, witnessed by the publication already this year of the three books listed above, has several causes. The first, and least important, has to do with the taste for anniversaries: Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis twenty years ago, on April 9, 1945, when he was thirty-nine years old, because of his very active participation in the German resistance movement and, in particular, in the abortive bomb plot to assassinate Hitler. It is doubtless appropriate to commemorate in some way the martyrdom of one who was not only an extremely appealing personality and the most influential German theologian to take active part in the resistance movement, but who, declining attractive opportunities to take refuge in Britain and the United States, returned to Germany from a visit to America shortly before the outbreak of war.

A second, by no means negligible, reason for renewed attention to his work is the desperate need within Protestantism today, particularly in America, for some new voice. Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Tillich—all have been famous since they were young men in the 1920s; and they are still today, in comparatively advanced old age, the only really major figures in Protestant thought, whose place is quite unthreatened by any serious competitors among the young. In the circumstances, a certain amount of boredom is understandable.

By far the most important reason for the Bonhoeffer revival, however, is due to the repercussions in America of what is perhaps at once the most curious and the most interesting development in English religious thinking since the Oxford Movement of the last century. To add to his martyrdom and his German background, Bonhoeffer’s work has since 1963 acquired the quiet unexpected new cachet of having been approved by the English. I am referring of course to the role Bonhoeffer’s ideas play in Honest to God, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich’s explosive and best-selling manifesto, which has since March 1963 sold nearly a million copies and inspired thousands of replies and commentaries, including a book-length attack by another clergyman which bore the inevitable title For Christ’s Sake. The basic, if unstated, point of Woolwich’s book is that German and American theology should be adopted by the English.

To understand all this, it is necessary to backtrack a little. During the middle 1950s, the most important American theology was dominated by the ideas in circulation at Union Theological Seminary and to a lesser extent at the Harvard and University of Chicago Divinity Schools. This meant that the ideas of German and German-oriented theologians like Tillich, Niebuhr, Barth, and Bultmann were very much in the forefront of discussion. These thinkers, with the exception of Barth, were preoccupied with the problem of reinterpreting traditional Christian doctrine in the light of the dominant secular and scientific ideas of the day—to show, with Tillich, the symbolical superiority of Christian concepts in areas such as art and depth psychology, or to interpret, with Niebuhr, the political problems of the nuclear age in the light of a “realistic” Augustinian-Christian view of an intrinsically dependent, limited, and “sinful” humanity.

These attempts, coinciding as they did with the much-publicized “religious revival” and increased church attendance of these years, were widely discussed not only in religious circles but in Time, Life, and most of the influential middle-brow American journals. The astonishing success and influence of these ideas were perhaps most dramatically symbolized by the appointment of Tillich, in 1955, to a University Professorship at Harvard, the highest-ranking academic position at that university.

It was not until the summer of 1958 that any serious criticisms of these thinkers appeared in America. Then, Walter Kaufmann and a few others began to expose the shallow and woolly eclectic thinking, as well as the occasional downright incompetence and self-deception, that undergirded the occasional aperçus of these writers. To the credit of the Protestants, it must be said that—apart from a few rather hysterical outbursts—once the criticism started the idols began slowly to crumble. At least a half-dozen members of the Union-Columbia group dispersed to California, where any religion can find a following; and Union Theological Seminary began to become a much more conventional and less influential divinity school.


It was then that the ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer began to play a more important role. Bonhoeffer had, during his imprisonment by the Nazis, managed to smuggle out a number of very interesting notes and letters which had been published in America in 1954 as Prisoner For God (the paperback edition, published in 1962, uses the title of the British edition: Letters and Papers from Prison). Bonhoeffer’s ideas were sketchy, quite literally notes, not even always written down in the form of complete sentences. But they contained some suggestions to Protestants which, although written in Germany in 1944, appeared quite timely in America at the beginning of the 1960s—the more so since they contained some implicit (and a few explicit) criticisms, from within the ranks of the church, of the efforts of thinkers like Tillich and Bultmann.

The German philosopher Hans Vaihinger, whose book, The Philosophy of ‘As-If, published in 1911, had so strongly influenced Alfred Adler in the presentation of his psychology, had argued that one should act as if there were a God, regardless of whether he did or did not exist. By contrast, Bonhoeffer proposed that the Christian should act as if God did not exist. Writing of the “coming of age” and “adulthood” of the world, Bonhoeffer suggested that contemporary efforts to stress the dependence of man on God and his essential need for the Christian framework—whether those attempts arose from politics and social action or from psychology—were fundamentally anachronistic in that they imply that contemporary men are “adolescents” dependent for salvation on such religious props, however contemporary and swingingly neurotic those props might be. The criticism here is clear, for example, of Tillich’s theology of correlation, with its stress on the essential incompleteness or brokenness of a world without God. Thus, Bonhoeffer applauded the general modern movement towards secularism and away from dependence on God, a movement which he quite explicitly identified as one towards increased maturity and adulthood.

Perhaps optimistically—given that he was writing from a Nazi prison cell in 1944—Bonhoeffer argued that contemporary men were quite capable of taking care of themselves; and that consequently, apologetic theology should be dropped. Bonhoeffer’s work was obviously not itself a piece of apologetic, addressed to members of the secular community; it was addressed specifically and strategically to fellow Christians, asking them to recognize the unrealistic character of the supposition that Christian theology had anything to offer secular man which he needed and could not get from some non-Christian source.

Such suggestions clearly are revolutionary, at least in the sense that one would not expect a theologian to be uttering them. And their surprising character probably helps explain why it is so often claimed that, had he lived. Bonhoeffer would have transformed Protestant theology. It is of course also possible—though no one appears to have thought of this—that Bonhoeffer would have forsaken Protestant theology. Stranger things have happened; and Bonhoeffer had already, for example in his swing from a Gandhian pacifism to active participation in an assassination attempt, shown that he was capable of radically changing his mind.

I mention this probably improbable possibility because it becomes rather urgent for a person holding a view like Bonhoeffer’s—that there is literally no need for Christianity or for God in an adult world—to explain what if anything does distinguish a Christian from others and why, indeed, anyone should in such circumstances remain a Christian. It is precisely at this point that Bonhoeffer, who is rarely profound but usually clear, becomes as vague as any conventional German theologian. The role of the Christian is conceived now as a fundamentally ethical one of total engagement in social and personal life in full collaboration with like-minded liberal secularists. In this Ethics in particular, he speaks of this as conformation to Christ, the suffering servant, the man who lived and died not for himself but for others. Bonhoeffer is aware that this may sound like the popular plea of liberal theology, which he like Barth and the others mentioned had rejected, that one should “try to live like Jesus”; and so he stresses that it is not Jesus but the “form of Jesus” which should mould our action. I confess that try as I might, I have not been able to understand this or to predict how Bonhoeffer might have worked this idea out had he had a few more years to live. The most authoritative New Testament scholars report that it is quite impossible to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus. If this is true, how is one to know what his “form” is like? The nearest Bonhoeffer gets to explaining this is to say that to conform to Christ means to live and suffer for others, to “participate in the sufferings of God.”


However undefined his positive program, it is understandable that Protestant seminarians in America should, in the wake of the critical assault on Tillich, Niebuhr, and Bultmann, begin to take a new look at his work. The return to Bonhoeffer was slow at first. Two minor scholarly books on Bonhoeffer appeared in the early 1960s: The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1960) by John D. Godsey, and The Place of Bonhoeffer (1962) by Martin E. Marty; it was not, however, until the Bishop of Woolwich’s Honest to God appeared in 1963 that the boom really started. Honest to God was an eclectic and unscholarly, but unpretentious, comparatively clear, and gracefully written crazy-quilt, sewn together from bits and pieces of the ideas of Tillich and Bonhoeffer, with Bonhoeffer’s evidently slightly in the lead.

The Bishop’s book was published in a rather curious situation. Several of the works of Tillich and Niebuhr had been published in British editions; both had delivered Gifford Lectures; Tillich had even spent several weeks lecturing in Cumberland Lodge, in Windsor Great Park; and Niebuhr had many personal connections in Britain. Still, their work, and the whole neo-orthodox movement which had played such an important role in American intellectual life, was a matter of rather specialist interest in a country where, to quote the editor of the British Student Christian Movement Press, “organized religion is usually ignored.” Depending on how one views these things, Britain was some twenty years behind—or ahead of—America theologically.

However this may be, it is not every day that an Anglican Bishop writes a best-seller, frankly and explicitly advocating what is usually thought of as atheism. Moreover, due to the superb intellectual network centered in London, there was more intensive and articulate discussion of these ideas in Britain within the space of several months—on TV, over the BBC, in all the newspapers and weeklies—than there had been of the same ideas in America in the preceding twenty years. The whole debate was intensified by the publication, shortly before and after the Bishop’s book, of a number of other radical reexaminations of Anglican doctrine and practice; the majority of the best of these works—like Honest to God (whose author had served as Dean of Clare College, Cambridge before his consecration)—originated from a group of Christian radicals at Cambridge University. Perhaps the most trenchant and influential critiques of the Bishop’s book, however, were some BBC talks by Renford Bambrough of Cambridge and an article in Encounter by Alasdair MacIntyre, of Oxford. MacIntyre opened with the sentence: “What is striking about (the Bishop of Woolwich’s) book is first and foremost that he is an aethist,” and closed with the remark: “The creed of the English is that there is no God and that it is wise to pray to him from time to time.”

This is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer became really famous in America. Apart from the ironical and sometimes amusing stories of trans-Atlantic publicity stunts and publication bonanzas, how seriously can Bonhoeffer’s ideas be taken? And what difficulties arise in his admittedly sketchy and programmatic remarks?

Apart from those already suggested, I think there are two major problems. The claim that Bonhoeffer’s later work shows a Christian character depends on the particular kind of ethical view—one of self-sacrifice—that he attaches to Jesus. And that view (whether or not the historical Jesus ever had anything to do with it) is neither good social ethics nor necessarily conducive to good personal moral hygiene. Bonhoeffer’s uncompromising refusal to associate Christianity in any way with Nazism, and his advocacy of powerless suffering protest—living and dying for others—in the face of what he called the Nazi “masquerade of evil” may have made sense in Hitler’s Reich. But Nazism is fortunately not a typical social and political situation; and the churches in America and in the German-speaking countries are far from powerless today. Bonhoeffer would, had he lived, have had to tackle the problem of “What Next?” in the immediate post-war years. But the fact is that he did not tackle it in any serious way during his lifetime—although he made a few tentative jabs at the problem in his Ethics—and that none of his recent enthusiasts appear to have made much progress in this direction.

The second problem has to do with the ethic of sacrifice and living for others that Bonhoeffer endorses. What Bonhoeffer means, so at least the Bishop of Woolwich explains, in this: “To live for others means to accept life on their terms, to serve within the structures in which they live.” Taken literally, this statement could be found in an ethic for slaves or for people who have “given up.” It is interesting that contemporary Protestant seminarians are reported by their teachers as favoring Bonhoeffer’s views. There is no doubt that an uncritical ethic of servitude is still deeply entrenched in our culture and psychology; and it is, moreover, perhaps essentially connected with the Christian idea of atonement. But as it appears in individuals in ordinary social living it is often evidence not of moral strength but of neurotic illness, of ruthless emotional exploitation founded on guilt-ridden attachments, and of insensibility. Many contemporary psychological writers, perhaps Karen Horney most notably, have begun, in however faltering a way, to expose the unintended and often perniciously debilitating consequences of “moral masochism.” Rather than discuss these writers, it is more appropriate to quote from one of the recent publications of the Cambridge group: Objections to Christian Belief. In it, D. M. MacKinnon, the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, himself a Christian, shrewdly observes that even those who eschew what he calls “the cult of suffering” are often.

encouraged by the doctrine of redemption through sacrifice to propagate such falsehoods as the thesis that pain enobles…These issues gain nothing through being sicklied over with the pale cast of chatter concerning vocation, especially vocation to sacrifice. To sacrifice ourselves is, it is said, to realize the image of the crucified, whereas the self-sacrificing may simply be mutilating himself, purposively destroying the sweetness of existence, in the name of illusion, in order to make himself a hero in his own eyes…The ethic of sacrifice indeed provides a symbolism under which all sorts of cruelties may be perpetrated, not so much upon the weak as upon those who have been deceived by a false image of goodness. We need fresh air blown upon these discussions by a sane ethic of utility…seeking to liberate human energies not to confine them.

It appears that Bonhoeffer was not entirely unaware of such objections. Indeed, in his Letters and Papers from Prison he wrote that God is to be found “in life, and not only in death; in health and vigor, and not only in suffering; in activity, and not only in sin.” But by his very need to make such qualifications Bonhoeffer attests to the emphasis he puts on the image of the suffering servant. If it is true that self-sacrifice is not the only alternative to ruthless, and sometimes sadistic, egoistical selfishness, Bonhoeffer would appear to have blown very little fresh air on these highly complicated and unsolved problems of human relationships.

Of the three recent Bonhoeffer publications, I shall say no more about the Ethics, a collection of some papers, notes, and preliminary draft chapters of a projected and unfinished major work on Christian ethics. Although it contains many interesting sections (including a distinction between shame and remorse resembling Mrs. Lynd’s distinction between shame and guilt), the later Letters and Papers from Prison are far more challenging. The new Preface to Bonhoeffer, by J. D. Godsey, succeeds in proving, if there were any doubt, that there is a Bonhoeffer boom: for it hardly need have been published. It consists of two of Bonhoeffer’s minor essays: “Thy Kingdom Come” and “The First Table of the Ten Commandments,” each about eighteen pages long, prefaced by a rather shrill and superficial account of “Bonhoeffer the Man” by Professor Godsey, the most striking feature of which is its lamentable style, an attempt perhaps to copy the style of the English translation of Karl Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik. Godsey’s book also contains a useful but quite incomplete bibliography of works of Bonhoeffer in English and English-language commentaries on his thought.

No Rusty Swords, the second book listed above, is more interesting, containing lectures and notes Bonhoeffer made from 1928-1936, as well as excerpts from his correspondence during that period. Several valuable documents are included, which shed light not only on Bonhoeffer’s personal development, but also on such varied matters as theological controversy at Union Theological Seminary in the formative years of the early 1930s and the reactions of such theologians and church leaders as Barth to the German church struggle under Hitler. The book is carefully put together, with connecting commentary by E. H. Robertson, who made the selections from Bonhoeffer’s collected works in German; but its usefulness would have been considerably enhanced had the editor added a detailed table of contents.

This Issue

August 26, 1965