Famous for advocating so-called "religionless"
Christianity, the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has often been misunderstood. It
has been interpreted as though he produced a complete, coherent system of
thought. In fact, his work is fragmentary and incomplete because he was executed
at the age of 39 by the Nazis in Germany on suspicion that he had been involved
in plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Bonhoeffer's father was a well-known psychiatrist who taught at Berlin
University. His now-famous son grew up as part of a large family, including a
twin sister. Somewhat to the surprise of his scientifically-minded parents he
decided at only fourteen years old to study theology. He trained at Tubingen and
Berlin universities and was soon identified as an up-and-coming theologian. He
was strongly influenced in the early years by the theology both of Karl Barth
and Adolf Harnack.
After ordination he worked first in Spain and then at the Union Theological
Seminary of New York. A brief spell in Berlin preceded a time as Chaplain of the
Lutheran congregation in London. He then returned to head up an "emergency
seminary" for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde in Pomerania. There he put
into practice some ideas he had come across in England while visiting the
theological colleges of the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham, and the
Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield.
Perhaps in part because he had travelled abroad, Bonhoeffer quickly recognised
the racist, totalitarian policies of the Nazi government for what they
were. Before going to London in 1935 he had already signed the 1934 Barmen
Declaration. This was drawn up at the first synod of the Confessing Church. It
refuted the Nazi claim to have superseded or fulfilled Christian revelation and
criticised the way the hierarchy of the Lutheran Church had allied themselves to
the new movement.
Within two days of Hitler becoming Chancellor of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer
had delivered in February, 1933, a radio broadcast warning against the danger of
a "Fuhrer-principle". He was banned from teaching and lecturing because of his
support for the Confessing Church. The seminary was closed and he lost his
lectureship at Berlin University.
When war was declared in 1939, Bonhoeffer was lecturing in America, having
been got out of Germany by friends. He wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr at the time
... Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either
willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may
survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our
civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot
make this choice in security. 
He returned to Germany under the watchful and suspicious eye of the
authorities. It was he who communicated details of the German resistance to the
Allies, traveling at considerable risk in 1942 to Sweden to meet the Bishop of
Chichester, G K Bell.
Bonhoeffer was finally arrested in 1943. He remained in various prisons
until he was hanged by the Gestapo in April, 1945 .
Perhaps because of his early death, Bonhoeffer's relatively undeveloped
writing has been extensively published. His letters, lectures and notes have
seen print in two English volumes - No Rusty Swords (Collins, 1965) and
The Way to Freedom (1966). Even his academic dissertation of 1931, Act
(Collins, 1962) was published. Best-known is the collection of his letters
entitled Letters and Papers From Prison (SCM, 1953). His Ethics
(1949) consists of preliminary drafts and incomplete sections. Some were hidden
from the police and some rescued from Gestapo files for publication in 1949.
His only substantial work, published in 1937, is The Cost of Discipleship.
In it he protests against what he calls "cheap grace". This is the "grace"
purveyed by religion through its teachings, worship and ministry. "Costly
grace", in contrast, entails genuine discipleship. This is obedient following of
Jesus. Through dedicated attachment to him, the disciple receives abundant life.
The result is a "new man". About cheap grace he wrote:
The price we are having to pay today ... is only the inevitable consequence
of our policy of making grace available at too low a cost. We gave away the
word and sacraments wholesale ... to the scornful and unbelieving.
In the 1960s - partly because of his increasingly high profile as a Christian
martyr - Bonhoeffer's work received considerable attention and achieved some
notoriety. Many at the time claimed that he had put forward the idea that
Christianity should be religionless and that the Church was, by implication, an
institution which would soon give way to secularisation.
This version of Bonhoeffer's thinking is somewhat distant from the truth. He
was a subscriber to the so-called "kenotic" approach to God. The theory followed
Philippians 2.6-7. God is perceived as having become human by being "emptied" (kenosis
in common Greek) in the person of Jesus. In this, Bonhoeffer was very much in
the theological mainstream of German Lutherans.
His emphasis was, however, more concrete than abstract. He insisted that the
Christian faith must be relevant to ordinary society and its ordinary members.
So no matter what orthodox theology was, it should in his view never cease to
take the world seriously. In this one needs to realise that the liberal theology
which preceded Bonhoeffer was usually based upon the notion that people are
naturally religious. Christianity was perceived as a religion to which people
gravitated as part of being human.
He protested against this, holding that faith is based upon God's
self-revelation and has nothing essentially to do with religious practices.
Hence what later became known as "religionless" Christianity. It is natural to
seek out others of the same or similar lifestyle. This explains the Church. But
neither it nor its religious practices are necessary to the Christian way of
The problem with religion, thought Bonhoeffer, is that it fails to relate
faith (and therefore Christian concepts) to social factors. This is because
religion in Germany tended, as he perceived it, to appeal either to an
individualistic "God within us" or to a metaphysical "God beyond us". People are
wholes as part of their society, he said. Their God does not hover just beyond
consciousness in some sort of secret "spiritual" place, nor just beyond reality
in some sort of "supernatural" dimension. God is present in life itself.
The Cost of Discipleship is more like long meditation than a reasoned
analysis. Drawing upon various New Testament quotations, Bonhoeffer says that
the Church is Jesus on earth, and as such "takes up space". But it is as it were
powered by truths and doctrines which "need no space for themselves". The Bible
as "the word of God" urges us not to become slaves to men.
This can happen in two different ways. First, it may happen by revolution and
the overthrow of the established order, and secondly by investing the
established order with a halo of spirituality.
Neither "revolution nor false submission" is the way ahead.
The Christian must not be drawn to the bearers of high office: his calling is
to stay below ... The world exercises dominion, the Christian serves ...
Christians can and should involve themselves in national affairs.
Let the slave ... remain a slave. Let the Christian remain in subjection to
the powers which exercise dominion over him. Let him not contract out of the
world ... as a member of ... the New Humanity.
In this involvement the Christian may make mistakes. But if that happens
If he meets with suffering instead of praise [from authority], his conscience
is clear in the sight of God and he has nothing to fear ... He obeys the power,
not for material profit, but for conscience sake.
Eberhard Bethge (imprisoned at the same time as Bonhoeffer), in his
Foreword to the English edition of Letters and Papers From Prison
(SCM, 1953), remarks that when Bonhoeffer wrote Discipleship he was
... very near to absolute pacifism - an unheard-of position in the
Germany of the time ... [later] he began to see pacifism as an
illegitimate escape, especially if he was tempted to withdraw from his
increasing contacts with the responsible political and military leaders
of the resistance. He no longer saw any way of escape into some region
In this context, an abstract, other-worldly faith has no power because the
only relevant God is one who "allows himself to be pushed out of the world and
onto a cross". In other words, a Christianity which does not focus on Jesus
crucified is false. In this latter emphasis, Bonhoeffer was distinctly Pauline.
Jesus operated at the heart of mankind's
ordinary affairs and the sometimes daunting life-and-death challenges we
face. That is precisely where we all will discover him today and in any age.
It was in this sense that Bonhoeffer thought Christianity should and would
become "religionless". His embryonic vision, in hindsight, located and focused
on the increasingly secular character of Western European society. If,
therefore, the Gospel is to remain relevant to a secular society then the
liberal religion of the time had to give way. God was a God of society, not a
private possession of the individual or an abstract metaphysical concept to be
understood only by an elite few.
In a similar sense, Bonhoeffer perceived that humanity has "come of age".
This too is an idea frequently misunderstood. Bonhoeffer did not either infer or
mean that somehow people in the 20th century had progressed from spiritual
adolescence to maturity. It was not as though we now stand alone and no longer
He seems to have been referring instead to the nature of religion in his day.
Because of its false or incomplete teaching, it perpetuated a childlike
dependence upon ecclesiastical structures and prohibitions. Humans "come of
age", he thought, would be able to explain the universe without reliance on
tales or myths. When things in society went wrong and needed to be put right,
they would not rely on miracles for remedies. Nor would they be motivated in
social action by promises of eternal bliss. Dedication to Jesus and obedience to
God would motivate them.
One of the most important reasons why Bonhoeffer as it were hit the nail on
the head with post-World War II thinkers was his realisation - albeit somewhat
incoherent and incomplete - that he was participating in a fundamental and
radical social discontinuity. A break between the past and the 20th century
was taking place. It required not just modifications of Christian faith and
teaching, but radically new responses to society such as young people experience
when they come of age.
As Bonhoeffer wrote in Letters and Papers From Prison:
This is why I am so anxious that God should not be relegated to some last
secret place, but that we should frankly recognise that the world and men have
come of age, that we should not speak ill of man in his worldliness, but
confront him with God at his strongest point, that we should give up all our
clerical subterfuges ...
Thus the Church does not necessarily have any sort of special
competence in proclaiming and safeguarding the Gospel. (We should remind
ourselves that, in terms of Christian teaching, Bonhoeffer was solidly
orthodox.) Religion it its ecclesiastical form is not in some way
protected by the Holy Spirit. Merely proclaiming that the Church cannot
make mistakes simply because it is gathered "in council" is too facile a
liberation from error.
 G Leibholz in a Memoir for the English edition
of The Cost of Discipleship
 His sisters' husbands, Hans von Dohnanyi and Rudiger Schleicher
were also executed around this time.