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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

(1906—1945) German Lutheran theologian and pastor


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(1906–1945)

German Protestant pastor and theologian. His arguments for a ‘worldly’ Christianity, pertinent to man's condition in the twentieth century, fuelled the debate on the secularization of Christianity that figured prominently in the 1960s and thereafter.

Bonhoeffer studied theology at the universities of Tübingen and Berlin but was increasingly influenced by the neo-orthodox movement led by Karl Barth and others. Between working as a pastor in Barcelona (1928–29) and London (1933–35), he studied at Union Theological Seminary, New York (1929–30), and was lecturer in systematic theology at Berlin University. He was a signatory of the Barmen Declaration in 1934 that founded the Confessing Church as a reaction to the increasingly pro-Nazi German Protestant Church, and in 1935 Bonhoeffer became head of its theological seminary at Finkenwalde, which he continued to operate even after its proscription by the Nazis in 1937. During the early years of World War II, several leading members of the resistance, including Hans von Dohnanyi, Count von Moltke, and Admiral Canaris, worked with Bonhoeffer in the Military Intelligence Department. In May 1942, Bonhoeffer went to Stockholm on an abortive mission to convey the conspirators' proposals to the Allies via the Bishop of Chichester. Returning to Berlin, Bonhoeffer was arrested on 5 April 1943 and imprisoned, initially in Berlin but later in Flossenburg concentration camp, where he was executed by the Gestapo just before the liberation of the camp by US troops.

Bonhoeffer's Nachfolge (1937; translated as The Cost of Discipleship, 1948) emphasized his concern with genuine discipleship of Christ and the consequent sacrifices this involved, and attacked the notion of ‘cheap grace’. In his later works, Bonhoeffer moved away from the biblical dogmatism of Barth to the realization of a ‘worldly’ Christianity that did not appeal to man's weaknesses but embraced his maturity and related to social and political problems of the twentieth century. Many of these ideas were contained in letters from prison to his friend and later biographer, Eberhard Bethge; they were published as Widerstand und Ergebund (1951; translated as Letters and Papers from Prison, 1955).

Subjects: Religion.


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