These are reading selections from Bonhoeffer’s youth and years at Berlin University where he studied theology with some of the leading lights in that field at the time. He shows a remarkable precociousness, if not early genius. All reading selections from Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. If you wish to read more about him online, here is another resource: http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/bonhoeffer/?content=1
”In Hitler’s Germany, a Lutheran pastor chooses resistance and pays with his life. . . Eric Metaxas tells Bonhoeffer’s story with passion and theological sophistication, often challenging revisionist accounts that make Bonhoeffer out to be a ‘humanist’ or ethicist for whom religious doctrine was easily disposable. . . Metaxas reminds us that there are forms of religion — respectable, domesticated, timid — that may end up doing the devil’s work for him. — a review from the Wall Street Journal
Bonhoeffer’s principal reason for choosing Berlin University was its theological faculty, which was world-renowned and had included the famous Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose presence still hovered palpably.
In 1924 the theological faculty was headed by Adolf von Harnack, then seventy-three and a living legend. He was a disciple of Schleiermacher, which is to say staunchly theologically liberal, and one of the leaders of the historical-critical method of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His approach to the Bible was limited to textual and historical-critical analysis, and had led him to conclude that the miracles it described never happened, and that the gospel of John was not canonical.
Harnack lived in the Grunewald neighborhood, as did most distinguished academics then, and the young Bonhoeffer would often walk with him to the Halensee train station and ride with him into Berlin. He attended Harnack’s prestigious seminar for three semesters and esteemed the venerable scholar greatly, though he rarely agreed with his theological conclusions. A fellow student in Harnack’s seminar, Helmuth Goes, recalled feeling a “secret enthusiasm” for Bonhoeffer’s “free, critical and independent” theological thinking:
What really impressed me was not just the fact that he surpassed almost all of us in theological knowledge and capacity; but what passionately attracted me to Bonhoeffer was the perception that here was a man who did not only learn and gather in the verba and scripta of some master, but one who thought independently and already knew what he wanted and wanted what he knew. I had the experience (for me it was something alarming and magnificently new!) of hearing a young fair-haired student contradict the revered historian, his Excellency von Harnack, contradict him politely but clearly on positive theological grounds. Harnack answered, but the student contradicted again and again.
Bonhoeffer was a remarkably independent thinker, especially for one so young. Some professors regarded him as arrogant, especially because he refused to come too directly under the influence of any one of them, always preferring to maintain some distance. But someone who grew up dining with Karl Bonhoeffer, and who was allowed to speak only when he could justify every syllable, had probably developed a certain intellectual confidence and may be somewhat excused if he was not intimidated by other great minds.
Besides Harnack, three other Berlin professors had a decided influence on Bonhoeffer. They were Karl Holl, who was perhaps the greatest Luther scholar of that generation; Reinhold Seeberg, who specialized in systematic theology, and under whom Bonhoeffer wrote his doctoral thesis; and Adolf Deissman, who was Bonhoeffer’s introduction to the ecumenical movement, which would play such an important role in his life and provide the means by which he became involved in the conspiracy against Hitler. But there was another theologian who had a greater influence on Bonhoeffer than any of these, and whom he would revere and respect as much as anyone in his lifetime, who would even become a mentor and a friend. This was Karl Barth of Gottingen.
Barth was Swiss by birth and was almost certainly the most important theologian of the century; many would say of the last five centuries. Bonhoeffer’s cousin Hans-Christoph was studying physics at Gottingen in 1924, but after hearing Barth, he promptly switched to theology and stayed there. Like most theological students in the late nineteenth century, Barth absorbed the regnant liberal theology of his time, but he grew to reject it, quickly becoming its most formidable opponent. His groundbreaking 1922 commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, fell like a smart bomb into the ivory tower of scholars like Adolf von Harnack, who could hardly believe their historical-critical fortress pregnable, and who were scandalized by Barth’s approach to the Bible, which came to be called neo-orthodoxy, and which asserted the idea, particularly controversial in German theological circles,that God actually exists, and that all theology and biblical scholarship must be undergirded by this basic assumption, and that’s that.
Barth was the principal figure in challenging and overturning the influence of the German historical-critical approach pioneered at Berlin University by Schleiermacher — and furthered there by the current eminence grise Harnack. Barth stressed the transcendence of God, describing him as “wholly other,” and therefore completely unknowable by man, except via revelation. Fortunately he believed in revelation which was further scandalous to theological liberals like Harnack. For refusing to swear his allegiance to Hitler, Barth would be kicked out of Germany in 1934, and he would become the principal author of the Barmen Declaration, in which the Confessing Church trumpeted its rejection of the Nazis’ attempts to bring their philosophy into the German church.
Harnack’s theology was something like Archilochus’s proverbial fox, knowing many little things, while Barth’s theology was like a hedgehog, knowing one big thing. Bonhoeffer would side with the hedgehog, but he was in the fox’s seminar and through his family and the Grunewald community, he had many ties with the fox. As a result of his intellectual openness, Bonhoeffer learned how to think like a fox and respect the way foxes thought, even though he was in the camp of the hedgehogs. He could appreciate the value in something, even if he ultimately rejected that something — and could see the errors and flaws in something, even if he ultimately Accepted that something. This attitude figured into his creation of the illegal seminaries of Zingst and Finkenwalde, which incorporated the best of both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Because of this self-critical intellectual Integrity, Bonhoeffer sometimes had such confidence in his conclusions that he could seem arrogant.
The debate during Bonhoeffer’s time between the neo-orthodox Barthians And the historical-critical liberals was similar to the contemporary one between strict Darwinian evolutionists and advocates of so-called Intelligent Design. The latter allow the possible involvement of something “outside the system” — some Intelligent Creator, whether divine or other — while the former reject this by definition. Theological liberals like Harnack felt it was ‘unscientific” to speculate on who God was; the theologian must simply study what is here, which is to say the texts and the history of those texts. But the Barthians said no: the God on the other side of the fence had revealed himself through these texts, and the only reason for these texts was to know him.
Bonhoeffer agreed with Barth, seeing the texts as “not just historical sources, but [as] agents of revelation,” not merely “specimens of writing, but sacred canon.” Bonhoeffer was not against doing historical and critical work on biblical texts, indeed he had learned from Harnack how to do it and could do it brilliantly. Harnack powerfully flattered the eighteen-year-old when, after reading the fifty-seven –page essay Bonhoeffer wrote for his seminar, he suggested Bonhoeffer might someday do his dissertation in the field. Harnack obviously hoped to convince him to follow in his footsteps by choosing the field of church history.
As ever, Bonhoeffer cagily maintained a certain distance. He wished to learn from the old master, but would preserve his intellectual independence. In the end he would not choose church history. He respected that field, as he demonstrated by mastering it, to Harnack’s delight, but he disagreed with Harnack that one must stop there. He believed that picking over the texts as they did, and going no further, left behind “rubble and fragments.” It was the God beyond the texts, the God who was their author and who spoke to mankind through them, that fired his interest.
For his doctoral dissertation Bonhoeffer was drawn to dogmatics, the study of the beliefs of the church. Dogmatics was closer to philosophy, and Bonhoeffer was at heart more philosopher than textual critic. He didn’t want to disappoint his friendly old neighbor, Harnack, who continued to woo him, but now Bonhoeffer had another eminent professor to deal with. Reinhold Seeberg’s field was dogmatics, so it seemed Bonhoeffer might write his dissertation under him. This presented not one, but two difficulties. First, Seeberg was a bitter rival of Harnack, and the two of them were competing for the theological affections of the same young theological genius. And second, Seeberg was deeply opposed to Barthian theology.
In his essay for Seeberg’s seminar, Bonhoeffer expressed the Barthian idea that in order to know anything at all about God, one had to rely on revelation from God. In other words, God could speak into this world, but man could not reach out of this world to examine God. It was a one-way street, and of course this was directly related to the especially Lutheran doctrine of grace. Man could not earn his way up to heaven, but God could reach down and graciously lift man toward him.
Seeberg disagreed, and after reading Bonhoeffer’s essay, he became agitated: it was as though a cocky Barthian rooster had sneaked into his chicken coop. He thought he might talk sense into the brash young genius’s head by appealing to a higher authority, and that summer, at a meeting of distinguished Berlin academics, he had a conversation with Karl Bonhoeffer. Perhaps this eminent scientist could reach his son. Karl Bonhoeffer was intellectually closer to Seeberg’s views than to his son’s, but his respect for Dietrich’s mind and intellectual integrity was such that he did not try to influence him.
That August, Dietrich was hiking along the Baltic coast. From the house of an [gel brother near Bremen he wrote his father, asking what Seeberg had said and how to proceed. The answer was inconclusive. Then his mother weighed in, suggesting that perhaps he should study under Holl, the Luther expert, and write his dissertation on dogmatics after Seeberg was out of the picture. As the daughter of a respected theologian and the granddaughter of a world-famous one, she likely had more to say on this subject than any mother in Germany. The intellect of both Bonhoeffer parents and their interest in their son's academic progress are remarkable, and we can hardly wonder at his closeness to them. They were an unwavering and unflagging resource of wisdom and love for him to the very end.
By September he made his decision: he would write his doctoral dissertation under Seeberg after all, but it would he on a subject dogmatic and historical. He would write about the subject he had begun puzzling over in Rome, namely, What is the Church? It was eventually titled Sanctorum Communio. A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church. Bonhocffcr would identify the church as neither a historical entity nor an institution, but as "Christ existing as church-community." It was a stunning debut.
During these three years in Berlin, Bonhoeffer had a staggering workload, yet he completed his doctoral dissertation in eighteen months. But somehow he had a very full life beyond the world of academics too. He was endlessly attending operas, concerts, art exhibitions, and plays; he maintained a copious correspondence with friends, colleagues, and family; and he was perpetually traveling, whether on shorter trips to Friedrichsbrunn or on longer trips to the Baltic seashore.
Making Up His Mind
In his diary in early 1928, Bonhoeffer wrote but how he decided to go to Barcelona. It provides an early window into his decision-making process and into the self-consciousness he brought to it:
“I myself find the way such a decision comes about to be problematic. One thing is clear to me, however, that one personally -- that is, consciously -- has very little control over the ultimate yes or no, but rather that time decides everything. Maybe not with everybody, but in any event with me. Recently I have noticed again and again that all the decisions I had to make were not really my own decisions. Whenever there was a dilemma, I just left it in abeyance and -- without really consciously dealing with it intensively -- let it grow toward the clarity of a decision. But this clarity is not so much intellectual as it is instinctive. The decision is made; whether one can adequately justify it retrospectively is another question. "Thus" it happened that I went.”
Bonhoeffer was always thinking about thinking. He meant to see things through to the bottom, to bring as much clarity as possible. The influence of his father, the scientist, is unmistakable. But the difference between his thinking now and in the future was that now, despite his being a theologian and pastor, he didn't mention God's role in the process or God's will. Still, what he said here in his diary curiously and clearly presaged the famously difficult decision he would make in 1939, trying to determine whether he should remain safely in America or sail back to the terrible Terra Incognita of his homeland. In both cases, he sensed that there was a right decision, but that ultimately it wasn't his. Later on he would say it explicitly: that he had been "grasped" by God; that God was leading him, and sometimes where he preferred not to go.
“Every day I am getting to know people, at any rate their circumstances, and sometimes one is able to see through their stories into themselves -- and at the same time one thing continues to impress me: here I meet people as they are, far from the masquerade of "the Christian world"; people with passions, criminal types, small people with small aims, small wages and small sins -- all in all they are people who feel homeless in both senses, and who begin to thaw when one speaks to them with kindness -- real people; I can only say that I have gained the impression that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world which is more under wrath than grace.”
Letter to Helmut Rössler
From Three Early Lectures
“One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn't do: one doesn't take him seriously. That is, one doesn't bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman -- just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant.... Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God himself speaks and if the word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me.... Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment.”
“With that we have articulated a basic criticism of the most grandiose of all human attempts to advance toward the divine -- by way of the church. Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church. It is far too easy for us to base our claims to God on our own Christian religiosity and our church commitment, and in so doing utterly to misunderstand and distort the Christian idea.”
“Humanism and mysticism, the seemingly most beautiful blossoms put forth by the Christian religion, extolled today as the highest ideals of the human spirit, indeed often as the crown itself of the Christian idea -- [but] it is precisely the Christian idea itself that must reject them as an apotheosis of the creature and as such as a challenge to the honor belonging to God alone. The deity of humanism, of the idea of God presented by Christianity orients those human wishes to itself rather than the reverse.”
His Graduate Thesis, Act and Being
Bonhoeffer finished. Act and Being that year, submitting it in February 1930. Eberhard Bethge reckoned the following its “classic passage”:
“In revelation it is not so much a question of the freedom of God — eternally remaining with the divine self, aseity (vocab: in metaphysics, the property by which a being exists of and from itself) — on the other side of revelation, as it is of God’s coming out of God’s own self in revelation. It is a matter of God’s given Word, the covenant in which God is bound by God’s own action. It is a question of the freedom of God, which finds its strongest evidence precisely in that God freely chose to be bound to historical human beings and to be placed at the disposal of human beings. God is free not from human beings but for them. Christ is the word of God’s freedom. God is present, that is, not in eternal non-objectivity but – to put it quite provisionally for now – “haveable,” graspable in the Word within the church. Here the formal understanding of God’s freedom is countered by a substantial one.”