Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Influences and Early Works

Bonhoeffer’s theology cannot be understood apart from his life and the theologies that impacted him. One important influence in Bonhoeffer’s development was the liberal milieu of the University of Berlin, where he matriculated in 1924. Here he familiarized himself with the works of Troeltsch and Max Weber and, more importantly, attended seminars of the great liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack. Although Bonhoeffer would come to reject Harnack’s theological method, he was always impressed by the latter’s passion for truth and intellectual integrity (Woelfel 1970, 20). For these reasons Bonhoeffer was deeply attached to Harnack in particular and the German liberal tradition in general; thus, in spite of the fact that he took part in the neo-orthodox rebellion against liberal theology, he never could despise the liberal heritage out of which he came. This abiding appreciation for liberal theology influenced the kinds of questions that Bonhoeffer would articulate in his "religionless Christianity" project in the 40’s: questions about the rights of the secular, the meaning of modern history, and the necessity of translating the Bible into contemporary language and action (21).

Second, Bonhoeffer was heavily influenced by the personalist-existentialist revolution in philosophy and theology, to which he was introduced by Karl Heim in Tübingen (1923). Personalist thought was appealing to Bonhoeffer because it came remarkably close to the biblical outlook, with its emphasis on concreteness, temporality, and the centrality of the I-Thou relationship (Woelfel 1970, 54). At the same time, he agreed with Barth that theology ought to be solely determined by its object, God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. In his doctoral dissertation The Communion of Saints, Bonhoeffer holds the two positions together by affirming a personalism that is inseparable from revelation. He does so by arguing that the person derives being only "in relation to the divine person which transcends it" (CS 31). That is, the boundary of human existence is solely the difference between creature and Creator. This boundary is what we mean by divine transcendence, and Bonhoeffer interprets it in thoroughly ethical terms.

Bonhoeffer affirmed that the human ‘Thou’ also has reality for the ‘I’, but this reality is solely derived from the ‘Thou’ of God. This insight, combined with the affirmation that transcendence is ethical, not metaphysical, led Bonhoeffer to argue that the nature of a person arises through ethical encounters with the other. The ‘Thou’ of the other person presents the ‘I’ with a barrier beyond which the ‘I’ cannot go. This experience is an acknowledgment of transcendence, which calls the person into ethical existence. The real limit is, of course, the divine ‘Thou’, the "over-against-ness" of God (Woelfel 1970, 63). But the divine limit of God is only experienced in the concrete ethical encounter with my neighbor; in responsible experience of the other, the ‘I’ experiences the transcendence of God. The idea that the concrete ethical encounter with the neighbor is the concrete encounter with God is crucial to Bonhoeffer's thought throughout his life, particularly in the action and ethical orientation of the religionless Christianity project.

Another influence on Bonhoeffer was the personality and thought of Martin Luther. During Bonhoeffer’s student days, interpreters of Luther concentrated to a large extent on Luther’s religious subjectivity. After spending time with Luther’s writings, Bonhoeffer came to realize that such an interpretation was mistaken: the psychological depth and introspection in Luther is misunderstood if it is detached from Luther’s foundational starting point, the objective revelation of God in Christ as witnessed in the Scriptures (Woelfel 1970, 73). Bonhoeffer argued that, based upon a true Lutheran formulation, the ethical existence must be grounded in the objective Word of God in Christ and not in the person’s subjectivity (what Bonhoeffer later calls a good or bad "conscious" (E 39)).

Bonhoeffer summarized Luther’s view of the human situation (and his own) in Luther’s famous formula simul justus et peccator (both justified and a sinner). He realized that this dialectical reading of Paul was open to abuses, as evident in the Lutheran church of his day. Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is an attempt to address these abuses by differentiating between "cheap grace", the grace that Lutheranism has tended to preach based upon Luther’s doctrine of justification, and "costly grace", the grace that demands obedience and true discipleship (CD 45-48). According to Bonhoeffer, the Reformation understanding of costly grace turned into cheap grace when "the justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of sin and the world" (CD 53). The true proclamation of justification, justification of the sinner, is the call to obedient, costly discipleship, not an invitation to passive assent to a doctrine. In fact, justification is costly obedience: "Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes" (CD 69).

According to Bonhoeffer, then, Luther’s dialectic is not an excuse for complacent quietism, but a call to bold action, a call to risk obedience to Christ. Nowhere is Bonhoeffer’s call to risk obedience more clear than in his ecuminical writings, in which he argues that the church must risk speaking a concrete word to the world:

The church must be able to say the word of God, the word of authority, here and now, in the most concrete way possible, out of knowledge of the situation; otherwise it says something else, a purely human word, a word of impotence. Therefore the church many not proclaim principles, which are "always" true, but only commandments, which are true "today." God is "always" God to us "today" (quoted from Woefel 1970, 80).

This meant that the church ought to say concretely: "’Engage in this war’ or ‘Do not engage in this war.’" (quoted from Woelfel 1970, 80) rather than arguing abstractly about war. Of course, Bonhoeffer argued, these words must be accompanied by bold actions. Bonhoeffer’s words against Nazi abuses in the 1930s (cf. "The Church and the Jewish Question") and his actions as a member of the German Resistance are his greatest testimonies to the obedience that costly grace requires.

Finally, Bonhoeffer’s most important theological influence was Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer most agreed with Barth’s conception of the nature and method of theology as grounded solely upon the concrete actuality of God revealed in Christ (Woelfel 1970, 102). Indeed, Bonhoeffer repeatedly affirms that God is revealed in Christ and only in Christ. He would have had no dispute with Barth’s statement that dogmatics "must actually be Christology and only Christology" (quoted from Woelfel 1970, 96).

But despite Bonhoeffer’s respect for Barth, he was not afraid to criticize Barth and go beyond him on points that he felt Barth was wrong. It is perhaps not surprising that the point of greatest contention involved the subject whose ultimate significance they both confirmed, christology. It is christology that lies at the very heart of Bonhoeffer’s critique of the early Barth (the criticisms are less applicable to the later Barth) and, more importantly, that constitutes the framework of Bonhoeffer’s entire theology.

2. Works (Selected List)

Act and Being, 1962 [Akt und Sein, 1956], Christ the Center 1978 [Christologie, 1966], The Communion of Saints, 1964 (Sanctorum Communio, 1960), The Cost of Discipleship, 1949 [Nachfolge, 1937], Ethics, 1955 [Ethik, 6th edition, 1949], Letters & Papers from Prison, 1953 [Widerstand und Ergebung: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft, 1970], Life Together, 1954 [Gemeinsames Leben, 1955].

3. Themes


Bonhoeffer’s own christology began to take definitive shape in his Habilitationsschrift, Act and Being. In this book, Bonhoeffer analyzes the epistemologies of transcendental and ontological philosophies in terms of the problems they pose for an understanding of revelation. Of particular significance is his assertion that transcendentalism is prominent in Barth’s ‘actualist’ theory of revelation (Gruchy 1991, 8). Barth argued that revelation is a product of God’s infinite freedom and thus a purely contingent act. It creates its own response, is not bound to anything, and God is free to suspend it at any time (8-9). Revelation as act means that God is always beyond human knowledge, escaping every human attempt to have God at its disposal. Barth felt that only by affirming revelation as act could one preserve the freedom and majesty of God against human attempts to domesticate the divine.

Bonhoeffer criticized Barth’s actualism because it made God so utterly free that God’s freedom became an abstraction (Woelfel 1970, 138). Moreover, such a stance did not take sufficient account of what God actually had done in Jesus Christ (Gruchy 1991, 9). For Bonhoeffer, Jesus Christ was not an event in God’s freedom; he was God placing Godself freely before and for humanity: "God is not free of man but for man. Christ is the Word of his freedom. God is there, which is to say: not in eternal non-objectivity but ‘haveable’, graspable in his Word within the Church" (AB 90). With Luther, Bonhoeffer maintained that God is always pro nobis, the God for us who gives Godself fully in the Incarnation (Gruchy 1991, 9). The debate over whether God fully gave Godself to humanity (Bonhoeffer) or partly withheld Godself even in the Incarnation (Barth) is the modern equivalent of the Reformation debate about whether the finite can contain the infinite (finitum capax infiniti) (Woelfel 1970, 138).

Bonhoeffer further developed his christology in his 1933 lectures and his book Christ the Center. During these years, Bonhoeffer argued that christology is not about the unanswerable question of ‘how’ did the eternal God relate to finite humanity, but about the question of ‘who’ is this person that addresses us as both God and humanity (Woelfel 1970, 141). For Bonhoeffer, the ‘who’ question looks for its answer solely in the flesh-and-blood Christ of the New Testament. What do we discover about Jesus Christ when we pose the ‘who’ question and look only to scripture for answers? For Bonhoeffer, we discover that

Christ is Christ not as Christ in himself, but in relation to me. His being Christ is his being pro me. This being pro me is in turn not meant to be understood … as an accident; it is meant to be understood as the essence, as the being of the person himself…Christ can never be thought of in his being in himself, but only in his relationship to me. That in turn means that Christ can only be conceived of existentially, viz. in the community (CC 47-48).

This passage summarizes the essence of Bonhoeffer’s christology: the very being of Christ is his being-for-humanity (Woelfel 1970, 145). In the non-religious interpretation of the later prison writings, Bonhoeffer maintains his vision of Christ as the man pro me but slightly changes his language: Christ’s being is "für-andere-da-sein" ("being there for others"). It is important to realize that the later non-religious interpretation of Jesus’ being as "being-there-for-others" is in no way a humanistic or ethical reduction of christology; rather, it is a natural expression of christological insights that Bonhoeffer already had in 1933.


Bonhoeffer’s understanding of ethics is inseparable from his christological understanding of reality. Bonhoeffer argued that in Christ, God had overcome the division of the world into secular and sacred spheres, and thus had brought all of reality under God’s control (Gruchy 1991, 33). Hence, the point of departure for ethics is not the reality of the self or the world, nor is it a set of standards and values. Instead, the beginning point of ethics is the reality of God as revealed in Christ. For Bonhoeffer, ethics understood in such terms is "the bold endeavor to speak about the way in which the form of Jesus Christ takes form in our world" (E 89). Like Christ, then, ethics is not a subject of abstract speculation; it requires concrete judgments and gives commands for which obedience is demanded.

Bonhoeffer’s christological orientation towards ethics was especially significant in his debate with the Christian apologists for Nazism. During the 1930s, these "German Christians" used a distorted version of Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine to justify the state as an "order of creation." According to this doctrine, the proper concern of the gospel is the inner person, the sphere where the kingdom of God reigns; the kingdom of the state, on the other hand, rules in the outer sphere, the realm of law, and is not subject to the gospel’s message. German Christians used this argument to justify devotion to race and fatherland as "orders of creation" to be obeyed until the final consummation (Woelfel 1970, 240).

For Bonhoeffer, the "orders of creation" argument was flawed because it could be used to justify any state of affairs as an order of creation. More importantly, the "orders of creation" doctrine was unbiblical: it supposes that one can separate a domain of life from God’s reconciliation in Christ. Bonhoeffer’s own solution to the problem was to understand different realms in terms of "orders of preservation" (242). All the orders of the world derive their value wholly from outside themselves, from Christ and the new creation. These orders only exist under the preservation of God as long as they are open to the revelation of Christ. Therefore, Bonhoeffer argued that "any ordercan be dissolved, and must be dissolved when it … no longer permits the proclamation of revelation" (NRS 166-167). Bonhoeffer’s doctrine, the spirit of which found embodiment in the Barmen Declaration of 1934, was clearly a judgment upon the Third Reich as an order that had closed itself to revelation.

Bonhoeffer stopped discussing ethics in terms of orders of preservation after 1933 because he felt that the decisive moment for dealing with the issue in these terms had already past (Woelfel 1970, 242). Partly in response to the increasing abuses of the Nazi state, the later pre-war Bonhoeffer came to espouse a radically eschatological ethic, an ethic of the purely "ultimate" for a church in crisis (243). This is the ethic found in The Cost of Discipleship, where ethical action is radical obedience to the concrete demands of the crucified Lord (taking the Sermon on the Mount quite literally).

After Germany declared war on Europe in 1939, Bonhoeffer renewed his interest in the penultimate problems in ethics. In the writings of the Ethics, Bonhoeffer affirms the importance of both ultimate ethics, which concerns the final consummation, and penultimate ethics, ethics for the concrete situation of the present world that continues to exist until the fulfillment of all things (243). The latter ethic must be reaffirmed because it is penultimate concerns that prepare or impede the reception of the ultimate message, God’s work in Christ. Thus, the church’s preaching of the Good News is inseparable from its responsibility to feed the hungry and plead the cause of the victims of injustice. For Bonhoeffer, the implications of this for the Christian in Germany were obvious: "Only he who cries out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian [chant]" (quoted from Woelfel 1970, 248).

Christianity without Religion

Bonhoeffer is perhaps most famous for his "Christianity without religion" project, the attempt to give a non-religious interpretation to Christian categories. Although Bonhoeffer showed signs of shifting towards a non-religious interpretation in the Ethics, the main texts of the Christianity without religion program come from the letters he wrote to Eberhard Bethge while in prison. These letters show Bonhoeffer’s struggle to understand Christianity’s identity in the modern world: "What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today" (LPP 279). For Bonhoeffer, Christianity’s identity was a problem because the world had "come of age;" that is, the world had become conscious of itself and the laws that governed its existence, and thus it did not need the trappings of religion any longer:

The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience – and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more (LPP 279).

In a world where people "simply cannot be religious," Bonhoeffer wondered if there still was a place for Christ, if Christ could be Lord of the religionless. Bonhoeffer’s attempt to say ‘Yes’ both to the modern world and to Christ as Lord was the motivation for the project that he called "religionless Christianity" (LPP 280).

To understand what Bonhoeffer meant to affirm by religionless Christianity, his concept of ‘religion’ must first be grasped. In continuity with Feuerbach, Bonhoeffer regarded religion as human dependence upon God at the boundaries of life. He gave specific content to this by defining religion more precisely as individualism (the psychological attitude of a subject) and a metaphysical system (Gruchy 1991, 38). Both aspects of religion are faulty: individualism promotes an un-Christian retreat from the world, and religion’s attempt to provide a secure metaphysical explanation of salvation enables people to escape the challenge of the gospel (Gruchy 1991, 38). Moreover, in a world "come of age," religion’s psychologism and metaphysical claims about God simply cannot be accepted. Therefore, Bonhoeffer saw religion as a genuine hindrance to true faith in Jesus Christ.

According to Bonhoeffer, the church has failed in its mission to the modern world because it was not able to separate the message of Christ from religious trappings. The church used God as a metaphysical deus ex machina, a God of the gaps that filled the holes of our knowledge. Bonhoeffer noticed that as secularism increasingly permeated the lives of modern people, this metaphysical God of the gaps was being pushed further away into irrelevance. The Church’s response was to stake out the inner life of the person for God, thus summoning up God to answer "ultimate" questions like death and guilt. For Bonhoeffer, this signaled a retreat into subjectivism, into the personal categories of sin, despair, and anxiety over against the objective work done by God in Jesus Christ. Moreover, it only affirmed a God found in weakness, not in strength, a God at the periphery of our existence, not the center.

The purpose of the non-religious interpretation, then, was to allow the gospel to address humans in a secular age, and to do so without them having to become ‘religious’. Bonhoeffer felt that this interpretation was actually most in line with the gospel of the flesh-and-blood Lord. For Bonhoeffer, religionless Christianity did not need to presuppose humanity’s wickedness to be relevant; rather, it met humans at the center of their lives, both in their joys and sufferings:

[God] must be recognized at the centre of life, not when we are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognized in life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (LPP 312).

Bonhoeffer planned to write a book that gave a non-religious interpretation of Christian concepts, but before he had the chance he was executed for his part in the attempt to assassinate Hitler. The outline for this book (see handout) contains some of Bonhoeffer’s most seminal thoughts on the issue, including hints at his non-religious interpretation of God, Christ, and the church . It is important to note that the fragments from the outline clearly show that Bonhoeffer’s non-religious interpretation was a consistent development from his earlier thought. This affirms that when Bonhoeffer said "religionless", he in no way went "Christless" or "Godless"; quite the contrary, christology was as central to the religionless interpretation of Christianity as it was to Bonhoeffer’s earlier works.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 1970. trans. from German (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1967). New York: Harper & Row.

Bethge, Eberhard, ed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures. 1986. trans. by John Bowden from the German Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bilder aus seinem Leben (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1986). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1962. Act and Being. Trans. Bernard Noble [from the German Akt und Sein (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1956)]. New York: Harper & Row. [Abbreviated AB.]

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1978 [1966]. Christ the Center. Trans. John Bowden with an Introduction by Edwin H. Robertson [from the German Christologie (in Gesammelte Schriften III, 166-242)]. New York: Harper & Row. [Abbreviated CC.]

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1964. The Communion of Saints. Trans. Ronald Smith [from the German Sanctorum Communio (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1960)]. New York: Harper & Row. [Abbreviated CS.]

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1963 [1949]. The Cost of Discipleship. [Trans. from the German Nachfolge (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1937).] New York: Collier Books. [Abbreviated CD.]

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1991. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ. Ed. and intro. John de Gruchy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. [This is an edited selection of primary texts.]

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995 [1955]. Ethics. Trans. by Neville Smith [from the 6th German edition of Ethik (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1949)]. New York: Simon & Schuster. [Abbreviated E.]

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1972 [1953]. Letters & Papers from Prison. Ed. Eberhard Bethge. [Trans of Widerstand und Ergebung: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1970).] New York: Collier Books. [Abbreviated LPP]

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1954. Life Together. Trans. with an introduction by John W. Doberstein [from Gemeinsames Leben (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1955)]. New York: Harper & Row. [Abbreviated LT.]

de Gruchy, John. 1991. “Introduction,” In  Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ. 1-43. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Woelfel, James W. 1970. Bonhoeffer’s Theology: Classical and Revolutionary. New York: Abingdon Press.

7. Internet Resources

Bonhoeffer documentary by Martin Doblmeier.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Reading Room (links to writings by and on Bonhoeffer maintained by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, Tyndale Seminary)

8. Related Topics

Barth, Karl (1886-1968)

Harnack, Adolf von (1851-1930)

Troeltsch, Ernst (1865-1923)


Edited by Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Matt McLaughlin (1999)


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