Lauren and Mikaela--identical twins living on opposite coasts--blog about the story of life and their adventures in faith.


The Calling

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Part One

As inhabitants of the 21st century, we stand on the shoulders of more than 40 million martyrs who have given their lives for God[1]. One such martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, lived only seventy years ago, and his legacy to the world continues to this day in the story of his life, his sermons, his letters, and his many books. Imagine now that you are comfortably seated next to a close friend of Dietrich's--perhaps Kathe van Horn, his beloved childhood governess--who tells you the tales of his early years as you browse a scrapbook of his life.
"Ahh, this is Dietrich with his twin sister, Sabine. He could be a mischevious one, that boy, though he looks quite angelic in the picture. But he had a heart of gold and loved Sabine like no other." She pauses and laughs, recollecting a particular episode. "I remember a time--they must have been about six, when there was a dragonfly flitting about. Paula Bonhoeffer told me later that he said to her, 'Look, Mother! There is a creature over the water! But don't be afraid, I will protect you!'"

"Are these the Bonhoeffer children?" You ask.

"Yes--they're all there but Susanne, the youngest. There's Dietrich with his mother's golden hair, second from the left. Such bright children they were. No surprise, too, considering their parents. Karl Bonhoeffer was the preeminent psychiatrist and neurologist in Germany. Mrs. Bonhoeffer came from a long line of impressive ancestors: an aunt who served as a lady-in-waiting to the Crown Princess Victoria, her father a chaplain to Kaiser Wilhelm II, her grandfather a famous theologian appointed to a post by Goethe, and another grandfather was an artist and a count. Mrs. Bonhoeffer's mother took piano lessons from Liszt and Clara Schumann, and passed her love of music on to her daughter. Mrs. Bonhoeffer was a wonderful Christian lady, she was--she taught all of the children at home until about 1913, when they moved into Berlin."

Kathe sighs a bit at the next picture. "There's Dietrich on the left there. How World War I changed them all. They lost Walter to that war, and the country lost its dignity. It was a hard time for them all. Nevertheless, they got through it, for sure. They had no choice! I always said those children seemed destined to build upon their ancestors’ greatness: in their beautiful home, first in Breslau, then in Berlin; in their careful cultivation of humility and unpretentiousness; in their love for music and fine arts; and in Mr. Bonhoeffer's demand for clear, logical, controlled thinking and dialogue. Every child was exposed to the best Germany had to offer in friends, travel, education, and culture. They were bound to be remarkable."

You wonder, "Was Dietrich very different from the others?"

Kathe chuckles. "Not really. But he certainly distinguished himself when he announced his intentions to be a theologian! It was a dangerous thing to make public in a family that would question his every motive, pick apart his qualifications, and challenge his choice."

“It was very rare for a young man of this academic elite to decide in favor of the study of theology. The study of theology, and the profession of theologian, were not highly respected in those circles. In a society whose ranks were still clearly discernable, the university theologians stood rather apart, academically and socially[2].”
Kathe continued, "In only three years, Karl-Friedrich, one of Dietrich’s three older brothers, was appointed to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where he worked as a physicist with the likes of Albert Enstein and succeeded in splitting the atom. This genius, who received invitations from all over the world to study and work, was especially displeased with his brother’s choice of the humble profession of theology.

"But once Dietrich had decided a thing, it was decided—he probably had mulled over the idea for many years before daring to announce it to his family. In fact, one time he said, 'From the time I was thirteen years old it was clear to me that I would study theology. Only music caused me to waver during the past two years[3].' He was certainly an accomplished pianist--could have made a career of concertizing and teaching if he had wanted to."

"Wasn't he handsome in his college days?" Kathe asks, looking at the next picture with some sadness. "He spent a year at Tübingen, and the rest of his time at Berlin University. He achieved his doctorate at the age of 21! I never could have done that...but of course, I was inordinately proud of him, and kept up on his comings and goings as best I could.  

"I remember one summer--1924, I think--Dietrich and his brother Klaus spent in Rome. My but they had stories to tell when they came back! He was especially intrigued by the Catholic church, I remember him telling me. Now, mind you, he wasn't about to become Catholic. But he was honest enough to point out what the Catholics were doing right and bold enough to point out their error.

“It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Catholic church’s value for European culture and for the whole world….With admirable power, it has understood how to maintain unity in diversity, to gain the love and respect of the masses, and to foster a strong sense of community….But it is exactly because of this greatness that we have serious reservations. Has this world [of the Catholic church] really remained the church of Christ?...Has it not blocked the only path to salvation? Yet no one can ever obstruct the way to God. The church still has the Bible, and as as long as she has it we can still believe in the holy Christian church[4].” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"Did he begin to teach after he graduated?" You ask.

"Well, not yet. He was too young even to qualify! But he was a busy one, that boy," Kathe continued. "He ministered to a German congregation in Barcelona, Spain, qualified for lecturing at Berlin University, and then traveled to America. It was there that his life changed forever. He came back from America a much different Dietrich than when he left. While he was in New York, he studied at the Union Theological Seminary, but that certainly didn't impress him."

“There is no theology here,” he said. “They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students…are completely clueless…they are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level[5].”

"What did he think of the churches?"

Kathe pauses to recollect. "Honey, he had the same opinion of American churches as he did of the university...until he happened upon the black churches, that is. He felt right at home there with Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., the pastor of one of those churches. Rich doctrine and a passionate and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ--that man had it all. Suddenly, Bonhoeffer, the stoic theologian who steadfastly defended Biblical doctrine and held to a Biblical worldview had to face a hard truth: 'I know that at that time I turned the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage for myself[6],' he once said. In fact, I don't know but that he was saved after his time there in America."

You question, "Did he get some sight-seeing in while he was in the States?"

"Did he?" Kathe laughs long and hard. "He had so many escapades he wrote us about. Driving all the way to Florida and then taking a boat to Cuba. Trying to learn to drive--he must have failed that driver's test test three times! Finally, he and some friends took a cross-country trip to Mexico so they could see the Catholic situation there."

"Eventually, though, he came back to us. That picture is of him in 1932 with his boys--his confirmation class that he taught and loved. I also remember, not long after he returned, a sermon he preached that caused quite an uproar. It was during a sermon on the German patriotic day of Reformation Sunday, and Bonhoeffer delivered a scathing challenge to the church on Revelation 2:4-5."

“Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.”
"Bonhoeffer condemned the congregation for their festivites when the church itself was in such dire straits. '"We do not see that this Church is no longer the Church of Luther," he said. He called it "unpardonable frivolity and arrogance" for them to blithely appropriate Luther’s famous words, "Here I stand, I can do no other," for their own ends—as if these words applied to them and the Lutheran church of their day….He seemed to want to warn everyone to wake up and stop playing church[7].'"

Kathe stopped, unwilling to go on. Perhaps it was because she knew that on that day in 1932, with the Nazi party already looming as the second largest political party in Germany, Bonhoeffer already sensed the impending terror descending upon the church and Christians of Germany. While he may not have been ready, he was certainly prepared—He had God on his side, and that was enough.

[1] Long, Justin. More Martyrs Now Than Then? Examining the Real Situation of Martyrdom, John Mark Ministries, 
[2] Gerhard von Rad in I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Zimmerman, Wolf-Dieter, and Ronald G. Smith, editors, translated by Kathe G. Smith (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 177.
[3] The Young Bonhoeffer: 1918-1927, vol. 9, Dietrich Bohoeffer Works, translated and edited Hans Pfeifer et al. (New York: Fortress Press, 2002), 60.

[4] The Young Bonhoeffer: 1918-1927, vol. 9, Dietrich Bohoeffer Works, translated and edited Hans Pfeifer et al. (New York: Fortress Press, 2002), 528-529.
[5] Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, vol. 10, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, edited Clifford J. Green, translated Douglas W. Stott (New York: Fortress Press, 2008), 265-66.
[6] Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, revised edition, editors Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: Harper One, 1995), 384.
[7] Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010, 122.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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  1. I love reading your blog! I've nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award :)

  2. I have read the book by Eric Metaxas, I really like it. Bonhoeffer was an amazing man, we can learn so much from him, about God and politics. History repeats itself, I pray we can learn from Bonhoeffer before it's too late.

  3. Great post!
    I have been meaning for awhile to start reading Eric Metaxes' book, "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy". If you've read it,would you recommend it?

    Shelbi from Texas

  4. Sterlingsop--wow, thanks! I just visited your blog to check it out. We'll get to tag in the next month.

    TC--you are so right. It is amazing all the parallels one can see from Bonhoeffer's time in Germany to our time in America. And his analysis of the American seminaries, churches, and doctrine is so true and dismal, it hurts!

    Shelbi--I have read it! It is the inspiration behind this series, and I plan to review the book in depth in part three of this series. So stay tuned. ;-)

  5. First time visitor. I truly enjoyed the post! Thanks. :)

  6. Rumpydog--thanks for taking the time to read and comment! I'm so glad you did.

    Brandy--thanks so much! It's a bit longer than my usual posts, so I'm glad you made it to the end and enjoyed it.


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