The matter of the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is at once straightforward and immensely complicated. About the man there is no question. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s flaws—and Charles Marsh’s masterly and comprehensive new biography Strange Glory reveals that there were more than is commonly supposed—the witness of his breathtakingly courageous opposition to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich leaves criticism disarmed.1 In the one great challenge of his life, he was magnificent. He behaved the way that the rest of us, in our most hopeful moments, like to imagine we would.

But Bonhoeffer is known to history not simply as a victim of Nazi horror but as a theologian of note. His appeal is startlingly ecumenical: He finds adherents across the Christian spectrum from conservative evangelicals to Lutherans (of various stripes) to liberal Protestants to celebrants of the death of God. Bonhoeffer himself was sympathetic to Catholicism—Karl Barth worried about his “nostalgia for Rome”—and he even came to insist, in Marsh’s words, on “equivalence before God of the church and the synagogue, between the body of Christ and the chosen people of Israel.”

But from such extravagant pluralism, can there be any coherence? Marsh suggests possible answers, but does so in a restrained and non-dogmatic fashion that seems appropriate to the evidence. He makes no attempt to conceal the conflicting impulses in Bonhoeffer’s thought, and thus provides ample resources for readers to arrive at conclusions at odds with his own. Outstanding biographies—and this is one—commonly receive acclaim as “definitive,” but it is difficult to attach that label to analysis of a man whose thought resists precise and settled definition.

It is odd that Bonhoeffer became a theologian in the first place. His family was large (he and his twin sister, Sabine, born in 1906, were the sixth and seventh of eight children), close-knit, and wealthy; it was also one in which religion played no serious part. The Bonhoeffers were by and large enlightened skeptics and humanists, and, following the lead of their father Karl, a distinguished psychiatrist and neurologist, they took with mostly tolerant bemusement thirteen-year-old Dietrich’s announcement of his intention to become a theologian.

Whatever their views of his career choice, they had to be impressed by his academic brilliance. In an intellectually distinguished family, Dietrich stood out. After undergraduate work at Tübingen, he earned his first doctorate in theology summa cum laude at the University of Berlin in 1927; Barth hailed his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, as a “theological miracle.” Three years later, at age twenty-four, he completed his second doctoral thesis, the Habilitationsschrift, which was published as Act and Being and which Marsh takes as “one of the great theological achievements of the twentieth century.” It is at the same time, he concedes, a dense, jargon-laden work of pure theology quite unlike anything else in the Bonhoeffer corpus.

Sanctorum Communio, however, reflected Bonhoeffer’s perennial Christological and ecumenical concerns. It focused not on abstract theology but on the sociology of the church, the lived life of faith: Its central claim was that “Christ exists as community.” It followed in the tradition of German Protestant liberalism as exemplified in the work of Adolf von Harnack, who had insisted that the simple original message of the gospel—God is love—had been obscured over the centuries by the growth of the institutional church and its deadening paraphernalia of doctrines and creeds.

Yet Bonhoeffer tempered that tradition by incorporating aspects of Karl Barth’s neo-orthodox critique of Protestant liberalism. In Barth’s reading, the liberals had led modern Christianity into a dead end of reductionist naturalism (dictated by the historical-critical method), loss of transcendent perspective, and the debilitating error of supposing that one could “speak of God by speaking of man in a loud voice.” Bonhoeffer hoped to reenergize liberalism with confessional seriousness and to moderate Barth’s insistence on God’s radical otherness by emphasis on Christ’s immanent presence in the believer’s consciousness and in the quotidian life of the church.

Possession of the habilitation qualified Bonhoeffer for a faculty position but did not guarantee it, and when none was immediately forthcoming, he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York for the academic year 1930–31.

It was to prove a life-altering experience. Union was the flagship seminary of liberal Protestantism in America, and Bonhoeffer found it an intellectual and theological desert. Academic theology in America had nothing of the rigor or sophistication of its German counterpart, and Union’s naive sense of cultural superiority appalled Bonhoeffer. The students, comfortable with a hazy version of William James’s philosophical pragmatism, were “completely clueless” about the basic issues of Christian dogmatics, and their theological grasp extended no further than unearned condescension toward fundamentalists. “There is no theology here,” Bonhoeffer shortly concluded. The problem was not so much that Union was theologically liberal, but that its liberalism was intellectually vacant.

The critique extended to the faculty. Reinhold Niebuhr was the best of a bad lot, and even his developing Christian realism struck Bonhoeffer as lacking in confessional richness and excessively preoccupied with political and social concerns. Niebuhr seemed, Bonhoeffer thought, to talk about “everything but God.” When Bonhoeffer wrote in a classroom essay that the “God of judgment” could only be known from the “God of justification,” Niebuhr protested that such a conception of grace was so transcendent as to lack “any ethical significance.” Bonhoeffer, faithful to his Lutheran training, thought Niebuhr to have his theological priorities out of order.

But while Bonhoeffer’s postdoctoral year began in disillusion, it did not end that way. His Sunday morning church-shopping—interestingly, he had seldom attended church in Germany—took him at first to the liberal Protestant mainline equivalents of Union and there he found the same emptiness: Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermons at Riverside Church proclaimed everything “except the gospel of Jesus Christ.” But it led him finally to Adam Clayton Powell Sr.’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and a joyous, full-throated expression of Christian worship. Powell combined traditional doctrines of sin and grace with a poignant invocation of God’s special concern for the poor and excluded. A road trip through the American South introduced Bonhoeffer to the horrors of Jim Crow but also to black churches where the gospel was preached “with conviction and power” and “an enormous intensity of feeling.” For the rest of his life, Bonhoeffer carried with him his collection of recordings and sheet music of Negro spirituals.

Bonhoeffer also came to soften his harsh judgment of American liberal Protestantism. Niebuhr and other faculty members at Union opened up to him the activist world of the Social Gospel: tenement ministries, trade-union work, concern for civil liberties, political radicalism, and the whole vast panoply of efforts to achieve the Kingdom of God on earth (though Niebuhr increasingly withdrew himself from the latter). Bonhoeffer continued to insist that the Social Gospel tradition severely wounded itself with its repudiation of historical theology, but he came to respect the commitment of men and women for whom the gospel required a response of genuine, self-giving concern for those at the margins of society.

Looking back, Bonhoeffer came to understand that his year in America had initiated a transformation in his theology “from the phraseological to the real.” He rethought his view of the “God of justification”: Grace was no longer a transcendent conception but, as Marsh puts it, “a divine verdict requiring obedience and action.” Bonhoeffer’s revised estimate of the relation between theology and ethics became clear in an exchange with Barth shortly after Bonhoeffer had returned to Germany. Barth’s lectures in a summer seminar on Christian doctrine seemed to Bonhoeffer to shortchange the social demands of the gospel. Christian theology had no responsibility to transform society, Barth argued, while Bonhoeffer now insisted on the duty of believers to help repair a broken world.

The exchange recapitulated the one between Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr at Union—except that Bonhoeffer had switched sides. He began to suspect that there were strengths in American Christianity’s lived piety from which German theologians, for all their superior scholarly sophistication, had much to learn.

Meanwhile, Bonhoeffer’s career languished. He never received a tenured university appointment. Lacking precise direction, he cobbled together positions as an unpaid adjunct at his graduate alma mater, a chaplaincy at Berlin Technical University, youth ministry at a working-class Lutheran parish, and ecumenical work for a forerunner of the World Council of Churches. His politics, such as they were, moved vaguely left—including a drift toward pacifism—although he neither then nor later constructed anything like a systematic political ideology.

Bonhoeffer’s unfocused existence ended abruptly on January 30, 1933, the day Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany. Just two days later, Bonhoeffer was on Berlin radio denouncing the f ührer principle, the idea that sovereign political authority resides in the person of the leader. But virtually from the beginning Bonhoeffer’s critique transcended the political: Hitler was the Antichrist, Nazi ideology heresy, and opposition to both a theological imperative grounded in Christological commitment. From this point until his death in a Nazi concentration camp twelve years later, Bonhoeffer defined his life and thought over against Adolf Hitler.

This also came to mean definition over against the greater part of the German Evangelical Church, Lutheran, Reformed, and Union. (Marsh, following Bonhoeffer, has next to nothing to say about German Catholicism.) Protestant faculties and congregations came under the sway of the Deutsche Christen, the German Christians, who pursued their vision of a purified Volkskirche, a national church based on common blood, in which the German people were the new Israel supplanting God’s ancient covenant with the Jews. In the revised understanding of Scripture, the coming of Jesus Christ—a figure of heroic Teutonic virtues who was not in his intrinsic being a Jew—marked the disinheritance of the Jewish people. The German Christians affirmed both the f ührer principle and the Reichstag’s Aryan paragraph of April 7, 1933, which decreed the removal of Jews from civil service, the publicly funded churches included. The Aryan paragraph made no exception in any sphere for the 350,000 Christians of Jewish descent. In endorsing the anti-Jewish measures, many German Protestants saw themselves, not all that implausibly, as fulfilling the work of Martin Luther.

Bonhoeffer’s calls to resistance fell mostly on deaf ears. The Protestant establishment caved. And even most of those unpersuaded by Nazi appeals resisted Bonhoeffer’s radical argument that the Aryan paragraph was a matter constitutive of the church’s very being: A church that excluded Jews, Bonhoeffer declared, was a church without Jesus Christ and thus no church at all. Acceptance of the Aryan paragraph would be grounds for schism.

Frustrated by the timidity of his fellow dissenters—some of whom, Barth prominent among them, later conceded he had been right—Bonhoeffer in November 1933 accepted an eighteen-month assignment to serve two German Lutheran congregations in the London suburbs. He played no direct role, therefore, in the developments of the following spring: issuance of the Barmen Declaration, repudiating the intrusion of Nazi doctrines into the Evangelical (or Reich) Church by the German Christians, and the simultaneous formation of the Confessing Church as an alternative ecclesial body.

But despite official warnings that he risked charges of high treason, Bonhoeffer devoted himself without equivocation or compromise to the dissenting cause. He signed on to Barmen and worked assiduously, if with little success, to gain recognition for the Confessing Church in international ecumenical circles. Not surprisingly, he framed the choice between the two German Protestant churches in the starkest possible terms: One was the true church, the other the cult of Antichrist. “Those who knowingly separate themselves from the Confessing Church in Germany” he insisted, “separate themselves from salvation.” It seems safe to say that no theologian in Germany matched the single-minded passion with which Bonhoeffer resisted the importation of National Socialist ideology into Protestant church life.

To help provide for the future of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer established a seminary for prospective pastors at Finkenwalde in northern Germany that operated from April 1935 until the Gestapo shut it down in September 1937. Bonhoeffer envisioned for his students a “new monasticism” that would combine orthodox doctrine, practical training, and a communal life of “uncompromising discipleship” modeled on the Sermon on the Mount. While there, he delivered a series of lectures, finally published as The Cost of Discipleship, which Marsh summarizes as “a polemic against the Lutheran tendency to portray faith as a refuge from obedience.” Bonhoeffer stressed instead “lived devotion to Jesus,” the obligations of the life of faith, the assumption of personal responsibility for the shape of social conditions. The lectures emphasized “costly grace”: When Christ calls disciples, Bonhoeffer warned, he bids them “come and die.” The liberation of the gospel is inseparable from the burden of the cross.

Bonhoeffer considered the Finkenwalde years the happiest of his life, but Marsh indicates that his “experiment in community” was less than fully successful. Most students admired Bonhoeffer and thought him theologically astute, but many found him a sometimes whimsical leader: rules made and disregarded in the moment, conflicting demands and assertions, self-exemption from requirements of manual labor.

The personal criticisms of Bonhoeffer were not peculiar to his students. He was, by general consensus of those who knew him, an unusually able and commanding man, but not always a likable one. He was fully aware of his formidable intellectual ability, and could be condescending and dismissive toward those less gifted. Not a few people regarded him as arrogant and even pompous. He was a lifelong dandy, and concern for his wardrobe—and the wardrobes of others—consumed an inordinate amount of his time. In social relations he was charming but not infrequently immature. (He was, it should be remembered, not yet forty when he died.) He relied all his life on contributions from his father and care and tending from his mother. All in all, Marsh concludes, Bonhoeffer’s “emotional resources” were unequal to his intellectual ones.

Finkenwalde was precious to Bonhoeffer not least because there he met and almost immediately began an intimate friendship with Eberhard Bethge, a student three years his junior who some three decades later became his authoritative biographer. The intimacy never became physical, but Marsh demonstrates clearly that their intense friendship was, at least for Bonhoeffer, a displaced romance. They spent much of the next eight years living and traveling together, kept joint bank and household accounts, sent joint Christmas cards and gifts, and, in their frequent times in Berlin, shared a bedroom in the Bonhoeffer family home.

The relationship was unequal: Bonhoeffer relentlessly pushed for a deeper spiritual connection than his friend could, or would, provide. Bonhoeffer wanted a soul mate, but Bethge held back. There was never an expression of sexual desire between them, and Bonhoeffer, a man who distrusted introspection, may never fully have sorted out the precise nature of his passionate longings.

Up to and beyond meeting Bethge, Bonhoeffer had never had a girlfriend. But in early 1943, shortly before his arrest and imprisonment by the Gestapo and—almost surely not coincidentally—shortly after Bethge had announced his engagement to Bonhoeffer’s seventeen-year-old niece, he rather suddenly acquired a fiancée. Bonhoeffer’s courtship of Maria von Wedemeyer had, as Marsh puts it, an “ethereal” quality. He had met her through her mother, a widow, and had spent time visiting them at their family estate in Pomerania in June 1942. He was thirty-six; she was eighteen. Bonhoeffer found her charming, and there were more visits and correspondence. Then in late November came the announcement of Bethge’s engagement. In early January Bonhoeffer proposed, and Wedemeyer accepted, by mail. He entered Tegel prison less than three months later.

Theirs was, as Marsh says, an “engagement of the spirit.” The extent of their physical contact was a kiss on the cheek during one of her prison visits, and that in the presence of the public prosecutor. On another visit, he took her hand briefly and then withdrew it. “You don’t like being romantic, do you?,” she wrote afterwards. At his death he suggested that Maria might select some item among his belongings to “cherish as a remembrance.” The majority of his possessions, and all the ones he valued most, he left to Bethge.

Bonhoeffer’s engagement was far on the horizon at the closing of Finkenwalde in 1937, and public concerns took precedence over personal matters. The Confessing Church faced both persecution from the government and internal disarray. By 1938 the great majority of the clergy, taking their cue from an unquestioning reading of the Pauline injunction that those in authority derive their authority from God (Romans 13:1), had taken the oath of allegiance to Hitler. Those who refused faced either arrest or conscription into the army. Despite Bonhoeffer’s attempts to broaden the church’s horizons, its opposition to the Nazis had always focused primarily on its own institutional autonomy, and by 1939 it found itself isolated, decimated, and largely irrelevant.

Bonhoeffer increasingly turned his energies from the church-based to the secular resistance. In February 1938 he had his first meeting with the anti-Hitler conspiracy centered in the Abwehr, the office of military intelligence. As Nazi terror heightened, friends of Bonhoeffer outside Germany worried about his safety, and in spring 1939 Reinhold Niebuhr arranged another year for him in New York. The offer came just in time. Bonhoeffer, who had sworn never to serve in the military, received his call-up notice in May. In early June he set sail for America. Almost immediately upon arrival in New York, however, he realized he had made a terrible mistake. If he hoped to be involved in the making of a post-Hitler Germany, he now understood, he would have to share in his nation’s present suffering. On July 27, just six weeks after he had disembarked, he was on his way back to his native country.

On his return, Bonhoeffer took a position with the Abwehr that exempted him from conscription. Much of his activity over the next three years remains unclear, but he began work as a double agent sometime following the outbreak of war in September 1939. For the leaders of the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer’s duties as courier to the British government covered his assigned operations as a Nazi spy, while he in fact, as part of the anti-Hitler conspiracy within the agency, was passing on to the western Allies classified material and urging them (utterly without success) to work with the conspirators toward a coup d’état and forge a lenient separate peace.

As part of the same subterfuge, Bonhoeffer purportedly kept watch for German military intelligence over the activities of the international church movement, while he was actually trying (again without success) to get the ecumenical churches to withdraw their recognition of the Reich Church as the only legitimate Protestant organization in Germany. Meanwhile the Gestapo, suspicious of Bonhoeffer and in competition with the Abwehr to control state intelligence, kept him under close surveillance. (He was by now banned from preaching, teaching, and publishing.)

Bonhoeffer’s theology evolved in conjunction with his deepening anti-Hitler activities. In his writings—primarily Ethics, which he worked on sporadically and which remained unfinished at his death—he wrestled with the implications of the fact that his colleagues in the resistance included more humanists and atheists than fellow Christians. The classic tradition of Protestantism taught that to find Christ one first had to reach awareness of oneself as a sinner. Bonhoeffer came now to conclude that one found Christ by seeking righteousness, and while the Christological emphasis in his thought persisted, it became more inclusive in conception, with ample provision for secular agents of grace.

Bonhoeffer wrote now of “natural piety” and “unconscious Christianity,” and the category of “the righteous” extended beyond the boundaries of the church to take in all who contended for justice, truth, and human decency. What a post-metaphysical age required were “aristocrats of virtue,” men and women of conscience whose ultimate provenance was the God who orders all things but whose immediate inspiration might or might not have religious content.

Marsh suggests that some popular accounts have ascribed to Bonhoeffer a more central role in the German resistance than is the case. He took part in one unambiguous success: helping fourteen Jews escape Berlin in September 1941 and make it to safety in Switzerland. On the other hand, his diplomatic efforts, as we have seen, came to nothing. Moreover, he had no active involvement in any of the attempts to kill Hitler—there were, Marsh reports, over 100 of them—even though that was the crime for which he was hanged. (Strictly speaking, Bonhoeffer did not die a martyr; he was executed not for practicing his faith but for abetting attempted murder.) But while not a direct participant, he knew many people who were involved in assassination plots, and he blessed their efforts.

That benediction was deeply ambivalent. Bonhoeffer knew that the efforts to kill Hitler contradicted his creed of nonviolence. He lived with that contradiction; he did not attempt to resolve it. He adopted, as Marsh notes, a form of Niebuhr’s Christian realism. In a situation of profound moral dislocation, there was no escaping complicity in evil. Violent resistance or tacit acceptance of monstrous cruelty: There was guilt either way. In the end Bonhoeffer chose to sin for the sake of righteousness. He would, in Luther’s provocative phrase, sin boldly.

Bonhoeffer’s arrest on April 4, 1943, came as part of a general roundup of dissidents following an attempt on March 13 by conspirators to detonate a bomb on a plane carrying Hitler. The original charges against him—avoiding military service, giving aid to the Confessing Church—were relatively minor, and, after an initial period of solitary confinement, he lived for the next eighteen months in conditions that, while certainly unpleasant, were not intolerable.

To the limited extent possible, Bonhoeffer served as unofficial pastor to his fellow prisoners and even the Tegel prison’s guards and staff. He prayed for the members of his new “congregation,” wrote them notes of assurance and consolation, and maintained as far as he could a liturgical discipline of “meditation, thanksgiving, intercessory prayer, praise, and lament.” He minimized his own suffering and kept up an appearance of confident good spirits.

With many hours to himself, Bonhoeffer read voraciously and wrote prolifically. Much of the latter, gathered posthumously and published as Letters and Papers from Prison, constitutes the most controversial and—for orthodox Christians—the most troubling element in his legacy. In a situation of personal exigency and the apparent failure of a complicit church and its traditional theology, Bonhoeffer felt the need to rethink everything from the ground up. For him, or so it would seem, the failure of the church and its talk about God was more than an event in history: It was an ultimate verdict.

The “post-metaphysical” hints of his Ethics evolved into full realization of a “world come of age”: The only alternative for the church to utter obsolescence was a “religionless Christianity” in which the witness of faith would be limited to “prayer and righteous action.” And “prayer” here seems dubious, since intellectual integrity in a world stripped of metaphysics required discarding “the working hypothesis of God”—living the entirety of life “as if there were no God.”

Marsh attempts (as have others before him) to cushion the shock of Bonhoeffer’s words. These are not, he insists, the “post-theistic ruminations” that death-of-God theologians take them to be. They constitute merely “a sober assessment of the gospel’s political captivity” in a desperate time. That seems, unusually for Marsh, an inadequate and evasive reading. (It is part of his larger, more tenable, project: to present a portrait of a Bonhoeffer as orthodox in his faith as the evidence will allow.)

Bonhoeffer’s biblical pondering in prison focused heavily on the Old Testament (he went through it, he said, two-and-a-half times) and it led him to further revisionist understandings of the faith. The idea of “saving souls” was irrelevant to the biblical message: “Isn’t God’s righteousness and kingdom on earth the center of everything? . . . What matters is not the beyond but this world, how it is created and preserved, is given laws, reconciled, and renewed.”

In contrast to his earlier attempt to find faith “by trying to achieve spiritual perfection,” Bonhoeffer now sought “full this-worldliness” and a God “beyond human necessity.” To have faith is simply, like Jesus, to be there for others, especially “the distressed and the excluded.”

By this point the question arises: What real work is “God” or “Jesus” doing here? Why, one wonders, clutter what seems essential unbelief with empty anachronisms? Better—more honest anyway—to let “full this-worldliness” be fully of this world, without unnecessary embellishment. In any case, Marsh’s claim that Bonhoeffer’s theology in his last years remained “essentially orthodox” would seem to depend on the assumption that he somehow did not mean what he in fact said.

And perhaps in the end he did not, or at least not fully. As with his ethical paradox of affirming pacifism while condoning tyrannicide, the incarcerated Bonhoeffer lived in dual theological worlds with incompatible assumptions and contradictory vocabularies. The austere neo-agnosticism of the Letters and Papers coexisted with the traditional Scripture, prayers, hymns, and messages of assurance that marked his personal meditations and his relations with others. And in the last weeks and months before his death it was the latter that prevailed.

The death itself was likely horrific. Bonhoeffer’s fate was sealed in September 1944 when a Gestapo agent discovered secret papers linking him to the conspirators involved in the July 20 plot to kill Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters. On April 9, 1945, on direct orders from the Führer, Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp with other members of the Abwehr spy ring. Marsh’s evidence indicates that he died not, as has been commonly depicted, in the relative dignity of the gallows, but dangling by rope on a flexible hook, his toes barely in contact with the ground, in a prolonged agony of suffocation.

Religionless Christianity had no place for individual hopes for salvation or for metaphysical concerns with creed and dogma, and it was confident that “people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.” Yet in his last letter to Maria von Wedemeyer, Bonhoeffer spoke of his gratitude for “God’s mercy and forgiveness” and of his assurance that his sins were covered “by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.” And in his very last message he told Eberhard Bethge that he died “in the certainty of forgiveness and in the hope of eternal life.”

What, then, does one make of the import of the Letters and Papers? Nothing for certain, except maybe the theological equivalent of the jurisprudential wisdom that hard cases make for bad law. Theology constructed in extremis is not the theology that can sustain the church and its faith over time. Remove metaphysics from Christianity and what remains is no longer, in any intelligible sense, the Christian faith.

As for Bonhoeffer himself, one can in good faith believe that he died in the grace of the second naiveté that beckons on the far side of skepticism. But in the shadow of his contradictions one does so, to echo the words of the service for Christian burial, in a less sure and certain hope than one would like.

1Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh; Knopf, 544 pages, $35.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 2, on page 4
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