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Podcast: The Life and Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Stephen Nichols)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Bonhoeffer's Impact

In today's episode, Stephen Nichols discusses the remarkable life, tragic death and enduring legacy of the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life

Stephen J. Nichols

An accessible tour of the life and work of Germany’s famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book explores the nature of fellowship, the costliness of grace, and the necessity of obedience.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:09 - The Many Facets of Bonhoeffer

Matt Tully
Stephen, thank you so much for joining me again on The Crossway Podcast.

Stephen Nichols
It’s my pleasure. I always enjoy our conversations, and I’m certainly looking forward to this one.

Matt Tully
For those of us who aren’t as familiar with who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, I wonder if you could just start off by telling us a little bit about who he was, when he lived, and where he lived. Then, just very briefly, why is he so famous?

Stephen Nichols
Probably the thing most people know about Bonhoeffer, if they know anything about him, is his death. He was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in April of 1945. The timing is crucial. He was hanged literally just a few weeks before that particular concentration camp was liberated by the Allied forces. He was executed by direct orders of Hitler himself in what turned out to be the final weeks and days of Hitler’s life as the Third Reich and the Nazi regime fell defeated in World War II. Before that he was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, scholar, writer, and led just a delightful life—a short life. He was thirty-nine years old when he died. For theologians, they’re just getting started in their forties; he’s dead at thirty-nine. He had a fascinating last. He was born in Berlin and was a Berliner most of his life. He was born in 1906 and, as I mentioned, he died in 1945. Probably a fact that a lot of people don’t know about him is he had a twin sister, which I always thought was just a sweet piece of the Bonhoeffer story.

Matt Tully
Those kinds of facts or insights about people’s lives can be so interesting because sometimes when it comes to famous people, intellectually we know they’re people just like us, but when you get those little bits you start to think about them as real humans.

Stephen Nichols
I think that’s so true, Matt. I think that so often, especially with our church history figures, they come to us as encyclopedia articles. They’re just so flat.

Matt Tully
I’m sure there are some encyclopedia articles that you have written.

Stephen Nichols
Maybe! But they’re so flat and you don’t think of them as brothers and sons and husbands. Bonhoeffer wasn’t married. He did have a fiance and hopefully we can get into that and talk about that story. There was a brief time in 1939 where, through some of his American contacts, they had arranged for Bonhoeffer to come to America. The plan was for him to be safe here through the impending war. When Bonhoeffer got to America, he knew it was a mistake. He knew he needed to be back with his people, so he immediately made plans to return. On the return he had to go through Britain to get back to Germany. His twin was married to a Jewish man, and so through Bonhoeffer’s family contacts they had left Germany ahead of World War II and they were living in Britain. I just think of that moment that Bonhoeffer was able to spend with his twin sister in the courtyard behind their flat in London, and then he went to Germany and it was the last time they saw each other. So, there is a sense in which, as we understand these church history folks as people, we can really begin to connect with them and really see how they can help us in our attempts to be faithful disciples in this moment in which we live.

Matt Tully
Beyond the tragic events of his death, Bonhoeffer is well-known as playing a critical and leading role in the German Confessing Church during this time period. Help us understand: What was that church denomination? What were they all about? What role did he play in that?

Stephen Nichols
This is a great question. He comes from a family that is not very—just to give you the big context—from a family that is not very religious. His father was a psychology professor at Berlin, sort of a pioneer in the field of early psychology and psychiatry. There was a bit of renown and prestige and some wealth, but they were not a religious family. When he’s twelve years old, he comes out to the family salon where they have the piano and so forth, and he announces I’m going to be a theologian. I always loved that. He doesn’t say he’s going to be a pastor or a church leader; he says I’m going to be a theologian. Where does this come from? He goes off to Berlin to study and he receives his PhD before his twenty-first birthday, and he ends up getting doctorates both in philosophy and in theology. He is obviously a very capable theologian and begins an academic career teaching theology and teaching Bible. Of course, all of this is going to be made incredibly difficult as the Nazi regime comes into power in the early 1930s, around 1933. The German National Lutheran Church basically endorses the Nazi party.

Matt Tully
This is the state church?

Stephen Nichols
This is the state church that Bonhoeffer would have been licensed to teach theology by and would have been a member of, and the state church endorses the Nazi party and they become known as the Reich Kirche—the Church of the Reich. Of course, Bonhoeffer is opposed to this and a group is opposed to this, so they immediately form what is called the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer becomes a very crucial part of it. They set about to write a doctrinal statement, and this confession of the Confessing Church ends up getting changed and edited and so forth. Bonhoeffer was the original architect of it, but it gets sort of taken over and ends up emerging as the Barmen Declaration, which some people might be familiar with from the city of Barmen. Bonhoeffer was a very crucial figure in this, and, of course, these were illegal churches and these were illegal pastorates. They needed a seminary, but all of this needed to be underground. They appointed five seminaries, the largest of which met at Finkenwalde, and Bonhoeffer was appointed the director of that underground seminary at Finkenwalde until it was shut down by the Gestapo. This is all happening in the mid-1930s, and then once it’s shut down by the Gestapo, they get spread out and Bonhoeffer figures out ways to continue to meet with his students and continue to teach them and train them. All of this is happening underground with this Confessing Church as the Nazis continue to rise in power and as World War II looms on the horizon.

Matt Tully
One of the most amazing things about his story is just how this is this espionage, spy, thriller dynamic, but it’s almost pastoral espionage. It’s pretty amazing to think about the things that they did in order to continue to teach true theology and teach the Bible in the face of this massive compromise on behalf of the state church.

Stephen Nichols
In the late 1930s, Bonhoeffer has protection. He has brothers and brothers-in-law who are highly placed, and one is an officer in the Abwehr, which was the military intelligence. Much of the Abwehr were opposed to the Nazis. In fact, the Gestapo was sort of set up as a competing organization against the Abwehr. There were a number in key positions in Germany that opposed Hitler and opposed the Nazi regime and opposed the Gestapo and worked within as a resistance movement. This all culminates in what everybody knows as the Valkyrie plot, and, of course, the movie has memorialized that. This is the group of people that Bonhoeffer had associations with. In 1940 he becomes an agent—a spy—for the Abwehr. But it’s largely cover for him to do his church work. It’s all arranged through his brother-in-law Dohnanyi, and it enables Bonhoeffer to travel and be able to carry on his church work as a spy. So yes, it’s a very fascinating and intriguing story.

10:23 - A Key Architect for the Barmen Declaration

Matt Tully
I want to return to Operation Valkyrie and his involvement in that plot to assassinate Hitler, but before we get to that, you mentioned a few minutes ago this Barmen Declaration. That’s another one of these pillars in his story, and it’s really a significant thing that touches on other prominent theologians from Germany at the time as well. What was that declaration that he helped write and sign? What role did that play in the broader story?

Stephen Nichols
The Barmen Declaration is a very important document in the twentieth century. It establishes a clear call for the church to not be subjugated to the state or a servant of the state. That was precisely what was happening with the Reich Kirche. It was a way to promote Nazism and the Nazi regime. These theologians saw it for what it was and they knew what the church’s calling was—to be faithful to God and obedient to God’s law, and if obeying God’s law put them at odds with the law of the state, then so be it. We obey God rather than man. It was a definite line in the sand and a declaration of the church’s independence from the state. It also was a way of calling the state to be the state in its God-ordained role as an agent of justice and righteousness. It was a very powerful document. A key person in it is also Karl Barth. So, that’s the Barmen Declaration. The theological confession of the Confessing Church was a document that Bonhoeffer was the key architect of, and that document is basically a reiteration of the Augsburg Confession, which, of course, is the historic confession of Lutheranism.

Matt Tully
Written originally by Martin Luther—is that correct?

Stephen Nichols
Written by Luther and also by Melanchthon, and then affirmed at Augsburg as sort of the crowning achievement of the German Reformation and the reformation of the church. These are very important documents to basically restore the soul of the German church—the theological soul and theological commitment of the German church at really it’s darkest hour.

Matt Tully
What were the implications for those who signed that declaration and later that theological statement? In doing so were they putting themselves in the crosshairs of the Nazis, so to speak?

Stephen Nichols
Yes. There were lists, and Bonhoeffer was on the list. He was banned from teaching; that was the first thing for being a member of the Confessing Church. He lost his professorship at the University of Berlin and lost his license to teach. His books were banned. They were forbidden to be sold. He had published is dissertation at this time, the Cost of Discipleship book is about to come off the presses—these are banned. He’s also banned from continuing to write, but of course he does. Because of this public stand that Bonhoeffer took, there were certain repercussions, and that’s, of course, why we then have the underground seminary that was formed at Finkenwalde.

14:00 - “I Knew I Made a Mistake”

Matt Tully
A few minutes ago you mentioned that in 1939 he traveled to the US, but as you said he only stayed for around two weeks. Can you elaborate on that? You said he felt this need to go back to serve the church in Germany. What was behind that decision to turn around and go home?

Stephen Nichols
This was actually his second trip to the United States. He had been here in 1930 and 1931, and he wanted to spend some time getting updated on American theological developments and just spend time in America. From 1930 to 1931 he spent the whole year in America. Just as a quick trivial point: over Christmas break he and a Frenchman and two American students drove a car from New York City all the way to Mexico. They had pup tents and they would pull over to the side of the road and have a little campfire and sleep out in the tents. Here he is in 1930 traveling the entire United States. Once they get to Mexico I think the car is pretty much shot at that point, so they all go their separate ways. He gets passage over to Cuba and spends Christmas in Cuba, and then slowly makes his way back up the East coast back to New York. He was an adventurous soul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But this is now in 1939, and through those contacts in America, he was invited back and set up for a lecture tour. The idea was that an academic post would open up for him in one of the American universities or seminaries and he could safely ride out the war that was coming and be preserved. He says that the moment he stepped on the dock—these are his words—“I knew I made a mistake.” Whatever dark storm was coming for the church in Germany, he believed that God would ultimately deliver the German people and the German church from it. The storm was coming, but there would be a time when they would come through on the other end. He said that when that happens, this Reich Church and the nation would literally need to be rebuilt. He saw himself as one of those who would probably be engaged in the rebuilding. He came to this realization: How could I rebuild this church if I abandon it at its darkest hour? So, he was compelled to go back and it was just a matter of booking passage. He ends up getting passage on what was the last passenger ship because of the threats of German U-boats and submarines in the Atlantic.

16:54 - Operation Valkyrie

Matt Tully
That’s incredible. It’s such an amazing example of that commitment to doing the hard thing that I’m sure many in his life would have said What are you doing? Why would you go back? Turning to that plot that you mentioned—the famous plot to assassinate Hitler. As you mentioned, there is a famous, really riveting movie with Tom Cruise.

Stephen Nichols
Tom Cruise. Everyone knows it, of course.

Matt Tully
Yes, it was helping us see what happened. His involvement—his alleged involvement in that actual plot to assassinate Hitler—was the justification for his arrest and eventual execution that the Nazis gave. What do we know about how involved he actually was in that plot?

Stephen Nichols
The Valkyrie plot is a crucial piece of the Bonhoeffer story. I had mentioned his brothers-in-law and others who were part of a group of about a dozen who were highly placed individuals. These were military professionals, career military, attorneys—these were the heavy lifters of the plots. There were multiple ones that were attempted, and all of them Hitler managed to escape. The one that came the closest was the bomb in the briefcase, but it was moved at the last minute and moved next to what was essentially a pillar under the table as a table support, and that absorbed the bulk of the blast. The huge question is, What was Bonhoeffer’s involvement, and what do we make of Bonhoeffer’s involvement? First of all, he’s not a military guy. He has no military experience. He is a trained theologian and pastor. He’s not involved in the plot. He’s not giving strategic advice, he’s not giving his expertise, he doesn’t have an opinion. I think what he is is he’s putting himself in the room as a priest, basically to absolve those who were involved in the plot. I think we have to realize that Bonhoeffer himself came to this incredibly reluctantly. He wasn’t capricious about it, and he certainly was not cavalier about it. In fact, at one point he says I may even be damning my own soul by being involved in taking a life. But he saw no other option. It was a time of war, and I think we need to put that into the mix. These folks that were involved in the plot, they saw Hitler as an enemy of the state who had basically not only declared war on the nations around Germany, but in one sense he declared war on Germany itself. So that’s where all this evolves to. In terms of Bonhoeffer’s arrest, curiously enough he was actually involved in helping Jews escape and they would use their contact in the Abwehr, and the resources from the Abwehr, to help Jews escape. They kept records of this so that they could know where they were, etc. That was actually the reason that Bonhoeffer and the co-conspirators were arrested, because of those activities. Then, it was with a view to try to get them in jail to find out they were involved in the conspiracy itself. The reason was given of trying to get Jews out of Germany, but actually, it was because they were suspected to be part of the conspiracy. These were colonels and highly placed military officers, so they needed evidence against them if they were going to try them. There’s another chapter to that story with the discovery of the “Zossen” files.

Matt Tully
There are so many avenues to go down. It’s an intricate web of espionage and politics and religion.

Stephen Nichols
Yes, you’re right.

21:06 - Evangelicals and Bonhoeffer

Matt Tully
Over a decade ago in 2011, Eric Metaxas published his famous biography of Bonhoeffer. I think the book was called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. It’s a great title for a book.

Stephen Nichols
It is! It’s a wonderful title.

Matt Tully
It’s so captivating. The book was an international bestseller and really sparked a lot of broad, and in particular, evangelical interest in Bonhoeffer’s story. Why do you think the book had that kind of an impact? What was it about the story itself, the way Metaxas wrote it, and even maybe that moment in our country’s history that caused it to resonate so much?

Stephen Nichols
It’s a powerfully written book, and it’s a very well-written book. It’s a true page-turner, so it’s got that going for it. I think for the longest time Bonhoeffer was sort of taken—if I could just put it bluntly—he was taken over by the liberals and evangelicals weren’t sure what to do with him. We sort of appreciated him, but we weren’t sure he was one of us. I think it’s because the liberals just sort of co-opted him and took him and made him theirs. The reality is that as you begin to look at Bonhoeffer, he’s an evangelical. He talks about the authority of Scripture, he talks about the necessity of justification by faith alone. He was a critic of Karl Barth. Everybody talks about his appreciation for Karl Barth; he was actually annoyed by Karl Barth on a lot of levels. So I think one of the things that Metaxas’ biography did, and rightfully so, was show evangelicals that Bonhoeffer is actually one of us and we can claim him. As we claim him, we can really learn a lot here about, again, what it means to live out our Christian life and what it means to live out our Christian life in a challenging and complex time. The day after the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer recognizes that this was probably the best chance they had to take out Hitlter, so what’s going to come next? To a friend Bonhoeffer writes, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.” What a theological perspective. You get what you could identify as probably the worst possible news, and you interpret it and you assimilate it theologically. Through your theological grid you know where the truth is, and now you know where you stand and you can say I have hope. That’s brilliant. I think if all of us could grasp that, no matter what happens to us in our lives—on an individual scale or what happens culturally on a grand scale—sometimes we just want to do the Chicken Little thing and say The sky is falling! and give up. But what if our reflex was to say Jesus is alive. I have hope. I think that’s what Metaxas helped people see in Bonhoeffer, and again, it was such a well-written book and I think it just hit at a certain time. I’m grateful for it and grateful for those that have come to this appreciation for Bonhoeffer.

Matt Tully
Since the book was released that decade ago, I know some historians (and others) have criticized Metaxas and the book, and maybe even other evangelicals who have followed in his footsteps for painting Bonhoeffer as more evangelical than he actually was. Do you think there’s any truth to that criticism? Are there limits to the things that we can learn from him, in your opinion? Or do you think that the full portrayal of him as an evangelical, in our sense of the word today, is fair?

Stephen Nichols
I think if you go to that doctrinal statement that I was talking about—in the Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life book I spend a chapter on Bonhoeffer on the Bible and I look at what I was writing in that Confessional statement about the Bible and his position of the full authority of Scripture and all that it says. It’s very different from what was Barth’s view of inspiration, which comes to dominate that scene. In later editions where it gets edited, it gets edited in a more Barthian trajectory. I think all of that just proves that Bonhoeffer was different from his liberal context. When he was at Tegel Prison he could have papers and books and he had good relationships with the guards and material was flowing freely. Towards the end he was imprisoned in Berlin and all of that was cut off. His writing comes down to a trickle at that point. But just hear a couple of lines from one of his last letters. It was written to his family, so he writes, “Please don’t ever get anxious or worried about me, but don’t forget to pray for me. I’m sure you don’t. I’m sure of God’s guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty. You must never doubt that I’m traveling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I am being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness.” Here’s the line to listen to: “My sins are forgiven, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.” That line—“My sins are forgiven, and my sins are covered by Christ crucified”—I think that’s a profession of faith that would get him into any one of our evangelical churches. I think we have to recognize when it comes to Scripture, when it comes to the gospel, he’s a conservative. He would be on the side of the evangelicals. I have no problem with making that argument. There are some who want to draw attention to some of his writings from prison. He speaks of a so-called Christless Christianity, and much is made of that. I think what he’s talking about there is the structures of the state church that need to be recast and redrawn. What does it take to be an evangelical?

Matt Tully
That's been a topic of debate for decades.

Stephen Nichols
Exactly. That’s debatable. Somewhere in there there has to be a view of the authority of Scripture and a view of the gospel. That’s in the name evangel, so we’ve got to be talking about justification by faith alone when we’re talking about evangelicals. Bonhoeffer checks that box. It’s clear in his writings.

28:42 - What Would Bonhoeffer Say to the American Church Today?

Matt Tully
Stephen, you know this, but we live in an increasingly fractured world, both outside of the church and even, sadly, within the church. We see this all the time, whether it’s social and political polarization that seems to be getting worse and worse all over the place. I wonder if you have any thoughts on what Bonhoeffer might say to us today—the American church—if he were alive and seeing this in light of what he experienced.

Stephen Nichols
I think one of the hardest things for us is to bring together what is all over Paul’s epistles: to be kind, tenderhearted, and compassionate. You see it; it’s there. It’s all over the pages of Scripture. What is also all over the pages of Scripture is conviction and the courage of our convictions and the beliefs. I think what you see in Bonhoeffer is a combination of conviction and compassion. He held firmly to beliefs because he knew these beliefs mattered. If you’re talking about Christianity, you’re talking about beliefs; you’re talking about defining these sorts of things. He wrote a novel when he was in prison, and it’s the kind of novel a theologian would write. It starts off with a grandchild who is visiting with the grandmother and they go to church. They’re walking home from the sermon and the grandmother asks the grandchild What did you think of the sermon? The grandson says It was a fine sermon. I enjoyed it. She squeezes his hand and she squares off, looks him in the eye, and says Don’t ever accept a cheap imitation for the real thing. That was not the preaching of the gospel. So, this is, of course, a theologian’s novel. But what’s he saying there? He’s saying that this church is not the church because it’s not preaching the gospel. This is before the Nazis. His view of the German church was that it had already sold its soul. The church has to be the church, and it has to stand firm with the courage of its convictions. But Bonhoeffer was a man of compassion. He was a man of kindness, a man of generosity, a capacious spirit, a generous spirit. I think as we engage in this moment, it’s hard. It’s really hard, but I think we have to tell ourselves *This is the standard: to be both people of conviction and people of compassion.

Matt Tully
That actually reminds me of another theologian that you had the privilege of working alongside and writing another biography for: R. C. Sproul. It seems like he fits that pattern of a man of great conviction—doctrinal conviction—and great joy, love, and kindness towards people.

Stephen Nichols
Absolutely. If we can exhibit to the world love and joy and hope—isn’t that what Peter says in his apologetics classic statement in 1 Peter 3:15? “Give an answer for the hope that is in us.” These marginalized Christians in first century Rome were to be living in such a way that hope exuded from them, and I think that’s a call for us. It’s funny you bring up R. C. because there’s a connection: they were both drinking at the well of Martin Luther. I think just as Luther significantly influenced Bonhoeffer, Luther also significantly influenced our late friend, R. C.. Luther is always the connection.

32:35 - Bonhoeffer’s Final Words

Matt Tully
Maybe one final question. As you’ve already said, at the break of dawn on April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was hanged. His final words were remembered and later retold by a captured (Royal Air Force) RAF pilot who was also there with him. Tell us what he said as his final words, and explain how that fits with his view of our lives as Christians.

Stephen Nichols
The final words were: “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.” That perspective on recognizing eternity as our ultimate home and as the ultimate reality for a Christian, that is what gives us ballast in this life. We’re back to the words of Christ, aren’t we? It’s whoever holds onto his life will lose it, but whoever gives up his life and loses his life for my sake will find it. I think that’s captured in Bonhoeffer’s life, and, as poetically, it’s captured in Bonhoeffer’s death.

Matt Tully
Stephen, thank you so much for helping us to know a little bit more about this incredible man, this incredible Christian, and helping us to recover his story for us today.

Stephen Nichols
It’s my pleasure. I’ve enjoyed the time with you. Thanks.


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