Bonhoeffer the postmodern?

Preamble: My Brothers in Christ

“Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person he already is in Christ’s eyes.” (Bonhoeffer 1954:23)

Christian living is exemplified in perfect love. Certainly the greatest commands which Jesus ever gave were to love God and to love others. Few people are ever recognised so widely because of their great love and grace toward other fellow human beings. The young Bonhoeffer always had a great desire to meet Ghandi, whom he never did in his life. Yet as we reflect on Bonhoeffer’s lived theology, it is in order to say that Bonhoeffer, like his inspiration, had come to a fuller understanding of what love really is as he took a firm stand against social injustice and paid the highest cost, his own life so that others, of a different faith to his own and whom he described as brothers and sisters may know freedom. The following paper provides a brief biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and an overview of the major theological reflections of the young theologian.

The Young and the Reckless
Born into an upper middle class family in 1906, an outstanding intellectual obtaining his doctorate at age 21 and Bonhoeffer became a Lutheran pastor and lecturer (Kelly 1990:5). He authored many books which are often quoted by theologians today regardless of their stance. However, this is not the Dietrich Bonhoeffer whom I wish to introduce to you. The Bonhoeffer I have discovered in my research is one with whom I can relate to as a young adult. A reckless theologian with a passionate faith, one who even went as far to openly defy the Nazi police orders not to teach publicly and to end his discourse with a “heil Hitler”. A theologian whose own personal reflections on faith caused him to feel an inner separation and drifting away from the other leaders in his own church. One who occasionally had to retreat to be able to re-order his inner world and to understand how to respond to the world around him. A theologian who eventually came to the realisation that faith and religion are two different concepts and put forward the idea of nonreligious interpretations of Scripture (Wustenburg, R 1998: 159-160). It is this authenticity, passion and recklessness which I believe moved Dietrich Bonhoeffer to write what he did and to do the things he did as he expressed his faith in Christ.

“What you do unto the least of these my brethren”
Many young revolutionaries and futurists today find inspiration in the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Shane Claiborne, author of the Irresistible Revolution and founder of the Simple Way, a Christian commune in the US notes how the “reckless faith” of Bonhoeffer motivated a few of his college friends to spend many nights sleeping on cold pavements with street kids, because deep inside they sensed something was radically wrong with the poverty in the area and that as Christians, they felt responsible to do something about it. It was not fair for them to enjoy the comfort of their Christian college residence when others went cold and hungry. In South Africa, an extremely controversial author of “Acid Alex”, Al Lovejoy writes of how genuine faith in Christ must cause us to do something about the state of society. Al uses his oven to bake bread and to make food for a family of orphans whom he spends his days with and poses a question to other Christians “What does what you believe and pray, make you do on behalf of those who have nothing or no one to believe in?”

Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Scripture is best described by the popular emergent lingo known as “subversive theology”(theology from the underdog’s point of view), in fact, Bonhoeffer’s life seems to epitomise what postmodern interpreters write about today. He viewed scripture from the point of view of those who are least in society, and asked the question “how do I respond?” It is this subversive theology which formed the major theological thrust of his writings, especially so in the book he wrote titled “Ethics” (Kelly 1990:41).

Free for Others

“In the language of the Bible, freedom is not something man has for himself but something he has for others” (Bonhoeffer 1959: 37)

Bonhoeffer reasoned that if human beings were made in the image of God, then like their Creator they were “free”. Bonhoeffer debated this freedom though, saying that humanity is only free in that they are created by God, thus their freedom is not for themselves, it is freedom to worship God. Freedom then, writes Bonhoeffer (1959:37) “is not a quality of man, nor is it an ability, a capacity…it is not a possession…but a relationship and nothing else.” This view of being free for others expresses the love and grace which Bonhoeffer sought after. It is the sort of “freedom” which necessitates that we set right wrong relationships and seek out good for humanity as a whole. Bonhoeffer suggested that we actually lose our freedom and our dominion over the earth when we fail to see freedom as being “freedom for”. We cease to rule, and the earth subdues us.

Without God, without his brother, man loses the earth” (Bonhoeffer 1959:40)

We lose out when we seek freedom independently; it is like the letters of John proclaim that how we love others is how we love God. Bonhoeffer understood this with great clarity and could not follow in the suit of many Christian leaders in Germany at the time, who took on the brown uniform and swastika as they submitted to the authority of a corrupt and evil government, and looked on as many of the fellow brothers and sisters, the Jews, were being persecuted.

Bonhoeffer’s social justice, his view of the imago dei and freedom for others, his call away from religious interpretation to Christological interpretation of Scripture all bear a common thread. They all lead us to question, what is the role of the church in society? In what is arguably his most well known work “The Cost of Discipleship” he draws many of these strands together in his vision of the “Visible Community” of faith. Bonhoeffer’s vision is that the Church be “a colony of the true home” (Bonhoeffer 1948:223) and that they show the true love of God to all men. For Bonhoeffer who lived and was executed in Nazi Germany, it meant fighting for freedom of the Jews. For us as South Africans, it may be fighting for the freedom of those enslaved by the chains of poverty and prejudice. However love takes its form the disciple must realise their duty…to be salt and light and to in so doing transform society and culture. This I believe was the greatest of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological reflections.

“The Body of Christ takes up space on earth…Having been called, they could no longer remain in obscurity, for they were the light that must shine, the city on the hill which must be seen.” (Bonhoeffer 1948: 223)


Bonhoeffer, D. 1960. Christology. London: Fount Paperbacks

Bonhoeffer, D. 1948. The Cost of Discipleship. London: SCM Press

Bonhoeffer, D. 1959. Creation and Fall: Temptation. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

Bonhoeffer, D. 1954. Life Together. London: SCM Press

Kelly, G & Nelson, F (Eds). 1990. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers

Wustenburg, R. 1998. A Theology of Life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company