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What drew me to this text?  Over the last 38 years, Bonhoeffer’s name has come to my attention through various spiritual readings -- for example, Richard Rohr’s daily meditations. The quotes from Bonhoeffer’s work and life are always profound. “Who Is this man”, I asked?  

I was first introduced to Bonhoeffer in my graduate research class nearly forty years ago. My professor was explaining the paradigm shift taking place in Education: a shift from counting (statistical research) to describing (providing rich description of lived experience). He explained that one needed a thorough understanding of both approaches, but most of all, one needed courage -- courage like Bonhoeffer's, to speak one’s truth (new paradigm) to power (established academic community) so that these new understandings would benefit future generations of students. To achieve this goal, one would need to translate this knowledge into action. Bonhoeffer had the courage to do this. His action ultimately cost him his life, but his legacy had continuing influences on both Germany and Christianity.  

As a young student I found this lecture daunting -- ”Give my life for action research? I don't think so!” Many years later, the import of my professor’s statements resonated as I experienced “Trumpism” and its consequences. Lack of courage and integrity of politicians to speak their truth to power resulted in insurrection and death.  

Bonhoeffer’s courage to speak his truth and act upon it was illustrated throughout his life. A couple of examples are given below:

  1. In July 1933, Bonhoeffer suggested the German Churches go on strike against the state to assert their independence. Hitler was trying to install a “Reichsbischof” at the time. If the state did not stop meddling in church affairs, “the church would cease behaving like the state church and would, among other things, stop performing funerals.” (p.179) The conciliatory and theologically.compromised Protestant leaders balked. Hitler once remarked: ”You can do anything you want with them. They will submit.”  Gradually, the Nazi ideology gained support within the German Church through lies and propaganda. When most church leaders did not speak truth to power, Bonhoeffer raised the voice of church resistance to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. He openly and publicly supported the movement within the church to affirm God’s fidelity to the Jews. In 1934, he also supported the “Barmen Declaration”, drafted by Karl Barth, who insisted that Christ, not the Fuhrer, was head of the church. Bonhoeffer’s continuing opposition to the state's influence over the church culminated in his book -- The Cost of Discipleship, a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He made it abundantly clear that what Christ said was in stark opposition to many of the fundamentals of National Socialism. His subsequent involvement in the German resistance during the war (including his association with those who conspired to assassinate Hitler), sealed his fate. He was condemned to death by hanging on April 8th, 1945. His trial, only one month before the war with Germany ended, was without witnesses or a defence.
  2. On June 4, 1934, Bonhoeffer and his friend Bishop Bell of Chichester (England) got the full, damning text of the "Barmen Declaration" published in the Times (p. 226).  When Bonhoeffer was working as a pastor in London, he became friends, and worked closely with, George Bell.  They were engaged in ecumenical activities to warn Europe against the designs of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was a fearless and persistent voice telling Bell - and through Bell, the world - the truth about what was really happening in the German Church. The Times release of ”The Barmen Declaration” was an example of their sustained efforts. Indeed, Bonhoeffer did translate his ideas into action, as exemplified by his various activities: pastoral work, ecumenical work, and the establishment of the “Confessing Church” (which followed on from the “Barmen Declaration”).

Early Influences

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, a twin and one of eight children. His parents and their lineage were very well educated.  Academics, scientists, theologians, politicians, artists, doctors, pastors and musicians were all part of the family milieu. The family lived both in the countryside and Berlin. The author Eric Metaxas provides photographs and personal anecdotes which illustrate Bonhoeffer’s privileged, happy, and secure childhood. His father, a psychiatrist, is portrayed as a stern, but fair-minded, man who encouraged his children to discuss their ideas. He impressed upon them the importance of precise thinking, and only to speak when one had something significant to say…no fuzzy thinking, no frivolous chat! Bonhoeffer honed his discourse of presenting his critiques and arguments in this familial setting and continued to do so as a very confident young student in an academic setting with revered professors. One fellow student commented (p. 59): “I had the experience of hearing a young fair-haired student contradict…..contradict again and again, politely but clearly on positive theological grounds.” Bonhoeffer was debating with a 73-year old living legend, Adolf von Haenack.  

His mother, Paula, was also a great influence on her young son. She supervised the running of the house, including home schooling all her eight children until they were seven. She was remembered for her Saturday musical evenings at which Bonhoeffer shared his musical gifts. She was responsible for his Christian upbringing. Her reminder of “faith without action is no faith at all” seems to foreshadow Bonhoeffer’s concept of “Cheap Grace” developed in later years. Paula also prodded her son to speak out publicly against the Nazis and take action.  

In the early part of the book, the author skillfully weaves the stories of these early influences and connects them to his later life. Bonhoeffer was intellectually and musically gifted, described as confident yet humble, with strong relationships with his relatives. These connections are depicted through his correspondence, particularly with his twin sister who was married to a Jewish Christian. Because of Bonhoeffer’s anticipation of Nazi policy towards Jews, he used his international contacts to arrange safe passages for them to England.

At the time of Bonhoeffer’s birth, Germany was a unified country with a strong Christian Church, united by a common language, thanks to Luther’s translation of the Bible. The language of this Bible translation unified the German language, replacing various dialects. People engaged more fully with their faith as Luther wrote hymns and introduced hymn-singing as part of worship, fostering a sense of Nationalism. This strong German Church was later manipulated by the Nazi propaganda machine, as were the words of the revered Reformation theologian, Martin Luther. The Nazis began to select parts of Luther’s later writings (written when he was sick). Constant repetition of Luther’s ugliest statements that “being a German and being a Christian were incompatible with being Jewish” served to convince the German people of this “truth”.  

All his life Bonhoeffer applied the same logic to theological issues that his father applied to scientific ones. He believed that every Christian must be “fully human” by bringing God into his whole life (p. 361).  As his mother often repeated to him, “faith without action is no faith at all”. To be an ethereal figure who merely talked about God, but somehow refused to get his hands dirty in the real world in which God had placed him -- this for Bonhoeffer was bad theology.


Pat Payne is originally from Edmonton. She has been an active member of St. John's for six years. Pat is a lay reader who also volunteers with SJAG, GVAT, PWRDF and Out of the Rain.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas is published by Thomas Nelson (2010, 2020)