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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau on February 4th 1906. He studied at Tubingen and Berlin. He was deeply influenced by the theology of Karl Barth. After his ordination he worked in Barcelona and later New York. In 1931 he returned to Berlin to lecture and resume his pastoral work. Bonhoeffer opposed the rise of National Socialism in Germany from the start. He sided with the Confessing Church which opposed the synthesis between Nazism and the German Christians.

His first work in 1930 concentrated on the structure of the Church. In it he centred on the concept of revelation which to him demanded a continuity to be found in Christ being preached in the Church. Bonhoeffer believed the individual only experiences revelation in relation to the community. Later he became concerned with the growing secularization of humanity. He saw the necessity of speaking in secular terms about God. His ideas of religionless Christianity were later taken up by writers of the Death of God school. However, his teaching goes further. It represents a search for the beyond in the midst, and a radical reform of the Church which he thought was currently incapable of speaking to the modern world. Bonhoeffer proposed a form of Christianity which was capable of getting rid of its traditional religion as a prerequisite of biblical faith.

In 1935 Bonhoeffer became head of a seminary for the German Confessing Church. In 1936 he was forbidden to teach and the following year the seminary was closed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was on a lecture tour in America on the outbreak of war and he felt it his duty to return to his native Germany. He continued to oppose Hitler mediating between those opposed to the regime and the British Government. He was arrested in 1943 on suspicion that he had been involved in a scheme to help Jews escape to Switzerland. He was imprisonment in Berlin where despite extensive interrogations he continued to write. In 1944 he was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was moved to Buchenwald concentration camp. After a mock trial he was hanged by the Gestapo at Flossenburg on April 9th, 1945.

Bonhoeffer is best known from his correspondence and writings during his time in prison which were published after his death. The remarkable thing about Bonhoeffer’s life is his analysis of the age in which he lived. As a young Churchman he responded to it theologically. What we are left with in his works can only be regarded as the start of something much bigger. Unfortunately his theology was cut short and we are left only to speculate how Bonhoeffer would have developed it had he survived the Second World War.

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