A Better Bonhoeffer Biography

In American evangelicalism it has become commonplace to hear of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. 1945) as a heroic, patriotic evangelical fighting liberalism and Nazi extremism.  Bonhoeffer was a brilliant and brave pastor-theologian who rightly stood against many evils in Nazi Germany, but he wasn’t a conservative evangelical.  We can learn many things from him, but we can’t really put his writings on the “evangelical theology” shelves in our libraries or studies.  I’ve mentioned this here a few times before (e.g. here and here), so I won’t go into details.  But I do want to point out a good biography on the 20th century German theologian: Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen.

Schlingensiepen was a good friend of Eberhard Bethge; if you know a little about Bonhoeffer, you know that Bethge was his dear friend.  I’ve read and noted Bethge’s massive biography on Bonhoeffer here before, and I do recommend it for an accurate overview.  However, Bethge’s biography is probably too large for many readers – and Bethge understood that, so he actually gave a green light to Schlinensiepen to write a shortened version of it.  Schlingensiepen did; it was first published in Germany in 2006 and in English in 2010.  Schlingensiepen’s biography is right around 400 pages and includes some pictures scattered throughout the work.

In this book one gets the German flavor of Bonhoeffer’s upbringing and life, which the author notes, is very different from life today: “The sort of family in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up is hard to imagine for all but a very few today” (p. 2).  The family was an upper middle-class family who employed five servants and a chauffeur.  The Bonhoeffer family wasn’t really a church-going family, but Dietrich’s mother did teach the children Bible stories.

Reading about Bonhoeffer’s philosophical and theological training was also interesting.  One of his favorite teachers was Adolf von Harnack, a church historian who theologically walked in Ritschl’s shoes and who was considered by some as a leading voice in liberal Protestantism.  I also thought Bonhoeffer’s interactions with Barth were fascinating.  In some ways Bonhoeffer agreed with and appropriated Barth’s teaching, in some ways he went beyond it, in some ways he disagreed.  Schlingensiepen noted that one thing Bonhoeffer did when lecturing at Union Seminary (in the U.S.) was introduce Barth’s dialectical theology (p. 67).  Of course Bonhoeffer developed his theology after this point, but this should remind us that Bonhoeffer’s use of theological terms isn’t exactly the same as current evangelical use of theological terms.

I also appreciated how the biographer explained Bonhoeffer’s early views on peace  and pacifism.  Further, Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on church and on “decision” were also well highlighted.  The book does a good job in discussing Bonhoeffer’s views/teachings in light of the political and social situation of Germany at the time.  Indeed, it’s not an easy topic for us in our 21st century American culture to understand, but this book helps!  If you’ve read some of Bonhoeffer, you know that at times he is tough to read, almost like Barth.  However, when Schlingensiepen quotes Bonhoeffer, he does a nice job explaining or framing the quotes, making them easier to understand.

The the point: if you want a readable, scholarly, and reliable biography of Bonhoeffer, I’d avoid the ones that cast the German theologian as an evangelical.  Get this one by Schlingensiepen instead; or if you want the 4 pounder, get Bethge’s!  These will help you get an accurate picture of this important theologian.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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5 comments on “A Better Bonhoeffer Biography

  1. Ron Gilbert says:

    If you haven’t seen it, here is a work on Bonhoeffer which supports the contention that he was not evangelical in his theology….

    https://www.csustan.edu/sites/default/files/History/Faculty/Weikart/Scripture-and-Myth-in-Dietrich-Bonhoeffer.pdf

  2. Nevada says:

    Hi Shane,
    Have you read Charles Marsh’s biography of Bonhoeffer? I found it to be quite good.

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