Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Discipleship without Religion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) is known primarily as a martyr to Nazi barbarity. Unfortunately, contemporary martyrdom often winds up inflating the victim into a mythic hero, who then gets employed by various factions for their own ideological ends. This has certainly been the case with Bonhoeffer. He has been invoked by Right-wing Christians like Eric Metaxas, who enlist Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the German state against LGBT rights. Bonhoeffer has been claimed by pacifists who oppose the US reflex toward violent intervention in the affairs of other nations, by neoconservatives who advocate such intervention on the grounds of resistance to tyranny, by anti-Trumpers who see in the present regime a frightening resemblance to the early days of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and so on.

Like Mother Theresa, Bonhoeffer has become a kind of postmodern celebrity saint, and again like Mother Theresa, who had her petty faults, ideological blinders, and serious crises of faith, Bonhoeffer has readers and fans who more often than not paint an icon in their own image, and wind up failing to take account of the man, and the thinker, in full.

There are as many Bonhoeffers as there are Bonhoeffer “fan clubs.” This is unfortunate for many reasons, chief among which is that not all versions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are created equal. In this essay I want to focus first on one such version, now on the wane, that construes his theology as essentially “post-Christian” because of its hostility toward religion. It latches on to Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison as the definitive statement of his mature theology, but misses the context in which “religionless Christianity” makes sense (i.e., his reformulation of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, and his implicit turn to Anabaptism and the peace churches) and thus seriously distorts his message. After this, I will address Bonhoeffer’s willing participation in the assassination plot against Hitler, and how his doomed role in this conspiracy, despite appearances, coheres with his endorsement of nonviolent discipleship


In a letter to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, dated April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote:

Bonhoeffer continued:

It seems like Bonhoeffer is heralding the end of religion, and the dawn of a post-Christian culture in the Western world. Yet there is more to “religionless Christianity” than meets the eye.

Bonhoeffer’s introduction to the English-speaking world occurred in the early 1960’s with the translation and publication of the Letters and Papers from which the preceding text was selected. The timing of this publication was, perhaps, unfortunate, as “radical theology”, or “death-of-God theology” was also coming into its own. This movement, expressed in different ways by J.A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, Thomas Altizer’s The Gospel of Christian Atheism, and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, developed the idea that given the advances of science and philosophy, Christian faith, indeed belief in God as such, has become obsolete. They latched onto Bonhoeffer’s final works as a kind of imprimatur for their de-theologizing of Christianity. For these theologians Nietzsche was right: God is dead, so we should mourn and move on to the task of living Jesus’s conviction that love is the only law, in a world empty of the divine presence. They took Bonhoeffer as a harbinger of their rejection of dogma, ritual, and an institutional church.

But I think radical death-of-God theology engages in a gross misreading of Bonhoeffer’s entire body of work, and it especially misconstrues his Letters and Papers. So I want to draw attention to the explicitly tentative nature of Bonhoeffer’s ruminations on “religionless Christianity” in the letter cited above. Bonhoeffer asks “Are there religionless Christians?” (Which seems to be a foreshadowing of Karl Rahner’s idea of the “anonymous Christian” that gained some traction in Vatican II). Perhaps Christianity as a “religion” might be obsolete. Yet Bonhoeffer is quite clear that Christians are not. And consider his clincher: “What is a religionless Christianity?” (Emphasis mine.) Far from proclaiming the death of God in the manner of the radical theologians of the 1960s, Bonhoeffer appears to be proclaiming honest ignorance of what might be at stake in “a world come of age.” What is the basis for his uncertainty?

First of all, “religion” for Bonhoeffer, especially Christianity, has often relegated God to be the explanation of last resort — a Deus ex Machina, or a “God of the gaps,” invoked whenever we cannot explain something: the diversity and teleologies found in nature, the first cause of the natural world, the ultimate explanation for all that is good, someone to be petitioned in the face of moral and natural evil. But this is a losing strategy. Bonhoeffer believed that the advance of human knowledge, in the sciences especially, was closing many of these knowledge-gaps. Therefore appeal to God as a gap-filler, besides missing the theological point that God is not a powerful super-creature who explains the inexplicable, underestimates the way in which science and history are bound to chip away at this construal of divinity. If God is an explanation of last resort, God is both misunderstood and bound to be erased by epistemic progress. A God that cannot survive Galileo, or Newton, or Darwin, is not much of a God at all. This Deus ex Machina is far indeed from the Trinitarian God of the Gospels, of the early Church Fathers, the medieval scholastics, and Martin Luther himself.

Second, when reading the Letters and Papers, it pays to acknowledge that Bonhoeffer’s critique of “religion” is not without precedent. Two of Bonhoeffer’s theological sources, Kierkegaard and Barth, had similar misgivings about “religion.” For Kierkegaard, the established Lutheran church in 19th century Denmark had become a kind of certification program for bourgeois respectability. You dutifully showed up for Sunday services to see and be seen, and thereby confirmed that you and your co-worshippers were saved by faith alone, and that you were all a solid member of Christendom. Thus you could proceed, during the week, to do all the self-interested, secular bourgeois things that the bourgeois automatically do so well.

There is, for Kierkegaard, something pathetically self-satisfied and self-congratulatory about such a stance. The point of Christian discipleship for Kierkegaard is that a Christian is something you need to perpetually become, rather than something you just are given your baptism and regular attendance at Sunday services. Christian worship is not a rote validation of your wonderfulness: rather it is something that perpetually puts your wonderfulness in question.

It might seem to be absurd to juxtapose Kierkegaard with the progressive rock band Jethro Tull, but in their song “Wind-up” Ian Anderson catches exactly the same worries as Kierkegaard:

Karl Barth, who was a senior colleague of Bonhoeffer’s in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church, also caught the same worries. Barth is clearly on record as a kind of “exclusivist” about salvation: it is Jesus Christ, as incarnate Word, who is the sole revelation of God and the one agent of redemption. (It should also be noted, however, that when it actually came to his doctrine of salvation, Barth was a tacit but emphatic universalist: far from following Calvin’s doctrine of “double predestination”, the saving power of Christ’s resurrection is for all human beings, virtuous and reprobate, Christian and non-Christian.) But if Christ alone is the incarnate Logos and the unique revelation of God then all human attempts to capture God in conceptual nets are bound to fail. It is the person of Jesus Christ, and not any human institution, practice, or theory that saves humankind. Religion, as an institutionalized human practice, stands under the judgment of God, of which Christ, the incarnate Logos, is the standard.

Thus in Barth’s masterwork Church Dogmatics “religion,” as an ineluctably human enterprise, was not automatically a “good thing.” In fact it is idolatry: the attempt to elevate human theologies and practices to the level that can only be occupied by God, and revealed in the unique revelation that is Jesus Christ. Barth, like Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer (and Ian Anderson!) was keenly aware of the tendencies of institutional religion to fall into a kind of spiritual torpor that feeds moral complacency and political conformity. It was this sort of unthinking acceptance of the status quo that allowed German Christians to identify Church and Reich, and to conflate the Führerprinzip with the Gospel. Barth, like Kierkegaard or Bonhoeffer, did not disparage institutionalized practices of preaching and worship, but only their decay into mere displays, empty self-righteous gestures of presumed sanctity. Beware of mere “religion.” There be dragons. And swastikas.


While Bonhoeffer wondered what “religionless Christianity” might look like, he also, in earlier works like Discipleship, was quite clear about what following Jesus demands. First of all, it demands a dismissal of what he called “cheap grace”:

This passage is dripping with sarcasm. Cheap grace does not sanctify human beings: it degrades them by making absolutely no difference to the way they live their lives. Bonhoeffer is not abandoning the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone and grace alone. He is, however, insisting that if one is “simultaneously justified and sinner” (simul Justus et peccator) one is bound, by and through being saved and justified through grace, to follow Jesus Christ through good works. Without such discipleship, one’s justification is placed in question.

What does discipleship entail and enjoin? Bonhoeffer’s answer is a direct appeal to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17–49):

While Bonhoeffer remained in the Lutheran theological tradition, he takes leave of Luther’s view that the Sermon on the Mount — the Beatitudes, the salt and light metaphors, the Antitheses — mark out an impossible demand, like the 613 commandments of the Mosaic Law. But Bonhoeffer also rejects the medieval Catholic view that the Sermons elaborate a higher ethic for clergy and monastics, as well as Schweitzer’s reading of them as providing an “interim ethic” for His original disciples as they awaited the imminent end of the world. Jesus means what He says in the Sermon — literally. In a way that explains his earnest pacifism, Bonhoeffer’s position more closely aligns with the Anabaptists and the “peace churches”: discipleship calls Christians to the hard task of using the Beatitudes and Antitheses as a kind of user’s manual for the Christian life. Being a disciple means turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the afflicted. No qualifications. Full stop.

It might seem that Bonhoeffer’s participation, with his brother-in-law Hans von Dohányi, in the anti-Nazi resistance and the plot to assassinate Hitler, was at odds with his Christian pacifism. Bonhoeffer was aware of this, and was willing to accept this contradiction, along with the guilt that followed “[T]he ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” This responsibility, freely assumed, rests on the “this-worldliness” of Bonhoeffer’s view of Christian discipleship:

Discipleship is not motivated by a desire for individual salvation and life after death: it is energized by a calling to bring forth the kingdom of God on earth, which is not had on the cheap. It will involve intractable moral dilemmas (nonviolence vs. struggling for justice), and tragic judgment calls.

Discipleship, for Bonhoeffer, was a matter of faithful obedience and obedient faithfulness: of listening, judging, and acting. Such obedience is not a matter of following rigid rules. It is a matter of following the example of Jesus Christ and projecting it into new and unforeseen circumstances. Thus discipleship, for Bonhoeffer, can be at odds with “religion”, with the consistency of its rituals and the ever-present temptation to fall into rote habit and stupefied public “respectability.” The Church stands or falls not as an institution established by God, but as a band of wayfarers, disciples charged with the mission of embodying and establishing the Word always already made flesh.

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

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