Christianity amid the Ruins: A Conversation about Dietrich Bonhoeffer with Professor Charles Marsh

Mohler: Charles Marsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of there of the project of lived theology. He’s been the recipient of several academic awards and prizes, including the fact that he won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009. He’s the author of several books including, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, which won the 1998 Grawemeyer Award in religion. His most recent work is Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Charles Marsh, welcome to Thinking in Public.


In terms of your new biography, and as I said to our listeners I believe this is one of the most important biographies on any subject in recent years, how did you come to make such a life project out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?


Marsh: Thank you. What kind words you speak for which I’m grateful. I had 25 years ago this spring submitted a lumbering doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s early philosophical theology. Bonhoeffer had come to me in my theory saturated doctoral work as a breath of fresh air, as a way back to life to the ministries of the church, to the delights of the world, and service in the world. I had not beyond that spent a lot of time Bonhoeffer scholarship. I had made my way into a number of books on the civil rights movement and worked in what I like to call “the enterprise of lived theology” but I’ve always felt like Bonhoeffer’s witness was very present in whatever I did and whatever academic venture or involvement in the world as someone who teaches us that Christian conviction has to be engaged with the complexities and challenges and anguishes of our time. And so after working on what I thought would be 1 but turned out to be 4 books on the way the Christian faith shaped and inspired the American civil rights movement and other social movements for human flourishing in American history I returned to Bonhoeffer with some skills in narrative non-fiction and historical research and in 2007 I happened to be given a teaching fellowship in Berlin called the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Visiting Professorship at Humboldt University and I know for some that sounds like a prestigious title but I should tell you it came with no salary and no travel funds and no apartment expenses but it did come with a lovely office down in Berlin. So then I made my way to the gorgeous city library, and there I was given access to the newly obtained papers from the estate of Eberhard Bethge who was Bonhoeffer’s biographer and best friend, and so I began to travel there almost every morning to the city library and to look at these amazing mind-blowing letters and photographs and documents from all aspects of his life, files that he had kept on the American race problem, race relations during his years in America, a postcard from Waco, TX, a correspondence with Gandhi from 1934-35, of funny personal documents, an inventory of his wardrobe (turns out that the great martyr and resistant hero was also a bit of a fashion hound, he liked to keep track of where the best tailors were in Berlin), inventories of his library.


Mohler: You really demonstrate what an interesting person Bonhoeffer was before you get to the part most people think they know. I’d like to begin by asking you about Bonhoeffer in terms of his intellectual context because you’re talking about a young man who from boyhood believed himself not just to be called a pastor but to be a theologian as he told his bemused siblings, and then set himself to do that but in the context of kind of the high water mark of early 20th century liberalism in Berlin. Tell us about that.


Marsh: You tell an interesting story. At the age of 14 he surprised and dismayed his family most of whom were prodigiously talented humanists by announcing that he would become a theologian, and when his older brother said to him, “Really, a theologian? A more paltry institution than the church one can hardly imagine. You hardly even go yourself. If you become a theologian, you’ll be living in full intellectual retreat from the most important issues of the world.” And apparently a 14-year-old Dietrich said, “in that case I shall reform it.” And he did at an usually early age have a clear sense not only of his intellectual passion but of his way of thinking about the Christian faith and of sticking himself in this extraordinary venture of becoming a Protestant theologian. Somehow, Bonhoeffer managed to write to doctoral dissertations by the age of 24 and to write in a fashion that was sympathetic to many of the new orthodox trends and fashions in protestant theology in Europe in a faculty that was largely hostile to those trends in neo-orthodoxy or in the kind of Barthian scene that Bonhoeffer was excited by.


Mohler: Let’s talk about that for just a moment. In terms of the faculty at Berlin, when  young Dietrich Bonhoeffer arrives in Berlin, Adolf Von Harnock is still there, you’ve got Karl Holl , you’ve got the biggest marquee names in Protestant liberalism, but he goes there at least in part as I understand the story because of his prodigious intellect and very high standing family. His father one of the most celebrated psychoanalytic practitioners of the day, and so he really finds himself in Berlin but he is a bit of an odd animal in the midst of that theology faculty, is he not?


Marsh: He is. His father I should say was the head of the psychiatric clinic at the charity hospital in Berlin but he himself was no an advocate of psychoanalysis. He preferred a more empirical neurological approach to psychology but indeed Bonhoeffer went to Berlin because it was the leading theological faculty in the world. These enormous heavyweights in Protestant liberal thoughts were housed in the department. Bonhoeffer went because he admired the scholarship of Harnack and Hall, those figures you mentioned, at the same time he went with his typically independent intellect determined to carve out a place in this Protestant liberal faculty for a kind of renewed orthodoxy and so when Karl Barth later read Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation “Sanctorum Communio” which he wrote at the University of Berlin, he pronounced it a theological miracle—a kind of theological shock that something generally sympathetic to historic Christian orthodoxy would be coming out of the Berlin faculty. And Bonhoeffer, through his astonishing intellectual gifts found a respected place in the faculty and did the work and was by the age of 24 with a second doctoral dissertation completed primed for fame and fortune in the very demanding German academic world.


Mohler: He was. And it’s at that point I really appreciate you told the story because honestly Bonhoeffer’s been waiting for this kind of biographical treatment by someone who understands the theological as well as the historical and biographical background. When you write for instance in your work “so Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a rare bird in Berlin—a liberal who nevertheless admired Barth and felt strong affinities for the spirit of the so-called dialectical theology whose radical approach to God’s transcendence set aside the natural explanations of everyone since Aquinas as well as the recondite physics of Germany’s brightest lights” what I thought was that’s true but they didn’t really offer Dietrich Bonhoeffer the job he expected after he supposedly surpassed all their academic expectations. How do you explain that?


Marsh: That’s right. That’s absolutely correct. I think at the same time Bonhoeffer was quite restless and ready to move on from what he increasingly felt was a kind of suffocating theological environment not only at the University of Berlin but in the rather moribund church of northern European Protestantism. So I think had he shown a more resolute interest in pursuing a familiar academic life in German theology, he would have flourished and doors would have opened up. However, he had written these 2 extraodinary doctoral dissertations on Christian community. He had written beautiful essays on joy and joy of the Lord and the joy of worship and life in discipleship to Jesus Christ. But here’s what we discover when we look a little closer at Bonhoeffer around that time: he had no personal experience of those ideas.


Mohler: When you’re looking at Bonhoeffer even in that context, it seems to me  you cant tell the story of his theological development without the first horrifying theological and moral crisis of his life which was the first world war. And of course in many ways that was the end of Protestant liberalism. As Karl Barth described his own horror in seeing his own professors sign the Bethmann-Hollwegg Declaration. At that point, Bonhoeffer lost a brother in the war and had another brother wounded in the war, he seems to understand that this was a great theological cataclysm that sets the stage for what would follow.


Marsh: He does. I think what’s different just at the  level of his life is that Harnack is a neighbor of the Bonhoeffers. Bonhoeffer moved very gracefully in these sorts of upper middle class Protestant liberal circles and while he would no doubt distinguish himself and differentiate himself and bring that tradition into a rather sharp critique there was a sense of loyalty to these people as friends and neighbor that kept from ever vilifying or I should say from turning liberal practitioners into caricatures.


Mohler: But he does declare that no true Christian can support the war and the war effort and the war government as so many of those paragons of Protestant liberalism had done. That’s the reason I’m pressing the point with you here. It’s interesting to me that I actually don’t know how to describe Bonhoeffer at that point reading as much of his writings as I have throughout the years, I’m not sure he’s a pacifist but he’s against the war.


Marsh: Yes. You know there’s this fascinating  trip Bonhoeffer makes to the United States in 1930-31 that becomes for him I think a kind of transformative year and brings him into what is clearly spiritual awakening. He has an invitation after he finishes his second dissertation to come to Union Theological Seminary in New York City to spend a year as visiting scholar and Bonhoeffer accepts this invitation and imagines its going to be another chapter in his charmed life. He certainly doesn’t think he has anything to learn from Protestant  Liberals of the North American milieu.


Mohler: To whom he’s very condescending.


Marsh: He was very condescending. He believed that American Protestant liberalism was no different really than American pragmatism and in fact shaped by the same pragmatic calculus. He joked that Americans fashioned God in their own image the way someone might design a car in Detroit according to certain tastes and preferences. He came to New York certain he nothing to learn from American mainline we should say white Protestantism. He runs up Reinhold Niebuhr with whom he took a course at Union that fall after a lecture and he asks him “is this a training center for social activist and politicians or is this a seminary?” He is dismayed by what he finds to be a sophomoric really anti-intellectual quality of American protestant theology. Then the course of that year he’s invited by an African-American seminarian, son of a Baptist pastor in Birmingham Alabama named Frank Fisher to visit  Abbyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And he goes and what begins as an intense transformative six-month immersion in the African-American church that leads Bonhoeffer to see and to experience in what he later called “the church of the outcasts of America.” This sort of eruptive joy of Jesus, the sense of a worshipping community, a sense of sanctorum communio. A kind of worship he had never seen before and a sense in which he says to one of his friends back in Berlin “it’s only in the black churches of America that I have heard an authentic word proclaimed of the gospel.” And when he returns to Germany after this 10 month stay in Union, he returns with dramatic transformed persecption to his vocation as theologian, really as his whole identity as a Christian. He falls in love with the Bible. He falls in love with the sermon on the mount. He begins to develop these sorts of networks of Bible studies in Berlin. He starts attending church with an uncommon devotion. His family in fact begins to wander what happened to him. They had known him to be a brilliant theologian, but they now see and worry he’s become a bit too zealous.


Mohler: That’s a really interesting point though, Charles, because here you have something that could basically only happen in one snapshot of 20th century history. You’re talking about the very elite upper-class in Germany who can tolerate having a son who’s a theologian but having one who is a worshipping Christian becomes a bit too awkward and the university life and university theology was in so many ways separated from the life of the church the way Bonhoeffer came to know it. And then he comes to the United States, and his statements about Protestant liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick are more caustic than any thing Gresham Machen would have said. When he says at the Riverside Church they’ve replaced the community of Christ with a social corporation and where he goes on to say of Fosdick’s preaching “the sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.” And then my favorite one is the one you have in the endnotes where he predicts that the Riverside Church will become “a temple of idolatry.” I’m just telling you Gresham Machen never quite said that but that’s what Bonhoeffer saw.


Marsh: Of course later when he comes back in 1939 he will write a short and powerful essay called “Protestantism without Reformation” and he will wonder whether the reason the American Protestant establishment conducts itself with such a sense of theological entitlement—it can pick and choose whatever doctrines make us comfortable and kind of legitimate our prejudices and tastes—as the result of a church that never had to endure the sufferings of a reformation and to risk everything on the truthfulness of the Word of God. It’s a very powerful essay.


Mohler: Okay. So let me press you on that for just a moment. When Bonhoeffer says that, in a similar way that I could have asked Barth directly, when he speaks of the Word of God of what is he speaking?


Marsh: When Bonhoeffer speaks of the Word of God and of course Bonhoeffer speaks of the Word quite often in relationship to discipleship to Jesus Christ he is speaking of the totality of the gospel story. The gospel as the story of good news, of Jesus Christ revealed of God to set the captives free, to reconcile fallen humanity to himself, he means the totality of the good news as a new life, new birth, the cost of discipleship. He means that as the taking up of one’s cross and following Jesus Christ as he says in the Cost of Discipleship “when Jesus Christ calls a person to follow, he calls that person to come and die. That first step of the disciples ascent to the call of Jesus is a step into a new world, is a step into a new citizenship,  is a step into a new way of being. “ He means truth.


Mohler: That’s a crucial issue in terms especially of reading 20th century theology. When you read someone mention the Word of God, we have to ask the question: what is meant by that expression? Professor Marsh points to the fact that for Bonhoeffer that meant the good news of the gospel as he understood it. That meant the larger news of what God had done in Christ for humanity.  But we need to note that when Bonhoeffer was using the phrase “Word of God” he wasn’t specifically referring to Scripture. There was an event character to what Bonhoeffer was almost assuredly referring to here. And that goes back to a very similar usage of that phrase by Karl Barth even in his seminal book The Word of God and the Word of Man because what Barth meant by the word of God is not the word of God written, that is the Scripture, but rather what he believed to be the word within the word, that is the word of God as an event rather than the word of God in terms of language that was reduced to propositional statements as found in an inspired Scripture. When reading any figure from church history it’s really important to put that figure inside the context of his or her own day, the intellectual age and the theological context in which this particular person is writing or preaching or teaching. And when it comes to Dietrich Bonhoeffer you need to place him right at the University of Berlin right at the very high watermark of theological liberalism. You have to understand that he rejected that liberalism but he did not reject the fundamental worldview behind it. And much like Barth and others associated with neo-orthodoxy, there was a mixture of the neo and of orthodoxy, and that always in every individual case led to an interesting mix. That is certainly true when it comes to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Mohler: Now let’s move to the part of Bonhoeffer’s life that people think they know but I just want to tell our listeners ahead of time if you haven’t read this book, you really don’t know what you think you know about the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the period of his time that is most associated with that name. So Charles, when you’re making the great turn in Bonhoeffer it’s after he comes as a visiting professor here in New York City, it’s after he returns, it’s even after he spends some time back in the United States in which he comes to the convictional decision he can’t stay here but has to go back to the church in Germany. Tell us what’s going on there. How do you get from Bonhoeffer, the young prodigy, the writer of 2 doctoral dissertations, to the Bonhoeffer of crisis as war is imminent, speaking of the second world war in Germany.


Marsh: That’s right. That’s really part of the kind of suspense I wanted to unpack at the heart of my biography. How does this golden child of the Berlin Grunewald, of an aristocratic family who had so many extraordinary gifts and also so many entitlements become this intense and committed follower of Jesus Christ who finds himself not only at the center of the church resistance against Hitler but ultimately as a member of the conspiracy that would attempt to assassinate Hitler. I think the story you mention, Al, of Bonhoeffer’s second trip to America in 1939 is an important marker of that. By 1939 of course, Bonhoeffer was under almost constant surveillance by the Gestapo. He’s work, writings, teaching, and preaching had all been prohibited. He also realized that he was going to be drafted into Hitler’s army and he intended to say no to conscription and there was of course no place for conscientious objection in Hitler’s army. And around that time some friends of his from America, Reinhold Niebuhr and others from New York and from the Lutheran Church, hurriedly put together a teaching position for him that made it possible for Bonhoeffer to leave Germany and to come and live what would be the remainder of the war in the relative security of academia, but Bonhoeffer had not been New York for more than 24 hours on that swelteringly hot summer of 1939 before he realized that he had made a mistake and returned to Germany after what was kind of dark, sweltering dark night of the soul for 6 weeks. Concluding this, “I realized I made a mistake in coming to America. I realize that I cannot hope to be apart of the rebuilding of the church in Germany or the fate of Germany after the war unless I return to Germany and suffer along side the brethren and suffer along side this church that is disintegrating and needs the witness of such people as I.” And I would add one more thing, Al, he also at that point had read and knew quite a bit about the Nazi brutality and atrocities and deportations, the plan of the coming Holocaust. His brother-in-law, Hans von Deichmann, who was a conspirator himself and had access to military intelligence and had been compiling a long document called a “Chronicle of Nazi Atrocities and Brutalities” and Bonhoeffer was approached by     Deichmann and his own brother Klaus Bonhoeffer to come back to Germany and be apart of the conspiracy and ultimately a plot to assassinate Hitler. So when Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1939 he returned back not only intending to do what he could as a pastor to help serve this ever-diminishing contesting church, he was also going to say yes to this more difficult conspiracy to ultimately seek to assassinate Hitler.


Mohler: You know I did a lot of my doctoral work on Karl Barth. My doctoral dissertation was actually on evangelical responses to Karl Barth, but I spent so many years researching part. And the confessing church is so much a part of that story, and yet I came to the conclusion that the confessing church was a whole lot more difficult to place than the American theological imagination even the evangelical imagination has put it. So I was eager to read how you would treat the confessing church. And you along with another scholar, Victoria Barnett, do the best job of laying out what the confessing church is really all about. It was not united in its opposition to Hitler early on. It was not united in opposition to anti-Semitism early on.


Marsh: That’s right. And I appreciate your recognition of that very difficult point. We have in a sense created in the United States and throughout the English-speaking world a kind of romantic narrative of the confessing church story. In fact, it’s a very troubled one from beginning to end. One of the stories I tell, I’ll just give you one version of this is Bonhoeffer’s response to the so-called Bethel confession at the end of 1933. Bonhoeffer had insisted that this first major confession of the Confessing church against the Nazification of the German church include a specific reference to Jewish persecution and in  a final draft of that confession that did not actually include Bonhoeffer’s participation the writers of that deleted Bonhoeffer’s phrase and he was furious. And it showed how already Bonhoeffer wanted to say yes these theological confessions are important and maintaining the autonomy of the church from state intrusion but the church also has to speak concrete word against an immoral state.


Mohler: You know, when you look at Bonhoeffer in that light he appears to be one of the most deeply convictional and courageous, and yet deeply conflicted persons and even as you tell the story, and you do it so well, Bonhoeffer is himself not sure how to respond to so many of these issues. You deal with what I consider to be the central ethical question about Bonhoeffer to be honest. And that is how in the world he joined the Abwehr, the military intelligence, because you actually tell the story and you’re good at suspense because you don’t raise the question that your reader should be asking long before you raise it, but I know it’s coming. You suggest that he does so consistent with his aims in the context. I still find that a very puzzling thing, as did Karl Barth we point out.


Marsh: Well thank you for those kind words. You know, I should point out that we’re both fellow Southerners and Southern Baptists and so the power of narrative and story and testimony is deep in my bones. At some point, I figured out that the best way for me to do apologetics would be to just go through a kind of artful testimonial. I did want render Bonhoeffer vivid and human and to show how he’s often very uncertain about the course of action and about God’s will for the present time and sometimes he makes mistakes and sometimes he has to try something two or three times before he can get it straight. And yet on this particular point about coming back and joining the conspiracy, I have to offer what may be an unpopular view to some American listerners and that is I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that Bonhoeffer ever hesitated in his support of an assisination plot on Hitler’s life. Now it’s clear that Bonhoeffer as a Christian and theologian and as a member of this kind of high ethical Bonhoeffer family felt an obligation to writing various accounts of how and why and under what circumstances to ramify might be warranted but all my interviews with family and with friends and with people who knew Bonhoeffer and looking at anecdotal evidence and testimonies around that time, Bonhoeffer knew in 1939 that Hitler had to be killed and he used the phrase several times “killing the madman.” And so while he had indeed  to reckon with some of the tensions that you described: how can someone who professes to be a pacifist or at least committed to a peace ethic give his blessings to a plot to kill Hitler? Nontheless, Bonhoeffer knew that was the correct course of action and he used his pastoral gifts in the conspiracy not only to offer his blessing on the conspirators and pray for the defeat of the country but to share the plans of the conspiracy with allied nations.


Mohler: One of my favorite pages in your book Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is found on page 346. I cited this page recently in a lecture on Martin Luther, not on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it strikes me that reading your book as a theologian and as a historical theologian that Bonhoeffer the Lutheran in that sense fully does understand that Lutheranism gave the Nazi regime some cultural symbols it could co-opt as a theology of glory as Bonhoeffer and Barth and others recognize. But it also gave an understanding of human sinfulness and page 346 I just want to read this back to you and for listeners to hear it. This is the most concise, accurate understanding of Luther on this question. You write:


In this connection it was useful to remember Luther’s understanding of the working of grace. Human kind, despite its best efforts, was inevitably engulfed in sin, from which Christ’s death on the cross offered the only redemption. It was for this reason not out of perversity, as many Catholic critics would claim, that the father of the Reformation had reasoned that the Christian must sometimes sin boldly. His council was not an incitement to wantonness but rather to heightened awareness that only Christ saves. One came to Christ a sinner in the best case. One could at least sin for the sake of righteousness. Bonhoeffer did not try to resolve the paradox by assuming moral innocence but accepted the paradox by incurring the guilt born out of responsible action.


I think Bonhoeffer knew that it was wrong to kill Hitler. It was just far, even infinitely less wrong, not to. As he describes, you mentioned paragraphs later, “If a pastor were watching a lunatic intentionally drive a car into innocence bystanders, he would be guilty if he did not act.”


Marsh: That’s correct.


Mohler: That is frankly a presentation of Bonhoeffer that is a lot more complex than the story that many evangelicals and many Americans and secular Americans think they know about Bonhoeffer. It’s the man who in the popular imagination who overcomes his moral scruples in an agonizing way to decide to join this eventually failed assisination attempt against Hitler, but one of the strengths of your telling of the story is he is developing in terms of his understanding and frankly with some fits and starts that aren’t to elegant to read in retrospect.


Marsh: That’s correct. And I think that here’s an interesting distinction. He doesn’t think that it’s necessarily morally wrong to kill Hitler, but he does recognize that it’s sinful to take a human life. So his anguish in this grappling with Lutheran’s gorgeous and complicated psychology of sin is where Bonhoeffer’s intensity shows itself most in this decision to confer blessings on the conspiracy to pray for the defeat of this country, to seek to topple this unjust regime.


Mohler: If I could summarize your argument and I want to test this with you, you come to the conclusion that Bonhoeffer was, indeed without any question, a martyr, but he was not, in an uncompromising sense, a hero.


Marsh: Yeah. You know, Bonhoeffer would not have wanted either to be said of him and I would affirm nonetheless his status as a martyr. I would even go so far as to agree with my friend Wolfgang Huber, former bishop of the Lutheran church in Germany, that we have sufficient ground to call Bonhoeffer a protestant saint. Heroic is a different quality. He did not seek to act heroically; he sought to act responsibly. And then acting responsibly he choose a different path from the heroic path and to the path that reckons with complexity and as you pointed out the sinful structures of the world and the inevitable sinful responses to those sinful structures in this fallen creation. Responsible, not heroic.


Mohler: Well I think that’s a very helpful qualification. It doesn’t in anyway mitigated his courage, but it does help us from creating a cartoon character of history and I love the honesty of  your book when you point out the courageous act and it’s aftermath and in the midst of being in prison, from which he eventually comes to understand he’s not going to emerge alive, he complains that the sausages are not cut straight.


Marsh: His behavior in prison is wonderful. He both ministers the prisoners, he accepts the prison community as his new congregation and he in facts lives his life in prison in the flow of a kind of protestant monastic day. There’s a liturgical flow to his day but he’s not afraid to complain about the food and the poor service and the rudeness and to show that there is a line between the kind of just and rightful claim of a good sausage as there is fighting systematic evil in the world. He remains consistent in that somewhat touching and humorous way even in these final days.


Mohler: It’s just very human. I want to ask about 2 other big issues. My favorite of Bonhoeffer’s works is Life Together. There are so many evangelicals—I can just tell you as a seminary student and seminary president I’m drawn to that because it is such a biblically, idealistic understanding of how a theological community would be together devotionally, in worship together, in life and obedience together.


Marsh: You know, I have to agree with you, Al, and say that Life Together is the book when I’m addressing student audiences and churches and book stores I recommend as the first book to read in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer canon. But I have to tell you that writing the chapter on Life Together showed me a new perspective on the book that is so poignant. I remember I had read this book many times and I don’t know why I’d miss this, but Life Together is a book about Christian community. It’s a book that many church groups study as a kind of manual on evangelical community, and yet Bonhoeffer wrote this love song on Christian community after this wonderful experiment at Finkenwalde and Christian community had been shut down by the Gestapo. That is to say, the Christian community that Bonhoeffer had been intensely involved in for 2 years had been disintegrated and he was without that richness and without that sense of the present gifts of the community and so he’s looking back on Christian community as a gift. In that first section of Life Together, he almost acknowledges that out mission is in exile and that the physical presence of other Christians in life together and worship is not a right, it’s gift. Many Christians perhaps most Christians worship Christ in exilic situation and it is written precisely out of his own poignancy of now being in a church that has run aground and living without community that he pens this gorgeous, eloquent narrative about Christian community.


Mohler: As an evangelical theologian reading your work and having the Fortress Press set of Bonhoeffer behind me and having worked on Bonhoeffer for years myself and not so much his life but his thought, that’s one of the reasons I just relished your biography so much, I’m still struggling, but I’m frustrated by many attempts, espeicially by I think superficial evangelical analysis to try to make Bonhoeffer an evangelical. He continued to accept all the central claims of modernity, much like the neo-orthodox of which he might be considered a part, at least in part. He accepts modernity’s central claims. If I could offer a thesis it would be that Bonhoeffer is not radically a discontinuous with Harnack, he wants Harnack’s modernity but he wants transcendence and true Christian ethic and he wants true Christian community because by the time you get to Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity—by the time you get to his Christianity without the framework of I think the rule of faith—I’m not sure what’s left. Can you help me with that? What’s left?


Marsh: I do think that the so-called death of God movement in the late 60s read a few passages from Letters and Papers from Prison and became much too excited about the prospects of using Bonhoeffer to their kind of radical Hegelian death of God project because if your read Letters and Papers in its totality I think it stands in strong continuity with Bonhoeffer’s earlier writings. I think the phrases “non-religious interpretation of Christianity,” “world come of age,” “living with God before God if there were no God” is a way of once again showing the difference between following Jesus and being religious and so for Bonhoeffer religion is kind of nineteen hundred year project that ran aground in the ruins of the church’s complicity with Hitler. So we are living in a time beyond religion but this is for Bonhoeffer an opportunity I believe to recover the original energies and convictions of the gospel and so I think we need to read those passages alongside for example his recitation of Irenaeus and very high Pauline Christology, his remarks about the importance of seeing Christ and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ as the unlocking of what he likes to call the “felicity of life” and so what I see him struggling with here is this: What does it mean to proclaim the gospel in a time in which the language of the Christian faith has been so profaned and so abused? Some people might say he goes the way of secularity and the death of God. I think that’s a misreading.


Mohler: I agree with you on that. And I think one of the clearest evidences of that is his response to Reinhold Niebuhr suggesting that Niebuhr’s Christian realism is insufficiently Christian and that the corrective was theism. And so I think it is impossible to declare Bonhoeffer to be a part of the death of God movement but he was very clearly a prophet of modernity suggesting that whatever Christianity was on the other side of the reconstruction after Nazism and the Holocaust it was going to be a fundamentally reordered religion.


Marsh: I think it was going to be a religion that renewed the origins of the faith and that was robustly grounded in historic Trinitarian Christianity. I say this because of the way he evokes several times in the Letters and Papers from Prison this notion to arcane discipline. He’s in prison, he’s observing the ruins of the church from a Gestapo prison cell and he’s wanting to ask the question: how can Christians proclaim the gospel in this time beyond the Holocaust and Third Reich? And one of his proposals is we may need to return to a catacomb like way of being followers of Jesus. In this arcane tradition, it’s an ancient practice that the churches use in times when the gospel has just been spoken and misused publically to the point that it’s lost its meaning. In these circles, these devotional circles and gathering of people in Bible study and prayer, the mysteries of the faith, the doctrines of the faith, the richness of the Christian tradition would be spoken and it would be renewed but it would have to some recognition that the public had to be gently rehabilitated in its understanding of what it meant to be Christian. You could no longer say what it means to be a Christian is to be a good citizen, a good German, a good Lutheran, a good that, it means a new being, to step into a new way of life as inaugurated in the call of Jesus, and I see all of those energies at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s imagination in prison.


Mohler: I want to ask in conclusion, you deal with Bonhoeffer in so many different ways: his privileged childhood, the fact that he was raised as a twin, with a twin sister, he had such a life of privilege; then you follow the twists and turns of his life; you deal honestly with his sexuality and personal relationships. What was the greatest surprise you found in your research about Dietrich Bonhoeffer?


Marsh: Well, the issue of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Eberhard Bethge is one that has been addressed off-camera if you will at Bonhoeffer gatherings for decades. And I wanted to render that complicated and what I think is finally a beautiful and from Bonhoeffer’s perspective tragic relationship in a way that was as respectful and honest as possible and so I wanted to present this story as such. Bonhoeffer had a romantic attraction to Eberhard Bethge. That is from the evidence, from the letters, from the documentary evidence, indisputable. He imagined some kind of a spiritual marriage with this fellow Christian who had become for him a soul mate that clustered around shared devotional practices and a love of Jesus and also I should add celibacy. Eberhard it is clear never was able to reciprocate the intensity of Bonhoeffer’s affections and he never quite accepted this kind of implicit proposal for a spiritual partnership that would endure. So the bookends of the story are this: a clear romantic attraction to Eberhard; at the same time a priestly commitment Bonhoeffer understood as an abbot of an evangelical seminary, a kind of monastic experiment in evangelicalism that celibacy for him should be a practice and he remains celibate and he died a celibate. And so I never wanted to—I worked very hard on this.


Mohler: I can tell you were very respectful. Very respectful.


Marsh: I can’t tell you how many drafts I went through and how many conversations with so many people I had to finally just show this without making any policy or polity conclusion. As what it is to render that as part of the complexity and beauty of Bonhoeffer’s story and I appreciate your remark that it did seem respectful.


Mohler: The way you treat Bonhoeffer’s story and the intellectual context in which Bonhoeffer lived and thought and the frankly the skill with which you tell the story, I recommend several religious biographies to students—I recommend Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand about Luther and Peter Brown on Augustine—and I just want you to know that I recommend now Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoffer as one of those great biographies every theology student and every thinking Christian should read.


Marsh: I am so moved that and I hope this can lead, Al, to further conversations and a visit here on our beautiful grounds here in Charlottesville. I would love to break bread with you and spend some time in Louisville. It’s really truly an honor to speak with you.


Mohler: Charles, I have to ask you, what’s your next project? Because I know you’re already onto something else. What comes next?


Marsh: Well, I want to tell that God has a sense of humor, Al. 30 years ago this spring I was asked by an atheist philosopher of religion at UVA to TA for a class called “Faith and Doubt in the Modern World” that would soon be called students “Doubt and Doubt in the Modern World” and I joked with the professor 30 years ago that one day I would conspire to take over this class and restore and at least introduce for the first time the element of faith. Well this professor who later became a colleague of mine at Virginia retired about a year ago and her course “Faith and Doubt in the Modern World” became open and the chair of my department said, “Would anyone like to teach this” and I said, “I am going to teach that class.” So I am teaching “Faith and Doubt in the Modern World” this spring and I am having such unexpected joy, not only introducing people of faith into the syllabus but also really helping students construct a narrative of modern atheism and the robust responses of faith that were developed and I find myself now wanting to write a book that is kind of based on this experience of teaching in a secular university about reasons for faith and the case for God, conversations I’m having with students and colleagues. So I’m in the very early stages of this but, you know, I want to write a memoir that offers reasons for faith but may be a humorous way and a moving way that shows what it’s like for an evangelical Christian to be teaching in the secular university and that’s kind of what I find myself doing now.


Mohler: Well, I’m pleased to hear and I know our listeners will be envious of the experience of your students. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation, Charles. Thank you so much for joining me.


Marsh: Thank you and many blessings. I look forward to our next exchange.


Mohler: Absolutely. God bless you.


Mohler: This conversation helps us to understand why biography is such a compelling form of literature. It is because when you have a story of the life well told it’s virtually impossible to put it down. And when you add to that that certain biographies take as their focus an individual at a strategic moment in history, when vital issues and events are taking place, when that story is well told, and when as Charles Marsh has given us in this biography you have very careful attention to the literary, historical, and intellectual backgrounds, well, there you have a fundamentally important recipe for a compelling biography, not only compelling, but genuinely important. Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is interesting from the very beginning. Here you have a boy that is born into one of the most privileged societies that modern humanity has ever known. You’re talking about Berlin, which saw itself as the very center, the cultural center of the universe. You’re talking about one of the most highly educated, highly advanced societies. And you’re talking about a boy who was born as the son of a psychiatrist in one of the most illustrious middle class and that means very wealthy neighborhoods in Berlin. He knew his neighbor’s names such as Adolf Von Harnack and he knew a society that privileged culture and educations above virtually everything else. And you’re talking about a boy who knew the fine things of life. As Charles Marsh makes clear, he was attentive to his very fashions, his clothes, all the way to the end of his life and even to the disposition of those things after his death. You’re talking about a young man who at age 14 announced to his humanist siblings that he intended to become a theologian, something that was absolutely shocking to them because as one of his brothers said that was “reversion” in terms of intellectual life. They couldn’t imagine that their little brother given all these advantages would actually choose to be a theologian. And yet you also see the ambition of young Dietrich when he tells his brother, “then I will reform the discipline.” And that’s what he actually set out to do. Many evangelicals think they know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in terms of the major turning points of his life and they understand that he was involved in some way eventually in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. They know that eventually he was executed by the Nazis in the Flossenburg  concentration camp. They know that the tragedy in terms of one of the ironies of history is that that execution took place just about two weeks before the allies liberated that camp. They understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an example of courage and he’s often described as a martyr for the Christian faith.


They may know Dietrich Bonhoeffer through two of his most important and well-known writings. The first of these is Life Together. That is the platform, the program that Dietrich Bonhoeffer called for in his seminary for training pastors. It calls for what the title implies: life together, devotional life together, worshipful life together. It’s something like a Protestant monasticism. And anyone involved in theological education and the training of ministers understands the power of the understanding of what it would mean to learn together, to teach together, to worship together. There’s something fundamentally beautiful and idealistic about that vision and it’s one that continues to have a great deal of resonance with evangelicals today.


Many evangelicals also know Dietrich Bonhoeffer through his book The Cost of Discipleship. And through his warning of what he called cheap grace. And especially, now well into the 21st century we can understand the danger of that cheap grace. That is Christianity without a cost. And yet even as evangelicals think they may know Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my guess is that when they read Charles Marsh’s magisterial biography, they’re going to come to understand there’s far more to the story than they knew. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a far more interesting character than that which is told in terms of much evangelical history. He is not simply someone who came to a determination that he would be involved in a plot to kill Hitler.


He is also someone who had to follow the drama of the First World War and came to the understanding that Christianity must be against war, and especially against a government that would claim a theological rationale for an imperialistic war of conquest. The great tragedy of the First World War actually brought an imminent collapse to the entire theological world that dominated Germany in the first decades of the 20th century. That was the world of classic protestant liberalism. And at the very center of that was a professor known as Adolf Von Harnack, that is the Bonhoeffer family’s neighbor. Harnack was one of the first modern historians of dogma and historians of theology and he called for eliminating all of what he described as the “artificial structure” around the Christian truth claim and getting to the kernel of Christianity. But what he saw as the husk, what he wanted to throw away, was all of the system of classical doctrine that Christianity has understood as its very essence as the rule of faith, as the faith once delivered to all the saints. Basically, in making a pact with modernity, Harnack and his colleagues called for eliminating all the supernatural, for eliminating the miraculous. Out went the incarnation of Jesus Christ, out went the inspiration of Scripture, out went the centrality of the bodily resurrection of Christ, and what was left was an ethic and a philosophy of life. Out of that movement and especially out of the trauma of First World War came a movement known as Neo-orthodoxy and the prime mover in that movement was none other than Karl Barth. And yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer is rightly associated in some way with that movement. And yet every one of those neo-orthodox thinkers was a mixture of the neo-orthodox end of modernity. And in terms of the superstructure of their thought, it was modernity that was fundamental. They were trying to rescue what they thought might be rescued of historic Christianity in the aftermath of modern age and its anti-supernaturalism, its inherent secularism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to understand that Protestant liberalism was itself a failed project because even as it denied transcendence, it left no eventual role for even define judgment. It left no theological fiber that gave the German church the ability to withstand the war claims of the emperor and later of Adolf Hitler.


One of the great achievements of this biography is that Charles Marsh writes so honestly not only about Bonhoeffer but about his colleagues. And about the Confessing Church, making very clear that the the Confessing Church did not represent a clean break with Nazism, a clean break even with the Hitler regime, at least not in the beginning. And also as this book makes clear in the telling of the story of Bonhoeffer we’re telling the story of twists and turns of intellectual developments. We’re telling the story of him leaving that privileged German culture and coming to the United States where he sees the sterility of American protestant liberalism even at Union Theological Seminary where he becomes influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of Christian realism when he goes and eventually and on a second trip to the United States comes to the conclusion that he has to return, even under what he knows will be the threat to his life. He has to return to Germany to be with the German church in order to try to rebuild that church and German society in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II. But there was no way to go back without entering into those horrors. And there are twists and turns to that story as well. How many American evangelicals know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually joined the Abwehr? That is, the military of intelligence of the Hitler regime. That points to one of the central issues that we have to understand when it comes to Bonhoeffer and that is he was a real life human being. He was living in the context of some of the most challenging times that are imaginable and that’s an understatement. It’s hard for any of us to imagine what it would have been like to have tried to operate as a Christian in the midst of the Nazi regime and one of the things that you certainly gain from reading this biography that is Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that it is actually impossible if we’re intellectually honest to put ourselves in that story. Instead, we have to honestly read the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


For evangelical Christians one of the most important issues with Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not only getting the story straight and putting that story within its context and understanding Bonhoeffer sympathetically within the contours of his own times, it also raises the fact that we can genuinely find encouragement, we can even find models that we would admire, models in this case of ethical courage, in the context of someone who held a theology that we do not share. You know, when reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological works I increasingly, the old I get and the longer I read Bonhoeffer, the more I come to the conclusion that he actually wasn’t that much of a break with protestant liberalism. The more I come to the conclusion that his religiousless Christianity he called for at the very in stage of his life was really rather continuous with Adolf Von Harnack’s understanding of protestant liberalism. And yet Bonhoeffer wanted transcendence he wanted to find some way to have Christian community. He wanted to find some way to retain a binding Christian ethic that would be strong enough to resist even the Hitler regime. And he wanted all of that with what he understood to be a reformulation of Christianity that would become necessary and perhaps even possible in the collapse of the Nazi regime. The one thing we have to sympathetically understand is that that regime presented the great test case to the Christians who were directly under its shadow as to how in the world Christianity could survive a regime that was so nihilistically and unremittingly evil.


The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out that we can find genuine moral encouragement and moral instruction even in the life of someone who’s theology we do not share. But when it comes to that theology as an evangelical theologian I resist those who rather carelessly and superficially try to make Bonhoeffer appear more evangelical than he actually is. And I want to point out that danger. It came up in the conversation with Charles Marsh. It comes up in the fact that we cannot simply take language where it appears and believe that that language or assume that that language means exactly what we would mean by it. You have to put it in the larger context. That’s especially true when reading someone like Karl Barth who can use language that sounds so essentially orthodox and in many ways the language is but you put it within the context of his understanding of revelation, of the relationship between history and salvation history and you come to understand he doesn’t exactly by those words what we would mean by those words. That’s a very careful reading, that’s an issue of evangelical responsibility. We aren’t to read critically, we are to read sympathetically, and we are to read carefully, making sure that we are putting this statement within its context so we understand what is actually being conveyed.


And that leads to another point when it comes to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: we actually have no basis on which to make an absolute statement about what kind of model that Christianity would have followed on the other side of the Nazi regime. He simply didn’t live in order to write those books and to make those proposals. Charles Marsh very interestingly says that he thinks on the other side Bonhoeffer would have reconsidered or reconstructed an understanding of theology that was more apostolic, tied to the Trinitarian faith, something that is very continuous with historic Christianity. I can simply say I hope he’s right but we actually don’t know. If we could read all of Bonhoeffer’s works and come to the conclusion as to where that might have been headed, Charles Marsh would certainly deserve that recognition, but the reality is we don’t know. And even in his Letters and Papers from Prison, there are theological fragments that could lead me to go in one direction and then a few pages later in a very different direction. I simply don’t know.


In the end, the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one the most interesting of the 20th century, hands down, simply no question. It is also one of the most important when it comes to the confrontation between theological issues and the reality of the day, the reality is horrifying as the rise of Nazism. We should have no embarrassment in citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer when it comes to ecclesiology and to very important statements about what it means to live theology together, what it means to be a Christian community, no embarrassment in citing Bonhoeffer on those issues at all. We should be very clear that Bonhoeffer was prophetic and right when he warned about cheap grace. And he was very right to point to the fact that cheap grace would lead not only to what we might say now is prosperity theology but to something even more dangerous and that is the murderous race-based nihilism of the Nazi regime.


Ever since I was a teenager I’ve been fascinated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The theologian in me still struggles to understand exactly where Bonhoeffer stood and exactly what he meant in some of his writings. But it’s most compelling when the twists and turns of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought are told honestly and presented within the context of his times. That’s what makes his story truly compelling. That’s why you’re going to find Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer a truly captivating read. Like the very best of biographies, it will make you think about the subject of this biography—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And like the very best of biographies, it will make you think about yourself and how you fit in your own time, in your own story.


Many thanks to my guest Charles Marsh for thinking with me today.  For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.