Westminster Seminary California
Bonhoeffer and Assassination
Bonhoeffer and Assassination

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known in Christian circles for his famous book, The Cost of Discipleship. Thousands of Christians have read this book and been impacted by Bonhoeffer’s call to take up one’s cross and eschew what he called, “cheap grace.” But many people also know that Bonhoeffer was ultimately imprisoned and executed by the Nazi government for his role in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

What perhaps many do not realize is that there was a movement from the days prior to the onset of World War II to remove Hitler from power. At first, many of his generals believed that Hitler was mad and they did not want him to bring about Germany’s demise. So a number of Hitler’s generals were looking for reason to arrest and remove him from power. There were others, however, who saw the genuine evil of Hitler’s regime. Hitler saw to the systematic persecution of the Confessing Church in Germany, those churches and ministers who broke away from the German state church. The German state church had in effect sworn its allegiance to Hitler and his policies, which included, among other things, the systematic persecution and murder of Jews. Beyond this, Hitler oversaw the methodical murder of those who were deemed a burden upon the German people, such as those who were physically or mentally challenged.

Initially Bonhoeffer took an admirable stance by risking his own well-being and livelihood. Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled, Prayerbook of the Bible. This book was on the Psalter and its importance in the life of the Christian for prayer. It might not seem all that controversial, but at the time Bonhoeffer wrote it and published it at great risk. The German government had vigorously promoted a campaign to rid the German state church of any connection to the Old Testament because of its connections to the Jewish people. So for Bonhoeffer to write a book on the Psalms and argue for its centrality in the life of the Christian was a bold rebuke of Nazi policy (367). Bonhoeffer’s chief point was that Christ was the subject of the Psalms and that Christianity, therefore, was inescapably Jewish. Bonhoeffer’s book, however, was no mere pretext for arguing against Germany’s policy but rather genuinely demonstrates that the Psalms center upon Christ. Few know that this book earned Bonhoeffer the penalty of being banned from publishing anything again (369).

Beyond this, Bonhoeffer decided that he had to do more to stop Hitler and so he took up a position working with German intelligence. Bonhoeffer’s friends, who were also interested in bringing down Hitler, assisted him in getting his position as a spy with German intelligence. The pretense was that his cover as a pastor enabled him to travel abroad and learn about Germany’s enemies but all the while he was really going around trying to gather international support for a coup against Hitler (370). But Bonhoeffer’s actions were not ultimately confined to garnering support but rather participation in plots to kill Hitler.

Here’s a crucial question: should “minister of the gospel” and words such as “deception,” “conspiracy,” and “assassination,” appear in the same sentence (370, 380-93, 423-27)? These are the same words that are used to described the tools of the Nazi government. And make no mistake about it, Bonhoeffer was executed, not for his preaching of the gospel, but for his involvement in the assassination plot; the order for Bonhoeffer’s execution was likely given by Hitler himself (529). So what does this all mean?

The Scriptures are clear, that as ministers, the weapons of our warfare are not of this world (2 Cor. 10:4). Ministers wield the sword of the Spirit, the word of God—they herald the gospel of Christ. To be sure, there were scores of Confessing Church ministers who were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed for preaching the gospel. When a minister, therefore, is taken to the gallows, should it be because he has a Bible or a sword in his hand? Some might think that preaching means nothing in the face of violent evil, but the gospel is the aroma of life for those leading to life and the aroma of death for those leading to death—it is double-edged—it brings either salvation or condemnation (2 Cor. 2:14-15; Heb. 4:12).

To the outside world, it may seem like the preaching of the gospel is resignation to evil. Instead, we should recognize that, yes, to the natural man the gospel is foolishness—such is the cruciform wisdom of God. When in the face of evil ministers herald the gospel, they follow Christ in the Via Dolorosa and take up their crosses. This means that ministers who do this will likely suffer for their fidelity to Christ. As tempting as it might be, ministers should never trade the sword of the Spirit for the sword of steel.