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  • Cited by 2
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: May 2006

3 - The formation of Bonhoeffer's theology

from Part one - Bonhoeffer's Life and Legacy


Theology entered the Bonhoeffer household, embedded as it was in the culture of the German aristocracy, through Paula von Hase, Dietrich's mother. Her mother, a countess, had been a pupil of Franz Liszt and Klara Schumann. This undoubtedly found its way into the artistry Dietrich Bonhoeffer displayed in his piano playing. Paula von Hase's maternal grandfather, the painter Count von Kalckreuth, founded and directed the Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar. Her father, son of a professor of church history and historical theology, was a professor of practical theology. A distinctly political and somewhat 'anti-aristocratic' spirit entered into this tradition when Paula von Hase married Karl Bonhoeffer. The democratic republicanism, socialism and patriotism of the German Student Association, founded in 1815, were anticipated by the forebears of Dietrich's father. They had drawn the rulers' wrath and exacted the price of personal suffering of several of Dietrich's ancestors. Eberhard Bethge sums up this legacy and its significance for the young Bonhoeffer in these words:

The rich world of his forebears gave Dietrich Bonhoeffer the standards for his own life. He owed it an assurance of judgement and bearing that cannot be acquired in a single generation. He grew up in a family that did not look to the school for what makes for real education but to the deeply rooted obligation to be guardian of a great historical legacy and intellectual tradition. To Dietrich Bonhoeffer this meant learning to understand and respect what others before him had thought and done. But it could also constrain him so to determine his actions that, in essence, they were in conflict with his forebears but precisely in that contradiction paid them respect.