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Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer: His Early Life

March 18, 2014

Bethge_Bonhoeffer BioUntil recently I haven’t known much about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, let alone his early years. I’m working my way through Eberhard Bethge’s thousand-page biography of Bonhoeffer. I’ve just finished reading about his early years and his first year as a university student.

Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906. He was a twin (Sabine was his twin sister). Including Dietrich, there were eight (!) Bonhoeffer children. The death of his older brother Walter in World War I “left an indelible mark,” as Bethge tells it, on the 12-year-old Dietrich and his family–especially his mother.

Bethge describes a Bonhoeffer family who had money (servants, a summer home, a large house) but who were by no means ostentatious. Nor were the children spoiled, according to Bonhoeffer’s biographer. He writes:

The children’s day followed a disciplined pattern; they always knew where they were, and the routine never struck them as restrictive, for they also knew that their parents arranged happy surprises and outings every now and then.

Dietrich was a talented pianist and played the lute, so well that “for a time both he and his parents thought he might become a professional musician.”

At the age of 17, Bonhoeffer went to the University of Tübingen for a year, where his father had gone. Bethge notes that Bonhoeffer’s “priority was philosophy.” The prologue of the Gospel of John especially interested Bonhoeffer, who also took classes on the Psalms and Old Testament theology, among others. But primarily his foundation in that first year was philosophical:

That indeed summed up Dietrich’s year in Tübingen. It was characterized by his wide range of interest, without a firm commitment to any particular area, and by a persistent exploration of the epistemological field.

Bonhoeffer would continue his education at Berlin, beginning his dissertation at the age of 19 and completing it in a year and a half. He successfully defended that work at the age of 21.

This is the second post in “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer.” See the first one (on forgiveness) here. I describe the series more here. Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer can be found here (Amazon affiliate link) or here

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