Bonhoeffer 4: Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision (Part 2)

Nearly everyone accepts that the current structure of seminary education is not fully adequate to train pastors to build Christian communities in our contemporary society. [1] As a result, there have been many attempts to think about what form preparation for ministry should take. This article focuses on the formation of the Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde, Germany from 1934 until 1939, just after Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned from his second visit the United States, returning to join the sufferings of the German people under Hitler and becoming a part of the resistance to the regime.

The issue of responsible discipleship was of central importance for Bonhoeffer, practically and theologically. It was central to his critique of the church of his own day as he pondered the diminution of faith in mid-20th Century Germany and the totalitarian dictatorships that had formed in Germany, Italy, and Russia. It was also critical to his notion of what constitutes the church as the body of Christ in the world. His emphasis on discipleship led Bonhoeffer to create a unique seminary to train pastors for the Confessing Church. [2]

The End of Christendom

By 1934, Bonhoeffer was deeply concerned about the future of Christianity in Germany and Europe, seeking answers to the question, “What can be done to revitalize faith in Europe?” Writing to his brother Karl Friedrich, he expressed his fears as follows: “…I am becoming more convinced each day that Christianity is approaching its end in the West—at least in its previous form and previous interpretation….” [3] Writing to Mahatma Gandhi he said, “The great need of Europe and of Germany in particular is not the economic and political confusion, but it is a deep spiritual need.” [4] In other words, the fundamental problem in Europe during the pre-war period was not economic or political, but spiritual. The same could be said of our society today.

As one can see, Bonhoeffer’s critique of European Christianity later found in Letters and Papers from Prison was already forming in his mind. [5] After the formation of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer was tasked with creating a seminary, since the Confessing Churches could not use existing institutions controlled by the Nazi’s. Fortunately, he was already thinking through what was needed to face not just the challenges of being a Christian in Hitler’s Germany, but the challenges of being a Christian Western culture generally. Furthermore, the context of Bonhoeffer’s letters indicates that his concern was not merely intellectual and theological, but spiritual and practical, In his view, neither in America nor in Europe did there exist the kind of spiritual formation needed to address the problems of Western society. If this was true in Bonhoeffer’s day, it is even more true in ours.

Background to the Idea of a Seminary like Finkenwalde

In January 1935, Bonhoeffer wrote his brother that “The restoration of the church must surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will surely have only one thing in common with the old, a life lived without compromise according to the Sermon on the Mount in following Jesus. I believe that the time has come to gather people together for this.” [6]  His ideas concerning the way forward to restore Christianity was to take a more concrete form as he created a seminary for the Confessing Church.

By the late 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had long wanted to go to India and study under Gandhi in order to study his notion of community as well as various methods of training. [7] Not long after his letter to Gandhi was written and an invitation received, Bonhoeffer faced the choice as to whether or not to go to India to study under Gandhi or return to Germany to serve the Confessing Church. Writing to a friend, he further revealed his ideas about what was required for theological education to sustain itself against the Nazi Regime, and even the ideology of modernism:

I am hopelessly torn between staying here, going to India and returning to Germany to take charge of a preacher seminary shortly to be open there I no longer believe in the university; and never really have believed in it – to your irritation. The entire education of the younger generation of theologians belongs to the church in cloister-like schools, in which pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount and worship are taken seriously…. [8]

Bonhoeffer chose to go back to Germany. Before leaving England, however, Bonhoeffer took the opportunity to visit several monastic communities in the Anglican tradition located in England. George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, introduced him to various communities in England, and he was able to visit most of them before his return home. His specific interest was the way in which these communities spiritually formed their members and lived in community; characteristics important for the new kind of seminary he had in mind. [9]

As Bonhoeffer prepared to leave England and undertake the theological training of pastors for the Confessing Church, he continued to study the Sermon on the Mount, a study reflected in his lectures at Finkenwalde, which became his book the Cost of Discipleship. [10] In addition, Bonhoeffer was already thinking about the kind of community necessary to form pastors able to build Christian communities in a hostile environment. This thinking ended up with the form of communal life he nurtured at Finkenwalde and is reflected by his book, Life Together, written after the seminary was closed. [11] It is fair to say that Bonhoeffer felt that authentic discipleship required authentic community, and the skills to form an authentic Christian community, the “Body of Christ in the World” were necessary in the Christian formation of pastors for the church. His insight is as true today as it was in the last century.

Bonhoeffer’s Seminary for the Confessing Church [12]

In Germany in Bonhoeffer’s day, there existed “Preachers Seminaries” of approximately one year of specific training after formal theological training at a university. German universities were government schools designed to give intellectual training, similar to the function many seminaries perform today. Some German churches felt additional training was needed to ensure that pastors had specific skills needed to be successful in day-to-day ministry. This led to the formation of what were called “Preachers Seminaries.” When the Confessing Church was faced with the need to provide education for theological students who opposed the Nazi regime, the device of Preachers Seminaries was used to provide theological education leading to ministry. [13]

Structure of Daily Life

The structure of various Confessing Church seminaries differed from what Bonhoeffer created. The seminary at Finkenwalde was unique and created a lot of comment at the time. At Finkenwalde, the days were punctuated by worship services in the morning and evening, not unlike the Anglican practice of morning and evening prayer. In the morning, the service was followed by half-hour of meditation. The services normally took place around the dinner table. The order of worship was something like the following:

  1. A choral psalm and him selected for the day.
  2. A lesson from the Old Testament.
  3. Another set verse from a hymn, sung daily for several weeks,
  4. A New Testament lesson,
  5. A period of its temporary prayer and recital of the Lord’s prayer.
  6. A concluding hymn. [14]

During the day, there were classes at which Bonhoeffer and others would teach the theological content of the course of study. During meals, Bonhoeffer attempted to have readings, similar to the practice in Benedictine monasteries. This provoked opposition, but was sometimes included in the daily routine. There were also times of freedom, exercise, and especially for the making of music, at which Bonhoeffer excelled. One evening each week was devoted to the discussion of current issues, the politics of the day, and other matters. Bonhoeffer was committed to the notion that the seminary students should understand the society in which they were living and the political and other pressures they would face. In all these activities, Bonhoeffer was building the kind of community he hoped to see his students create in the congregations and other organizations they served.

As word of the innovations at Finkenwalde spread, many opposed or made fun of his ideas. Bonhoeffer was accused of introducing Catholic practices into the Protestant Church. In fact, he had a deeper goal: Bonhoeffer wanted to form the character of young theologians to the point where they would be able to form and maintain Christian communities under great opposition and pressure. He knew that his graduates would face opposition and persecution for their faith and wanted them to be able to both resist and to form communities that could endure within a hostile culture. In much of the world, local pastors face a similar situation today.

The Syllabus of Study

On the surface, Bonhoeffer’s seminary outline of study was not extraordinary. As one might expect, the center of the curriculum was the Word of God, Christ revealed in Scripture which students were to preach in the churches and live in their day-to-day lives. The students were trained in the art of preaching, liturgy and orders of worship, the catechisms of the church, pastoral care, and lectures on church, ministry and community, similar to those in other seminaries. [15]The idea was that the preaching and other activities of the pastors he trained would create vital parts of the body of Christ in the world.

The uniqueness of Bonhoeffer’s seminary was found in its emphasis on discipleship and in the lectures Bonhoeffer gave on the subject, lectures that ultimately became his book, Cost of Discipleship. Although there were students who did not like the structure or content of the Finkenwalde experience, most students recognized that Bonhoeffer was preparing them for the life of discipleship in a hostile environment—a life of taking up their crosses and following Christ into the reality of Nazi Germany. As the years went by, many of them realized that their time with Bonhoeffer had been transformational, including some who had been initially hostile.

The Brotherhood of Pastors

During 1935, as Bonhoeffer wrote the beginning chapters of Cost of Discipleship, he had the the opportunity to create as part of the seminary community, a “House of Brethren.” Once again, Bonhoeffer had contemplated communal life for many years and was captivated by the idea of creating a committed community of Christian disciples within the seminary community. He hoped to create a brotherhood of pastors especially trained and equipped for leadership in the church. In order to accomplish this, Bonhoeffer created what is called, “The House of Brethren.” It is best to think of this House of Brethren as a special feature of the training pastors received at Finkenwalde. In fact, the House of Brethren followed the order of life and seminary routine as closely as possible to prevent confusion. [16] The basic outline of the order of life Bonhoeffer created can be summarized as involving:

  1. Daily Meditative Bible reading
  2. Daily Prayer and Meditation
  3. Regular Worship
  4. Confession
  5. Holy Communion
  6. Christian Action [17]

By August 1935, Bonhoeffer was absolutely convinced that pastoral training to disciple people in the Christian life could not be given abstractly but only in a concrete community in which there was a common life and awareness of Christ and of the meaning of Christian discipleship. In addition, in such a community it would be possible to serve the greater community in a more transformational way, which in the case of Finkenwalde included serving the Confessing Church and the surrounding area of Pomerania as well as engaging in wider, ecumenical activities. [18] IN the end, Bonhoeffer’s House of Brethren did engage in pastoral service to the local area and even to the greater German Confessing Church.

End of Finkenwalde and the Collective Pastorates

In September 1937, the Gestapo closed the Finkenwalde seminary and boarded its doors. While attempts were made to overturn this decision, they were of no avail. In addition, the other Confessing Church seminaries were closed as well. This resulted in the creation of yet another system of theological education for the Confessing Church. This involved the use of “collective pastorates” where students were working in small congregations under the supervision of ordained pastors prior to ordination, a practice that predated the Confessing Church. [19] By 1939, the Confessing Church, oppressed from without and lacking internal unity was helpless, and the time had come for a new approach. Nevertheless, from the closure of Finkenwalde to his second trip to America, Bonhoeffer continued to implement his ideas in a somewhat different format.


By the end of his time at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer was prepared for the final phase of his life and ministry. Bonhoeffer saw the grim reality that the modern world embraces a worldview and values that exclude God from the day-to-day reality of politics, government, business, social structures, and everyday life. The kind of Christianity, and the kind of church that developed from the time of Constantine through the Reformation to the present decline of the modern world, was (and is) inadequate for the the culture of the West, increasingly a world-wide culture corroding traditional values and societies wherever it spreads. In response to this new reality, God was and is radically purifying the church so that the church can meet the challenges of contemporary life. The church will for some time not be an honored institution at the core of society, visibly powerful and influential. Instead, the influence of the people of God will be seen in quiet, sometimes unseen prayer and action for the good of others. [20]

Bonhoeffer not only intellectually recognized the need of the church for a different sort of pastoral formation, but also created a model showing what the formation of pastors might look like in response to the cultural changes he saw evident in the West and especially in Germany. Fundamentally, this model flowed from his conviction that the Word of God was present in Scripture and in the Church, as the body of Christ present in the world—a view he already held when he wrote this thesis, Sanctorum Communio. [21]

In the context of World War II Germany, the form of that church Bonhoeffer envisioned was the Confessing Church, which Bonhoeffer believed to be the true form of the church in Germany, free of the heretical elements of the German Christian movement. In our own day, we perhaps see the church wherever “two or more are gathered” in the name of Christ bound together by the love of God (Matthew 18:20; John 13:35). It is for contemporary Christians to build upon what Bonhoeffer achieved as we attempt to adapt to the challenges we face in our own day and time.

Almost certainly, the key element for the growth of discipleship in the church today is the formation of little communities in which Christ is present in the world through word, prayer, witness, and action. Formation of these kind of communities requires a specific kind of apostolic leader, which requires a specific kind of formation for both ordained and lay leadership in the church. Bonhoeffer’s example does not answer all of our questions, but his model is certainly one every Christian leader should study and internalize.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In 2021, I published a blog based upon a book, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision by Paul House, in his book Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2015), hereinafter “BSV”. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, “Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision” (published August 13, 2021).

[2] This is not to underestimate other factors which resulted in the seminaries of the confessing church, of which Bonhoeffer’s work at Finkenwalde was only one.

[3] See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), hereinafter “Bethge,” at 406.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letter to Mahatma Gandhi” dated October 17, 1934, (downloaded September 27, 2022)

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

[6] Letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Klaus Friedrich Bonhoeffer, January 1935, quoted in Mary Bosaquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 150.

[7] George Bell, Letter to Ghandi October 22, 1934, found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works (Cleveland, OH: Fount Books, 1958), 291.

[8] Letter to Edwin Sutz, September 11, 1934, found in Bethge, at 411.

[9] Id, at 412.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer , The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together tr. John Doberstein, (New York, NY: Harper One, 1954).

[12] In this section (as well as in the past) I will be referring to “Finkenwalde combining it with the earlier experience at Zinsk on the Baltic Sea, where it was briefly located and his later experience in training pastors after the closure of Finkenwalde

[13] Bethge, at 419-421.

[14] Bethge, at 428.

[15] Id, at 241.

[16] Bethge at 460, 468.

[17] Id, at 466. All of these ideas are found in his little book, Life Together.

[18] Id, at 466-467. The way in which Bonhoeffer created the House of Brethren is reminiscent of the way in which early monasteries were formed and served the communities near them. I cannot describe these wider activities in this paper, but he took students on tours, engaged in ecumenical activities, supported the Confessing Church, and in other aspects of ministry, all of which are outlined in Bethge’s biography. Id, at 468-585.

[19] Id, at 587-596.

[20] This is a near direct quote reprinted from G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making(College Station, TX: Virtual Bookworm, 2022), 119. As the proceeding makes plain, well by the time of Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer was deeply struggling with the nature of modern society, the absence of a felt need for God, and the secularization of intellectual and practical society. Nevertheless, it should be evident from this and prior blogs that have recently been published that this realization by Bonhoeffer had been underway for some time, and his conclusions in his prison letters do not involve a radical break from ideas he had long held.

[21] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), 280.