Dietrich Bonhoeffer vs. Athanasius

In the last battle of a madcap week of Lent Madness, it's two spiritual giants facing off in the first round. Not fair to pit Dietrich Bonhoeffer against Athanasius so early in the Madness? Perhaps. But, like Lent Madness, is not fair.

Yesterday, Albert Schweitzer soundly defeated Lawrence 60% to 40% to advance to the Saintly Sixteen against Methodius.

As we will soon enter another 48 hours without voting, please remember these 10 tips to surviving Lent Madness Withdrawal. We know it's not easy and that LMW is real. But it all returns on Monday morning as Vida Dutton Scudder takes on F.D. Maurice. The first round concludes next Wednesday then it's on to the Saintly Sixteen starting Thursday. Hang on to your Lenten-themed-purple-bramble-infused hats!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and was raised in a home that valued education. He earned a doctorate in theology in 1927 from the University of Berlin at the age of twenty-one. Bonhoeffer also studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City from 1930 to1931. While in New York, he began attending the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he enjoyed both sound theological doctrine and rich examples of Christian life lived for the sake of the world. As the Nazi party was gaining notoriety and power in Germany, many of Bonhoeffer’s friends urged him to stay in the United States rather than return to Germany, but he opted to go home.

Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer accepted a position as lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin. He also began teaching confirmation classes for adolescent males in a Berlin slum. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer became a leading spokesman for the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis, the Confessing Church. He spoke out not just about Hitler’s dictatorship but also against his program of genocide and the Jewish Holocaust. Bonhoeffer helped organize the underground seminary of the Confessing Church.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer notes, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

In 1939, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law introduced him to a group planning to overthrow Hitler. Because of this affiliation, in April, 1943, just after becoming engaged to be married, Bonhoeffer was arrested and taken to prison. Later he was moved to a concentration camp at Flossenbürg. On April 9, 1945, just days before the American army would liberate Flossenbürg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at the age of thirty-nine.

Pastor, theologian, poet, and courageous truth-teller: Bonhoeffer’s passion for living his faith fueled his political stance and cost him his life. Through his prolific writings, he continues to serve as a prophetic and inspiring voice for the Church.

Collect for Dietrich Bohoeffer
Gracious God, in every age you have sent men and women who have given their lives in witness to your love and truth. Inspire us with the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose faithfulness led to the way of the cross, and give us courage to bear full witness with our lives to your Son’s victory over sin and death, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

— Beth Lewis



Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria in the late third and early fourth centuries. He is remembered as a fierce defender of Christian orthodoxy, most especially in campaigning against the nontrinitarian Arian heresy that was widespread in Egypt during his episcopate.

Athanasius attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 as the secretary to his bishop, Alexander. One of Alexander’s priests, Arius, had begun spreading doctrinal views different from his bishop. After debate, the council promulgated a creed, which proclaimed that Jesus was coeternal with God the Father and begotten, not made, from the same substance. Shortly after the close of the council, Alexander died, and Athanasius was chosen as Bishop of Alexandria, despite the opposition of heretical factions in Alexandria.

Athanasius faced the brunt of the reprisals from the factions that had opposed his defense of Nicene Christianity, and he was deposed as bishop and exiled five times during his seventeen-year episcopate. During his exile he went as far afield as Trier in present-day Germany, to Rome, out into the Egyptian desert, and to his father’s tomb. He ran afoul of four Roman emperors in his defense of Christian orthodoxy. For his persistent witness and stubbornness in defense of orthodoxy, Athanasius acquired the moniker Athanasius Contra Mundum–Athanasius against the world.

In his most famous work, De Incarnatione, Athanasius argues how God the Word, by the incarnation, inspires, restores, and perfects the image of humanity out of a desire that all people should be in union with God the Father. What may seem to many like a mere point of doctrine was, for Athanasius, at the core of the gospel itself: that God desires the reconciliation of all humanity unto himself, and that reconciliation is made possible through the incarnation, in the person of Jesus Christ.

For his passionate defense of Christian orthodoxy, and the life-giving nature of his writings and proclamation of the gospel, Athanasius is remembered around the Christian world.

Collect for Athanasius
Uphold your Church, O God of truth, as you upheld your servant Athanasius, to maintain and proclaim boldly the catholic faith against all opposition, trusting solely in the grace of your eternal Word, who took upon himself our humanity that we might share his divinity; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

— David Sibley

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Bonhoeffer: By Wissen911 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Athanasius: Public Domain,


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207 comments on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer vs. Athanasius”

  1. Bin ich kein Mensch?
    Ain’t I a decent human being?
    Bonhoeffer it is for me, for the Golden Halo. He combines theology, pastoral activism, and martyrdom. He is the highest version of a witness for our modern times. I am sympathetic to the arguments being made in this group that we are slighting or overlooking the ancient saints for contemporary versions of spirituality. But that’s where we live. We can’t imagine being eaten by lions, but we can imagine tanks and machine guns. And we too know starvation, of the body and of the spirit. As a radical Protestant, Bonhoeffer channels Paul. His life and writings make vivid the utter nakedness of the soul before God. This is caritas so blended with faith and hope that it would not be possible to separate mysticism and good works. Bonhoeffer for me is the supreme exemplar of a life that merges into the light and still illuminates our paths. Go Dietrich.

    1. I so agree with you and will vote for him in future rounds but for today I am voting for a church father who clarified and upheld the Trinity in both his writing and his actions. Like air unless we have trouble breathing, we can easily lose sight of how crucial is the doctrine of the Trinity to the actions we take in Christ's name.

      The hardest choice is between two things perceived as good. Athanasius' credibility wins this day for me.

      1. I agree. Tough choice because they are both so good. Athanasius's defense of the doctrine of the trinity was so important - and still is, and he did through exile and tremendous political pressure. Bonhoeffer will get my vote in later rounds, but today it goes to Athanasius.

        1. "for Athanasius, at the core of the gospel itself: that God desires the reconciliation of all humanity unto himself, and that reconciliation is made possible through the incarnation, in the person of Jesus Christ." That is what my faith is all about.

        2. I agree, Katez.
          I love Bonhoeffer.
          Not just for what he did, but for teaching me about The Abyssinian church and some of my history.
          But my heart, soul and vote is for Athanasius.❤️

      2. I'm with you in this one. Although Bonhoeffer made a huge contribution to the faith under very difficult circumstances, I believe that what Athanasius contributed was much more impacting on a much larger part of the family of faith, and so I join in your vote.

      3. I agree. The Trinity is central to all of our worship, and would have been a part of Dietrich's repertoire. That he was willing to disagree with the Nazi regime when this was a sure death sentence (unless the war ended in the meantime), especially after having found a fiancée, and risk his future on the message of the gospel was beyond courageous. Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have him revisit and teach in this country with the insight he had gained in a society where hatred instead of love was being preached.

        This is one reason, among many others -- his lack of empathy, shooting his mouth off from the hip (excuse the anatomical analogies), and his constant jabbering about his greatness, interfering the delivery of any rational kind of message that might be heard over the din -- that his popularity frightens me and reminds me of the Nazi era. To be frank, while it was immoral and obscene, Hitler had a well thought-out plan and an audience of mostly sheep who recalled the days when they'd have to travel with a wheelbarrow of currency to purchase the little food there was. The disgruntled audience here has been traumatized by the financial disasters of the early part of this millennium. Has Trump proposed a kind of WPA to build the wall separating the US from Mexico? No -- it increases his popularity to throw the responsibility over to Mexico, who will have to laugh the suggestion off.

        Revelations speaks of an Anti-Christ. I am not qualified to judge, but the apparently total lack of compassion exhibited makes one wish there were more Bonhoeffers in the world. He'll get my vote next round, unless there's a surprise upset.

        A happy and holy Lent to all.

        1. I should have specified early on that I was talking about Trump. Didn't get to it till the second paragraph. I regret the error.

          1. I have such a hard time relating to the early saints because I do not have any concept of the life and cultures they lived in. Dietrich lived in history I can relate to, terrible as it was.
            He lived at a most evil time and died for the truth of the Gospel.
            So he gets my vote

          2. Natalie, while I am intensely interested in politics but decidedly not a fan of Trump, I share Lynn's sense that Trump is not relevant to the discussion of Bonhoeffer vs. Athanasius.

            I wanted to vote for Bonhoeffer because his courage in proclaiming the faith in the face of Nazism (and despite the presence of a tame "church"in Germany that went along with Hitler), I will have to vote for Athanasius because of the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity to our Christian faith.

          3. I need an editor! I meant to say that Bonhoeffer's courage . . . has been an inspiration to me but that I am voting for Athanasius for the reason stated above.

            Also, I suspect that Bonhoeffer, if he didn't dismiss Lent Madness as too Catholic or too frivolous, might have voted for Athanasius himself.

        2. I think our struggles and dare I say hopes regarding politics just as with family, working or our congregations all fit into Lenten Madness thinking! I know that is why I tune in everyday and hold the examples and comments in my heart throughout the day. Thanks Natalie.

      4. Totally agree with your logic. And Athanasius had to persevere over and over and over from both church and non-church alike. He gets my vote. Today.

    2. Excellent assessment. The 'cheap Grace' analysis was striking and won my vote. Maybe I missed something but it seems not every 'SAINT'is a saint in classic Church definition.

      1. Candidates for the Golden Halo are those considered to be saints in traditions other than the Roman Catholic tradition as well as Catholic.

      2. We really need "like" buttons in addition to "reply" buttons. Maria Jackson, I agree re the "cheap grace" argument.

      3. The"cheap grace" piece got my vote. I was going for Athanasius because the creed is so essential and I'm certain Bonhoeffer has this round...but that was so powerful I had to vote for this unquestionably modern day saint.

    3. Beautifully stated. If I had not already voted for Bonhoeffer, you would have convinced me. As crucial as Athanasius was to Christian theology, I find Bonhoeffer's writings so relevant to my efforts to lead a Christian life in the 21st century that the vote was easy for me.

    4. Bonhoeffer might be Athanasius reincarnated and updated, continuing the same battle in a different time zone of the universe or in a parallel universe.....

    5. Since I read Eric Metaxas's biography of Bonhoeffer, I have been an avid devotee of this great man. Bonhoeffer it is for me!

    1. Oliver, I had to find you to see how you voted and your always-lovely reasoning. I voted for Athanasius, too, but mostly because he taught that in Jesus' life we find humanity perfectly restored to what God always intended and hopes for us. Bonhoeffer will win, I think, and that's okay--it was a hard choice!

  2. Oliver I'm voting for Athanasius as well because I remember being "the Church" in a production of Dorothy L. Sayers "The Emperor Constantine" all about the Council of Nicea and saying part of the creed at the end.
    But it's a hard one as I'm a fan of Bonhoeffer as well.

  3. Oliver that is a very good reason to choose Athanasius. I voted for Dietrich Bonhoeffer because he died for his faith. Both men suffered for their beliefs. I enjoy reading your posts.

    1. Christe eleison. Yes we are. I suppose I voted for him for the same reason, although I love Athanasius as well.

  4. Bonhoeffer actively put himself in harms way to do good won my vote; but Athanasius' travels are impressive.

  5. Bonhoeffer, hands down. Today's church needs more people willing to live into expensive grace. We already have plenty clamoring loudly about their respective views of "orthodoxy."

  6. Difficult choice. . . . Dietrich Bonhoeffer is of our time, of my lifetime. I can now, as an adult, so identify with walking into danger. But Athanasius helped write the Nicene Creed, which we repeat every Sunday, keeping centuries of Christians on track. I must go with Athanasius today.

    1. I agree this is a very difficult choice. Bonhoeffer's unshakable courage, dedication and sacrifice would easily gain my vote except that I cannot say I was a Christian until after I had read, digested, and began to understand the Creed of Saint Athanasius (pg 864 BCP). I'd not been raised in a Christian home and came late to the Church. and years ago I took St. Athanasius as my patron saint. Thus, today he gets my vote.

  7. Wonder who I'm going to vote for...

    As a Trinitarian, my brain wants to say Athanasius

    As one who has lived sleepless nights of soul agony for those have been and are being slaughtered, my heart goes with Bonhoeffer

  8. I hate to see Athanasius get so thoroughly trounced, but I just returned from a sabbatical in which I explored the ministry of Bonhoeffer. A obvious choice for me.

  9. Really not fair putting these two against each other. Both represent the absolute best in theology and putting their feet where their faith is. I'm sure glad this isn't binding! I'd hate to have to explain why either one got bumped from God's right hand at the table because of my vote when we get there!

  10. This year's contest is an exercise in hard choices! One problem with this set of ancient-vs.-modern pairings is that we have so assimilated the contributions of the ancient saints that we do not appreciate their importance. Another is that so much of what goes with the ancients is foreign to us, whereas we understand and sympathize with the nuances and weaknesses associated with those closer to us in time and culture. Bonhoeffer is a mighty hero, but Athanasius gets my vote for these reasons.

    1. Gretchen you expressed my thoughts this morning. This year the choices have been very difficult. Everyone has been excellent. I may have to think and pray on today's Saint.

    2. I used to have more admiration for Athanasius, but am now reading Karen Armstrong's book "Fields of Blood", and her picture of Athanasius is not at all positive. His obsession with doctrinal purity led him to encourage execution of those with Arian leanings. So much for living the example of Christ! I find Bonhoeffer's actions much more in line with what Jesus taught. For me, it is not the "early saints vs the modern saints" contest. It is that Bonhoeffer more thoroughly lived the example of Christ, no matter what his personal ego may or may not have exhibited.

  11. In honor of my father, a minister who frequently quoted Dr. Bonhoeffer, I vote for the brave man who took on Hitler.

    1. I agree. Reminds me the current thinking that saying "our thoughts and prayers go out to them" is hollow when said the victims of the violence and death in our midst today enabled by ready availability to guns. Saying it is not enough and I'm grateful to those who call it out and seek solutions.

      Still a very difficult choice in today's pairing.

  12. Ever since I heard of his part in writing the Barmen Declaration, I have been inspired by Bonhoeffer. His book "Life Together" has had a great influence in my ministry, especially his explanation of mutual confession. So I must vote Bonhoeffer for the Golden Halo!

  13. The chronic problem of making a choice for two very worthy followers of Christ is again upon us. We are forced to be judges when it is not a good thing to do. Herr Dr. Bonhoeffer is well known and respected. I would not be surprised that Chancellor Merkel is influenced by Detrick's words and deeds as she tries to cope with the impossibilities of the flood of refugees into Deutschland. Grace is not to be made cheap.

  14. Ok, so this "good" Lutheran (proud, but not too proud) fully embraces the concept of costly grace. While I struggled with Soren vs Sojourner (ended up not casting a vote) Bonhoeffer gets my vote.

  15. No Athanasius, no Bonhoeffer. Hard to imagine an example of someone who paid a higher price for his faith than Athanasius, the bridge of faith between St. Paul and St. Augustine, who endured five exiles while taking on the entire organization of the church and the empire, and secured the faith of the church as we know it today.

  16. This is incredibly hard today. I thought I knew who I would vote for, until I read Athanasius' nickname. For the example of standing firm for what you believe to be right, even when it seems like you against the world, and because I was pretty sure he was losing badly anyway, I voted for Athanasius.

  17. Knew from the start that I was voting for the underdog, but voted for Athanasius anyway. Both were courageous and worthy of the golden halo.

  18. Finally, Bonhoeffer's day has come! I have so been looking forward to this day. I have been such an admirer of his since seminary--and not as much for his theology books (which were tough going) as for what I learned of his life and for the man I got to know from his collected Letters and Papers from Prison. (Sorry, no italics on my phone!) His friendship with Eberhard Bethge and his longing to be back with his family and loved ones is heart-wrenching in these letters, but his optimism and faith in the face of the danger and deprivation he was in while in prison are amazing. I studied his poetry for a class, and when I became an Episcopalian a few years later, was so very happy to find one of those poems in The Hymnal ("By gracious powers"). I wish I could find a recording of that haunting hymn tune. Anyway, Bonhoeffer and his family were musicians, and he speaks often of music and of playing and singing with his family. Reminded me of my own family.

    Said time in seminary also brought me to read of Athanasius, and I have to say that I loved Arius for standing up to that rigid fellow! I was Against Athanasius then, and I'm against him still --Bonhoeffer it is!

  19. At first glance, I thought it would be a no-brainer for me to vote for Bonhoeffer, but as I read more about Athanasius and his defense of the Trinity and his writings on the reconciliation of humanity with God through Christ, I felt intellectually compelled to vote for him. And he stood against so many forces all trying to sway him from his path of the defense of God. In a world, were I feel myself pulled away from God frequently, I had to vote for him.

    1. Well said! Was Arius about to attempt to exterminate an entire people? As the Rabbi said, if it is of God, etc.

    2. Haha! Well said. Right now Id like to punch all of the current offerings for president in the nose-both sides of the aisle. Makes me wish either of todays saintly examples were available for office.

      1. I like that "divine milkshake" line. I had a friend who once compared the Holy Trinity to 3-in-1 motor oil.

  20. If we had not had Athanasius to protect the theology of the Trinity, the false doctrine of the Arians might have spread further than it did. How can I vote against someone who fought so hard to maintain the true faith?

  21. Bonhoeffer was the easy choice for me. When I look at what constituted heresy so early in the history of our faith, and see that people of great faith firmly believed all sides, I wonder why people don't remember that what we believe IS Faith, not Absolute Knowledge. I believe that Truth says that all these beliefs that are centered on love and the core teachings of Christ have a place at the table of Christ. Splitting hairs divides us. The tendency to label what in the long run is a minor quibble 'heresy" leads to more war and violence. Athanasius was a godly man, but Bonhoeffer gets my vote.

    1. Well said, Susan C.!! "Splitting hairs divides us" is an excellent summary of the squabbles over dogma and doctrine that seem to overlook what Jesus actually taught. Unfortunately, if the squabbles had only resulted in long verbal and written debates, the Church might be the better for them; the fact that those on the "losing side" of the vote were often executed is a troublesome issue.

  22. It takes saintly vision to contend with people with power, who are sincere in faith but wrong. Once Bonhoffer joined a rebellion, his decisions were made for him. At any of the five exiles, Athanasius could have just dropped back to writing theses and stayed safe. Contending with powers and ideas that are clearly evil is easier than contending with positions that have basis in scripture, witness, inspiration and reason.

  23. "Yesterday, Albert Schweitzer soundly defeated Lawrence 60% to 40%"

    WHAT? Don't get me wrong, I like Albert Schweitzer, but he wasn't roasted on a gridiron.

    1. Amen to the "very hard look" - and that has stretched my mind a bit! So this prpbaby was a very good pairing. And both Athanasius have their ultimate Golden Halos and are beyond triuph or hurt feelings. I analyzed, considered, and went with my gut: Bnhoffer.