The Unintended Reformation

In a letter to his parents on October 31, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Today is Reformation Day, a day that can evoke a great deal of reflection again, precisely in our time. One wonders why consequences had to arise from Luther’s action that were exactly the opposite of those he intended and that overshadowed his own last years of life and at times even made him question his life’s work. He wanted an authentic unity of church and the West, that is, of Christian peoples, and the result was the collapse of the church and of Europe; he wanted the “freedom of the Christian,” and the result was complacency and degeneration; he wanted the establishment of an authentically worldly ordering of society without clerical domination, and the result was the insurrection in the peasants’ revolt of his time and soon thereafter the gradual dissolving of all authentic bonds and orders of life. I remember from my student years a debate between [Karl] Holl and [Adolf von] Harnack as to whether the great intellectual movements succeeded as a result of their primary or their secondary motives. At the time I believed that Holl, who asserted the first, must be right. Today I think he was wrong. Already one hundred years ago Kierkegaard said that Luther today would say the opposite of what he said back then. I think that is true – cum grano salis [“with a grain of salt”].

Letters and Papers from Prison


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