Editors’ note: 

Check out Nichols’s new book, Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World (Crossway).

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazis in 1933, a select group of leaders within the church formed an ecclesiological resistance movement, what came to be called the Confessing Church. Soon they founded five new seminaries to train up the next generation of ministers. They tapped a young Berlin University theology professor to head the seminary set up briefly at Zingst, then at Finkenwalde.

The prevailing model for theological education in Germany was largely academic, as universities dominated ministerial education. German pastors since the Enlightenment (Aufklarung in German) had scratched and clawed for respectability alongside doctors and lawyers—professionals in the more “respectable” disciplines. Biblical scholars and theologians had to do the same over and against their colleagues in the academy. After a handful of terms lecturing future ministers and theologians at Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sensed this kind of educational ethos was wrong—and ultimately harmful—for the church at large.

So the new seminary at Finkenwalde gave Bonhoeffer an opportunity to chart a different course for ministerial education. He would focus his school on Scripture, prayer, and theological confession, and as Herr Direktor, Bonhoeffer could uphold these three pillars as he saw fit. But not all agreed. For example, the towering Karl Barth protested, among other leaders in the Confessing Church. Many students followed suit by bucking Bonhoeffer’s innovations. Too formidable to be dismissed, however, he stood his ground, eventually winning over both his students and also his critics.

Unfortunately, the story of Finkenwalde doesn’t end with success—at least as “success” is often defined with the requisite metrics of numbers and prowess. Most of Bonhoeffer’s students never made it to pastoral ministry. Twenty-seven were arrested. The seminary as a whole was short-lived, shut down by the Gestapo after a mere two years.

That said, what was accomplished there during those two years deserves notice. So let’s consider Bonhoeffer’s three pillars of seminary education: Scripture, prayer, and theological confession.

Built on the Word

After a few months in operation, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to the supporting churches explaining the mission of the seminary:

The special character of a seminary of the Confessing Church derives from the difficult situation in which we have been placed by the church struggle. The Bible forms the focal point of our work. It has once again become for us the starting point and the centre of our theological work and of all our Christian action. (1)

That this biblical focus was “special” shows why the German Lutheran Church wilted under Nazi rule. The church as a whole had long since drifted from its biblical moorings. Without a solid biblical foundation, the church simply lacked the wherewithal to engage the ethical issues of the 1930s, which then tragically led to the atrocities in the 1940s and World War II.

Bonhoeffer’s words also reveal his conviction that the Bible must hold center court in ministerial education and the church. Scripture as the focal point at Finkenwalde meant students would be trained in Hebrew and Greek. They’d receive instruction in Bible content. “The congregation,” Bonhoeffer once said, “is built solely on the Word of God.” (2) Bonhoeffer required students to practice the lectio divina, reading a psalm and chapters from the Old and New Testaments each day. Students also had to meditate on a select passage each week. He was intent on helping them form the right habits.

Finkenwalde student and future Bonhoeffer biographer Eberhard Bethge got the message. Years later, Bethge testified, “Because I am a preacher of the Word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the Word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.” (3)

Prayer Makes a Pastor

Bonhoeffer’s courses on prayer used the Lord’s Prayer and Luther’s catechism for instruction. He also required students to pray, as a sort of homework. Critics charged he was being legalistic; one even told him the time was too urgent for prayer and meditation. Bonhoeffer responded to these criticisms forcefully: “This either shows a total lack of understanding of young theologians today, or a blasphemous ignorance of how preaching and teaching come about.” (4) As Bonhoeffer once told his London congregation, “A congregation that does not pray for the ministry of its pastor is no longer a congregation. A pastor who does not pray daily for his congregation is no longer a pastor.” (5)

Confession as Curriculum

Then there’s the third pillar, theological confession. As a German Lutheran, Bonhoeffer’s confessional standard was The Augsburg Confession (1530), bound up in The Book of Concord (1580). As Scripture and prayer were eclipsed in the Lutheran Church, so, too, was the confession. Like so many other denominations in the 20th century, the German Lutheran Church paid lip service to their theological confession, but not much more.

Not so at Bonhoeffer’s seminary. Bethge comments on how Bonhoeffer’s copy of The Book of Concord was marked up with margined notes, underlines, exclamation points, and question marks. Clearly Bonhoeffer wrestled with his confession and took it seriously. (6) In fact, for Bonhoeffer, the confession was the theology curriculum.

But he wasn’t just interested in his students knowing and wrestling with theology. He also wanted them to live it. Confession would shape their lives, their ethics, their preaching, and their churches. “Theology is submission to the coherent and well-ordered knowledge of the word of God,” he wrote. “It serves the pure proclamation of the word in the congregation and the building up of the congregation in accord with the word of God.” (7)

Seminaries Are for the Church

So what are seminaries for? Like the theology they teach, they’re for the church. And what should seminaries be about? Like the church they’re for, they should be about Scripture, prayer, and theological confession. After all, these are the hallmarks of all Christians in all times, for they are the habits of the Christian life.

1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Greeting from the Finkenwalde Seminary,” Oct. 1935, The Way to Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 35.


2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Theology and the Congregation,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol 16: 1940-1945 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 494.


3 Ibid., 57.


4 Cited in Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 465.


5 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oct. 22, 1933, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol 13: London, 1933-1935 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 325.


6 Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 449.


7 Bonhoffer, DBW, Vol. 16, 494.