By B. Tryn Clark, RN, MA
The question has been asked before: how influenced was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the renowned German Lutheran pastor and theologian who led the resistance against Hitler and was executed for it, by his favorite grandmother’s Swedenborgian commitments? The answer may lie partly in the vision shared by both Swedenborg and Bonhoeffer of a dramatic new era unfolding now in the divine plan.
Both Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45) and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) offer a powerful new message for today about a more compassionate understanding of who God is, how God redeems us, and how God guides our spiritual path. They both clarify our understanding of the meaning of the Sacred Scriptures as our aid in the building of a true spiritual quality in ourselves, in our church community, and in the wider world. They lived and wrote centuries apart, yet their theological writings diverge from and go beyond Lutheran doctrinal orthodoxy in strikingly similar ways.
Bonhoeffer does not cite Swedenborg as a source of his claims about the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ and related theological and ethical matters, but my research shows that Bonhoeffer did have ample access to Swedenborg’s theological writings. First, Bonhoeffer’s thinking and writing about these matters were influenced by beloved family members—especially his paternal grandmother Julie Tafel, a Swedenborg-reader and scholar. Second, there is evidence of Bonhoeffer’s proximity to Swedenborg scholarship through his documented ownership of several volumes of Swedenborg’s theological writings. Third, Bonhoeffer had indirect exposure to Swedenborg through the textual mediation of the writings of Karl Barth and Søren Kierkegaard, philosophers and theologians whom Bonhoeffer acknowledged as influences and who, in turn, were influenced by reading and annotating Swedenborg’s theological writings. Detailed evidence supporting these three Swedenborgian influences on Bonhoeffer are presented in “Bonhoeffer and Swedenborg: A Message for A New Era.”
Several letters from Dietrich Bonhoeffer demonstrate a life-long engagement with Julie Tafel on issues of values, career decisions, and personal reactions to world events. Clearly, they had a close emotional bond. In his memorial address at her death, Bonhoeffer referred to a “spiritual world” that she came from that was unlike the present. He called on those present to follow her example and “get a heart of wisdom.” His words at that service reveal an unmistakable affection and respect for her role in his life:
This tribute can be taken as strong evidence that Julie Tafel made her faith known to Bonhoeffer, and that it remained a strong quality in the way she lived. The term “spiritual world” mentioned in her memorial was used extensively by Swedenborg as he described the goal of bringing Christ-like qualities into one’s life while still in this world.
Julie Tafel (1842–1936) came from a family of Swedenborg scholars. She was the niece of Immanuel Tafel (1796–1863), an ardent devotee and translator of Swedenborg into German; she was also the niece of Johann Friedrich Leonhard Tafel (1800–80), another Swedenborg theologian and scholar. In 1853, Leonhard and two sons Rudolph (1831–93) and Louis (1840–1910) emigrated to America in search of religious freedom, where they continued as scholars, translators, and pastors in the Swedenborgian movement. Bonhoeffer’s biographer, Eberhard Bethge, notes the following about Immanuel Tafel:
Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer, reports that Julie Tafel was instrumental in Bonhoeffer’s personal development as a young scholar and pastor, prior to her death in January of 1936.
In addition to strong family influences connecting Bonhoeffer to Swedenborg, there is ample evidence that Bonhoeffer owned several volumes of Swedenborg’s theological works. Bethge noted that Bonhoeffer owned several Swedenborg volumes from his great uncle Immanuel Tafel and that they were passed on to him by Julie Tafel. It seems likely that when she moved to Berlin and into the Bonhoeffer household, she passed the Immanuel Tafel volumes on to Bonhoeffer. Mary Bosanquet’s biography The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1964), which relied heavily on family reports, describes how, after the opening and setting up of the underground seminary for confessing pastors at Finkenwalde in the summer of 1935, “Bonhoeffer went to Berlin and fetched his entire library for the students’ use. The first course was ready to begin.” The disposition of the contents of the seminary is still unknown; it is almost certain that they were destroyed when, between school sessions, the Gestapo raided Finkenwalde and closed it permanently.
We know also that Bonhoeffer owned an additional four volumes by and about Swedenborg that were not part of the Immanuel Tafel library. These books were still in Bonhoeffer’s room in Berlin when he was arrested by the Gestapo in April of 1943. They survived the war, including a fire in the Bonhoeffer household, and have been donated to the Royal Library in Berlin, along with other material from his literary estate. Here is the annotation as listed in the archive of material at the Royal Library in Berlin.
- Emanuel Swedenborg. The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem Concerning the Lord, New York, 1927. In English.
- Emanuel Swedenborg. Heaven and Hell Described from Things Heard and Seen. Translated by JFJ Tafel, 44 Aufl. Stuttgart, 1894. In German.
- The Life and teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. An Authentic Collection of Documents concerning Swedenborg’s Personality, Frankfurt, 1880. In German, no author.
- JFJ(sic)Tafel. Collection of Documents about the Life and Character of Emanuel Swedenborg, Tubingen, 1839. In German.
It could be that the two texts about Swedenborg, and perhaps the volume of Heaven and Hell, have come through Bonhoeffer’s grandmother Clara Hase to his mother Paula’s library and ended up in his personal collection. It appears evident that Bonhoeffer’s family on both sides had contact with Swedenborg’s theology, and that he received as gifts Swedenborg-related texts, from both his mother and his maternal grandmother. One may assume that, at the very least, some conversation accompanied these gifts, especially since they were books that had been passed down through multiple family generations to reach his hands rather than being lost to history. It is hard to imagine that he did not take an interest in these texts.
Barth and Kierkegaard
There is an historical trail of ideas expressed by Bonhoeffer about the meaning of Sacred Scripture, the nature of and names for God, the centrality of the Word as the book of Christ, and the meaning of the Incarnation. These ideas clearly appear to be influenced by Karl Barth and can be seen as paralleling the texts of Søren Kierkegaard and then possibly through those to the works of Swedenborg. There is ample documentation of Bonhoeffer’s study and use of Karl Barth’s work and his mentoring influence, as well as of Bonhoeffer’s divergence from his mentor.
Bonhoeffer had early on read Barth (“Epistle to the Romans”; Word of God and Word of Man). He also read Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling; Repetition; Works of Love; Either, Or; Attack Upon Christendom; Sickness Unto Death; Practice in Christianity; Kierkegaard’s late journals) and referred to him in his writing. Williams-Hogan describes significant discoveries about Kierkegaard’s apparent incorporation of some Swedenborg texts and ideas into his religious writings. It is interesting to see certain Swedenborgian themes emerging from Kierkegaard appearing clearly in Barth, and later in Bonhoeffer’s own writing.
It seems reasonable to conclude from the various threads of evidence cited here that Bonhoeffer would have had some familiarity with the theological texts of Emanuel Swedenborg, both by virtue of family interactions and by having familiarized himself with an unspecified number of these texts, as well as indirect exposure through Barth and Kierkegaard.
Even without locating any direct citations of Swedenborg’s work in my reading of the bulk of Bonhoeffer’s published works and commentaries on his writings, it is nonetheless clear that several Swedenborgian ideas had a substantial impact on Bonhoeffer’s theology and on his life choices. Further research may trace more specific connections with the texts by Kierkegaard and Barth that draw upon Swedenborgian insights.
B. Tryn Clark was born and raised in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, where she attended the Academy of the New Church high school. She subsequently earned a BS in Nursing from Villanova University and an MA in Family Studies and Social Work from Michigan State University. While enrolled in the MA in Religious Studies program at Bryn Athyn College, she was instrumental in providing to the Bonhoeffer Archive at Union Theological Seminary a previously unknown letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his Philadelphia-area Swedenborgian cousin, Irma Tafel. This sparked her interest in investigating possible connections between Swedenborg’s writings and those of Bonhoeffer. Tryn now lives with her family in Tempe, Arizona.
 B. Tryn Clark, “Bonhoeffer and Swedenborg: A Message for a New Era” (Bryn Athyn, PA, 2011), unpublished paper.
 Geffrey B. Kelly & F. Burton Nelson, eds., A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper Collins, 1990; revised 1995), 270–71.
 Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, revised and edited by Victoria J. Barnett (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000; based on the seventh German edition [Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1989]), 11.
 Mary Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 151.
 In Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (edited by Clifford Green and translated by Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998]), he refers to Kierkegaard eight times in one extended section that begins on page 167. There are many references to Kierkegaard in other writings and letters, both to his family and to his fiancée. See also Geffrey B. Kelly, “Kierkegaard as ‘Antidote’ and the Impact on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Concept of Christian Discipleship,” in Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, edited by Peter Frick, 145–66, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.
 Jane Williams-Hogan, “The Place of Emanuel Swedenborg in the Spiritual Saga of Scandinavia,” in Western Esotericism, edited by Tore Ahlbäck & Björn Dahla, 254–80, Åbo, Finland: Donner Institute, 2008; the section on Swedenborg and Kierkegaard appears on pages 265–73.