Review of “The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint”

by Stephen R Haynes, Fortress, (2004).

Reviewed by Richard Gillingham

The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon is best described as a book about books on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Stephen Haynes is an author I have come across before in his very good (if somewhat heavy-going) Prospects for Post Holocaust Theology.

In the first part of the book Haynes offers a survey of four different faces of Bonhoeffer; the seer, prophet, apostle and bridge. The Seer-Bonhoeffer represents the radical Bonhoeffer and his adoption by the Death of God theologies of the 1960s that drew in particular from Bonhoeffer’s posthumously published Letters and Papers. The prophet-Bonhoeffer is a cousin to the radical Bonhoeffer and represents the Liberal interpretation of Bonhoeffer. The liberal Bonhoeffer highlights the critical patriotism of Bonhoeffer and his search for Justice (both for Jews, Blacks and socially deprived). In contrast the Apostle-Bonhoeffer is the Bonhoeffer of (primarily) conservative evangelicalism. This manifestation of Bonhoeffer reads his denunciations of abortion in Ethics in tandem with his revolutionary acts against an anti-christian government. The final portrait Haynes offers is Bonhoeffer as bridge. This Bonhoeffer is a universal Bonhoeffer whose emphasis was on a ‘spiritual’ moral leader emphasising Justice and universal human rights but in doing so often limiting the relevance of his adherence to broadly classical christian thought.

In the second part of the book Haynes adds a fifth Bonhoeffer, this is Bonhoeffer the Protestant saint. To establish the case Haynes offers an approach to sainthood that emphasises the choice of the believing community (rather than contemporary Catholicism’s papal decision). Overall Haynes book is a interesting survey of historiography and hagiography and offers a challenge to anyone who would adopt Bonhoeffer for their causes irrespective of whether that be an anti-war liberal or pro-life conservative.

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