Review of “Liberating Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Message for Today”

                                                 by Geffrey B Kelly, Augsburg, (1984).

First published by Augsburg Press (the copy I read) Liberating Faith was republished in 2002 by Wipf and Stock. Whilst in the conclusion Kelly offers a brief argument for Bonhoeffer’s applicability to the contemporary (1984) Church situation this is not the book’s primary benefit. Instead, Liberating Faith remains an effective introduction to the theology and spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Kelly begins with a brief biographical portrait detailing Bonhoeffer’s adult life. In the second chapter Kelly begins a thematic introduction to Bonhoeffer’s theology with an account of the importance of Christology to Bonhoeffer’s whole theology. Kelly argues that a theme that runs throughout Bonhoeffer’s Christology is the idea of the sociality of Christ. Early on this had a more distinctly ecclesiological emphasis although the Jesus, who is man for others who is present in the early theology becomes in Bonhoeffer’s later thought the sign of the unity of humanity. Subsequent chapters focus on the “liberation of faith” which is essentially Bonhoeffer’s theology of revelation which in large part arises from his own existential crisis regarding his own faith and an examination of his theology of the Church which follows directly on from his Christology. Perhaps the most edifying aspect of Kelly’s work is his next chapter on Bonhoeffer’s spirituality. I note that Kelly has written about this further in the 2002 book The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which, if this chapter is indicative of the content will be an excellent resource. Grounding his spirituality in the work of Christ and the psalms, along with the reciprocal commitment to fellow believers Kelly superbly shows how Bonhoeffer’s spirituality was far from an individualistic act but was part of the very worship and prayers of the Church.

In the introduction Kelly admits that the book “is not a quarrel with Bonhoeffer and his critics, so much as an attempt to stress the positive challenge to Christianity which we discover in his life and writings” (11). Whilst a critical commentary would not be in order given the books purpose as an introduction I do consider this lack of a critical edge (or pointing towards those who have criticised aspects of Bonhoeffer’s thought) to be a weakness of the text. In a related way the Bonhoeffer we have presented is, in the main, the later Bonhoeffer. Given the gravity of the times in which the later Bonhoeffer wrote this is of course understandable. However, notwithstanding the good Christological survey the vast majority of Kelly’s book concentrates on the The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and especially Letters and Papers from Prison. Consequently as a definitive introduction Liberating Faith must be judged as incomplete. For those who have read a fair amount of secondary literature then this contribution will add little, if anything at all. However, as an introduction and thumbnail sketch of Bonhoeffer’s overall theology Liberating Faith is probably the most helpful book I have come across, in spite of its partial presentation.


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