Review of David H Hopper, “A Dissent on Bonhoeffer”

Review of David H Hopper, A Dissent on Bonhoeffer, Westminster Press, (1975). ISBN: 0664208029.

In the 1960s the Bonhoeffer’s thought had been (mis)applied to the then current theological fad, namely the Death of God theology of Andrew Hamilton and particularly Thomas Altizer (a movement related to and similar in outlook to the Sea of Faith Network which grew out of the philosophy of Don Cupitt).At around the same time John Robinson’s Honest to God, Paul Van Buren’s The Secular Meaning of the Gospel and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City all explicitly used Bonhoeffer’s prison letters for their on theological formulations of the new world come of age. Hopper notes that many early Bonhoeffer scholars complained about such appropriations of Bonhoeffer’s thought such as Paul Lehmann’s comment about concerning the use of Bonhoeffer in Death of God theology as “careless dissemination of half-truth” (p. 19). Hopper goes on to note that this emphasis on the later Bonhoeffer was resisted by many of the key Bonhoeffer scholars because it separated Letters and Papers from Prison from Bonhoeffer’s other writings. There are, these scholars argue, a continuity in Bonhoeffer’s theology that runs through many of Bonhoeffer’s theology.


For the majority of the book Hopper proceeds to take each of these alleged unifying themes of Bonhoeffer’s theology separately and therefore offers discussion on Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology, christology and theology of reality and in the course highlights the discontinuities in these approaches as Bonhoeffer’s thought developed.


So, what prescisely is the Hopper’s dissent on Bonhoeffer? It is difficult to say as, truth be told, Hopper is decidedly imprecise on this point. However, the main point of issue for Hopper seems to be that Bonhoeffer is simply not a systematic thinker. There is no doubt that over the course of his theological career Bonhoeffer’s theology did evolve and, sometimes in areas that I am not so keen one. But what Hopper makes no reference to which seems to me to be a crucial observation is the extent to which Bonhoeffer’s theology is consciously contextual.


At the time of its publication maybe this book offered more, but I struggle to really say too much positive about this now other than as a window into the dominant scholarly of Bonhhoeffer of a previous generation. Unless you are specifically researching this issue then I think it best advised that you give this book a miss.



4 responses to “Review of David H Hopper, “A Dissent on Bonhoeffer”

  1. Thanks for the review. I haven’t read Hopper yet, and maybe I don’t need to. I do think it is important to read the prison letters in their historical context, his struggling to continue to do productive theological work while in prison, and the same time his personal struggle to maintain his faith and composure. We also need to read them in the biblical context of Job-Jeremiah-Jesus, the suffering servant of God wrestling with his own faith.
    As he said, “I’m being led on more by an instinctive feeling for questions that will arise later than by any conclusions that I’ve already reached about them.” (Tegel, 8 June 1944)

  2. The reviewer fails to note that Hopper comes to the conclusion that the “strength/weakness” theme is the unifying thread that runs throughout
    Bonhoeffer’s work — and life, one might add. This is to say that there is no systematic, theological unifying theme in Bonhoeffer’s written work and that one has seriously to take into account its autobiographical rootage. The “world come of age” dictum of the Prison Letters was restively there all along.

    • This review very nicely sums up the argument of my “dissent” which stresses the “strength/weakness” theme early and late in Bon.– and which I continue to affirm. It is interesting that Barth expressed regret late in life that he felt res-ponsibility in sending Bon. to his death — to wit, his severe rebuke of Bon. in Nov. 1933 for having “fled” Germany at a crucial early stage of the church struggle. In 1939 Bon. felt compelled to recoup his earlier “failure” after a second flight from Germany, this time to NewYork, and thus took “the next ship” back to Germany. D. Hopper

  3. Paul O. Bischoff

    Mr. Hopper’s condescending tone is only matched by his lack of intellectual honest and fair reading of Bonhoeffer’s theology. His epilogue completely misses the impact of Bonhoeffer’s theology, especially upon our current grasp of a theology of the church. His reference to ecclesiology as a “side issue” in the Letters and Papers could not be further from the truth; in fact, the church was Bonhoeffer’s passion through his writings from the first dissertation to the Letters. Too bad Hopper missed this! Hopper would have misquoted Bonhoeffer on the church less if he had read Bonhoeffer, not the secondary sources. The word “dissent” in this book’s title is appropriate—not for Bonhoeffer, but how the author’s opining differs from authentic scholarship.

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