Author Archives: rgillingham

Bonhoeffer the Martyr?

Is Bonhoeffer a Christian martyr? In the introductory chapter to his Bonhoeffer and South Africa John W De Gruchy answers in the affirmative, I am not however convinced.

As Gruchy notes negative responses to the alleged martyrdom of Bonhoeffer centre around the political nature of Bonhoeffer’s death, as indeed do my reservations. The response of Meiser and Bender is representative of this response:

Bishop Meiser of the Lutheran Church, though he was himself imprisoned by Hitler in the early days of the Third Reich, refused to attend a memorial service for Bonhoeffer at Flossenburg because he regarded his death as political – not Christian martyrdom. Harold Bender, an influential leader among post-World War II Mennonites, was initially strongly attracted to Bonhoeffer by his call in The Cost of Discipleship, but he changed his mind on discovering that Bonhoeffer had forsaken pacifist principles and participated in the conspiracy on Hitler’s life. (P. 16).

What is interesting is that both Meiser as a Lutheran and Bender as a Mennonite (it was Bender you will remember responsible for the characterisation of anabaptism as an uniformlyy pacifistic – and schleitheimic – movement); although in different ways both affirm a two kingdom theology whereby the political and the spiritual are demarcated.

Quite rightly De Gruchy criticises some of the assumptions such an approach can often exhibit by questioning this political/religious demarcation:

Moreover, the cause of Bonhoeffer’s death and his testimony in dying cannot be separated. His death resulted in the name of Christ to the denomic power of Nazism and his struggle to restore a just social order in Germany. Yet the full significance of this political involvement can be appreciated only when read in the light of his witness in his prison cell and before his fellows prior to his death … the decision [Bonhoeffer] made to become involved in the plot [to assassinate Hitler] cannot be separated from his Christian Commitment. (P. 17).

In other words, politics and theology cannot be separated into different spheres. As Rasmussen (Reality and Resistance) has shown this conviction of of the gospel’s import for the whole of life resonates throughout Bonhoeffer’s oeuvre. It is also an irrelevant. There is not doubt Bonhoeffer’s actions were consistent with his developing theology, in particular his ecclesiology and christology, the latter taking prominence over the former. No one so far as i am aware seriously thinks there was for Bonhoeffer a conscious change in mode of operation from theology to politics.

It is not that Bonhoeffer died as a result of his attempted furtherance of a political aim that casts doubt on his status as a martyr of the Church, it is the manner of that action, namely the resort to violence that should provoke pause for reflection ( I wrote about this in more depth and still by and large agree in this PDF file). The clearest analogy is that of Martin Luther King, in my view undoubtedly a martyr of the Christian Church. Why? Because MLK witness was one that resounded with the politics of Jesus without the ambiguity of Bonhoeffer’s complicity in murder (although, as has been pointed out before although I forget by whom MLK’s success was partly attributable to the violence of some who shared the aims of the Civil Rights Movement that the failure of MLK could have brought to the foreground).

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Guest Review – Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context.

Heinz Eduard Tödt. Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007. 291 pages.

If the ideas articulated and life lived by Dietrich Bonhoeffer have captivated your thinking and challenged your soul, then you would do well to take the time to read thoughtfully and reflectively this collection of Professor Tödt’s essays on Bonhoeffer’s theology, ethics and resistance. First published fifteen years ago in his original German, this compilation of Tödt’s insightful scholarship spans the latter half of his academic career as professor of systematic theology, ethics and social ethics at the University of Heidelberg and as the chairman of the editorial board of the German edition of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Tödt’s student, Glen Harold Strassen, captured the tenor of his writings when he stated: “Tödt’s publications have an analytical sharpness, an ethical incisiveness and a genuine truthfulness that is rare even among the best.” Strassen served as the editor of the English edition of Tödt’s essays on Bonhoeffer published here in the United States in 2007. It is this new edition that is the subject of this review.


This collection of essays by Tödt makes a significant contribution to the ever-growing corpus of Bonhoeffer scholarship. Unlike that of many who have come before and after him, though, Tödt’s analysis expounds the major dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s ethics by examining the political, ecclesiastical and family context in which Bonhoeffer wrote. His essays, however, reach an even deeper level of profundity as Tödt subjects himself to scrutiny of Bonhoeffer’s ideas by transparently wrestling with issues of guilt and forgiveness about his own experience of the German context during the Third Reich when he served as a soldier at the front during the Second World War and then was subjected to detention as a prisoner-of-war in a Russian camp for five years. Above all, in his engagement with Bonhoeffer, Tödt sought an ethic that can provide wise guidance in the face of contemporary schemes to manipulate faith for ideological ends.


Fourteen of Tödt’s essays are presented. The earliest essay dates from the 1970’s, and the latest to one year before his death in 1991. A deepening of both insight into the underlying essence of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as well as an appreciation for the authenticity of his faith-inspired actions is evident. The first eleven essays analyze themes in Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics. For example, Tödt tackles the ever-perplexing notion of “religion-less Christianity” that marks Bonhoeffer’s later letters to Eberhard Bethge from his Tegel prison cell. In contrast with those progressive theologians who have latched on to Bonhoeffer’s language only to fill it with a self-conceived meaning inconsistent with the whole of Bonhoeffer’s thought and life, Tödt finds that Bonhoeffer was here conceiving a Christianity not confined to ideals for merely private life or to the gaps where we cannot solve problems, but rather a Christian faith that gives concrete guidance in the center of life.


In other essays, Tödt focuses attention on an important question that has not been examined by other scholars of Bonhoeffer. He asks what was about Bonhoeffer’s ethics that enabled him to discern so clearly and speak out for the Jews and against war more decisively than other theologians and church leaders even from the very onset of Hitler’s chancellorship. In his exploration of this question, Tödt demonstrates Bonhoeffer’s insights in naming the sources of evil and self-deception as well as warning against the ways and means by which the leader becomes the misleader. Tödt also clarifies Bonhoeffer’s articulation of the vocation of the churches in speaking concretely and the vocation of groups in acting concretely as an assertion of checks and balances against authoritarianism not only in the context of Nazi Germany but also with application for responsible action in the midst of contemporary expressions of authoritarianism. Tödt’s extensive analysis of the social, theological, and ethical characteristics of the resistance movement, in which Bonhoeffer and family members played integral roles, provides both information and insights that go well beyond what can be found in other scholarship to date. This comprehensiveness in his treatment of Bonhoeffer’s resistance is the product of thoroughgoing research project that Tödt led at the University of Heidelberg.


The final three essays in this collection address contemporary history, in which Tödt examines, with an authenticity born out of Bonhoeffer’s ethics, the guilt and responsibility of Christendom in Germany. What particularly marks Tödt’s approach and the insights he offers is his resolve not to be devoted to merely an interpretation of past positions, but instead to find in Bonhoeffer avenues that advance both the present tasks of theology in the church and a better understanding of our own way of life. In 1985, Tödt himself expressed the force of Bonhoeffer’s life and words upon him in this way:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has come nearer and nearer and become more and more important for me – not merely with one single flash of light – but in a continuing process over twenty years. Of his many remarkable character traits and abilities, the concentration with which he exposed his faith in Christ to the tests that life brought, all the way to the extreme situations of resistance, and then thought through theologically what happened him and those involved, occupies me most of all. I perceive this theology as deeply authentic and as showing the way for me as a theological teacher . . . . Bonhoeffer is not right in all things, but from no theologian am I now learning so much as from him, and, to be sure, with my intellect and with my heart.


Tödt, though, was greatly distressed by those self-proclaimed scholars and would-be theologians who did not follow the whole way through Bonhoeffer but would rather “tear out individual elements of life and thought and [either] progressively instrumentalize them or conservatively distort them,” and then advocate that the guilt for the deficits in the modern churches lies in Bonhoeffer’s guidance. In an effort to expose and counter these misuses and abuses, Tödt presents a thoroughly studied and attentively perceived exposition of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics both in the context of his life experiences and for application in our own.


Although some portions in the English translation occasionally render the complexity of Tödt’s German syntax in stilted and strained constructions, the substance of the insights and analyses of Bonhoeffer offered by Tödt make any extra time required to slow down and re-read such passages abundantly rewarding. No other book has more opened my eyes or deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s guidance in living responsibly in the concrete realities of life than Tödt’s.


Cordell P. Schulten, M.A., J.D. <cschulten@fontbonne.edu>

Lecturer, Contemporary Studies

Fontbonne University

Saint Louis, Missouri

Guest Review: Bonhoeffer Speaks Today

Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs

Mark Devine, Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005.

179 pages, $19.99

Most people familiar with the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer likely gained that familiarity through his provocative book, The Cost of Discipleship, or his Letters and Papers from Prison, published posthumously by his best friend and student, Eberhard Bethge.  Since his untimely death at the end of a Nazi noose in April 1945, Bonhoeffer’s life and ideas have become the subject of hundreds of books and countless more articles and dissertations, not be mention plays and films.  The scope of scholarship on Bonhoeffer is virtually all-encompassing.  Yet, Professor Mark Devine’s recent contribution to the corpus accomplishes a long-overdue advancement.  By reaching beyond the multitude of nuanced academic inquiries, Devine has produced a brief work that will readily serve to re-introduce the broader evangelical Christian community to this saint and martyr of the Church.

Through the ease and accessibility of his prose, Devine achieves what his book’s title promises: Bonhoeffer speaking today.  His words speak with particular clarity and challenge to the all-too-comfortable 21st Century American evangelical church that has in many obvious ways succumbed, as had the German church of the early 20th Century, to the lure of cheap grace.  As a Southern Baptist professor and pastor concerned for the ailing condition of the evangelical church, Devine undertakes his task with the purpose of demonstrating the relevance of both the Lutheran Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas and his  concrete application of those ideas through his exemplary life to the realities of contemporary life that confront Christians today.

In his opening chapter, Devine succinctly charts the formative influences and choices that embodied within Bonhoeffer the beliefs he expressed in his writings and through his actions.  In the remaining four chapters, the author provides a helpful introduction for his readers into the extensive works of Bonhoeffer under the themes: “Knowing and Doing the Will of God” (Chapter 2); “The Community of Believers” (Chapter 3); “Witness and Relevance” (Chapter 4); and finally “Freedom, Suffering, and Hope” (Chapter 5).

Drawing heavily from Eberhard Bethge’s authoritative biography, Devine unfolds Bonhoeffer’s life by depicting with keen insights the familial relationships and educational experiences through which he heard God’s call and was formed for ministry.  For example, Devine notes the almost prophetic significance of the 14-year old Bonhoeffer’s words in reply his older brothers’ urgings that he not waste his life in such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the Church.”  To which the young Dietrich responded: “If what you say is true, I shall reform it!” (5). His account then moves with relative swiftness through the complexities of Bonhoeffer’s service as a lecturer in theology and emerging leader of the Confessing Church.

Devine, however, slows his pace when describing Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany from the safety and security of America in the summer of 1939.  That decision would prove to be one of the most significant turning points in a life spent not merely talking about the cost of discipleship, but one that authentically paid the price.  Bonhoeffer’s unreserved commitment to the cause of Christ prompts Devine to conclude that “risky, self-sacrificing service to the church and to the world, in the name of Jesus Christ, belongs organically to Christian obedience.” (20)  From this decisive event through his clandestine service as a double-agent for the Resistance, his subsequent arrest by the Gestapo, two-year imprisonment and ultimate execution by hanging at Flossenbürg, Devine demonstrates the consistent character of Bonhoeffer’s courage that sustained him in the face of evil.  Having thus laid the foundation of a proven life, he proceeds to engage Bonhoeffer’s theology as it was both conveyed through his extensive writings and embodied in his practice.

Although some evangelicals and fundamentalists within this book’s intended audience have been quick to conclude that Bonhoeffer was a liberal theologian, or at least an early expression of a “neo-evangelical,” Devine makes a strong case that Bonhoeffer’s view of the Scriptures was much more in keeping with the “Back to the Bible” movement than with the higher critics who had been among his teachers.  While acknowledging their influence, Devine notes that Bonhoeffer clearly recognized the limitations and even dangers of the higher critical view.  In contrast, Bonhoeffer’s view of the Scriptures is succinctly set forth in a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher upon which Devine founds his case.  In that letter, Bonhoeffer wrote: “I want to confess quite simply that I believe the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we only need to ask persistently and with some humility in order to receive the answer from it.” (43). With such a high view of Scripture, it is no surprise that Bonhoeffer took seriously the call of Christ upon his life and so sought to know and do the will of God as his singular purpose.

For Devine, it is Bonhoeffer’s single-minded devotion to Christ that renders his voice so relevant for followers of Christ today.  In an age where popular preaching and contemporary “how-to” literature approaches the Christian life more as a strategy for personal happiness and success, Devine urges his readers to listen carefully to the one who insisted that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (66)  Taking that call seriously, as Bonhoeffer did, will lead the follower of Christ to an “others-focused” service that may often be accompanied by suffering because it will prompt the disciple to take up the burdens of others.  This theme becomes pervasive throughout Devine’s survey of Bonhoeffer’s ideas on both community and witness.  It culminates in his final chapter through a demonstration of the integral role of suffering in the life of a disciple who lives in the freedom from self that Christ enables and lives for the hope of the resurrection that Christ entrusts to his own.

Each chapter includes Devine’s applications of Bonhoeffer’s thinking and practice to contemporary challenges facing evangelicals through both internal struggles over doctrine and external battles in the boarder culture wars.  While some of his applications are limited to his experiences within the Southern Baptist Convention, on the whole, Devine’s insights demonstrate conclusively how a young Lutheran pastor and scholar’s life and ideas may speak volumes into the hearts and minds of every serious follower of Christ in the 21st Century.  This book joins the ranks of other recent works, such as Stephan Plant’s Bonhoeffer and Elizabeth Raum’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Called by God, and should be read by both those familiar with Bonhoeffer and especially by those who desire to be introduced to this exemplary saint and martyr who counted and paid the cost of discipleship.


Cordell P. Schulten, MA, JD

Lecturer, Contemporary Studies

Fontbonne University

New Bibliographic Page

I have just added a new “Recommended Reading” page to this blog with the deatails of recommended secondary literature on Bonhoeffer. This is no means an exhaustive list (intentionally so) but if you feel there are important books omitted that you can vouch for as being very good then please feel free to let us know.

Review of “Anxious Souls Will Ask …”

Review of John W Matthews, Anxious Souls Will Ask … The Christ-Centered Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eerdmans, (2005). ISBN: 0802828418.

Bonhoeffer’s prison diary Letters and Papers from Prison was the first writing of his that I had read. More than anything else what first attracted me to his thought was its honesty; the faith that was so important to him was also for Bonhoeffer a source of much doubt and questioning. However, no doubt because of the honesty with which Letters and Papers was written it was also, for me at least, a profoundly unsettling experience. How is one to read Bonhoeffer’s call for a religion-less Christianity in a world come of age, for example.

John W Matthews, a Lutheran Minister in Minnesota, attempts in this short book (it only runs to 80 pages). Matthews argument is that Bonhoeffer theology has strong continuities with his earlier work and that Bonhoeffer’s prison reflections are an important resource in spurring contemporary Christianity to a more authentic faith. In the prison writings of Bonhoeffer Matthews identifies 5 “pillars” which, if appropriated by the contemporary church, will enhance its witness and mission. I will not outline each of these here (the book’s short enough for you to pick these up in one sitting, in any case) other than to say that a key theme that runs through all is the need to the Church to take a ‘reality-check’ and be honest about its own context and vision and, mirroring the mission of God as incarnated in Jesus, take an approach in which suffering and vulnerability are to, if not welcomed then accepted so that, like Jesus, the church may become authentically human.

In the her endorsement printed on the back cover Jean Bethke Elshtain writes that this book is “a powerful and poignant companion to Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Newcomers to Bonhoeffer’s text and Bonhoeffer scholars alike will benefit from the fruits of John Matthews’s pilgrimage alongside Bonhoeffer”. There is no doubt that Anxious Souls will Ask … does have some merit but I am afraid that, contrary to Elshtain’s opinion, it is not anything like a “must-read”.

I am not at all sure anyone ho has read even a moderate amount of Bonhoeffer (whether in primary or secondary literature) will find anything of real value. However, for the genuinely beginning reader, particularly one in the immediate cunsettling aftermath of reading the Letters and Papers, then the albeit brief forays into Bonhoeffer’s other theological work will be of assistance even if Matthews is more confident than me of the clear line of continuity that exist between, for example, Life Together and Discipleship with Letters and Papers.

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.

 

Book Notice

Earlier this year Eerdmans published the late Heinz Eduard Tödt’s account Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics, Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context. Eerdmans summarises the book as follows:

Since Heinz Eduard Tödt’s death in 1991, much effort has been put forth to comprehensively publish his important theological works. This volume collects a number of Tödt’s writings rising out of his decades-long study of Bonhoeffer. With that study comes an appreciation of and respect for Bonhoeffer, clearly seen in these pages.

Tödt first discusses Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics and then focuses on contemporary history. He especially concerns himself with the present tasks in theology and in the church, clearing a path for understanding our way of life through theology’s eyes.

One of the twentieth-century’s best theological ethicists, Tödt said that the further he went, the closer he got to Bonhoeffer. In Authentic Faith, he shows an understanding of Bonhoeffer’s spirit that makes this book a must for the shelves of any Bonhoeffer scholar and all students of social and theological ethics.

If you visit the link above you will also be able to find a table of contents. I have just received a copy today which I will post a review on in due course.