Category Archives: Book Reviews

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

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Review of “Bonhoeffer & King: Speaking Truth to Power”

Review of J Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer & King: Speaking Truth to Power, Westminster John Knox, (2005). ISBN: 0664226523.

At the age of thirty nine both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr were murdered on account of the fact that both spoke (and acted out this speech) to power. Bonhoeffer was murdered by in a Nazi concentration camp in April 1945; Martin Luther King, Jr, like Bonhoeffer, also murdered in April, this time April 1968 whilst campaigning for fair wages for Blacks.

 

The author of this book, J Deotis Roberts, is himself a significant Black and Liberation theologian and hence a joint study of both of these theologians makes a certain sense. While I am not well-read in Black Theology (although I have read Cone) but I find it hard to imagine Black Theology would be anything like the same as it is today were it not for the efforts of MLK, even if some motifs of Black Power thought are developed against MLK’s nonviolent method. Likewise, it is clear that early Liberation Theology, as a reading of Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation will make apparent, has used Bonhoeffer’s theology as an important resource in early Liberation Theology, particularly in regards to theological methodology.

 

J Deotis Roberts begins his study with a brief synopsis of his “biography as theology” approach by which he analyses the biography of both MLK and DB. As a brief historical introduction to these two figures then this is helpful, however, I do not think that Deotis Roberts really offers anything revealing as regards to the relationship between these two theologians. In fact, this comment probably applies to the the rest of the book. As a brief introduction to the different theologies of DB and MLK then this is probably going to be a useful book. However, there is little in the DB sections, which is more my specialism that is particularly new, it is instead a summary of Bonhoeffer from the secondary literature. As a Black theologian who was at least peripherally active in the Civil Rights movement it is possible that Deotis Robert’s discussion of MLK is more interesting, although my impression is that the same applies to these sections. Similarly, this book is weak the relation of the respective theologians to the wider theological context.

 

That said, I do not think Bonhoeffer and King is a bad book. While it may not be an original contribution to theology it is a good introduction to the social theology of both of these theologians and with it to some of the central themes of political theology. Where J Deotis excels is in two of the main issues on which the theological visions of DB and MLK coalesce, namely in the issues of religion and the influence of Gandhi. It is not surprising that Deotis Roberts places significance on Bonhoeffer’s observation of the racist treatment of Blacks while he was a student in America. It is with the Church’s complicity in the anti-Jewish racism in Germany that the links between DB and MLK’s struggle in America are apparent and Deotis Roberts does a very good job of delineating these. Similarly, both of these theologians had a a profound respect and learned a great deal from the mission of Gandhi, although with DB’s involvement in the anti-Hitler conspiracy it is perhaps questionable whether this influence continued to the end of his life, something which the author does not adequately address.

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.

DBW update

 

I’d like to call your attention to the latest book available in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, VOLUME 13, from Fortress Press. The following is from the publisher’s press release:

 

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s pastoral sojourn in England from October 1933 to April 1935, which he initially viewed as a withdrawal from the church clashes in Germany, marked instead a new phase in his intensive participation in that struggle. Newly released by Fortress Press, London, 1933-1935: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 13 provides an almost daily documentation of this deepening engagement against the placid backdrop of his two London pastorates.

Detailing Bonhoeffer’s extensive contacts with German expatriates, ecumenical partners and allies, and friends and family, London, 1933-1935 impressively records both Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the rapidly developing clash with the deutsche Christen and the means by which he pursued it.

The bulk of the material consists of his wide correspondence but also includes records and minutes of his congregational meetings, excerpts from the diaries of Bonhoeffer’s friend and London colleague Julius Rieger, reports from international conferences from 1934, and more than twenty sermons he preached to his London congregations. The wealth of this material, says editor Keith Clements, allows us to experience a dramatic slice of this history and see the many and complex facets of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s personality.

“Beautifully translated, the letters and sermons give us new insights into Bonhoeffer himself.”

Victoria J. Barnett, General Editor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition and Director, Church Relations, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“Taking its place in what has become a definitive series, this splendid new volume captures Dietrich Bonhoeffer busily at work in a lively new landscape. More than this, it yields a vivid glimpse of that bustling, wider realm of opinion, friendship and endeavour which the crisis of National Socialism provoked beyond the borders of Germany itself. It is surely indispensable.”

Andrew Chandler, Director, the George Bell Institute at the University of Chichester

Editor:

Keith C. Clements served Baptist congregations for ten years before becoming secretary for international affairs in the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, Geneva from 1997 to 2005.

London, 1993-1935

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 13

Edited by Keith C. Clements

Translated by Isabel Best

Format: 6” x 9”, hardcover with jacket, 452 pages

ISBN13: 978-0-8006-8313-9

Price: $50.00/ CAN $60.00

Publisher: Fortress Press

 

So here’s a rundown on what’s in print and yet to be made available. The ones with links are available, the others have yet to be released. If I’m not mistaken, Volume 8 will be the last to be published. The Fall 2005 newsletter of the International Bonhoeffer Society reported that:

“The English Edition will also feature a volume 17 as a searchable CD-ROM to include a master index for all volumes, a comprehensive series bibliography, additional glossaries, and searchable texts of all 16 volumes.”

Volume 1 Sactorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, translation of Sanctorum Communio: Eine dogmatische Untersuchung zur Soziologie der Kirche

Volume 2 Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, translation of Akt und Sein: Transzendentalphilosophie und Ontologie in der systematischen Theologie

Volume 3 Creation and Fall, translation of Schöpfung und Fall

Volume 4 Discipleship, translation of Nachfolge

Volume 5 Life Together, translation of Gemeinsames Leben
and The Prayerbook of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms, translation of Das Gebetbuch der Bibel

Volume 6 Ethics, translation of Ethik

Volume 7 Fiction from Tegel Prison, translation of Fragmente aus Tegel

Volume 8 Letters and Papers from Prison, translation of Widerstand und Ergebung

Volume 9 The Young Bonhoeffer: 1918-1927, translation of Jugend und Studium: 1918-1927

Volume 10 Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, translation of Barcelona, Berlin, Amerika: 1928-1931

Volume 11 Ecumenical, Academic and Pastoral Work: 1931-1932, translation of Ökumene, Universität, Pfarramt: 1931-1932

Volume 12 Berlin: 1933, translation of Berlin: 1933

Volume 13 London: 1933-1935, translation of London: 1933-1935

Volume 14 Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, translation of Illegale Theologenausbildung: 1935-1937

Volume 15 Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, translation of Illegale Theologenausbildung: 1937-1940

Volume 16 Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, translation of Konspiration und Haft: 1940-1945

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.

 

Review of Eberhard Bethge, Friendship and Resistance

Review of Eberhard Bethge, Friendship and Resistance: Essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eerdmans, (1995). ISBN: 0802841236.

In this collection of short essays Eberhard Bethge, former student, colleague and friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers an interesting and largely personal reflection on their years of friendship. Without Bethge’s efforts in popularising Bonhoeffer’s contributions (most notably through publishing his Letters and Papers) it is highly likely that Bonhoeffer would be a name relegated to the footnotes of academic monographs. Fortunately, this is just speculation and the reason for Bethge’s passion shines through.

The article begins with an interview with Bethge that was conducted by Clemens Vollnhalsin 1989. In it Bethge gives a fascinating account of the experience of training for the ministry within the context of the Confessing Church and the illegal seminaries they created. Whilst this is the only interview in this collection this personal feel is a consistent one throughout the remainder of the text. There are two essays in particular that I would like to briefly highlight, they are also the undoubted highlights of the book.

“Between Confession and Resistance” recounts the often tense relationship between confessing Christ and political resistance. In first person narrative Bethge offers a history of the confessing church movement from his perspective. In the process of which Bethge gives an account of how a group of seminary students had tried to persuade the seminary directors to place the seminary under the control of the newly established Confessing Church without avail. So it was that Bethge was among those who were given the following warning from the Brudderat: “We do not want to hide from you the fact that we cannot give any assurance that you will be employed, receive a salary or be recognized by any office. You may well face a difficult future …” (p. 16).

Bethge makes clear that in the ensuing months a difficult time was had in the Confessing Church’s rejection ( as demonstrated in the Barmen Theses) against a Nazified Pulpit, Nazified Christian Life, Nazified ecclesiology and nazified clergy. However, Bethge states that they naively did not perceive this approach to be political:

We did not interpret our decision as a choice between Christ and Hitler, between the cross and the swastika, and certainly not a decision between democracy and a totalitarian regime. Rather, we understood the issue as one between a biblical Christ and a Teutonic-heroic Christ, between the cross of the gospels and one formed by the the swastika (p. 19).

Barmen was perceived to be about “letting the church be the church”, not about politics. Confession, not resistance. However, this dividing line was soon seen to be arbitrary: it also became clear to us … that while our confessing synods had developed an excellent language to speak against Nazification, they had no language to speak for its victims” (p. 24). Hence Bethge recounts his experience of the difficult line to be drawn between confession and resistance. To speak for the victim is to resist those who victimised them. Bethge goes on to delineate his own thoughts on this difficult tension between confession and resistance.

The second notable essay, “How the Prison Letters Survived” is a narration of the means by which the letters that were to become Letters and Papers from Prison were smuggled. Like many people it was this book, which Bethge collated from Bonhoeffer’s prison correspondence, that was my first introduction to Bonhoeffer. Much like a behind the scenes DVD extra Bethge goes behind the text to present not only a view of the deep friendship that existed between these two men but also the trials that smuggling these letters posed. Perhaps most poignant of all is Bethge’s recollection of how he discovered that he was to be arrested and how he burnt some recent letters from Bonhoeffer there and then only to discover that these could have been hidden in time.

Friendship and Resistance is a theological book, but one told through the means of biography. This type of theological reminiscing is not something I have encountered before and is, I suspect, quite unique. As such this makes for a fascinating and challenging little book that has deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer as he was experienced by those around him .

Review of The Bonhoeffers: Portrait of a Family

The Bonhoeffers: Portrait of a Family
by Sabine Leibholz-Bonhoeffer
Covenant Publications, Chicago, 1994.
188 pages
ISBN 910452-78-4

Reviewed by Chris L. Rice 

Frits Delange writes in Waiting for the Word that “the significance of family relations for Bonhoeffer’s theology cannot be overestimated.” This beautiful little book of reflections from Bonhoeffer’s twin sister Sabine really helps to lend color to the mosaic painted by Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For example, one should take note that Dietrich spent time with Sabine and her family before and after his second trip to the United States in 1939. Bonhoeffer’s family relationships were much tighter than is normally expected of a modern family, his formed and deepened his education, his understanding of community, and really served as a touchstone for his love for humanity. Alongside books like I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Zimmerman and Gregor Smith, Sabine’s book is a must-have for anyone wanting to know Dietrich Bonhoeffer.