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.
C.S. Lewis makes several impassioned pleas for the universality of moral instinct in his writings. I’m most familiar with his appeal to the sense of “fairness” in an argument for God’s existence in Mere Christianity, along with his defence of what he calls the “Tao” in The Abolition of Man. At any rate, in both locations, Lewis is appealing to something like conscience or intuition as the ground of ethics. Ethics are built-in. Right and wrong find their foundation in some innate sense within us. That sense is God’s gift, and is ultimately grounded in God’s own moral character.
Of course, acknowledging the lingering wastes of sin in humanity, Lewis argues that our consciences, as well as our inclination to listen to them, are “bent.” We are not whole and healthy, but twisted and shadowy representations of what we were meant to be.
Working on Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology, it struck me how different the picture that he describes is. For Bonhoeffer, conscience is only the voice of self-defence. Conscience is the tool by which we usurp God’s judgment, and employ it against ourselves and others. With our consciences–our personal knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3)–we alternately declare ourselves righteous and then cast ourselves on to the dung pile. Either way, this is an attempt to shield ourselves from God’s voice rather than God’s voice itself. The natural knowledge of good and evil, is nothing less than captivity to death in Bonhoeffer’s estimation.
For Bonhoeffer, the root of legitimate ethical thought is spoken rather than implanted. Ethical life is obedience to God’s command, and God’s command comes to us as fallen creatures. God’s voice is not innately present to creatures in any reliable way, it requires a reorientation of our being. Ethics is obedience, following Jesus. The command of God is to be found in Christ, not in each of us. Only in Christ is the command of God to be found unsullied in the world.
Bonhoeffer encountered Lewis’ argument in a twisted form in the settled liberal theologians who were his professors at the University of Berlin. Further twisted and coupled with Lutheran theology gone haywire, it was part of the worldview that enabled the majority of German Christians to dutifully serve Hitler. Bonhoeffer regarded the notion of an innate ethic to be theologically naive–and subject to disasterous perversion.
But, four years after writing the hyper-rigorous Discipleship (originally “Cost of…” in English), Bonhoeffer found room for “noble pagans,” and argued that the church must work together–for Christ’s sake–with all the promoters of peace, security, and well-being. This was not based on any re-evaluation and more positive assesment of natural knowledge of good and evil. Rather, Bonhoeffer expected to see Christ in strange places, at work for the good of the cosmos he joined himself to in love. Working side by side with atheists in the conspiracy, he found the project viable not on his own estimation of good and evil, but out of a theological intuition that this was where he might be most likely to find Jesus.
The ground of ethics is a crucial question. Locating the origin of our sense of right and wrong is a difficult and contentious task. The choice to legitimate it as it stands or distrust it and look to another model determines the entire shape of our ethical discussions, the shape of our culture, and the way we treat one another. While Lewis’ account is apologetically attractive, and very compelling, I wonder if it is grounded concretely enough in God’s self-revelation in Christ to avoid the kinds of abberations that the National Socialists and thier sympathizers were able to foist on Germany.
I’d be very interested to hear someone take the other side.
Originally posted at: a few words I want to thank the administrator of this illustrious blog for a generous invitation to leave a reflection here every now and then.
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 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.
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
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.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 13
Edited by Keith C. Clements
Translated by Isabel Best
Format: 6” x 9”, hardcover with jacket, 452 pages
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 8 Letters and Papers from Prison, translation of Widerstand und Ergebung
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
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.
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.
Over at the ever wonderful Faith and Theology, Ray Anderson has contributed a guest post on Bonhoeffer as theologian, much of which is right on track. Rather than repost the whole entry, you can go to the link here.
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 .