Why Bonhoeffer? And, Why Now? A preface

A preface to a JLE portfolio on the life, theology and ethical constructs of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

[1] For the last two years running the semester’s start brought a knot of students to my door demanding a special reading course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Interest sparked by the week-long courses offered each January by the Rev. Dr. Mark Brocker, these students wanted more. They were willing to add this courses to an already full load of academic work. Their commitment and enthusiasm educated me — and raised a question: Why this current fascination with Bonhoeffer? Let me suggest three reason why Bonhoeffer and why now..

[2] First, the Bonhoeffer corpus in its entirety is being translated into English. The German press Christian Kaiser Verlag marked what would have been Bonhoeffer’s eightieth birthday by issuing a definitive edition of the collected works. A team under the leadership of Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. and Clifford J. Green oversees the English translation. Fortress Press handles production and publication, and the series includes material that has not previously appeared in English. Two members of the translation team, Dr. Brocker and Rev. Dr. Lisa Dahill write in this issue. In addition, Cambridge University Press has just released The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer1. These ventures spur fresh interest in a pivotal twentieth century theologian. More importantly, they invite readers to take Bonhoeffer seriously on his own terms.

[3] Accordingly, a second reason for the resurgence of interest in Bonhoeffer is that people are simply ready to read him on his own terms, rather than recruit him for their own projects. Bonhoeffer has been a kind of cipher for the present, whatever “present” one inhabits. Prolific though he was, he died too young to systematize his own writings, clarify any ambiguities, argue continuities that might not be readily apparent, and refine ideas that may have been rough in their initial expression. Others have done so in his absence, often extending his ideas beyond what might have been the author’s intent. Theologians have read one work out of the context of the whole or weighted a single text or idea with undue import.

[4] The result is the Bifurcated Bonhoeffer, whose work is labeled simultaneously both “secularist” and “sectarian.” On one hand, theologians find their pole-star in Letters and Papers from Prison2 and read everything else through that lens. Paul Van Buren, William Hamilton, and other “death of God” theologians from the last century rode Bonhoeffer’s notion of a “religionless Christianity” to their own destinations. Their use of Bonhoeffer’s theology led others to dismiss his work as one of the “theologies of secularization,” a charge that stuck.3 On the other hand, other theologians find Bonhoeffer’s center of gravity in Discipleship, the newly translated version of The Cost of Discipleship4. They read the excoriation of “cheap grace” and conclude that secularization is precisely what Bonhoeffer protests. Larry Rasmussen, L. Gregory Jones, David Ford, and Miroslav Volf train Bonhoeffer’s costly discipleship on a vision of Christian community that is counter-cultural, highly ecclesial, and tightly disciplined.5

[5] What gives? It seems that Bonhoeffer reads differently depending on where you start, Discipleship and Life Together or Letters and Papers from Prison. The new German edition and its English translations will invite people to read Bonhoeffer more holistically and find his writing, if not a seamless garment, at least as a work in full.

[6] Finally, as that process of reading begins, people will find that Bonhoeffer has a great deal to say to Christian communities in these times. There is a heightened interest in spirituality, as burgeoning offerings in any Barnes & Noble attest. At the same time mainline churches decline in both numbers and income. Seekers who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious” as well as those in tired mainstream denominations alike could learn a lot from Bonhoeffer. He challenges seekers to “seek first the Kingdom of God” in a community of believers, discarding the smug righteousness of a virtuosi spirituality. He invites mainstream Christians to “meet Jesus again for the first time” and listen to his message of uncompromising grace.

[7] I think the Bonhoeffer of Discipleship and Letters and Papers come together in his notion of spiritual practices. An ethic of command drives the first part of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer derives it from the synoptics, and it’s hard, harsh, and uncompromising. But the second part of the book describes an ethic of formation for the communities that Jesus left behind. The ethic of formation draws on Paul, and there the marks of the church emerge, these key practices that will sustain Christians in the presence of the Spirit of the risen Christ: forgiveness, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, reading scripture, worship, prayer, etc. These same practices sustain Bonhoeffer as he writes from prison. The daily diet of Scripture from the Losungen is his lifeblood, and there he hears the word of God as it is spoken “for me.” He painfully learns the truth of what he told his seminarians at Finkenwalde, that the “Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians.6” Finally, his letters to Eberhard Bethge demonstrate the rich blessing of the practice of forgiveness, as he struggles with doubt and gathering despair: “In the presence of a psychologist I can only be sick; in the presence of another Christian I can be a sinner….The psychologist views me as if there were no God. Another believer views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the cross of Jesus Christ.7” What a gift Bethge and his letters were to Bonhoeffer in prison! And what a gift Bonhoeffer and his work is to us in this new millennium.

End Notes

1 John W. de Gruchy (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison ed. Eberbard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1971).

3 See for example, Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds.), A Map of Twentieth Century Theology: Readings from Karl Barth to Radical Pluralism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, tr. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

5 Cf. David Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); L. Gregory Jones Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995); Stephen Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991); Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996); Larry Rasmussen with Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer — His Significance for North Americans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).

6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. 27.

7 Ibid., p. 117.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).