Archive for December, 2012

The most popular of several biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that by Eric Metaxas, who proves himself to be a good storyteller. . .but an inept theologian. The book is a pleasant read but shows that Metaxas has grasped the thinking neither of Bonhoeffer nor of the liberal theology against which the author portrays Bonhoeffer. He is apparently unaware, for example, that the “Death of God” theology never represented mainstream liberalism and, at any rate, has itself been dead for nearly half a century.

At several points in the first half of the book, Metaxas rightly observes that in Bonhoeffer’s early writings we find the seeds of all the most radical thinking which came later. When he actually gets to the later thought, however, he calls it inchoate (which means undeveloped, premature) and says Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to find anyone taking his ideas seriously today. Pages 465 and 466 show Metaxas at his most blundering foolishness and make one wonder whether a heavy-handed editor has interfered.

There are four major books by Bonhoeffer: Discipleship, Life Together, Ethics, Letters and Papers from Prison. Evangelicals have long appreciated the first two because they tend to reinforce what we already believe. We’ve not liked the second two because they push us out of our comfort zone. Unfortunately, Metaxas simply follows this Evangelical mindset and doesn’t even grapple with Bonhoeffer’s mature thinking.

Mark Noll (in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) observed that, “The trouble with the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Metaxas proves Noll right.

There are also some less serious misunderstanding in the book, such as the idea that Hitler was elected to be Chancellor when in fact he was appointed by President Hindenburg.  Metaxas’ title suggests he hasn’t even understood Bonhoeffer’s own history: Contrary to the title, Bonhoeffer was never a spy. These are less serious than Metaxas’ theological errors but are misleading nonetheless.

One of Metaxas’ more serious failings is his failure to take advantage of the superb set of Bonhoeffer’s entire writing, the Fortress series called Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, with its excellent and very educational Forewords (by English scholars) and Afterwords (by German scholars). Because these books are so good, even one as theologically unlettered as Metaxas has no excuse for not finding Bonhoeffer accessible.


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Book Review: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, 15 volumes (with a final two to be published soon), Fortress Press.

This is an outstanding set of books with excellent translations, invaluable Introductions by English speaking scholars and Afterwords by German scholars.  As a set, it is too extensive and too expensive for the casual reader of Bonhoeffer but for those who are truly drawn to the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is a treasure chest of riches. At the least, it belongs in every academic and public library.

Bonhoeffer is known for at least three reasons. First, his theological convictions led him to participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, whose danger to the world Dietrich had recognized even before Hitler came to power in 1933. For his role in the plot, Dietrich was hanged on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before Hitler killed himself and just two months after his 39th birthday.

Second, his two early books, Discipleship (formerly called in English editions The Cost of Discipleship) and Life Together, spell out the foundations of personal faith in Christ and of communal life together in Christian fellowship. These have long been appreciated by evangelicals, particularly Bonhoeffer’s strong challenge for us to move beyond “cheap grace” to an understanding and acceptance of “costly grace.” These books are volumes 4 and 5 in the Fortress series.

Third, his writings from his prison cell (volume 8, Letters and Papers from Prison) offer a bracing and sometimes surprisingly fresh way of expressing a mature, responsible faith in Christ. His phrases sound controversial but when read thoughtfully and in the context of his whole body of writing, are more obviously valuable than they may first appear.

In addition to these fundamental writings, the series contains hundreds of personal letters, shorter books and essays, and reports from a wide variety of conferences and tasks Bonhoeffer enjoyed in his few years. Some of his most exciting ideas are first explored in these shorter writings, making them invaluable for tracing the development of his thinking and putting his mature ideas into context.

The quality of the translations and the comments by the scholars makes Bonhoeffer, even at his most radical, much more easily grasped than many have found him in past years. There are more good books to be written about Dietrich Bonhoeffer but this Fortress Series will make new translations of his own writing unneeded for a great many decades to come.

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Two smaller books which will be enjoyable and helpful in getting to know the life story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are The Bonhoeffers: Portrait of a Family, by Dietrich’s twin sister Sabine, and Last Letters of Resistance, edited by Eberhard Bethge.

Do not get so involved in the story of Bonhoeffer that you fail to read Bonhoeffer himself. There are numerous editions of several of his works still in print but most of them have been superseded by the 16 volume series called Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. The English edition is usually abbreviated DBWE. You can buy individual volumes or the whole set in print and before long on disc. Beg your local librarian to buy the set.

There are a few books which have assembled a variety of selections from the span of Bonhoeffer’s work. The  Wisdom and Witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, do a good job of giving the reader just a small taste for daily sampling. More substantial – and an excellent book for getting acquainted with the full range of Dietrich’s thinking – is A Testament to Freedom, edited by Geffrey Kelly and Burton Nelson. It has many selections and excellent introductions.

Smaller books intended to be introductions to the thinking of Bonhoeffer include Bonhoeffer: A Brief Overview of the Life and Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Anxious Souls Will Ask, both by John Matthews and both outstanding for the clear presentation of Bonhoeffer’s often complex ideas. Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, by Stephen Haynes and Lori Brandt Hale, and Bonhoeffer: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Joel Lawrence, are very useful, with the first doing especially well at putting Bonhoeffer into historical perspective and the second putting him into the broader context of theology and philosophy.

There are dozens of more specialized books and essays on the work of Bonhoeffer. Though he was executed (for his role in the assassination conspiracy against Hitler) more than 60 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is becoming better known and more influential year by year. We are just reaching the point in the journey of the western churches where we can begin to hear him clearly. He was ahead of his time and in that sense has been a prophetic voice in the theological wilderness for decades.

Even people who would never choose to read a book from the often dry field of theology find Bonhoeffer to be a fascinating, imaginative, challenging and biblical messenger. His theology helps us to hear the Spirit of the Lord in the context of our daily lives.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of word and deeds. Plenty of words and plenty of deeds. Getting to know him is a matter of words: Words he wrote, words about all that he did, and words about the meaning of his ideas.

So Bonhoeffer is for readers. We need to read his own writings and to read the rich variety of books and essays about him. There are collections of his letters, essays, lectures, and book. There are several biographies, numerous books about his thinking, and countless essays about his work. This abundance of materials is the proverbial “gift and a curse.” While it is wonderful to have so many resources, it can also be overwhelming.

Adding to the complexity is that there are several editions and translations of Bonhoeffer’s most important works. In time all the earlier versions will fade from view because we now have 15 of the projected 16 volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, a superb collection of Bonhoeffer’s letters (of which there are hundreds), minor works, and books, all with extremely helpful introductions and notes.

More than any theologian since Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography and his ideas are thoroughly intertwined. A good place to begin, therefore, is with a biography. The granddaddy of them all is the massive Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, by Bonhoeffer’s close friend Eberhard Bethge. It is not just Dietrich’s story but a good education in both the theology and the history of the 20th century.

A more brief but still excellent biography is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945, by Bethge’s good friend Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. The story of Bonhoeffer is well told but without the extensive studies of his theology and historical context.

The simplest biography is Elizabeth Raum’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Called by God. Originally planned for readers of Senior High age, the book become substantial enough to be a good beginning point for those new to Bonhoeffer.

Most popular recently has been Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Engaging and pleasant writing, with a number of delightful stories about Dietrich, have made this a best seller and a first introduction to Bonhoeffer for thousands of people. Unfortunately, it is popular only with those who know little or nothing about its subject. Those who have studied Bonhoeffer at least a little recognize immediately that Metaxas is surprisingly inept in theological matters. He does not grasp Bonhoeffer’s thought at all and simply dismisses the most creative and innovative ideas of Bonhoeffer’s later work. Nor does he know that the “Death of God” theology of the 60s has long since passed into the archives of Theological Quirks. He is shaky on German history as well, such as when he speaks of the German people electing Hitler to be Chancellor. (He was appointed to the position by President Hindenburg,)

[The next post will cover some of the recent books serving as introductions to the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There will also be a continually expanding set of reviews, giving more detail about each of these and other books and videos.]

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The popular biography by American writer Eric Metaxas (reviewed elsewhere in this blog) points out the numerous similarities between Bonhoeffer and Anglo-American Evangelicalism. There are a number of fundamental connections which give Evangelicals the sense that we are very close to Bonhoeffer. His love of Jesus Christ and his sense of walking with him in a personal, intimate way, combined with his deep and thoughtful commitment to being biblical in all he said and did, make us quite at home in many of the writings of Bonhoeffer.

Metaxas, however, has left a skewed impression by dismissing the ways in which Bonhoeffer differed from us. While it is true that we find in Bonhoeffer a great deal of affirmation of our Evangelical distinctives, it is equally and importantly true that Bonhoeffer moved far beyond what we hear from our conservative pulpits in America. To a large degree, American Evangelicalism is stuck at the level of personal and self-centered devotional life, is inclined to think of Jesus primarily as Savior rather than Lord, and is quite lost when considering the biblical passages which call us to care about public justice.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls us to a radical discipleship to a living Lord Jesus, to a mature sense of responsibility for our lives, and to a costly sacrifice of all that is dear to us, including life itself. We tend to think of such stark devotion as suitable for missionaries but not “ordinary” Christians.

We remind ourselves very often that Jesus said we must become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven but seldom mention to one another that Paul says we are to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. . .”

We have lots of teachers helping us learn how to be beginners. Dietrich Bonhoeffer can help us to become grown up followers of Jesus Christ. We Evangelicals need very much to learn from him.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into a powerful and proud Germany in 1906. He was executed by Hitler’s order in 1945, in the final month of the Second World War, with Germany defeated and deflated. The intervening years saw the world in unimaginably bloody and cruel violence, foundation-rattling economic disaster, and the early signs of the technological revolution that is altering the cultural landscape of the entire globe.

Dietrich was eight years old when The Great War broke out, thirteen when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, twenty three when the American stock market crashed, twenty seven when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, thirty three when Hitler invaded Poland, and thirty nine when he was executed for participating in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

During all these events he earned his doctorate at age 21, spent a year as a pastor in Barcelona at 22, a year writing a second doctoral-level dissertation at 23, a year as a student in New York at 24, began teaching at the Kaiser Wilhelm University in Berlin at 25, became a pastor in England at 27, founded and led a very innovative seminary back in Germany at 29, and joined the conspiracy at age 33. He also wrote several books, numerous essays, and hundreds of letters still being read today. He was involved in the ecumenical efforts to help the Christian Church take a stand for peace. He loved art and music, was a gifted pianist, and was strongly drawn to the Black American spirituals he first heard while attending a Black church in America.

The most constant thread running through all these events was his daily meditation devoted to Bible study and prayer. His love of Jesus Christ as Lord of all life remained central in his heart, his mind, his understanding of Scripture. The Bible for him was a love letter from God.

While in prison, enduring rugged interrogations and isolation from family and friends, Dietrich ministered to the guards and prisoners, even leading a worship service and preaching the day before his execution. He was a calming, assuring presence even in those circumstances.

Only Dietrich himself knew that his non-anxious presence was only part of the story of those two years of imprisonment. Inside himself was a man experiencing all the pain and uncertainty we would expect for someone in his situation. One of his poems from his prison cell – written shortly after the Allied invasion of Normandy – at the time expresses his strength, his pain, and his faith poignantly. Its last line gives us the single most important characteristic of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

June 1944

Who am I?  They often tell me
I step from my prison cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I?  They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I?  They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I?  They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me: O God, I am thine!

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