Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in Its Christological Context: An Interview with Peter Hooton

Q: We’re excited to talk with you about your new book which explores Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religionless Christianity. What initially drew you to Bonhoeffer as a topic for research, specifically his incipient thoughts on religionless Christianity?

PH: I enjoy his company. His writing is always fresh for me and I love his imagery. This, from Ethics, for example: “There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, that has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God.” Bonhoeffer’s growing understanding of Christ’s inclusiveness greatly appeals to me, as does the tension in his thinking between ideas of human sociality—his rejection of “individualistic social atomism”—and the sense of aloneness before God—the conviction that Jesus’s followers “are always completely alone, single individuals who can act and make decisions finally only by themselves.” These are powerful ideas if you take them seriously.

The concept of a religionless Christianity appeals not least because, at first blush, it would seem impossible. Paradox is always beguiling. And for those of us who tend, like Bonhoeffer, to approach the words “religion” and “religious” with some caution, the idea that there may in fact be such a thing as “religionless” Christianity will always be worth exploring. Religionless Christianity emerges quite naturally from Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion. We have thus first to understand what it is about “religion” that he dislikes before we can begin to imagine Christianity without it. Many religious people, when they can see clearly what has been rejected, will be reassured by what remains. And what remains is also then so much easier to see.

Q: It seems as if scholarship has been wrestling with deciphering what Bonhoeffer meant in his articulation of religionless Christianity for decades.  How do you see your work differing from other scholars who have taken up this theme?

PH: The best way to answer this question is briefly to describe the shape of the book, which is I think new to a degree. I saw this project as a journey to be taken with Bonhoeffer and I decided quite early on that we would take it stage by stage, methodically. The book has six chapters which are intended to bring the reader progressively closer to an understanding of what Bonhoeffer meant by the phrase “religionless Christianity” when he came finally to introduce it in 1944, just months before his death. The first chapter considers Bonhoeffer’s historical premise—the belief that we are “approaching a completely religionless age”—in a present-day Western sociohistorical context. The second explores his understanding and critique of religion. The third examines the religionless Christianity of Bonhoeffer’s prison writings in the light of his earlier Christ-centred theology. The fourth explores, and expands on, Bonhoeffer’s approach to nonreligious interpretation. The fifth reflects on the place of mystery and paradox in Bonhoeffer’s thinking and on the importance of preserving a sense of personal wholeness in the face of life’s otherwise always fragile assumptions of purposeful coherence. The final chapter brings the critique of religion and Bonhoeffer’s christocentric theology together in an account of religionless Christianity which further underscores its consistency with key elements of his earlier work. The book aspires to present religionless Christianity not as fragment or aberration but rather as a lucid and persuasive contemporary theology. And it does this always in the presence of the question which inspired Bonhoeffer’s own theological journey from beginning to end—the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” I don’t think religionless Christianity has been presented in quite this spacious and holistic way before.

I should perhaps add that, although the chapter on mystery, paradox, and wholeness may seem a bit of an outlier in this context, it actually helps to emphasize something very important about religionless Christianity. And this is that we are speaking here of Christianity without religion; we are not talking about Christianity without God. The mystery of God becoming human is the heart of religionless Christianity, just as it is the heart of all Bonhoeffer’s theology.       

Q: You begin your book noting that if Bonhoeffer was wrong about the dawning of a completely religionless age, then he may also have been wrong about the necessity for a religionless Christianity. How do we go about evaluating Bonhoeffer’s appraisal of history today?

PH: If we look just at Bonhoeffer’s own historical context, we could be forgiven for thinking that his pessimism about the future of religion was simply a product of his own unsettled and violent times. But he was in fact taking a much longer view. Bonhoeffer explains his position in the prison letters. Historical developments have fostered a progressive decline in the significance of religion in the West. A centuries-long “movement toward human autonomy” has attained “a certain completeness” in his time. The world can now be understood perfectly well without God. Human reason and science are sufficient for this purpose.

Although religion has obviously not come to an end in the 75 years since Bonhoeffer’s death, its significance in Western countries has continued to decline. This is perhaps less evident in the United States than elsewhere. In my country, Australia, for example, a bare majority of the population (52 percent) now identifies as Christian. Thirty percent of Australians ticked the “no religion” box in the last census. And less than one in ten Australians attend church weekly. Much of Europe is in a very similar place. We do not live in a religionless age but we do live in a largely secular one whose distinguishing features—pragmatism, reductionism, individualism, humanism—make it increasingly hard for people, simply and confidently, to believe in God. Even religious people are now at most partly religious. As Gerhard Ebeling said some fifty years ago, people are religious only “in the religious province of their being, whereas for the rest over broad stretches of their life their existence is in fact as non-religious as any.” Christianity now makes its way in a Western world whose inhabitants (including many of those who still choose to call themselves religious) do not depend on God in any significant sense of that word. Our present is not the future Bonhoeffer predicted but it is sufficiently like it to support a broadly positive assessment of his historical premise.

Q: Your book reads religionless Christianity alongside more modern accounts of secularization theory. In what ways does Bonhoeffer differ from these accounts given his unique understanding of the West and the West’s centrality in Bonhoeffer’s conception of religionless Christianity? In the same vein, what is the import of religionless Christianity for those outside the West? 

PH: Mainstream secularization theory assumes modernity always to lead to secular outcomes, while contemporary variations are more inclined to see plurality and choice as modernity’s primary characteristics. I think Bonhoeffer would have been comfortable with either of these approaches. Secularization really didn’t seem to worry him. He speaks in Ethics of “the great process of secularization” which he understood to be approaching its end in his day and this he took to be essentially good for Christians. It hastened their maturity. He uses the words Mündigkeit—maturity; “of age-ness”—and Autonomie interchangeably in the prison letters.

Bonhoeffer’s notion of religionless Christianity drew strength and purpose from the progressive secularization of Western civilization, although the words “West” and “Western” probably oversimplify what, in Bonhoeffer’s mind, and from an early twentieth century German perspective, was a complex phenomenon. Michael DeJonge points out that, in the Ethics fragment “Heritage and Decay,” Bonhoeffer used the term westlich only in adjectival forms and always to the exclusion of Germany. He used westlich to refer to western neighbours such as France, Holland, and England but, when he talked about these countries and Germany together, he used a different word—Abendland. Bonhoeffer could not accept the Anglo-Saxon claim to see the West as an expression, exclusively, of the liberal-democratic tradition—with which Germany could not identify—and to recognize only one kind of freedom: a freedom from interference and tyranny. Bonhoeffer argued for a more complex idea of freedom for some larger purpose. While, though, Bonhoeffer’s concept of freedom is, I think, critical to a proper understanding of his religionless Christianity, I don’t believe his reflections on the possible shape of post-war Europe to be now of other than historical interest.

Does religionless Christianity have a value outside the West? I don’t know. Bonhoeffer’s example and theology have certainly been influential in the Global South, notably in the development of liberation theology. But in countries where the word “religion” still fits seamlessly into general conversation, and especially in countries with growing Christian populations, a religionless form of Christianity will seem unnecessary and out of place. Whether it has a role to play anywhere depends of course on how it is read. Religionless Christianity will always be misunderstood by those who assume they can read it from its title.

Q: Bonhoeffer’s concept of religionless Christianity is in many ways birthed from his long-standing views and accompanying critique of religion. What do you see as the key elements to Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion, and how is it informed by other theologians he is in dialogue with?

PH: Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion owes much to the early theology of Karl Barth. It was Barth who helped him understand the difference between faith, as God’s gift, and religion, as mere human invention. As Barth put it, we have died with Christ to religion and its laws and now stand before God as people “who have passed from death to life.” Barth’s significance for Bonhoeffer declined in the 1930s as Bonhoeffer was drawn more and more deeply into practical church and political activities. But he is there again in the prison letters which, despite their criticism of Barth’s failure to grasp the religionless implications of his own pioneering critique of religion, are still grounded in the conviction that religion simply cannot bring us into the presence of God. Only the grace of God, which has nothing to do with religion, can do this. There is no human path to God.

But there is, of course, more to Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion than this. In one of the prison letters, he speaks of “the crucial distinction” between Christianity and all religion. Matthew 8:17—“He took our infirmities and bore our diseases”—makes it very clear, he says, that “Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” This distinction—between the powerful but contrived God of religion and the compassionate, vulnerable God of the gospel—lies at the heart both of Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion and of his concept of religionless Christianity. Other elements of the critique—the religious preoccupation with personal salvation; the failure to understand that Jesus Christ claims the whole person and not just some religious part of us; the tendency to see God as the solution only to problems we have yet to solve; and religious assertions of privilege, hierarchy, and domination—all are enlivened, shaped, and molded by this distinction.

Q: Does Bonhoeffer’s conception of religionless Christianity trouble the normative hermeneutical method in Bonhoeffer scholarship which stresses both unity and continuity in Bonhoeffer’s corpus? How do we reconcile the newness of Bonhoeffer’s theological thought in prison with the fact that many of the elements that inform his thinking are already present in his early work?

PH: Bonhoeffer’s concept of religionless Christianity is intended to facilitate a Christian response to life in a world where God is no longer necessarily seen as an essential element of human self-understanding. It is the product of a “world come of age” and incorporates Bonhoeffer’s now fully developed critique of religion. It begins with a question—the familiar “what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?”—and is driven by Bonhoeffer’s strongly felt need to bring Christians to an authentic understanding of their condition. God wants us to know that “we must live as those who manage their lives without God.” God “consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.” God is now “weak and powerless in the world” and can be with us and help us only in this way. It is precisely this autonomous coming of age that “frees us to see the God of the Bible, who gains ground and power in the world by being powerless.”

Most scholars would, I think, accept Ernst Feil’s description of Bonhoeffer’s theology as a unity within which there is “development and unfolding.” While Eberhard Bethge finds in Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison signs of “a decisive new beginning in April 1944,” he can also clearly see in them evidence of Bonhoeffer’s earlier thinking. The key elements of his prison theology—its affirmation of the life of faith lived wholly in the world; its subordination of power to weakness; the idea that “only the suffering God can help;” and the promise of new life in Christ’s “being there for others”—are all firmly grounded in Bonhoeffer’s earlier theology, including his overarching vision of one reality in Christ.

In the “Outline for a Book,” which accompanied one of the last of the letters from prison, Bonhoeffer declares simply that God is the “encounter with Jesus Christ.” So much of his theology is captured here. The idea, for example, that whatever else and more God may be and surely is, we can only truly know the God who became human. The rest is speculation. Here, too, we meet Christ the mediator—the one who stands before God on my behalf and between me and every “other.” In Jesus Christ we recognize our true humanity as something shared and never solitary. Our sense of I-ness is grounded exclusively in relationship—with God, and other people. Life is thus innately social and necessarily involves accepting responsibility for others. Human freedom, too, is comprehensible only as a relation. In Jesus Christ, God chooses to be free for rather than from human beings and this means that their freedom, too, as human beings made in God’s image, can only be a freedom for others. There’s more to be said about this, of course, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what I’m talking about.  

Q: What is the role of nonreligious interpretation in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religionless Christianity?

PH: Bonhoeffer believed the work of shaping practical expressions of a new, religionless form of Christianity demanded new ways of thinking and speaking about the Christian faith. Religionless Christianity depended both on a certain way of understanding the human encounter with God and on language capable of conveying this understanding to an audience which, for the most part, knew little of Christian scripture and tradition. Nonreligious interpretation would play a critical role in establishing religionless Christianity. By finding new ways of explaining theological and biblical concepts, nonreligious language must do what Bonhoeffer believed religious language could no longer do. It must tell people “what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ.” It must bear witness to the identity and relevance of Jesus Christ in “a world come of age.”

Bonhoeffer knew this wouldn’t be easy. He left us only one reasonably clear example of nonreligious interpretation in the prison letters when he equated “repentance” with “ultimate honesty.” I’m sure though that Bonhoeffer would have taken us further down this path if he had had the chance to do so. I believe, too, that the work of nonreligious interpretation must go on if we are to treat Bonhoeffer’s concept of religionless Christianity as fully functional theology rather than as fragment or historical artefact.

Where to begin? Bonhoeffer’s prison letters include lists where we find the words faith, repentance, reconciliation, justification, sanctification, among others. But the lists are almost certainly provisional. He is thinking aloud at this stage. The challenge for us, as I’ve said, is to find language that is not only compatible with Bonhoeffer’s emerging sense of a Christ-centred, religionless Christianity but also intelligible to people whose sense of the divine has been attenuated by the dominant assumptions of our age. I take some small steps in this direction in chapter four.

Q: A byproduct of your exploration of religionless Christianity is a fascinating discussion on the burgeoning inclusiveness in Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology. You note that while the early Bonhoeffer was convinced that Christ was present only in the church-community, he is compelled to modify this understanding. How does religionless Christianity motivate this turn towards an alternative understanding of church, and what does it mean for future interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology?

PH: Bonhoeffer made his initial position clear in his doctoral dissertation when he said that because community with God “exists only through Christ” and Christ is present “only in his church-community,” then community with God could exist “only in the church.” It followed that anyone who was not in the church was effectively excluded from the life of Christ. Bonhoeffer was never entirely comfortable with this position and was obliged, by the logic of his own Christology, gradually to moderate his understanding. Because Jesus bore the whole of human nature, because, in him, the form of humanity was created anew, and because, through him, all human beings, without exception, were reconciled with God, it necessarily followed that Jesus Christ was present in every human being and the church had a responsibility to reflect this understanding.

Christ, though, was in no way diminished by Bonhoeffer’s progressive change in orientation. The power of Christ’s love was not compromised by the universality of his embrace, which now reached into the most hidden and godless corners of the world. But the nature of Christian life itself had changed for Bonhoeffer. The church was always, for him, more than simply “this or that building with the bell tower.” Christians still enjoyed the benefits of church-community, but there was a very real sense in which the whole world was now their church, because it was there, and not just in Christian fellowship, that the encounter with Jesus Christ took place. The true measure of faith was no longer fidelity to a particular religious institution, but rather a genuine willingness to share, wholeheartedly, the burden of Christ’s love for all humanity.

It may be possible to read Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology in this self-consciously christological way without the benefit of his religionless Christianity, but I don’t think I would have reached quite these conclusions if my focus had been elsewhere. There is an important sense in which Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity—far from being the tantalizing promise of things denied us by an untimely death—actually rounds out and brings to completion a thoroughly contemporary theology of Christian inclusiveness which has profoundly positive implications for the church today.        

Q: What is the import for religionless Christianity today? Can we think with, and perhaps beyond, Bonhoeffer’s conception of religionless Christianity in view of our current moment? Particularly, I am thinking about the profanation or appropriation of the sacred in service of geopolitical agendas. For example, Trump’s recent photo op holding a Bible on the steps of a church.

PH: Does religionless Christianity have a contemporary value? Yes, I believe it does and I’ve already had something to say about this with respect to the church. Religionless Christianity won’t of course mean anything to atheists and to uncritically religious people. But it has, I think, much to offer those who stand self-consciously in what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the Jamesian open space”—where they find themselves buffeted by the shifting winds of belief and unbelief—and the many others, both religious and nonreligious, who simply find themselves in this space from time to time. Bonhoeffer spares these people a choice of two unsatisfactory alternatives: the choice between a self-enclosed, entirely secular humanism and an ultimately unconvincing otherworldliness. In Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity, a worldly life of constant decision, risk, and responsibility is held in tension with a genuinely transcendent Other. In this context, Christ’s death and resurrection point not to new life in some other place but rather to a new way of living—of “being for others”—in this one.

Bonhoeffer believed that Christians may confidently place their trust in a God “who is weak and powerless in the world” because they know God, so understood, to be loving and faithful. They know also that the God whose absence is so keenly felt by once religious people is not, and never was, the God before whom they stand continually. They know that “only the suffering God can help” because only in the presence of the crucified and risen Christ does the human encounter with God take place. In this religionless confession of faith, Jesus Christ is not imposed on others but rather presses the claim of the other on us. We meet Christ in other people and see there the grace of God at work in every act of love and human kindness. We reach a new understanding of the abiding presence of Christ in every human being.

There is, though, a balance to be struck between a broadly inclusive religionless Christianity and what Bonhoeffer called the “arcane discipline” which shields and preserves the mysteries of the faith in the liturgical life of the church. Bonhoeffer was always critical of the casual and derisory exploitation of the mystery of Christ by a skeptical and self-regarding world. This is, of course, perfectly exemplified in Donald Trump’s cynical, ill-judged, and bizarre appropriation of the sacred for his own domestic political purposes. Such behaviour is not easily changed. The important thing is to see it for what it is and to draw the appropriate conclusions.

Q: What are you working on now that Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in Its Christological Context has been published?

PH: No books at the moment. I have a couple of articles—one on Bonhoeffer’s ethic of responsibility and another on the “common good”—which I hope to have published in journals this year. I also have a book chapter on Gandhi and Bonhoeffer in the pipeline and am doing some work on the public value of Christianity for Australia today.

 

Peter Hooton is responsible for the Research Secretariat which undertakes work in public theology at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture on Charles Sturt University’s Canberra campus. He is a former career diplomat with experience in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the South Pacific. He has a PhD in Theology from CSU and is a member of the University’s Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre.

Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in Its Christological Context is published by Lexington Books/Fortress Academic. It is available from online marketplaces and is also for sale on Lexington Books own website (https://rowman.com).

Review of J.I. de Keijzer, Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross: The Influence of Luther in Act and Being (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019) xiv + 185 pp. €69.00 (paperback).

In J.I. de Keijzer’s monograph, several prominent trends in Bonhoeffer scholarship intersect: namely, renewed attention to his early academic theology, sensitivity to the Lutheran provenance of his thought, and the impact of Karl Barth on his theological development. De Keijzer draws these strands together in order to elaborate and defend his central thesis that “Bonhoeffer’s theological development unfolded along a fresh articulation of Luther’s theologia crucis” (10–11). More specifically, the book unfolds as an attempt to read Bonhoeffer’s habilitationschrift, Act and Being (specifically, Parts A and B), as both an appropriate reception of Luther’s theology of the cross after Kant and a critique of the manner in which Barth’s early theology also drew on this aspect of Luther’s thought.

Rather than taking the approach one might expect in such a project (especially, given the subtitle)—i.e. mapping Luther’s theologia crucis in order to provide a framework within which to assess Act and Being as emblematic of this theological method—De Keijzer begins with Barth. The essay “Fate and Idea” is his particular focus since its titular concepts are analogous to those of Bonhoeffer’s habilitationschrift and in the essay Barth associates his own approach to theology with a theologia crucis. Insofar as Barth and Bonhoeffer are working with similar concepts in their critical engagements with philosophy, this provides the basis from which de Keijzer proceeds, in the third chapter, to critically evaluate their respective articulations of a theology of the cross. Crucially, he sees Barth as only engaging with the epistemologically deconstructive aspects of the theologia crucis because of his commitment to God’s formal freedom. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, pairs the deconstructive aspect with an emphasis on the fact that God is haveable and graspable in Christ on the cross. The resulting thematization is one in which Barth champions crisis and distance, while Bonhoeffer prioritizes crucis and presence. It is, then, in the distinction between Barth and Bonhoeffer that de Keijzer sketches the contours of the specific sort of theologia crucis he detects as unfolding in Act and Being.

The fourth chapter zooms out to consider the roots of the theologia crucis in Luther’s thought before surveying a number of its subsequent appropriations in philosophy and theology. Here, de Keijzer divides the figures surveyed into two camps: those who reflect Barth’s proclivity for distance (Loewenich, McGrath, Kant, and Kierkegaard) and those who resonate with Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on presence (Hegel, Simpson, and Jüngel). He then concludes by suggesting that Luther’s own thinking on the topic resonates more with the latter camp than the former.

Chapters five and six zoom in to focus on Act and Being. Specifically, de Keijzer argues that Barth’s theologia crucis, accented as it is by Kantian commitments, is act oriented, while Bonoeffer’s is being oriented, coming to expression in Christ existing as church community. Here, de Keijzer is particularly concerned to show that Bonhoeffer’s critical alternative to Barth is shaped by the logic of the theologia crucis in a way that can be directly linked to Luther (specifically, his treatise, The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods). He then goes on to treat Bonhoeffer’s engagement with Heidegger’s philosophy in order to show how it provided him with a framework for conceiving of how revelatory encounter with Christ (act) is always already suspended in Christ existing as church community (being). According to de Keijzer, Bonhoeffer analogically appropriated Heidegger’s philosophy for his theologia crucis in a manner that enabled him to forefront the presence of Christ in his coordination of act and being. 

Ultimately, then, the church community serves as the context within which a theologia crucis properly committed to Christ’s presence unfolds. According to de Keijzer, this is Bonhoeffer’s unique contribution to and expansion on Luther’s theologia crucis, and it provides a basis from which “epistemology (theological method), Christology, ecclesiology, and ethics come together” (160). Interpreted in this manner, in Act and Being he suggests that we encounter a thoroughly modern theologia crucis ripe and ready for addressing the challenges of the modern age.

De Keijzer’s ambitious attempt to hold together the three strands mentioned at the beginning of this review means that he lays himself open to questions and critiques on a number of fronts. I will, however, mention only two here. First, methodologically, by waiting to address Luther’s theologia crucis until the fourth chapter, the book’s central concept suffers from a frustrating lack of definition for the first three chapters. In other words, it is clear that de Keijzer thinks Bonhoeffer gets it right and Barth gets it wrong, but without a clear idea of what exactly he intends by the term “theologia crucis”, the reader simply has to take his word for it. Second, one might wonder if de Keijzer’s tendency to organize his argument in terms of  binaries (i.e. Barth and Bonhoeffer, distance and presence, crisis and crucis) results in a polarization of the concepts of act and being that threatens to obscure the import of Bonhoeffer’s coordination of the two.  Although he is careful to note that Bonhoeffer maintains a place for the in-reference-to of act, this aspect is mostly glossed over by de Keijzer in order to emphasize being as the locus of presence and crucis.

Ultimately, de Keijzer makes an able contribution to conversations pertaining to Bonhoeffer’s theology in Act and Being, the Lutheran flavor of his theology, and his theological position vis-a-vis Barth. It may not supplant standards on these topics (i.e. the seminal work done by the likes of Tietz, DeJonge, Marsh, and Pangritz), but it supplements them by offering a possible way of mapping Bonhoeffer’s theological concerns and motivation in Act and Being according to Luther’s theologia crucis.

About the Reviewer(s): Koert Verhagen holds a PhD in Divinity from the University of St Andrews and is currently a post-doctoral research fellow there in the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology. His current research assesses the social implications of justification in Bonhoeffer's theology.

About the Author: J.I. de Keijzer Born 1965; BA in Biblical Studies at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee; MA in Christian Thought at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, USA; PhD from Luther Seminary, St. Paul, USA; currently an independent scholar interested in the intersections of cross theology, radical theology, public theology, and social justice.

You can purchase Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross at the following link: https://www.mohrsiebeck.com/en/book/bonhoeffers-theology-of-the-cross-9783161569999

 

 

Jutta Koslowski (ed.) Foreword by Andreas Dreß, Aus dem Leben der Familie Bonhoeffer: Die Aufzeichnungen von Dietrich Bonhoeffers jüngster Schwester Susanne Dreß.Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2018. ISBN: 978-3-579-07152-7

 

Q: We’re excited to talk with you about your new book which contains the memoirs of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s youngest sister Susanne! What initially drew you to Susanne and the Bonhoeffer family as a topic for research, and why has their story remained significant to you over the years?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most widely acknowledged theologians of the 20th century. He is one of the rare personalities who attracts audiences from both academia and the general public, and his publicity is still growing. For many people, he is something like a modern saint or an example which inspires one’s personal journey of faith. This is also true for me. I read his books Life Together and Discipleship at the early age of fourteen; these copies have a special place in my bookshelf until this present day. In these two texts, almost every word is underlined, while the margins are filled with expression marks, question marks and personal comments. I am fascinated by Bonhoeffer’s non-conformism and by his courage – and of course by the fact that he confirmed his convictions with his own life. Today, I am working as an academic theologian specializing in ecumenism and Christian-Jewish dialogue; in both of these areas of research, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an important reference for me, since he has been a forerunner, expressing visionary ideas which have been widely accepted only much later after his death. So, one could somehow understand him as a modern type of prophet. However, I would like to express that I do not want to idealize him. For example, some aspects of his theology (namely his focus on Christology) are too traditional and conservative for me. Like many others, it is mainly the Bonhoeffer of Letters and Papers from Prison whom I find most stimulating. I am even more interested in his biography than in his theology – and this is what fascinates me about the memoirs of his youngest sister Susanne. Susanne’s account is not a hagiography but a true biography, and here, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (together with his whole family) comes alive.

Q: We are quickly approaching 75 years since that fateful spring of 1945. It may be somewhat surprising for our readers to discover that new material on the Bonhoeffer family is just now being released. Can you tell us about the publishing process and your work with Susanne’s family to finally bring her memoirs to the wider public?

I first came across the manuscript of Susanne while studying the excellent Bonhoeffer biography of Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. Though I was somewhat familiar with much in this book, at some points I thought “This is really interesting – where does it come from?” When checking the footnotes, I realized that in most cases it came from the memoirs of Susanne Dreß. In the acknowledgements of Schlingensiepen’s book, he mentions Andreas Dreß, the son of Susanne, in the first place, for he had generously left his mother’s manuscript with him. Schlingensiepen adds that this material definitely deserves to be published. After having read this, I contacted Schlingensiepen (whom I had met shortly before at a consultation of the Bonhoeffer Society) and asked him whether I might take a look at this material. On the same evening, I received an email-response from him which was instrumental for the further process. He put me in touch with professor Günter Ebbrecht, who was most helpful during the course of the next years and selflessly helped me to assemble the manuscript (which had been scattered and almost lost during the past decades). Some parts were found in the attic of the former family resort of the Bonhoeffers’ in Friedrichsbrunn, other parts in the archives of the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin and the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand or in the study of Günter Ebbrecht – and finally in the drawers of Ferdinand Schlingensiepen himself. During the course of one year, we managed to reconstruct the 800 pages of the typescript (with only one sheet remaining lost). The next task was to get in touch with Andreas Dreß, the only remaining son of Susanne and owner of the legal rights for the text. At first, he was reluctant to respond, since his mother’s experiences with book publishers had been rather negative. In the eighties, after the manuscript had been completed, the publication of this material was prepared by Christian Gremmels in co-operation with Ulrich Kabitz from Christian-Kaiser-Verlag (who had published Dietrich Bonhoeffers’ works during his lifetime). However, this project failed – mainly because Susanne makes some cynical remarks about well-known figures like Martin Niemöller and others. The publishers found these passages objectionable and wanted them to be removed. Yet Susanne refused. Having been unbending during the Third Reich, she would not consent to what she considered to be a form of censorship. For this reason, the plan was abandoned. However, when I finally managed to get in touch with Andreas Dreß, we immediately found out that we were perfectly on terms considering the bequest of his mother, and he entrusted the project to me. So, I committed the manuscript to a professional writing bureau and Karin Schmid meticulously typed the whole text into the computer to convert it into a digital version. This was the prerequisite for the German book publisher to consider the project. We had tried to find sponsors for this project, but nobody responded – so, I covered these costs privately, hoping that the manuscript would be published in the end. With the digital version, I approached Gütersloher Verlagshaus, the number one for publications about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany (they have edited Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works). This was a real success. When I made my first phone call to the publisher, I asked for the director, Ralf Markmeier, but was told that he is busy. However, they forwarded me to Diedrich Steen; who is an expert in Bonhoeffer studies. Mr. Steen was immediately interested in the manuscript and became my editor. Thus, a very happy relationship with Gütersloher Verlagshaus began. Indeed, he told me during our first conversation on the phone that he had just the evening before talked with a friend about the memoirs of Susanne, stating they should be published at last. After obtaining a contract from Andreas Dreß as well as from Diedrich Steen, I began working on the manuscript. Susanne has an excellent style of writing – vibrant, witty, apt – but she was what would be called nowadays dyslectic. As such, her text needed to be thoroughly revised. Hardly any sentence could be published without correction. The text needed to be adopted to the standard of neue deutsche Rechtschreibung and the punctuation had to be completely reworked. All names of places and persons had to be verified, since they were spelled inconsistently. Finally, annotations were added to explain at certain points what she is talking about (i.e. the authors of book she mentions or further details to historical events). We also added historical photographs to the book so that the reader would get an idea of how things looked like in former times.

Q: While I am aware that many of our readers will be interested in what Susanne has to say about her older brother, I don’t want to pretend your book is only about Dietrich. To that end, what do we learn about Susanne from her memoirs?

Susanne was a very energetic person. She was religiously inclined, so she was very close to Dietrich and shared his passion for the Christian faith (which was rather untypical for the Bonhoeffer family: The mother, Paula Bonhoeffer, came from a parsonage, but their piety was liberal, and the scientific approach of the father Karl Bonhoeffer was formative). Susanne always wanted to become an author (and I am delighted that with the publication of her memoirs this dream in some ways is posthumously fulfilled). However, like her sisters (who were equally gifted as their famous brothers) she did not take up vocational training. Instead, she became engaged with Walter Dreß (a college friend from Dietrich) one day after her eighteenth birthday. This engagement took place in secret – because another theologian in the family was not quite what the parents had hoped for. Her married life seems to have been rather unhappy. She hardly talks about her husband, but this silence is eloquent. The more active she became, the more he fades away – until the point when Susanne voluntarily takes over almost his complete parish work, while he is reading bundles of newspapers and cares for his amphibians. Susanne and Walter had two sons (Michael, who became a pianist and died in London at an early age, and Andreas, later a professor of mathematics). During the time of the Nazi regime, Susanne was actively supporting the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) and opposed Hitler, like the whole Bonhoeffer family. Her husband Walter Dreß replaced the famous pastor Martin Niemöller at the time when he was arrested and taken to a Nazi concentration camp. Susanne and Walter did pastoral work in the parish of Berlin-Dahlem, one of the focal points of opposition against Hitler, and it is most interesting to read what she relates about this crucial time.

Q: Many scholars have commented on the impossibility of attempting to separate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography and theology. In fact, scholarship frequently affirms the interconnectedness of the two. As such, are there theological insights either about Dietrich or the wider Bonhoeffer family present within Susanne’s more biographic memoirs? If so, how can we responsibly interpret them?

Susanne relays this wonderful (dare I suggest comical) story about her and Dietrich’s experience in confirmation class with a certain Grunewald pastor who seemed more concerned with his own profile picture than catechesis. Susanne recalls that even at a young age, Dietrich was shocked at the lack of theological depth displayed by this pastor. This brief vignette from their local parish reminds us of Dietrich’s now famous quip to his family that he would reform the church. Susanne’s recollections of these early church experiences may be interpreted as initial glimpses at Bonhoeffer’s life-long suspicion of religion. Susanne’s memoirs provide some captivating biographic vignettes of Dietrich. For example, how Dietrich successfully argued as a young student of theology against the against foi gras that was customarily prepared by his mother for Christmas, because he conceived stuffing geese as being immoral. This scene (and others like it) display the ways Bonhoeffer concretely lived out his theology and ethics. Another example: In recent years, much has been made about Dietrich’s sexuality – so it is instructive to read Susanne describe Dietrich’s response to her own unhappy romantic relationship with Grete von Dohnanyi as well as her later sexual fantasies and depression.

Q: Susanne provides some fascinating historical details about the Bonhoeffer family. For example, how her father would pop open a bottle of champagne every time a family member lost their right to teach. Some of these details even contradict assumptions based up on previous research (such as the true effectiveness of the typhoid bacteria on those in the family who were in prison). What are some other details that surprised you as you worked with the manuscript for the first time?

Indeed, these memoirs reveal some new aspects of the Bonhoeffer family. Though, as a whole, they do not show a 'different' Bonhoeffer – they rather deepen our understanding; they replace the 'black-and white-image' of Dietrich with a 'color photograph' or even a film (as one feels like sitting at the dining table of the Bonhoeffers’ in their luxurious villa while delving in these vivid records). However, the most stunning details about the Bonhoeffer family are contained in those parts of the manuscript which were taken out by Susanne herself, because they were too controversial. Here, we learn, for example, how Susanne unexpectedly fell pregnant shortly after the Russian occupation of Berlin and that her father ­– a widely renowned physician – somehow forced her to an abortion (as a result of which she almost died and had to fight for her life during months to come). Another surprising episode is that her husband Walter Dreß had to undergo an Entnazifizierungsverfahren – apparently initiated by Martin Niemöller respectively his followers, since the parish of Dahlem was deeply split, despite of its leading role in the Confessing Church. Respecting the intention of the author, we have left out these passages and published the memoirs of Susanne Dreß in an unabbreviated version on the basis of her last hand manuscript. And there is enough rewarding material to be found there, indeed! For example, there is a poignant passage in the book where Susanne vividly describes her brother Klaus’ reaction to the outcome of the 20th of July 1944. She mentions that this was the first time in her life when she saw her brother crying. Passages like this help provide a clearer picture of the experiences of those intimately involved in the plot to overthrow Hitler.

Q: Far too often the study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Bonhoeffer family ends in 1945. We rarely read about the theological and ethical life that was no doubt carried on in the Bonhoeffer family after WWII. What was Susanne’s life like after the war? Further, how do Susanne’s memoirs aid in our understanding of what Dietrich may have been up to had he survived long enough to participate in the reconstruction of Germany after the war?

It is one of the special qualities of this book that it relates how life in the Bonhoeffer family went on after the end of WWII and in face of the loss of four sons and sons in law. Susanne relates that she (as well as other family members) refrained from bitterness. And she understands this as a "a kind of tribute to Dietrich", as she writes. Immediately after the capitulation, as early as May 1945, she initiated the Dahlemer Hilfswerk, a social welfare project for ex-soldiers returning home and those who were expelled by the Red Army into the Western Zones. She welcomed former Nazi women to participate in this voluntary work and rejects accusations against this. She declared that it was a practical act of repentance for these women, and she considered former Nazis as the pastoral challenge of her time. She avoided to take part in what she called 'arrogance' of those in the Confessing Church who took pride in having been on 'the good side'. On the other hand, from now on she conceived herself as "sister of Dietrich Bonhoeffer" and took advantage from this when she needed to open doors. After her husband retired from pastoral work, she devoted her time to write the memoirs of the Bonhoeffer family, and she gave lectures about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the resistance against the Nazi regime.

Q: What are you working on now that Aus dem Leben der Familie Bonhoeffer has been published?

At present, I am trying to promote the knowledge of the memoirs of Susanne Dreß for an English-speaking audience. Next year (in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII and the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer) articles related to this subject will appear in Theology Today and The Bonhoeffer Legacy, in the Proceedings of the Societas Oecumenica and also in the circular of the German section of the International Bonhoeffer Society. A monograph with the title Erinnerungen an Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Entdeckungen in den Aufzeichnungen seiner Schwester Susanne will be published next spring, as well. This book contains quotations of the most relevant passages of the memoirs of Susanne Dreß in full length, together with reflections of what insights they offer. I hope an English edition of an abbreviated version of Susanne’s memoirs will be realized, and that sponsors for the cost of translation can be found. In the future, I want to write a book about the biography of Klaus Bonhoeffer, who for far too long has been overshadowed by his famous brother Dietrich and deserves to be more closely perceived, as well.

 

Dr. Jutta Koslowski (born 1968) has studied Protestant as well as Catholic and Orthodox theology and is ordained pastor in the Protestant Church in Germany. Her fields of research are  ecumenism and interreligious dialogue and she has published a substantial number of books and articles in renowned scientific periodicals. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Munich which she earned with her work on The Unity of the Church in the Ecumenical Discussion – Concrete Visions in the Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (2007). Currently, she is working at the university of Mainz, finishing her post-doc research on the subject Church and Israel – Attempts in Defining their Relationship after the Shoah. She is a member of the International Bonhoeffer Society and has edited the volume Aus dem Leben der Familie Bonhoeffer. Die Aufzeichnungen von Dietrich Bonhoeffers jüngster Schwester Susanne Dreß (Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2018). Together with her husband and their four children, she is living at the monastery of Gnadenthal. For more information see: www.jutta-koslowski.de.

You can purchase Aus dem Leben der Familie Bonhoeffer at the following link:  https://www.amazon.com/Aus-dem-Leben-Familie-Bonhoeffer/dp/3579071521/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=us+dem+Leben+der+Familie+Bonhoeffer&qid=1572537486&sr=8-1

 

Also available from Dr. Jutta Koslowski:

Book: Koslowski, Jutta (ed.): Das Bonhoeffer Weihnachtsbuch, Gütersloh (Gütersloher Verlagshaus) 2019

Book: Koslowski, Jutta: Erinnerungen an Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Entdeckungen in den Aufzeichnungen seiner Schwester Susanne, Asslar (Adeo Verlag) 2020 (to be published)

Article: Koslowski, Jutta: The Bonhoeffer Family – Insights from the Autobiographic Records of Dietrich Bonhoeffers Youngest Sister Suanne. In: Creemers, Jelle/Link-Wieczorek, Ulrike (Hg.): On Nations and Churches: Ecumenical Responses to Nationalism and Migration. Proceedings of the 20th Academic Consultation of the Societas Oecumenica (Beihefte zur Ökumenischen Rundschau), Leipzig (Evangelische Verlagsanstalt) 2020 (to be published)

Article: Koslowski, Jutta: Aus dem Leben Dietrich Bonhoeffers – Neue Einblicke in den Aufzeichnungen seiner Schwester Susanne. In: Rundbrief der Internationalen Bonhoeffer-Gesellschaft, 2020 (to be published)

Article: Koslowski, Jutta: Details from The Life of the Bonhoeffer Family – New Insights about the Biography and Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Memoirs of his Youngest Sister Susanne. In: Theology Today, 2020 (to be published)

Article: Koslowski, Jutta: Dietrich Bonhoeffer – New Insights in the Memoirs of his Sister Susanne. In: The Bonhoeffer Legacy, 2020 (to be published)

 

Review of Michael P. DeJonge, Bonhoeffer on Resistance: The Word Against the Wheel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. $25.00. 192 pp.

 

While the temptation to hagiography has long been acknowledged in Bonhoeffer scholarship, the concomitant problem of historicism has been given less attention. The moving story of Bonhoeffer’s life leads interpreters to focus on the social and biographical context of his work. While that is something to be celebrated, at times it has meant that the content of Bonhoeffer’s writings is overshadowed by the moral power of his life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of political resistance. We continue to return to him for guidance because we recognize that he not only thought about political resistance but actually engaged in it. As Karl Barth wrote of Bonhoeffer in 1952, “Why should one not allow oneself to be addressed like this by a man of whom it was asked and to whom it was also given that he not only thought it and said it, but also lived it?”[1] Bonhoeffer is a moral exemplar, someone whose life suggests he possesses moral authority. What he says carries the weight of his sacrifice.

Still, Bonhoeffer’s conception of political resistance should not be reduced to a narrative of his life, to recounting the various forms of his own resistance. Without losing sight of biography, Michael DeJonge has helpfully refocused our attention on Bonhoeffer’s conceptual framework of political resistance, while showing how Bonhoeffer’s ideas were not merely epiphenomenal to his actions. In his recent book, Bonhoeffer on Resistance: The Word and the Wheel, DeJonge argues that much of Bonhoeffer’s highly complex and nuanced account of resistance was in place early in his career. Changing circumstances in Germany throughout the 1930s and 1940s led Bonhoeffer to engage various aspects of this multiform account. Rather than abandoning various forms of resistance on the road to his involvement in a conspiracy against Hitler, we find that Bonhoeffer maintained a pluriform understanding of resistance applicable to various political situations.

Working across the range of Bonhoeffer’s corpus, DeJonge highlights three phases in the development of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of resistance. During the first phase, Bonhoeffer emphasizes how the church resists through its proclamation of the Word. In the second phase, Bonhoeffer emphasizes how the church resists through its existence as community. This is the period of Finkenwalde, of Discipleship and Life Together. The third phase is marked by Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. The three phases underline DeJonge’s careful attention to the agent of resistance in Bonhoeffer’s thought. In the first two phases, the agent of resistance is the church. In the third phase, the agent is the individual, rather than the church. DeJonge’s account pushes against readings of Bonhoeffer which elide this distinction, whether by attributing to non-ecclesial entities forms of resistance Bonhoeffer saw as distinctly ecclesial, or by attributing to the church forms of resistance Bonhoeffer saw as centering on the individual or on humanitarian organizations.

In addition to the three phases of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activity, DeJonge highlights six “types” of resistance in Bonhoeffer’s thought. Tacitly implied in Bonhoeffer’s 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” Type 1 involves the individual accusing the state of inhumanity, in cases where the state nevertheless continues to function as a legitimate state. The next three types (2-4) are discussed explicitly in the same essay. In Types 2-4, the agent of resistance is neither the individual nor a humanitarian organization but rather the church. Type 2 refers to the church’s diaconal work in serving the victims of state injustice. Type 3 is the church’s indirect political word, questioning whether the state’s actions are those of a legitimate state. Type 4 invokes the famous passage about “seizing the wheel” of the state, which has often been misconstrued as calling for physical resistance of some form. DeJonge argues on the contrary that for Bonhoeffer the church “seizes the wheel” by proclaiming a concrete commandment, under the auspices of an ecumenical council.

Arising during the second phase of Bonhoeffer’s thinking, in Type 5 the church resists not by intervening directly in the public sphere but rather by fostering an alternative community of discipleship. On this reading, Finkenwalde was no respite from political engagement, but was itself an important form of resistance, called for by the particular conditions of the time. Representing the third and final phase of Bonhoeffer’s resistance thinking, Type 6 refers to a “free responsible action” in which an individual does what is necessary to restore the forms of institutional life that make ethics possible, which Bonhoeffer’s describes as the divine mandates of church, state, family, and culture. This necessary action in a state of emergency might require extreme measures, such as the assassination attempt in which Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators were embroiled. Bonhoeffer’s claim is not that under certain conditions the overthrow of a political leader is morally justified, but rather that such an act might become necessary and responsible while still entailing guilt.

A historian of ideas, DeJonge spotlights just how different Bonhoeffer’s way of thinking is from that of contemporary western democratic modes of thought, not least on the question of political resistance. If Stephen Haynes’s recent book The Battle for Bonhoeffer (Eerdmans 2018) shows how Bonhoeffer has been invoked in the United States on behalf of almost every political cause imaginable, DeJonge’s book brings into sharp relief just what it would mean to come to grips with Bonhoeffer’s conception of political resistance, and indeed of church and state more broadly. Here DeJonge builds on his previous work, in particular Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther (OUP 2016). A key takeaway from this new volume is that Bonhoeffer’s conception of resistance is inescapably Lutheran. DeJonge rejects the view that Bonhoeffer left behind his Lutheran assumptions on his way to political resistance. Bonhoeffer’s involvement in political resistance was, on the contrary, inextricable from his Lutheran political theology. DeJonge has made a significant contribution to Bonhoeffer scholarship in bringing this point to light, and in such a convincing and compelling way.

 

About the Reviewer(s): Joshua Mauldin is Associate Director of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. He holds a PhD in religious ethics from Southern Methodist University, and his research interests include the ethics of Barth and Bonhoeffer, law and religion, and Christianity in China. He can be reached by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and @joshuatmauldin on Twitter.

About the Author: Michael P. DeJonge is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, where he teaches on the history of Christian theology and topics in modern religious thought. His previous publications include Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther (2017), Bonhoeffer's Theological Formation (2012), and The Bonhoeffer Reader (co-edited with Clifford J. Green; 2014).

You can purchase Bonhoeffer on Resistance: The Word Against the Wheel at the following link: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/bonhoeffer-on-resistance-9780198824176?cc=us&lang=en&



[1] Karl Barth, “Letter to Landessuperintendent P.W. Herrenbrück, 21 December 1952,” in Ronald Gregor Smith, Editor, World Come of Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 91.

David S. Robinson, Christ and Revelatory Community in Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Hegel, (Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen: 2018); ISBN978-3-16-155963, €60.00.

 

Stephen J. Plant, Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge.

 

Well into this fine book David Robinson quotes Judith Butler to help him make the point that philosophy is always likely to find it hard to make a clean break from Hegel:

The question that emerges in a consideration of post-Hegelians is whether the “post-” is a relationship that differentiates or binds or possibly does both at once. On the one hand, references to a “break” with Hegel are almost always impossible, if only because Hegel has made the very motion of “breaking with” into the central tenet of his dialectic. (cited on page 65)

What is true of philosophy is also true of Bonhoeffer’s theological reception of his great Berlin University forbear. While he is not, Robinson is careful to say, Hegelian, it is the case that ‘Bonhoeffer carries out a more complex variation on Hegel’s thought than is often recognised’ (230). Fresh consideration of Bonhoeffer’s reception of Hegel’s thought sheds light on the theological reception of Hegel and more generally on how theology is to construe its relationship to philosophy. More specifically in Bonhoeffer’s case, patient attention to how he differentiates his thinking from Hegel’s helps make better sense of how he understands Christ to be revealed and present in the Church.

The book is in three parts. Part One takes its cue from the best known of Bonhoeffer’s comments on Hegel, in which he singled Hegel out among Idealists for criticism, because in his thought ‘the movement of Geist is turned in upon itself’ (p. 57, citation from Act and Being DBWE 2, 41-2). Robinson argues convincingly that Bonhoeffer is distinguishing theology from Hegelian philosophy in, for example, placing the Word before Geist (which Robinson wisely leaves untranslated to avoid reducing its scope to Holy Spirit, to Spirit or to Mind). But he is also modifying Hegel to do work in his theology. Bonhoeffer sets the form of Christ where Hegel set Geist, certainly a substantive change – but the dialectical structure of Hegel’s thought is retained in the relation of act and being, of faith and the Christian community. Robinson’s comparison of Hegel’s treatment of Genesis 1-3 and Bonhoeffer’s in Creation and Fall makes it clearer still that the theologian is drawing on Hegel with (forgive the pun) creative results.

Part Two adds flesh, quite literally, to Hegel’s reduction of Christ to ‘Idea’. As in Part One, this is done in two stages. Chapter 3 focusses on Christology and Chapter 4 on Christ as preaching and sacrament. This makes clear that Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran doctrine concerning the instantiation of Christ in the preached Word and the sacraments, an incarnational ‘ecology’ in which Word and Sacrament complement and fulfil each other, carries forward the Christology of his 1932/33 lectures. These Two parts of the book are immensely rewarding. It is rarer than it ought to be for theologians to read philosophers well, but Robinson manages here a close and sophisticated reading not only of Bonhoeffer, particularly his two dissertations and his 1933 Hegel seminar, but also of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History and Phenomenology of Spirit, which were the Hegelian texts to which Bonhoeffer paid sustained attention.

Part Three deals (once more in two chapters) with ‘The Body of Christ after “World History”’. To my mind, this part of the argument seemed less well anchored in the close textual comparison that successfully drove the first two parts of the book. Chapter 5 scores a good point in comparing Hegel’s nuanced understanding of the French Revolution with Bonhoeffer’s in the unfinished fragment on ‘Heritage and Decay’ in his Ethics. But Bonhoeffer is, I suspect, rather more conservative than Hegel in his political views than Robinson credits. The essentially Lutheran trajectory of Bonhoeffer’s ‘political’ theology, so ably recently set out by Michael P. DeJonge, is largely missing. More significantly Robinson inexplicably neglects the resemblance, possibly influenced by their shared Lutheran inheritance, between Hegel’s accounts of family, civil society and the state in his Philosophy of Right and Bonhoeffer’s attempts to rework the orders of creation in his theology of the divine mandates. The treatment of Volk, race and history in the final Chapter 6 similarly yielded less insight, for me, than earlier chapters.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have said that ‘he who never changes his mind never changes anything’: well, in the first two parts of his book Robinson changed my mind about Bonhoeffer’s reception of Hegel. He is right: a more nuanced accounts of Hegel’s thought vis-à-vis Bonhoeffers own makes ‘strictly oppositional construal of the two figures’ (195) unsustainable. Robinson gives the best reading of that relationship to date, and in doing so makes an important contribution to our grasp of Bonhoeffer’s theology, particularly his early theology and his Christology. Christ and Revelatory Community in Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Hegel is decidedly a book for advanced interpreters of Bonhoeffer, by whom it deserves to be widely read.

 

David S. Robinson holds a PhD in Systematic Theology and Ethics from The University of Edinburgh and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Theology and Science at Regent College and Research Associate at Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

You can purchase Christ and Revelatory Community in Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Hegel at the following link: https://www.mohrsiebeck.com/en/book/christ-and-revelatory-community-in-bonhoeffers-reception-of-hegel-9783161559631