A Testament to Freedom — A Review Essay

by Michael Hardin

A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edited by Geffrey B. Kelly & F. Burton Nelson (New York: Harper and Row, 1990) xxii + 528 pgs., hardcover $12.95

Burton Nelson and Geffrey Kelly have given the English-speaking world a great gift in their work on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They have produced a collection of the essential writings of Bonhoeffer in one volume. Bonhoeffer’s writings have been edited, reedited and translated in over seventeen volumes in the past thirty-five years, but here in one volume, one can find selections judiciously arranged that lead one to the heart of Bonhoeffer, the pastor and theologian.

In an essay coauthored by the editors, Kelly and Nelson introduce Bonhoeffer the human being. For most significant figures, their theology and history are inexplicably intertwined. This is certain Iy the case for Bonhoeff er. His writings can in no way be divorced from the context of Nazi-Holocaust Europe. In forty pages, the editors have given a brief biographical sketch of Bonhoeffer. From family life in aristocratic Berlin, to school days and tutelage under the great liberal theologians Harnack and Seeberg, through his first visit to the United States, Bonhoeffer is shown to be a truly cosmopolitan person. The influence of Paul Lehmann, fellow student at Union Theological Seminary, is noted as a catalyst to the development of his social thought.

Bonhoeffer’ s return to Germany in 1931 began his pilgrimage among his own people and his first encounters with anti-Semitism and the beginnings of Nazi ideology. The influence of Karl Barth on Bonhoeffer at this time seemed underplayed in the introduction.

Bonhoeffer’s role in the formative Bethel Confession of 1933 is highlighted, as is his role in the development of Martin Niemoller’s Pastors’ Emergency League, a forerunner of the Confessing Church movement. Unfortunately, very little of the Bethel Confession is included in the volume, due perhaps to space considerations. As a forerunner to the great Barmen Declaration of 1934, the insight and prophetic character of the Bethel Confession shows Bonhoeffer the theologian and Bonhoeffer the pastor merging, as care for the Jews meant the theological inclusion of the Jews.

The journey continues through the mid 1930s as Bonhoeffer undertakes direction of the illegal Preachers’ seminary at Finkenwalde, his expulsion by the Gestapo in 1937, and his critique of the church struggle.

Finally, his role as an agent of the counter-resistance movement, the Abwehr, is highlighted, as well as his arrest and the years spent in prison doing innovative theological thought. His death is, of course, well known. Whether or not he is a martyr, as the editors contend, is another question.

The rest of the volume (some 500 pages) is divided chronologically into the two-year periods that Bonhoeffer’s life seemed to fall into naturally.

Part I focuses on the years 1929-31 and Bonhoeffer’s first two writings, The Communion of Saints and Act and Being, both submitted as dissertations. Selections from these volumes emphasize Bonhoeffer’s budding ecclesiological focus, in which Christ and sociality are two sides of a coin. “Christ existing as community” is Bonhoeffer’ s catchword here.

Part II looks at Bonhoeffer’s early years as a teacher. It includes early writings on peace, ecumenism, and a brief selection from “Christ the Center,” lectures on christology given to students at the University of Berlin in the summer of 1933—the year Hitler ascended to power. His budding criticism of Nazism can be seen in this section.

Part III is much broader, examining material specifically relating to the church struggle from the years 1933-1938, the year in which Bonhoeffer “gave up” on the Confessing Church. One of the more interesting pieces explores ‘‘The Interpretation of the New Testament” and the problem of the relation between gospel and culture. This latter piece could serve us just as well today as American Christianity is becoming more and more enculturated.

Part IV is by far the longest section of the book and includes twenty-nine sermons from 1928-1939, many which are here translated for the first time. Themes of suffering, vindication, hope, and ethical responsibility are pronounced in this selection, foreshadowing his later writings on ethics.

Part V is a brief collection of texts from Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship, both of which are perennial best sellers in English, written while Bonhoeffer was active in the training of pastors for the Confessing Church.

Part VI, the shortest section of the book, contains abstracts from the Ethics, posthumously published fragments of various approaches to ethics. The brevity of this section ought not to fool the new student to Bonhoeffer, for his ethics are currently the hot spot in recent Bonhoeffer interpretation.

Part VII is a collection of letters from Bonhoeffer to various individuals. Included here, for the first time, are translations of letters between Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth only recently discovered in the early 1980s. This section concludes with new translations of several poems written from prison at the end of his life.

Also included in the volume are a helpful chronology, notes, a glossary, bibliography, and indices.

What is one to say of such a comprehensive volume? I fear that criticism of their book may well reflect more on the personal whims of the critic than on the book itself. But several things are worth mentioning.

First is the notable lack of material from the Letters and Papers from Prison and the Fiction from Prison, both of which are essential in any collection of Bonhoeffer. While selections are included from virtually every other major work of Bonhoeffer, there is a paucity of material here. Though the most important letters to Eberhard Bethge are included, I sensed a lack of the continuity from letter to letter that one finds in the fuller collection. Here, most of all, the student of Bonhoeffer needs direction.

Second, the new translation of the poems misses something of the German text, especially the translation of “Christians and Pagans.” Both the meter and rhyme of the German, which were admirably captured in the earlier translation, are lost in this new translation.

Third, one of the most significant elements of the Finkenwalde experiment was the discipline of confession. In Spiritual Life, Bonhoeffer refers to the confession as “the heart of pastoral care.” There is not even mention of it in the editors’ introduction, nor are there any texts on confession. This single element was one of the most unusual at Finkenwalde and caused the brethren much consternation. This is probably the most glaring lack to this reviewer, as so much of Bonhoeffer’s correspondence and, indeed, personal conversation with Bethge were “confessional” in character!

Fourth, in the editors’ introduction mention was made of an important text, “On the Question of the Church Community,” in which Bonhoeffer claimed that “anyone who separated himself from the Confessing Church separated himself from salvation.” I was frustrated to note that this text is not included in the volume, even though it sold out in Bonhoeffer’s day!

Finally, the indices are not always accurate or comprehensive (e.g., Barth). These criticisms should not in any way detract the reader from purchasing this volume. When all the reviews are in and the votes tallied, this collection will be seen as one of the finest of any theologian. Fortunately, Bonhoeffer did not write as much as an Augustine, or Luther, or Barth. Editors Kelly and Nelson deserve admiration and thanksgiving for their labour in this regard, and they have produced in a single volume what are the essential writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.