Searching for Bonhoeffer’s Voice Today

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer presents readers today with a problem. It is a problem of true exegesis of an author who has left the world with a complex and incomplete library of literary works. While this problem is one that tends to arise in the generations that follow a particularly influential individual, the willingness to engage a writer without the bias of the reader influencing the author’s legacy is noticeable in both academia and in casual reading of Bonhoeffer. Too often the bias of the reader projects a Bonhoeffer who only partially depicts the true theologian and preacher. Appealing to specific books or sentences, one finds a Bonhoeffer who never rises above apparently contradictory statements rather than noting the circumstances under which statements were made or the truth behind particular phrases that have an entirely different meaning today. This has led to Bonhoeffer being a champion for opposing sides in debates ranging from abortion to orthodoxy, from doing away with religion in the name of Christianity to flat out atheistic claims of God’s demise, and from sanctioning violence and torture to staunch, unwavering pacifism. Bonhoeffer has been described as a right-wing Evangelical Christian in a U.S. North American context, a Lutheran theologian with a more liberal bend, and a closeted homosexual.

Who is to say who is the real, true, authentic Bonhoeffer? How do the different representations of Bonhoeffer shape current interpretations and theological studies? Should we today try to explain away the supposed contradictions that appear over the scope of Bonhoeffer’s writing? Or might we allow for Bonhoeffer to speak to us himself, even revealing to us something about ourselves—perhaps our own bias—especially when we might wish for another Bonhoeffer than the one who appears on the page? Can Bonhoeffer be rescued, not from himself, but from those who seek to revise Bonhoeffer in order that he better appeal to his followers and his critics?

What is needed is a true de dicto interpretation of Bonhoeffer. By this, I mean encouraging individuals who are willing to put diligent study into every facet of Bonhoeffer’s life and works. According to philosopher Robert Brandon, one must study the author and what he said so thoroughly so as to understand how his thoughts develop over a lifetime, the rhetorical strategies he employed, as well as how the author’s works fit into the entire body of study—not to mention his attitudes and experiences. All of this so that, “one can answer questions on his behalf in something like his own voice.” From the growing influence of Bonhoeffer on theological scholarship, it is clear that there is a desire to answer some of the questions of today in something like Bonhoeffer’s own voice.

It appears a primary source for most students of Bonhoeffer is one of the growing number of biographies. Each, complete with strengths and weaknesses, offer readers a depiction of Bonhoeffer in order to better read and interpret his theological works. In a posting earlier this year on this blog, I discussed the importance Bonhoeffer’s life plays in our understanding of his writing. In that post entitled “The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” I mentioned the specific importance his life has in our understanding Ethics, but this is true for the entire cannon of his works. Today we have a privilege many before us did not have thanks to the completed volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works both in German and in English. In addition to reading the published works of Bonhoeffer, readers now have insights into his life via correspondence, unpublished lectures, and notes from his students.

In addition, those who engage Bonhoeffer should be encouraged to read most, if not all, of what he wrote, as well as who he read in order to better understand what lay behind his words. This means reading Heidegger in order to grasp his concept of “Dasein,” studying Søren Kierkegaard, and the theological teachings of Reinhold Seeberg, Karl Barth, Augustine, and of course, Martin Luther among many others. No less influential than these partners in theological dialogue were Bonhoeffer’s family and friends. By reading notes and correspondence once unknown one discovers the significance of those who surrounded Bonhoeffer. And while much focus has been on the men who influenced young Bonhoeffer, there is no discounting the significant effect the Bonhoeffer women had in his life. In addition, many newly shared and translated notes in the Bonhoeffer Works disclose the true depth of relationships once thought to be passing acquaintances.  

To further understand the setting surrounding Bonhoeffer, it is important to read materials that capture the time in which he lived, but also that which influenced his earlier years. Thus, while understanding the events of the 1930’s and 40’s of Germany is integral, no less so is an understanding of the ecumenical religious climate of the early 20th century. One should no doubt also study the events surrounding World War I and the toll the war took on the psyche of the German citizen and the impact the events had on the faith of the nation. Expanding our understanding beyond the borders of Germany to London, Spain, the United States, as well as globally can only give greater insight into the formation of such a profound thinker.

More than anything, such an undertaking requires diligent study of Scripture. In order to truly grasp what Bonhoeffer says in his writing, we today must be no less a student of the Bible than was Bonhoeffer himself. When reading Bonhoeffer in one hand—or those who write about Bonhoeffer—the Bible should be read in the other. Bonhoeffer’s love of Scripture pours from the pages of his works, inviting his readers to love Scripture as well.

We are now three generations removed from Bonhoeffer’s life, and most of his contemporaries have passed on. In addition, those who learned from Bonhoeffer’s peers in theology and ministry are passing the torch to what Victoria Barnett describes in a lecture given at the University of Virginia as an emerging generation of scholars in this, “a new era of Bonhoeffer interpretation.” Can this new generation of scholars overcome the degrees of separation and achieve the sort of de dicto interpretation necessary to ensure the true, authentic Bonhoeffer is not lost to revisionists thinking? Can readers today undertake such a massive project as to exegete Bonhoeffer in this way? Perhaps this is an audacious if not arrogant undertaking for a Presbyterian pastor in rural Colorado, but that is precisely what I hope to do.

While I do not wish to take away anything from the volumes that seek to share an author’s love of Bonhoeffer with the world, it is imperative, I feel, that the world receive nothing less than the true Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We who have learned from this man, who find something in his writing that appeals to our faith, who have been touched by his love for God owe him nothing less. Moreover, we owe the generations to follow an authentic, unbiased account of Bonhoeffer in order that they too might experience something similar to our own experiences. By no means should one lose focus on that which Bonhoeffer’s life was dedicated—the worship of God—nor must scholars simply seek to find Bonhoeffer’s answers to the questions of today. With clear understanding of Bonhoeffer, uninfluenced and unbiased by his readers, we are able to learn from him and stand upon the shoulders of this influential figure.

One thought on “Searching for Bonhoeffer’s Voice Today

  1. Diane

    Dear Matthew,
    Thank you for this. As one who recently published a Bonhoeffer biography, I was haunted by the question of “how can any of us have the hubris to purport to know another?” I did find the historical background very important and wanted to highlight the women he was closest to: in the end, I found, that to do a complete bio, one that does justice to the many facets of this fascinating man, would take a multi-volume approach. It is daunting. I do think the Bonhoeffer world is crying out for such a treatment and if you are working on this, more power to you.

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