I have been fascinated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's story for many years, first reading Cost of Discipleship (simply Discipleship in the Works of Bonhoeffer series) in college. I took the "Ethics of Bonhoeffer" class with Lewis Smedes at Fuller, which allowed me to read fairly widely in Bonhoeffer's works, though the focus was his unfinished Ethics. I've read many of the biographies, starting with Eberhard Bethge's standard bio through Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (I'd recommend steering clear of the Metaxas popular but extremely problematic bio and go with this one). And I subscribed to Fortress's English edition of the Works of Bonhoeffer -- sixteen volumes in all.
Yesterday, the most recent volume, number 11, arrived in the mail. This is by my count the penultimate volume (only volume 14 remains unpublished), and is entitled Ecumenical, Academic, and Pastoral Work, 1931-1932 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works). This volume contains letters, lectures, sermons, a catechism, and more. Much of the material from this era is fragmentary, and the lectures are largely reconstructed from student notes. Still, just skimming through the book last night, I was amazed at his prodigious efforts, his insight into political, social, and theological issues.
Now, the materials found in this volume, stem from the period immediately following his year-long stay in America, where he studied at Union Theological Seminary. Born in 1906, Bonhoeffer was, at this time, just 25-26 years old. He has already finished the equivalent of two Ph.Ds, published both dissertations (Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being ), served as an intern pastor, entered the ecumenical world, and began lecturing in theology at the University of Berlin. It is during this period that he also begins to read Barth with deep interest, and actually meets this theological giant.
You can tell from his letters to his friends and family that Barth has made a major impression on him. In one letter to his friend Erwin Sutz dated July 24, 1931, Bonhoeffer writes from Bonn where he is taking in Barth's lectures, he writes:
Now everything is very much or completely different when it comes to Karl Barth himself. You can breathe freely. You are no longer afraid you will die for lack of oxygen in the rarefied atmosphere. I have, I believe, seldom regretted not having done something in my theological past as much as I now regret that I did not go to hear Barth sooner. (p. 37).
Remember he's just twenty-five, and Barth has become one of the most important and influential theologians of the age. Many young theologians, like Bonhoeffer, are taken with him. Having the opportunity to meet him, to talk theology with him, and listen to his lectures would have been a dream come true.
For many, Bonhoeffer, in death became a theological mentor, much as Barth did for Bonhoeffer, especially early on. By the end of his brief life, Bonhoeffer was moving beyond Barth into new directions, which is why I think so many people from so many different theological perspectives want to grab on to him. Bonhoeffer was an imaginative, creative, persistent, theologian. He left a lot of loose ends, that might have been tied up had he lived the same number of years as Barth, Bultmann, and Tillich. But alas he didn't, but he left us with much to consider. And in this volume, we have the writings of a very young, but very creative mind, who is seeking to understand his faith in a new and living way.
So, check it out!