Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most enigmatic figures in modern Christianity. He has had a tremendous influence on the theological imagination and on the way Christians live in the world. Because he died at such a young age, with his theology still in development and flux, he has produced a bevy of admirers from across the theological landscape, from conservative evangelicals (they tend to like his Discipleship) to “Death of God” theologians (they like his Letters and Papers from Prison). Pacifists embrace him as do folks who want to justify anti-government actions. His execution at the age of thirty-nine in a Nazi prison camp, because of his involvement in the coup/assassination plot against Hitler, has led to his being lionized by many. Indeed, he’s considered a modern Protestant saint by many. I’m one of the admirers, but having read broadly in his works and among his biographers – both the good (Bethge and Schlingensiepen) and the bad (Metaxas), I have come to understand that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a complicated person, who was influenced by his context, living as an upper middle class German family.
This book, under review, is a collection of Bonhoeffer’s sermons, edited and introduced by Isabel Best, one of the translators of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (also published by Fortress Press). The sermons in this collection are also found in the Bonhoeffer Works, but the value of this collection is not only that it’s handier than leafing through several heavy volumes, but by reading through them, we get a sense of Bonhoeffer’s deep faith in Christ. They can serve as a good entry point for the novice reader of Bonhoeffer. Being that they’re sermons they’re fairly accessible. In addition, the book offers a brief but very helpful biographical introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life.
What is immediately clear from a quick skimming of the book is that these sermons, with few exceptions were preached before Bonhoeffer turned thirty years old. So, these are the sermonic musing of a young man. Brilliant, yes, but still quite young. Most of the sermons in the collection were preached in the early 1930s, either in Berlin as a substitute preacher or during his lone pastorate in London, among German expatriates. A few others were preached at the various underground seminaries in the second half of the 1930s. Each sermon is introduced by Isabel Best, giving context of the sermon.
Reading sermons, especially in translation, doesn’t give you a true feel for the dynamics of the sermons. What did Bonhoeffer sound like? Was he dynamic – all reports are that he was? Did he engage his congregation bodily? What was the tone of voice? None of this can be present. Nonetheless we have here the written evidence of his biblical understandings, his spirituality, and his faith commitments. Although he rarely makes explicit reference to the political dynamics of the day, his emphasis on Jesus and on discipleship is representative of his deep concern for the church and its witness. We know that he was influenced by Barth and by others both pietistic and liberal, and this shows itself at times.
It is clear that God is the focus of his attention, that and the cross of Jesus. In a sermon preached in 1932 on National Memorial Day, at a time of deep political unrest, Bonhoeffer declares that one can find final consolation in the knowledge of God. He speaks here of the cross and its central role in discipleship, something he’ll take up in Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4) several years later. He declares: “God’s way in the world leads to the cross and through the cross to life. For this reason don not be alarmed, do not be afraid – be faithful!” (p. 20).
There is in this volume a series of four sermons preached in London in the fall of 1934 on 1 Corinthians 13. He notes that he was moved to offer this series for three reasons – the church needs to hear it, even as the Corinthian church did, because it may not be self-evident that the community is to love; second, the churches were in the midst of a struggle for the soul of the church, but such a struggle can have untoward effects on the believer; third, as important as the Protestant declaration that faith is the means of salvation, greater still is love. The question isn’t whether others have love, but whether we have love. Ultimately, he asks the question, who is love, and answers with Christ – “what better symbol could there be, standing over this entire passage, than the cross?” (p. 153).
As you read these sermons you can understand why evangelicals would be attracted to him. I was attracted to him during my evangelical stage. The more radical views that we find expressed in the Letters and Papers that emerged in the course of his confinement are not as present here. There are challenging words, especially in context, but as we read them in our context we might miss the message. Consider a sermon preached at Finkenwalde in 1934 on forgiveness. The Confessing Church is on the run. Hitler is in full control. The struggle is difficult – can forgiveness be part of the conversation? We could read it in a very individualistic and pietistic manner, but there’s something more here. Even more so is the sermon entitled “The Betrayer” shared at Finkenwalde in 1937 that takes Judas as the focus. The linkage isn’t direct, but you get the feeling that he’s dealing with deep emotions stirred by the events of the day. Will they join Judas or stay with Jesus?
The final sermon in the collection is dated Nov. 26, 1939. The war had begun; Bonhoeffer was by now leading his group of students on a farm in Tychow, in the far northeastern region of Germany, and the focus was Remembrance Sunday. The text is 1 Corinthians 15:55 – “Death is swallowed up in victory.” You can see in this sermon the deep faith that sustains Bonhoeffer over the course of the next six years of struggle, imprisonment, and death. Preached as a homily before communion, he suggests that the meal itself is a celebration of victory over death in Christ. It is the symbols of bread and wine that serve to sustain one on this journey through death into life. That would be his future.
This is a nicely edited collection of sermons that draws from the most recent translations of Bonhoeffer’s Works. It should prove useful for preachers and others who embrace Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric vision of the church. The brief biography and the introductions to each sermon also make for a valued resource for understanding Bonhoeffer’s founding vision. And it's a great place to start if you're new to Bonhoeffer, or you're only introduction is through a biography -- especially if it's not one of the better ones.