The Letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It might seem like an adventure into an academic niche for one to start trying to read through all of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s existent letters, but for me, the experience was an enlightening and informative one.  It is something that I have wanted to do for a long time, ever since obtaining all 17 volumes through the generous book sales at the old Augsburg Fortress Warehouse in Grove City.

So, starting with Volume 9 and working through to the supplementary material in Volume 17, here are some of the things that I have learned and found to be valuable:

In the early years, before 1932, Bonhoeffer’s letters are filled with more everyday concerns.  There are, of course, many theological lessons and thoughts in those early letters.  There is a great deal written about the church as a community as well as some interesting pastoral ponderings, especially while he is in Barcelona as a vicar.  Thus, there is a more relaxed tone to many of these letters.  However, when Bonhoeffer comes back from being a student at Union Theological Seminary and the Nazi Party begins ascending in 1932-1933, Bonhoeffer’s letters begin to become more theologically aggressive.  Bonhoeffer, though never having appeared as a someone outside of orthodoxy, starts stating, more and more emphatically and clearly, orthodox positions.  As it becomes apparent through the election of a Reich Bishop (Muller, who is in the pocket of the budding Nazi Regime) that one cannot form a theological opposition and remain a part of the church-community, Bonhoeffer quickly works to form active resistance.  This is especially the case after the S.S. prevented Bonhoeffer and another leader from passing out flyers that advocated for the Confessing Front’s pick for Reich Bishop, Bodelschwingh.  It is as though, after that incident, Bonhoeffer knew where things were heading.  Subsequently, Bonhoeffer witnessed the suspending of pastors for theological and hereditary reasons; he was also witnessing the elimination of the loyal opposition.  All of this led to his taking a call in a German Congregation in London.  It appears that, while in London, Bonhoeffer did his best, alongside others, to gather the Germany Congregations outside of Germany as a new form of resistance and opposition.  He used his contacts to the fullest in order to garner jobs and security for pastors who had been suspended by the Reich Church for theological and hereditary reasons.  It is also while he is in London that Bonhoeffer began trying to put pressure on the Reich Church through the ecumenical movement.  It appears that, at first, largely through the help of George Bell, Bonhoeffer was somewhat successful in challenging the legitimacy of the Reich Church, which had adopted racist qualifications for church leadership and theological training.  At the very least, he became a persistent thorn in the side of the Reich Church, which, in fact, never validated his call in London.  In an ecumenical gathering in Fano during that same time period, so many of the topics that were chosen appear to directly confront the positions, actions, and trajectory of the Reich Church.  Later, after Bonhoeffer left London in order to start a seminary for the Confessing Church back in Germany, the opposition by the ecumenical community began to slip away.  In 1936-1937, it became apparent that the ecumenical community would be of little help as so many of their leaders were not ready to take the step that Bonhoeffer really desired, which was to have the ecumenical community declare the Reich Church to be heretical, unchristian, and out of fellowship.  Bonhoeffer remained adamantly opposed to participating in ecumenical gatherings with the representatives of the Reich Church, which seems practical since he knew that they could not be trusted and since persecution was a tactic which they frequently used.  Confessing Church representatives presumably would have felt very uncomfortable, to say the least, at the thought of being seen at an ecumenical gathering by the Reich Church members, so there were elements of practicality and pastoralness to Bonhoeffer’s opposition to their participation.  Yet, to the ecumenical leaders, Bonhoeffer’s strong opposition did not seem to make sense.  Their expectation for the warring German church factions to make peace was not realistic, but apparently, they were not able to see that.  In reading through the letters, it is a little painful to see Bonhoeffer’s contacts in the ecumenical movement slip away in this fashion, as their not understanding runs up against Bonhoeffer’s serious analysis of the situation and results in Bonhoeffer and some of his friends having to part ways.  Bonhoeffer really did give up a lot, even before he was asked to give up his life.

However, the church struggle and the suffering that it caused were really fruitful for Bonhoeffer.  He owes a great deal to that struggle and suffering.  It should be noted here that I keep using the word “suffering” because, during the church struggle, Bonhoeffer himself begins to use it frequently.  Suffering becomes an important value for Bonhoeffer.  Even relatively early on in the church struggle, Bonhoeffer knows that suffering will be necessary.  It appears that suffering is a work that is born of faith for Bonhoeffer.  His work on this subject reminds me of Luther’s commentary on the Ten Commandments.  As helping our neighbor to have the means to a good life is the fulfillment of the command to not commit murder, according to Luther, suffering is a fulfillment of the command to worship God and have no other gods before God, according to Bonhoeffer.  We could, at this point, enter a very interesting debate on faith and works, but we will forego that discussion for now.  The themes and writings for which Bonhoeffer is most well known are all born out of the church struggle experience.  There are, of course, other enlightening experiences, such as Bonhoeffer’s time in America and in the African-American Church and his visit to Bethel which causes him to question what true health really is about, but without the church struggle, we would lose DiscipleshipLife TogetherLetters and Papers from Prison, and much, if not all, of Ethics.  This last point might seem a little obvious, but it does point out the fact that, without an understanding of the church struggle and how much suffering Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed within it, we cannot easily understand his writings, work, and testimony.  The church struggle made Dietrich Bonhoeffer an excellent theologian; it forced him to excel.  It is from this struggle that we have so many lessons available to us, if only we pick up and read.

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