I began reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a college Freshman at Northwest University. My reading of Bonhoeffer has continued in sporadic fashion over the last ten years, and I have completed every major theological work the great German theologian composed. I began with Ethics and understood almost nothing, especially what was most essential. But what I did understand often dazed me, and completely reoriented my embryonic understanding of ethics and ontology.
The degree to which Bonhoeffer startled me led me to grasp how much I did not understand his historical circumstances. I did not understand his writing, because his world was alien to my own. Thus, as I continued to read, I realized I needed to understand Bonhoeffer’s context, not just of World War II and the Holocaust, but the intellectual, artistic, and overall cultural world within which Bonhoeffer existed as German. Obviously, much of this included reading theology, history, and perhaps most importantly, 19th century German philosophy, but I also found much of what i needed to learn in biographical accounts (mostly Bethge).
With the recent success of Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy more people than ever are aware of Bonhoeffer’s life, his culture, and the events that fundamentally shaped him. Still, many have yet to read Bonhoeffer himself. If you have read Metaxas’ biography, you are aware of his efforts to change the perception of Bonhoeffer as a theologian firmly supportive of liberal–even radical–theology. But what you may not realize is that Metaxas has given the basic historical information required to read Bonhoeffer at an intelligent level.
But where does one begin to read Bonhoeffer?
Well, as you may have guessed, a biography like Metaxas’ is a good place to start. But moving on can be a bit more daunting. Today, I will lay out a reading plan that will make Bonhoeffer’s that if followed will gently introduce reader’s to his theology, and push them towards his more difficult works. The list is short, but I believe it will give readers what they need to read Bonhoeffer with clarity and discernment.
But first, a couple things to keep in mind as you read.
When reading Bonhoeffer, it is essential that his life and the trajectory of his career be kept in mind. There is a decided shift in his approach to writing that occurs after his first three publications, all of which were highly academic. Following his time as a doctoral student and professor in Berlin, Bonhoeffer focused more on pastoral duties and his writings followed suit, though they remained intellectually stimulating and challenging. This trend continued up until his posthumously published Ethics. The chronology of Bonhoeffer’s writings should therefore be kept in mind, as well the realization that Bonhoeffer’s writings, though not contradictory, do betray a certain amount of development as he grew as a Christian.
These observations suggest it is unwise to begin with any of Bonhoeffer’s earliest academic works, including his posthumously published Christological lectures. Yet, it also seems unwise in my view to recommend his most popular book The Cost of Discipleship given that it is so often, and so thoroughly, misunderstood.
Rather, I recommend that you begin with Life Together, and as always if possible reading the critical edition rather than the popular one. The critical edition will keep you grounded historically, and will clarify ambiguities in the text. Still, the popular edition is much easier on the book budget.
The next selection is a bit more tough. I am tempted to recommend an “introduction”, but I think A Testament to Freedom is a better selection for two reasons. First, it will further ground readers into more direct contact with, Bonhoeffer’s nuanced historical situation. This book contains many of Bonhoeffer’s most important, public, and defining sermons and letters composed before he was arrested. Second, the book is divided chronologically and in accordance with Bonhoeffer’s activities. Each segment is supplied with a helpful introduction that alerts the reader to the important issues theologically and historically. Additionally, A Testament to Freedom contains introductions to, and portions of, Bonhoeffer’s major works. This will prove to be helpful preparation for a more extensive engagement with Bonhoeffer’s complex theological writings at a later date.
Next, I think it is important to gain a comprehensive view of Bonhoeffer’s theology. Clifford Greene’s book Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality serves this task best and though scholarly and demanding, it remains accessible and the best complete introduction to Bonhoeffer I have read. Green provides global coverage of Bonhoeffer’s thought, and is especially helpful in unpacking Bonhoeffer’s two most difficult works, Sanctorum Communio and Act & Being. Greene is also enormously helpful in bringing the coherence of Bonhoeffer’s work together despite his dramatic shift from primarily academic to pastoral work.
After reading this book, readers will no doubt find themselves quite challenged, especially if they have not read much theology. The difficulty of my program rises dramatically at this point, but to those who continue to invest, you will find more fulfillment in reading Bonhoeffer if you persevere and complete this book.
Next, reader’s should look to read what Americans call The Cost of Discipleship. Here, I believe it is particularly important that you do read the critical edition appropriately titled in English, Discipleship. People often complain about this book and how difficult it makes being a Christian sound. Or, they turn it into an impossible idealism that usually ends in great detriment to one’s faith. Bonhoeffer was adamant that Discipleship be read through a very developed understanding of grace, especially the concepts of cheap and difficult grace. At the center of this work is, of course, the Sermon on the Mount and Bonhoeffer’s exegesis of the that text in light of the ontological reality of grace. He establishes what the Christian life should like like, and how it should emulate Christ without imposing a legal moralism. The task is not easy; and defaulting to a rigid moralism quite tempting. But again, Bonhoeffer’s context is key: he is a committed Lutheran theologian who rejected German Liberalism.
The finall selection comes from Bonhoeffer’s academic works and is entitled Creation and Fall. Most readers should find this book approachable, despite its academic qualities. I have led several studies on Genesis 1-3 with this book, and have never had a problem with it being too difficult.
But why this book?
Well, as is so often the case our understanding of Genesis 1-3 is formative, and often determinative, for how we understand other areas of theology. It is an especially acute issue for Bonhoeffer. Treatments of Genesis 1-3 appear, to one degree or another, in most of Bonhoeffer’s major works. Addressing the basic issues raised by Bonhoeffer about this text at this point, will save numerous problems down the road.