- Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8: Letters and Papers from Prison
Fortress Press has devoted nearly two decades to the publication of sixteen annotated volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings. The arrival of volume 8, Letters and Papers from Prison, means that only two volumes, 11 and 15, remain in this prodigious undertaking that is now under the general editorship of Victoria Barnett and Barbara Wojhoski and assisted by numerous Bonhoeffer scholars and translators. The entire project relies, of course, on the original German edition, edited by Bonhoeffer's friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, plus seven others, and completed in 1998. Few theologians or historical figures inspire this level of interest and effort. It is clear, however, that Bonhoeffer is worthy of the attention. He first emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a major figure of both historical and theological interest. It is now clear that Bonhoeffer was no passing fad.
A large part of the interest in Bonhoeffer rests on his nearly unique response to the horrors perpetrated by Germans under Hitler. Instead of welcoming him, as many Christians mistakenly did, Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler and the Nazi ideology from the start. Furthermore, after he could not convince even the Confessing Church to criticize Nazism as he did, he joined the conspiracy trying to overthrow the regime. This activity led to his arrest and imprisonment in April 1943, followed by his execution in April 1945, even as the Nazi regime was crumbling. We now admire Bonhoeffer's political insight and moral courage. Bonhoeffer also emerged as one of the most influential Protestant theologians in the second half of the twentieth century.
All sixteen volumes give us important access to Bonhoeffer; however, this volume concentrates on two of the most central aspects of his story: the human cost of his courage and martyrdom and the radical nature of his theology for "a world come of age." Letters and Papers from Prison also is the book—now greatly enlarged, heavily annotated, and newly translated—which [End Page 843] first brought Bonhoeffer to the attention of the postwar world. In 1945 Bethge dug up a cache of letters buried in the backyard of the Bonhoeffer home in Berlin. For six years he held onto these and other letters written and received by Bonhoeffer during two years in prison. Some of these—between Bonhoeffer and his family—had been legally written and thus were self-censored. Others represented an illegal correspondence, mainly between Bonhoeffer and Bethge, smuggled in and out of prison by a friendly guard.
Bethge published a selection of these letters under the title Widerstand und Ergebung (Munich, 1951). They appeared two years later as Letters and Papers from Prison, placing Bonhoeffer quickly into the theological conversation. John Robinson, Anglican bishop of Woolwich, made headlines with his reading of Bonhoeffer in Honest to God (London,1963), and Bonhoeffer soon became the starting point for various developments in secular theology, God-is-dead theology, and liberation theology. Most of this was rooted in eight so-called "theological letters" that Bonhoeffer wrote to Bethge from April 30 to July 21, 1944, supplemented by two papers from the same period: "Thoughts on the Baptism of Dietrich Bethge" and "Outline for a Book."
John de Gruchy, the editor of volume 8, gives an excellent introduction to what Bethge called the "new theology" produced by Bonhoeffer in prison. As a biographer of Bethge in Daring, Trusting Spirit (Minneapolis, 2005) as well as a longtime Bonhoeffer scholar, de Gruchy alludes to Bethge's significant role in these developments, and he largely accepts Bethge's understanding of the relationship between the early and late Bonhoeffer. De Gruchy acknowledges that Bonhoeffer first seemed to preach a church "against the world" (p. 21). His Discipleship (originally, The Cost of Discipleship, Munich, 1937) criticized the...