The Bonhoeffer Reader
Publication Year: 2013
For the first time in nearly 20 years, the essential theological writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been drawn together in a helpful one-volume format. The Bonhoeffer Reader brings the best English translation to students, and provides a ready-made introduction to the thought of this essential thinker.
Drawn from decades of classroom teaching experience, the readings selected ensure that this volume provides everything necessary to introduce Bonhoeffer’s thought to the student of theology.
Every reading has been skillfully introduced and placed in the larger context of Bonhoeffer’s life and work by two respected Bonhoeffer scholars, Clifford J. Green and Michael DeJonge. Footnotes and textual apparatus have been carefully edited with the theology student in mind. The readings have been selected by a renowned group of teachers, scholars, and Bonhoeffer experts. Newly written introductions frame each reading in a concise, helpful way. This book is an essential resource for all those who study the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Published by: Augsburg Fortress Publishers
Title Page, Copyright
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The recently completed Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition (DBWE), published by Fortress Press in sixteen volumes plus an index, makes available to English readers virtually all of Bonhoeffer’s surviving writings. Both DBWE and the German critical edition it translates (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, or DBW, published by Gütersloher Verlagshaus) are monumental...
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Part 1. Student Writings: Berlin, Barcelona, New York
1. Paper on Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture
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After two semesters in Tübingen, the eighteen-year-old Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin, his home since age six, to continue the study of theology.1 The 1925 summer semester at the Friedrich Wilhelm University (now the Humboldt University) was decisive.2 He worked closely with the renowned Luther scholar Karl Holl, writing one of his several papers on Luther and the Lutheran...
2. Eulogy for Adolf von Harnack
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Adolf von Harnack—at various times rector of the University in Berlin, director of the Royal Library at Berlin, president of both the Academy of Sciences and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society—was the very embodiment of German culture and learning. He was a church historian of the highest order and the most distinguished member of the faculty during Bonhoeffer’s tenure at the university. Bonhoeffer developed a close relationship...
3. Sanctorum Communio
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Though sometimes described simply as a treatise on the church, Sanctorum Communio is much more—a far-reaching exploration of Bonhoeffer’s conviction that theology must be approached from a social perspective. As he puts it in the preface, basic Christian concepts “can be fully comprehended only in relation to sociality.” Already in his doctoral dissertation, Bonhoeffer strikes an independent and original...
4. Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity
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Beginning in February 1928, Bonhoeffer spent a year as vicar to a German congregation
in Barcelona.1 There he undertook his first sustained church work, preaching
regularly and providing pastoral care to the community. He also delivered three
lectures to the congregation on the topic “Crisis and Hope in the Contemporary Religious
In the second lecture, printed below, Bonhoeffer is eager...
5. Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic
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As Clifford Green notes in the introduction to DBWE 10, “Bonhoeffer’s third lecture . . . contains some characteristic ideas that will continue to be important in the Ethics, his magnum opus, some views that will change through the next decade, and some that will mercifully disappear forever.”1 Among the characteristic ideas is the rejection of ethical principles, which are a way to “control my own relationship...
6. Act and Being
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After finishing his Barcelona vicariate in early 1929, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin and began working on the postdoctoral dissertation necessary for teaching in the German university system.1 The result was Act and Being, completed in February 1930 and published the following year. Like Sanctorum Communio before it, Act and Being is a wide-ranging and technical academic...
7. Inaugural Lecture: The Anthropological Question in Contemporary Philosophy and Theology
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The following is Bonhoeffer’s inaugural lecture, delivered in Berlin after fulfilling the qualifications to become a university lecturer. The lecture, closely related to his recently completed Act and Being,1 focuses on theological anthropology through the question, “What does it mean to be a human being?” Bonhoeffer organizes the lecture according to what he identifies as two contemporary approaches to answering that anthropological...
8. Lecture on “War”
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Bonhoeffer spent the American academic year 1930–1931 as a postdoctoral student at Union Theological Seminary, in New York.1 North America provided Bonhoeffer with a number of novel experiences, many of which stimulated his life and thought in the years to come. He was not impressed with most American churches, where he experienced an “almost frivolous...
9. Concerning the Christian Idea of God
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Bonhoeffer was dismayed by the state of American theology,1 writing that Union Seminary had “forgotten what Christian theology in its very essence stands for.”2 He had drunk deeply from the Barthian spring and was convinced that theology needed to distinguish itself from philosophy, ethics, or any other field of inquiry by starting from God’s revelation. Because this understanding of the theological task had not yet made...
10. The Theology of Crisis and Its Attitude toward Philosophy and Science
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Bonhoeffer presented the following paper in a seminar on Philosophy of Religion at Union on the topic “The Bearing of Recent Cosmological Theories on Theology.”1 In it, Bonhoeffer introduces Barth’s thought to his American audience, suppressing his own critiques elaborated elsewhere and occasionally presenting his own thoughts as Barth’s. Because the Barthian grounding of theology in revelation distinguishes...
Part 2. University Lectures
11. The History of Twentieth-Century Systematic Theology
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Upon his return from America in 1931, Bonhoeffer began teaching at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin.1 He was by all accounts a popular instructor in a popular department. “Bonhoeffer’s entry into teaching came at a time of substantial expansion of interest in theology, and it is estimated that more than a thousand students were enrolled in the university’s theology department. Bonhoeffer had no...
12. The Nature of the Church
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The first section of Bonhoeffer’s lectures on the church,1 which he delivered in the summer semester of 1932, approaches from a number of angles the theme of the church’s place, arguing that the church’s place in the world is the “place of God himself” and that the church’s place in theological reflection is as both its presupposition and its object. The second section treats the church as the form of God’s revelation, drawing...
13. Creation and Fall
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In 1933, Bonhoeffer published Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, which was based on a lecture course delivered in Berlin during the winter semester 1932–1933. Its significance is in part its character as a “theological exposition.” The historical-critical approach to the Bible as well as the results of modern sciences had led many biblical scholars in Germany to treat the first chapters...
14. Lectures on Christology
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As Bonhoeffer told the students that packed his lecture hall during the tumultuous German summer of 1933, the task of Christology is to examine “who Christ is.” This deceptively simple statement charted the course through his “Lectures on Christology.”1 Drawing on key concepts developed earlier in his theology, Bonhoeffer answers the question of “who Christ is” by claiming that Christ is person and Christ is...
Part 3. Ecumenical and Pastoral Writings
15. Report on a Conference of the World Alliance
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Bonhoeffer’s theological education, international experience, and growing proficiency in English prepared him well for the international ecumenical work he pursued upon returning from the United States. His efforts focused on the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship among the Churches, an organization which he served as Germany’s youth...
16. Draft for a Catechism: As You Believe, So You Receive
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In the summer of 1931, Bonhoeffer wrote the following catechism with his close friend Franz Hildebrandt, who had suggested the project. The title is borrowed from Luther, who used similar phrases to emphasize that God’s promises are fulfilled for those who believe.1 This sets the tone for the catechism itself, which Bonhoeffer and Hildebrandt present as an attempt “to formulate what the Lutheran faith is saying today.” The...
17. The Right to Self-Assertion
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After returning from the ecumenical conference in Cambridge, Bonhoeffer undertook a new assignment as a chaplain at Berlin’s Technical College. Of this role, which Bonhoeffer filled in 1931–1932, his close friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, offers this blunt assessment: “Bonhoeffer’s work as student chaplain was unfruitful...
18. Thy Kingdom Come! The Prayer of the Church-Community for God’s Kingdom on Earth
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In this late 1932 lecture from a devotional retreat of the Protestant Continuing Education Institute for Women,1 Bonhoeffer argues that praying “thy kingdom come” means praying that God’s kingdom comes on earth. It is an escapist misunderstanding, on the one hand, to pray for an otherworldly kingdom; such a prayer forgets that God’s kingdom is on...
19. Christ and Peace
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In this short meditation delivered to a student organization at the end of 1932, Bonhoeffer challenges the facile reconciliation of love of God with military hostility toward the neighbor. While Bonhoeffer’s assertion that obedience to God might imply peaceful intentions toward neighboring nations seems supported by a straightforward interpretation of the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37–39), a number of factors...
Part 4. Theology and the Third Reich
20. The Führer and the Individual in the Younger Generation
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Bonhoeffer originally presented the following as his contribution to a series of radio addresses on the theme “the younger generation.”1 Although the topic of the Führer2 (leader) had been decided before Hitler’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer delivered the address on February 1, 1933, two days after Hitler ascended to the chancellorship. He begins by suggesting a division of the young generation into three subgenerations, a schema...
21. The Church and the Jewish Question
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The historical context of the remaining selections in this section of the Reader was the Church Struggle, which involved three interwoven dimensions.1 The first dimension was the struggle between the German Christian movement, a pro-Nazi faction of the church, and the opposing Confessing Church, in which Bonhoeffer was active. The second dimension was the struggle between the Confessing Church and the Nazi...
22. The Jewish-Christian Question as Status Confessionis
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In the following piece, Bonhoeffer responds to a July 13, 1933, news item, “Main Outlines of the Constitution,” which implied that the recently signed German Evangelical Church constitution would extend the Aryan paragraph’s exclusion of Jews to the sphere of church leadership. (The constitution did not in fact adopt the Aryan paragraph but relied on quotas to exclude Jewish students from theological study, thus...
23. The Aryan Paragraph in the Church
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The late summer of 1933 was a tumultuous time in German church politics. The Aryan paragraph that passed earlier in the year had excluded Jews and other non- Aryans from civil service positions. This exclusion did not apply to the church since church leaders were not civil servants. But members of the German Christian movement were pushing for versions of the Aryan paragraph or similarly antisemitic legislation...
24. What Should a Student of Theology Do Today?
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Worn down by repeated disappointment in the Church Struggle and doubting himself in the role he was playing in it, Bonhoeffer made the difficult decision to leave the German scene to pastor two German churches in London.1 In the text below, he says good-bye to his theology students in Berlin, encouraging them to pursue theology passionately in the service of the church and on the basis of “the true Bible” and “the...
25. Fanø Theses Paper and Address: The Church and the Peoples of the World
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In the summer of 1934, Bonhoeffer delivered an address at an ecumenical conference on the Danish island of Fanø. A transcription of that talk as well as the theses Bonhoeffer wrote in preparation for it are printed below. He opens the theses by posing to the World Alliance the question that for him was decisive: Is the Alliance an organization or a church? For Bonhoeffer, an organization works to realize defined goals...
26. The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement
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The impetus for the following essay, published in August 1935, was a series of letters exchanged between Bonhoeffer and Canon Leonard Hodgson, the general secretary of the World Conference on Faith and Order Continuation Committee.1 When Hodgson invited Bonhoeffer to participate in a meeting of this committee, Bonhoeffer asked whether representatives of the Reich Church would also be in attendance, in which...
27. Contemporizing New Testament Texts
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In 1936, Bonhoeffer expressed the desire to write a book on hermeneutics, but he abandoned this plan when the project that became Ethics seemed more pressing.1 This decision left the following 1935 lecture as Bonhoeffer’s most sustained treatment of biblical hermeneutics. Its background was the German Christians’ demand for a biblical message that was relevant to contemporary needs, which amounted to a demand...
28. On the Question of Church Communion
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Bonhoeffer claimed in “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement” that the Reich Church was a false or heretical church. In the following essay, first presented in 1936 as a lecture to seminarians and subsequently published in Evangelische Theologie,1 Bonhoeffer further develops this claim in conversation with the Lutheran confessional tradition’s reflection on the nature of the church. Drawing...
Part 5. Christian Life and Community
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In 1935, the Confessing Church established its own seminaries to circumvent the German Christian–controlled official path for theological education and ordination. Bonhoeffer returned from London to direct one such seminary located first in Zingst and then in Finkenwalde. The state-supported church viewed these seminaries as illegal, and the students who chose to be educated in them faced danger, surveillance, and...
30. Life Together
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The seminary at Finkenwalde provided Bonhoeffer with the opportunity for reflection on and practical experimentation with Christian community. He established for the community a daily routine bookended by a long worship service and meditation session in the morning and another long service at night. In between, the seminary director and his students did academic work, except when good weather made outdoor...
31. Prayerbook of the Bible
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Bonhoeffer begins Prayerbook of the Bible with the disciples’ realization—“Lord, teach us to pray!”—that we cannot pray. As Bonhoeffer had argued from the beginning of his theological career, our sinful state guarantees that our words do not reach God but rather turn back on ourselves. How then can we pray? Though our words fail to reach God, God’s words have reached us. Thus we pray by praying God’s own...
32. Protestantism without Reformation
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A March 1939 conversation with ecumenical colleagues in London led to an invitation for Bonhoeffer to teach at Union Seminary while also working with European refugees through the New York office of the Federal Council of Churches. Frustrated with the church situation in Germany and eager to avoid military conscription, Bonhoeffer chose the path of emigration taken by many European intellectuals. But once...
Part 6. Christian Ethics and Public Life
33. Christ, Reality, and Good. Christ, Church, and World
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With France’s surrender to Germany in June 1940, it was clear that German military defeat was not imminent. Bonhoeffer came to terms with this reality and soon at the invitation of his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, joined the resistance movement that was actively conspiring to overthrow Hitler and set the foundations for a new...
34. Ultimate and Penultimate Things
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In the following Ethics essay, Bonhoeffer offers this diagnosis of modern Western culture. Disregard for the ultimate, namely the word of God as recognized in the justification of the sinner by grace through faith, leads to disregard for the penultimate, the human life that is justified by grace. This disregard for the penultimate leads in turn to greater disregard for the ultimate. The cure, he argues, is correctly relating...
35. Natural Life
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When the National Socialist programs of forced sterilization and “euthanasia” came to light, Bonhoeffer sensed that contemporary Protestant ethical reflection lacked the conceptual framework for an appropriate response.1 Specifically, he saw that Protestant ethics lacked a developed notion of “the natural” to oppose these “unnatural” Nazi programs. In “Natural Life,” presented in part below, Bonhoeffer navigates a...
36. History and Good
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The following excerpt comes from the second of two incomplete Ethics drafts, both titled “History and Good.” In these essays, Bonhoeffer attempts to develop a Christian ethic that is above all concrete, in other words, in tune with reality. For Bonhoeffer, any account of reality is an account of Christ, since Christ is reality. Thus an ethic is concrete when it accords with...
37. The “Ethical” and the “Christian” as a Topic
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The first half of this Ethics essay offers what Bonhoeffer calls “a general phenomenology of the ethical.” The ethical phenomenon is, he writes, “‘the experience of the ought,’ the conscious fundamental decision between what is good in principle and what is evil in principle, the orientation toward the highest norm, [and] the ethical conflict and its resolution.” The ethical phenomenon arises in the boundary events of...
38. The Concrete Commandment and the Divine Mandates
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This Ethics essay marks the end point of Bonhoeffer’s long engagement with the Lutheran doctrine of divine orders. Luther himself held that God created three orders to organize human life and maintain justice in the world: daily life (which included marriage and family as well as livelihood), worldly government, and the church...
39. Theological Position Paper on State and Church
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In this position paper, Bonhoeffer outlines the nature and tasks of the state as a divine mandate. That governing is a divine mandate means the authority to govern derives from God rather than from the people, “from above” rather than “from below.” This clearly sets Bonhoeffer’s concept of government against the National Socialist account of the state, which, as Bonhoeffer has argued since at least his essay on...
40. Theological Position Paper on the Question of Baptism
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In 1942, Arnold Hitzer, a Confessing Church pastor, wrote a paper arguing against the practice of infant baptism. On the basis of the New Testament and in conversation with the Lutheran confessions, Hitzer called for the exclusive practice of adult, or believer, baptism. Bonhoeffer was commissioned to write this position paper in response...
41. Theological Position Paper on the Primus Usus Legis
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Justification by grace through faith, arguably the central doctrine of the Lutheran theological tradition, leads directly into discussions about the use or purpose of “the law.” That justification is through faith rules out the idea that the law’s purpose is to prescribe the works by which people justify themselves. Rather, the law forces them to despair at their very inability to do so, and thereby drives them into the gracious arms...
Part 7. Theology from Prison: Worldly, Religionless Christianity
42. What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth?
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On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested for his participation in the conspiracy to overthrow the Third Reich. He was sent first to Tegel military interrogation prison in Berlin, where he spent the next eighteen months, then to a Gestapo prison in Berlin for four more months. He was moved briefly to Buchenwald concentration camp outside Weimar and then to Flossenbürg near the present-day German-Czech border. He was...
43. Speech of the Major
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While in prison, Bonhoeffer experimented for the first time with writing fiction, producing a short story as well as fragments of a drama and a novel.1 Because these works of fiction focus on cultured middle-class family life in light of Christianity and clearly include autobiographical elements, they have generally been read as windows into the life of Bonhoeffer and his family. But the case can be made that these works...
44. Letters and Papers from Prison
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The editorial introduction in this section of the Reader is spread through the texts rather than appearing all at the beginning. That is because the theological argument is not a systematic treatise but develops in letters as Bonhoeffer explores new ideas; it is also because other genres besides letters are found in this section. Nevertheless, the thematic focus binding the following texts together is Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a...
Appendix: The German Church Struggle and Resistance
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Index of Biblical References
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Index of Names
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Index of Subjects
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Page Count: 832
Publication Year: 2013