Bonhoeffer, Christ, and Culture

Written by Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds Reviewed By Preston Parsons

This book is a collection of papers delivered at the twenty-first annual Wheaton Theology Conference in April 2012. The editors suggest that evangelicals have appreciated Bonhoeffer’s writing as “devotional,” but that this book is intended to be an evangelical engagement with Bonhoeffer as a theologian (p. 13).

Philip K. Ziegler’s chapter, “A Theologian of the Word of God,” represents a good entry into this engagement. Ziegler points out that Scripture and Christ are central to Bonhoeffer’s thought, but that he is not conventionally “evangelical,” at least not in the way the term is understood in English theology (p. 20). Ziegler’s article provokes the following two questions: Is Bonhoeffer’s theology congenial to established evangelical theology? Or might Bonhoeffer, considering shared commitments, offer something to evangelicalism aside from a theological confirmation of what evangelical theology already is? For Ziegler, “his theology is a sustained effort to learn afresh the substance and significance of Pauline and Lutheran faith and to attain to a better witness to the gospel of God” (p. 20) and, in this sense, Bonhoeffer has something more to offer than a confirmation of what evangelical theology already is.

Other chapters, like Timothy Larsen’s “The Evangelical Reception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” and Daniel J. Treier’s “Modernity’s Machine,” are more concerned with the former question. Larsen points to Eric Metaxas’s recent biography as a revealing moment in the evangelical reception of Bonhoeffer. Larsen writes that Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer “has skewed things in an evangelical direction” (p. 50). But Larsen finds this “skewing” unnecessary because evangelicals should simply focus on what they admire, and this can help “provide valuable correctives that present a more accurate picture of a complex man and theological legacy” (p. 51). Treier is wary about Bonhoeffer’s prison theology, and only optimistic if Bonhoeffer is read “as a source of apocalyptic proverbs” (p. 102). For both Larsen and Treier, the question is not about what Bonhoeffer can offer to evangelical theology, but what evangelical theology finds agreeable in Bonhoeffer.

Keith L. Johnson, in “Bonhoeffer and the End of the Christian Academy,” offers another approach to the questions of engagement and reception. Like Ziegler, Johnson allows Bonhoeffer’s voice to be critical of prevailing modes of theological thought. Johnson sees Bonhoeffer as a “conversation partner,” which allows reading Bonhoeffer to be “both an enriching and unsettling experience” (p. 153). By engaging Bonhoeffer as enriching and unsettling, Johnson can employ Bonhoeffer in a constructive, generative, and practical theology of the “Christian academy.”

In addition to the question of Bonhoeffer’s reception, the book engages a number of other issues arising from Bonhoeffer’s thought. For instance, Reggie Williams in “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Harlem Renaissance, and the Black Christ,” pursues a fascinating question about what Bonhoeffer himself may have received from the Harlem Renaissance, and how that may have influenced his theology and practice of resistance. Ziegler’s chapter, apart from the question of reception, stands out in its own right as a penetrating look at Bonhoeffer’s theology of the Word of God. Stephen J. Plant’s chapter, “The Evangelization of Rulers,” stands out for the quality and clarity of his argument about the sources of Bonhoeffer’s political theology and their use in his preaching, Ethics manuscripts, and political action. And if Charles Marsh’s theological-biographical chapter “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Under the Constraint of Grace” is representative of his forthcoming biography of Bonhoeffer (Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Knopf, 2014), then we have much to look forward to indeed.

The book also includes some appropriately concrete readings of Bonhoeffer. Joel D. Lawrence writes on the value of the practice of confession for the life of the church. Keith L. Johnson (in the chapter mentioned above) writes on Bonhoeffer’s value for the “Christian Academy”; Lori Brandt Hale writes on how Bonhoeffer can offer a helpful way forward for students discerning vocations, and Jim Belcher offers an account of how important Bonhoeffer’s liturgical formation was to his well-being in prison and how that kind of formation might be of benefit in a contemporary church-planting context. (Readers new to Bonhoeffer might want to start here, as Belcher also offers a good overview of some important details of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology that are taken for granted in other chapters.)

This is a book for Christians of all varieties, not only Evangelicals. It is scholarly enough to offer substantial readings of Bonhoeffer, though I would have no trouble recommending this volume to the non-specialist. It includes essays that develop Bonhoeffer’s thought in both academic and pastoral directions. As an introduction to contemporary theological questions and Bonhoeffer’s place in them—particularly the connection between theological reflection and contemporary Christian practice—this is a good place to start.

Apart from this more general contribution, the book also moves the more particular conversation about the evangelical reception of Bonhoeffer forward, asking a more fundamental question about how Evangelicals handle their own theological tradition. Is this tradition set, or can it engage constructively (rather than selectively) with voices like Bonhoeffer’s? The theologians most willing to be unsettled by Bonhoeffer, in this volume, have allowed their tradition to be constructively scrutinised, and have—for that reason—written the most productive and compelling chapters.

Preston Parsons

Preston Parsons
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England, UK

Other Articles in this Issue

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a prayer-expert...

In 1983 the Christian social critic Os Guinness commented, ‘Christians are always more culturally shortsighted than they realise...

As Jonathan Edwards’s reputation for defending moderate New Light revivalism grew in the 1740s, others increasingly sought him to preside over the ordination of ministers in nearby churches...

The nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian theologian William Symington wrote concerning Christ’s intercession, “in a practical and consolatory point of view, its interest is not exceeded even by the Atonement...

Does someone have the right to harm their own soul? Or if you don’t much like the talk of ‘soul’, does someone have the right to do themselves moral harm? For many years the assumption in the UK has been that the individual does have the right to do themselves spiritual harm...