What Am I Reading? The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edited and introduced by Isabel Best. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.

On the last day of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon. In his lifetime Bonhoeffer was respected as a theologian and a teacher, a great mind who would surely leave a mark on Christendom. We in the twenty-first century recognize him as a Christian martyr to the evils of Nazidom. Above all other things, Bonhoeffer thought of himself as a pastor and a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer held tightly to the Christ who brought victory over Death and Sin and who remains "the living Lord who meets me" (208).

For those who live seventy years after he was murdered, Bonhoeffer remains somewhat of an enigma. Who exactly was he? And more importantly, if put more crudely, would he have watched Fox News or MSNBC? To paint in broad strokes, liberal or more progressive Christians tend to grasp onto the Bonhoeffer of the Letters and Papers from Prison, especially his musings on "religionless Christianity" that surely would emerge, in Bonhoeffer's view, in the Post-War world. Conservatives and traditionalists tend to grasp onto the Bonhoeffer of Life Together and Discipleship, with their emphases on obedience to Christ's commands and costly grace over cheap grace.

I'm not exaggerating here--as DET cultured readers are certainly aware, in the past five years books have portrayed Bonhoeffer as someone who was little different than an American evangelical culture warrior, or as a pro-abortion pacifist with universalistic tendencies. It's clear what's going on here. We want a Bonhoeffer who looks like us. We want the authority of the great twentieth century martyr against totalitarianism on our side, to defend our pieties, to excuse our excesses. Bonhoeffer is used as an ideological weapon in our broadsides against those with whom we disagree theologically. And the good thing about Bonhoeffer is that he is dead--he can't argue against us either way.

The Bonhoeffer of history is a bit more complicated, and this is captured well in Fortress Press's collection of 31 sermons of Bonhoeffer's, stretching from 1928 in Barcelona (where he was pastor to the German speaking community) to 1939 in Sigurdshof, Germany, (where he and his students took refuge after the outbreak of the Second World War). Each sermon is introduced with a paragraph setting the context of Bonhoeffer's preaching, as well as offering explanations of people or events that may be foreign to twenty-first century readers.

This is an excellently presented and edited collection of sermons. Karl Barth's influence on Bonhoeffer is apparent, as is Bonhoeffer's rejection of the liberal theology that so disgusted him during his time studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. At the same time, in the sermons written after 1930, Bonhoeffer's experience of being a Sunday School teacher and youth leader at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church is never far below the surface of his preaching. Bonhoeffer's experiences in America left a notable mark in his development as a preacher. Yet what comes across in Bonhoeffer's preaching is that he was very much himself -- an early twentieth-century German pastor and theologian with a sharp mind and well-read disposition.

We interpret Bonhoeffer through our world and our contemporary disagreements and in turn do him and his very real accomplishments and insights a disservice. These sermons offer a well-needed corrective, and challenge readers of all stripes to take a look at Bonhoeffer afresh. Bonhoeffer took to heart the struggles of ordinary men and women to make sense of their lives, and through his sermons attempted to grapple with them on the search for meaningful Christian faith. He understood his sermons as a way of proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord over all, but also as "a prophetic means to call his church and his students to withstand the ideological spirit of the times" (x). Bonhoeffer agreed with Barth that a sermon is an event, an event that takes place in a specific place and time where God seeks to enter into the world afresh through proclamation of Jesus as victor and life-giver. As Best points out, at such an event Bonhoeffer believed that "the incarnation can happen anew" (xxvi).

Some may ask: Why should we read the sermons of some long dead German theologian? The answer, as Bonhoeffer might say, is we read sermons from the past because the Holy Spirit still speaks--through dead letters on a page-- a living Word that proclaims Christ is Lord. That is a witness that stays real and relevant throughout the ages. If you're interested in Bonhoeffer, if you're interested in German preaching in the light of Christ but under the shadow of Hitler, if you're simply interested in well written sermons, buy this book.

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