So, You Want To Read Helmut Gollwitzer?

This is a post that I have needed to write for a long time. I’ve put off writing it until now, however, because I’ve been carrying on an argument with myself about what the best way to organize it would be. I’ve spent a lot of time with Gollwitzer over the past half a dozen years or so, and it’s hard to boil down everything I want to say about Gollwitzer into some clear, straightforward advice.

Of course, if you want the long version, you can always read my book: Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Fortress, 2017). It just so happens that this is the best secondary source on Gollwitzer available in English so, you know, it’s a must read. But don’t take my word on it. Heath Carter agrees, as the photo below shows:

Anyway, back to the task at hand. You, gentle reader, want to read Helmut Gollwitzer. Perhaps you’ve already read my book and are now ready to dive into Golli himself and get a first hand picture. Maybe you want to form some of your own opinions by reading Golli first before seeing what I have to say about him. Either way, what should you read?

Well, it depends on what you’re most interested in. So I’m going to give you a set of options that you can pick and choose from depending on your interests. Think of this as an à la carte reading guide!

If you want to read some of Gollwitzer’s sermons:

I highly recommend this, in general, as the best place to start with Golli. I really enjoy his sermons. They are theological. They are political. They are existentially powerful and spiritually convicting. And there are two volumes to choose from in translation. First, there’s the cycle of sermons on the passion narrative in Luke that he preached as the pressure of the Nazi Reich’s displeasure mounted against him in the late 1930s: The Dying and Living Lord. Second, there’s a collection of sermons from the 1970s that reflect his mature theopolitical insights: The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis.

If you want to get to know Gollwitzer better on the personal level:

The first book that Gollwitzer published after returning from his time as a prisoner of war in Russia was a post-hoc memoir on his experience. His theopolitics are in flux, but its impossible to understand his intellectual development without understanding how his time in the camps affected him: Unwilling Journey: A Diary from Russia.

If you want to engage Gollwitzer’s theopolitics with an emphasis on the politics:

There are a couple good places in translation if you want to travel on this path with Golli. The easiest point of access to Golli’s mature theopolitics are the pieces that I translated for the first time in my book: “Must a Christian Be a Socialist?” (1972), and “Why Am I, as a Christian, a Socialist? Theses” (1980).

The next best place, however, is Golli’s little book: The Rich Christians and Poor Lazarus. If you’re up for a more challenging read, and want to get into the thick of his engagement with Marxism, then you want this book (but bear in mind that his thinking is still in transition here): The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion.

There are two online, open access resources on Gollwitzer and Marxism that you might want to check out as well: my series here at DET on Gollwitzer’s Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, and an essay that I wrote for The Other Journal entitled, “The Blame Lies with the Christians: Helmut Gollwitzer’s Engagement with Marxist Criticism of Religion.”

If you want to engage Gollwitzer’s theopolitics with an emphasis on the theology:

If this is the approach that you want to take, I recommend beginning with Gollwitzer’s mature articulation in the “swan song” lectures that he gave to mark his retirement: Introduction to Protestant Theology. Those with an interest in the intricacies of dialectical theology, and who have a solid grounding in figures like Barth, Bultmann, and so on, would perhaps be interested in the second book that Gollwitzer published on his return from Russia: The Existence of God as Confessed by Faith. Fair warning, though—this is a complex book that is difficult to get right if you haven’t read more widely in Gollwitzer, especially in his earlier (i.e., pre-war) writings.

A few concluding notes for the especially motivated and well-equipped:

While there is enough of Gollwitzer’s work already translated into English for readers to get a solid sense of him even if they lack facility to tackle German sources, nevertheless there is much more that remains untranslated and rewards deeper study. Here are just a few things to be aware of.

First, Gollwitzer did lots of work on Jewish-Christian dialogue but very little of this has been translated. The only thing I can think of off the top of my head is a relevant chapter or two in Introduction. There were a number of essays in the German version of The Demands of Freedom, for instance, that were not included in the English translation. I cite some of that material in my book, but a more thorough bibliography is available in my online, open access essay on the subject: “‘Shalom, Shalom, Shalom Israel!’ Jews and Judaism in Helmut Gollwitzer’s Life and Theology.”

Second, there is a 10 volume Ausgewählte Werke for Gollwitzer (pictured to the right), including a very thorough bibliography up to 1988. It is indispensable for anyone who wants to do serious academic work on Golli.

Third, there’s work to be done – and I don’t see myself doing it anytime in the next couple decades, so have at it! – on the relationship between Gollwitzer’s dissertation on the Lord’s Supper (Coena Domini. Die altlutherische Abendmahlslehre in ihrer Auseinandersetzung mit dem Calvinismus, dargestellt an der lutherischen Frühorthodoxie) and Karl Barth’s developing views on the sacraments. Anyone looking for a good dogmatic entre to Golli, or perhaps even for a dissertation, might do well to poke around here.


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