Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life by Stephen J. Nichols is part of the “Theologians on the Christian Life” series from Crossway. This volume focuses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian who was murdered by the Nazis. What is remarkable about this book is the way it successfully shows the interplay between Bonhoeffer’s theology and his life lived, and then demonstrates this is something we, too, can comprehend.
Nichols balances discussion about Bonhoeffer’s theology with discussion of his life. This is more than simply combining biography with theology. Instead, Nichols demonstrates that Bonhoeffer’s theology of Christian life is acted out by Bonhoeffer. Thus, readers are able to read about Bonhoeffer while learning what it means to lead a Christian life. This is fitting, because Bonhoeffer did act out the core of his theology, which, as the subtitle of the book (“From the Cross, For the World”) suggests, is cruciform. For Bonhoeffer, Christian living is living as Christ to the world, and this includes living and dying with Christ.
The book has chapters on ecclesiology, prayer, confession, and more. The chapters noted are particularly insightful. Nichols draws much from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together to show his doctrine of the church, which itself is deeply connected to a life of spiritual discipline, confession to one another, and willingness to suffer for Christ. Nichols notes well, however, that we in the West are not likely to be asked to pay the same cost of discipleship that Bonhoeffer did: execution for his lived faith. But that, Nichols argues, does not mean that we cannot live Christ-like lives. Rather than making Bonhoeffer a hero–and Nichols notes that Bonhoeffer would have rejected that categorization–we ought see him as a Christian living out the life God called him to.
Nichols balances the excitement of learning about Bonhoeffer’s life with the unveiling of deeper thoughts on the way Bonhoeffer points to a Christian life lived. It makes the book quite readable, despite its often complex subject matter.
There is, however, one glaring hole in the treatment of Bonhoeffer’s theology of the Christian life. That is, Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism, and specifically his view of the proper theology as one of Word and Sacrament. A search of the book reveals but one reference to baptism, and only two references to the Lord’s Supper. However, Bonhoeffer continually held to the importance of these sacraments throughout his theology. For example, in The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote:
How then do we come to participate in the Body of Christ, who did all this for us? …The answer is, through the two sacraments of his Body, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. (239, edition linked above)
From this and many other references, it is clear that sacraments are central to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of ecclesiology. Yet Nichols doesn’t even mention them in the section on ecclesiology, an otherwise richly rewarding section of the book. Only a passing reference is made to the sacraments, despite their centrality to Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran understanding of grace and Christian living. This is a significant difficulty, for it effectively removes Bonhoeffer’s theology from its context.
Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life is an excellent, practical read. It shows how integrated Bonhoeffer’s theology is with his life, and gives many practical examples for readers to apply to their own lives. The book does, however, de-contextualize his theology by ignoring key aspects of his Lutheranism and their impact on Christian living. Readers will get much good from the book, but perhaps not as much good as they could have had it allowed Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism to shine through.
+Focused on Bonhoeffer’s practical theology
+Gives insight into Bonhoeffer’s life with applications
+Excellent annotations for further reading
-Little attention paid to Bonhoeffer on the sacraments
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book for review from the publisher. I was not obligated to write any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
Stephen Nichols, Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
Bonhoeffer’s Troubling Theology?- A response to an article on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological perspectives– I look at an argument that Bonhoeffer’s theology is “troubling” to evangelicals and point out how much of it is merely a product of his Lutheran background.
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