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Book Review: “Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation” edited by Peter Frick

Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation, edited by Peter Frick, explores how Bonhoeffer was impacted by various thinkers throughout his life. This collection of essays gathers Bonhoeffer experts to discuss numerous influences on Bonhoeffer, including some that are little-addressed in other literature I have read.

The influences on Bonhoeffer’s thought are (broken down as they are in chapters as follows): Augustine and Aquinas, The Imatatio Christi of Kempis, Martin Luther, Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Wilhelm Dilthey, Friedrich Nietzsche, Adolf von Harnack and Renhold Seeberg, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Heidegger. A survey of every chapter would make this review much longer than I’d like it to be, so I will just highlight a few areas I found of interest.

Wayne Whitson Floyd’s chapter “Encounter with an Other: Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” highlights the importance of philosophy for understanding Bonhoeffer’s legacy. In this insightful chapter, Floyd notes the impact of both Kant and Hegel in Bonhoeffer’s thought and how the same philosophers impacted interpretation of Bonhoeffer. For example, Floyd critiques Ernst Feil’s The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a work that this reviewer has yet to read) for not making enough of a distinction between Kant and Hegel when reading Bonhoeffer. He also shows how other thinkers have over-emphasized aspects like anthropology in Bonhoeffer’s thought (91ff). Peter Frick’s chapter “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Aphorisms and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Theology” shows that Bonhoeffer was aware of Nietzsche’s work and engaged with it, yes, critically, but also by noting areas of criticism Nietzsche leveled against the church that Bonhoeffer agreed with. Bonhoeffer’s interaction with Nietzsche ultimately shows competing notions of reality and Bonhoeffer radically asserted that “reality is one in Christ…. Belonging completely to Christ, one stands at the same time completely in the world” (cited on 199). Thus, Frick shows that Bonhoeffer answered Nietzsche’s challenges with a distinctly Christocentric response.

Josiah Young’s chapter “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr: Their Ethics, Views on Karl Barth and African-Americans” shows a more intimate portrayal of Bonhoeffer. Young places Bonhoeffer in his American context, interacting with Niebuhr’s theology as well as other influences on his life. Young demonstrates the clear respect for and influence of African-Americans on Bonhoeffer and a contrast with Niebuhr’s uneven thoughts about race. Bonhoeffer fought against white supremacy on all levels, and was deeply influenced by his time in Harlem and black churches. Frick has several chapters in the book (one noted above), and all are of interest. His chapter on Kempis’s Imatatio Christi argues Bonhoeffer was so familiar with the work that he essentially follows Kempis’s form in some ways. His chapter on Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer is fascinating and shows how Bonhoeffer was aware of and interacted with liberal theologians while also being critical at times. Bultmann, in particular, highlighted problems that Bonhoeffer felt needed to be addressed, though Bonhoeffer ultimately diverges from Bultmann in developing the answers.

Wolf Krötke’s chapter, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther,” was the chapter to which I took the most issue. According to the contributor info, Krötke was a member of the editorial board of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (Bonhoeffer’s works in German), so he is clearly an expert on Bonhoeffer. However, his background in Barthian studies seems to have colored his reading of Luther and Bonhoeffer. Though he acknowledges the deep influence Luther had on Bonhoeffer, alongside Bonhoeffer’s adherence to Luther’s position on numerous topics, Krötke  seems to have an agenda to paint Bonhoeffer in a Reformed light. For example, Krötke uses the word “regretfully” in his acknowledgement that Bonhoeffer sided with Luther on the Sacraments and used Lutheran language. He then argues that Bonhoeffer “criticized the doctrine of ubiquity… of the humanity of Christ” as ‘an impossible metaphysical hypostasis'” (61). Yet Krötke does not go on to note that the very reason Bonhoeffer makes this statement is not because he rejects the Lutheran position wholesale but rather because he sees it as an unnecessary attempt to answer the Reformed objection. As Bonhoeffer puts it, ubiquity is an attempt to answer “the Reformed question within Lutheran theology” (DBWE 12, 321-322). The very reason Bonhoeffer made this statement was as a rejection of the Reformed position, not a tacit admission that the Lutheran view of Christ’s real presence could be mistaken. Bonhoefer explicitly rejects the Reformed question of “How” Christ might be present in the Supper–reasserting that Christ is God and so can do so. Krötke then asserts that Bonhoeffer’s view on Law and Gospel differed from Luther’s, yet such differences are less a demonstration of Bonhoeffer’s divergence than on Bonhoeffer’s reliance upon and expansion of Luther’s view. DeJonge has convincingly argued, in his Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther, that Bonhoeffer sided with Luther on major Lutheran/Reformed (and other) controversies (see my review of DeJonge’s book here). These instances make it especially perturbing that Krötke closes his essay by calling Bonhoeffer’s faith “a living, Reformed faith…” (82, note the capital “R” tying it to the Reformed position). This attempt at subverting Bonhoeffer’s legacy by integrating him into the Reformed fold is nonsensical when one considers Bonhoeffer’s strict alignment with Lutheran positions on the Sacrament, the Two Kingdoms, and, as DeJonge argues, on the finite containing the infinite–all things that go against Reformed positions.

Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation is packed with insights into the development of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought. Every chapter has something to offer and the work as a whole opens up huge avenues to explore in Dietrich Bonhoeffer scholarship. Anyone with interest in Bonhoeffer’s thought ought to read this book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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