Book Reviews, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: “Engaging Bonhoeffer: The Impact and Influence of Bonhoeffer’s Life and Thought” edited by Matthew D. Kirkpatrick

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sphere of influence seems to expand almost daily, as I read about his life and theology online and in books. Engaging Bonhoeffer: The Impact and Influence of Bonhoeffer’s Life and Thought, edited by Matthew D. Kirkpatrick, is a collection of essays showing how Bonhoeffer’s influence extends into many and sometimes disparate strands of thought into our time and, certainly, beyond.

Engaging Bonhoeffer is a delight to read. Having read many books on Bonhoeffer and related works by now, I feel especially joyful when some fresh analysis or aspect of his thought is brought to light that I had not considered before. The authors in this collection bring many such moments, as they demonstrate how many others have carried the torch of Bonhoeffer’s legacy and, at times, done so with critical engagement. Though it is true most collections of essays have ups and downs, this one seems to be a collection of hits.

The essay on liberation theology may surprise some given the recent push to attempt to integrate Bonhoeffer’s legacy into a contemporary (American) evangelical fold. Bonhoeffer’s deep and repeated exegesis of biblical passages having to do with the poor, the oppressed, and more is set alongside the fact that Bonhoeffer himself was no less than the bourgeois of the bourgeois. Geffrey B. Kelly and Matthew D. Kirkpatrick show how despite his background, Bonhoeffer transcended his own privileged place to be named in some strands of liberation theology as a precursor to the movement and by others as an early liberation theologian. Bonhoeffer’s inclusion in the movement by those who are in the movement is due, the authors note, to (at least) two things- the uncompromising position Bonhoeffer takes in regards to God’s suffering with those who are suffering and his unwillingness to cede theology to broad metaphysics and abstraction rather than reality at hand.

Another contribution by Kirkpatrick, “Situations, Contexts, and Responsibility: Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in the Thought of Joseph Fletcher, Paul Lehmann, and H. Richard Niebuhr” fascinates with the examination of Bonhoeffer’s ethics set alongside a subjective theory of ontology. Kirkpatrick notes that while Bonhoeffer has similar thinking to much of situational ethics, he also does ground his ethics objectively in the person of Christ. The essay was a challenging read as it also presents the possibility for a way forward in the broad debate over Bonhoeffer’s views on pacifism and how to interpret some seemingly contradictory ideas. Is it possible that, instead, Bonhoeffer may consistently be understood through a lens of situation ethics?

The chapter on Karl Barth shows that Barth struggled much of his life to make sense of Bonhoeffer’s legacy and Bonhoeffer’s own interactions and comments upon his (Barth’s) work. The essay on Bonhoeffer and Jurgen Moltmann shows how some thinkers have critically interacted with Bonhoeffer, building some ideas and offering criticism of others. Another essay on the death of god theologians shows how some of Bonhoeffer’s language was co-opted for purposes certainly beyond his intent, but that do highlight some aspects that he may have pursued if he’d had the chance.

His influence on many others is considered as well: Stanley Hauerwas, Rowan Williams, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothee Soelle, Wolf Krotke, the earliest English commentators on Bonhoeffer, Ronald Gregor Smith and J.A.T. Robinson, Eberhard Jungel, Gerhard Ebeling, Paul Ricouer, and Jean-Yves Lacoste. My own familiarity with some of these is effectively nothing, so having Bonhoeffer’s thought linked to them and expanded was fascinating as a way of demonstrating his far-reaching legacy and the many, many ways people have adapted his thought.

Engaging Bonhoeffer is an excellent series of essays that will open up new avenues of exploration for readers to pursue. I highly recommend it for any who are interested in Bonhoeffer’s thought and how it is being shaped as his legacy in modern thinkers from many different perspectives.

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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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.



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