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Bonhoeffer and the call of a present Jesus

Bonhoeffer. John W. Matthews. Theology for Life Series. Minneapolis: University Lutheran Press. 2011. PerfectBound. 100 pages. $15.00. www.lutheran
Pastor/theologian John Matthews’ slim volume on Dietrich Bonhoeffer does three important things. It succinctly locates the heart of Bonhoeffer’s thought and life in the centrality of Jesus; it lifts up the essential and critical texts within the prodigious output of this 20th century theologian; and it suggests why Bonhoeffer remains a subject of great interest almost 70 years after his execution by the Nazis in the last days of World War II, even as some very important questions can be raised with respect to his ongoing significance.
Bonhoeffer’s writings now fill 16 volumes. The doctoral dissertations, books, and articles written about his life, thought, and impact on various dimensions of Christian life and practice number in the hundreds, if not thousands. Matthews has provided a bibliography of that literature which is helpful for any reader who wants to dig deeper.

Matthews makes clear that Bonhoeffer’s resistance was not a political act unrelated to his faith.

But the main value of Bonhoeffer for this reader is to be found in its clear identification of what was at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s faith, life, and practice and what emerges from that center. “The central, yet hidden, reality of life for Bonhoeffer was Jesus Christ,” both in his personal life and in his theological orientation. That center was evident as early as 1933 in his lectures on Christology. Even as his beliefs evolved as his life unfolded, his commitment to Jesus Christ as the center of life, not as a matter of theological speculation but as an enduring presence calling him to discipleship, did not waver.
From that center grew Bonhoeffer’s commitment to a church that was communal and personal but not private, and to a focus on discipleship that combined freedom with responsibility.

Resistance and authentic faith

Bonhoeffer is well-remembered as an outspoken critic of Nazism and the majority of the German church that acquiesced to Hitler and his rise to power. That resistance culminated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler that precipitated his arrest and imprisonment and led to his execution slightly more than a year later.
Matthews makes clear that Bonhoeffer’s resistance was not a political act unrelated to his faith but was instead an activity that demonstrated the authenticity of his faith. In Matthews’ judgment, Bonhoeffer’s enduring legacy is that authentic faith: He acted on his beliefs at risk to his own life. Also a part of that legacy is a theology of integrity that “results when persons of authentic faith honestly embrace the changing face of reality.”
Two other aspects of his life are particularly worthy of consideration perhaps especially by Lutherans. The first is his ecumenical vision, particularly as it related to other expressions of the Christian faith. The second is his unwillingness to separate faith from action, thought from behavior. He was, in Matthews’ words, “critical of any doctrine that detaches following from faith, obedience from believing.” Thoroughly Lutheran in his emphasis on the centrality of Jesus and God’s grace, he was keenly aware that the question was not how God was embodied in Jesus Christ but what Jesus’ presence was calling him to do. Seeking to end Hitler’s life was one of the things he felt he was being called to do.
Bonhoeffer’s most provo-cative and controversial statements emerged from his last year in prison, primarily in letters sent to his friend and future biographer, Eberhard Bethge. Phrases like a “worldly Christianity” and “a world come of age” have excited and challenged Christians ever since. What Bonhoeffer meant by such phrases as well as the extent to which such a vision has come to pass remain open to discussion and are part of the reason why Bonhoeffer continues to be worth reading and studying.
Matthews’ book is a valuable contribution to that discussion, both for those already steeped in Bonhoeffer’s work and for those who may be interested in him for the first time.
Randy A. Nelson is emeritus professor of contextual education at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis.

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