Over the coming few days I’ll be posting a series of posts on the new edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics by Dan Richardson, a student who has been doing some research for me. But first I want to review the new English edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German theologian, a leading light in the confessing church that opposed the rise of Nazism and ultimately a martyr at the hand of the Nazis. His martyrdom was the climax of a life of faithful witness, but has also sometimes obscured his contribution to theology. One problem is that many of Bonhoeffer’s writings were either constructed from his lectures or written in fragmentary form during his time in prison. This has led to him being claimed by various – and often contradictory – theological schools as their own. (My own perspective, for what it’s worth, is that Bonhoeffer was thoroughly Lutheran and we should read his talk of ‘religion-less Christianity’ not as the advent of some form of secular Christianity, but as a contemporary reworking of Luther’s theology of the cross in the Heidelberg Disputation.)
In 1986 Christian Kaiser Verleg published the first sixteen volumes to coincide with the eightieth anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s birth. The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series is making the German edition available in English with the translation project now based on the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
The result is everything you could want from a collected Works. They are superbly annotated with translation notes, sources of allusions and historical background. The page numbers of the German edition are in the margins. There are introductions to the English edition of each work together with an afterword translated from the German edition. There are full indexes and bibliographies. For those works pieced together from notes or lectures there is (in the volumes I’ve seen) a commentary on the process, variations and chronology.
The books themselves are beautifully produced (though sadly the hardbacks are glued rather than stitched). Underneath the dust jacket, the hardback editions have Bonhoeffer’s signature embossed in gold on the front with the title embossed on the spine.
The fragmentary nature of many of Bonhoeffer’s works also means that books like Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison have been published over the years with varying contents and orders. So Bonhoeffer, more than most theologians, has needed a definitive edition and this is what we now have.
If you’re new to Dietrich Bonhoeffer …
If you’re new to Bonhoeffer then I would start with The Cost of Discipleship (a work on discipleship which includes his famous warning against cheap grace and his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount) and Life Together (reflections on Christian community written for the students at the seminary of the confessing church). I would then move on to Letters and Papers from Prison (written as the title suggests in fragmentary form prison and which includes his discussion on religion-less Christianity). I also love his short work on the Psalms, Prayerbook of the Bible, which happily is included together with Life Together in the new Works.
Here’s a sample of the new translation. Here’s the opening paragraph of Bonhoeffer’s Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible followed by the opening paragraph in the old edition.
“LORD, TEACH US TO PRAY!” So spoke the disciples to Jesus, In doing so, they were acknowledging that they were not able to pray on their own; they had to learn. “To learn to pray” sounds contradictory to us. Either the heart is so overflowing that it begins to pray by itself, we say, or it will never learn to pray. But this is a dangerous error, which is certainly very widespread among Christians today, to imagine that it is natural for the heart to pray. We then confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing – all of which the heart can certainly do on its own – with praying. But in doing so we confuse earth and heaven, human beings and God. Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ.
‘LORD, TEACH US TO PRAY’: that is what the disciples said to Jesus. It was an admission that they could not pray by themselves. They had to learn. To learn to pray – it sounds like a contradiction. Surely, we would say, either the heart is overflowing and will begin to pray of its own accord, or else it will never learn to pray at all. But it is dangerous error, and one that is widespread among Christians today, to suppose that prayer comes naturally to the heart. By falling into that error we confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing – all these things the heart can indeed do on its own – with praying. But in that case we confuse earth and heaven, man and God. Praying does not simply mean pouring out one’s heart, it means rather – whether the heart be full or empty – finding one’s way to God and talking to him. And no one can do this by himself, he needs Jesus Christ. (From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible, trans. Sister Isabel Mary, The Sisters of the Love of God, Oxford, 1982.)