A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (HarperCollins, xxii + 579 pp.; $32.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Kevin A. Miller, editor of Christian History magazine.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War II. No doubt television will commemorate the event with countless specials. As Christians wrestling with the meaning of that global cataclysm, we would do well to turn off the set and sit instead at the feet of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian who joined the resistance against Hitler and was executed at Flossenburg concentration camp in April 1945.
Arriving just in time is A Testament to Freedom, a masterful collection of, as the subtitle puts it, his “essential writings.” Bonhoeffer is well-known for writings such as The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison. This collection, though including excerpts from those works, moves beyond them to reveal Bonhoeffer in all phases of his adult life: as student, pastor, ecumenist, activist, and prisoner.
Editors Geffrey Kelly (LaSalle University) and F. Burton Nelson (North Park Theological Seminary) have selected sermons, letters, poems, declarations, and excerpts from lesser-read works such as Christ the Center and Act and Being. They have arranged these in a logical and largely historical order, so readers can follow the development of Bonhoeffer’s tantalizing theology and radical call to Christian commitment.
Many writings included here have never before appeared in English. Readers can now enjoy, for example, two letters from the young Bonhoeffer in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany and moved to control the churches. Writing from London, Bonhoeffer urged colleague Martin Niemöller that “we must especially now be radical on every point … and not shy away from any unpleasant consequences to ourselves.” His words were chillingly prophetic.
Bonhoeffer took a lonely stand against the nazification of the churches and the oppression of the Jews. He had asked the questions, “What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today?”
Bonhoeffer’s conclusion, sealed with his blood, was that Jesus is the “Man for others” and thus “the church is the church only when it exists for others,” for “the outcast, the suspect, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short, … those who suffer.”
Kelly and Nelson’s careful introductory notes avoid the hasty interpretations that often have clouded Bonhoeffer research. As Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and biographer, comments in the foreword, “Forty years of bold popularizations of Bonhoeffer and shortcutting theories of interpreting his theology … whet our appetite for such a book.”
A Testament to Freedom is not the “complete works” of Bonhoeffer (which will become available in 1993). Neither will this volume replace Bethge’s classic biography. Nor will it substitute for the individual volumes of Bonhoeffer’s best-known works.
But as a single-volume collection of Bonhoeffer’s writings, however, there is none better. The 43-page editors’ introduction itself clearly and forcefully introduces Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. And a chronology, glossary, bibliography, and index add to the collection’s value.
A Testament to Freedom knowledgeably guides readers to a life that still rings with Christian authenticity.
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