Book Review: The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

*The following review was previously published in Themelios 38, no. 1 (2013), 154-155. Purchase the book at Amazon or CBD.

 

Isabel Best, ed. The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Translated by Douglas Stott et al. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012. xxvi + 214 pp. £19.99/$29.95.

In this volume Isabel Best has compiled 31 sermons (of the 71 extant) from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s pastoral life. She has arranged them in chronological order with pertinent contextual introductions. Best has contributed to the translation of Fortress’s nearly complete Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition (DBWE), the first English translation of the entire Bonhoeffer corpus. Each selection in The Collected Sermons comes from the new translations, which is noteworthy because Bonhoeffer’s vivacious style has been captured more fully here than in earlier translations. Best’s volume supplements the Fortress set because it offers a single platform for the sermons, which are otherwise scattered throughout the last eight books of DBWE (and are thus prohibitively expensive for many).

“Preaching was the great event for him,” wrote friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, of Bonhoeffer. “His severe theologizing and critical love for his church were all for its sake, because preaching proclaimed the message of Christ, the bringer of peace” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography [rev. ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000], 234). Given Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on preaching, one wonders why it took so long for a volume such as The Collected Sermons to appear. Previous editions of Bonhoeffer’s sermons focused on specific themes, such as Advent and the Psalter, or were part of broader anthologies. Best’s work finally offers a generous collection of Bonhoeffer sermons together, by themselves.

Due to his reputation for social action, which was sealed by his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler, the scarcity of practical application in Bonhoeffer’s sermons may seem odd. Instead, Bonhoeffer repeatedly pits cultural phenomena against biblical testimony in order to create a crisis encounter with God and then stops short of offering action points. Thus he can (and does) criticize sermons devoted to what we might call heart change, yet he also avoid appeals to immediate social action. Instead, Bonhoeffer seeks to win the whole person by preaching as though he were holding “a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: do you want it?” (p. 34).

Bonhoeffer’s peculiar imagination brings us into the presence of God not, as it were, by transporting us into the throne room, but by making us aware that we are already in his presence, if we have eyes to see him. One of the more unique elements of these sermons is that way that Bonhoeffer sanctifies the realm of the ordinary. As a result, we come to see that in Jesus Christ, God has truly affirmed both the ultimate and penultimate value of his creation. In this way, Bonhoeffer simultaneously awakens a deeper love for the God who is truly with us and the unshakable sense that we must be concerned for this world if we are to love God truly.

Readers in the evangelical stream will likely find Bonhoeffer’s high view of the sacraments off-putting at times, just as Best vocalizes her surprise at his “rather old-fashioned” views of marriage in the introduction to one of his sermons (p. 29). Moreover, evangelicals will surely be surprised on occasion by his use of typology and some of his evocations of the nearness of God. One could wish for more examples of sermons from the OT, of which there are only two (plus one from the Apocrypha), though the collection represents Bonhoeffer’s own proclivities.

The book comes in a smart-looking dust jacket with a portrait of the well-dressed Bonhoeffer at the height of his powers. Its binding and printing are superior to most contemporary publications, and the dignified typeset and mahogany fonts display the elegance of a product that was designed to be kept and used for many years. Yet the raw form of this finely crafted product disappears in the sermons themselves behind the vibrant encounter of Christ as the holy infant in the manger, the abandoned God on the cross, and the true life of the resurrection. Indeed, the most striking aspect of this book, and the most valuable, is that in it one meets the living God.

The Collected Sermons will certainly not be on this year’s bestseller list, but then again Bonhoeffer was never on the bestseller list during his own lifetime. Our age is often neither interested in nor able to handle the depth of a preacher such as this. Yet we would do well to halt the pervasive white noise of postmodern existence and listen to a man who, like C. S. Lewis, possessed a generation-transcending passion for the dynamism of life in Christ. Many in the German Confessing Church (read: non-Nazis) had hoped that Bonhoeffer would lead the faithful back to solid ground after the war and unite the church again around Christ, but it was not to be. Perhaps he may yet speak a word, however, to the church today, helping us recover a taste for both the clear truth and the bond of love in Jesus Christ at a time when many opt for one or the other. For pastors who desire to speak into contemporary culture without sacrificing the gospel and for those already gripped by the German prophet, this volume will be very worthwhile.

Michael E. Littell