Bonhoeffer’s Legacy: A New Generation

by John W. DeGrunchy

John W. DeGruchy was Robert Selby Taylor Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa when this review was written (1997).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 2, 1997, pp. 343-345. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There can be little doubt that Bonhoeffer’s legacy has had a major impact on Christianity since his martyrdom 50 years ago. The surprising, often risky elements of both action and thought in a life profoundly marked by consistency of faith and hope keep interest in Bonhoeffer alive.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Vol. 5): Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible,  edited by Geifrey B. Kelly. Translated by Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness. Fortress, 232 pp., $30.00.


In August 1996 the German authorities announced that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was no longer regarded in law as a traitor. This somewhat bizarre declaration says more about Germany’s social and legal conservatism than it does about Bonhoeffer’s status. It reminds us that the reception of Bonhoeffer in his native land has by no means been positive, not least because of his act of civil disobedience in participating in the abortive conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944. For some Germans, particularly those in the former German Democratic Republic, Bonhoeffer was a Christian martyr. But for many more he was a traitor who disobeyed authority and undermined the German war effort. The fact that his name has been officially cleared suggests that Germany has finally and formally recognized the moral validity of the cause for which he gave his life.

Reservations about Bonhoeffer have not been confined to his political actions; they have also been expressed in regard to his theology. When I began work on a dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology in the ‘60s, one of my advisers was highly skeptical. Bonhoeffer, he reasoned, had not worked out his theology in any systematic way. Martyrdom had prevented such development of his work. Furthermore, Bonhoeffer’s theology had been hijacked by "radicals" who, in their desire to be "honest to God," had latched onto Bonhoeffer’s fragmentary reflections in prison. Ignoring what Bonhoeffer had said and done earlier, they re-created him according to their own image and in the service of their own dubious agenda. Besides, my adviser asked rhetorically, was there sufficient material to work on?

Critical questions such as these account for the dearth of university courses on Bonhoeffer’s theology. This is certainly the case in Germany, with some notable exceptions. Generally there has been much more interest in Bonhoeffer’s life and thought outside the academy, and arguably more interest in the English-speaking world than in his native land. A brief scan of the Bonhoeffer bibliographies, regularly published and updated by the International Bonhoeffer Society, indicates the extent to which Bonhoeffer’s life and thought have become the subject of serious scholarship during the past three decades.

A great deal of the scholarly as well as more popular work on Bonhoeffer is due to the remarkable contribution of Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s close friend and biographer. Not all interpreters of Bonhoeffer, including some of his former students, have always agreed with Bethge’s views, and a new generation of scholars is opening up fresh paths of inquiry which may diverge from some established and cherished views. Yet without Bethge’s lifelong commitment to preserving, editing and publishing Bonhoeffer’s writings, as well as his own books (including his monumental biography), essays and articles on Bonhoeffer’s legacy, the continuing interest in Bonhoeffer would not be possible. Since the 1950s Bethge and his wife, Renate (Bonhoeffer’s niece), have personally injected into Bonhoeffer studies and research a dynamic which has stimulated many others and formed a remarkable network of international relationships.

Bethge is a driving force behind the new 16-volume critical edition of Bonhoeffer’s writings, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (Chr. Kaiser Verlag and Gütersloher Verlag), which is nearing completion. All original manuscripts have been meticulously re-edited and often reconstructed, and much previously unpublished material has been included. Each volume contains a comprehensive introduction, extensive notes, an afterword and a detailed bibliography. This critical apparatus enables the reader to locate the text within Bonhoeffer’s theological milieu and development, as well as his historical context, and provides an excellent account of the scholarly discussion.

The English translation of Bonhoeffer’s works is in process under the general editorship of Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr. This major undertaking requires considerable dedication on the part of international scholars, substantial funding (more financial support is needed), and the interest and commitment of the publisher, Fortress Press. Two volumes are in print, with Creation and Fall due out in November 1997, to be followed by Sanctorum Communio

Part of the problem in understanding Bonhoeffer has always been that interpretations often depend on which of his works are read first. (How different a picture one has if one starts with Cost of Discipleship rather than Letters and Papers from Prison.) The fact that the popular classic Life Together and the little-known Act and Being are the first to be published symbolizes the value of the new translation project. Act and Being, like his dissertation Sanctorum Communio, is fundamental to any attempt to appreciate Bonhoeffer’s thought within the context of theological and philosophical debate. Life Together, on the other hand, is a reminder of Bonhoeffer’s lifelong concern for Christian community. It has rightly become a classic.

Bonhoeffer’s writings are notoriously difficult to translate into English, and doubly so when he engages in dense philosophical discussion as in Act and Being. When this is compounded by manuscripts that are sometimes problematic, it is not surprising that previous translations of his works, including some of his best known in English, have been faulty. The new German text, however, provides the basis for more reliable English translations, and every effort is being made to ensure that these are consistent, readable, accurate and inclusive—without hiding Bonhoeffer’s own patriarchalism. The new translation of Act and Being is remarkably clear, and the introduction, afterword and notes help the reader to grasp the complex argument. The new translation of Life Together has a freshness which makes it worth reading again. The problem with this book is that it does not fit into many of our preconceived notions about Christian community. Instead of allowing it to speak to us, we too often try to force it into our frame of reference. The new edition will help us better understand its challenge and locate it within Bonhoeffer’s legacy as a whole.

Much of Bonhoeffer’s writing was not published in book form but in papers, essays, addresses, poetry and correspondence. Some of this material was previously translated and published in English (such as Edwin Robertson’s early collections, beginning with No Rusty Swords, and Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson’s excellent Testament to Freedom). Yet none of these collections is complete. Now this material is available in fresh and comprehensive translations with critical commentary.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the continuing interest in Bonhoeffer’s legacy than the International Bonhoeffer Congresses, held every four years since the International Bonhoeffer Society was launched in Kaiserswerth, Germany, in 1972. Subsequent congresses have been held in Geneva, Oxford, East Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and Cape Town, while plans for a Berlin congress in the year 2000 are already under way

More than 200 people came to the Seventh International Congress in Cape Town last year. Regular participants have always included Germans and North Americans, but there was also a significant representation from Japan, Korea, Australia,. Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa. It was also notable for the diversity of European participation. I am not aware of any other theologian, ancient or modern, who has attracted quite the same worldwide attention on such a regular basis.

Participants ranged from interested laypeople to professors of theology who have been at the forefront of Bonhoeffer studies. Papers presented reflect this diversity and demonstrate the extent to which Bonhoeffer’s legacy is seen to relate to contemporary issues. Perhaps this is a reflection of the polyphonic character of Bonhoeffer’s own interests, another clue to his continuing attraction.

Holding the congress in postapartheid South Africa was indicative of Bonhoeffer’s significance in the Third World. Bonhoeffer has probably had more influence in South Africa on liberation and contextual theologies than any other European theologian in the 20th century. True, his contribution to theological existence and witness in South Africa and Latin America has been more in the arena of struggle than in academic study, but any dichotomy between theological reflection and praxis is inappropriate if we take his legacy seriously. Perhaps that is why his legacy is more important in the Third World than in countries where theology and praxis have been kept in separate compartments.

In many respects Bonhoeffer’s main contribution in South Africa has been his challenge to those of us there who are socially privileged and academically trained, as he was, and therefore numbered among an elite minority—even if we have sought to be in solidarity with those who struggled for liberation and attempted to identify with the victims of apartheid.

Several major themes in Bonhoeffer’s legacy have been of particular importance in South Africa, and help explain Bonhoeffer’s abiding significance. Bonhoeffer’s role in the German Kirchenkampf and his insistence on "confessing Christ concretely here and now" were particularly helpful in the church struggle against apartheid as a false gospel and heresy. But what does it mean to confess Christ concretely in the new South Africa with its strong emphasis on religious pluralism and a democratic reluctance to espouse religious absolutes in the political arena?

If Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship spoke to us clearly during the years of struggle, so his understanding of "Christ in a world come of age" (cryptically yet forcefully expressed in the prison letters) provides us with some clues for what it means to be faithful in our confession within a secular state. As he put it, we have to learn what it means to be a "church for others" in a multifaith and culturally diverse context beyond the privileges that were accorded us within the Constantinian framework of colonial and apartheid society. Within such a context Bonhoeffer’s fragmentary thoughts on the internal life of the church, the "discipline of the secret," and the connection he made between prayer and righteous action are particularly relevant.

Bonhoeffer’s dramatic metaphor about "putting a spoke in the wheel" of the Nazi state (from his 1933 essay on the "Jewish Question") was often quoted by Christians engaged in the antiapartheid struggle. A burning question now is how such prophetic praxis should function within a democratic society. Is the path of "critical solidarity," which was supported by some of those influenced by Bonhoeffer in the former East Germany, an appropriate path to follow? This is a hotly debated issue.

A clue to reworking prophetic theology lies, I believe, in Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutical conviction, expressed shortly before his imprisonment, that we have "to learn to see things from below." The democratic changes in South Africa have been dramatic, but the plight of the poor, the homeless and the disadvantaged remains a frightful reality. How we deal with these problems will determine both the future of our society and the prophetic relevance of the church. At the same time, Bonhoeffer also addresses his challenge to the new elites of our society, those who were powerless but are now powerful, those who were in solidarity with the poor but are now numbered among the rich. And Bonhoeffer’s insights into a nation’s need to deal with its past through confessing its guilt are appropriate for the role of the church in relation to the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

There can be little doubt that Bonhoeffer’s legacy has had a major impact on Christianity since his martyrdom 50 years ago. But is he still of significance for us today? Bonhoeffer expected that the world he knew would change in fundamental ways, yet he could not have foreseen the extent of those changes and the crises and challenges which would accompany them. Is an interest in Bonhoeffer anything more than nostalgic loyalty to a remarkable person? Are we not trying to read in to his legacy something inappropriate?

At the outset of the Cape Town Congress, C. F. Beyers Naudé, doyen of church leaders in the struggle against apartheid, reminded us that Bonhoeffer would not have wanted us to ask about his relevance, but about the significance of Jesus Christ. The question he asked himself, his students and his readers is the same today: "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?" Only as Bonhoeffer helps us to answer that question, Naudé insisted, does his theology remain of any use for the task of Christian witness and theology. That question has become problematic for many. Is it the right question to be asking in our multi-faith world? Is Bonhoeffer’s depiction of Jesus as the "man for others" helpful any longer? Would he himself have continued to use it or any of the other striking formulations with which he is now identified?

I believe that Bonhoeffer’s question about Jesus Christ remains the fundamental issue for Christian theology. But how would he approach that question now? If we take his own development seriously, we can assume that he would want to be in critical continuity with Christian tradition. I doubt, that he would reject the "negative" Christology of the patristic period, or Luther’s "theology of the cross." At the same time he would not simply repeat past theological formulas. His answer would have a contemporary freshness and relevance. He would utter the word of God "in a new language, perhaps quite nonreligious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language" (Letters and Papers from Prison).

The relevance of Bonhoeffer’s theology is unlikely to diminish. Even if some of his comments now strike us as problematic and often embarrassingly patriarchal, he continues to have an uncanny way of relating to "the Other," often surprising us with new insights. Many Christians find Bonhoeffer’s witness helpful in their own struggles against racism and poverty, or in efforts to engage in Jewish-Christian dialogue, especially about the Holocaust. The surprising, often risky elements of both action and thought in a life profoundly marked by consistency of faith and hope keep interest in Bonhoeffer alive.

Of course, much of contemporary and contextual concern lies beyond the parameters of Bonhoeffer’s legacy. Those who turn to Bonhoeffer for all the answers will be disappointed. But time and again his approach to doing theology suggests the way forward. Those who explore his writings will usually find some clue which provides a way of grappling with the issues. In this sense, it is fortunate that Bonhoeffer never completed his theological work in any systematic way. It remains open-ended, thereby inviting us to participate in an ongoing task of action and reflection.