The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Volume 2

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Editor(s): 
Victoria J. Barnett
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , October
     2017.
     270 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781506433363.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Victoria Barnett’s expertly edited collection of Bonhoeffer sermons is a welcome supplement to her first volume of Bonhoeffer’s sermons (Fortress Press, 2012) and clearly presents a key aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ministry, his preaching.

The sermons are drawn from the collected works of Bonhoeffer and range in date from 1926 to 1944. They cover various contexts in which Bonhoeffer preached, including congregations in Barcelona, London, Berlin, and Finkenwalde, the funeral sermon for his grandmother, Christmas meditations, prison meditations, and two baptismal sermons. Barnett presents the specific historical setting for each sermon. She describes each sermon and sets it in the overall circumstances of Bonhoeffer’s life and times, identifying theological emphases that emerge. This presents the “historical Bonhoeffer” but also indicates the significance of Bonhoeffer’s sermons for our own time.

From beginning to end, Bonhoeffer’s developing theology was expressed in his expositions of scripture and his proclamation of the word of God. He represented his Lutheran emphasis on the importance of preaching and its role in communicating the Christian gospel. Bonhoeffer’s exposure to African American preaching during his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York (1930-1931) enabled him to hear the gospel preached in a new idiom and helped bolster his ministries and preaching in the midst of the tumultuous times of the Nazi regime. During the war, in the midst of resistance, and then in prison, Bonhoeffer was keen to reflect on the scriptures and express their messages in various sermonic forms. Through all his efforts, Bonhoeffer emphasized, as Barnett writes, that “the preacher could and should help the congregation understand how God’s word was evident in the world around them, and help them navigate the challenges they faced” (xiii).

Bonhoeffer’s preaching was directly personal, focusing on what God has done and continues to do in a person’s life and in the world. In his farewell sermon to the congregation in Barcelona (1929) on “The Peace of God,” he said, “The peace of God is God’s loyalty despite our own disloyalty. In the peace of God we are secure, protected, and loved. Admittedly, God does not completely eliminate our care, our responsibility, our unrest, but behind all this bustle and worry, the divine rainbow of peace has risen, and we find our lives supported and in unity with the eternal life of God” (53). It is God who holds us in—despite our failings—as “the divine rainbow of peace” rises over us. This daring trust brings security to life, enables the vicissitudes of life to be endured, and can fuel the prophetic resistance necessary to face the world’s evils.

When Bonhoeffer preached in London on January 21, 1934 on God’s call to prophetic witness from Jeremiah 20:7 (“O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed”), he told the congregation that when the Christian begins walking with God, there is the realization that there is no way to escape from God. When the Christian feels that this is too much and that “God has become too strong for us,” breaking under God’s presence and despairing, it is then that God’s nearness, faithfulness, and strength “become our comfort and help” (120). One does not get away from God. For “in good times and in bad we can no longer be God-less.” What it ultimately means, for Bonhoeffer and for all who are bound to God, is that God is “with us everywhere we go, in times of faith and times of sin, in facing persecution, mockery, and death.” Bonhoeffer’s own life testified to the truth of these words, for himself.

A central facet of Bonhoeffer’s preaching is his focus on Jesus Christ. This emphasis breathes throughout these sermons. It is also found in Bonhoeffer’s interpretations of the Psalms. In a sermon based on Psalm 58, Barnett says, there is a “convergence of David with Jesus,” which she notes is today recognized as a “theologically problematic and very Christianized interpretation of Hebrew Scripture” (176). For Bonhoeffer, this “psalm of vengeance” points us to “the bleeding Savior who died for the wicked, struck by God’s vengeance that we might be saved. No one is excluded here. Christ bore God’s entire wrath for everyone” (182). Christians “look to the cross of Christ: for there is judgment, there is reprieve.” The psalm can only be prayed when Jesus Christ is seen as the one in whom God’s judgment is absorbed and as the one who prays this psalm on our behalf. Until the day of judgment, when Christ’s “victory and triumph” are made clear, “Satan will continue to rouse up enemies against Christ and his community through injustice, violence, and falsehood. In the midst of this raging, however, Christ prays this psalm for us in a vicarious representative fashion” (183). Now “we pray along with this psalm, in humble gratitude for the cross of Christ having saved us from wrath, with the ardent petition that God bring all our enemies to the cross of Christ and grant them mercy, with fierce yearning that the day might soon come when Christ visibly triumphs over all his enemies and establishes his kingdom” (183). 

The final sermon in this collection was written for the baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge, Renate and Eberhard Bethge’s first child, and Bonhoeffer’s nephew and namesake (May 1944). Here Bonhoeffer posited that if historic Christian language has lost its power, “we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings” (231). While a new, “quite nonreligious language” is being born—“liberating and redeeming like Jesus’s language”—“the Christian cause will be a quiet and hidden one, but there will be people who pray and do justice and wait for God’s own time” (231). 

This fine volume makes Bonhoeffer’s preaching widely available. His insights will continue to inspire and to challenge all today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald McKim is an Independent Scholar and the author of the forthcoming Mornings with Bonhoeffer: 100 Reflections on the Christian Life (Abingdon Press, 2018).

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Victoria J. Barnett served from 2004-2014 as one of the general editors of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, the English translation series of Bonhoeffer’s complete works published by Fortress Press.  She has lectured and written extensively about the Holocaust, particularly about the role of the German churches. Her published works include Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity during the Holocaust (1999) and For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (1992). Since 2004 she has directed the Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is a graduate of Indiana University, Union Theological Seminary, New York, and George Mason University.

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