Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther

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Michael P. DeJonge
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this masterful study of the relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Lutheran tradition, Michael P. DeJonge has offered a clear and convincing case that Bonhoeffer is best understood as operating as part of rather than apart from the theological legacy of Martin Luther. At its most basic, DeJonge’s book argues that relative to other interpretive approaches to Bonhoeffer—such as those casting him as a Barthian, neoorthodox, existential, or postmodern theologian—setting Bonhoeffer in the context of Lutheranism provides a cogent and fruitful approach that has been relatively underutilized.

In many studies of Bonhoeffer, writes DeJonge, after establishing textual and thematic linkages between Luther and Bonhoeffer, “Too often, Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism is set aside with much less argumentative work than is appropriate given his sustained engagement with Luther hinted at above” (6). Part of making the case for Bonhoeffer as Lutheran is parsing the historical development of the Lutheran tradition, which DeJonge does admirably. One way of seeing DeJonge’s project is setting Luther within the context of a Luther vs. the Lutherans dynamic, at least where particular later Lutherans represent only one, or a somehow deficient, constricted, or corrupted stream of Lutheran thought. That is to say, Bonhoeffer represents, at least on some level, a kind of Lutheranism that is distinct from the gnesio-Lutheranism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as the neo-Lutheranism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. DeJonge is careful, however, to neither absolutize Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran credentials nor to relativize the Lutheran heritage of other representatives. A merit of DeJonge’s study is its methodological clarity, and on this point DeJonge is forthright: “The method for demonstrating the Lutheran character of Bonhoeffer’s thinking is first to show that he understood his thinking to be Lutheran and second to suggest that he was not wrong in this judgment. And showing ‘he was not wrong’ involves making the case that his understanding of ‘Lutheran’ on a particular issue does in fact find some strong precedent in the tradition. It does not involve or require making judgments about or defenses of the tradition as a whole or in its essence” (13). Many confessionally traditional Lutherans may not find this satisfactory, but it does represent a defensible and ultimately helpful approach, one that is validated time and again throughout DeJonge’s study.

In a way, Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther represents a continuation and a deepening of one of the key insights of DeJonge’s earlier work on Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Formation: Berlin, Barth, & Protestant Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012), in which DeJonge provides perhaps the best and most accessible introduction available in English to Bonhoeffer’s complex early thought. In that volume DeJonge compares and contrasts Barth and Bonhoeffer on questions of revelation and ecclesiology as representatives of Reformed and Lutheran theological traditions respectively. In Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther, DeJonge continues and extends this interpretive insight both methodologically (in terms of its grounding in Bonhoeffer’s sources) and substantively (in terms of analyzing other doctrines, documents, and themes in Bonhoeffer’s work through this lens).

DeJonge picks up on some of the subject matter of his earlier work in the opening chapters of this volume, setting Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiological and Christological work against the views of Karl Barth. If Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism to some extent sets Luther opposite the later Lutherans, it is certainly a hallmark of Barth’s legacy that Calvin is set against the later Calvinists. This superficial similarity in terms of their relationship to these respective traditions, however, could obscure the deeper differences between the two, both in terms of their relationship to one another (that is, Bonhoeffer’s relationship to Barth) and their relationship to their different Protestant traditions.

In applying this Lutheran framework to interpreting Bonhoeffer, DeJonge makes significant contributions to and corrections of main lines of scholarly reception of Bonhoeffer’s work. A couple of instances are worth highlighting. First, DeJonge helpfully sets Bonhoeffer’s Christology both in the context of Reformation and post-Reformation debates between Lutherans and the Reformed. At the same time, DeJonge shows how this context delineates the divergences between Bonhoeffer and Barth on related topics. A possible point that DeJonge might explore in the future is the unfinished “Eternal Christ” theme in Bonhoeffer’s christology and how this might relate to the idea of the Logos asarkos. Extending his powerful analysis of Bonhoeffer’s christology here might require some speculative and constructive work, but DeJonge’s mastery of the material puts him in an excellent position to do so responsibly. The concluding sections in which DeJonge places Bonhoeffer’s christology into relationship with his thinking on discipleship and ethics is particularly salient. He rightly observes, with oft-unappreciated implications for contemporary Protestant approaches to natural law, that “as part of his effort to resuscitate the concept of ‘the natural’ in Protestant ethics, Bonhoeffer defines these terms christologically” (148).

In addition, the Lutheran heritage of the two kingdoms figures prominently in DeJonge’s analysis, and he helpfully delineates Luther’s articulations of the two kingdoms from a “doctrine of the two kingdoms” that is more systematic, detailed, and at least in some forms, corrupted and ripe for abuse. DeJong extends the question of the two kingdoms into a discussion and largely successful refutation of Anabaptist readings and appropriations of Bonhoeffer, particularly within the framework of discussions about war and peace as well as the German church struggle and resistance to the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther is an excellent work, worthy of close reading and engagement. It promises to open up new vistas for better and more responsible understandings of Bonhoeffer’s life, work, and ongoing significance. DeJonge shows convincingly how deeply Bonhoeffer was steeped in and in critical dialogue with Luther’s thought and legacy, and likewise how recognition of this reality presents great opportunity for improved engagement with Bonhoeffer himself.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jordan J. Ballor is senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael P. DeJonge is associate professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, where he teaches on the history of Christian theology and topics in modern religious thought. His previous publications include Bonhoeffer's Theological Formation (2012) and The Bonhoeffer Reader (co-edited with Clifford J. Green; 2014).


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