Understanding Bonhoeffer

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Peter Frick
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     330 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peter Frick’s Understanding Bonhoeffer is the fruit of his quest since 2005 to understand not only the texts but “Bonhoeffer the (Dead) Author” (27). Along the way he enlisted associates from the International Bonhoeffer Society and edited the collections Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in his Thought (Wipf and Stock, 2017; Mohr Siebeck, 2008) and Bonhoeffer and Interpretive Theory: Essays on Methods and Understanding (Peter Lang, 2013). The current work includes his essays from the two earlier volumes, essays published in a variety of journals and collections and one previously unpublished essay.

Understanding Bonhoeffer includes a brief biography, two essays on the hermeneutical reading and translating of Bonhoeffer, several essays on theologians and philosophers who influenced his thinking (Thomas à Kempis, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rudolph Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Gerhard Ebeling, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and Martin Heidegger). After that backgrounding of Bonhoeffer, Frick includes a series of essays that foreground Bonhoeffer’s influence in developing intellectual and geographical spheres of thought.

I especially appreciated Frick’s repeated description of Bonhoeffer’s life and theological journey as “from above to below” (204, 224, 260-261) often accompanied by the citation or reference to Bonhoeffer’s letter “After Ten Years” (Letters and Papers from Prison. The Macmillan Company, 1971) written for his fellow conspirators on New Year’s Eve 1943. This repeated refrain captures both Bonhoeffer’s descent from the Grunewald District to Tegel Prison and Flossenburg concentration camp, as well as writing theological ecclesiology from below so that he sees the church authentically only as the church for others.

Frick writes, “It dawned on me one day . . . that the structure of my thinking is interested in ‘system.’ By that I mean that I am interested in the larger, systemic questions and issues in life and not in detail. For example, I am interested in Pauline theology, that is to say the overarching questions, challenges, and contexts of his life and teaching, and not in the exegetical details of a particular verse. I should clarify that these details are also important, but for my way of thinking, they are subordinate to the larger whole” (29).

As the titles and subtitles of his two previous collections suggest, and as the content of this volume demonstrates, Frick is most interested in the intersection of theology and philosophy to broaden and enable his own understanding (and that of others) of the (dead) author Bonhoeffer, who still lives in the mind of those who understand his life and work. Frick is less interested in history per se. This is unfortunate. Frick refers to Eberhard Bethge as Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law (9) when his wife, Renate Schleicher Bethge, is Bonhoeffer’s niece, not his sister. Such historical errors undermine confidence in interpretation.

As Frick nears his conclusion to this volume, he notes, “With regards to Bonhoeffer’s influence on my thinking: he opened up the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of my thinking on my journey to discover my own system (Bonhoeffer himself disliked the idea of a system). Another way of putting these matters is to acknowledge that I discovered in him the attempt to articulate the important questions of life before one attempts the answers. This sequence is crucial for me” (291).

At the very end of the volume, Frick steps outside of his philosophical pursuits to acknowledge in Bonhoeffer a life fully lived and to further affirm that all our lives are those, like Bonhoeffer’s, of fragmented wholeness (291-292).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan P. Gosser is an Independent Scholar and retired United Methodist Church pastor.  

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Frick is Academic Dean and Professor at St. Paul’s University College, University of Waterloo.


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