“I have had the time to think and to pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” Sadly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words a month before returning to Germany for the last time and six years before he was executed by his own government for being involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (an action that I take issue with but will not address in this review).
As Bonhoeffer saw the nation he loved descend into darkness and chaos, his writings make it apparent that he could sense that his fate was inextricably tied up with that of Germany’s. In a circular letter from 1939, he writes, “Two things have become important to me recently: death is outside us, and it is in us.” He goes on to note that the death from outside is the “man with the scythe.” On the other hand, the inner death is “grace and the consummation of love” and is “really only the way to the perfect love of God.” Bonhoeffer realized that the key to life in Christ was death to self. But he didn’t just proclaim it. He lived it so faithfully that he was unwilling to remain safely in the US while his brethren suffered under Hitler’s oppressive regime. He felt compelled to unite himself with Germany, come what may.
I read Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer last year and enjoyed it a great deal. It planted in me a desire to read more about Bonhoeffer and, specifically, to read his own writings. After I finished the biography, I read through ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ and though I didn’t agree with all of Bonhoeffer’s theology, I did find a number of challenging thoughts. I recently found a copy of ‘The Way to Freedom’, a collection of Bonhoeffer’s works that covers the years 1935-1939, and decided to take the plunge. An anthology of personal letters (which both he and others wrote), diary entries, and theological writings can be somewhat difficult to review. After all, Bonhoeffer didn’t write most of these things to be published. They were written at a certain time, for certain people, with certain issues in mind. As a result, the reader needs to know something about Bonhoeffer and his time in order to enjoy (or really even understand) a lot of what is found in this collection. If you’ve never read anything by or about Bonhoeffer, this is not the place to start.
With all of that said, I found this book to be a very informative and stimulating look at a much-beloved and oft-debated figure within twentieth-century Christianity. I’m not going to get into the debates about Bonhoeffer and whether he was or was not the sort of evangelical believer that Eric Metaxas portrays him as in his book. Instead, I’m going to briefly note the two focuses of this book. This collection of Bonhoeffer’s writings is divided into two parts: one covering his time at Finkenwalde and focusing on the Confessing Church’s strained relationship with the rest of the German church, and another that examines his writings as he struggled with the Confessing Church’s slow deterioration at the hands of the German government.
Bonhoeffer’s time at the seminary in Finkenwalde has been one of great interest to me since I first heard of it. I found the thought of a seminary that focused on discipleship above everything else incredibly appealing. I wish I could’ve enjoyed an experience like Bonhoeffer’s students. It’s no surprise, then, that one of my favorite passages in the anthology is an instruction guide to meditation that was written by Eberhard Bethge under Bonhoeffer’s supervision. In it, the student is encouraged to “meet [Christ] first in the day, before you meet other people” and to ask “what is still preventing you from following completely.” It is a theme that sounds throughout all of his writings: sacrifice, following completely, devotion to God and His Church. This truth can be seen in so many different ways: in Bonhoeffer’s description of Finkenwalde’s students as “renouncing everything except the simple necessities,” and “[taking] upon themselves to lead a common life”, in his letter to a group of young theologians in Pomerania to whom he writes, “there is only one way, the way of repentance, of patience under God’s Word,” or in his decision to return to a Germany that has set itself against true Christianity and poses a real danger to him and all faithful believers. His writings ooze with a devotion to the way of self-denial. Ultimately, this is Bonhoeffer’s ‘Way to Freedom.’ Freedom isn’t in a libertine spirit but in conformity to Christ.
On the other hand, Bonhoeffer’s unique time and situation also called for him to deal with a particular issue, that of the church. This book is filled with his arguments concerning the church, its extent, how it functions, and a number of other issues that have very little benefit to the average, modern Christian. There are numerous references to the Barmen Declaration and the meeting at Dahlem. Bonhoeffer discusses the nature of the true church and where both the German and Confessing Churches fit into it. Unless the reader is steeped in German Ecclesiastical history he will be lost. That’s the problem with this book as it is with any collection of writings by a historical figure. Divorced from the time period, intelligibility is hindered. In order to truly enjoy these writings as they deserve to be enjoyed and meditated on, there is a need to study the time period and Bonhoeffer’s life.
Unfortunately, as a result of this, I can’t recommend this book to anyone except the Bonhoeffer scholar. It’s simply too unintelligible for the average reader. If however, you’ve read up on Bonhoeffer and the theological issues raging during his time, it might be something you’d enjoy; especially if you have already enjoyed some of his other works.