Preface to Bonhoeffer, The Man and Two of his Shorter Writings
No Rusty Swords
Only three years ago the work of the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer was regarded in Britain and America as well as in his native Germany as that of an interesting and courageous, but nonetheless minor, theologian. As late as 1962, the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, deplored this widespread view, complaining that Bonhoeffer’s striking Letters and Papers from Prison “seem now in danger of being forgotten.” To day, Bonhoeffer’s reputation in Germany remains about the same; but in America and England he is being widely acclaimed as one of the “most decisive” theological influences of the century, of whom it has for example been written: “he is unquestionably the favorite theologian among young Protestant seminarians in the U.S. Some church leaders, in fact, consider his work the starting point of modern theology.”
This change, witnessed by the publication already this year of the three books listed above, has several causes. The first, and least important, has to do with the taste for anniversaries: Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis twenty years ago, on April 9, 1945, when he was thirty-nine years old, because of his very active participation in the German resistance movement and, in particular, in the abortive bomb plot to assassinate Hitler. It is doubtless appropriate to commemorate in some way the martyrdom of one who was not only an extremely appealing personality and the most influential German theologian to take active part in the resistance movement, but who, declining attractive opportunities to take refuge in Britain and the United States, returned to Germany from a visit to America shortly before the outbreak of war.
A second, by no means negligible, reason for renewed attention to his work is the desperate need within Protestantism today, particularly in America, for some new voice. Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Tillich—all have been famous since they were young men in the 1920s; and they are still today, in comparatively advanced old age, the only really major figures in Protestant thought, whose place is quite unthreatened by any serious competitors among the young. In the circumstances, a certain amount of boredom is understandable.
By far the most important reason for the Bonhoeffer revival, however, is due to the repercussions in America of what is perhaps at once the most curious and the most interesting development in English religious thinking since the Oxford Movement of the last century. To add to his martyrdom and his German background, Bonhoeffer’s work has since 1963 acquired the quiet unexpected new cachet of having been approved by the English. I am referring of course to the role Bonhoeffer’s ideas play in Honest to God, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich’s explosive and best-selling manifesto, which has since March 1963 sold nearly a million copies and inspired thousands of replies and commentaries, including a book-length attack by another clergyman which bore the inevitable title For Christ’s Sake. The basic, if unstated, point of Woolwich’s book is that German and American …