Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context
If the ideas articulated and life lived by Dietrich Bonhoeffer have captivated your thinking and challenged your soul, then you would do well to take the time to read thoughtfully and reflectively this collection of Professor Tödt’s essays on Bonhoeffer’s theology, ethics and resistance. First published fifteen years ago in his original German, this compilation of Tödt’s insightful scholarship spans the latter half of his academic career as professor of systematic theology, ethics and social ethics at the University of Heidelberg and as the chairman of the editorial board of the German edition of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Tödt’s student, Glen Harold Strassen, captured the tenor of his writings when he stated: “Tödt’s publications have an analytical sharpness, an ethical incisiveness and a genuine truthfulness that is rare even among the best.” Strassen served as the editor of the English edition of Tödt’s essays on Bonhoeffer published here in the United States in 2007. It is this new edition that is the subject of this review.
This collection of essays by Tödt makes a significant contribution to the ever-growing corpus of Bonhoeffer scholarship. Unlike that of many who have come before and after him, though, Tödt’s analysis expounds the major dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s ethics by examining the political, ecclesiastical and family context in which Bonhoeffer wrote. His essays, however, reach an even deeper level of profundity as Tödt subjects himself to scrutiny of Bonhoeffer’s ideas by transparently wrestling with issues of guilt and forgiveness about his own experience of the German context during the Third Reich when he served as a soldier at the front during the Second World War and then was subjected to detention as a prisoner-of-war in a Russian camp for five years. Above all, in his engagement with Bonhoeffer, Tödt sought an ethic that can provide wise guidance in the face of contemporary schemes to manipulate faith for ideological ends.
Fourteen of Tödt’s essays are presented. The earliest essay dates from the 1970’s, and the latest to one year before his death in 1991. A deepening of both insight into the underlying essence of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as well as an appreciation for the authenticity of his faith-inspired actions is evident. The first eleven essays analyze themes in Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics. For example, Tödt tackles the ever-perplexing notion of “religion-less Christianity” that marks Bonhoeffer’s later letters to Eberhard Bethge from his Tegel prison cell. In contrast with those progressive theologians who have latched on to Bonhoeffer’s language only to fill it with a self-conceived meaning inconsistent with the whole of Bonhoeffer’s thought and life, Tödt finds that Bonhoeffer was here conceiving a Christianity not confined to ideals for merely private life or to the gaps where we cannot solve problems, but rather a Christian faith that gives concrete guidance in the center of life.
In other essays, Tödt focuses attention on an important question that has not been examined by other scholars of Bonhoeffer. He asks what was about Bonhoeffer’s ethics that enabled him to discern so clearly and speak out for the Jews and against war more decisively than other theologians and church leaders even from the very onset of Hitler’s chancellorship. In his exploration of this question, Tödt demonstrates Bonhoeffer’s insights in naming the sources of evil and self-deception as well as warning against the ways and means by which the leader becomes the misleader. Tödt also clarifies Bonhoeffer’s articulation of the vocation of the churches in speaking concretely and the vocation of groups in acting concretely as an assertion of checks and balances against authoritarianism not only in the context of Nazi Germany but also with application for responsible action in the midst of contemporary expressions of authoritarianism.
Tödt’s extensive analysis of the social, theological, and ethical characteristics of the resistance movement, in which Bonhoeffer and family members played integral roles, provides both information and insights that go well beyond what can be found in other scholarship to date. This comprehensiveness in his treatment of Bonhoeffer’s resistance is the product of thoroughgoing research project that Tödt led at the University of Heidelberg.
The final three essays in this collection address contemporary history, in which Tödt examines, with an authenticity born out of Bonhoeffer’s ethics, the guilt and responsibility of Christendom in Germany. What particularly marks Tödt’s approach and the insights he offers is his resolve not to be devoted to merely an interpretation of past positions, but instead to find in Bonhoeffer avenues that advance both the present tasks of theology in the church and a better understanding of our own way of life.
In 1985, Tödt himself expressed the force of Bonhoeffer’s life and words upon him in this way:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has come nearer and nearer and become more and more important for me – not merely with one single flash of light – but in a continuing process over twenty years. Of his many remarkable character traits and abilities, the concentration with which he exposed his faith in Christ to the tests that life brought, all the way to the extreme situations of resistance, and then thought through theologically what happened him and those involved, occupies me most of all. I perceive this theology as deeply authentic and as showing the way for me as a theological teacher . . . . Bonhoeffer is not right in all things, but from no theologian am I now learning so much as from him, and, to be sure, with my intellect and with my heart.
Tödt, though, was greatly distressed by those self-proclaimed scholars and would-be theologians who did not follow the whole way through Bonhoeffer but would rather “tear out individual elements of life and thought and [either] progressively instrumentalize them or conservatively distort them,” and then advocate that the guilt for the deficits in the modern churches lies in Bonhoeffer’s guidance. In an effort to expose and counter these misuses and abuses, Tödt presents a thoroughly studied and attentively perceived exposition of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics both in the context of his life experiences and for application in our own.
Although some portions in the English translation occasionally render the complexity of Tödt’s German syntax in stilted and strained constructions, the substance of the insights and analyses of Bonhoeffer offered by Tödt make any extra time required to slow down and re-read such passages abundantly rewarding. No other book has more opened my eyes or deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s guidance in living responsibly in the concrete realities of life than Tödt’s.