Dietrich Bonhoeffer: DBWE 14.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937.  H. Gaylon Barker and Mark S. Brocker, Eds. Trans. Douglas W. Stott, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.  ISBN 978-0-8006-9893-3. xxviii + 1230 pages. $50.00 (Kindle: $43)

In Volume 14 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, we discover not only an integral history of how and why Bonhoeffer’s spiritual classics, Discipleship and Life Together came to be but also a new and deeply moving portrait of Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself. This book, masterfully organized and edited by H. Gaylon Barker and Mark Brocker, in collaboration with the German editorial team, is a comprehensive, essential resource for Christians eager to deepen their commitment to the gospel in times of crisis as well as historians researching the German Church Struggle and its connection to a significant phase in Holocaust studies.

The importance of this volume cannot be underestimated. Here we enter more closely into the importance of that period of Bonhoeffer’s life in which he undertook to direct the illegal “underground” seminary at Finkenwalde, a remote village in Pomerania. There he prepared, by his teachings, sermons, and personal example, the future ministers of the Protestant Confessing Church of Germany.  These “Finkenwaldians” had accepted the call to risk their lives and reputation to embrace the costly grace of the Gospel during the church struggle of the 1930s. Later these ordinands would spearhead efforts to reconstruct Christian life in a postwar Germany.

This volume illuminates the broader context of Bonhoeffer’s most widely read classics of the spiritual life and their intense fidelity to the teachings of Jesus Christ, Discipleship and Life Together. In the process we are led to enter into Bonhoeffer’s own journey from his early academic career as a university lecturer to his role as seminary director.  We see in this more academic phase of his career how he was disheartened by the infectious Hitlerism that was seducing so many ordinary citizens and even several churchmen who should have known better.  Many documents of the church struggle take on a new life here as we examine Bonhoeffer’s  incisive writings, apropos  the political and ecclesial scenes, his insistence on caring and courageous service in his sermons and, and the several layers of his correspondence. 

The voluminous study of Theological Education at Finkenwalde has been organized into three separate parts, each part is then subdivided according to what belongs to each of the five sessions in the training of the Seminarians. In the first part we become privy to Bonhoeffer’s correspondence and diverse communications with ecumenical personages who at the time were leaders  of the Confessing Church and some of the Reich church and even representatives of the German government. This correspondence links Bonhoeffer to the wider world of the Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement.  His letters to family and friends offer fresh insights into his relationship with several ecumenical leaders of the period, such as George Bell who will figure later in Bonhoeffer’s work in the Resistance Movement. In this section we encounter more closely Bonhoeffer the Ecumenist and come to appreciate more precisely how, despite the risks, Bonhoeffer continued to be a vital support of the Confessing Church in its battle to be recognized as the only legitimate Church against the heretical Reich Church.

Part Two, the largest segment of the volume, presents Bonhoeffer’s lectures and also preparatory notes for his classes, some of which derive from seminarians’ notes and additional lectures Bonhoeffer delivered on behalf of the Confessing Church.  This is the farthest reaching of Bonhoeffer’s ample theological contributions to the nature of the church and his Christocentric ecclesiology.  Here we study Bonhoeffer’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount, the so-called “Magna Carta” of the life of the Church community and the “laws of life” derived from it as it pertains to the Church community.  Of special interest is Bonhoeffer’s presentation on behalf of the Confessing Church as it relates to the 1936 Olympic Games. Gaylon Barker’s comment on Bonhoeffer’s unique address to the crowd on “The Inner Life of the German Evangelical Church” on that occasion is worth noting apropos the central theme of Discipleship and its uniqueness vis-à-vis the lethal dangers of Nazism. “Historically, he [Bonhoeffer] asserted, when Christians were confronted with persecutions and possible martyrdom, they turned to singing as a means of confessing their life.  Singing was a means of expressing a childlike faith. Calling his audience to a renewal of faith, he said the time had come to return once again to such a faith: ‘The forces threatening the church are enormous. Here we must learn again: It is prayer that accomplishes things, including the prayer of children. That is why the Confessing Church has learned to pray again.”

This part of the volume contains valuable material for further understanding the extent of the training program that Bonhoeffer initiated for the seminarians.   We find here practical exercises to aid the seminarians in their future ministries.  He had spoken too of how to contemporize New Testament texts, lest they lose their impact of later congregations  in need of more recent updates in biblical scholarship. Always, however, Bonhoeffer insisted on a sermon being substantive even if somewhat “out of date”. Many of the lectures are seen in tandem with stages in the actual writing of Discipleship.  The seminarians were also exposed to homilies on their pastoral duties, and given suggestions for funeral homilies and on the calling to preach through a series of homiletical exercises.

Part Three is a collection of Bonhoeffer’s sermons and Bible studies in a wide variety of contexts. These include the memorable sermon he delivered on Psalm 90 on the occasion of the funeral service for his beloved grandmother, Julie Tafel Bonhoeffer, June 15, 1936.   In it he recalled her courageous protest against the boycott of Jewish shops in 1935. The sermon reveals even more of how Bonhoeffer was dependent on the wisdom of his grandmother with whom he corresponded at length at crucial moments in his life and career. Some of the sermons correspond to the founding of the special House of Brethren in which some of the seminarian chosen by Bonhoeffer would serve as a centering group to animate and energize the entire community of seminarians in their commitment to community life in prayer, active listening to one another, and active helpfulness to one another. Part Three shows by the various sermons, Bible studies, and meditations  how a Christian minister has one’s faith nourished by the Bible as a source of faith in a world of violent, bellicose turmoil and in a Church struggling to overcome systemic evil.

In sum, this volume offers lasting insights into Bonhoeffer’s world as he prepared future Protestant ministers to lead the Church in a turbulent time with the high stakes of survival as the true Church of Jesus Christ, guided by the Biblical Word, the Protestant emphasis on faith alone giving glory to God alone, and a community of Christ-centered service, compassion, and mutual forbearance. The volume, as also Bonhoeffer’s book, Discipleship, is enhanced by H. Gaylon Barker’s excellent, insightful introductory essay that provides the historical context, an analysis of the Finkenwalde significance in Bonhoeffer’ life, a commentary on the candidates themselves and their “life together,” the seminary curriculum, the special House of selected brothers who, like their Brother Bonhoeffer, would inspire their fellow candidates with their own commitment.  These highly informative aspects of this excellent volume is also augmented by Barker’s spirited analysis of why the Finkenwalde phase of Bonhoeffer’s life was not a “detour” but “a straight trajectory that Bonhoeffer had followed clearly and without wavering throughout his career.” Of additional value, likewise, is the “Afterword” of the German editors who detail their own assessment of the ecumenical reach and social pastoral care so evident early on in Bonhoeffer’s theology and in his concern for training the candidates for a viable ministry in the Christian Church of Germany.

This volume is the indispensable key to a more complete understanding and appreciation of Bonhoeffer’s  faith-filled dynamism in inspiring fellow Christians to accept the costly grace of  following Christ in Christian discipleship and coming together as Christ-centered Christians to create a community ensouled by faith in Christ, service on behalf of justice, and love for one another and for the wider world where human dignity is to be affirmed by all Christians and their churches.

Geffrey Kelly

Topics: Sources and Texts
Geffrey Kelly




The English Language Section is dedicated to advancing the theology and legacy of German pastor-theologian and Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the academy, church, and world, and has been on the forefront of this work for the last fifty years.

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