DBWE Vol. 15: Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. Hardcover, 725 pages


Volume 15 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works is well worth the read. Its varied documents hail from 1937-1940. During this period, Bonhoeffer oversaw the “underground” theological education of some 67 seminarians connected with the Confessing Church. Amidst these tumultuous years, when Confessing seminaries such as Finkenwalde (see DBWE Vol. 14) were forced into closure, students continued their training through parish-based apprenticeships. Within this adaptive counter-initiative, Bonhoeffer issued a series of circular letters to the dispersed seminarians. Along the way, he also led periodic, brief training sessions at two centers in the Pomeranian countryside. The sources filling DBWE Vol. 15 hail from this somber season. The collection is replete with letters, lectures, sermons, and meditations. While most of Bonhoeffer’s writings from this era have perished, what survived is both engaging and spiritually nourishing.

The publication is divided into three parts. Section I is a collection of personal and public letters (to and from Bonhoeffer), as well as journal entries. Section II contains lectures and essays Bonhoeffer produced for his scattered seminarians in these years. The final section encompasses eight sermons, together with a modest compilation of scriptural meditations.

As is known, DBWE 15 is a translation of the prior German publication. It does, however, contain a few additions, namely documents that were discovered after the release of the German edition. The supplement includes five letters, one diary entry, and some student notes for a lecture on pastoral counselling.

One cannot appreciate the content of Vol. 15 without some recognition of its historical setting. This is outlined in the Introduction and can also be gleaned from references—often oblique!—in Bonhoeffer’s letters. In this arena, several observations are worth highlighting. During these years, the Confessing Church was imperilled in two key ways. First, its seminaries were deemed illegal by the NAZIS. Second, it became embroiled in a controversy about the swearing of a “loyalty oath” to Hitler (1938). This was a temptation which Bonhoeffer vigorously resisted and publicly opposed. Further to these ecclesial altercations, Vol. 15 also incorporates Bonhoeffer’s second, shorter stint in America (1939). This visit resulted from efforts to protect his well being but was ultimately cut short as Bonhoeffer’s conscience compelled his return to Germany. Owing to this brief sojourn, Vol. 15 contains an intriguing selection of personal appraisals of the church in America.

In what follows, I will selectively wade through the three sections of Vol. 15. In this task, I will attend to topics and remarks that were of particular interest. Along the way, I will also comment upon themes which typify Bonhoeffer’s ministry and theology during these period.


The first letter sets the stage for the rest, send from the Gestapo to the Reich Church Ministry. The memo reports that the preacher’s seminary at Finkenwalde, under the leadership of Bonhoeffer, has been closed. It goes on to state that all such seminaries—those “under the direction of the confessional front and guided by its spirit” should be shut down. The action and intent of this letter is the precondition for everything which follows in Vol. 15. The state of affairs depicted in Letter I is further illumined in the missive which follows. This is the first of Bonhoeffer’s circular letters—nine in total included—written to the disbanded seminarians of Finkenwalde. In this letter, one learns that 27 members of the group have spent time in prison. Bonhoeffer speaks of a “time of testing for us all” and implores his students not to allow their physical separation to result in their isolation from one another. Out of this exhortation, a major theme of Bonhoeffer’s correspondence to the seminarians surfaces: a summons to pursue and maintain fellowship with one another in any and every way possible.

Interspersed within the circular letters to the “Finkenwalde Brothers” one encounters an expansive array of personal correspondence. These letters are to and from family members, individual students, theological boards, friends (including Eberhart Bethge, George Bell, and Reinhold Niebuhr), and even a complaint to the Gestapo.

Among others, Bonhoeffer’s circular letter of November 20, 1938 captured my attention. It is a reflection on the New Testament concept of “patient endurance.” In this rumination, Bonhoeffer envisions the present circumstances as an occasion for the Christian learn the meaning of patient endurance. Patient endurance is ever at war with impatience, which can stealthily portray itself as obedience, all the while diverting God’s people to unfaithfulness. Where impatience reigns, humans are prone to conclude—especially in the midst of tempest—that God is no longer with them. This is a temptation to be eschewed. To this end, Bonhoeffer asserts that the call of the Confessing Church comprises “nothing new” but instead to simply “stand the test in the old.” This equates to the profound, and sometimes painful, recognition that “God’s cause is not always the cause of success and that we could really be ‘unsuccessful’ even following the right path.” All of this, says Bonhoeffer, is requisite for genuine faith: “faith must be proven.”  On this point, Bonhoeffer enjoins that within the NT concept of ‘faith’ (PISTIS) is the “moment of loyalty.” There is, therefore, an intimate connection between Christian faith and the virtue of patient endurance.

Amongst Bonhoeffer’s personal letters, one set of correspondence—with seminarian Herbert Liedtke—is especially striking and informative. Liedtke’s post of January 7, 1939 reveals the existential angst endured by some of Bonhoeffer’s students during these forlorn days. Liedtke speaks of a great struggle with gratitude. He writes of “paralyzing fear” that causes his entire body to tremble. Within such panic attacks, he questions why God would test his faith in such overwhelming ways. Liedtke’s raw remarks conclude by acknowledging his utter frailty in the face of unspeakable evil. He stands as a smouldering wick, unable to “hold out much longer if the power of Christ’s resurrection” does not rescue him. This missive highlights a seminal feature of Vol. 15, namely its illumination of the interior burdens and fears carried by the students under Bonhoeffer’s care. In all of this, one quickly recognizes that Bonhoeffer’s role extended far beyond theological tutor.  More than this, his responsibilities encompassed the care and strengthening of souls. From the perspective of this reviewer, Bonhoeffer’s words of encouragement and exhortation in these situations have hardly reached their shelf life. In this arena, his legacy is of profit to the contemporary pastor.

Beyond the letters that populate Section I, I would be remiss to overlook a cluster of journal entries from Bonhoeffer’s 1939 trip to America. This sojourn transpired at Union Theological Seminary and represented an effort to spare Bonhoeffer from the evils of NAZISM. The visit was cut short—lasting but a month!—by Bonhoeffer’s determination to be in ‘geographical solidarity’ with his seminarians back in Germany. Notwithstanding the brevity of the trip, Bonhoeffer’s journal is replete with astute, and sometimes disquieting, observations. On one high-profile New York City church, he has this to say: “Worship at Riverside…simply unbearable.” Continuing in this censure, Bonhoeffer writes: “the whole thing was a discreet, opulent, self-satisfied celebration of religion…with such [an] idolization of religion, the flesh, which [is] accustomed to being held in check by the word of God, revives.” Critiques of this sort permeate Bonhoeffer’s journal entries. One finds pointed and pithy turns of phrase for the spiritual problems detected in many of the churches he visited. The diaries conclude with an analytical index of some of America’s foremost theologians of the time. Bonhoeffer’s private, concise evaluations of Willard Sperry, Henry Wiemann, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others are well worth canvassing.


Section II is composed of teaching materials Bonhoeffer developed for the Confessing seminarians. Lectures and essays treat pastoral counselling, temptation, and even Protestantism in America. Additionally, one encounters an inventory of notable theological concepts from the New Testament (e.g., sin, patience, probation, abstinence, gratitude, etc).

Bonhoeffer’s remarks on pastoral counselling have much to offer. The goal of such counselling, he says, is for Christ’s word to come through in the life of a person. In this exposition, Bonhoeffer insists that pastors are not merely preachers but also shepherds. Such shepherding demands proclaiming Christ not just from the pulpit but also into the “sorrow, fear, and sickness” of human lives. This task is framed by the notion of diakonia — the pastor is to serve the flock by leading them back to God’s word time and again. Within this reflection, Bonhoeffer also proffers a thoughtful explanation on the need for pastoral care, the function of Law and Gospel in the same, and the ongoing work of exorcism.

In contrast with Bonhoeffer’s teaching on pastoral care, his index of major New Testament concepts is somewhat dry and tedious. This exercise has a formulaic feel and is heavily constituted by biblical references. Moreover, while one does bump into interesting musings on occasion, the theologizing in this endeavour has a comparatively nascent, under-developed tenor. The material here is flour and sugar more than pudding.

To the reader’s benefit, towards the end of Section II one meets a provocative treatise on Protestantism in America. These remarks, from August of 1939, are the metabolized product of Bonhoeffer’s journalized observations from New York. In this essay, Bonhoeffer unpacks his theory of “Protestantism without Reformation” as a descriptive for American Christianity. Anyone who wants to map the Christian inheritance of the United States would be well-served by this perceptive piece. On a personal level, I found Bonhoeffer’s laudatory discussion of the so-called “Negro Church”, as well as his commentary on theology in America (or lack thereof!), especially gainful and gratifying.


Vol. 15 draws to a close with a collection of sermons and meditations from the years in focus. These documents span some 100 pages and are a veritable treasure trove for the contemporary preacher. Bonhoeffer’s homilies on select New Testament passages (Mark, Matthew, Romans, Corinthians) exhibit both an attentiveness to the text as well as theological rigour. He does not sideline difficult questions that surface along the way. His remarks on the slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2) are case and point. Bonhoeffer’s preaching in this period also takes up the Old Testament. In this task, he handles God’s revelation to Israel in a decidedly Christian (i.e., canonically-attuned) manner. One can see the influence of Barth on the hermeneutical posture of this homiletic enterprise. Standing tall among Bonhoeffer’s Old Testament homilies is a sustained meditation on Psalm 119. This will be a resource that I readily consult in my own handling of Psalm 119 on future occasions. Also situated in Section III are a series of reflections—penned for the seminarians—on various high days in the Christian year. These include Christmas, Epiphany, and Pentecost. As an added bonus, a sermon on the Lord’s Supper is also included. As with some of Bonhoeffer’s pastoral letters in Section I, these homilies remain more than serviceable for contemporary preaching.

In Summation

DBWE Vol. 15 will go down as one of the best books I read in 2016. This valuation pertains not merely to the pleasure of reading it but also to the on-going benefit it offers. Already, on more than five occasions, I have consulted Bonhoeffer’s handiwork as a guide for my own pastoral and preaching efforts. This volume is eminently apropos for preachers, not only in the form of the sermonizing it models but also for its scintillating conveyance of theological truths. Further to these merits, Vol. 15 would be an apt resource for those training future pastors. Bonhoeffer’s teaching materials—his various reflections on parish ministry and pastoral care—surpass many contemporary resources I’ve encountered on the same topics. Indeed, in reflecting on my own seminary experience, I wish that some of Bonhoeffer’s ruminations might have been incorporated into the syllabus. This is a field wherein his contributions have perhaps been under-acknowledged.

While Vol. 15 has much to offer it is not without its shortcomings. In this case, the foremost shortcoming perhaps owes to an “occupational hazard” of assembling and printing all the letters and works of any given individual. Such an undertaking inevitably results in the publication of materials that might not otherwise be worthy of publication. To some extent, this is true of Theological Education Underground. Because the project aims to be all-enveloping, editorial selectivity is withheld. The result is that readers must, from time to time, sludge through documents that might have otherwise been omitted. This judgment in no way intends to diminish Bonhoeffer’s legacy. The man’s theological reputation is rightly deserved, even apart from the sacrifice that afforded him heightened acclaim. At the same time, Bonhoeffer is a man like all others. His thought has strong and weak points. Not every egg is golden. If Bonhoeffer’s writings from 1937-1940 were to enjoy wider contemporary influence, an editing of the anthology would certainly be requisite. In this suggestion, I am motivated solely by a desire to see this facet of Bonhoeffer’s legacy not only appreciated but also applied for the benefit of today’s church.

Rev. Roger Revell, Th.M

St. Peter’s Fireside (Anglican) Church

Vancouver, BC

Topics: Sources and Texts
Roger RevellRoger Revell




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