Conference Report: Bonhoeffer for the Coming Generations: A Conference Celebrating Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition and the 15th Annual Bonhoeffer Lectures in Public Ethics

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2011

Conference Report: “Bonhoeffer for the Coming Generations: A Conference Celebrating Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition and the 15th Annual Bonhoeffer Lectures in Public Ethics,” Union Theological Seminary, New York, November 13-15, 2011.

By Victoria J. Barnett, General Editor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition

This conference was an unusual symbiosis of two longstanding cooperative international projects: the biennial Bonhoeffer Lectures in Public Ethics and the English publication of the 16-volume Bonhoeffer Works. With the imminent conclusion of the Bonhoeffer Works series (two volumes have yet to appear: volume 11 will be published next spring; volume 14 will appear in early 2013) the combination of these two events was a logical move. The conference in New York provided a retrospective of Bonhoeffer’s influence in the theological world in recent decades as well as a look at the promising future of Bonhoeffer scholarship.

The opening Bonhoeffer Lecture in Public Ethics was held by Sam Wells, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, and set the tone for the predominantly theological reflections of the first day, which explored Bonhoeffer’s international interpretation by theologians and church activists as well as some new directions in the scholarship. Bishop Emeritus Wolfgang Huber of Germany, a Bonhoeffer scholar in his own right and the chair of the editorial board of the German Bonhoeffer Werke, offered an analysis of Bonhoeffer’s legacy after 1945 in the Federal and German Democratic Republics as well as in unified Germany after 1990. An international panel of Bonhoeffer scholars from South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil and Japan explored the different issues that have influenced the interpretation of the Bonhoeffer legacy in those countries. The afternoon presentations included a panel on “new research related to Bonhoeffer and public life,” with panelists exploring the influences of Harlem Renaissance literature and theology on Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought and activism (these were strong influences on Bonhoeffer during his fellowship year at Union from 1930-31), the theological continuities between Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship and his later Ethics manuscripts, and the development and consequences of Bonhoeffer’s concept of the “church for others.” The day concluded with an analysis of the extent to which Bonhoeffer’s Christology, which is such a central motif throughout this theological writings, can be understood in today’s pluralistic societies.

The second day was devoted to celebrating the publication of the Bonhoeffer Works English Edition, and speakers continued to explore his historical and theological context. Some background about the content and publication history of this series is in order. (Full disclosure: I have served since 2004 as general editor of the new English Edition, having edited volumes 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16. I also worked as associate general editor on volume 6 [Ethics] and served both as volume editor and one of the translators on the recently published volume 15. Wayne Floyd, who resigned as general editor in 2004, edited volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9; the third general editor, Barbara Wojhoski, is a professional copyeditor who joined the project in 2004 and has overseen the copyediting and production phases since then. This arrangement means that I’ve overseen the work on the more historical volumes, although even these volumes contain a great deal of theological material.)

The German Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke consists of 16 annotated volumes (plus a 17th index volume). The first eight volumes are his theological writings (Creation and FallDiscipleship, etc.) plus one volume of his fiction; the last eight volumes are arranged chronologically and contain his correspondence and some correspondence by others, university lectures, bible studies, sermons and various other documents from his life between 1918 and 1945. Much of the material in these last eight volumes has either never been translated into English or has appeared only in abridged form.

In 1990 the English Language Section of the International Bonhoeffer Society signed an agreement with the German Bonhoeffer Society and Augsburg Fortress Press for the translation and publication of the German volumes. The translations have been undertaken by a team of translators—some of them native German speakers, some of them Bonhoeffer experts, and some of them professional translators. Each volume was assigned to an individual editor who worked with the translator(s) for that volume and upon completion sent it along to the series general editor for review before publication. As part of the agreement with the German Bonhoeffer Society, the German editors of the respective volumes reviewed and commented on the translation.

Hence, the approaching conclusion of Bonhoeffer Works English Edition marks over 20 years of collaborative work by an international team. If the discussions at the New York conference are any indication, this body of work will open new avenues for research about both his theological and his historical legacy. Bonhoeffer interpretation to date has generally fallen into one of these two categories, with relatively few works that masterfully combine the two narratives (the Bethge biography, I think, is one such success).

Bonhoeffer himself was one of the most brilliant and provocative theologians of his generation. He cannot be understood without an understanding of his theological training, the influence of thinkers like Karl Barth, and the larger theological conversations—notably in the context of the Church Struggle and the international ecumenical movement—in which he was a key participant. At the same time, the historical locus of his life and work in Nazi Germany and at the heart of the German Church Struggle—and naturally his role in the German resistance and his execution by the Nazi regime—means that he has always been a figure of great interest to historians.

These very different aspects of his life and thought make him an unusually complex figure, and this is a challenge both to the theologians and the historians. Hence many of us found it particularly important at this conference that participants could hear from both disciplines and I believe that the second day, devoted to the series, successfully highlighted many of the important theological and historical issues. I introduced the day with some remarks about the series, its potential contribution to the field, and the research areas that still remain. This was followed by a panel of seven of the translators who have worked on the series, discussing the particular translation issues that arose in trying to convey the history, the theology, and the person of Bonhoeffer. A paper by the German project liaison Hans Pfeifer explored “the impact of translation on cultural elements in theology,” giving the German perspective on these challenges. An afternoon panel featuring Union Seminary professor Gary Dorrien and several editors of this newsletter (Doris Bergen, Andrew Chandler, Robert Ericksen, and Matthew Hockenos) discussed Bonhoeffer’s place on the historical landscape. The day concluded with a summary of Bonhoeffer’s theological contributions—with some significant new insights for further research—by Clifford Green, executive director of the Bonhoeffer Works English Edition and Michael DeJonge, author of a forthcoming book on the theological interaction between Bonhoeffer and Barth.

The conference—particularly the contributions by younger scholars—illustrated that there is still much to do, both in understanding the development of Bonhoeffer’s theology and in situating him in the history of his era and his church. The new English edition of the Bonhoeffer Works offers the big picture as well as all the minute details. The theological works in the first eight volumes and the theological/historical final eight volumes inform each other, because they will enable future scholars to trace the emergence of Bonhoeffer’s theology, follow its development throughout his life, and better understand the impact of the times in which he lived and wrote.