Review of Kirsten Busch Nielsen, Ralf K. Wüstenberg, and Jens Zimmermann, eds., Dem Rad in die Speichen fallen. Das Politische in der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. A Spoke in the Wheel: The Political in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 4 (December 2015)

Review of Kirsten Busch Nielsen, Ralf K. Wüstenberg, and Jens Zimmermann, eds., Dem Rad in die Speichen fallen. Das Politische in der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. A Spoke in the Wheel: The Political in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Guetersloher Verlagshaus, 2014), 464 pages. ISBN: 9783579081687.

By Matthew D. Hockenos, Skidmore College

A Spoke in the Wheel: The Political in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a collection of thirty essays first presented as plenary lectures and papers at the XI International Bonhoeffer Congress held in Sigtuna, Sweden in June 2012. The collection is structured in three parts under the headings: Political Resistance; Christian Anthropology and the Political; and Church and Civil Society. The first part, which is most relevant to church historians, contains essays that contextualize Bonhoeffer’s political resistance to Nazism historically and theologically. The second part contains an assortment of theological essays that examine Bonhoeffer’s theology through a variety of interpretive lenses, including his understanding of prayer, grace, guilt, discipleship, redemption, reconciliation, divine mandates, and his critique of religion, among other things. The essays in the third part return to more concrete matters by examining Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the relationship between the church, civil society, and the state in the 1930s and 40s, but also in particular postwar contexts, such as South Africa and Brazil. The overall quality of the essays is exceptional and the collection should be seen as a showcase for recent research in Bonhoeffer studies.

Dem Rad in die Speichen fallen A Spoke in the Wheel vonSome of the highlights of the collection include the lead essay by Wolfgang Huber in which he provides a theological profile of Bonhoeffer’s political resistance, particularly his involvement in Hans von Dohnanyi’s conspiracy in the Abwehr. Despite the limitations placed on what Bonhoeffer could put into writing during the Third Reich, Huber believes a “theology of resistance” can be teased out of Bonhoeffer’s writing during this time. His call for the Church to take a public stand in solidarity with the Jews against the repressive state; his formulation of a confession of guilt in the name of the church; his theory of a responsible life; and his trust in God’s guidance—all indicate the rudiments of a theology of resistance, Huber believes.

Josef Außermair suggests that in addition to the texts identified by Huber that more attention needs to be paid to Bonhoeffer’s teaching at Finkenwalde to understand his political resistance. Bonhoeffer’s emphasis in his teaching on witnessing to Christ in the world, Außermair argues, was his way to prepare his students to participate in the Church Struggle and to confront the political challenges of the day. Sven-Erik Brodd and Björn Ryman both maintain that Bonhoeffer’s trips to Sweden in 1936 and 1942 played a significant role in the development of his political resistance, especially through his contact with British and Swedish members of the ecumenical movement. And Gerhard den Hertog examines how the success of Hitler’s 1940 military campaigns influenced Bonhoeffer’s reflections in Ethics and his decision to participate in the conspiracy.

Andreas Pangritz, in his examination of Bonhoeffer’s April 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” makes several provocative and perceptive points. First, he points out that in an earlier draft of the essay Bonoeffer had inserted the sub-heading “Ahasuerus peregrinus” or wandering Jew above the section with the offensive anti-Judaic passages that have gotten so much attention. Pangritz concludes that the sub-heading “represents authentically the main focus Bonhoeffer wanted to give to this part of the final edition [of his essay].” Second, he argues that Bonhoeffer’s association of “modern Jewish Christianity” with the alleged Jewish emphasis on a religion of law leads Bonhoeffer to refer to the Nazi-backed German Christians—and their desire to implement racial laws in the church—as guilty of Jewish Christianity. Third, he believes that Bonhoeffer’s famous phrase—best translated as “to fall within the spokes of the wheel,”—comes from the 18th-century writer Friedrich Schiller and was meant by Bonhoeffer to convey an act of “counter-revolutionary resistance” against the Nazi revolution. Pangritz maintains that Bonhoeffer’s political resistance “is aimed at defending the old order against its revolutionary transformation.” Pangritz concludes, that Bonhoeffer’s theological anti-Judaism “provides an ambiguous source for political solidarity with the Jews,” although Bonhoeffer’s rethinking of the Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms, enables him to call for direct political against the state by the church on behalf of the Jews.

Keith Clements essay focuses on Bonhoeffer and the Bruay Conference of September 1934. Clements maintains that the Bruay report, authored by Bonhoeffer and few other Germans and British representatives from the ecumenical youth movement, should be seen as more than a simple affirmation of the Fanø conference report from the previous month. Although both Fanø and Bruay call on Christians to study the social and political questions of the day and to take action “based upon the responsibility of the church members for the social order according to the Will of God,” the Bruay report offers some eminently practical—read British—steps that can be taken by church members to “reproduce the Christian life to-day.” Thus Clements believes that Bruay created “a contextual ethic of responsibility,” which foreshadows the 1937 Oxford Conference on “Church, Community, and State” and the World Council of Churches.

Wolf Krötke and Victoria Barnett both take up the question of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the relationship between church and state and its implications for civil society. Krötke argues that although Poles and East Germans struggling for a more democratic society in the 1970s and 1980s appropriated aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology, his notion of the state as a divinely sanctioned order of preservation has little to offer proponents of democracy. Unlike his more conservative colleagues, Bonhoeffer saw a crucial role for the church in limiting the state’s totalitarian ambitions in Nazi Germany. His understanding of the church-state relations may have provided Bonhoeffer with the foundation for his resistance to Nazism, but the more widely accepted Lutheran understanding of the relationship between the two kingdoms also provided many of his Lutheran colleagues with a theological defense of the Nazi state and after 1945, the GDR state. Krötke concludes that democracy activists would be better off embracing Bonhoeffer’s concept of “genuine worldliness” rather than his views on the state.

Barnett understands Bonhoeffer’s views on the state similarly to Krötke but focuses her essay on Bonhoeffer’s reaction—politically and theologically—to the Nazi state’s dual suppression of the church and civil society. Especially during his time at Finkenwalde and after, Bonhoeffer reflected on the nature of the church under National Socialism—not only on the church’s role in limiting the state’s totalitarian ambitions—but also the role of the church and individual Christians in fostering a functioning civil society. After the war began and Bonhoeffer joined the Resistance he increasingly reflected on what would come after the defeat of National Socialism and what role the church would play in these changes. The church, he maintained, could no longer concern itself only with its own self-preservation—it had to become a church that demonstrated its concern for “justice among human beings.” “All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing,” Bonhoeffer wrote in 1944, “must be born anew out of prayer and action.” Barnett suggests that Bonhoeffer’s nearly twenty years of wrestling with how to understand the nature of the church and its relationship with the state and civil society culminated in some of his most provocative theological concepts such as the “world come of age” and “religionless Christianity.”

This is just a sampling of the excellent essays contained in A Spoke in the Wheel, all of which deserve a careful reading. The collection brings together for the first time a wide variety of scholarly contributions to the debate over the relationship between Bonhoeffer’s theology and his role in the Resistance.