A Feature Review of
Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land without Reformation
Reviewed by Aaron Klink
Twelve Important Theology Books of 2021!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s compelling biography and his provocative, but fragmentary theology, continue attracting scholarly interest. How to apply Bonhoeffer’s theology to contemporary church life remains the subject of much debate. Because few German theologians resisted Nazi ideology, determining the theological sources of Bonhoeffer’s resistance have garnered continued exploration. Among those explorations are book by Michael DeJonge explored Bonhoeffer’s theological formation in Berlin, as well as his reception of Luther. Reggie Williams’s brilliantly examined how African American theological thought Bonhoeffer was exposed to while attending Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem shaped this thought. To this collection Joel Looper adds Bonhoeffer’s America, a measured, careful exploration of Bonhoeffer’s engagement with the American Social Gospel.
Bonhoeffer held several church and academic posts after earning his PhD at the University of Berlin, including studies at Union Seminary in New York in 1930-31. Bonhoeffer returned to Union in 1939, cutting short his visit to return to Germany, which he felt was necessary in order to have a voice in rebuilding postwar German church life. He became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, for which he was arrested and imprisoned and was executed shortly before the end of the war.
For Looper, Bonhoeffer’s critique of American Protestant theology was directed at white Protestant theology, not simply all theology. While he was attending Union, Bonhoeffer attended Abyssinian Baptist Church, and found the Gospel in its fullness preached there. The book also notes that the critique of American theology Bonhoeffer launched was done from the perspective of someone deeply involved in German church life and the German theological academy, without realizing just how different the situation of American theologians and the American church really was.
During Bonhoeffer’s studies in Berlin theologian Karl Holl and others were reinvigorating contemporary theology by returning to traditional Lutheran categories and concepts a movement now known as the “Luther Renaissance”. The American social gospel was not tethered to traditional Protestant categories. The social gospel movement Luther found in America, was not tethered to traditional reformation categories, leading him to think that the American church was untethered from Reformation insights. Hence, Bonhoeffer came to think that theology in the United States was simply not rooted in the traditional theological categories that had shaped European theology since the Reformation.
Looper chronicles Bonhoeffer’s belief that American Protestantism lacked strong ties to the Reformation traditions that anchored German theology. Studying at Union led Bonhoeffer to believe that American Christianity had its roots in English Lollards, who held individuals were capable of determining the right meaning of Scripture as individuals based on the work of the Holy Spirit. Bonhoeffer argues that this indivualized ethic, led American theologians to have a weaker doctrine of the Church and pay less attention to ecclesial life.
However, while Bonhoeffer was critical of American theology while he was at Union, the book argues that his later writings soften in this assessment and show a greater appreciation for the insights American theologians brought. But Looper argues that Bonhoeffer found the preaching against racial injustice at Abyssinian Baptist, because it was rooted in the reality of Christ, rather than in an abstract human ideal, to be the template on which he probably based his resistance to German persecution of the Jews. But even more, and perhaps more controversially, Looper claims that some of what Bonhoeffer expresses in his final writings from Tegel Prison expresses more affinity with the theology he found at Union. Humanity would have to discern how to act in a Christian way amid difficult and dangerous times.
Looper’s research and analysis of American theology during Bonhoeffer’s stay at Union, and Bonhoeffer’s response to that theology fills a lacune in studies of Bonhoeffer’s theological development. In doing so, he provides an important contribution in the scholarly quest to understand the theological sources of Bonhoeffer’s resistance. This scholarly, specialized book contains immense insight on a narrow, but important period in Bonhoeffer’s theological development, and its later impact on his thought. Bonhoeffer’s America is probably too specialized for most general readers, but Bonhoeffer scholars will find it of great interest given that it fills an important lacune in explorations of Bonhoeffer’s theological development.
Aaron Klink is Chaplain and Bereavement Coordintor at Pruitt Health Hospice in Durham, North Carolina. As a writer and speaker his work focuses on how churches can faithfully minister to the ill and suffering and on Lutheran theology. An ordained pastor in the Church of the Brethren he received his M.Div. from Yale and a Th.M. from Duke Divinity School where he was the Westbrook Fellow in the Program in Theology and Medicine.