Daring, Trusting Spirit: Bonhoeffer’s Friend Eberhard Bethge
John de Gruchy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 215 pages plus index
It is well known that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the twentieth century’s most well known and beloved theologians. It is also well known that without his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer would have most likely remained an obscure footnote in theology. Bethge is well known to Bonhoeffer interpreters for his many essays and his exhaustive biography of Bonhoeffer. John de Gruchy, formerly professor of Christian Studies at the University of Cape Town has done Bonhoeffer fans a great service in tendering this biography of Bethge.
Bethge’s life before Bonhoeffer is touched on in a brief introductory chapter and from then the rest of the book runs full steam ahead beginning with Bethge’s acquaintance with Bonhoeffer during the Finkenwalde years (1935-37), interestingly enough through their shared love of music. The first half of the book will offer no new insights into Bonhoeffer, for those who have trodden this well worn path and de Gruchy admirably and succinctly contexts the relationship of Bethge and Bonhoeffer during the time of the German Church Conflict and the second world war.
The second half of the book is the key to this work: how Bethge began to pursue bringing Bonhoeffer’s legacy to the world. De Gruchy chronicles Bethge’s work in the post war reconstruction efforts as Bethge would travel to England and later join the Unterwegs movement seeking to help rebuild the church in Germany. It was in the Unterwegs journal that Bonhoeffer’s posthumous Ethics and letters and papers from prison were first excerpted. Of unusual interest to me was Bethge’s role in the trial(s) of Walter Huppenkothen, Bonhoeffer’s ‘executioner (he was tried three times and never convicted, Bonhoeffer’s death was ruled legal under Nazi law).
The ‘non-event’ of the first publication of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in 1949 and the subsequent publication of some of the Letters and Papers from Prison in 1951 turned the tide. The Bonhoeffer of Discipleship and Life Together now became the radical theologian and numerous interpretations of the Bonhoeffer legacy began. De Gruchy explores the crucial task that fell to Bethge to make sense of this man who seemed to have so many sides. The years 1950-1990 saw Bethge traveling the world and completing his biography of Bonhoeffer (1967). Finally Bethge’s indispensable role to Bonhoeffer scholars and his work in the International Bonhoeffer Society are highlighted.
This book belongs on the shelf of works by and about Bonhoeffer, one can justly say that without Eberhard Bethge there might be no Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and de Gruchy is to be thanked for his marvelous portrait of a friendship that lasts beyond death.