Seminary Ramblings

Updates from life at seminary

Life Together

Here is a brief book review that I just wrote for a class. Life Together, while short, is not necessarily the easiest reading (especially if you’re not used to Bonhoeffer’s very Lutheran style), but is very rewarding.

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: A Brief Review

         Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together has long been justly regarded as a classic work on Christian community. Written in 1938 while leading an underground seminary of the Confessing Church in Germany, the work documents his insights, both practical and biblical, which were found from living in this community. For Bonhoeffer, living in Christian community was not something to be expected or taken for granted, but rather was an immense privilege. “It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”[1] It is from this realization of the privilege of Christian community that flows what can perhaps be labeled the thesis of the work. In his words, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”[2]

Life Together is essentially a practical exposition on this this theme, taking the reader through it’s implications in communal life, in solitude, in ministry, and in confession and the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Throughout Bonhoeffer maintains a strict realism, always aware of the dangers to true community that lie in our own sin and frailty. Community is something to be first realized, and then humbly accepted and nourished, for “he who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.”[3]

This realism concerning the idea of the divine reality of community is the book’s great strength. In an age caught up in a morass of individualistic subjectivity and sentimentalism, the thrust of Life Together stands in stark relief, calling us again to hear and accept God’s Word and his created community, rather than first to set up ourselves as lawgiver and judge over God and over our brethren.[4] Furthermore, Bonhoeffer is immensely practical throughout, and touches, often pointedly, on how Christians and communities can most aptly worship God through acts such as praying the Psalms, reading the Scriptures, singing, bearing one another’s burdens, and partaking of the Lord’s supper.

The strong realism, while the books greatest strength, is however also perhaps it’s greatest weakness. At times the reader may be left wondering whether there is any room for subjectivity or subjective experience. For instance, we are guilty even when we do not feel guilty, and righteous, even when we do not feel righteous because of the pronouncement of God’s Word upon us.[5] While absolutely correct, in the terseness of the book Bonhoeffer makes strong statements, but does not spend any time explaining for the confused reader what, if anything, is the proper context for subjective emotions. However, one here risks making a mine out of a molehill, and this critique should really only be seen as a minor one.

To end where we began, Life Together deserves the praise it receives. Reading it is convicting, humbling, and enlightening. The work maintains the realities of the gospel front and center and places the wisdom of God above our own human wisdom in the creation of Christian fellowship. In closing, God does not give to us Christian brethren “for [us] to dominate and control, but in order that [we] might find above [them] the Creator.”[6]


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 1St Edition ed. (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1978), 20.
[2]
Ibid., 30. Cf. 26, 37, 39.
[3]
Ibid., 27.
[4]
Note the strong insistence on us as only having community in our commonality as sinners (106, 110).
[5]
Ibid., 22.
[6]
Ibid., 93.

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