Category Archives: Theological Education

Searching for Bonhoeffer’s Voice Today

Dietrich Bonhoeffer presents readers today with a problem. It is a problem of true exegesis of an author who has left the world with a complex and incomplete library of literary works. While this problem is one that tends to arise in the generations that follow a particularly influential individual, the willingness to engage a writer without the bias of the reader influencing the author’s legacy is noticeable in both academia and in casual reading of Bonhoeffer. Too often the bias of the reader projects a Bonhoeffer who only partially depicts the true theologian and preacher. Appealing to specific books or sentences, one finds a Bonhoeffer who never rises above apparently contradictory statements rather than noting the circumstances under which statements were made or the truth behind particular phrases that have an entirely different meaning today. This has led to Bonhoeffer being a champion for opposing sides in debates ranging from abortion to orthodoxy, from doing away with religion in the name of Christianity to flat out atheistic claims of God’s demise, and from sanctioning violence and torture to staunch, unwavering pacifism. Bonhoeffer has been described as a right-wing Evangelical Christian in a U.S. North American context, a Lutheran theologian with a more liberal bend, and a closeted homosexual.

Who is to say who is the real, true, authentic Bonhoeffer? How do the different representations of Bonhoeffer shape current interpretations and theological studies? Should we today try to explain away the supposed contradictions that appear over the scope of Bonhoeffer’s writing? Or might we allow for Bonhoeffer to speak to us himself, even revealing to us something about ourselves—perhaps our own bias—especially when we might wish for another Bonhoeffer than the one who appears on the page? Can Bonhoeffer be rescued, not from himself, but from those who seek to revise Bonhoeffer in order that he better appeal to his followers and his critics?

What is needed is a true de dicto interpretation of Bonhoeffer. By this, I mean encouraging individuals who are willing to put diligent study into every facet of Bonhoeffer’s life and works. According to philosopher Robert Brandon, one must study the author and what he said so thoroughly so as to understand how his thoughts develop over a lifetime, the rhetorical strategies he employed, as well as how the author’s works fit into the entire body of study—not to mention his attitudes and experiences. All of this so that, “one can answer questions on his behalf in something like his own voice.” From the growing influence of Bonhoeffer on theological scholarship, it is clear that there is a desire to answer some of the questions of today in something like Bonhoeffer’s own voice.

It appears a primary source for most students of Bonhoeffer is one of the growing number of biographies. Each, complete with strengths and weaknesses, offer readers a depiction of Bonhoeffer in order to better read and interpret his theological works. In a posting earlier this year on this blog, I discussed the importance Bonhoeffer’s life plays in our understanding of his writing. In that post entitled “The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” I mentioned the specific importance his life has in our understanding Ethics, but this is true for the entire cannon of his works. Today we have a privilege many before us did not have thanks to the completed volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works both in German and in English. In addition to reading the published works of Bonhoeffer, readers now have insights into his life via correspondence, unpublished lectures, and notes from his students.

In addition, those who engage Bonhoeffer should be encouraged to read most, if not all, of what he wrote, as well as who he read in order to better understand what lay behind his words. This means reading Heidegger in order to grasp his concept of “Dasein,” studying Søren Kierkegaard, and the theological teachings of Reinhold Seeberg, Karl Barth, Augustine, and of course, Martin Luther among many others. No less influential than these partners in theological dialogue were Bonhoeffer’s family and friends. By reading notes and correspondence once unknown one discovers the significance of those who surrounded Bonhoeffer. And while much focus has been on the men who influenced young Bonhoeffer, there is no discounting the significant effect the Bonhoeffer women had in his life. In addition, many newly shared and translated notes in the Bonhoeffer Works disclose the true depth of relationships once thought to be passing acquaintances.  

To further understand the setting surrounding Bonhoeffer, it is important to read materials that capture the time in which he lived, but also that which influenced his earlier years. Thus, while understanding the events of the 1930’s and 40’s of Germany is integral, no less so is an understanding of the ecumenical religious climate of the early 20th century. One should no doubt also study the events surrounding World War I and the toll the war took on the psyche of the German citizen and the impact the events had on the faith of the nation. Expanding our understanding beyond the borders of Germany to London, Spain, the United States, as well as globally can only give greater insight into the formation of such a profound thinker.

More than anything, such an undertaking requires diligent study of Scripture. In order to truly grasp what Bonhoeffer says in his writing, we today must be no less a student of the Bible than was Bonhoeffer himself. When reading Bonhoeffer in one hand—or those who write about Bonhoeffer—the Bible should be read in the other. Bonhoeffer’s love of Scripture pours from the pages of his works, inviting his readers to love Scripture as well.

We are now three generations removed from Bonhoeffer’s life, and most of his contemporaries have passed on. In addition, those who learned from Bonhoeffer’s peers in theology and ministry are passing the torch to what Victoria Barnett describes in a lecture given at the University of Virginia as an emerging generation of scholars in this, “a new era of Bonhoeffer interpretation.” Can this new generation of scholars overcome the degrees of separation and achieve the sort of de dicto interpretation necessary to ensure the true, authentic Bonhoeffer is not lost to revisionists thinking? Can readers today undertake such a massive project as to exegete Bonhoeffer in this way? Perhaps this is an audacious if not arrogant undertaking for a Presbyterian pastor in rural Colorado, but that is precisely what I hope to do.

While I do not wish to take away anything from the volumes that seek to share an author’s love of Bonhoeffer with the world, it is imperative, I feel, that the world receive nothing less than the true Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We who have learned from this man, who find something in his writing that appeals to our faith, who have been touched by his love for God owe him nothing less. Moreover, we owe the generations to follow an authentic, unbiased account of Bonhoeffer in order that they too might experience something similar to our own experiences. By no means should one lose focus on that which Bonhoeffer’s life was dedicated—the worship of God—nor must scholars simply seek to find Bonhoeffer’s answers to the questions of today. With clear understanding of Bonhoeffer, uninfluenced and unbiased by his readers, we are able to learn from him and stand upon the shoulders of this influential figure.

Bonhoeffer in Pittsburgh

Charles Marsh

Conference facilitator Charles Marsh

Yesterday’s Bonhoeffer conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary was a rich experience.  The conference, called “Bonhoeffer’s Journey to Reality,” consisted of a keynote speech by Charles Marsh, author of Strange Glory, a breakout session in which we discussed Bonhoeffer in the context of possibilities for transformation and community building, a dinner, a Jewish Shabbat service and an interfaith panel discussion.

The PTS staff did an admirable job organizing the conference, and I found it  just the right length to be engaging without becoming exhausting. I was also delighted with the mix of activities and the warmth of the atmosphere.

In his keynote address, Marsh focused on Bonhoeffer’s spiritual transformation during his Manhattan year, 1930-1931, a period when Bonhoeffer moved from what he called “the phraseological to the real.” Marsh located Bonhoeffer’s transformation in three “streams” he encountered in the United States:

  1. The theological social progressive stream he experienced at Union Theological Seminary, represented by the Reinhold Niebuhr.
  2. The American organizing tradition of social reform and community building.
  3. The Harlem faith community, centered around Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Bonhoeffer also developed a deeper understanding of the “church of the outcast,” Marsh said, while journeying to and from a Quaker world peace conference in Mexico City, during which he traversed the Deep South. When he returned to Berlin, his family and friends noted Bonhoeffer’s new spiritual zeal. Bonhoeffer himself now turned more frequently to the Sermon on the Mount. Much later, he would famously write about the Manhattan year as a point of genuine transformation in his life.

After listening to Marsh, who is an excellent speaker, the hundred or so of us at the conference broke into small groups to discuss Bonhoeffer’s social justice transformation and our own. The conversation in my group was rich, heartfelt and fruitful. We emphasized Bonhoeffer’s faith in the transformational power of small groups and one-on-one relationships.

The Shabbat service after dinner, led by Rabbi Doris (I don’t have her last name), was also a rich experience. With its emphasis on embodiment–the scent of spice leaves and the flame of braided candles with four wicks–it enacted Bonhoeffer’s “this-worldly” theology and offered a tribute to his belief in the importance of the Old Testament, a document roundly vilified by the Nazis.

The interfaith panel discussed avenues and methods for building communities that can help transform our world, with a focus on fighting institutional racism and xenophobia.

I enjoyed the conference very much, as well as  the chance to meet new people. But more than that, I came away highly encouraged. With so many individuals caring about issues of faith and social justice and  raising deep questions about how we can live more authentically into the Christ experience, I am hopeful that we can help create a juster, more Christ-centered future, a goal dear to Bonhoeffer’s heart.

I also came with the wish that more of these short conferences could be organized. This seems to me an especially important resource for maintaining Bonhoeffer’s legacy. He did not want to become a pillar saint (although he did), but he did hope to inspire community building and active engagement in the messy business of living in the “center of the village.”


Sigurdshof, Bonhoeffer, and Incarnational Education

This piece is posted on behalf of the author, Paul R. House, at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University.

During the harsh winter of 1939-40 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge, and eight candidates for ministry in the Confessing Church lived and studied together during the tenth and final session of Bonhoeffer’s seminary work. This was one of Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church’s shining moments. There was no prestige to be gained, no careers to be made from the venture. War had begun, and the future did not hold promising outcomes for these men or their church. All that remained was perseverance born of fidelity, faithfulness, fellowship, theology, and visible witness. These are hallmarks of good incarnational education, not the last vestiges of a noble lost cause.

Sigurdshof was the most isolated of Bonhoeffer’s seminary sites. Finkenwalde was a very small place, but at least it had a train stop. Gross-Schlonwitz was a village, but at least it had running water. Sigurdshof had neither. It was a house in the woods on a large estate owned by a seminary supporter. Though secluded the house was not secret, for Bethge notes that army induction officials knew where it was. Local officials at least waited until the term ended before shutting it down.


In this rural setting Bonhoeffer preached, led the students in studies of Psalm 119, wrote meditations on Christmas, Epiphany, and the Lord’s Supper, taught on marriage, wrote numerous letters, and continued life together practices with the students. Heavy snow kept him from traveling as much as he had during previous terms. His writing on Psalm 119 indicates a growing appreciation for creation and his dependence on and debt to it. Quiet suited him. Or at least it helped him grow deeper in permanent disciplines.

This quiet life with colleagues and students was every bit as much a visible witness of the body of Christ as what he did in Berlin, Finkenwalde, and Flossenburg. The Sigurdshof session presented an opportunity for unusual fidelity to Christ’s call to discipleship. It gave close fellowship, no doubt too close at times. Moreover, it gave men preparing to serve under harsh conditions the time to examine Psalm 119, a text absolutely compatible with their needs. It gave all of them the chance to keep doing the right thing when this seemed hopeless, pointless. In short, it offered an opportunity for this small band of Confessing Church pastors and their housekeeper, Erna Struwe, to take up the cross and follow Christ, to engage in discipleship.

In our “age of disincarnation” (Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2013[Monterey, KY: Larkspur Press, 2015], 29), those of us involved in seminary education might do well to consider this usually overlooked segment Bonhoeffer’s life. When educational experts ignore or deny the inextricable link between formation and human interaction we might do well to reflect on Christmas, Epiphany, and the Lord’s Supper. When numbers and donations are small we might consider a cheaper rural option and be willing to carry water. Where churches are tiny but honorable, we might prepare pastors at a high level for the elect. Where tyranny grows and martyrdom awaits we might take courage from Psalm 119 and stalwart people. In short, we might put incarnational principles into practice.

Sigurdshof grips my imagination because it was a real place inhabited by real people. What its inhabitants did there still testifies to seminary teachers and students of what is right and good and useful to do. It seemed small, and it was, though not too small for people whose minds were on Christ, who died among thieves and rose in the presence of stunned Roman soldiers.

Teaching Bonhoeffer

The Bonhoeffer ReaderAs I prepare for a future three credit undergraduate course on the life and theology of Bonhoeffer that I am hoping to teach, I am curious what resources others would consider essential to teaching an undergrad course on this subject? In fact, we have a “Syllabi” tab on this website that will be populated at some point by such courses in the future.

I offer the following only as a skeletal outline of what I hope to offer for such a course. The basic textbooks I’m looking at using are:

  • Green, Clifford J. and Michael DeJonge, eds. The Bonhoeffer Reader. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013.
  • One of the biographies (I have yet to determine which one)
  • Supplemental articles, letters and chapters (both primary and secondary).

I would have to determine more specific writings and ideas to cover, but the basic content/topics would include such areas as:

  • Early life (including historical, cultural and familial context)
  • Theological formation
  • Bonhoeffer the traveler
  • Bonhoeffer the pastor
  • Bonhoeffer the professor
  • Bonhoeffer the ecumenist
  • Bonhoeffer the prophet
  • Bonhoeffer the prisoner

Basic assignments (at this point) would likely include a historical paper focusing on a particular period in the life of the Bonhoeffer. There will also likely be several precis written on various select portions from The Bonhoeffer Reader. I would also require at least one significant theological engagement of the work of Bonhoeffer utilizing the DBWE. Because I work primarily at training ministers, I would also require a brief pastoral reflection utilizing theological and pastoral concerns of Bonhoeffer within a sermon, devotional, blog-post.

I have also been giving consideration to making this course a traveling course that would tour many of the historic locations of Bonhoeffer’s life in Europe where we would cover a topic (or several) in that location that relates to his life while living there.

So what would you require for reading? Which biography would you use and why? What would you require for assignments? What content do you believe would be essential to cover in lectures, videos, etc.?

Bonhoeffer, Pneumatology and Theological Education

FinkenwaldeIn the recent issue of The Pentecostal Educator (of which I am Executive Editor) I was pleased to include an article by Dr. Christopher R. J. Holmes (Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Otago) entitled, “‘The subject of contemporization’: The Holy Spirit and the Task of Theological Education” The Pentecostal Educator 2.2 (Fall 2015): 23-30.

In this article he grapples with the pneumatology of Bonhoeffer in his work while at Finkenwalde. He engages Bonhoeffer’s theological contributions with specific regard to the theological education of preachers. Certainly this was a task which Bonhoeffer believed belonged at the center of Christian community. Perhaps even more so given his training and ministry with the Lutheran communion. His specifically christo- and pneumato- logical appraisal offers a highly reflective contribution (albeit perhaps controversial in a certain contexts) that should be considered by all theological educators and most particularly those engaged in the training of preachers (such as myself).

The abstract reads as follows:

Does Christology overwhelm pneumatology in Bonhoeffer’s thought? In this article I argue that this is not so by reflecting on the extent to which Bonhoeffer’s account of theological education’s task in the Finkenwalde material trades upon a rich pneumatology. I develop this along three lines. First, Bonhoeffer would have theological education be interested in the formation of preachers who help the congregation to “see the true situation of human beings before God.” Indeed, humankind’s situation is unintelligible apart from the Spirit as the very contemporization of the Christ event. Second, preaching becomes a matter of witness to Christ who is “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Accordingly, Bonhoeffer’s bold experiment would promote an account of the preacher as witness to the Spirit’s speech “through the text of the Bible.” Third, rather than eschewing metaphysics, a robust education in the Spirit appreciates the ministerial function of Trinitarian first principles.

It is this form of careful theological reflection (trinitarian and ecclesiological) that ought to inform the modes and aims and theological education and particularly the training of preachers for the Church. It is insufficient to believe that “contemporizing” is a feat accomplished through human effort. As Holmes contends, it is a participation with and response to the person and work of the Spirit that is indeed contemporizing.

The article can be read in full HERE.