And so even as I seek some amount of comfort in pointing out all that is shallow, superficial, misleading, abusive, unfaithful and even heretical in the world of contemporary preaching, I find myself longing to be taught, challenged and inspired by a compelling vision of what Christian preaching is and does. This is precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barth’s younger contemporary, sought to do during the dark time we remember as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

In the summer, 1933, just a few months after Adolf Hitler’s stunning ascent to power, Bonhoeffer gave a series of seminar lectures at the University of Berlin, on the subject of Christology. The lectures articulated a robust theological vision that would later guide Bonhoeffer’s work at Finkenwalde, the underground seminary of the confessing church which he directed from 1935–37. Given the overwhelming “noise” of Nazi propaganda, Bonhoeffer’s lectures were heard by many as offering a strong challenge to the idolatrous definitions of Christ, the church and humanity advocated by those who identified themselves as “German Christians.” Bonhoeffer therefore began by announcing the doxological nature of Christian doctrine; “orthodoxy” as not only right confession, but as right prayer and praise evoked by wonder in beholding the glory of God incarnate in Christ and a new humanity united to him.

The silence of the church is silence before the Word. In proclaiming Christ, the church falls on its knees in silence before the inexpressible... To speak of Christ is to be silent, and to be silent about Christ is to speak. That is obedient affirmation of God’s revelation, which takes place through the Word. The church’s speech through silence is the right way to proclaim Christ.1

Bonhoeffer clarified the meaning of silence. “To pray is to keep silent and, at the same time, is to cry out, before God in both cases, in the light of God’s Word.” Because proclaiming Christ is an act of worship; Christology, speaking of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, is from and to a person who is himself the “transcendent” in our midst. Christian preaching begins by asking "Who?" rather than "How?" The question of being, "Who are you, Jesus Christ?" calls human beings into question and reveals who they truly are in the encounter with Christ.

Christian preaching begins by asking “Who?” rather than “How?” The question of being, “Who are you, Jesus Christ?” calls human beings into question and reveals who they truly are in the encounter with Christ.

Neither an ideal nor super-human, Christ is the God-human person, humiliated by his suffering and death on the cross, exalted by his resurrection from the dead.2

Bonhoeffer’s work with seminarians at Finkenwalde would focus on the mystery of Christ as articulated in the Christology lectures. He introduced students to the paradoxical nature of preaching, as an act and event which is dependent upon God, who is pleased to speak the Word in the person of Christ through the human word of preaching. He states this eloquently in the Christology lectures.

His presence is present in the word of the church. His presence is, by nature, his existence as preaching … If this were not so, the sermon would not have the exclusive status that the Reformation gives it. The sermon is the poverty and riches of our church. The sermon is the form of the present Christ to whom we are committed, whom we are to follow. If Christ is not wholly present in the sermon, the church breaks down … Luther says, ‘This is the human being to whom you should point and say; this is God!’ We say, this is the human word to which you should point and say, this is God.3

The human speaking of the Word requires silence. Such silence, which is a gift, is not merely the absence of words, but rather is a silence appropriate for the glory revealed in the wonder of God incarnate in human form. Silence, then, is humble recognition of the Word, prayerful attentiveness that waits and listens before speaking. Right speech is therefore dependent upon right silence, and right silence is dependent upon right speech. Preaching is an act of faith in the Word, which, from beginning to end, is dependent upon the freedom and initiative of God who freely became human.4

Preaching is an act of faith in the Word, which, from beginning to end, is dependent upon the freedom and initiative of God who freely became human.

Bonhoeffer’s incarnational Christology guided his work of training preachers within a daily rhythm of silence and speech. A robust theological vision of God and humanity united in Christ comprised the basis of all homiletical instruction. Preaching was not reduced to theory and application, as was the habit of many preachers in Germany, but rather homiletical content and form were united in Christ. Preaching was therefore seen as a theological practice in all its human aspects, dimensions and considerations.5

Proclaiming the New Humanity in Christ

According to student notes, Bonhoeffer’s homiletical lectures in Finkenwalde included establishing the criteria for a Christian sermon, beginning always with careful exegesis. Following Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer situated preaching within the union of Christology and ecclesiology, Christ and his body the church, thus offering a remarkable theological vision of preaching that serves God’s work of raising up a new humanity in conformity to Christ, a “Christian humanism.”

  1. The sermon derives from the incarnation of Jesus Christ and is determined by the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
  2. In the incarnation, God the Son takes on human nature.
  3. The word of the sermon is, in fact, this Christ who bears human nature.
  4. Because the word by nature bears the new humanity, it is by nature always oriented to the church community
  5. The shape of the preached word is different from that of every other word.
  6. The spoken word receives the promise that it will be able to take on people and to bear or sustain them.
  7. Because the world was created and is maintained by the Word, God can be recognized only through the Word.6
Martin Luther preaching Christ crucified
Alterpiece by Lucas Cranach the Elder in the City Church in Wittenberg featuring Martin Luther preaching Christ crucified

Bonhoeffer’s stunning vision of preaching affirmed Christ present as the content, form and efficacy of the sermon. “[Christ] who walks through the church community.” As the incarnate Son of God, Christ is present in the word of proclamation, taking on human nature which has been adopted by God, “being fully flesh of the flesh Christ bore.” This is the body of Christ, united in the incarnation and established as the communio sanctorum (communion of saints). The word of the sermon is nothing less than “the incarnate Lord who seeks to take up people to bear sinful human nature.” God does not lecture, coerce or seek to improve people through the word of Christ. Rather, as demonstrated by the cross, God speaks a word that takes on a body to create a community borne by Christ himself. Amazingly, the word has become incarnate and desires to have a body, inherently moving toward humanity by its own free initiative.7

The preacher's calling is to follow after the gracious movement of the word in the whole scriptural witness to Christ.

The preacher’s calling is to follow after the gracious movement of the word in the whole scriptural witness to Christ.

Moreover, the preached word needs no support or enhancement, but simply expresses itself, being what it is, uniting content and form; Christ himself bearing humanity; Christ addressing and challenging humanity; Christ taking up humanity; and humanity bearing Christ in the world. As the first and original word of God, “it supports and sustains the whole world and lays a foundation for a new world in the sermon.” Bonhoeffer adds this astonishing claim: “In the proclaimed word, Christ steps into the congregation, which is waiting for and calling upon Christ, worshipping and celebrating Christ. In the proclaimed word, Christ takes up the congregation.”8

Bonhoeffer’s compelling vision of what Christian preaching is and does is grounded in an incarnational Christology, a vision of reality possessing a distinctive humanist quality in which Christians participate by virtue of their union with Christ. Bonhoeffer’s strong Christological focus on the “Word made flesh,” God becoming human, provides the basis for a Christian humanism by which we might be what we were created to be in Christ. As the Lord of all creation, Christ is both the source and goal of the renewal of humanity that embraces all people without distinctions through his life, death and resurrection; a new creation made visible in the midst of the old one.9

Michael Pasquarello III is Methodist chair of Divinity, director of the Doctor of Ministry program and director of the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute at Beeson Divinity School. He is the author of Dietrich: Bonhoeffer and the Theology of a Preaching Life available from Baylor University Press. Use discount code 17PASQ20 for 20%-off and free shipping through June 15.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932 - 1933, DBWE vol. 12 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 300.
[2] DBWE 12:301-302.
[3] DBWE 12:317-318.
[4] DBWE 12:366. See the discussion of Bonhoeffer’s Christological orientation to reality in Philip G. Ziegler, “God, Christ, and Church in the DDR,” in Engaging Bonhoeffer: The Impact and Influence of Bonhoeffer’s Life and Thought, ed. Matthew D. Kirkpatrick (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 201-220.
[5] See the illuminating summary of Bonhoeffer’s integrative way of teaching as practical theology in “Editor’s Afterword to the German Edition,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935 - 1937, DBWE vol. 14 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 971-1015. Richard Lischer describes this way of forming preachers as a theological grounded habitus, a quality of life uniting both theological understanding and spiritual wisdom. See Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching: Dynamics of the Gospel, rev. ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001), ix-x.
[6] DBWE 14:509-514. One of the first studies of Bonhoeffer’s as homiletical work is still available in Clyde E. Fant, Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975).
[7] DBWE 14:510-511.
[8] DBWE 14:512-513.
[9] See the excellent study in Jens Zimmerman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christian Humanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).