Published on October 19, 2020 by Michael Pasquarello III  
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Wilhelm Rott (back) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (front)

The deeply troubling years of the early 1930’s were arguably the busiest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life. This period in German history is remembered for Adolf Hitler’s stunning rise to power, a political triumph prompting an extended struggle to determine how the church in Germany would be structured, relate to, and be effected by the National Socialist vision proclaimed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer is remembered for his role in the church struggle, his leadership in the opposition which formed the Pastor’s Emergency League in 1933, which constituted itself as the Confessing Church in May 1934.

Not as well known, however, is Bonhoeffer’s significant role in the struggle for the church’s truthful proclamation of the gospel against a Nazi message of “good news,” which was aggressively proclaimed to promote Hitler’s Third Reich, the superiority of the Aryan race and the restoration of the German nation to greatness. Bonhoeffer discerned the National Socialist message of “good news” sought nothing less than a totalizing claim on the hearts, minds and allegiance of the German people. He believed this could only be countered by faithful proclamation of the gospel made visible in the concrete obedience, confession, and if necessary, public resistance of the church.

At the heart of Bonhoeffer’s activity during the early years of Nazi rule was the urgent task of clarifying and defending the integrity of the church’s confession of Christ for faithful preaching, hearing and obedience to the gospel. Both Bonhoeffer’s theological and homiletical commitments form a major thread during a significant time of personal and professional change, which saw him eventually leave his academic position in Berlin and move to pastoral ministry with two German-speaking congregations in London. His engagement in the struggle to clarify the nature of preaching as an act of confessing Christ as the Word of God revealed in Scripture continues to serve as a salutary example for preachers who desire to be true to their calling.

An important event in Bonhoeffer’s emergence as a preacher and theologian, a “homiletical theologian” are the seminar lectures he delivered on the Book of Genesis during the winter semester of late 1932 and early 1933, coinciding with the time of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany. Bonhoeffer’s lectures on Genesis speak directly from the text of Scripture and only indirectly to the political circumstances in Germany. Yet the message he communicated was undoubtedly heard clearly by those in attendance. That the lectures were delivered in the University of Berlin, rather than a congregation or gathering of pastors, is even more remarkable. Bonhoeffer’s theological exposition in a university seminar represented a major break with the long-standing tradition of academic discourse in the study of the Bible as an historical text and ancient cultural artifact. When separated from doctrinal and ecclesial convictions, an “academic” Bible could be made useful for addressing modern social, moral and political issues.

Bonhoeffer’s lectures on Genesis marked an explicit recovery of the Bible as Holy Scripture, as the church’s book. His interpretation of Genesis approached the Old Testament as part of the Christian Bible, as a unified whole, belonging to the church which is unintelligible outside a divinely revealed economy of meaning. Bonhoeffer’s exposition was theological and subordinated to the true beginning and end of Scripture, the Triune God revealed in Christ. Reading Scripture in this manner constitutes an awakening, which is generated by God through the work of the Spirit. Bonhoeffer’s lectures on Genesis thus placed him outside the mainstream of university study of the Bible as an academic discipline. But the lectures also situated Bonhoeffer within a tradition of interpretation that was confessional, kerygmatic, and therefore well-suited for the proclamation of the Word for building up the church to worship and serve the living God.

Moreover, this “turning” was both personal and professional, moving Bonhoeffer closer to a confessional hermeneutic attentive to the scriptural character of the Bible as inseparable from the faith and practice of the church. Looking back on this time a few years later, he shared his reflections on the change of direction in his life.

But then something different came, something that has changed and transformed by life to this very day. For the first time, I came to the Bible. That, too, is an awful thing to say. I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, had spoken and written about it - and yet I was not a Christian, but rather in an utterly wild and uncontrolled fashion my own master. … The Bible, especially the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from all of this. Since then everything has changed … It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong in the church, and step-by-step it became clear to me how far it must go. Then came the crisis of 1933 [Hitler].  This strengthened me in it.

This “turning” however, while it was intellectual, moral and spiritual, was also ecclesial in nature. “The renewal of the church and its ministry became my supreme concern.” Bonhoeffer’s reading of Genesis is the work of a preacher and theologian engaged in listening to Scripture as a witness to divine revelation in order to understand and speak the truth about God, humanity and the world.

Bonhoeffer’s exposition of Genesis was a theological and public protest in step with the Lutheran tradition of the Protestant Reformation. His aim was not to be less than intellectually rigorous, while at the same time seeking to move beyond conventional academic methodology so that the church would hear the Word of God. In our time, such eschatological and ecclesial convictions are still able to inform our ministry as preachers who trust the beginning of preaching is found in Christ, who is our true end.  “The church of Christ witnesses the end of all things. It lives from the end, it thinks from the end, it proclaims its message from the end.” 

[1] Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1 - 3, Vol. 3 in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works ed. John W. De Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997). Hereafter DBWE 3.

[2] Theological Education at Finkenwalde:1935 - 1937, Vol. 14 in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works ed. H. Gaylon Barker and Mark S. Brocker, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) 133 - 134. Hereafter DBWE 14.

[3] DBWE 14: 134.

Michael Pasquarello III is the Methodist Chair of Divinity and director of the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute.