The deeply troubled and troubling years of the early 1930’s were arguably the busiest in 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, and 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. Bonhoeffer’s pastoral assignment in London, extending from October 1933 to April 1935, would be his longest sustained period of regular preaching in a congregational setting. 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 deserves more attention than it has received.
An important event in Bonhoeffer’s emergence as 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 a historical text and ancient cultural artefact. Thus removed from doctrinal and ecclesial convictions, an “academic” Bible could still be 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 subject of Scripture, the Triune God revealed in Christ. Reading Scripture in this manner constitutes an awakening which is generated by God through the illumination of the Spirit. Bonhoeffer’s lectures on Genesis thus placed him outside the mainstream of university study of the Bible as an academic discipline, as had Barth’s Romans more than ten years earlier. But the lectures also situated Bonhoeffer within a tradition of interpretation that was confessional and kerygmatic, thus well-suited for the proclamation of the Word in and for the church.
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,” moreover, which 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 homiletical theologian, a way of listening to Scripture as a witness to divine revelation in order to understand and speak the truth about God, humanity and the world. Preaching, then, is a gift for the substance of the church’s thought, language and life.
Bonhoeffer’s exposition of Genesis was a theological and public protest in step with the Lutheran tradition of the Protestant Reformation. He did not merely replicate Luther’s interpretation of Genesis but engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the Reformer’s life and work as a way of testing the present in light of the past, as a necessary step towards a future which is received by attending to God’s Word in Scripture. His aim was not to be less than intellectually rigorous, but in a manner similar to Barth’s Romans sought to be “post-critical,” moving beyond conventional academic methodology to allowing the Word of God to be heard by the church. Such eschatological and ecclesial convictions would inform Bonhoeffer’s preaching. “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.”
The church thus sees and understands the creation from Christ, the world of the new creation, because it is a creature of the Word, and it is founded upon the witness of Holy Scripture.
“The world exists from the beginning in the sign of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Indeed it is because we know of the resurrection that we know of God’s creation in the beginning, of God creating out of nothing.”
Bonhoeffer thus held together the church, Scripture and the risen Christ, “the church of Holy Scripture, and there is no other church, lives from the end.” This is the presupposition of reading the whole of Scripture as the book of the end, of the new in Christ.
“The Bible is the book of the church. It is this in its very essence, or it is nothing … For in the whole of Holy Scripture, God is the one and only God, with this belief the church and theological science stand or fall.”
Bonhoeffer’s concern was to hear the Word of God that had spoken in the beginning, and to hear God speaking in the present. His desire was to listen attentively and reverently, receiving God’s address as a word, the person of Christ, who must be proclaimed.
Bonhoeffer had reached a true turning point in his life and vocation. His theological exposition characterized a shift in his way of perceiving reality, a desire to link more closely the concerns of exegesis and preaching as inseparable practices in service of the church. He was becoming increasingly aware that how Scripture is interpreted determines in large part the content and character of the gospel that is preached and the faith and life of the people who listen. Bonhoeffer’s exposition of Genesis was also indicative of a maturing in his preaching, a move toward theological performance in homiletical mode, the self-involving practice of biblical interpretation within preaching that bears witness to Christ. Theology, exegesis and preaching are thus integrally related, presupposing and affirming the existence of the church.
Dr. Michael Pasquarello is Methodist Chair of Divinity and director of the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute.