Book Reviews, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: “Reading Scripture as the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutic of Discipleship” by Derek W. Taylor

Derek W. Taylor’s Reading Scripture as the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutic of Discipleship explores Bonhoeffer’s rich theology to answer questions about ecclesiology, hermeneutics, and missions.

Taylor first uses the introduction to present a central thesis: that hermeneutics is an ecclesial practice. We read texts in and for community. Bonhoeffer dedicated much of his theological energy and output to this notion, and Taylor brings it front and center throughout the book. For example, Taylor starts with discussion of Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being that reads it as part of the task of reading the church as under, in, and of Christ. Contrary to some, who shoehorn Bonhoeffer wholly into the role of a follower or disciple of Barth, Taylor notes that with Act and Being, Bonhoeffer identified as problematical Barth’s tendency towards anti-ecclesiology (35). Taylor brings Hans Urs von Balthasar into the conversation as well, noting that Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutic avoids passivity while also showing the word as a way to encounter Christ (33-36).

The church, however, must be wary of seeing itself merely as caretaker or ultimate interpreter of scripture. Instead, it is important to read scripture against ourselves. If we lose that ability, “Bonhoeffer warns, we end up remaking a God in the imago hominis” (49). It’s all too easy for the church or the individual to become comfortable with the text instead of letting it speak to and even, again, against us. Our desire to contemporize the text becomes dangerous as we tend to “echo interpretive interests brought to the text” instead of allowing the text to speak to us (50-51).

Reading scripture leads us to Christ, but Christ is present now. Bonhoeffer was powerfully aligned with seeing Christ as truly present among us in the church. This, moreover, leads to discussion of Christology, one which sees Christ as truly fully human and fully divine (73-75)–able to be with us now, truly present in sacrament (114-115). As an aside, Taylor’s discussion of meeting the risen Christ at the eucharistic table is powerful, but he seems reluctant to fully embrace the meaning of that presence–ending on the note that objective presence is ambiguous (though I may be misreading him here). One wonders how, if that present is ambiguous in an objective sense, the foregoing discussion of Christ being truly Christ today and in history and present makes sense. For Bonhoeffer, throughout his theology, remained a committed Lutheran, and would absolutely have affirmed the real presence of Christ in the Supper. Moreover, the point made earlier (73) about Christ being fully human and divine seems to obviate any supposed problems with that Lutheran doctrine.

Later, Taylor’s discussion of Bonhoeffer’s “religion come of age” is especially insightful. Instead of being a fully humanist or non-religious standpoint, Bonhoeffer seemed to see some of the “trappings” that others have enlisted his concepts in getting rid of as absolutely essential. Things like the Eucharist and Baptism remained central to Bonhoeffer’s theology (129ff). However, what Bonhoeffer was warning against was two problems: the first, a total retreat of the church to hide from the problems of the world; the second, a transformation of the church into one constantly chasing “relevance” and an apologetic agenda (128). These are what Bonhoeffer hoped to strip away in the church come of age. Some traditions of the church “lose their social credibility” but nevertheless, some “must be retained and sheltered against profanation” (130). We must “at all times ask, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today?'” while recognizing our cultural context may dominate and change–for the worse–our answers to that question (131). Only a well-formed church community can help guard against these difficulties. The reductionist tendency to see Bonhoeffer’s theology as reducing Christ to the church is badly mistaken; instead, Taylor argues “Bonhoeffer’s imagination remains dexterous… [he] refuses to settle for an answer [to the question of “Where is the risen one now?”] that would restrict Christ’s movement. While some theologians proffer the ascension as a means of securing Christ’s location, Bonhoeffer recognizes that even though he has ascended, Jesus has not vanished into the heavenly realms. He continues to stride through history, fulfilling his promise to be with his disciples until the end of the age… So, where is Jesus? He is leading the church toward the kingdom. Bonhoeffer would answer, in other words, by pointing to the church while simultaneously pointing ahead of it” (132).

Bonhoeffer is not frequently considered as a theologian of missions, but Taylor argues that his hermeneutics must presuppose ecclesiology and that we have to seriously take the claim by some that “mission is the mother of theology” (200). Here, Taylor sees Bonhoeffer’s warnings against two kidns of churches as especially powerful. The dangers presented are a church that turns itself in and sets itself as a unique culture (the “culturalist option”) contrasted with the church that downplays its distinctiveness from the world for the sake of mission (the “secularist option”) (201ff). Bonhoeffer himself saw the church in the United States of his time as being guilty of the secularist option, but then saw it in his own church in Germany, something he worked against for the rest of his life (213ff).

Scriptural hermeneutics is difficult, anyone who tells you different is selling you something. (Forgive the reference to a great movie.) Bonhoeffer’s theological work constantly shows this as a difficulty. Poignantly, Bonhoeffer himself noted that even the things that seem easiest–like the command to love your neighbor–quickly become quite complex when it comes to asking what exactly is meant by that (must we change our neighbor? do we care for them bodily? etc.). A command to “love your neighbor,” as Bonhoeffer puts it, “does not say to us unequivocally: You should do this” (quoted on p. 257). This is, in part, why Christ has gifted us the church: as a community existing in and for Christ, we can work to understand the word of God. Then, we become disciples.

Reading Scripture as the Church is an insightful journey into Bonhoeffer’s theology that both readers new to Bonhoeffer and those who have studied his works for years will glean much of interest from. A careful, close reading of the text will yield much worth pursuing for any reader. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

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